A friendly conversation turns curiously deep and reveals the underlying questions about life in the hearts and minds of all of us. ◊
She was an older woman. She looked tired but quietly assured and comfortable with herself sitting next to me on a 4 hour flight. As is the case mostly these days, many seatmates on planes do not engage as much as we did in the past due to working laptops and easy mobile access to movies, videos, music and other attractive electronic devices.
With this woman, however, she was not in an engaging discussion mood for any other reason than that she was thoroughly engrossed in a hardcover book in her hands throughout most of the flight.
I too have the same focused attention on my laptop or any of the sundry reading materials I bring along with me on business trips. While not necessarily a nosy person, I do pay attention to details around me and sought to sneak a peek at the title of her book. When she left her seat at one point in the flight, I could easily see the cover of the book.
The book was 7 Lessons from Heaven, by Dr. Mary C. Neal.
I am actually familiar with Dr. Neal’s original book, To Heaven and Back. The subtitle says it all – “A Doctor’s Extraordinary Account of her Death, Heaven, Angels, and Life Again: a True Story.” My wife had read this book several years earlier when it first came out. It’s the story of an orthopedic surgeon literally drowning in a river kayak accident only to be revived to tell her experiences of moving from “life to death to eternal life, and back again.”
I’ve read other books about these near death experiences (NDE): Proof of Heaven, by Dr. Eben Alexander, Heaven is For Real, by Todd Burpo, Imagine Heaven, by John Burke, and After Life, by Hank Hanagraaff.
Late into the flight, at an opportune moment, I simply asked the women seated next to me what she was reading. She told me the title and actually handed me the book. I looked at the front and read the back cover and asked her if she liked the book. She said she was enjoying it and gave me a brief synopsis of the surgeon’s near death experience and how she experienced heaven and even encountered Jesus before returning to life. I determined that she was not familiar with any other books on the topic, even Dr. Neal’s first book.
I then asked her why she was reading it.
She said she had a lot of questions about death and dying. When I probed further, she told me that her 32-year old nephew had recently become ill and went into a coma. But he never recovered and died. She said that while the family was hoping he would come out of the coma, they also were curious to know if he had “seen anything on the other side” while in a comatose state. They were all hoping he would be able to share it with them.
While I was pondering this curious comment, she then launched into a story she heard about of a person who was regularly “visited” by a dead relative by way of a series of seances conducted by a spirit medium.
She asked me if I’d ever had experiences with a spiritual medium.
I told her that I had not. She then asked me if I “believed in mediums and seances” or if I thought that they “were bad.” I knew I had to tread carefully, but truthfully.
I explained that I actually did believe in mediums and seances. But that these were dealing with the occult or spiritual realm that is absolutely real but highly dangerous. I told her that I believed in the God of the Bible, the same God that people like Dr. Neal speak of when recounting their near death experiences. I told her that while I cannot speak to the validity of all of those with NDE, I can attest that the Bible speaks very openly about the spiritual realm and instructs us specifically to steer clear of any dabbling with dark magic or the occult, certainly with the practice of mediums and seances.
I then shared that I believe what the Bible reveals to us – that the spiritual realm, simply put, is made up of dark/evil forces and light/good forces. I explained that answers to the great questions in life are answered best in the Bible, the Word of God, who is the Creator of all matter and forces in this world.
She then said simply, “I think I have been reading the wrong books.”
She then admitted that she hasn’t really read the Bible at all, that it seemed too hard to understand. We talked about that a bit as I gave her a high-level summary review of the Old Testament connected to the New Testament and the context of Jesus as a fulfillment of an early promise made by God.
She then asked me if I could answer a very big question she had: “Why do bad things happen? Why did her nephew have to die?” She started crying and said she wanted to understand how God could let this terrible thing happen.
I took a deep breath.
I referred back to the Bible summary and the world created originally in perfection but which became broken and separated spiritually due to man’s disobedience to God. I told her that we are currently living in that broken world with darkness and sadness all around us. But God in His love for His creation provided a means for our spiritual restoration. Christ is that connection and the means through which the whole world will someday be restored to perfection. For eternity. Yes, heaven is real.
I told her the story of my daughter almost dying in a ski accident as a 9-year old. I told her how I prayed and pleaded that God would not take her, but that God, as God, could do as He pleased. I would not understand His plan, but I would acquiesce to His plan. I explained that I have learned that God is God and we are not. But I know that someday we will be free from this realm of death and tragedy.
I concluded our conversation with the hopeful comment that we will someday fully experience this eternal heaven that people like Dr. Neal have only glimpsed. We parted as new friends on a common journey.
How would you engage and answer the big questions in life?
But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. – 1 Peter 3:15-16