In 1999, orthopedic surgeon Mary Neal was kayaking on a river in southern Chile when she got trapped under a waterfall and apparently drowned. In the thirty minutes she was "dead," she says, she experienced some incredible things, which she finally described in her book Heaven and Back: A Doctor's Extraordinary Account of Her Death, Heaven, Angels, and Life Again (Waterbrook).
The book has been on the New York Times best-seller list for over two years now. It is accompanied by two other near-heaven experience books: Todd Burbo's Heaven Is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back, which has been there since 2004, and Eben Alexander's Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife (Simon & Schuster), which was published in October.
In the cover story in the current issue of Christianity Today(available to subscribers immediately; or click here to subscribe to get access), I try to understand why these experiences fascinate us so, and how we might understand them theologically. I begin that article by summarizing Mary Neal's experience. But I also wanted to hear her tell her own story, and ask her a few questions about it.
–Mark Galli, editor,Christianity Today
Let's get right to the point: What happened to you?
As background, my husband and I are avid outdoors people and very athletic. We've been kayaking for many, many, many years. We have kayaked on rivers throughout the United States, and we've kayaked internationally. So we decided to go to Chile to kayak with friends who are professionals—they run a raft and kayak company in the United States, and during the winter, they run trips in Chile for Americans. We decided to kayak a section of a river that's well-known for its waterfalls, and by that I mean drops of ten to fifteen feet. These are challenging for a kayaker, but they are not unreasonable, and they were certainly within our skill set.
We put in with four of these professionals and a few other Americans (though my husband couldn't go that day because of back problems) and went over a couple of drops. It's a fairly wide river with tremendous volume, tremendous flow. We decided to run this one smaller chute. The person who was kayaking ahead of me went toward it but got turned so that her boat was temporarily stuck. I was already in the current, so I was committed. I veered off to the left to avoid her and went over the main drop, which, as I said, had tremendous flow.
As I went over the top, I could see the bottom and that there was no clean exit . I assumed that I would hit the bottom, flip over, probably not be able to right myself, and then would pull the spray skirt off, push myself out of the boat, get tumbled around a bit, and spit out downstream. This is never an enjoyable experience, but it's certainly part of kayaking. It wouldn't have been the first time that it happened.
(And I might add that I grew up around the water. I grew up boating. I love the water. I'm a total water person. But I'd always feared a drowning death, and I always thought that was something that would just be terrifying and horrible.)
When I hit the bottom of the waterfall, the front of my boat became pinned in the rocks underwater. I and my boat were completely submerged in the water—probably eight or ten feet under. One of the guys who ultimately tried to find me actually kayaked right over me and didn't even know it.