Imagine Heaven, John Burke
My Descent Into Death: A Second Chance at Life, Howard Storm
Julie Mirlicourtois: Hey, Eric.
Eric Huffman: Hey, Julie.
Julie Mirlicourtois: So before we get started with part two of Are Near-Death Experiences for Real?, let's spend a little time unpacking what happened on the last episode. It was a lot to digest.
Eric Huffman: It certainly was. I think even more so for you and me and those of us that were part of the interviews, it's just mind-boggling. It's one of the reasons we decided to do two episodes instead of one, because we almost didn't feel like we could do it justice with one episode.
Julie Mirlicourtois: Totally. We released part one, which was your interview with Pastor and author John Burke two weeks ago. It also featured two near-death survivors. So many of our listeners have actually told us it's their favorite Maybe God podcast episode ever. If you're one of those people and you haven't left us a review yet, you need to do that immediately.
Eric Huffman: Do it. Yes, please.
Julie Mirlicourtois: So Eric, in part one, we didn't get to hear much from you on this topic. So do you buy all this near-death stuff?
Eric Huffman: I would say I do more now than I did before we started down this path. I had no idea what to expect when we started chasing this road. I mean, it all started with the book, Imagine Heaven, which everybody was reading in our circles. At that point, I was highly suspicious. But it's really tough to, I'd say, stand pat in that doubtful place in light of all of these stories and all this evidence.
The more I thought about it, Julie, the more I figured one of two things is true here. Like either this phenomenon of the near-death experience and all of these stories are pointing towards something that's inevitably true, or it's like the most elaborate coping mechanism that our Darwinian evolution ever conjured up. It's one of those two things. And I think the more you hear from people who have so much to lose by sharing these stories, the more convincing it starts to feel.
Julie Mirlicourtois: I saw that shift in you actually. We were driving out to Austin, and you seemed pretty skeptical because we were talking about some of the stuff in Imagine Heaven. And then we got there and you seemed pretty blown away by John Burke.
Eric Huffman: Yeah. John was so real and not the type of person that my prejudiced mind had thought advocates for these experiences. He wasn't sensationalist. He wasn't super dramatic. I didn't get the sense that he set out to just profit from these other people's stories. I think this is really the stuff that brought him to believe in God. And when he speaks, he speaks in logical ways about something that's otherwise really tough to understand. And I think people who are naturally skeptical and borderline cynical are drawn to him. And I think that's probably what's fueled the growth of his church.
John Burke: One of our mottos here at Gateway Church is doubters welcome. You know, doubting is not the goal. But reasonable faith is not afraid of questions, because God is always found in the truth, and the truth has nothing to fear, nothing to hide.
Julie Mirlicourtois: I tracked down three of the near-death survivors from John's book, and they're scattered all over the country. We met Jeff Olsen and Howard Storm in our last episode, and we're about to hear the rest of Howard's story today, and we're gonna meet Krystal. And full disclosure, I was in tears for almost all of my interview with Krystal.
Eric Huffman: I remember you just looking shell-shocked. It takes a lot to rattle—I know you well enough now—but you were rattled by a couple of interviews.
Julie Mirlicourtois: Yeah. I mean, I still can't get them out of my head. I talk about them all the time. I think what's incredible with all three of them is the way they describe these experiences with such vivid details like they just happened yesterday. In all three cases, it was 10 to 20 years ago that these things happened. And I asked them, "Did it feel like a dream? Did it feel real?" And they said that those were the most vivid experiences they've ever had, that it felt more real than anything they've ever experienced before-
Eric Huffman: Wow.
Julie Mirlicourtois: ...and that coming back here feels like a dream. I mean, I can't describe my day today in as much detail as they describe these experiences. And it feels like every time they're reliving it when they retell it, and all the emotion comes back.
Eric Huffman: One of the things that I remember from part one of this episode is what John said about the doctors who are researching this, and their patients won't talk about it unless they're asked. I think that's telling because it reminds me that these people who are telling these stories have a lot to lose in terms of just social capital, I guess, and getting laughed out of rooms or, you know, just people worrying about their sanity. So the fact that they keep revisiting and keep retelling these stories, I think lends credibility to what they're saying instead of taking away from it.
Julie Mirlicourtois: Yeah. And a lot of the stories, they say God tells them to come back and share this with the world. And that's what I think is really, really compelling is that in all cases, God seems to boil it down to one word, one reason we're all here, one thing we're supposed to do.
Julie Mirlicourtois: Let's get back to Howard. Howard Storm was an art professor and an atheist. One day when he was in Paris with his wife and a group of his art students, he collapsed in pain and was raced to the hospital for emergency surgery.
Howard Storm: I was struggling to stay alive because I was very terrified of the prospect of dying because I knew, like any sane, rational person knew, that when you died you're dead, and that's it and there wasn't anything else.
Julie Mirlicourtois: But that's not what happened to Howard. When he died in the hospital, there was something else on the other side.
Howard Storm: There were men and women. The more I resist it, the more they enjoyed tormenting me. And this went on for a very, very long time, them biting and tearing and invading me in every way that they could.
Julie Mirlicourtois: Did you feel pain in the moment?
Howard Storm: Huh, yeah. Terrible pain. I don't talk about it actually. I'd never told anyone what really happened, and I can't talk about it now.
Julie Mirlicourtois: One thing John said that I thought was super interesting is how the afterlife is very vast, just like New York City, compared it to. So heaven may not look the same for everybody. And hell, there are different parts of hell that you can experience. What do you think Eric about Howard's experience?
Eric Huffman: Howard's part in the whole conversation is what kept me up at night more. Because I guess it's easier to believe in heaven than it is in hell. We want to believe in heaven. We all do. Even people that don't claim any religion want to believe that there's a pleasant paradise kind of afterlife that our loved ones are in now and we'll get there one day. But when we think about what it means, if the afterlife is an extension of the life we're living now, then what does that look like if it's hell?
If you really think about it, Howard starts to make a lot of sense and what John said about hell starts to make a lot of sense. Because what we're really talking about is worship. And if you worship something that doesn't deserve worship, if you worship a lesser idol for long enough, your life starts to revolve entirely around that thing. I mean, all we're talking about here is addiction, for example. We only talk about addiction in terms of drugs and alcohol, but there's all kinds of addictions. Have you ever known somebody addicted to money?
Julie Mirlicourtois: Absolutely.
Eric Huffman: You want more of it. And when the addiction goes on for long enough, your whole life looks like a transaction. And the people that can offer you more of what you'd like are assets to you and the people who can't offer you more money don't even exist to you to the point that you slowly devolve into something you didn't use to be, a lesser form of yourself.
So the question John and Howard raised for me is, what does addiction turn into in the afterlife? And their point is that if it's unchecked, if there's no reliance on the grace of God and receptivity to the love that God wants to give us, then that continues in the next life, and that starts to look like what hell is. So it's disturbing, it's shocking, it's scary. But I don't take it as the kind of religious manipulation that I used to understand hell to be. I now take it as a really helpful cautionary tale of what my life can become, any of us.
Julie Mirlicourtois: That goes for you as a pastor too in some way, doesn't it?
Eric Huffman: Totally. I mean, it's so easy. That's one of the reasons I struggled to trust John before I got to know him because pastors will say things to benefit ourselves or our ministries because we or our churches can become idols just as easily as anything else. But that's why John's authenticity kind of broke me of that. But yeah, pastor is just like anybody. Religion can be your idol, that takes you to hell. That's one of the things Jesus said a lot.
Julie Mirlicourtois: I think that everybody's been anxious to hear the rest of Howard's story. So we should probably stop talking and get to it.
Eric Huffman: Let's do it.
Julie Mirlicourtois: So here we go. Part two: Are Near-Death Experiences for Real?
Howard Storm: I'm lying there and I heard a voice which kind of sounded like my voice, but it came out of my chest, not out of my mouth. And it said, "Pray to God." And I thought, "I don't believe in God." And the voice said, "Pray to God." And I thought, "I don't know how to pray. I don't pray." The voice said, "Pray to God." And I thought, "When I was a little boy, went Sunday school, they taught us some prayers. I don't remember any of them." Finally, I come upon on, this is it, The Lord is my shepherd. So I gave it a try.
And when I did that, the people around me were saying to me in incredibly vulgar, obscene language, "There's no God. Nobody can hear you. And you better stop it because we're going to make it much worse for you now if you don't stop." I noticed that any mention of God was so repellent that they kept backing away and backing away and that their voices were getting more and more distant. So that encouraged me to keep throwing God stuff at them.
Actually, I found that I was the only sound that I could hear anymore. So I started thinking about my life and I came to the conclusion that I had lived a crummy life, a selfish life, and that I had gone down the sewer pipe of the universe into the cesspool, and the people that attacked me were people just like me who had lived just more or less for themselves, and that they had nothing to do down there and this place had nothing except trying to dominate each other.
And as I sank into the horrible prospect that this was it for me forever, my mind recalled being a little boy in Sunday school singing Jesus Loves Me, and more importantly, my vivid recollection of that was I felt what I'd felt as a little boy, that there was this great guy, this wonderful superhero guy named Jesus who really loved me. I desperately wanted that to be true. So I called out, "Jesus, please save me." And with that, a light appeared in the darkness and came over me.
And for the first time, I saw myself when I was four, I looked like roadkill and He reached His hands and arms out, out of this brilliant light down to me and touched me. And all the gore kind of just drifted away as if it were dust and I was restored to wholeness. And when He touched me, I was shown with His love, which is indescribably great. And His hands went behind my back and He picked me up and held me very firmly up against His chest. And I put my arms around Him and along to Him and I cried out of joy. And He carried me up out of that place.
I'd looked to where we were heading and I saw a huge wall of light and I just knew that that's where God lived. The God that I had always said didn't exist, and I thought, "He's made a terrible mistake. I don't belong here. That I was such a piece of soul." And with that, we stopped outside of the world of light and He said, "We don't make mistakes, you do belong here."
Julie Mirlicourtois: What did He look like?
Howard Storm: He was in a light so impossibly bright that if there were light in this world, it would have incinerated me. So He said He had some people He wanted to meet. So I refer to them as angels because they were the people that had been watching me over my life, my team. And they came over and they did a life review which started off fun, and as we went into my teenage years, turned very horrible because I saw myself turning away from God, turning away from Jesus, turning away from wanting to interact with people. I wanted to manipulate people. People just caused me pain, so I treated people as objects for me to use for my own gratification.
So the life review turned out to be a disaster. It was very painful, because as we watched my life progress, I knew that Jesus and the angels were both extremely disappointed and unhappy with what I did with my life. And all the things that I've done in my life that I thought were important, they told me those things are not important, and the things that I thought were unimportant, like my interactions with people, they told me those were the things that were important.
So when we got done with the life review, Jesus, asked me if I had any questions and I said, I've got a million questions. So He said, "Ask whatever you want." So everything I asked, He answered. He took me places, He showed me things. I asked Him about war and He said, God hates war and God doesn't want war. I said, "Well, then what about the Holocaust then? Why did God allow it?" And He said, "God didn't want to allow it, but God gives us free will and we allowed it." He said, "I want to show you something." So we went to a concentration camp during the Holocaust. This is hard to talk about.
We were watching the people being unloaded from trains and being slaughtered and, you know, the women and children and the old people being let off to the showers where they were gassed and cremated. He was crying, I was crying. And He said, "Look up the sky." So I looked up and the sky was filled with the smoke of the smokestacks. And I saw the souls of the people going up and angels coming down from heaven and embracing them and taking them up. And He said, "To them, all suffering is over." And now they go to the joy of heaven.
And when it was all done, I said, "Now I'm ready to go to heaven." And He said, "Mm, no, you got to go back to the world and try and live this stuff." He said, "You're not really the right kind of character to fit in heaven yet, so you got to go back to the world and try and be a different kind of person." So we had a big argument and I fought really, really hard with Him for reasons why He couldn't send me back to the world.
For example, I said, "The world is full of ugliness and evil and meanness. Why would you send me back to that world?" He said, "Those things certainly do exist in the world but there's also beauty and love and goodness." And he said, "What is in your heart is what you will attract." And if you look for love and beauty and goodness, you'll find it everywhere, and if you look for cruelty and meanness and evil, you'll find it everywhere."
I think the big question I asked during this part of the conversation was I said, "If I were to go back," which I was not, "what would you want me to do down there?" And He said, "Love the person that you're with." And I said, "Yeah, okay, but what do you want me to do? I get it. But what do you really want me to do? I'd like to build a shrine or something to bring attention to you." And He said, "I don't want you to build a shrine." Those are for people. Those aren't from me or God." He said, "I want you to love the person you're with. If you love the person that you're with, that'll change the world." He explained to me that there are millions of people in the plan, the plan to change the world, and explained to me that there were billions of angels in the planet all working to bring about this reign of love in the world.
Julie Mirlicourtois: When you're back in your body, I mean, what were your first thoughts? Did you think it was a dream?
Howard Storm: No, I knew that it wasn't a dream. I had multiple dreams every day of my life, all my life. I knew this was my dream and I knew it wasn't a hallucination. I knew that it was the most important, real thing that ever happened to my life. The big question in my mind, What am I going to do about it? I'd spent 38 years of my life making myself as a person, my persona, my personality, my thoughts, my ideas. And I knew because the experience now is going to have to reexamine and rebuild the whole thing from top to bottom.
Eric Huffman: In studying over a thousand near-death experiences starting at age 18, John Burke has heard a lot of stories like Howard's of hellish experiences. In 1992, a Gallup poll found that 13 million Americans have had a near-death experience. And John says of the people who actually come forward and share their near-death stories, 23% describe a dark and scary world. John has immersed himself in the good and the bad stories, along with scriptures relating to heaven and hell to draw a clearer picture of the afterlife in his book, Imagine Heaven. I've only heard a few people in my life talk the way you talk, and they were all high.
John Burke: Thank you.
Eric Huffman: I think there's something here, though. I think there's something universally true about this. And I mean high in the best possible way. Like you're seeing a different reality, you've seen a different dimension, and it's so much better.
John Burke: Well, I would agree with that in that I do think... You know, I've never had one of these experiences, but I've talked to so many people now.
Eric Huffman: You've experienced it by proxy.
John Burke: I feel like I have somewhat, so I get excited about it. And that's why I finally wrote it. I wrote it knowing, okay, I'm going to take a lot of... I won't say the word.
Eric Huffman: You can. You wouldn't be the first.
John Burke: But I think God wants people to know how real heaven is and how real the life to come is, and that the whole reason there is pain and suffering and evil in this life is because we've gone our own way, not God's way, and we are feeling what it's like to have God not rule. God doesn't rule you. He only rules in the hearts of those who are wanting Him to rule. So heaven is the place where only those who want Him to rule would even be happy there. God will let anybody in. Anybody.
Eric Huffman: One thing I've noticed is most of the flack you're catching about this book isn't from neuroscientists or medical professionals. It's mostly from Christian types, Christian leaders.
John Burke: All the time.
Eric Huffman: And there just seems to be a lot of fear-based reactions to the stuff you're bringing to the surface. And I understand it, but I think I understand it too well because I was raised in a fear-based kind of Christianity where I think what the aim is, is to keep all revelation of God, all knowledge of God confined to the four walls of a church. So when stuff like this starts happening, we're saying that non-Christians go and see Jesus and like all this, and Christians don't. You know, it gets really scary really fast for institutional Christians.
John Burke: It's because people don't ask questions enough and they don't wrestle with their faith enough. I mean, why should Christians be surprised that everybody would see Jesus when Revelation 1:7 tells us that. All will see him, even those who pierced Him.
Eric Huffman: It messes with those core beliefs you talked about.
John Burke: It messes with a certain Phariseeism which says, "I'm special, God likes me more than them. You know, you would never say that, but it acts that way. Like God somehow doesn't want anything to do with them until they become like me. That kind of attitude is actually what got Jesus crucified in the name of God, by the way.
Eric Huffman: Right.
John Burke: They were trying to protect God's reputation, supposedly. Now, reality is they were trying to protect their own power and control.
Eric Huffman: That's right. Now, do people from other religions, other cultures, and who believed other things in their near-death experiences—you've mentioned some of them see Jesus—do they also report seeing their guys there like Krishna or Buddha?
John Burke: So it's interesting. In Imagine Heaven, I write about a study done between 500 Indians and 500 Americans. Now, these were not Christians. In fact, what I think they were trying to show is that near-death experiences are against all religious beliefs.
Eric Huffman: Right.
John Burke: But what was reported was the same. So in India, they don't see the Vedic loci of the Hindu heaven. They don't experience or talk about reincarnation. They see a white robe man with a beard and a book of accounts. They see this heavenly, beautiful gardens and people in white robes just bursting with light. That's similar in America.
But what the researcher said is they experience their life review and even the good and the bad but God is not judging them, they're judging themselves. You're your own worst judge. Now, many of the researchers who don't know the Bible conclude, "See, God's not judging, you're just judging yourself. So just stop judging yourself. And it's all good. We all go to heaven and everything's good."
The problem is, Jesus said it, "By your own words will you be acquitted, by your own words will you be condemned." And He said, "Every motive, every thought will be brought to light." But the other important thing to realize is Jesus didn't come to condemn us. He said, God so love the world. He gave His only son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. So it's just a gift. Do you want a relationship with Him or not? It's that choice. But He said right after that, "I did not come to the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved or set right through me."
Eric Huffman: What did this all mean to your Christian worldview, though? I mean, does it open the gates wide to anyone and everyone, whether or not they know Jesus in this life? In that passage you just reference, He says, "Anyone who believes in me."
John Burke: Yeah. We were talking about how I'm an engineer, I was a skeptic, I was a doubter. So my biggest question had always been what I think is this generation's biggest question. It's that question of: what about the little Hindu kid who grows up with a granddad who's a Guru and never heard of Jesus? You mean God's just going to send all those people to hell? I don't think that's actually clearly what the Bible teaches.
And here's why. My friend Jaya, he is the little boy with a granddad who was a Guru in a village in India. Never met a Christian, never read a Bible. He had this desire to know, is there really a God or is this really real and true? He breaks into his granddad's ancient scrolls. They were literally like palm leaf scrolls reading in the Rigveda. He reads about the God of light who comes as a man, the Purush Prajapati, to sacrifice himself for the remission of karma. Karma is like sin. It's like the consequences of right and wrong action.
Eric Huffman: Sure.
John Burke: And he goes, "I have to know the God of life." And this traveling holy man comes through stoicism because his granddad's a Guru, and he asks him, "Do you know the God of light?" And he said, "I can introduce you to someone who does come with me on this train." He goes 400 miles north up to Delhi, and half way the holy man and his assistant steal all Jaya's stuff and are gone the next morning. He doesn't have a train ticket. He gets kicked off the train. He's despondent. He's going to kill himself. He lays down on the train tracks and he says, "God of light, if you are real, rescue me. I see no reason to live."
And he sees this light, he thinks it's the oncoming train, brighter than the sun. Next thing he knows, he says, "I am the God of light whom you seek. My name is Jesus." Jaya comes to faith in Jesus, never meeting a Christian, never seen a Bible, and devotes the rest of his life to serving Jesus.
Eric Huffman: Do you feel like that's the case a lot when you look at the different ways religion works throughout the world? Do you think God's left breadcrumbs to Christ?
John Burke: I do.
Eric Huffman: In other religions?
John Burke: I do.
Eric Huffman: Even if someone has picked up those breadcrumbs in this life and has never professed Jesus in this life, they will be familiar enough with him in the next.
John Burke: Yeah. Not everyone would agree with me with this, but I'll tell you my theory. So I think what we know is that Jesus died for the sins of all humanity. That's all humanity before He died, that's all humanity since He died. And the only thing it takes to apply that to us is faith or trust in God. The question is, if you don't know, where does that leave you?
Well, we know without a doubt if you believe the Christian scriptures that there will be people in heaven who never knew the name of Jesus: Abraham, Moses, Rahab the prostitute, the Queen of Sheba who came seeking God, all the Ninevites who are evil pagans. Right?
Eric Huffman: Yes.
John Burke: I think Jesus was pointing this out even to the Jewish people who had become, you know, it's all about us. I think what He's showing us is that God knows the human heart and He knows if you did know what He had done for you through Jesus, would you accept it or would you not?
Howard Storm: I started reading the Bible and it's like, "Oh, wow, all those things Jesus was telling me, they're all in the book. Oh, so cool." So then I started remembering Bible passages and shouting them at my family, which didn't go real well. They thought I was crazy, out of my mind, a fanatic, and everybody told me to stop it, which I wouldn't. It was a disaster.
I eventually lost everybody, turned them all off because of my zealotry. I literally had nobody. And I complained to God about it and I was like, "Okay, God, you send me back and I'm all alone. I've got no one." And God said to me, "You're going to have more friends than you can possibly imagine." And He was right.
Julie Mirlicourtois: After his wife and children left him, Howard quit his job as an art professor, and in 1992, he was ordained in the United Church of Christ. He's been a pastor ever since, and today he's remarried. I asked Howard why he thinks Jesus saved him.
Howard Storm: The Bible says in four places "anyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved." If you ask Jesus, Jesus hears you and will respond. I mean, it's got to be sincere. God is not a punishing God. God gives everybody exactly what they want. If you seek God and love God, you go to heaven. If you reject God, God's not going to force you to go to heaven because you don't want it. So He lets you go to be by yourself. The problem with going by yourself and you end up with a lot of people that have rejected God's love and they tend to be not nice people. And I'm going to tell you a big secret, they make that place hell.
Julie Mirlicourtois: So will there be some Christians in hell?
Howard Storm: Oh, yeah. A lot more Christians in hell than they think they are because one of the horrible things about Christianity is there's a lot of people that use it, they think if they pay lip service to it, that that's going to keep them out of hell and get them into heaven. No, you have to, in your heart, mind, soul, and strength, you've got to try and live it. I would also say that there's people that don't appear to be religious who are good Christians too.
I know God is good. So whether it's a little boy in India or that sweet little grandma in China who never heard of Jesus who did her best to love God with all her heart, soul, mind, and strength as she understood it and to love her neighbor as herself as she did that, I don't see God saying, "You're out of here." My hope and my life is about I want everybody to know Jesus Christ intimately as their best friend, as their Lord, as their savior, as God's perfect sacrifice for you, my sin, and your sin, in a very, very personal way.
Knowing Jesus makes your life so much more life. Jesus gives love, hope, peace, self-control, patience, and joy, joy, joy, joy, joy. And in the world without Jesus, which I lived, you go from one pleasure, which fades, to unhappiness, to seeking another pleasure which fades. So you're always chasing after the next gratifying experience for the partner, you're chasing after boats, chasing after bigger houses, you're chasing after more money, you're chasing after power, possession, control stuff. And none of it ever really makes you happy for more than a minute. The joy that Jesus gives is sustaining even in the worst possible circumstances.
Eric Huffman: If that is the endgame, that real world and this is more like the dream, then have you thought about what the point of this is? Is this life, is it a testing ground? Is it an incubation period?
John Burke: Is it a birth canal?
Eric Huffman: Really?
John Burke: I think so. And I think that's what Romans 8 says. "All creation has been subjected to living under humanity, deciding we don't want God ruling." So all creation is groaning as in the birth pangs of what's to come in hopes that it will be liberated as well when God's children are finally revealed." That's what it says in Romans 8.
Eric Huffman: And this was God's plan all along or is this God's response to evil choices?
John Burke: Well, so I think, all right, so we'll get deeply philosophical. The Angels had a free will, too. So the angels are creations. God is incredibly creative if you haven't figured that out.
Eric Huffman: I can tell.
John Burke: We have categorized two million species of animal, but they think they're seven million or so. And He's created creatures that we don't see that are beyond our dimensionality. One species, I guess you'd call it, is an angel. But angels are eternal, and yet they're free. So this is what the scriptures teach us. That in God's presence, a third of the angels made a decision to say, "My will, not God's will." But because they're eternal, their choice was eternal.
Eric Huffman: Sure.
John Burke: And there's only one place where God doesn't rule and the creature gets to rule. He created it for the angels. It's called hell. Go read it. It says it in the scriptures. You know, He didn't create hell for humans. So I believe that He created earth and remains somewhat removed for a time, and yet His presence is still governing somewhat. We still experience tastes of love and joy and peace and kindness, but we also experience selfishness and greed and poverty and addiction and cruelty. So I think in all of this, God is teaching us why we want to love and follow God, why He is what we want.
Eric Huffman: So you're saying that happens in this life in small ways. And if we choose love in this life, in the next, we experience that in a whole different dimension.
John Burke: Yeah. And as I was saying, I think God is actually teaching the eternal angels through us.
Eric Huffman: Whoa, you are a head trip, man.
John Burke: Well, think about it.
Eric Huffman: I want to hang out with you more.
John Burke: No, think about it. So if angels had the ability with free will to rebel against God and that's what hell was created for, He creates humans, starting with the knowledge of good and evil, so that when we choose God in His presence, we will forever choose Him. But angels who are ministering to us get to look in... And it says this in the scriptures, by the way. You know, angels long to look into these things and to understand these things, and they are ministering spirits to us, yeah, to serve us, but I think they're also learning in this birth canal what the knowledge of evil is like so that they realize, why would we ever want to do that?
Julie Mirlicourtois: Krystal was a 32-year-old mother of four when she went into the hospital for a routine procedure the morning of December 10th, 2009. She says the person who went into the hospital that day was a completely different person from the one who came out.
Krystal: My youngest twins were just barely ten months old. I was married. We were the youth leaders of our church. I had grown up in church my whole life. And from the outside looking in, it looked as if everything was perfect. However, what lied within that life was a lifetime of secrets that I had kept.
I was sexually abused from the age of right around three and four to the age of 12 by many members of our family, extended family. So because it started at such a young age, there was so much confusion, yet it was all I had ever known. So I knew it was wrong and I knew how it made me feel but I hadn't known any different. I went to church my whole life. I remember being in the Baptist Church and hearing about Jesus and how He would save me, and I desperately wanted to be saved from what was happening. I remember running to the front and accepting Him as my savior and jumping into the water that night.
When the sexual abuse continued, I started to question at eight years old, maybe I had done something wrong with my baptism. So that started a journey over the next four years, until the age of 12. I was baptized four times in three different denominations and I was seriously seeking this salvation because my child's mind thought he would save me from what was happening.
So at the age of 12, when the abuse continued, I really came to the realization that I had one of two things. Either, one, God was real and He just did not love me, or two, there was no God. And I would go through my teenage years. I became very rebellious and I got into drugs and alcohol and became very promiscuous. At the age of 17, I had my first child. At the age of 19, scared and alone and terrified to put my family back through another pregnancy, I walked into an abortion clinic alone. And I can remember walking out that day and thinking, "I will never tell anyone, and if there was a God, He could never love me after this."
And I just kind of attached this guilt and the shame, and it became almost like my armor, almost who I was. I didn't have a relationship with God. Jesus was different to me. For some reason, Jesus appeared to be loving, whereas God I was so afraid of.
I went through my 20s, I ended up being married briefly. I had my second child, a daughter. So that marriage ended after some abuse. And then at the age of 27, I had just finished college to become a teacher and I met my husband, my husband today. But he was different than any other person I'd ever dated. He had a very strong relationship with God and slowly I began to open up to him about who I really was. And yet he looks beyond all of the filth and the dirtiness and loved me. And he loved my kids. That was just unfathomable to me that I could be loved that way.
And the ironic part was that we became the youth ministers at the church. I'm a teacher, and so I would teach these lessons to them. We would drive home and I would lay in bed and talk to my husband and say, "I just don't know that I believe." What it really came down to was not that I ever didn't believe that God existed. The fact was is that if he existed, I had to face why He didn't love me.
We had been married about five years, I could no longer have children and I thought that that was probably punishment for the abortion that I had as a teenager. And we ended up going to fertility clinic. And I had prayed before we went and I said, "God, I don't know if you can hear me. He deserves to be a father. He's a wonderful man." And I said, "I'll know you're real if we get pregnant."
So we went through our first round of IVF and we got pregnant right away. And I went back into my little bathroom, and I remember crying and praying to God and saying, "No, but I'll know if you're real if it's twins." And we found out we were having twins. And then I went back into that little prayer closet and I said, "No, but I'll know, I'll know for sure you're real if it's a boy and a girl." And they told us we were having a boy and a girl." And that should have been enough right there, and it just wasn't. I was too afraid.
Julie Mirlicourtois: Ten months after giving birth to twins and still doubting everything about God, still filled with shame and guilt, Krystal went into the hospital for a routine procedure, they accidentally nicked her pancreas, sending her into pancreatitis. The doctors told her she'd be in the hospital for four days at most.
Krystal: And I saw my mom sitting at the foot of my bed and she had her back to me and she was reading a magazine, and instantly this peace that I had never known in my entire life wrapped itself around me, and I knew immediately that I was dying and I wasn't afraid. And I had just this tiny bit of air left within my lungs. And as I was looking at the back of my mom, I pushed out the words, "I love you". And then I closed my eyes.
And literally within that same moment, I woke up in heaven. I found myself standing in this realm, the most beautiful realm that I had ever experienced and I knew everything. I knew that I had just died in that hospital room, but I knew that I was the me, the true me that had existed from the moment that God had created me,. Not the moment that I became Krystal on earth, but the moment He created me. And I had never felt a freedom like this before.
Instantly I was greeted by two angels and I was so excited to get to speak with them, and they were eagerly excited that I could hear them because I knew that they had been with me every second of this human journey. And now here I was, I could actually see them and hear them. I became aware of another presence to my right. And as I turned to face the other presence, immediately, I was engulfed in this golden, pure light, and I just fell right to my knees. And I remember just worshiping and crying because I recognized God. I didn't meet God, I recognized Him. And immediately in that moment, He wrapped Himself around me.
And what He was, what He is is love, the most purest form of love. Here this God that I have feared my entire life upon me being there, scooped me up and held me in His lap. God knew how dirty and broken I was, and yet He scooped me up. And as I laid there at His feet, I looked down what I would call a tunnel and I noticed the entrance to heaven. And God said, "Once we get there, you can't come back."
And in that moment, He showed me a vision of my children and He told me I could go back and I could be their mother. He showed me that the plan for their life was perfect, just as all of our life plans are perfect. And I very quickly just said, "No, I didn't want to go back." So the vision of my children disappeared and I continued to go towards the end of the tunnel with Him.
And then I saw this beautiful little girl basking in the light in front of me. She was probably three or four, and she had on a beautiful white dress with yellow flowers. She had a little basket in her hands and she would just laugh and play. I remember instantly looking at her and making a claim like, "She's mine. She belongs to me." And I wanted to just get to her as fast as I could and scoop her up in my arms and love her and hold her and just... I'd never loved anything the way I loved this little girl.
And every time she would laugh, I noticed that I was swelling. Like my spirit was just blowing up like a balloon, filled with love and pride for this little girl. And then I remember saying, "I'm going to explode." I could not hold the amount of love that I had for her. And in that instance, God took it off of me and He showed me how He had allowed me to look at her through His eyes.
And when I looked back down at her, I recognized her as me, as a three-year-old me, who wondered why He didn't love me. And in that moment, something happened that 20 years of counseling had never been able to happen. He healed me in an instant. He told me that He had never left me, that He had given us the gift of free will and I was hurt by humans, but that He had never abandoned me and that what had happened to me and what had been done to me had never tarnished how He viewed me. And it changed me. It freed me.
So in that moment, I was just ready to cross. I was ready to cross over. And I heard my mom crying, I'm back in the hospital room. And I remember stopping and I looked at the presence of God and I said, "She doesn't know. She doesn't know I'm okay." And I said, "Can I just tell her I'm okay?" And He said, "The choice is up to you." And when I turned from Him and the angels to go and find where her voice was coming from, He said, "Tell them what you remember." And I remember thinking, "How silly." And I called over my shoulder, "I'll remember everything and I'll be right back."
December 10th this year will be ten years from that moment. And it still wrecks me. And I was so angry when I first came back here because this wasn't what I had chosen. But then I watched my children at Christmas and I celebrated my birthday and I started understanding that this was a blessing. And I miss Him every day. I have a relationship with Him but what I didn't realize was that last thing He said to me was the most important directive that I would ever be given. "Tell them."
Because there are so many other women like me and so many other men that think that this cloak that they wear of shame and condemnation and filth is who they are. And He wants to say, "No, that is not who you are." That little child playing in that light, that is who we are. I tell people, if He could love somebody as broken as me, that He can love any of us. And He does. He's love and all He asks in return is for a relationship. He does not want perfection. He wants a relationship.
Eric Huffman: I feel like I've been dealt such a good hand but so many people have not. So I think when I hear a story like Krystal's, there's so much mercy in that from God.
John Burke: Well, it's what God is doing in the world. He's creating wounded healers. You know, because the most powerful is someone able to reach out to somebody who's been through the same thing and say there's a path forward from here. You don't have to stay stuck here.
Eric Huffman: Yeah. I think about the Krystals in life who don't have a near-death experience with God where they see themselves as that three-year-old girl.
John Burke: I've seen God heal many of the same things when they find a community of people who have walked together with God and with each other and have found healing from the same thing.
Eric Huffman: Do you think it means that God grades us on a curve? I've lived an easy life. Do I not get the same curve that Krystal will?
John Burke: I'll tell you, Eric. You know, when I came to faith, one of the things that I kept hearing that I hated was "to whom much is given, much is required".
Eric Huffman: Right?
Howard Storm: You know, I had so much going for me and it seemed like everything I touched turned to gold and I was like, "Oh, crud." I want to ignore that, right? So I wouldn't say He grades on a curve. I would say we're all unique. We're all unique.
Eric Huffman: And He knows us.
John Burke: He knows us, and He knows what He's given. And what our path is, is to be faithful to Him with what He's given, which means to be faithful with the gifts, with the resources, with the responsibilities. But it's not hard. It's not a burden. This is what Jesus said. It's so amazing. Jesus said in Matthew 11:28, He said, "All you who are weary and heavy burdened..." Hey, everybody feels anxiety these days. That's all of us pretty much. "...come to me. My yoke is light, my burden is easy. I'm gentle and humble of heart. Come learn from me and I will give you rest."
So we get to exchange the heavy burden of trying so hard to prove ourselves or to be worth something or lovable or good enough or successful enough, we get to exchange that for being so loved that we can't even imagine it. And out of that place of peace and a place of connection and relationship with the God of the universe, now we're free to use our gifts not to prove ourselves, but to serve God and love others. And that's all we have to do.
Eric Huffman: And that's heaven.
John Burke: And each one, you know, has a unique path. Each one has a unique burden.
Eric Huffman: I love this line you wrote. You said, "Heaven will be the place where you realize how uniquely loved you are. And God doesn't want you to wait until heaven to experience that." It's profound. It all comes back to love and knowing how uniquely loved we are.
John Burke: Yeah.
Eric Huffman: It's beautiful.
John Burke: It's so simple, isn't it?
Eric Huffman: It is.
Most of us believed in heaven and hell when we were kids, but growing up made us cynical. And to the cynic, heaven and hell start to sound like the fictional machinations of religious men vying to keep their people under control. But despite our skepticism, it seems we can't stop thinking about life after death. Even in our post-religious culture, the afterlife is everywhere.
Of all our episodes so far, we've received the most feedback about part one of this show on heaven and hell. So I figure one of two things is true. Either we're so afraid of the finality of death that we will suspend our disbelief and listen to stories like the ones in this episode, even though we know they're not true. Or the reason we're so curious about eternity and God in heaven and hell is because we know deep down this life is not all there is. Deep down, we know there's something more.
Colossians 3 says, "Set your minds on things above and not on earthly things. Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness and patience. Forgive each other as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love which binds them all together in perfect unity."
Thanks to John Burke and all our guests on this episode. I'm feeling inspired to set my mind on things above and to put on love because that's truly what it's all about. I hope you're inspired too. As always, thank you for listening to Maybe God.
Julie Mirlicourtois: Maybe God is produced by Eric Huffman, Brandon Duke, and me, Julie Mirlicourtois. Our sound engineers are Pat Laughrey and Aubrey Schneider. Our editor is Brittany Holland, music is by Nathan Bonus, and our intern is Caroline Love. If you have questions or doubts that you'd like us to address in upcoming episodes of Maybe God, email us at [email protected] or start a discussion with us on our Facebook page, Maybe God Podcast. And don't forget to subscribe now on Apple Podcast or your favorite podcast app.