With the immense popularity of “Heaven Is For Real” and other books about experiences in the afterlife, the topic of Near-Death Experiences (NDEs) has taken front and center stage. Though the Catholic Church has no formal teaching on NDEs, plenty of people claim to have had one, including my late husband Bernie. The descriptions of these experiences often take on a tone of either Protestant Fundamentalism or the New Age. But Bernie’s experience was--would I dare to say--amazingly, authentically Catholic!
As a Catholic theologian who has taught the faith for fifteen years, I have never publicly addressed the topic of NDEs before. Those experiences fall into the category of what the Church calls “private” revelation—a topic I tend to stay away from when teaching Catholic doctrine. * However, Bernie’s life-changing NDE, chronicled in detail in my book Miracle Man, compelled me to share his incredible story with others. Why? Because Bernie’s “come to Jesus,” which he shared with me after miraculously waking up from a six week coma that was induced by a massive heart attack and multiple organ failure, highlighted some important truths of the Catholic faith that could use re-stating today. These include:
- We don’t get a “free pass” to heaven because we’re convinced we’re “a good person.”
- We are judged by God on the good or evil we have done in this life (Rom. 2:5-10).
- God, who loves each of us personally and infinitely, has gone and will go to great lengths to save us and bring us home to heaven.
- In the end, life and eternal life are about LOVE--and life on this earth is meant to teach us to love and be loved.
Bernie learned all of those lessons first hand during his NDE after suffering “the widow maker” in December 2008, which he inexplicably survived. Within a week of his heart attack, Bernie’s heart, liver, kidneys and lungs failed, leaving him comatose and on life support as doctors tried to save him—uncertain if he had any brain function left. Astoundingly, Bernie did an about face and began to recover, surprising his doctors and earning him the name “Miracle Man” among the hospital’s medical staff. He eventually woke up, was weaned off the ventilator and regained his ability to speak. Though still in the Intensive Care Unit, Bernie asked me one day if I wanted to hear about his Near-Death Experience.
I responded, of course, with a resounding “Yes!” Given the fact that I had prayed for his conversion for 24 long years and that I was at his bedside the night a nurse shocked his heart three times to keep him alive, I had a hunch he may have met God. But I never expected to hear what he said next.
“I died and I clearly remember it,” Bernie began. “I saw my soul leave my body and was looking down on my body from above.” After describing in detail how he saw the condition of his soul, as well as the things he had done in his life that were pleasing and unpleasing to God, Bernie shared this zinger: “Judy, I followed the light all of the way to heaven. And when I got there, I wasn’t permitted to enter.” That from a man who steadfastly maintained that he was sure he was going to heaven because he was a “good person.”
Bernie was then sent back by God to make amends for his life, but not before meeting terrifying creatures that beat him brutally as they screamed in his ears repeatedly, “We’re here to help you!!!” You’ll have to read the book to find out how the story ends (it’s nothing short of amazing), but suffice it for now to say that Bernie was a changed man after his NDE. So much so that he spent the last six weeks of his life telling me, “You have no idea how much God loves you…You have absolutely no idea how much God loves you!”
Because in spite of seeing his own inner darkness and his need for conversion and purification, Bernie’s overarching experience of his encounter with God was one of unfathomable love. Love that died on the Cross for his sins. Love that chased him down to beckon him into a relationship with Himself. And Love that waited to embrace him and welcome him home with the words, “You are my beloved son. In you I am well pleased.”
In the end, what matters most about “private” revelations like NDEs is the fruit they produce. In other words, they can be considered authentic insofar as they help us to “live more fully” by “Christ’s definitive revelation” (CCC par. 67). Christ revealed that God is love, and that Love holds us accountable for our lives and for our actions. Though those two statements seem contradictory in today’s world, they nonetheless contain the age-old truth of Christianity. That’s the truth Bernie discovered when he met God. And it’s the truth that would ultimately transform him and lead him to eternal life.
*(See the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Par. 67 for the Church’s teaching on “private” revelation.)