Today is the monthly meeting of the Cincinnati IANDS group, the support group for people who have had NDEs or Spiritually Transformative Experiences (STE). The author of one of the first NDE books I ever read, Howard Storm, is speaking today. Howard not only had one of the richest NDEs recorded, his is unusual in that it falls into that small percentage of “hellish” or LTP (Less Than Pleasant) NDEs. Some people in the NDE field want to ignore the LTP experiences, but I think you have to study the exceptions to see why they don’t fit the typical experience. Most people who “die” experience bliss, peace, unconditional love and some even report that negative emotions aren’t possible in the place we find ourselves in. Howard’s experience wasn’t like that. Howard’s experience is also not well received by some in the NDE community because it is intensely Christian. I wanted to meet him and speak with him partly to see if he thought that heaven was exclusively for Christians.
I’ll give a real quick synopsis of his experience here. You can find many interviews with him on YouTube, here is a good one, or read his book “My Descent Into Death” if you want serious detail. The book is well worth the read. He just signed a movie deal. No date on the movie yet.
Howard’s experience happened in 1985. He was traveling in Paris and experienced a perforated bowel, which is extremely painful and will cause death within hours without emergency surgery. It was a Saturday and no surgeons were on duty. Long story short, he died while waiting for the surgeon to show. He found himself immediately outside of his body feeling better than he ever felt in life. All senses were heightened. Colors were more vivid. He could see more colors. His vision was sharper. But, he was lured into the hallway by hideous creatures who led him on a long trek where they taunted him and grew more and more aggressive until they finally ripped his body apart. He felt pain- emotional as well as physical. When he told the story, I could tell he was able to take himself back to that emotional pain even 30 years later. Eventually, they ripped him to the point where he was no longer able to fight back and provide amusement for them, so they started to drift away. He did not want to be in this place, so memories of Sunday school started coming back to him. He knew he needed to ask for help. He began trying to recall prayers and mumbled something about Jesus which they picked up on. Again, I have to condense, but he realized this had power over them and they eventually went away leaving him alone in this dark gray place. He eventually called out to Jesus, saw a bright light and Jesus came to rescue him. He spent a great deal of time communicating with Jesus. In classic NDE form, communication was through thought. Jesus could read his every thought. He could read the thoughts Jesus put into his head, in Jesus’ voice. He asked a ton of questions and Jesus answered many of them by taking him to the places he asked about past and future and showing him the answers. He was told he must return to Earth to complete his mission. His mission was loving someone. Howard found himself back in his body in great pain, but the nurse walked in and said they found a surgeon. He had the surgery and obviously lived to this day. He went from being a hardcore atheist before the experience, to a UCC pastor of a small church today. He expected to blink out when he closed his eyes. He was not religious at all at the time of his death and had no belief in an afterlife. He was a self described Nihilist and hedonist.
After hearing his story (I read the book and checked out some of his interviews before hand), I was curious what made him decide to become a UCC pastor. What did he think about the teaching of eternal hell? Do we need to tell everyone about Jesus? What if people didn’t know to call out to Jesus? Would they remain in Hell (assuming he called the place he was Hell).
He answered the question about needing to know Jesus in the preamble to his story. He told the story of being in seminary and an African professor chastising them for thinking they had brought “the Christ” to Africa. The professor told them the Christ had been in Africa as long as people had. Howard also talked about the concept of the “anonymous Christ”. So, it was cool to find out he does not believe people have to call specifically on the name of Jesus to be saved.
I asked him his thoughts on eternal hell. Being raised in the Congregationalist church (the precursor to the UCC where he preaches now), he probably wasn’t taught that. He quickly corrected me telling me the Bible doesn’t use the word “eternal” (which I knew, it was just part of my question). He said that any “hell” there is is a place where we go ourselves. God doesn’t send anyone there. No one is forced to stay. He said the Bible says that whoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved. It doesn’t put a time limit on it- before death- like the church does. He said people project their retributive attitudes onto God and God is Love. He said that God’s purpose is always redemptive and likened the conditions in Hell to a parent disciplining a child. However, he said there are no rules in Hell and that people can and do “devolve” and his belief is people can devolve to the point of annihilation.
There were many questions from the group about religion and church. He’s big, big, big on Jesus and Christianity, but based on our conversations about Buddhism he’s tolerant of other paths. He said many who think they are going to heaven are not and many who think they are not are. There was a lady there- Catholic, who was very concerned her daughter who turned to Buddhism (and had become an almost unrecognizably better person) was teaching her kids Buddhism, not Catholicism, and they would not go to heaven because they believe in reincarnation. Howard assured her that it’s the heart that determines where they go, not their belief in heaven or Jesus or anything else.
Howard made it clear the creatures that accompanied him into Hell were people- like him. People who had rejected God, who had only lived for themselves, but just people. They took pleasure in tormenting others. I was going to ask him why he thought he was saved while the others weren’t, but it was clear from his story it’s because he asked and he reiterated this when asked several times from several angles about what one had to do to get out of that place. It wasn’t about knowing Jesus or saying the right prayer or even having faith. He said he had no faith when he asked. It was about simply acknowledging you needed help and asking for it.
When Howard was being sent back, he kept asking what he was supposed to do because he was arguing vehemently for not returning. He proposed building a big shrine to Jesus in Northern Kentucky where he lives. I immediately thought of that monstrosity Ken Ham just finished at the Creation Museum, the Ark. Howard was told to find someone to love was his mission. There are millions like him on the same mission and billions of angels assisting. That’s it. Just love someone.
Howard’s NDE happened before NDEs were well known and just after the term was coined by Raymond Moody. There’s no documentation that he actually “died” and he doesn’t have any corroborative evidence to show he was outside of his body. I do give it a great deal of credence though. He lacked some of the elements typical of NDEs like meeting deceased relatives and the tunnel (which I think is almost always absent in LTPs- giving rise to the theory the tunnel is a portal through the lower nastier realms. Thirty plus years after his experience, Howard is a changed man. One thing about NDEs is they tend to change people drastically and permanently. I looked into his eyes as he told his story. I saw tears well up several times. I could tell he was reliving the pain of that time in Hell. whatever happened to him was very real to him, real enough to completely change his life. And the story he brought back can bring hope and love to the world.
The most impactful thing Howard said to me is this. The one thing I always listen for from NDErs is that we will see our loved ones again. If I hear that, I’m all good. He didn’t exactly say that. What he did say was that this life isn’t “real life”. It’s understandable we think it is because it’s all we know (all we can recall), but this is not our real Home. Our real Home is much more “fun” (his word) than we can possibly imagine. He said “Heaven is the fun center of the universe). This life is just temporary, an experience we get to have before we return Home.