“Life has never been the same.” That is what my wife’s paternal grandmother, Evelyn, said after she visited heaven.
My wife and I treasure her short but powerful testimony, which she wrote in her autobiography:
I was standing on the most velvety-like grass surrounded by the most beautiful flawless flowers. Beyond them, about thirty feet away, I saw a picnic bench with three people having a great visit. It was my two brothers, Ted and Sig, and my sister-in-law Audrey. They all looked so young and full of life. I wanted to run to them but struggled; something held me back. Later, I realized it was the prayers being said for me.
Just how did Evelyn get to heaven in the first place? And more importantly, how did she return? On a lovely July morning, as Evelyn weeded her garden, she fell over a wire cage that surrounded a flowering peony bush. The fall caused some light stomach pains, but she ignored them, finished her garden work, and went back inside for lunch. However, the pain persisted until it became unbearable. Her husband, Murray, felt something was seriously wrong and rushed her to the hospital. After she was admitted, the doctors discovered her spleen had ruptured; she was bleeding to death internally.
Sometime in the frantic hustle of surgery, as fourteen units of blood were being transfused into her body, her soul left her body and entered the World of Truth. She recalled later that “things on earth lost their lustre when compared to the beauty there.” She knew she was in the presence of God but could not understand why he wanted to take her home. She asked, “Lord, are you taking me home? I’ve never done anything for you; I feel terrible I haven’t done more for Jesus!”
This exclamation shows what a righteous woman Evelyn was. By that point in her life, at the age of seventy-nine, she had served Jesus with great devotion. For years, she and her husband ran one of the largest Christian summer camps in Manitoba, Canada. Each summer, with humbleness and sincerity, they shared the gospel and delicious food with hundreds of people at their camp, all for free.
Yet when face to face with God, she complained that she hadn’t done enough for him or his Son. God did not keep her there; he sent her back for another fourteen years of life on earth. She still had work to do.
Evelyn’s near-death experience hits close to home for my wife and me, but her experience is not unique. In fact, the phenomenon of near-death experiences is quite common. I’ve read countless near-death-experience stories from Jews, Christians, pagans, and atheists. Each experience gives us a small glimpse into the spiritual hereafter, the World of Truth—the ultimate reality.
Instead of summarizing these testimonies (an impossible task), I will present a few interesting samples from the Talmud and compare them with some fascinating journeys reported by modern ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel.
“I Saw an Upside-Down World”
Yosef, the son of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, fell mortally ill, and for three days, he drifted in and out of consciousness; his soul danced between this world and the next until it leaped from his body and into a spiritual realm. However, death was brief for him, and he revived.
Upon his return, his father exclaimed, “My son, you left us!” Yosef replied, “I was in a completely different world.” Naturally, his father asked him what any of us would: “What did you see?” Yosef replied, “I saw an upside-down world. Many people who are here honored for their wealth and power are poor and lowly there. And the poor and humble in this world are exalted and honored in that world. Furthermore, I heard a voice that said, ‘Blessed is he who enters here with his learning.’”
Yosef continued, “I also saw righteous people surrounded by canopies of holiness, so close to God it was impossible to approach them.” God said regarding these people, “No one can stand in the presence of the martyrs of the kingdom, nor in the presence of the martyrs of Lod.”
His father replied, “You saw a true world; you saw the truth of justice and righteousness.” On the strength of this story, we refer to the spiritual realm as the “World of Truth.” By contrast, the world in which we ordinarily live is known as the “World of Concealment.”
Yosef glimpsed a reality that not only challenged the hierarchies in this world but may have also challenged the rabbinic dogma of his day. How so? It has to do with the “martyrs of Lod” he saw there worshiping God alongside the “martyrs for the kingdom.” In Jewish literature, the “martyrs for the kingdom” refer to ten famous rabbinic martyrs whom Rome slew for teaching and observing the Torah publicly.
However, the identity of “the martyrs of Lod” is a mystery. Some identify them as the brothers Lulianos and Paphos, who were nefariously killed by Trajanus, the Roman Legate of Lod, in retaliation for the death of a Gentile king’s daughter. Some argue that the term “martyrs of Lod” is a euphemism for a particular Simon who was martyred for refusing to drink idolatrous wine. Both these proposals are good; however, one well-respected modern talmudic scholar argues that the “martyrs of Lod” refers to Christian martyrs who were slain by Rome for refusing to worship the emperor.
If we can accept this hypothesis (I personally don’t see a valid reason to reject it), then the world Yosef saw is not only one in which the proud are humbled and the humbled are exalted, but also one in which Jewish and Christian martyrs worship God together in perfect unity and holiness.
“I Died and Went before the Throne of Judgment”
A few centuries later, in the ancient Babylonian city of Pumbedita (near modern-day Fallujah, Iraq), a well-respected Rav named Huna had a near-death experience. Rav Huna, a lifelong student of the brilliant talmudic scholars Rava and Abbaye, faced death from an illness. As Rav Huna lay on his deathbed, his lifelong friend and colleague Rav Pappa made a visit. Sadly, however, Rav Huna died once he arrived. Rav Pappa instructed those around him to prepare the burial shrouds.
Suddenly, Rav Huna resurrected. According to the story, Rav Pappa felt embarrassed that he had asked for the burial shrouds as he felt this request had prematurely hastened his friend’s death. Rav Huna, however, confirmed Rav Papa’s assumption by stating, “I died and went before the throne of judgment. I knew death was decreed for me, but I heard God say to the angels, ‘Here is a man who treats others favorably and forgives their debts against him. Therefore, judge him favorably. His time to die has not yet come.’”
Rav Huna was renowned for treating others respectfully, letting personal grievances go, and forgiving quickly. When he stood before the throne of judgment, he received measure for measure the same grace he showed others.
Rav Huna’s near-death experience gives weight to the teachings of our Master: “The standard you use in judging is the standard by which you will be judged,” and “If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you” (Matthew 7:2, 6:14 NLT).
In addition to these near-death experiences in the Talmud, countless others from religious Jews are recorded on various religious and secular media platforms. Some experienced pure bliss and love, while others experienced great pain and suffering.
Of these stories, I found three particularly worth repeating.
“I’m Dead, Just Stop Trying to Help”
One pleasant spring day, as Rachel was walking on King George Street in Tel-Aviv, a six-foot-long plank of wooden scaffolding fell from the building above her and landed directly on her head. On impact, her soul leaped from her body. She recalls observing her body and knowing that she was dead, watching a well-intentioned woman trying to help and thinking, “I’m dead, just stop trying to help.”
As her soul ascended from her body, she was brought into the “most brilliant, beautiful light, unlike anything in this world.” She described this light as “pure love and bliss,” giving her a profoundly unique life review.
Her life did not flash before her eyes as a series of two-dimensional images, as is often the case in other near-death experiences. Instead, it rapidly “passed through” her as a series of three-dimensional structures. Even though this happened at tremendous speed, she recalls “reliving” each moment slowly and with a deeper understanding. This is impossible to understand, but that’s a characteristic of the World of Truth: It’s impossible to understand.
As she relived her life, she understood that her mission on earth was unfinished, but that did not mean she wanted to return. The joy and bliss of being in the presence of the Almighty made returning to the material world difficult and painful.
A Hellish Darkness
While Rachel experienced immense joy, pleasure, and divine love, others such as a friend of Rav Yitzach Perez (who wished to remain anonymous) experienced sorrow, pain, and divine wrath. During a massive heart attack, his soul flew out of his body and landed face down before the throne of judgment.
He knew suffering awaited him even before a terrifying voice told him, “You are before the throne of judgment.” Soon after he heard this voice, his soul began to suffer deep humiliation and pain as the sins he had committed in his life manifested and tormented him as hideous physical entities.
After great suffering, an angel picked him up and suspended him over a chasm of deep darkness—an empty, horrifying void. He feared so deeply that his soul begged for death. His request for death was really a request for annihilation rather than the darkness of hell.
Once he realized death could not save him from the pit that lay beneath him, he begged to return to earth to make heartfelt repentance and recommit his life to God. He wanted to genuinely serve him and live a life in which his private devotion to God reflected his public devotion. God had mercy on him and sent him back for another shot.
“I Heard Your Prayers through the Angels”
Rav Cohen became suddenly ill with a mysterious life-threatening sickness. He lay in the hospital, suffering and slowly losing his grip on life. Eventually, his soul left his body, and he was brought before the heavenly court to be judged. Much to his surprise, God was merciful to him. He could not understand why until he began hearing the prayers of his community through the angels.
After returning from the World of Truth, he repeated to his friend in exact detail the prayers his community had said on his behalf. He said, “I heard your prayers through the angels; they were used as my defense.” As you prayed “Father, show him mercy for avoiding the sin of evil speech and always speaking well of others,” the angels said, “Here is a man who guards his tongue from evil.” Just as Rav Cohen showed kindness to others by not using his words against them, so too, the heavenly court of God and his angels showed him kindness.
Disciples of Jesus rely upon his merit and virtue, not their own, when they stand before the throne of judgment. These glimpses into the World of Truth can serve to strengthen our convictions and our hope in him. Those who report back tell us that what awaits us on the other side is more real and true than anything on this side of existence.
Rav Cohen stood before God’s throne and experienced the truth of what pure speech meant to God. Rav Perez’s friend stood there but was terrified by the truth of God’s wrath. Rachel understood the truth of God’s will for her life. Rav Huna experienced the truth of Jesus’ teachings about judging others. Yosef saw the truth of souls being exalted and humbled as well as the holiness of those who sanctified God’s name. Evelyn saw the truth of God’s beauty.
Each of us will one day pass from this world and into the World of Truth. We will all stand before God and be confronted by a higher reality. Many have already preceded us into that world, but some have gone before us only to return.