“Miracles from Heaven” is a movie based on the book of the same title by Christy Beam and details the amazing story of her chronically ill daughter’s near-death experience following a devastating accident and her subsequent remarkable healing. The movie is in theaters now, so I picked up the book behind the movie to get the full story. There are really no spoilers because the outcome is obvious before you open the book, but if you don’t want to read the details, go read the book, then come back for the analysis. I’m going to unwrap the Christian elements of the story and relate the NDE to the larger aspects of NDE research and analyze what I think it means in the larger context of religion and secular spirituality.
Setting the Story
The real life story revolves around the Beam family, who live in Texas, right at the ‘buckle of the bible belt’. They are, naturally, evangelical Christians and live in those types of large southern farming communities where the Christian church is the center of community life. The family lives on a sprawling ranch where the couple’s three girls play outside and climb trees and run around with their half-dozen dogs. Christy is a traditional southern mom – tough and tender, used to country life, and firm in her faith. Christy’s husband, Kevin, is a veterinarian who drives a pick-up truck and exudes the kind of quiet strength as any god-fearing country boy does in the south. God, family, country; These are the bedrocks of the southern Christian families, and the strength of their community relies on these shared commonalities.
Despite the idyllic setting, their lives were turned upside down when their middle child, Annabel, began suffering frequent digestive disorders which landed her in the hospital time after time. Frustrated by the lack of a real diagnosis for their daughter’s condition, the Beams sought the advice of a specialist in Boston who confirmed that Anabel suffered from a cruel and terrible gastrointestinal disease called pseudo-obstruction motility disorder and antral hypomotility disorder.
On days when she felt better, Annabel and her sister loved to climb the huge, ancient cottonwood tree in the glade behind their house. The tree had huge branches 30 feet from the ground that the girls could climb and watch the sun set over the Texas scrub land. Although they had climbed the tree to sit on these branches dozens of times, this afternoon the branch threatened to break. Anabel attempted to get off of the branch by stepping into a hole in the tree, not realizing that the tree itself was hollow on the inside from the top of the trunk all the way to the roots.
Annabel fell, headfirst, to the bottom. Inside the tree.
What happens next is the amazing story of her rescue, the bravery and sheer doggedness of the Briaroaks Volunteer Firefighters and the trip to the hospital, all told from the frantic perspective of Christy Beam as she prayed for her daughter’s safety. We don’t learn about Annabel’s near-death experience until much later when she begins to share her story, bit by bit, to her parents.
Before we get to the contents of the NDE, which is miraculous in itself, let’s wrap up the story. Annabel suffers no permanent harm from her trip down the tree which itself is a sort of miracle. She fell three stories, landed head-first and bumped her head three times on the way down. The real miracle, however, is that Annabel returns from the hospital seemingly cured of her digestive illness as well.
The condition she was born with, pseudo-obstruction motility disorder and antral hypomotility disorder, is thought to be a nervous system disorder. The brain doesn’t send the impulses to the nerves to mobilize the intestinal muscles and process food. Thus, the “pseudo” part of the disorder name. In effect, the intestines act as if there is an obstruction, and because of the lack of motility, there often is – requiring open-incision surgery to remove the blockage. Frequently these children have a sobering prognosis; a life of pain, medications, and frequent surgeries.
The disorder is rare and very serious. There is no cure. Annabel faced a difficult and painful life ahead of her, and I can only think of the many parents who read this book and cry at the injustice of one little girl who has God’s favor when so many continue to suffer.
I would never suggest that I understand what it feels like to have such a disease, but I have suffered the pain of undiagnosed intestinal blockage for 7 long days. Even though I was an adult, I was absolutely screaming. The pain is unbearable and untouchable. Try to imagine this pain faced regularly with no end in sight; surgeries and hospital stays around every corner. It’s sobering for any family.
Annabel tells her mother during one terrible bout, “I just want to die and go to Heaven and be with Jesus where there’s no pain.”
This is horrific for a mother to hear, but knowing the pain this child faced, it’s a perfectly understandable statement.
The Near-Death Experience
After Annabel’s fall inside the tree, she lay unconscious while her sister, then her parents tried in vain to get her out. This is when Anna ‘visited Heaven’.
Annabel is never pressed for details by her family, which is wise on their part. Noted NDE researcher in children’s near-death experiences, P.M.H. Atwater tells us that children will not really begin to fully process their experience until adulthood. Mr. and Mrs. Beam seem to intuitively understand that this experience is one that is meant to be unfolded slowly by Annabel herself without a lot of outside influence. Unfortunately, the movie has already brought around reporters desperate to find out more about her heavenly experience though Annabel seems to stick to her script in terms of what is written in the book and what she is willing to reveal so far.
Annabel describes sitting in Jesus’s lap. She also describes heaven as being ‘suspended above the universe.’ When she sees Jesus, he looks like the typical Biblical Jesus: brown hair, brown beard, dark skin, white robe. She also describes Jesus wearing a purple sash, which I find interesting for reasons I’ll explain below in the analysis section.
Annabel talks about the heavenly gate made of gold and of meeting her deceased grandmother. Annabel also amazingly meets her sister in Heaven. One sister, not two, despite her mother having two miscarriages. That is important because Christy explains later in a report that one miscarriage was never a ‘life’, but a blighted ovum which never developed into a fetus. Her second miscarriage did result in a fetus, however, and this is purportedly who Annabel met in Heaven. This is striking for an eight-year-old, who did know about both miscarriages but returned to say she only met one sister.
Anna asks to see “the creatures” to which Jesus says no. The “creatures” Annabel means are the ones from the bible with the body of a lion and face of an eagle. Jesus then tells Annabel that she must return.
“I know you don’t want to go. But I have plans for you to complete on Earth that you can’t complete if you’re in Heaven…”
Annabel resists, not wanting to return to a life of pain (understandably) but Jesus assures her the firefighters are going to get her out and when she returns, “there will be nothing wrong with you.”
And so it was. Annabel returns hale and healthy, with a mission to become a Child Life Specialist who helps sick children in hospitals, inspired by the real life Dani Dillard who was pivotal during Annabel’s own difficult hospital stays.
In terms of the standard Greyson NDE scale, Annabel’s NDE follows pretty standard checkpoints. Although she doesn’t describe leaving her body and having an OBE, she appears in a heavenly-type place that features a bright light, meets a religious figure (for some it is a guide or simply a presence), sees two deceased family members, and is finally told that she must go back to earth and resume her life’s plan. She is returned to her body with an ‘angel’ who lights the inside of the tree to help Annabel find the rope they drop for her. Taking all of the Christian themes away from her experience, her NDE is very like many others. For some NDE researchers, religious icons aren’t important – they are brushed off as misinterpretations when recalled later – to try to “fit” an experience into a belief system.
But for many Christians, it is the Christian symbols in her NDE that are the most important aspect of her experience, and I would argue that for this family and thousands of others who will be inspired by this story, they are right. The fact that this little girl saw Jesus isn’t a misinterpretation and it is important because it is absolutely meaningful to her and her family.
There is a purpose for some people to see religious figures in their NDEs, and I do not doubt their experiences, or the existence of the religious spirits they meet. Problems arise, however, when people expect a singular truth to arise from near-death experiences and are frustrated by the sheer diversity of imagery that is reported. People who fervently believe in one religion tend to gravitate toward experiences that confirm their beliefs, and discard any that don’t. What they are missing is the larger message that all spiritual truths are relevant.
This is the same issue I take with the genre of ‘Heavenly Tourism’ and the rise of the Christian-themed NDE camp. Certain Christians pick out the near-death experiences that use Biblical imagery as veritable proof of the validity of the Bible and the Christian story, and discard all others as either false or unimportant.
Most marketers of ‘Heaven Tourism’ books also seem to refrain from using the term ‘NDE’ or ‘Near Death Experience’ to describe what has occurred, preferring almost exclusively to describe it as a ‘Trip to Heaven’. This doesn’t bother me aside from the almost imperceptible feeling of disdain and separation from the mainstream NDE market, another indicator that a ‘trip to heaven’ is somehow superior or different from any other near-death experience that doesn’t feature Christian elements.
The problem lies in our human expectation that the afterlife is just as objective and unchanging as our experience on Earth. It is in our nature to expect One Truth even when all indications suggest otherwise. From my research, the afterlife appears to be thought-based, subjective and malleable based on our expectations, and in the case of a crisis, our needs. The most important aspect of the imagery of NDEs is that we experience what is in our own best interests to see.
For a child who has grown up in a world of Absolute Christianity with biblical stories and imagery told and read and acted out in Sunday School plays, what would be in her best interest to see during an NDE?
Exactly what she expects to.
Of course Jesus was there, loving and kind, in the sort of long white tunic he is always depicted as wearing. The golden gates of heaven and the angels all make their appearance as well. I do not doubt for a moment that Annabel saw and experienced this, nor is any of this wrong, invalid or false. Jesus really was there for her, and I believe her experience was real and just as impactful as any other. But that does not discount the vast majority of non-religious NDEs where divinity is a strongly-felt but undefinable presence and the afterlife looks like a meadow of flowers or a universe of stars. Near-death experiences that feature different religious figures or no religious figures at all are just as valid, important and life-changing.
The point is, whether it is a higher aspect of ourselves, our spirit guides or the creator itself, near-death experiences are tailored to the experience we need to have for the maximum positive impact on our lives upon returning. Instead of pushing some objective truth on us, they work with what we already believe and try to shape it toward something good. There is a certain power to belief systems – power to shape our lives and understanding in this world. We can do many great and wonderful things in the context of these belief systems and when they work in powerful ways for good on this earth, we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss them.
I always use Howard Storm’s experience as an example. He grew up as a Christian, then abandoned his beliefs. After having a hellish experience where he was ‘rescued’ by Jesus, he returned to life a changed man. He gave up his cynical, selfish ways and became ordained. Would his life had the same trajectory if his NDE did not feature Christian themes? It wouldn’t have, and possibly he may have discounted it altogether as a strange crisis hallucination. Somehow, it was known that returning to his Christian roots would engender the best result upon his return. And it did. But that’s not to suggest it would have best for everyone to experience that particular narrative.
After reading “Miracles from Heaven”, I was struck by many of the similarities to that of “Heaven is for Real”, the book detailing the similarly amazing experience of the Burpo family. Both books revolve around evangelical Christian children with devastating illnesses who have a near-death experience and return to perfect health. Without divulging spoilers, there are other small similarities as well; family members met by the children while in Heaven, the halting way in which they relayed their experience when they returned, even the fact that both children were in a car on their way to visit family when they first discussed the experience.
The most striking similarity, however, is the description of Jesus. Both children describe Jesus as bearded, brown-haired, wearing a white tunic and a purple sash. Both children sat on Jesus’s lap and saw heaven in a fairly similar way; unsurprisingly the way heaven is described in most Christian children’s books.
So why should these two children have such a similar near-death experience? Well, because their expectations were so similar going into it. Both children come from similar upbringings. Although the Burpos live in Nebraska and the Beams in Texas, both families adhere to a similar evangelical faith. I’ll admit, I am no expert in the nuances of evangelical Christianity. I’m sure there are differences. But for a child learning scripture, the descriptions of Jesus and Heaven are basically the same.
So what about the purple sash? Jesus is depicted often as wearing a purple sash in Christian art as a symbol of human authority, although there is no indication in the bible that he wears a purple sash. More than one person have publicly denounced Colton Burpo’s description and entire experience based on this discrepancy with the bible. What it indicates to me, based on the The Multidimensional Afterlife theory is that the spirit of Jesus (or quite possibly a guide appearing as Jesus) clothed himself not in scriptural veracity, but in the expectations of two small children who grew up with Christian art, Christian movies, and Christian pageants where a purple sash featured prominently.
And why not? In all of this, we cannot lose the message. Two children had a beautiful near-death experience and returned with sound knowledge that they are loved by a higher grace. Their families have been transformed, miraculous healing occurred and all of this happened because it will aide in the spiritual growth of everyone who is touched by it.
Unfortunately, it is not proof that Christianity is the Truth, the Way and Light and all other belief systems (or lack thereof) are substandard or false. I can see how believers of a certain faith can take that message from an experience like this, believing that if two Christian children saw heaven, then the Christian message is truth. But what is truth? Does an objective truth really exist on a spiritual level? I don’t believe it does. This is truth for them, which is perfectly fine if the result is positive for the trajectory of their lives.
My blog is all about a type of secular spirituality that doesn’t adhere to the dogma or symbols of any religion, but appreciates the power of religious symbols and stories to help us humans understand the greater force of consciousness. I believe that is why great teachers like Jesus and Gandhi and Buddha walked the earth; to inspire humanity toward a greater faith in way that made sense in our limited human understanding. That’s also why near-death experiences are best understood in the context of the beliefs of the individual, not as proof of a larger objective truth about religion. The great miracle of our existence is the vast creativity of consciousness, which is perfectly mirrored in the wonderful diversity that humans experience when they have the occasion to glimpse the other side.
Religion should be viewed as one of many, not one against all. After all, even the bible says that God’s “house has many rooms” and I don’t think they were referring to real estate in the literal sense. Some may choose a religious path in their quest for greater understanding, while others may choose a scientific path, and some simply live their lives according to a personal brand of spirituality. All are welcome in the great experience of being human.