By Don Piper
With Cecil Murphey
Read by Don Piper
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I Died and Entered Heaven
I didn’t have a near-death experience (NDE).
On January 18, 1989, I died. Literally.
That’s important for me to establish. Many books have been published since 90 Minutes in Heaven was released in 2004. Most of them—as far as I know—told of their near-death experiences. That doesn’t invalidate what happened to them, but their heavenly encounters were different.
Often those whose earthly life is ending careen down a long tunnel with a bright light at its end. That wasn’t my experience. I believe that was because my death was instantaneous.
My small Ford Escort was crossing a bridge over Lake Livingston in East Texas on a cold rainy morning on my way back to Houston to speak at our evening church service. I was traveling about forty-five miles per hour when a tractor-trailer truck entered my lane at about sixty miles an hour. The semi struck me head-on. The impact was not only ghastly, but also immediately fatal.
One moment, I saw the eighteen-wheeler coming right toward me; the next moment I was standing in heaven.
In front of me stood open a beautiful gate, which looked like the inside of an oyster, sculpted from mother-of-pearl. It was one of heaven’s twelve gates of pearl. And they never close!
I felt an indescribable peace as I walked toward the gate. Unlike what often happens when we gain consciousness after surgery—a bit groggy and disoriented—I didn’t have to wonder where I was. I was completely awake. As soon as I arrived, I knew.
But there were surprises. My first was the crowd of people who suddenly surrounded me. I like to call them my personal welcoming committee. Each person was someone who had played a significant role in my life on earth. They either helped me become a Christian or they strengthened me in my growth to keep moving forward in my faith.
Joy filled their faces as they held out their arms to me. I had known each person on earth through good and bad times, and had often seen them smile. This time, each of them grinned in such a way that I thought (at least afterward), I’ve never seen any of them so completely happy.
Their greetings were heavenly and beyond human expression. Some embraced me, others shouted greetings, and all praised God for bringing me home.
As they surged toward me, I knew without question that they were there to welcome me. I felt it in every fiber of my being. The best way I can explain it is to use the word intuitive: knowing without being aware of how I gained that knowledge.
I didn’t touch my precious greeters, whom I had loved and lost, as we think of touch. Our embrace was between two souls. It was as if my heart held each one in a holy hug. I’d been separated from some of them by more than a quarter century. Can you imagine holding a dear loved one you hadn’t embraced in twenty-five years? What a joyful reunion!
As I looked at each face, I knew all of them well. Every person called me by name. And one thing became immediately clear: My presence was no accident—at least to them. They knew I was coming. On earth, all of us have had some sort of accident, but there are no accidents in heaven.
After I arrived, I didn’t think to ask questions, such as “How did they know?” And the answers didn’t matter. Their presence felt natural. In fact, everything I saw and felt seemed perfectly ordered. I marveled at the perfection of everything—people, sights, fragrances, and sounds.
And that peaceful sense of intuitively knowing stayed with me.
No one had to remind me of what they had done for me or how they had influenced me. Our “conversations” centered on their joy to see me and my excitement at being with them once again. No thought intruded into my mind about my death, my family, or anything I’d left behind. God had simply removed anything about my earthly life.
Later, I realized it was the most focused I’d ever been in my life—and it was effortless. Nothing distracted me. I was there, in the moment that seemed to have no end.
How far away was my greeting committee? I don’t know. Distance seems to have no place in heaven. I saw them, took in the joy of their presence, and felt ecstasy—a sudden, intense, and all-consuming emotion—at being there.
* * *
Once inside heavenly territory, I didn’t know if the greeting took place in four seconds or twenty minutes by earthly measurement. After my return to earth, I was told that the EMTs had declared me dead at 11:45 a.m., on the bridge. A pastor named Dick Onarecker prayed and sang a hymn in the wreckage of my car ninety minutes later at 1:15 p.m. When I speak of ninety minutes, that’s conservative. Someone had to report the accident and summon the ambulance. That means my time in heaven may have been closer to two hours.
But it doesn’t matter. In heaven, time doesn’t exist. Everything just is.
After the joy-filled greetings, my welcoming committee excitedly escorted me toward one of heaven’s twelve gates. I was ready to take my first step inside. I stared inside the gates of pearl, drinking in the sights before me.
That was the end of my heavenly experience.
* * *
My writing partner, who was skeptical that I had literally died when I first told him my story, became a believer when I pointed out two significant facts. First, with the severity of my later-diagnosed injuries, had I been alive, I would have bled to death. My upper left leg had exploded in the collapsing crash of my car. Four and a half inches of my femur had been ejected from my leg on impact and traveled over the railing of the bridge into the lake below. My left arm had been nearly severed and was hanging behind me in the backseat. I had many other open wounds over my face, right leg, and torso.
Second, medical experts report that four minutes is about as long as a person can survive successfully without oxygen. After six, the person becomes what one person called a “human vegetable.”
Four EMTs had already pronounced me dead. Following Texas state law, they couldn’t move my body until the coroner or a justice of the peace officially pronounced the word and completed an investigation.
I won’t go into the details, which appear in 90 Minutes in Heaven, but I understood why I wasn’t allowed to enter through the gate.
Pastor Dick Onarecker, whom I hadn’t known, came on the scene of the accident. He insisted on praying for me. The police officer refused because he felt the pastor would endanger himself by climbing inside the wreckage of the car with my body.
Dick insisted, “This sounds strange, but God has told me I must pray for him.”
The man scoffed and said, “Sir, that man is dead. And he’s been dead a long time.”
“I have to pray for him. I’ve never done anything like this before, but I believe God wants me to pray for him.”
My car was covered by a tarp with my dead body trapped inside. (Later, they brought in the Jaws of Life to cut open the mangled vehicle and take me out.) Even though I was already dead, Dick, who had a medical background, checked for a pulse but couldn’t find one. He later told me that in asking God to bring me back, he prayed for what in retrospect seems strange. He prayed two distinct prayers: one, that I would have no internal injuries; and two, that there would be no brain damage.
During Dick’s prayers, my spirit returned to my body. I was alive—again. God heard and answered Dick’s prayers.
Dick checked my pulse again after he prayed. “He’s alive! He’s alive!” he shouted.
The officer didn’t believe him.
“If you won’t go over and check on him again,” Dick cried out, “I’m going to lie down right here—right in front of this ambulance! You’ll have to run over me to get me out of here.”
As Dick told me the story, he said the officer shrugged and decided to humor the pastor. He called two EMTs to come over and check me.
The first EMT found a pulse.
Not only was I alive, but there was no brain injury. And despite all the physical complications that resulted, there was no internal damage, which baffled doctors who saw the accident report.
I came back because of the prayers of that pastor. And as I learned later, the petitions of many, many believers.
* * *
For two years I didn’t tell anyone what had happened while I lay dead on the bridge—not even my wife, Eva. The experience was too intimate, too special. And until the writing of this book, the experience of meeting those specific people at the gates of heaven was too sacred to share.
I remembered everything clearly, and sometimes, in my darkest moments, the only comfort I found was remembering in detail my heavenly experience.
I didn’t taste anything in heaven, but it would have been delicious. One day we’ll dine at the Lord’s table and eat of the fruit trees, including the tree of life. Even now we can anticipate “tasting” heaven. Heaven is a blissful buffet for the senses, and the sensory elements I experienced are why I can remember heaven so clearly to this day.
I became instantly aware of colors that I’d never seen before, hues and shades not perceptible by earth-bound eyes. Those previously unknown aromas permeated my senses. In fact, everything about heaven pervaded me.
Certain smells trigger memories from our past. For instance, one specific brand of perfume or after-shave can cause us to remember people and events. Specific flowers’ fragrances remind us of our grandma’s garden or a treasured vacation spot.
One of the strongest memories I have is of the faint fragrance that permeates heaven. It took me a long time to figure out how to talk about that aroma. Then I thought of a statement in Revelation 5:8, where the Lamb clearly refers to Jesus and goes on to mention those at his throne: “Each had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people” (emphasis mine).
It makes me smile to think that the fragrance I smelled was composed of the “prayers of the saints.” Add that to the smells of the aromatic tree of life, the fruit trees and their blossoms—all the glories of paradise—and the fragrance of heaven is a perfume you can’t forget.
Paul writes that Christ “uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere” (2 Corinthians 2:14). We are to be that lingering aroma to others through our witness, whether with words or deeds.
While we remain here on earth, we’re called to be “the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing” (2 Corinthians 2:15). When I think about those who influenced me, I can see that their witness is still a consistent, sweet-smelling inspiration—even now.
* * *
Two years after the accident, I finally told my best friend, David Gentiles, about my heavenly journey and its incredible sensory offerings (though I left out the part about those who met me at the gates). He wept as I opened my heart to him. “You must tell others,” he said. He urged me to tell Eva and our mutual close friend, Cliff McArdle, immediately.
“You must share this experience,” Eva said after she heard my story. Later, she told me she knew something had taken place—that I had come back different, a good different—and in such a way that she couldn’t explain it. She knew that the early periods of sadness and depression after surviving the accident couldn’t have been only from the pain of recovery. After I told her, she understood that it was because I missed being in heaven.
Cliff responded much like David and Eva.
Although I was cautious about whom I told, to my joyful surprise, every person listened attentively with utter amazement. They didn’t use the same words, but in essence, they said, “You don’t think God would have allowed you to experience this if you were supposed to keep it a secret, do you?”
After repeated urging, slowly I became emboldened and opened up to individuals. Without exception, they echoed the words of David, Cliff, and Eva.
As word spread and when asked, I spoke in churches about what had happened. By then, I felt one reason God had brought me back was to share my experience, and let others know the delight and perfection of heaven. I wanted to shout, “You don’t have to be afraid of death!”
I told my story in church after church or to any group who would listen. Audiences responded enthusiastically and wanted to hear more. The more I traveled, the more people pushed me to write a book about my experience—which I finally did: 90 Minutes in Heaven.
One weekend shortly before 90 Minutes in Heaven came out, I was out of town preaching at a church. While I was gone, Eva received thirty phone calls from pastors, inviting me to speak at their churches. Not once did I doubt that was God’s leading.
From 2004 through 2015, I averaged speaking more than two hundred times a year all over the United States and various countries, especially in Europe.
But I hadn’t yet told anyone about those who greeted me at the gates of heaven. I’m finally ready to share that sacred part of my story. The lives of each one of my greeters at the gates of heaven deeply impacted my life and faith. I long to live in such a way that I affect others’ faith as I was affected. When those who’ve met me in turn do the same, they will influence generations yet to come. What a glorious legacy each one of us can leave!
* * *
Heaven is a real place, and it’s also a prepared place—prepared for those who follow Jesus Christ. I’ve dedicated my life to getting everyone I can into that perfect place because I want people to experience not only the sights, sounds, and fragrances, but the Lord Himself. He’s there, waiting to welcome each one who comes to Him.
What qualifies me to write this book? For a long time, I wrestled with this question. Finally I simply said, “I went there and then I returned.” That’s my reason and my authority. After telling my story in my first book, 90 Minutes in Heaven, I assumed that was the end. I’d told everything I needed to tell, and figured that was all people wanted to know.
But it wasn’t the end.
Doors opened all over the world to speak. I could barely keep up with the requests. God called me to be a preacher, so I went.
On many nights when I hobbled into my hotel room, my ankles were so swollen I could hardly get my feet out of my shoes. Most nights I ached everywhere in my body. I chose not to use heavy medication because though it stopped the pain, it made me feel completely depleted and out of it. The horrific car accident left my body battered, covered with the scars of thirty-four surgeries due to injuries sustained in the accident.
I tell you this not to elicit sympathy, but to affirm I kept on for one reason: I believed without a doubt that the Holy Spirit of God led me. I promised the Lord, “As long as you give me life, you can use me, and when I’m done, take me back home permanently.”
There are those who have been wary of me and my story. Someone even cynically suggested that I was trying to capitalize financially on my heavenly visit. I died in 1989. Had I planned to capitalize financially through telling my story, I wouldn’t have waited until 2004, fifteen years later, to write my story. Neither would I have formed a nonprofit ministry to distribute funds generated from selling books and speaking about my experience. Nor would I have waited seven years after my last book1 to write this one.
Sometimes I feel like the blind man who had his sight restored by Jesus on the Sabbath. He was interrogated by the religious leaders, who were angry that Jesus had healed someone on their sacred day of rest. They tried to get the once-blind man to say that Jesus was a terrible sinner and couldn’t have healed him. The man didn’t argue, and his response was simple: “One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see” (John 9:25).
That’s how I feel when people want to discount my experience. I can’t force them to believe. I can say only, “One thing I know: I died and now I’m alive again.”
* * *
I smile sometimes when I think about that heavenly trip. Less than an hour before the accident, I had left a pastors’ retreat and was on my way to speak at church that evening. A big truck ran over my car, head-on, and killed me. Instantly, I was transported to the gates of heaven.
Obviously, I didn’t stay there.
I was sent back to this life—a life filled with magnificent joy and profound pain. God didn’t fully heal my body, then or later. But I found comfort in the words of Peter and John when they saw the lame man at the temple asking for alms. “Silver and gold I do not have, but what I do have I give to you” (Acts 3:6). Peter healed the man.
I can’t heal anyone physically, but I can share my heart and encourage others. I’m not attempting to equate myself with the apostle Paul, but I understand what he meant when he reflected on his own heavenly experience. Paul writes of himself: “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether he was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man…was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell” (2 Corinthians 12:2–4).
Luke doesn’t give much backstory about Paul and skims over details about his being stoned at Lystra: “[Jews from Antioch and Iconium] stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead. But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city” (Acts 14:19–20).
Did Paul die then?
It’s hard for me to think that they pelted him with huge rocks, crushing every part of his body, dragged him outside the city, and not be certain he was dead. For a crowd that angry, wouldn’t they have made sure he wasn’t still breathing?
We don’t know precisely what happened, but something powerful took place. Paul had to have been mortally wounded—crushed and believed dead. If the rocks hadn’t killed him, the rough dragging would surely have finished him. After the crowd left, the disciples came and prayed.
The left-for-dead apostle got up and went back to his ministry, utterly undeterred by stones that bruised his body but could not dampen his enthusiasm to share the truth that Christ can set all people free.
That fits my definition of a miracle.
* * *
I died in a car wreck. I’ve published five books, including this one, and another has been written about my experience. I take all of that as a sure sign that the story has touched a nerve and a need.
During the decade after 90 Minutes in Heaven was published, I lost track of the number of people who had NDEs and wrote about them. I can say that in my many, many speaking engagements, I met approximately thirty people who had a true-death experience as I did. They’ve chosen not to tell their stories in book form.
One industry executive stated that my first book, 90 Minutes in Heaven, started a virtual renaissance in “the reality of heaven.” Millions of souls in many countries have heard me share my testimony of the remarkable visit that I made to the gates of heaven. They’ve heard me discuss enduring my disappointing return to earth and the nightmare of horrific injuries, pain, and uncertainty that followed.
Hundreds of radio and television interviews, newspaper and magazine articles have referred to my experience. In 2015, a theatrical movie based on my experiences was shown across the country.
Our family never envisioned having our lives captured on the big screen. Who knew that my story would be for sale at Walmart?
As I wrote earlier, I want to be clear that I never planned to share my heavenly encounter with anyone, let alone do it publicly. But close friends and family members, whose judgment I trust more than my own, pleaded (not an exaggeration) with me to do so. I finally yielded to their counsel.
That decision changed the course of my life. After all these years, I confess I still have mixed emotions about the outcome of that decision. Travel for a survivor with such debilitating and extensive injuries as mine would never have been my choice unless prompted by the Holy Spirit.
I wouldn’t do this for a living. I do it because it is a calling. With my own eyes and ears, I’ve witnessed the encouragement my account has engendered, the tears it has wiped away, and the solace it has delivered.
How am I different after my return to earth? The simple answer to that question is this: I’ve never been the same again. Something indescribable happened to me, and I didn’t know how to explain it even to myself.
I’m hesitant to tell you the effects because I’m not a perfect man and still fail, but I can say a few things: I’m more compassionate. I care more about people. I’m more patient. Also, because I underwent thirty-four surgeries and I still live in pain, I’m much more understanding toward others who suffer.
When I’ve spoken with those who’ve had NDEs, they’ve tried to explain the changes that took place in them, and I can relate to these statements:
- “I feel broadened.”
- “Jesus is much more real to me and has made me more faithful in reading my Bible and praying.”
- “I’ve become more introspective and open to spiritual things.”
- “Life means more to me now—and I want to relish every minute until Jesus takes me home.”
- “I look forward to the day when I’ll go to heaven forever.”
- “My gaze lingers on a flower, a puppy, a baby, a sunrise, and more. I know that each time easily could be my last glimpse.”
Not one person who has talked with me showed evidence of pride or being more “spiritual.” None spoke of being perfect. Instead, many of them have spoken about a greater hunger for God and new, better goals.
* * *
Since 2004, 90 Minutes in Heaven has sold about eight million copies. I don’t intend this to be bragging, but to point to the motivation for what I do. People are buying and reading my words. I can’t be available to speak to everyone, but when they read what I’ve written, that’s one of the best ways I have to touch the hearts of those who don’t know Jesus. Mark Batterson said it well: “For me, a book sold is not a book sold; a book sold is a prayer answered. I don’t know the name and situation of every reader, but God does.”
I feel a compulsion—an overwhelming drive—to reach out to others, especially those who have no relationship with Jesus Christ. I yearn for them to know my Savior.
In 2015, after the release of the movie adaptation of 90 Minutes in Heaven, I slowed down—I truly needed it. Exhaustion and pain filled every single day. I assumed I was nearing the end of my sojourn on earth, and at age sixty-seven, I was ready to go to my eternal home.
But (obviously) God wasn’t ready. Slowly excitement and joy crept back into my soul, and I knew I had more to offer the world. This book is a major result of that emotional and physical renewal. I’m back speaking. Will it go back to the two-hundred-plus speaking engagements each year that I did for eleven years? I don’t know. I firmly believe that God does not call people to do things that He does not equip them to do. I can say only, “Lord, as You give me strength, and as You open the doors, I’m determined to serve You.”
One of the major blessings in all of this is that sharing my story has brought hope to those who’ve lost loved ones. My experience has removed the fear and trepidation from many facing their last days on this earth.
Even after the multitude of responses that I’ve received since my journey to heaven and back—and they are legion—I have yet to share a detailed account of exactly whom I met at the gates of heaven:
- What were the people at the gates like?
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