I was on my way home from a convention, heading to Alvin, Texas, where I served as a minister at South Park Baptist Church. I drove at a moderate 50 miles an hour because the January day was chilly and rainy, and the narrow two-lane freeway had no shoulders. About 11:45 A.M., an 18-wheeler coming from the other direction weaved across the center line and hit my car head-on. The truck rolled on top of my car, slamming it into the side railing. The accident report states that the impact was about 110 miles per hour.
The first responders on the scene examined me, found no pulse, and declared that I had been killed instantly. I have no recollection of the impact.
In my next moment of awareness, I was standing in heaven. Joy pulsed through me as I looked around, and at that moment I became aware of a large crowd of people standing in front of an ornate gate. Every person was smiling, shouting and praising God as they surged toward me.
The first person I recognized was my grandfather. He looked exactly as I remembered him, with his shock of white hair and what I called a big banana nose. He stopped in front of me. “Donnie!” His eyes lit up, and he held out his arms and embraced me, once again the robust, strong grandfather I had known as a child.
Also in the crowd was Mike Wood, a childhood friend who was killed in a wreck at age 19. As he slipped his arm around my shoulder, I was amazed by the brightness of his smile. He seemed so alive.
There were others: Barry Wilson, my classmate in high school who had drowned in a lake; two teachers who had nurtured me in my faith; relatives I had last seen at family reunions. All looked exactly as I once knew them—although they were more radiant and joyful than they’d ever been on earth.
Coming out from the gate, only a short distance ahead, was an even more luminous light than that which surrounded us. I could hardly grasp the dazzling colors. A holy awe came over me as I stepped forward toward the gate. I had no idea what lay ahead, but I sensed that with each step, heaven would grow more wondrous.
Then came the music.
I can only describe it as a swoosh of wings. But I would have to magnify that thousands of times to explain the effect of the sound in heaven.
Or the sounds, I should say. A myriad of sounds filled my mind and heart. The most amazing one, however, was the angels’ wings. I didn’t see them, but they made a beautiful melody with a cadence that seemed never to stop. The swishing resounded as if it was a form of unending praise.
A second sound remains, even today, the single, most vivid memory I have of my entire heavenly experience. Hundreds of songs were being sung at the same time. As I approached the magnificent gate, I heard singing from every direction and realized that each voice praised God. I write voice but some seemed to be instrumental. Praise was everywhere, and all of it was musical, yet comprised of melodies and tones I’d never experienced before. Every sound blended, and each enhanced all the others.
I did not see God. Although I knew God was there, I saw only a shining iridescence as I peered through the gate. The only way I’ve made sense out of that part of the experience is to think that if I had seen God, I would never have wanted to return. My feeling is that once we’re in God’s presence, we will never return to earth again, because it will be empty and meaningless by comparison. For me, just to reach the gates was amazing, a foretaste of joy divine.
Then, just as suddenly as I had arrived at the gates of heaven, I left.
A fellow pastor, Dick Onerecker, and his wife, Anita, were traveling home from the same conference when they came upon the crash scene. Dick got out of his car and walked toward a police officer. “I’m a minister,” he said. “Is there anybody I can help, or pray for?” The police officer shook his head. “The people in the truck are shaken up but they’re fine. The man in the car is deceased.”
Dick tells it this way: “God spoke to me and said, ‘You need to pray for the man in the car.’” Dick and I had never met. But over the protestations of the EMTs he walked to my car and crawled into the trunk, the only way he could reach me. He strained to reach over the backseat, put his hand on my shoulder and prayed for me. Then he sang “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”
And I began to sing with him.
Dick scrambled out of the trunk of my smashed car and raced over to the nearest EMT, shouting, “He’s come back to life!” In that first moment of consciousness, I was aware of two things.
First, I heard my own voice and then became aware of someone else singing. The second thing I was aware of was that someone clutched my right hand. It was a strong, powerful touch, and the first physical sensation I experienced with my return to earthly life.
A little more than a year after the accident I was privileged to share my story in Dick’s church. His wife, Anita, was there, and so was my own family. Because I still wore leg braces, two people had to help me walk up on the platform.
Afterwards, Anita wanted to correct me on one small detail. “You said Dick held your right hand. But that was physically impossible.”
“I remember it so clearly,” I said.
“You were slumped over on the seat toward the passenger side with your right hand on the floor of the car. From where Dick was, he could barely reach your shoulder. There was no way he could have reached your right hand. Someone was holding your hand. But it wasn’t Dick.”
Immediately I thought of the verse in Hebrews about entertaining angels unaware. As I pondered for a moment, I also remembered other incidents. Many times during my months in the hospital, in the middle of the night when I was at my worst, I felt a presence—something, someone—sustaining and encouraging me.
Since that conversation with Anita, the facts confirmed by Dick, I’ve been more convinced that the angel gripping my hand was God’s way of sustaining me and letting me know that he would not let go of me no matter how hard things became.
I may not feel that hand each day, but I know that hand is there.