Art professor Howard Storm didn’t believe in the afterlife or anything beyond what he could experience with his five senses, but that was before he died.
Howard was 38 years old, a successful artist, and a university professor and chairman of the art department when he had a near-death experience following a ruptured bowel.
Lying in agony in a Paris hospital, he knew he was going to die and was filled with fear because he was an atheist and didn't know what to expect. He told his wife of 20 years, Marcia, to say goodbye because he couldn't cope with the pain anymore and the hospital couldn't get a surgeon to see him until the next day.
"Then I went unconscious for a few minutes. When I opened my eyes I was standing next to the bed, fully aware of the situation, feeling alive and more real than I do now," he shares on a YouTube testimony. He got angry with his wife for not listening to him when he spoke and couldn't accept that the body lying in the bed was him, although he saw its face.
"I thought, 'This is too weird. It can't be happening. This is impossible'," he recalls.
Then Howard heard soft voices outside the room calling him to "Come quickly. Come with us now".
Howard left the room, which he said was bright and clear, and entered the hallway, which was murky, grey, and close. He said it felt like he followed these people for a very long time, and all the time it was getting darker and the people were getting more unfriendly and aggressive.
Eventually it was pitch black and Howard was absolutely terrified and started to resist going any further. Then the people turned on him, biting and tearing at him. He sensed they got pleasure from inflicting as much pain and humiliation on him as they could. "There were hundreds of them, like a beehive," Howard recounts, saying he cannot go into details of what they did to him because it was too degrading.
Howard says he knew in that moment that this treatment was deserved and just, and that these people were just like him, selfish and cruel, who were now in a place of such selfishness and cruelty that they were doomed to inflict it on themselves and others forever.
"And now I was a part of it and that seemed right, like that was what I deserved because of how I had lived," he admits.
Then Howard heard his own voice telling him, "Pray to God," even though he didn't believe in God.
He tried to remember the prayers he had been taught in Sunday school because he assumed prayer was repeating a formula. "Our Father who art in Heaven... The Lord is my Shepherd ... For what we are about to receive ...", Howard cobbled together a prayer of everything he could remember and the most startling thing happened.
"Every time I mentioned God it was like I was throwing boiling water on the people attacking me. They would shriek and yell, swearing horribly, and back away until, eventually, they were gone and I lay alone in the dark for what felt like an eternity," Howard tells.
"Then an image came into my mind of myself as a little child in a Sunday School class singing 'Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so'." And he realized there was a time in his life when he had believed in Someone all good and all powerful, who loved him. He realized he wanted that belief, that truth that he had lost, back.
"I called out, 'Jesus, save me!' and He came," Howard narrates, "first as a speck of light, then brighter and brighter until it would have consumed me if it had been in this world. And Jesus reached down out of the light and lifted me up and I could see in the light that I looked like road kill, all dirty and bloody. But as Jesus touched me I was made clean and whole."
And inside Howard felt filled with love. "It is difficult to articulate. It is the best thing that has ever happened to me in my life but I can't describe it," he says emotionally.
Jesus embraced him like a child, rubbing his back, and Howard "bawled like a baby". Then Jesus carried him out of there into a world of light.
Howard was filled with thoughts of tremendous shame. "I thought of myself as dirt, garbage, filth," he recalls, "I thought: 'He's made a mistake. I don't belong here. He doesn't really want me'."
Then Jesus stopped and said to Howard: "We don't make mistakes. You belong here".
Howard says he and Jesus talked and discussed his life and he realized that the whole purpose of his existence was to love God and to love others. Jesus said he wasn't ready for Heaven yet and had to live for God in this world first.
"Heaven is the most interesting and fun place, everyone would want to be there," Howard says, "I didn't want to come back. I thought my heart would break. I said: 'I can't live in the world alone, without You.' And Jesus replied "We [the Father, Son and Holy Spirit] have always been there. You have never been alone. If you confess your sins, you will feel Our presence in your heart."
Then Howard woke up in hospital and was miraculously able to have surgery soon afterwards.
Now the former atheist is a church pastor and has written two books about his experience: My Descent to Death (2000) and the recently released Lessons Learned, available on Amazon, and sells the paintings he creates to glorify God on his website www.howardstorm.com .
With hindsight, Howard now knows: "Whether I have been near to God or running away from God, I know that the Lord has always been near to me and that relationship is what I have always been seeking.
"God has given us the physical experience of this world to prepare us to choose what we want to do for eternity. We were created as spiritual beings to be with Jesus in heaven forever. God is not in the punishment business, God is in the love business. People choose hell. My encouragement to you is to choose God!"•