Howard Storm tells Rory Fitzgerald about the near-death experience that turned him from a cynical professor into a devout pastor
Howard Storm was an atheist until he had an extraordinary near-death experience. After that, everything changed. Indeed, he is now a Christian minister. His book, My Descent into Death, shot to prominence globally after the novelist Anne Rice called it “a book you devour from cover to cover, and pass on to others”.
She added that “Storm was meant to write it and we were meant to read it.”
Storm recently spoke to me from his home in Kentucky. He recounted going out to San Francisco in 1967, aged 19, in pursuit of the hippy dream.
“We earnestly were going to create a culture of peace and love,” he says, but “because it was so hedonistic and anarchistic it was doomed to failure. We soon began to see our contemporaries being destroyed by the excesses of drugs and sexuality.”
Disillusioned by hippiedom, religion and mainstream American society, he became increasingly nihilistic. He says he turned to “total narcissism: I’m no longer interested in changing the world … I’m going to live for myself.”
Storm rose through academia and took a job as a professor of art in Kentucky where he says that the overwhelming majority of the faculty were atheists and hedonists.
“Being cynical gives you a false and inflated sense of superiority,” he says. “You can look down on all the ignorant fools who go to church and believe in religion.
“The sad part of it is we conveyed those attitudes to our students. Many students came from homes where faith was valued. After a few short years in university they had nothing but contempt for faith. I think it was a horrible thing that we did.”
Storm’s life changed during a field trip to Europe in 1985. One morning, aged 38, he collapsed in his hotel room with a perforated duodenum. No surgeon could be found, and after hours in agony he “knew that it was over” as he fell unconscious.
“I fully expected that to be it: lights out, end of story,” he says. “Then, I found myself standing next to my bed, feeling wonderful. My senses were very heightened. The pain was gone. I tried to communicate with my wife. I thought she was ignoring me. I also noticed an occupant in my bed who bore a remarkable resemblance to me. I knew that person was dead.
“Then I heard people calling me from outside the room, saying: ‘It’s time for you to go. Hurry up. Let’s go.’ They said: ‘We know all about you. We’ve been waiting for you.’ I thought they were from the hospital.”
But when he stepped out into this “hallway” it was “very dim, grey and fuzzy, like a really bad black-and-white television picture”.
He says: “I went in to this hallway and had a very clear sense that the ‘portal’ back into the room was somehow closed. I could never go back. The people led me away, and the hallway subtly became darker and darker and darker over a long period of time. Eventually, I realised that I was in complete darkness, encircled by a crowd of people and overcome with fear. I said to them: ‘I want to go back.’ And they started pushing and pulling at me. The more I fought, the better they liked it. They were biting and scratching and tearing at me, all the while yelling and screaming.
“Later on, I realised that they were people like me, who had rejected God and had lived for their own selfish gratification. Their wish had come true: this is what they had. In the place they inhabit there’s no light, no birds, no joy, no hope, no love… a bunch of rats in a cage.”
They screamed and tortured him for an age, he says. “Eventually, I was too ripped up and defeated to do anything. I was solid pain. The real pain is the emotional pain. They did things that I don’t talk about… degrading things.
“I was lying there, when I heard a voice say: ‘Pray to God.’ I said: ‘I don’t pray. I don’t believe in God.’ Then, it came a second time; and a third: ‘Pray to God.’
“So, tried to think of a prayer. I started to mumble some things. A mention of God came into a few of these phrases. With each mention the people around me became very, very angry, and started screaming at me: ‘There is no God’ and ‘Nobody can hear you.’ It angered them so much that they were retreating from me. The mention of God was unbearable to them.” Encouraged, he mumbled other jumbled half-remembered phrases: “Glory, glory hallelujah, God Bless America, Our Father who art in heaven…”
Eventually, he found himself alone in this dark place. Thinking over his life he found it gravely wanting. He felt he deserved to be where he was.
“I felt that there was some kind of justice in the universe and that if you lead a miserable life you go down the sewer pipe of the universe into the septic tank. And that’s where I was. Yet I knew I hadn’t been flushed down into the deeper part, just yet.
“In that state of hopelessness I had a memory of myself as a child in Sunday school, singing ‘Jesus Loves Me’. I also had a vivid feeling of being a child and feeling that there was a wonderful God-man named Jesus who was my friend and who loved me. With real sincerity, I called out: ‘Jesus, please save me.’ With that, a tiny light appeared in the darkness and it came down over me. Out of this light came two hands. They reached down and touched me, and all the gore and filth that was me just fell away.
“In two or three seconds I was healed and filled with an indescribable love. In this world there is no equivalent to that kind of love. These arms picked me up and brought me into this brilliant light. I was held against the body of this man. I knew that he was Jesus. I cried.
“We were moving straight up, faster and faster towards the world of light. It dawned on me then that everything I had believed in was wrong, and I was going to where God lived. I thought: ‘They’ve made a terrible mistake. I don’t deserve this. I’m garbage.’”
At that thought, “we stopped, and he spoke to me for the first time, and said: ‘We don’t make mistakes. You do belong here.’ He had responded to my thought. He laughed and said: ‘I know what you’re thinking. I know everything you’ve ever thought.’ Then he called out in musical tones and a group of beings of light – angels – who had recorded my life came. They began to show me my life, starting with my birth.”
Storm says they showed him scenes he had no memory of, like being a baby and his sisters playing with him. But as his life unfolded into adolescence and adulthood “things started going downhill”.
“It became painful, because I saw that when I did bad things, I knew that it caused Jesus and the angels actual pain. It hurt them.
“So, here I am hanging in space, between the worlds of light and dark, watching my life. I am being held by Jesus, but I can see that I caused him actual unhappiness. It was just so shameful.”
He says that “the only thing they showed me was how I interacted with people”. They showed no interest in his awards, promotions or other worldly achievements.
“It became evident that the primary thing was how I had loved other people. I had done very poorly. I had failed God’s expectations of what I was supposed to be doing, which was caring for other people.”
As to how long this process took, Storm says that “there was no perception of time”, but “when I try to frame it in our time, I say, it took longer than graduate school, which for me was three and a half years”.
Eventually, he was told he wasn’t ready for heaven and would have to go back to earth. “I was very upset,” he says.
Reluctantly, after some resistance, he accepted his fate. Then, instantaneously, he was back in his body in that Paris hospital, being prepared for surgery.
Afterwards his life changed utterly. He could no longer go back to his old ways. His friends met his story with “rejection, ridicule and scorn”. But he found new friends at Bible study groups. Gradually he became more and more involved in his church, eventually becoming a minister in the United Church of Christ. In this capacity he works closely with Catholic Church in Latin America. He argues that “God sees the Church as one Church” and that “all the divisions are manmade”.
This one Church, he says, “should be out there risking their pretty vestments”, pursuing those lost souls, gripped by the nihilism and atheism, now running rampant across the western world.
For more information about Howard Storm, visit Howardstorm.com.