The drive always seemed so long as I sat sandwiched between my two parents in the front of our station wagon (my other five siblings having reserved the better seats in the back and the “very back”).
Faithful to the nature of a child, I would intermittently let out the tiresome plea, “Are we there yet?”
But really, I didn’t mind the journey. Fields of yellow and golden-brown tassels bending in the valley breeze give way to fresh forests of sweet-smelling pine.
The wide freeway leads into a narrow winding road, the mountain jutted up on one side. On the other, a thin guardrail borders the edge. Beyond that border, the landscape speeds by. A cluster of trees one moment, each one gnarled and bent by a thousand seasons. A sheer drop off the next minute, the vast valley lying below, shrouded by a grey blanket of smog.
The journey that first seemed to stretch endlessly is nearly over as the toll booth signals the entrance to Yosemite.
Still, the road continues, the pleasant breeze mingling with our lofty thoughts and plans for the day. Another plaintive call, “Are we there yet?”
Now, hills and trees close in the view on either side. Nothing can be seen for a few miles beyond the dense cover, yet we drive on.
There, ahead of us now, the tunnel.
I dread the tunnel.
The cool breeze is suddenly grey, stark, and lifeless.
Sometimes odd shrieks and bellows echo off the eerily luminescent stone walls.
But finally, a pin of light shines in the distance.
Getting larger now…
The brightness almost overwhelms me and I have to shade my eyes for a moment.
We are on the other side.
My dad pulls over to the left and we all tumble out of the car. The small parking area overlooks what is arguably the most gorgeous viewpoint in all of Yosemite. White fleece sprinkled among the vast blue backdrops Half Dome, which in itself stands as a backdrop to a scene of mountains, hills, waterfalls and pine forests.
The best thing is that the day has only just begun. Eager hikes and the adventurous explorations that only the great wild can promise. Misty walkways and powerful waterfalls sliding down the rock’s face as if in slow motion. Rushing streams and breathtaking plunges into the ice cold water. Picnic lunch upon a gentle meadow. Glimpses of wildlife, as a gentle doe stands still, watching with concern, her fawns frolicking in the clearing. The day is filled with photos and fun.
It has only just begun.
* * *
I was talking with a new friend the other day and the topic turned to death. I asked him what he thought of the concept of life after death.
“There is nothing after death. It’s just darkness. It’s the end. That’s it.”
I considered it for a moment, and felt overcome with sadness at the very thought. I imagined, for a moment, that long journey, its twists and turns and sights … but without the anticipation of something beyond the tunnel. Driving all that way and then stopping at the looming darkness ahead.
That’s it. It’s over. Nothing but dreary shadow and bleak, cold blackness.
But there is more ahead than darkness. Even if you’ve never been there yourself, doesn’t the picture in your mind create a deep desire to see it, to experience the wonders of a day surrounded by nature’s magic?
To make that journey with joy and eager anticipation?
To venture through the tunnel because you know there is so much more beyond it?
But how can we know what is beyond death’s door? Has anyone been there who can tell us, with certainty, what awaits us there?
There are many who have approached death’s door, maybe during a severe sickness or a life-threatening accident. Some have slipped beyond for a moment and then returned to share what they have seen. It is called the near death experience.
What do these people say about that place some call the afterlife and others call Heaven?
A four-year-old boy, who had a vivid near-death-experience recounts the time in Heaven to his father, in the book Heaven is for Real:
“That’s where all the rainbow colors are. … Everyone kind of looks like angels in heaven. All the people have a light above their head. … God is the biggest one there is. And he really, really loves us, Dad. You can’t belieeeeve how much he loves us! … God and Jesus light up heaven. It never gets dark. It’s always bright. … Jesus told me he died on the cross so we could go see his Dad.”
Don Piper also recalls the brilliance of color and light in his experience, in 90 Minutes in Heaven:
“Heaven’s light and texture defy earthly eyes or explanation. Warm, radiant light engulfed me. As I looked around, I could hardly grasp the vivid, dazzling colors. Every hue and tone surpassed anything I had ever seen. … Never, even in my happiest moments, had I ever felt so fully alive. … I felt loved—more loved than ever before in my life. … As brilliant as everything was, each time I stepped forward, the splendor increased. The farther I walked, the brighter the light. The light engulfed me, and I had the sense that I was being ushered into the presence of God.”
Ian McCormack, while scuba diving in Mauritius, was stung five times by the box jellyfish—the second deadliest creature known to man. He passed through death’s door before returning with his story, told in The Final Frontier:
“At the moment of deepest blackness, a brilliant light shone upon me and drew me straight out. As I was drawn up into the light, it seemed to touch my face and encase my entire body, as if it had pierced into the deepest darkness and pulled me out. Looking back I was able to see the darkness fading on either side, and could feel the power and presence of this light drawing me up into a circular opening far above me, like a speck of dust caught up in a brilliant beam of sunlight. Almost immediately, I entered the opening and, looking down the tunnel, I could see the source of the light. The radiance, the power and purity that was flowing from it was awesome. I felt the most wonderful peace go right through me. This was total peace. In my past I had sought for peace in education, in sport, in travel, in almost every venue possible, yet it had eluded me. This, however, was a living peace.”
Light, once more, is the part most clearly remembered. Not just any light. It was alive, pulsating, and filled with love.
“I saw a pinpoint of light in the distance. The black mass around me began to take on more of the shape of a tunnel, and I felt myself traveling through it at an even greater speed, rushing toward the light. As I approached it, I noticed the figure of a man standing in it, with the light radiating all around him. … I felt as if I had stepped into his countenance, and I felt an utter explosion of love. It was the most unconditional love I have ever felt, and as I saw his arms open to receive me I went to him and received his complete embrace and said over and over, “I’m home. I’m finally home.” … There was no questioning who he was. I knew that he was my Savior, and friend, and God. He was Jesus Christ, who had always loved me. He was life itself, love itself, and his love gave me a fullness of joy, even to overflowing.”
Those words were written by Bettie Eadie in her bestselling book Embraced by the Light.
The words mirror something promised years ago by someone who knew His time on earth was short.
“In my Father’s house are many mansions. I go to prepare a place for you. … I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also” (John 14:2, 3).
He suffered the darkness, entered the tunnel and came out on the other side. And there, He prepares a home…a forever home, where what awaits us is so great that “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” (1 Cor. 2:9).
I’m pretty sure, though, that it will be better than a view of Half Dome on the clearest spring day.
And I think that whatever we see in that first glimpse of eternity will only be the beginning.
We’ll have eternity to explore the rest.