In some near-death experiences, people report they were drawn toward “the light.” But in this horrifying near-death experience for an atheist art professor, he was drawn into the darkness of hell, which dramatically altered the course of his life.
“I was a double atheist,” says Howard Storm, who became a tenured art professor at Northern Kentucky University by age 27. “I was a know-it-all college professor, and universities are some of the most closed-minded places there are,” he notes.
On the last day of a three-week European art tour he led, his group had returned to their hotel in Paris after a visit to the artist Delacroix’s home and studio. As Howard stood in his room with his wife and another student, suddenly he screamed and dropped to the floor in agony.
“I had a perforation of the small stomach, known as the duodenum,” he recalls. At first, Howard thought he was shot, and he glanced around the room to see if he could spot a smoking gun. As he writhed in pain on the ground, kicking and screaming, his wife called for a doctor.
“They said I needed surgery immediately,” Howard says. “It’s like having a burst appendix. I was told that if they don’t get to it within five hours, you’re probably going to die.”
Howard had the misfortune of a falling ill on a Saturday in a country with socialized medicine, and no doctor could be found. “French doctors do seven surgeries a week, and after they do the seven surgeries, they take the weekend off,” he discovered.
They placed him on a bed without sheets or a pillow and offered no pain medication. He waited in the room for 10 hours. “I was just lying there going south,” Howard says. Meanwhile, intestinal contents were leaking into his abdominal cavity, which would soon lead to peritonitis, septic shock and certain death.
At 8:30 p.m. a nurse came in and said they were still unable to find a doctor, but they would try to find one the next day, Sunday.
“I had been struggling very hard to stay alive, but when she said there was no doctor, I knew it was time to stop fighting,” Howard says.
Yet the thought of death scared him. “I was terrified of dying because it meant lights out, the end of the story,” he notes. “It seemed horrible that at 38-years-old, when I felt powerful and successful in my life, it would all come to an end in such a ridiculously pitiful way.”
Howard made an impassioned farewell to his wife, and told her to tell their friends and the rest of his family goodbye. Then he lost consciousness.
It wasn’t long after he lost consciousness that he had a very unusual out-of-body experience, and found himself standing next to his bed, looking at himself lying there. As he stood there, he noticed he didn’t feel the pain in his stomach. He felt more alive than ever, and his senses seemed more heightened than usual.
He tried to communicate with his wife and another man in the room, but they didn’t respond, which frustrated him. “I was glad I didn’t have the pain, but also I was very confused and disturbed by the situation.”
“I saw my body lying on the bed, but I refused to believe it was me. How could that be me if I was standing there,” he wondered.
Suddenly he heard people outside the room calling for him by name. They spoke English, without a French accent, which seemed strange, because everyone in the hospital either spoke French or heavily accented English.
“Come with us,” they said. “Hurry up, let’s go.”
Howard went to the doorway. “Are you from the doctor?” he asked. “I need to have surgery. I’m sick and I’ve been waiting a long time.”
“We know all about you,” one said. “We’ve been waiting for you. It’s time for you to go. Hurry up.”
Howard left the room and started to walk with them down a long hallway, which was very dimly lit – almost dingy. “They took me on a very long journey through a grey space that got increasingly darker and darker,” he recalls.
They walked a long time, and Howard wondered why he was not tired when he had just suffered the worst day of his life.
“Where are we going? Howard asked. “How come it’s taking so long? What is the doctor’s name?”
“Shut up,” one said. “Be quiet,” another said. “Don’t ask questions.”
Howard’s fear and apprehension grew at the same time he lost trust in his guides. “Finally it was so dark I was terrified and I said, ‘I’m not going any farther. I want to go back.”
“You’re almost there,” one replied.
Howard dug in his heels. “I’m not going any farther,” he said firmly.
A fight ensues
His guides began to push and pull at him. Howard fought back, but he was horribly outnumbered.
“We had a big fight and the fight turned into them annihilating me, which they did slowly and with much relish,” he says. “Mostly they were biting and tearing at me. This went on for a long time. They did other things to humiliate and violate me which I don’t talk about.”
When Howard was no longer “amusing” to them, he collapsed on the ground, ripped apart, unable to move.
He lay there motionless for a few moments, completely spent. Then he was surprised by a small voice inside his head that said, ‘Pray to God.’
He thought, ‘I don’t pray. I don’t even believe in God.’
Then he heard the voice a second time, ‘Pray to God.’
‘But I wouldn’t know how to pray even if I wanted to pray,’ he thought. Whose voice was this, he wondered? It sounded like his voice, but the words were completely foreign to his own thinking.
Then he heard the voice a third time repeat the same message. His mind drifted back to his days in Sunday school as a child. “I tried to remember things I memorized when I was very young,” he says. He struggled to think of something he could pray.
Then he managed to blurt out, “The Lord is my shepherd and I shall not want…”
When the people around him heard his attempt to pray, they became enraged. “There is no God and nobody can hear you,” they cried, along with other obscenities. “If you keep praying we will really hurt you.”
But Howard noticed something curious. The more he prayed and began to mention God, the more they backed away from him.
Emboldened, he began to shout out bits and pieces of the Lord’s Prayer, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and “God Bless America.” Finally, he was screaming any fragments of God’s truth he could muster from the moldy recesses of his memory bank.
It seemed to work! Even in the darkness, he could tell they had fled, but not too far away.
As he lay there, Howard began to review his life. “I came to the conclusion I led a crummy life and I had gone down the sewer pipe of the universe. I had gone into the septic tank with other human garbage. I was being processed by the garbage people into garbage like them.”
“Whatever life was supposed to be about, I missed it,” he thought. “What I received was what I deserved and the people who attacked me were people like me. They were my kindred spirits. Now I will be stuck with them forever.” Feelings of self-loathing and hopelessness filled his mind.
His thoughts floated back again to himself as a nine-year-old in Sunday School, “I remembered myself singing “Jesus Loves Me,” and I could feel it inside me. As a child, I thought Jesus was really cool and he was my buddy and he would take care of me.”
“But even if Jesus is real, why would he care about me? he thought. “He probably hates my guts. I’m not going to think anymore; I’m going to ask him.”
“I’ve got nothing else to lose. I’ll give Jesus a try.”
A cry for help
Then he yelled into the darkness, “Jesus, please save me!”
Within an instant, a brilliant light appeared that came closer and closer. He found himself bathed in a beautiful light, and for the first time he could clearly see his own body’s miserable condition, ghastly for his own eyes to behold. “I was almost all gore.”
Immediately he recognized Jesus, the King of Kings, the Rescuer, the Deliverer. “His arms reached down and touched me and everything healed up and came back together,” he recalls. “He filled me with a love I never knew existed.”
Then he picked up Howard, like one football player picking up a fallen teammate on the field, put his arms around him, and Howard cried like a baby in His arms. “He carried me out of there and we headed to where God lives.”
In his mind, Howard began to think that Jesus made a terrible mistake. “I’m garbage and I don’t belong in heaven,” he thought.
They stopped moving, and both Howard and Jesus were hanging in space, somewhere between heaven and hell. “We don’t make mistakes,” Jesus said tenderly.
“He could read everything in my mind and put His voice into my head,” Howard recalls. “We had very rapid, instantaneous conversations.”
Then Jesus told Howard He had angels who would show him his life. “It was a terrible experience because my life deteriorated after adolescence. I saw I became a selfish, unloving person. I was successful, a full tenured art professor at 27, the department head, but I was a jerk.”
In this replay, he saw his heavy drinking and adultery. “I cheated on my wife proudly. It was horrible.”
For the first time he realized the way he lived his life hurt Jesus. “I was in the arms of the most wonderful, holy, loving, kind person and we’re looking at this stuff. Embarrassing doesn’t even begin to describe it.”
As they watched together, Howard could see the pain and disappointment on the face of Jesus. “When I did these things it was like sticking a knife into his heart.”
“Do you have any questions?” Jesus asked.
“I have a million questions,” Howard replied, and proceeded to unburden himself of anything and everything he could imagine asking an omniscient being. Jesus answered Howard’s questions kindly and patiently.
When Howard couldn’t think of anything else to ask, he said, “I’m ready to go to heaven now.”
“You’re not going to heaven. You’re going back to the world,” Jesus replied.
Howard began to argue, but it was to no avail. Jesus told him to go back and live his life differently.
At 9:00 p.m., Howard was back in his hospital room in Paris. Less than 30 minutes had elapsed since he lost consciousness.
As Howard opened his eyes, he heard the nurse say, “The doctor arrived at the hospital and you’re going to have the surgery.”
As they wheeled him out of his room on a gurney, he saw his wife in the hallway. “Everything is going to be really good now,” he said to her. When she heard him, she cried, thinking they were brave words.
When Howard emerged from surgery, with the effects of the anesthesia wearing off, he spoke to his wife. “It’s all love,” he told her. “You don’t have to suffer anymore.”
“You need to sleep,” she replied, thinking he was slightly addled from the drugs. Then he awakened again and began to tell her about Jesus and the angels and heaven and hell.
“She was an atheist and she didn’t like it. She thought I lost my mind.” Sadly, Howard’s marriage ended in divorce after she left him many years later.
When his strength returned, Howard began to devour the Bible. “Since none of my atheist friends believed me, I started memorizing verses and I would give them Bible lectures, but that didn’t go over very well,” he recalls.
He grew “desperate” for fellowship in a church, and began to attend Christ Church in Fort Thomas, Kentucky, part of United Church of Christ. Howard’s pastor worked with him patiently, and after three years, Howard was ordained as a lay minister in his church.
Sensing a deeper call into ministry, he attended United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio and later pastored a church in Covington, Ohio.
He also wrote a book about his experience, “My Descent Into Death,” which he says was written primarily to non-believers.
Howard and his second wife, Marcia, a strong Christian, are both involved in missionary work in Belize. He maintains a passion for painting, with much of his art devoted to spiritual themes.
By Mark Ellis