In December 1943, during World War II, twenty year old Dr. George Ritchie died of pneumonia. Nine minutes later, he returned to life to tell of his near-death experience. His experience in eternity is one of the most complete descriptions to date. He visited many different planes of existence, only a few of which are described here. The following are excerpts from his books, Return From Tomorrow and My Life After Dying.
Out of body experience
The men let go of my arms ... I heard a click and a whirr. The whirr went on and on. It was getting louder. The whirr was inside my head and my knees were made of rubber. They were bending and I was falling and all the time the whirr grew louder.
I sat up with a start. What time was it? I looked at the bedside table but they'd taken the clock away. In fact, were was any of my stuff?
I jumped out of bed in alarm, looking for my clothes. My uniform wasn't on the chair. I turned around, then froze.
Someone was lying in that bed.
I took a step closer. He was quite a young man, with short brown hair, lying very still. But, the thing was impossible! I myself had just gotten out of that bed! For a moment I wrestled with the mystery of it. It was too strange to think about - and anyway I didn't have the time.
I went back past the offices and stepped out into the corridor. A sergeant was coming along it carrying an instrument tray covered with a cloth. Probably he didn't know anything, but I was so glad to find someone awake that I started toward him.
"Excuse me, Sergeant," I said. "You haven't seen the ward boy for this unit, have you?"
He didn't answer. Didn't even glance at me. He just kept coming, straight at me, not slowing down.
"Look out!" I yelled, jumping out of his way.
The next minute he was past me, walking away down the corridor as if he had never seen me, though how we had kept from colliding I didn't know.
And then I saw something that gave me a new idea. Farther down the corridor was one of the heavy metal doors that led to the outside. I hurried toward it. Even if I had missed that train, I'd find some way of getting to Richmond!
Almost without knowing it I found myself outside, racing swiftly along, traveling faster in fact than I'd ever moved in my life.
Looking down I was astonished to see not the ground, but the tops of mesquite bushes beneath me. Already Camp Barkeley seemed to be far behind me as I sped over the dark frozen desert. My mind kept telling me that what I was doing was impossible, and yet ... it was happening.
I was going to Richmond; somehow I had known that from the moment I burst through that hospital door. Going to Richmond a hundred times faster than any train on earth could take me.
Almost immediately I noticed myself slowing down. Just below me now, where two streets came together, I caught a flickering blue glow. It came from a neon sign over the door of a red-roofed one-story building with a "Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer" sign propped in the front window. "Cafe," the jittering letters over the door read, and from the windows light streamed onto the pavement.
Staring down at it, I realized I had stopped moving altogether. Finding myself somehow suspended fifty feet in the air was an even stranger feeling than the whirlwind flight had been. But I had no time to puzzle over it, for down the sidewalk toward the all-night cafe a man came briskly walking. At least, I thought, I could find out from him what town this was and in what direction I was heading. Even as the idea occurred to me - as though thought and motion had become the same thing - I found myself down on the sidewalk, hurrying along at the stranger's side. He was a civilian, maybe forty or forty-five, wearing a topcoat but no hat. He was obviously thinking hard about something because he never glanced my way as I fell into step beside him.
"Can you tell me, please," I said, "what city this is?"
He kept right on walking.
"Please sir!" I said, speaking louder, "I'm a stranger here and I'd appreciate it if - "
We reached the cafe and he turned, reaching for the door handle. Was the fellow deaf? I put out my left hand to tap his shoulder.
There was nothing there.
I stood there in front of the door, gaping after him as he opened it and disappeared inside. It had been like touching thin air. Like no one had been there at all. And yet I had distinctly seen him, even to the beginnings of a black stubble on his chin where he needed a shave.
I backed away from the mystery of the substance-less man and leaned up against the guy wire of a telephone pole to think things through. My body went through that guy wire as though it too had not been there.
There on the sidewalk of that unknown city, I did some incredulous thinking. The strangest, most difficult thinking I had ever done. The man in the cafe, this telephone pole ... suppose they were perfectly normal. Suppose I was the one who was - changed, somehow. What if in some impossible, unimaginable way, I lost my ... hardness. My ability to grasp things, to make contact with the world. Even to be seen! The fellow just now. It was obvious he never saw or heard me.
And suddenly I remembered the young man I had seen in the bed in that little hospital room. What if that had been ... me? Or anyhow, the material, concrete part of myself that in some unexplainable way I'd gotten separated from. What if the form which I had left lying in the hospital room in Texas was my own?
And if it were, how could I get back to it again? Why had I ever rushed off so unthinkingly?
I was moving again, speeding away from the city. Below me was the broad river. I appeared to be going back, back in the direction I had come from, and it seemed to me I was flashing across space even faster than before. Hills, lakes, farms slipped away beneath me as I sped in an unswerving straight line over the dark nighttime land.
I was standing in front of the base hospital.
And so began one of the strangest searches that can ever have taken place: the search for myself. From one ward to another of that enormous complex I rushed, pausing in each small room, stooping over the occupant of the bed, hurrying on.
I backed toward the doorway. The man in that bed was dead! I felt the same reluctance I had the previous time at being in a room with a dead person. But ... if that was my ring, then - then it was me, the separated part of me, lying under that sheet. Did that mean that I was ...
It was the first time in this entire experience that the world "death" occurred to me in connection with what was happening.
But I wasn't dead! How could I be dead and still be awake? Thinking. Experiencing. Death was different. Death was ... I didn't know. Blanking out. Nothingness. I was me, wide awake, only without a physical body to function in.
Frantically I clawed at the sheet, trying to draw it back, trying to uncover the figure on the bed. All my efforts did not even stir a breeze in the silent little room.
Suddenly I was aware that it was brighter, a lot brighter, than it had been. I stared in astonishment as the brightness increased, coming from nowhere, seeming to shine everywhere at once. All the light bulbs in the ward couldn't give off that much light. All the bulbs in the world couldn't! It was impossibly bright: it was like a million welders' lamps all blazing at once. 'I'm glad I don't have physical eyes at this moment,' I thought. 'This light would destroy the retina in a tenth of a second.'
No, I corrected myself, not the light. He. He would be too bright to look at. For now I saw that it was not light but a Man who had entered the room, or rather, a Man made out of light, though this seemed no more possible to my mind than the incredible intensity of the brightness that made up His form.
The instant I perceived him, a command formed itself in my mind. "Stand up!" The words came from inside me, yet they had an authority my mere thoughts had never had. I got to my feet and as I did came the stupendous certainty: 'You are in the presence of the Son of God.'
If this was the Son of God, then his name was Jesus. This person was power itself, older than time and yet more modern than anyone I had ever met.
Above all, with that same mysterious inner certainty, I knew that this man loved me. Far more even than power, what emanated from this Presence was unconditional love. An astonishing love. A love beyond my wildest imagining. This love knew every unlovable thing about me - the quarrels with my stepmother, my explosive temper, the sex thoughts I could never control, every mean, selfish thought and action since the day I was born - and accepted me just the same.
The Life Review
When I say He knew everything about me, this was simply an observable fact. For into that room along with his radiant presence - simultaneously, though in telling about it I have to describe them one by one - had also entered every single episode of my entire life. Everything that had ever happened to me was simply there, in full view, contemporary and current, all seemingly taking place at the same time. Every detail of twenty years of living was there to be looked at. The good, the bad, the high points, the run-of-the-mill. And with this all-inclusive view came a question. It was implicit in every scene and, like the scenes themselves, seemed to proceed from the living Light beside me.
"What did you do with your life?"
Desperately I looked around me for something that would seem worthwhile in the light of this blazing Reality. But there was only an endless, short-sighted, clamorous concern for myself. Hadn't I ever gone beyond my own immediate interests, done anything other people would recognize as valuable?
And all at once the question itself built up in me. It wasn't fair! Of course I hadn't done anything with my life! I hadn't had time. How could you judge a person who hadn't even started?
The answering thought, however, held no trace of judgment. 'Death,' the word was infinitely loving, 'can come at any age.'
'What about the insurance money coming when I'm seventy?' The words were out, in this strange realm where communication took place by thought instead of speech, before I could call them back.
If I'd suspected before that there was mirth in the Presence beside me, now I was sure of it: the brightness seemed to vibrate and shimmer with a kind of holy laughter - not at me and my silliness, not a mocking laughter, but a mirth that seemed to say that in spite of all error and tragedy, joy was more lasting still.
And in the ecstasy of that laughter I realized that it was I who was judging the events around us so harshly. It was I who saw them as trivial, self-centered, unimportant. No such condemnation came from the Glory shining around me. He was not blaming or reproaching. He was simply ... loving me. Filling the world with Himself and yet somehow attending to me personally. Waiting for my answer to the question that still hung in the dazzling air. 'What have you done with your life to show me?'
The question, like everything else proceeding from Him, had to do with love. How much have you loved with your life? Have you loved others as I am loving you? Totally? Unconditionally?
Hearing the question like that, I saw how foolish it was even to try to find an answer in the scenes around us. Why, I hadn't known love like this was possible. Someone should have told me, I thought indignantly!
"I did tell you."
But how? Still wanting to justify myself: how could He have told me and I not heard?
"I told you by the life I lived. I told you by the death I died. And, if you keep your eyes on me, you will see more ... "
The Plane of Hell
We were moving again. We had left the Navy base with its circumference of seedy streets and bars, and were now standing, in this dimension where travel seemed to take no time at all, on the edge of a wide, flat plain. So far in our journeying we had visited places where the living and the dead existed side by side: indeed where disembodied beings, completely unsuspected by the living, hovered right on top of the physical things and people where their desire was focused.
Now, however, although we were apparently still somewhere on the surface of the earth, I could see no living man or woman. The plain was crowded, even jammed with hordes of ghostly discarnate beings; nowhere was there a solid, light-surrounded person to be seen. All of these thousands of people were apparently no more substantial than I myself. And they were the most frustrated, the angriest, the most completely miserable beings I had ever laid eyes on.
'Lord Jesus!' I cried. 'Where are we?'
At first I thought we were looking at some great battlefield: everywhere spirits were locked in what looked like fights to the death, writhing, punching, gouging. No weapons of any sort, I saw as I looked closer, only bare hands and feet and teeth. And then I noticed that no one was apparently being injured. There was no blood, no bodies strewed the ground. A blow that ought to have eliminated an opponent would leave him exactly as before.
If I suspected that I was seeing hell, now I was sure of it. These creatures seemed locked into habits of mind and emotion, into hatred, lust, destructive thought-patterns.
Even more hideous than the bites and kicks they exchanged, were the sexual abuses many were performing in feverish pantomime. Perversions I had never dreamed of were being vainly attempted all around us. It was impossible to tell if the howls of frustration which reached us were actual sounds or only the transference of despairing thoughts. Indeed in this disembodied world it didn't seem to matter. Whatever anyone thought, however fleetingly or unwillingly, was instantly apparent to all around him, more completely than words could have expressed it, faster than sound waves could have carried it.
And the thoughts most frequently communicated had to do with the superior knowledge, or abilities, or background of the thinker. 'I told you so!' 'I always knew!'
'Didn't I warn you!' were shrieked into the echoing air over and over. With a feeling of sick familiarity I recognized here my own thinking. In these yelps of envy and wounded self-importance I heard myself all to well.
Once again, however, no condemnation came from the Presence at my side, only a compassion for these unhappy creatures that was breaking His heart.
What was keeping them here? Why didn't each one just get up and leave? I could see no reason why the person being screamed at by that man with the contorted face didn't simply walk away. Or why that young woman didn't put a thousand miles between herself and the other one who was so furiously beating her with insubstantial fists? They couldn't actually hold onto their victims, any of these insanely angry beings. There were no fences. Nothing apparently prevented them from simply going off alone.
Unless - unless there was no 'alone' in this realm of disembodied spirits. No private corners in a universe where there were no walls. No place that was not inhabited by other beings to whom one was totally exposed at all times. What was it going to be like, I thought with sudden panic, to live forever where my most private thoughts were not private at all? No disguising them, no covering them up, no way to pretend I was anything but what I actually was. How unbearable. Unless of course everyone around me had the same kind of thoughts - Unless there was a kind of consolation in finding others as loathsome as one's self, even if all we could do was hurl our venom at each other.
Perhaps this was the explanation for this hideous plain. Perhaps in the course of eons or of seconds, each creature here had sought out the company of others as pride and hatefilled as himself, until together they formed this society of the damned.
Perhaps it was not Jesus who had abandoned them, but they who had fled from the Light that showed up their darkness.
There were beings arguing over some religious or political point, trying to kill the ones who did not agree with them. I thought when I saw this, "No wonder our world is in such a mess and we have had so many tragic religious wars. No wonder this was breaking Christ's heart, the One who came to teach us peace and love."
The Temple Of Wisdom
We were moving again. First He had shown me a hellish realm, filled with beings trapped in some form of self-attention. Now behind, beyond, through all this I began to perceive a whole new realm! Enormous buildings stood in a beautiful sunny park that reminded me somewhat of a well-planned university. As we entered one of the buildings and doorways, the air was so hushed that I was actually startled to see people in the passageway.
I could not tell if they were men or women, old or young, for all were covered from head to foot in loose-flowing hooded cloaks which made me think vaguely of monks. But the atmosphere of the place was not at all as I imagined a monastery. It was more like some tremendous study center, humming with the excitement of great discovery. Everyone we passed in the wide halls and on the curving staircases seemed caught up in some all-engrossing activity; not many words were exchanged among them. And yet I sensed no unfriendliness between these beings, rather an aloofness of total concentration.
Whatever else these people might be, they appeared utterly and supremely self-forgetful - absorbed in some vast purpose beyond themselves. Through open doors I glimpsed at enormous rooms filled with complex equipment. In several of the rooms hooded figures bent over intricate charts and diagrams, or sat at the controls of elaborate consoles flickering with lights. Somehow I felt that some vast experiment was being pursued, perhaps dozens and dozens of such experiments.
And something more ... In spite of His obvious delight in the beings around us, I sensed that even this was not the ultimate, that He had far greater things to show me if only I could see.
And so I followed Him into other buildings of this domain of thought. We entered a studio where music of a complexity I couldn't begin to follow was being composed and performed. There were complicated rhythms, tones not on a scale I knew. 'Why,' I found myself thinking. 'Bach is only the beginning!'
Next we walked through a library the size of the whole University of Richmond. I gazed into rooms lined floor to ceiling with documents on parchment, clay, leather, metal, paper. 'Here,' the thought occurred to me, 'are assembled the important books of the universe.'
Immediately I knew this was impossible. How could books be written somewhere beyond the earth! But the thought persisted, although my mind rejected it. 'The key works of the universe,' the phrase kept recurring as we roamed the domed reading rooms crowded with silent scholars. Then abruptly, at the door to one of the smaller rooms, almost an annex: 'Here is the central thought of this earth.'
'Is this ... heaven, Lord Jesus?' I ventured. The calm, the brightness, they were surely heaven-like! So was the absence of self, of clamoring ego. 'When these people were on earth did they grow beyond selfish desires?'
'They grew, and they have kept on growing.' The answer shone like sunlight in that intent and eager atmosphere. But if growth could continue, then this was not all. Then ... there must be something even these serene beings lacked. And suddenly I wondered if it was the same thing missing in the 'lower realm'. Were these selfless seeking creatures also failing in some degree to see Jesus? Or perhaps, to see Him for Himself? Bits and hints of Him they surely had; obviously it was the truth they were so single-mindedly pursuing. But what if even a thirst for truth could distract from the Truth Himself, standing here in their midst while they searched for Him in books and test tubes ...
I didn't know. And next to His unutterable love, my own bewilderment, all the questions I wanted to ask, seemed incidental. Perhaps, I concluded at last, He cannot tell me more than I can see: perhaps there is nothing in me yet that could understand an explanation.
It is this realm which removes forever the concept that we stop learning or progressing in knowledge when we die. I could call this realm the realm of research, or the mental realm or the realm of intellectual, scientific and religious knowledge. All would be correct.
This is the realm where I believe the souls go who have developed the greatest interest in a particular field of life's endeavor, the ones who want to keep on researching and learning more in their particular fields. This gives hope to all people who want to keep learning and have established enough wisdom to realize we have just begun to scratch the surface in any field when we are on the Earth's level of development.
I became aware that the Christ was watching some souls in their study of the universe's religions and saw He did not judge any of them. They too were not judging the religions which they were studying but were interested in the many different ways the beings of the universe had attempted to come to understand their Creator. I suddenly realized how wrong it was for any of us on earth to judge another's approach to God or to feel we have the only answers. The moment that realization came into my mind it was followed by His thought placed in my mind:
"You are right, for if I, LOVE, be lifted up, I shall draw all humanity unto Me. If you come to know the Father, you will come to know Me. If you come to know Me you will come to know that LOVE includes all beings regardless of their race, creeds or color."
The City of God
The central fact, the all-adequate one, remained this Personality at my side. Whatever additional facts He was showing me, He remained every moment the real focus of my attention.
Up until this point I had had the impression that we were traveling - though in what manner I could not imagine - upon the earth itself. Even what I had come to think of as a 'higher plane' of deep thoughts and learning, was obviously not far distant from the 'physical plane' where bodiless beings were still bound to a solid world.
Now however, we seemed to have left the earth behind.
And then I saw, infinitely far off, far too distant to be visible with any kind of sight I knew of - a city. A glowing, seemingly endless city, bright enough to be seen over all the unimaginable distance between. The brightness seemed to shine from the very walls and streets of this place, and from beings which I could now discern moving about within it. In fact, the city and everything in it seemed to be made of light, even as the Figure at my side was made of light.
At this time I had not yet read the Book of Revelation. I could only gape in awe at this faraway spectacle, wondering how bright each building, each inhabitant, must be to be seen over so many light-years of distance. Could these radiant beings, I wondered, amazed, be those who had indeed kept Jesus the focus of their lives? Was I seeing at last ones who had looked for Him in everything? Looked so well and so closely that they had been changed into His very likeness? Even as I asked the question, two of the bright figures seemed to detach themselves from the city and start toward us, hurling themselves across that infinity with the speed of light.
Now this was surprising because this was the first realm in which the inhabitants could see the Christ and me. Even more amazing, they exuded light almost as brilliant as the Christ. As the two beings approached us, I could also feel the love flowing from them toward us. The complete joy they showed at seeing the Christ was unmistakable.
Seeing these beings and feeling the joy, peace and happiness which swelled up from them made me feel that here was the place of all places, the top realm of all realms. The beings who inhabited it were full of love. This, I was and am convinced, is heaven. As marvelous as I thought the previous realm was, after glimpsing this new realm we were seeing, I began to understand for the first time what Paul was saying in 1 Corinthians 13 when he wrote: "If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing".
I do not infer that the wonderful souls of the fourth realm did not have love because they did but not to the degree that the souls of this realm had reached.
But as fast as they came toward us, we drew away. Desperately I cried out to Him not to leave me, to make me ready for that shining city, not to abandon me in this dark and narrow place. From that loneliest moment of my existence I had leapt into the most perfect belonging I had ever known. The Light of Jesus had entered my life and filled it completely, and the idea of being separated from Him was more than I could bear.
Then He did a startling thing. He opened a corridor through time which showed me increasing natural disasters coming upon this earth. There were more and more hurricanes and floods occurring over different areas of our planet. The earthquakes and volcanoes were increasing. We were becoming more and more selfish and self-righteous. Families were splitting, governments were breaking apart because people were thinking only of themselves. I saw armies marching on the United States from the south and explosions occurring over the entire world that were of a magnitude beyond my capacity to imagine. I realized if they continued, human life as we have known it could not continue to exist.
Suddenly this corridor was closed off and a second corridor started to open through time. At the beginning they appeared very similar but the further the second one unfolded, the more different it became. The planet grew more peaceful. Humanity and nature both were better. Humanity was not as critical of himself or others. He was not as destructive of nature and he was beginning to understand what love is. Then we stood at a place in time where we were more like the beings of the fourth and fifth realm. The Lord sent the mental message to me, "It is left to humanity which direction they shall choose. I came to this planet to show you through the life I led how to love. Without OUR FATHER you can do nothing, neither could I. I showed you this. You have 45 years."
He then gave me orders to return to the human plane and mentally said, "You have 45 years." I had no understanding at that moment what he meant by 45 years.
My throat was on fire and the weight on my chest was crushing me.
(Here George Ritchie's death experience ends and he returns to earthly life.)