The Assumption of the Virgin, 1476, Francesco Botticini

Is Heaven real? That question has preoccupied believers and doubters alike for millennia, probably since the concept of an afterlife was introduced in the distant, unrecorded past. With the spread of Christianity over the past 2,000 years, that thought has become ever more central, though NPR says that the afterlife isn’t really mentioned in the Bible’s Old Testament. Furthermore, according to Time, the New Testament’s idea of the afterlife can be surprising, with a more terrestrial focus on Heaven on Earth.

Therefore, those who are convinced that Heaven is real often point to accounts of people who say they’ve actually been there, in addition to scripture. Usually, the visit is precipitated by some traumatic, life-threatening event, like a medical emergency or car crash. With a person’s earthly body out of commission, their consciousness then takes a trip to the great beyond. In other accounts, especially the older ones, an angel may simply show up to take a person on a tour of all the possible afterlives. It was all part of the medieval preoccupation with death and the afterlife, says the British Library. Some of the tales sound like a medieval version of the "scared straight" program, but with literal demons and angels.

For many, these stories of visiting Heaven are comforting and edifying in equal measure. They’ve also generated their fair share of skepticism. We’ll leave that judgement up to you as you read on.

Darryl Perry met the angel Gabriel

Basilica of Wechselburg, angel sculptures

Darryl Perry got a warning. In fact, reports Guideposts, he got multiple messages saying that his time was coming. "Son, you’re going to have to die on my behalf," said one voice. In 2007, after a sudden heart attack, the already God-fearing Perry says he began to float above his body, distantly watching his own wife perform CPR on his unresponsive form.

Abruptly, he found himself in a warm, brightly lit Heaven. He says he was greeted by an angel named Gabriel, who appeared as a huge man with brown skin, dreadlocks, and immense wings. Gabriel never spoke, instead pointing to his own back, which Perry took as a sign to climb on. Gabriel then took Perry on a sort of piggyback sightseeing tour of Heaven, where he saw relatives who had already passed on. Finally, he saw God, whom Perry describes as a bright light with no defined form. All throughout, Perry recalls that he felt completely at peace, though he had previously been deeply reluctant to leave his wife and three children back on Earth.

Eventually, Perry was revived and came back to our realm. Doctors warned his wife, Nicky, that her husband had suffered brain damage and might not be the same. Though he still experienced significant physical effects and required rehabilitation, Perry’s mental faculties appear to be intact. He’s still able to communicate his memory of a serene and profound visit to the afterlife.

A penitent knight saw heaven and hell

Detail from Santa Maria Novella chapel

Tales of journeys through the afterlife have been around for centuries. Page through various manuscripts, and you’ll find a series of penitent and impenitent knights, peasants, religious folk, and more being set on the right path by their visions.

This tale begins with Sir Owain, an Irish knight who’s worried about his soul. He travels to Saint Patrick’s Purgatory, an actual pilgrimage site reportedly visited by Christians since the fifth century C.E. According to The Medieval Pilgrimage to St. Patrick’s Purgatory, writers have mentioned the spot as early as 1180, when Owain’s story was written down. In Owain’s tale, related in History of Religions, he goes through a cave on the island into actual Purgatory. He finds himself in a great field, speaking to a group of 15 men dressed all in white. One says Owain should call on Christ if he’s ever in trouble, which proves helpful later on.

Like many medieval afterlife narratives, Owain spends quite a lot of time wandering through the torments of Hell and Purgatory. Eventually, though, he reaches Paradise, which is full of beautiful sights and sweet smells. Two archbishops tell him that this is actually a fancy waiting room for Heaven. They lead Owain to a mountaintop where he can just see the gates leading to the afterlife. The two men give Owain some heavenly food and then gently tell him to get out of there and tell everyone what he saw.

Crystal McVea says God has a smell

Neulussheim, sunrise, snow, near cemetery

A former skeptic, Crystal McVea claims she went to Heaven after a near-death experience nearly took her from this world. In McVea’s case, that was pancreatitis that eventually led to respiratory arrest in 2009, says Huffington Post.

According to McVea’s account, she closed her eyes during a medical procedure and opened them in Heaven. She says she saw angels and God, who was so overwhelming that she fell to her knees in awe. Human words failed to encompass her vision of the Almighty, who she says is best described as an overwhelming brightness that flooded all of her senses.

In an interview with The Blaze, McVea also says that the angels emitted their own amber-colored light. They communicated with Crystal telepathically. Ultimately, God gave her a choice: stay in joyous bliss in Heaven, or return to her four children on Earth. She initially chose to stay with God, she says, but the sound of her mother’s voice ultimately changed her mind. Just before returning, McVea recalls in her book, Waking up in Heaven, that God commanded her to, "Tell them what you can remember."

Eben Alexander saw butterflies in Heaven

Monarch butterflies resting on rocks

In 2008, Harvard-educated neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander became suddenly and gravely ill after contracting bacterial meningitis. As he writes in Missouri Medicine, the journal of Missouri’s State Medical Association, his descent into a coma was followed by something truly surprising. When he finally emerged from the coma, Eben recalls that he had practically no memory of anything from his life, much less a profound spiritual experience. "I remembered no words … and nothing about being human or existing in this universe," he says.

Eventually, he was able to communicate what he believed was a profound experience of visiting Heaven. It began with what he called an "Earthworm’s Eye View" in his book, Proof of Heaven. From this muddled "subterranean" state, Eben claims he ascended to a higher state of consciousness, accompanied by white light and "perfect" music. Next, Eben says, he entered the "Gateway Valley," a hyper-real place full of colors beyond human understanding, constantly blooming plants, and millions of butterflies, as reported by the Huffington Post. At one point, he says that he rode on a butterfly wing with a beautiful woman who never spoke but instead transmitted thoughts of unconditional love.

He now maintains that there’s no logical explanation for this experience other than the existence of an afterlife. Some, like those at MIT’s Knight Science Journalism, want more concrete evidence, but Eben may not be able to supply the necessary data to push it out of the realm of religion.

Saint Paul experienced multiple heavens

St. Paul statue in front of St. Peters Basilica

Paul the Apostle (also known as Saul) is one of the towering names of early Christianity. After his conversion in the first century CE, he went on to find several Christian communities throughout the Roman Empire. That conversion was reportedly touched off by a visitation from Jesus himself, related in the Book of Acts. Christ appeared as such a bright light that Paul was struck blind for three days.

Paul’s meetings with the Divine didn’t seem to stop there. In several letters to Christian enclaves, he relates other visions, including visits to a complex heavenly afterlife. In one letter, says The Conversation, Paul claims that God appeared to him as a small child who took him to all ten levels of Heaven. The third level is pretty high up, he said, but you can still see Earth from there. Angels hang out on levels four and five, while the sixth heaven is full of light. As the levels grow higher, his descriptions become more vague and esoteric. He also writes that Heaven’s got golden gates and an unidentified greeter at the entrance.

Turns out that Paul isn’t alone in his visions of paradise. According to Biblical Archaeology, there are numerous accounts of people who have beheld Heaven and even gone there, from Enoch, to Moses, to the author of the Bible’s Book of Revelation, John of Patmos.

Priscilla McGill chilled on a cloud

Clouds in the stratosphere

After being hit by a car in 2017, Tennessean Priscilla McGill recalls sitting peacefully on a cloud, according to Knoxville’s 10News. "I just remember like sitting on a cloud in light and peace and calm," she told reporters. It was a welcome change from a short time earlier, when the vehicle that struck her had caused several broken bones, lacerations, and internal injuries. Because of the accident, McGill spent months in the hospital, where her heart stopped beating on multiple occasions.

During these times when she "coded," Priscilla says she was whisked away to a beautiful afterlife. On one of those occasions, she recalls seeing, like many others, lush fields full of flowers and departed loved ones like her own mother. McGill also remembers speaking to a spiritual "mother" who broke it to her that Priscilla still had to go back to Earth.

While some point to the strength of the painkillers that McGill was given during her hospital stay as one explanation for the visions, she’s adamant that they came from a divine source. She also says that she feels obligated to tell her story and ask everyone, "Is your heart right?"

An Anglo-Saxon man gets the full tour

Paradise (Paradiso) illustration by French artist, Gustave Dore

Drythelm, by all accounts, was an ordinary man. As told in Medieval Visions of Heaven and Hell, he was a regular Anglo-Saxon living in the north of England, probably sometime in the seventh century CE. Like many medieval folk, however, he eventually became sick with a serious illness and appeared to die. What really happened, the chronicles say, was something extraordinary.

According to the Venerable Bede, the eighth-century monk who wrote down Drythelm’s tale in his Ecclesiastical History of England, the dead man suddenly recovered, frightening everyone in his household. He scared them further by relating his tale of visiting the afterlife, Heaven included. First, however, was a tour of Hell, led by a man with "a countenance full of light" who didn’t speak to Drythelm.

Eventually, the duo made their way to Heaven, a place of intense light and numerous flowers. This wasn’t the main show, it seems, as Drythelm saw a higher-level Paradise, with even brighter light and beautiful singing. Unfortunately, his spiritual guide stopped suddenly at this point and then turned back, making it clear that the man wasn’t ready to do more than glimpse the promise of Heaven.

Colton Burpo claims Jesus has a rainbow horse

Presentation of Jesus at the Temple (detail), Giotto

Three-year-old Colton Burpo was pretty normal until a burst appendix sent him to emergency surgery. While his parents waited, surgeons worked on their son until he was brought back from the brink of death. After Colton returned home, however, he claimed that he had briefly died and went to visit Jesus. His father, Todd, was so taken by this story that he turned it into a bestseller, Heaven is for Real, which was itself adapted into a movie of the same name in 2014.

Colton’s story emerged over the next few months, says The New York Times Magazine. In it, he says that he went up to Heaven and met Jesus, who gave him homework. Jesus also has a rainbow-colored horse. Angels flew around on wings and sang to the boy, who also got to meet John the Baptist, the Holy Spirit, and God himself. The details were so dramatic and extra-Biblical that some questioned the whole affair, reports The New Yorker.

The details that really convinced the family were somewhat more mundane. Colton eventually said that he met his great-grandfather, Pop, while he was in Heaven. Colton later identified Pop via a photo. He also says that he met a sister his mother had miscarried. The Burpos maintain that they never told young Colton about the miscarriage. That apparently came out, says the book, when a babysitter watched Colton and was surprised at his emotion over a seemingly nonexistent sister.

Prophet Mboro says he took a selfie with Jesus

Aerial view of clouds west of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada

While some stories of visiting Heaven are accepted wholesale by believers, others generate more controversy. For Prophet Mboro, a South African televangelist, his claim of visiting Heaven and taking pictures have put him at the center of a serious debate.

According to the BBC, Mboro, whose real name is Paseka Motsoeneng, is no stranger to wild-sounding stories. He says that he’s delivered a fish from a pregnant woman, for one, and has also done a fair amount of now comparatively dull-sounding faith healings at his ultra-successful Incredible Happenings church.

A spokesman for the church said that the pastor has done even better. According to Liberty Voice, Mboro ascended to Heaven and took pictures of the locale with his smartphone. He met Jesus and, rather shockingly for many Christians, also interacted with Jesus’ wife. People who wanted proof could simply pay Mboro the equivalent of $330 to see the photos. When faced with widespread ridicule, he promised to post them online for free instead, but his phone was stolen before he could make the heavenly photos available.

Mboro now says that he never went to Heaven at all, reports South Africa’s News24. He claims that another prophet, Shepherd Bushiri, orchestrated the whole affair to make Mboro look like a fool.

Adamnán went from medieval Ireland to Heaven

Ascent of the Blessed, Hieronymus Bosch

In one of the earliest examples of Irish vision literature, a man named Adamnán is given a taste of both Heaven and Hell. According to Britannica, the Vision of Adamnán was written down sometime in the tenth century and shares strong links with pagan accounts of the underworld.

Adamnán’s journey begins on the feast day of Saint John the Baptist, says Medieval Visions of Heaven and Hell. He’s picked up by his guardian angel and first taken to Heaven. There, he sees the city of Heaven, surrounded by seven walls. Inside is God himself, sitting on a throne and surrounded by music and scents so beautiful that it all surpasses the human ability to describe.

Just outside the heavenly city is a second settlement for those who aren’t quite ready to enter the presence of God. This city has six doors or gates that people must pass through on their way to their divine rewards. Some people need to be put on what sounds an awful lot like a celestial timeout, waiting until they’ve been purified enough to move onward. For many historians, like those included in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, this is a clear precursor to the medieval Christian idea of Purgatory.

Don Piper stood at the gates of Heaven

Fresco detail showing gates of Heaven in Schonenberg Church

Heaven apparently smells wonderful and has an excellent band. This seems to be a common feature among accounts of visiting the paradisaical side of the afterlife, from the Anglo-Saxons to today. Don Piper’s visit appears to be pretty similar.

Piper says that his trip to Heaven happened in 1989, after his car was hit by a truck, leaving him in a terrible state. According to Nightline, his injuries were so bad that he didn’t have a detectable pulse for 90 minutes. While paramedics were working on him and a passerby was praying over him, Piper claims that he was in Heaven.

Like so many others, Piper felt compelled to write down his experiences, publishing them as 90 Minutes in Heaven. Along with the beautiful music, Piper recalls seeing light reflected off the gates of Heaven. While others with similar experiences have been vague about the source of the light, Piper says that it comes directly from the glory of God. Beyond the gates, Piper saw a city with gold-paved streets, flooded with what he calls "the brightest colors my eyes had ever seen." He also reports seeing his grandfather, with whom he had been close, standing nearby to welcome him into paradise.

Annabel Beam was stuck in a tree while she went to the afterlife

Clouds between San Salvador Island & Great Exuma Island, Bahamas

Young Annabel Beam had been suffering from a mysterious spate of medical issues for years. Doctors and her family alike were flummoxed until she finally received a diagnosis of pseudo-obstruction motility disorder, reports Today. That was only so comforting, however, since her illness was rare and incurable. It looked as if Annabel would be incapacitated for life.

Things changed dramatically and unexpectedly in 2011. That’s when Annabel fell headfirst into a hollow cottonwood tree in her front yard. After she’d been trapped there for five hours, reports The Blaze, emergency workers were finally able to extract her. Shortly thereafter, the Beam family discovered that Annabel’s disorder had abruptly and permanently gone away. For quite a few families, that’s enough to mark an event as a miracle or medical anomaly. What’s even more striking, for many, is Annabel’s claim that she went to Heaven while her body was trapped inside the hollow tree.

As per Annabel’s account, Heaven is a peaceful place with plenty of light and no pain. She also says that she met Jesus, who has brown hair and wears a white robe with a purple sash. Annabel asked if she could stay, but Jesus told her that she had further business back on Earth. When she returned, her family, like others whose loved ones have gone through similar experiences, published a book. The resulting account, Miracles from Heaven, was released as a film in 2016.