On January 18, 1989, a Baptist pastor named Don Piper was killed – instantly – in a brutal collision with a semi-trailer near Houston, Texas. Paramedics pronounced him dead, covering his smashed Ford Escort and his mangled body with a tarpaulin.
Almost 90 minutes later, another pastor stopped at the scene, crawled under the tarp, and prayed for him – and miraculously, the dead man returned to life.
Yet it’s not only Don Piper’s recovery that is incredible.
It’s what he saw, heard and felt during those 90 minutes of death – radiant light and heavenly music, a welcoming party, angels and pearlescent gates – that has captivated audiences and readers ever since.
Don Piper had been in heaven.
In his book 90 Minutes In Heaven, Piper tells of his experience in detail and in 2011 he spoke with Hope Media’s Open House announcer, Sheridan Voysey.
The first thing Don stresses when telling his story is that he was well and truly dead, and that he didn’t experience any kind of ‘tunnel’ of light.
“People often talk about near death experiences,” he said. “[But] ninety minutes is not ‘nearly’ dead—I was ‘very’ dead!
“I had four different sets of emergency medical technicians pronounce me that way.
“It was a head-on collision… so I had no reaction time and there was no sense of passing away, and I think that was why I was so instantly there. There was no ebbing of my life. It was just a split second impact until I was standing there.”
Don Piper’s Heavenly Welcome Party
What he encountered first was a “welcoming party” of people he’d known and loved on earth and who had already deceased, including his grandfather, great-grandmother and other relatives.
“I was surrounded by all these familiar faces of people who had gone before me and they were breathtakingly beautiful,” he said.
“It was a splendid reunion with these people who had told me about Jesus and invited me to church… people who helped me get to heaven.
“I didn’t see anybody that I didn’t know,” he said. “And I was very curious about that.
“The only thing I can conclude is that the people who are sent to receive us are the people who helped us get to heaven.”
Don said the people he saw were as familiar as when he knew them on earth, yet more beautiful.
“They all looked perfect,” he said. “They didn’t look complete in the sense that we are; in bodily form. It was a spiritual thing. The Bible says that at the end of time we’ll have reconstituted bodies, perfect bodies… But I did recognise all these people for who they were and they were quite breathtaking in their appearance. Almost glowing, but very recognisable.
“And so I can’t wait to go back. I really never wanted to come back. To know that they are there and they are waiting for me at the gate is something I earnestly long to return to.”
Pearly Gates, Golden Streets, Angels And Mansions
Remarkable story: Don Piper’s book 90 Minutes In Heaven
Pearly gates and white, heavenly light, which are described in Revelation in the Bible, were a part of Don’s experience.
“Human earthly words cannot do justice to heaven in any way, shape or form,” he said, “but the gates really were pearlescent. They were glowing, they were glimmering, they were almost alive and translucent, but they really are pearly gates, a large magnificent edifice. And yet the entrance into the gates was quite small, almost big enough for just one person at a time.
“I really did see golden streets. I really did hear the wings of angels all about me—just kind of hovering, ministering to all the folks that were gathered at the gates.
“I heard incredibly magnificent music that surpasses any that I have ever heard here on earth. All hallelujah songs, all praise songs, all glory to God songs.
“And there was no chaos. I could hear all this myriad of songs, thousands of songs, and I could distinguish each one of them with my heavenly ears.
“So heaven is a buffet for the senses. A sensory explosion. There are colours that don’t exist here, sounds that don’t exist here, even an aroma that is heavenly and… incomparable.”
Even the communication between people was heavenly, he said.
“It really wasn’t a language I’ve ever heard before,” he said. “We did communicate vocally, and yet there was communication that went beyond speaking. In heaven there is never a need for questions. You really know when someone says something, the full scope and impact and depth of their statement, so you just exchange information back and forth.
“The apostle Paul says that we see things now dimly as if through a mirror, but then we will see things as they really are. And in heaven you really do; you just know.”
He also saw large, beautiful structures.
“As I was approaching the gates I was entering in on these golden streets, and inside the gates are magnificent structures,” he said.
“You know, Jesus said in John 14: ‘In my Father’s house are many mansions… I go to prepare a place for you.’ So there are places prepared in there for the saints.”
Coming Back Down To Earth
Don said that time didn’t seem to pass in his heavenly encounter, and all the worries or concerns of earth were gone.
However, he came back to earth before he had a chance to see God.
“I know that’s where Jesus was and that’s where I was moving,” he said. “[But] when I got inside the threshold, suddenly my time there ended and I was back on earth under that tarp in the car with someone praying over me.”
Church and friends who’d heard about the accident, were in prayer at the same time as the pastor prayed for him, and at 1.15pm, Don came back to life, singing a hymn with his newfound friend.
Returning to life was a mixed blessing that Don wrestled with.
He had an injured body, underwent 34 operations, 13 months in hospital and much pain.
“Obviously it was an incredible miracle that I survived this accident,” he said. “I was dismembered… My left arm was in the back seat of the car; my right leg was crushed, impaled on the steering wheel. The roof of the car had crushed my head so I was in such a hideous condition.
“Yet the man who prayed for me, Dick, had prayed that I wouldn’t have any brain damage or internal injuries. Tests [at the accident scene] indicated that I had both of them; yet when I got to the hospital after Dick’s prayer I didn’t have either one of them.”
“I was told I would never walk again yet I do today,” he said. “So many, many miracles happened.
“But it was a very, very long haul for me to be able to have some kind of meaningful life after that terrible wreck.”
Overcoming Pain And Depression
Long road to recovery: Don Piper in hospital after his horrific car wreck.
“I really struggled with the emotional, spiritual and certainly physical pain, and was mightily depressed.
“I really hit the bottom one night in that hospital room after months of surgery and pain and not much hope. But I decided that I was going to take this mess and try to help somebody else through their mess, and that took the focus off me. That was the beginning of my recovery.”
While Don still suffers chronic pain, scarring and arthritis and can’t move like he used to, he has found a way to accept his circumstances.
“Sometimes things happen to us from which we are never the same,” he said. “We have to embrace that.”
He now spends much of his time encouraging people in moving past tragic experiences.
“I try to bring hope to people,” he said. “Not only hope about eternal life and the world to come but a better life now through Christ and his constant companionship.”
To his sceptics, Don responds with confidence in God’s word.
“I found things and saw things in heaven that I never really paid much attention to in the Bible, because it seems so far away,” he said.
“But when I came back and did an extensive study of heaven, I really found that so much of what I saw there was what the Bible said, that I had ignored.”
He is now profoundly aware that life on earth is temporary.
“Now this world is temporal,” he said. “It’s passing. So I live my life in a complete reverse fashion. To me heaven was the most real experience of my entire existence.
“And I’m going to try to get as many people to go there as I possibly can before God calls me back.
“I want to point people to the way, I want people to know the truth and I want people to have a better life now, and eternal life with Christ.”
He said he no longer asks why he had his terrible accident.
“The why is not as important as what you do with the things that happen to you,” he said.
“It’s so easy to be bitter. I was. But God has helped take my disappointment and turn it into divine appointments.”
– The full transcript of this interview is available in the book Open House Volume 1
– Don Piper’s experience has been adapted into a movie starring Hayden Christensen and Kate Bosworth.
– The book 90 Minutes In Heaven, can be purchased at bookstores or online.