Waking Up in Heaven

A True Story of Brokenness, Heaven, and Life Again

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About The Book

An inspirational memoir of near-death experience, rebirth, divine mercy, and finding faith.

On December 10, 2009, McVea, a thirty-two-year-old mother of four, went to the hospital for a routine procedure. While undergoing treatment, her face suddenly turned a dark shade of blue, then black. Her mother screamed for help, and a nurse tried to revive her…to no avail.

Today, Crystal does not remember what happened in that hospital room during the nine minutes she was unconscious and unable to breathe on her own. She has no memory of the panic and the rushing nurses and the loud cries of “Code Blue.”

She only remembers drifting off…and waking up in heaven.

This unexpected meeting of a self-described sinner and skeptic with her God changed everything. Raised Christian, she had left her faith behind after childhood abuse and the subsequent struggles and suffering of her troubled teens and early adulthood. She longed to believe but felt abandoned, broken, and undeserving.

A moving autobiographical testament to the power of divine love and forgiveness, Waking Up in Heaven shares the message of hope, healing, and compassion McVea brought back from her brush with God.

This brave, honest account of years lost to shame and guilt will inspire those who’ve stumbled along their own spiritual journey, with the uplifting reminder that no one is beyond the reach of grace and redemption, and that, in the words of the author, “God is real. Heaven is real. And God’s love for us is the realest thing of all.”

Waking Up in Heaven

SOMEDAY SOON, ONE OF MY PRECIOUS THREE-YEAR-OLD twins is going to ask me the question “Mommy, what happened to you when you died?”

Someday they will overhear me telling my story to someone and want to know more about it. They will look at me with their big, innocent eyes and try to make sense of what they’re hearing. It isn’t always easy explaining what happened even to adults, so how am I going to explain it to my kids?

There is so much I want to share with them, so much I want them to know. You see, my story is one of hope and forgiveness and salvation, and of the glorious healing power of God’s presence. It’s the story of what I saw and what I learned when, during a hospital stay, I left my body for nine minutes and went to heaven and stood before God. And it’s the story of how, when I came back to Earth, my life was profoundly and permanently changed—changed down to the very core of my being.

But it is also a story that, for the longest time, I didn’t want to tell.

I live in a wonderful town in southern Oklahoma, in a community of friendly and God-fearing people, a place where passion for Jesus runs deep. Still, I know how much damage a juicy piece of gossip can cause. I was a teacher—someone parents trust to teach and care for their children—and I was afraid that if people heard my story, I’d be shunned and ridiculed and maybe even fired.

I was afraid people would think I was flat-out crazy.

And even though God’s instructions to me could not have been any clearer—“Tell them what you can remember”—I struggled to understand why I had been chosen and what exactly He wanted me to do.

I struggled, because I’m the least likely person to be telling anyone about God.

Put simply, I’m not ever going to be on any short list for sainthood. Early in my life I was a sinner, and I’m pretty sure I broke every one of the Ten Commandments. That’s right, not just some—all ten.

Even the big one—Thou shalt not kill. When I was younger, I committed a sin I believed to be so grievous and so unforgivable, I was sure God could never love me, if He even existed at all.

And that was the other thing about me—when it came to God’s existence, I was a skeptic. I had grown up in the heart of the Bible Belt, been baptized not once but four times, gone to church regularly, and heard a million sermons about God. And yet, deep in my heart, I wasn’t convinced. Over and over I challenged God to prove He existed, and every time He did. I’d set up a new roadblock, a new challenge for Him to overcome.

I saw the hardships in my life as evidence that God had no interest in protecting me from harm. I questioned Him, and I cursed Him. And at times I vowed to cut Him out my life.

And still—and still!—God chased me and wooed me and loved me and chose me, and then He sent me back to this world to share a message.

And so, eventually, I began to tell my story. I told strangers in restaurants, customers at Walmart, and patrons eating ice cream at Braum’s—anywhere and everywhere I felt God’s familiar nudge.

“Excuse me,” I’d say. “My name is Crystal McVea, and in 2009 I died and went to heaven.”

How’s that for an icebreaker?

And what happened after I started telling the full story of my journey to heaven is a remarkable, miraculous tale all its own.

Now I am sharing that story with you, in this book. Believe me, writing a book is not anything I ever thought I’d do. It’s not like it was on my bucket list (like taking my kids to see a Broadway show and going to the Grand Canyon), and every single day I worked on this book was a day I had to pinch myself to make sure it was really happening.

But as soon as I got over my fears and started testifying, I knew that God’s plan for me was to share what happened with as many people as I could. And frankly I can only spend so many hours a day at Walmart accosting strangers in the checkout line. Writing a book will leave me lots more time to get dinner ready for the kids.

Now, are there people out there who will think I’m a fraud, or a religious nut, or crazy? I’m sure there are. Maybe some people who pick up this book will toss it across the room midway through and write it off as fiction. Who is this mom from Oklahoma who says she stood with God? Why should we believe anything she says? One response I sometimes get is, “Oh, Crystal, I believe that you believe you saw God. I just don’t know if I believe it.” That’s just a polite way of saying I’m either lying or crazy without actually having to say it.

The truth is, I know my story is hard for some people to believe. I know what I went through is beyond the realm of what we can experience on Earth. Listen, if someone had come up to me before this happened and told me they had died and stood with God, I’m pretty sure I would have been skeptical, too.

But I also know this book deals with the biggest and most important questions of them all: Does God exist? Is there a heaven? What is God’s plan for us? Why are we even here?

I certainly don’t pretend to have all the answers. In fact, I still have plenty of questions. Nor am I claiming to be anyone special. I’m a run-of-the-mill American mom living in the heartland. I spend my days begging my twins to take their naps, driving my older kids around to practices, and trying hard to eat better and lose a little weight (and not always succeeding). Before this happened I loved my life as a mother and a wife and a teacher, and that life fulfilled me deeply.

But what happened to me did happen, and now I know—after a lifetime of not knowing—that God does exist. He gloriously, beautifully, wonderfully exists.

And since God told me to share my whole story, that is what I’m doing—even though much of my story is painful and not always pretty. You will learn as you get deeper into this book that for most of my life I lived with terrible shame and horrible secrets. For the longest time I hated myself and believed I was worthless, and as a result I made so many bad choices.

But it’s important to realize who I was in order to understand who I have become.

Some of what I describe about my time in heaven may be familiar to you from other accounts of people dying and coming back—the quality of the light, the shimmering entranceway, the presence of angels—but some of it probably isn’t. Everything I describe is absolutely, 100 percent how I remember it—that has always been my one and only rule for sharing my testimony. Nothing is embellished or exaggerated even the tiniest bit. I always tell people, “If I was going to make this up, I’d have made it a lot more dramatic.” What I describe is what I experienced, nothing more or less.

What I can say is that the things God showed me were simply astonishing in their power and impact, and now the reality of God’s presence bursts forth from my heart every day. The truth is, I was more alive in those nine minutes than I have ever been in all my years on this Earth.

And now I can only hope that through my descriptions, however inadequate they may be, you will feel even a fraction of the power and the impact and the absolute glory of what I experienced.

NOT LONG AGO I read about a national Pew survey that showed the number of young Americans who have doubts about the existence of God is growing. In 2007, only 17 percent of people aged thirty or younger said they had some doubt that God was real. In 2012, that number went up to 32 percent. That’s roughly a third of young Americans surveyed who aren’t sure if they believe God is real.

Then there is a recent comment from Professor Stephen Hawking, the famous Cambridge scientist. “There is no heaven or afterlife,” he said in a 2012 interview. “That is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

Maybe the Pew poll and Hawking’s comment should upset me, but they don’t. And the reason they don’t is because I used to be one of those doubters. I understand the skepticism, because a skeptical streak still runs through me. As a kid I questioned everything, and as an adult I’m still nosing around, searching for answers.

And while I no longer have any doubts about God and His power, I also realize that I am lucky, because I got to stand with Him. For many others, faith is about believing in a God they can’t see. And for some, faith means believing in a God they have questions about. Just because you have questions doesn’t mean you can’t have faith.

My point is, I can’t prove that what happened to me actually happened. Reading this book requires some measure of faith. Ultimately, what you take from my story depends on what you believe.

In the hallway of our home, just outside the bedroom where my youngest daughter plays with her purple stuffed donkey and my youngest son cooks up adventures for his little wooden robot, not far from where my oldest boy lifts weights and my teenage daughter texts her friends nonstop, a verse from the Bible is stenciled across the wall in black script. It reads

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for,

And the evidence of things unseen.”

Hebrews 11:1–3

Because of what happened to me, I know that God is real. But you don’t have to die and stand with God to know what I know.

What makes God real for anyone is faith.

And so, when my twins come up to me and ask me about my story, what will I tell them? I guess I will sit them down and start by saying, “Children, there is a heaven, and heaven is beautiful.”
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Waking Up in Heaven includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Crystal McVea. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Waking Up in Heaven is the firsthand story of Crystal McVea and the day she died for nine minutes, went to heaven, and stood before God. In this remarkable autobiographical narrative, Crystal shares with readers her experience of walking with God toward the gates of heaven—a place so full of light and love that she did not want to return to Earth. But Crystal was revived—miraculously—and came back to consciousness in a hospital room with frantic doctors, nurses, and her own mother. Crystal’s encounter with God made her a believer, despite her troubled, dark past. In Waking Up in Heaven Crystal shares her story—the good and the bad—in the hopes of spreading God’s message of love and redemption.  

Topics & Questions for Discussion 

1. Waking Up in Heaven opens with a letter from Laura Schroff, author of An Invisible Thread. How does this letter help frame Crystal’s story? What do you think made Laura pay attention to Crystal’s message?
2. Revisit the moment when Crystal dies, beginning on page 10. What is your reaction to this scene? Are the details—the bright light, the warmth, the love—what you would expect? Why do you think Crystal chose to begin her story with her death, rather than with her troubled childhood?
3. Crystal describes the first person she met in heaven—herself: “Unlike on Earth, where I was plagued by doubts and fears, in heaven there was nothing but absolute certainty about who I was. . . . I was flooded with self-knowledge . . . revealing, for the first time ever, the real me.” Why do you think God reveals ourselves to us when we get to heaven? Do you think everyone on Earth is still waiting to meet himself or herself? What did Crystal learn about herself that surprised her? What do you imagine God might show you about yourself?
4. Crystal seems to have been followed by death for her entire life, beginning when her stepfather Hank “stood just inside [her] bedroom and aimed his gun at [her] bed.” What are other moments in the story when Crystal comes face-to-face with death? What is the significance of so many close encounters?
5. “I was the common denominator. The problem had to lie with me,” says Crystal, in reference to the abuse she endured from three different people during her childhood. Do you think Crystal’s gut reaction to blame herself is typical? Describe a time in your life where a pattern of encounters has made you feel responsible, even though the situation may have been out of your control.
6. An important theme in Crystal’s story is forgiveness: forgiveness of herself, of her parents, of her abusers. Why is forgiveness so important to Crystal? Why was Crystal only able to find forgiveness in her heart after dying and meeting God?
7. How does suffering shape the person Crystal is today? In what ways has she suffered physically, mentally, economically, spiritually? Have you had similar struggles in your life? Do you believe like Crystal that “suffering can bring us even closer to Him” and that “our very worst moments are precisely when God’s grace is most brightly revealed”? Why or why not?
8. Discuss Virgil. What role does he play in “saving” Crystal’s life? How would you characterize him? Do you see him as angel-like? Crystal says that Virgil brought stability to her life, but what else did he bring?
9. Crystal talks about her demonic events as tests from God to strengthen her faith. How would you describe these events?
10. What are the ways in which Crystal describes God making her feel “whole” (165), and why is this feeling so important?
11. What does Crystal see as her mission from God? What made her realize this mission? Who do you think you are called to be?
12. Crystal defines God’s message as the following: “God is real, and we are all worthy of His love and salvation because He finds us worthy.” Crystal understands God’s role as a parent who loves His children. Do you think of God as a parent figure? If you had to define God’s message to you, what would it be?
13. Do you think that Crystal’s story of dying and coming back to life is important for us to hear? In what ways? What does Waking Up in Heaven teach us about blind faith?

Enhance Your Book Club

  1. In Waking Up in Heaven, Crystal quotes scripture frequently in order to explain God’s plan at work in her life. Read the passage from Romans 8:37–39 aloud to your group:  

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.  

Why do you think Crystal chose to conclude her story with this passage? How do you think this passage acts as a synopsis of the narrative? Is there anything in your life that has tried to separate you from God’s love? How did you overcome this separation and regain your faith? Share with your group favorite scripture passages that have helped you endure tests of faith or separation from God.
2. Crystal speaks of the beauty of her home state of Oklahoma, land that is “broad and flat and beautiful.” She references the Native American poet N. Scott Momaday, who wrote about the beauty of this land that surely “is where creation was begun” (173). With your group, read the poem “The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee” by N. Scott Momaday from The Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/175895. How does this poem speak to Crystal’s message that God loves us and that our lives are valuable in His eyes? What line of this poem speaks most to you? Why?
3. From God’s “nudges” Crystal has had the opportunity to meet many people from all walks of life. These “nudges” have even led Crystal down roads that she might never have traveled otherwise. One such “nudge” came to Crystal while watching Dr. Phil. Writing to Laura Schroff led to the creation of Waking Up in Heaven. Read Laura’s book An Invisible Thread with your reading group. Why do you think God “nudged” Crystal to contact Laura? What is the connection between their two stories? How does God’s love manifest itself in Laura’s narrative? In Crystal’s? In yours?   

A Conversation with Crystal McVea

  You say that your last direct communication from God was the most powerful because He told you: “Tell them what you can remember.” Why was this the most powerful and important communication from God? Why do you think God asked you to share your story?  

When God said, “Tell them what you can remember,” He was telling me what He wanted me to do with the rest of my life. And that is a very, very powerful thing to hear directly from God. This is why He sent me back, why I’m here today and not in heaven. It’s because God still has a plan for me on Earth. And I understand now that the reason He wants me to share my life story is because of all the other people out there who are going through the same struggles and facing the same challenges as I did. God is sending them the message that He is real and He loves them and they are worthy of His love, just as He communicated that message to me. And I think the story of my time in heaven by itself wouldn’t be as powerful without the story of my life and who I was before I met God.

In Waking Up in Heaven, you alternate between your encounter with God and the story of your life, past and present. Why did you decide to structure your story this way? Do you think that the non-linear format reflects God’s way of communicating with us?  

The truth is that God has been in my life and all over my life forever, and I just wasn’t aware of it. It’s like those dreams that He gave me and that I didn’t understand, and it was only many years later that I was able to look back and figure out they were God’s way of telling me something. So for me, having the heaven chapters appear throughout the book is a way of reinforcing that God was always there for me, that there was never a period of my life when He wasn’t there. God was always a presence in my life, except I didn’t always notice Him. And my time in heaven allowed me to look back on my life with a new perspective and realize He was always there. And I wanted the book to have that same feeling—that God is always there, always trying to communicate with us, even in the worst and hardest times of our lives.

When you talk about “the enemy,” are you referring to the Devil or some other form of evil? How can we recognize “the enemy” in your estimation?  

When I say “the enemy,” I mean Satan and the demonic realm. In John 10 and many other scriptures, Jesus warns us about the enemy. So many times people believe in God but not in the enemy that Jesus tells us about. One of my favorite quotes says, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled off was making the world believe he didn’t exist.” Imagine the havoc that the enemy can wreak in your life if you don’t even believe he is real. I think we can recognize the work of Satan or demons by simply listening to the warning of Jesus—that the enemy comes to kill, steal, and destroy.

You describe the many women who have shared their stories of struggle and heartbreak after hearing your testimony. Do you find that your story is especially important for women who have endured abuse? Do you feel particularly called to empower women?  

It’s true that a lot of women have come up to me and shared their stories, but I believe my testimony is aimed at anyone who is searching for God, men and women alike. The things I went through—the abortion, the sexual abuse, abandonment—those are things that don’t only affect women. Abortions affect men, too. Sexual abuse affects everyone. Now, my story may be especially relevant to women, because it is told through a woman’s perspective, and women can relate to the things I discuss. But I truly believe my testimony is relevant to anyone and everyone who wants to know, “Is God real? Does He love me? Do I matter?” Finding the answers to these questions can empower everyone, men and women alike.

Talk more about the “nudges” that God gives to you. How can you tell the difference between your voice and God’s?  

When God tells me to do something, it’s usually something I don’t want to do and/or feel embarrassed about doing. It’s like the day I watched Dr. Phil and saw Laura Schroff on the show, and God nudged me to contact her about helping me with my book. And I just didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to contact this complete stranger and tell her my whole story, and I prayed and prayed not to have to do it, but God kept nudging me, and finally I did it. And it worked out. Or the time God nudged me to give the waitress a $100 tip. That is the last thing I wanted to do, because I just didn’t have the money. But the beauty of God’s nudges is that He usually shows me why He wanted me to do something once I’ve finally done it. And I can tell the difference between God’s voice and my own voice because my own voice second-guesses everything. But God’s voice is firm.

Do you think the first step to believing in God’s love is forgiveness? Was that the first step you had to take in order to become a believer?  

Actually, for me the very first step toward believing in God’s love was beginning a relationship with Jesus Christ. I just started talking to him. I asked him to come into my life and my heart. I was plagued with doubt my entire life. But even when I wasn’t sure, I always kept talking to Jesus and God. From the time I was a kid to when I died, I was always asking God questions and asking Him to prove things to me. My heart was open to the possibility that God is real and that He loves me, even if my brain wasn’t. For me, the ability to forgive came later.

If you had to name a theme of your story, what would it be and why?  

Oh gosh, I don’t know. I just think my life is like everybody else’s, and that all of our lives are an endless pursuit of God. And God never stops pursuing us, no matter how far we stray, no matter how far we fall. So I guess the theme could be that God’s love never fails us. It never fails. And once we realize that, it changes everything. So my story is about my pursuit of God, and God’s pursuit of me. The thing is, I have always seen my story as a beautiful love story. It’s a story about all the amazing things He has done for me on this journey. It’s a love story about God’s love for me, and for all of us.

What has been the most challenging aspect of sharing your story of meeting God? What has been the most rewarding?  

The challenging part was having to open up every part of my life to the world, which I really did not want to do. Being so transparent, so open about every aspect of my life, was very, very hard. But God told me to tell them everything, and that’s just what I did. And the most rewarding thing has been watching what God is doing with my testimony in other people’s lives. I get to be a witness to this awesome thing that is happening because of God’s amazing grace, and because of what God has done for me. Look, I am not the greatest public speaker, and in fact I really dislike speaking in front of large groups. But when people tell me what God has done for them in their lives because of my story, it makes it all worth it a hundred times over.

What advice do you give to readers who struggle with their faith?  

Usually when I talk to someone who is struggling I say, “Listen, you could not be any more skeptical than I was. Believe me, I’ve been there.” And then I tell them that no matter what they have to keep the faith that God is real. They can never stop pursuing Him, never stop trying to find Him, never stop talking to Him. Do not close that line of communication. Do not shut Him out. It’s the same as the relationships in our lives—you can’t have a relationship without communication. You have to keep the lines open. Today I talk to God all the time. When I’m vacuuming or doing the dishes or driving, whatever. And it’s not always good stuff. Sometimes I say, “God, today really sucks.” But if you’re struggling with your faith, you have to keep trying and talking and searching, and God will find you.

Describe the process of writing this book. Did God “nudge” you in any particular direction? Do you believe that God called you to share this story with the world?  

The process of making this book happen could be a book all its own. It was full of twists and turns and crazy events. And even when things fell into place and the book started to become real, all I ever heard was, “This usually doesn’t happen. Books don’t usually happen this way.” So I know it was God’s hand at work. It was God who steered me to Laura Schroff, who steered me to my cowriter, Alex Tresniowski, who steered me to Howard Books. And the process itself was hard sometimes, and there were days when I wondered if God had made a mistake by choosing me, but in the end it all worked out. So yes, I absolutely believe that God wanted me to share my story, and steered me toward the right people, and that is why I couldn’t stay with Him in heaven. Because His plan for me on Earth isn’t finished.

What lesson do you hope that readers will take away from this story?  

So many people do not realize that God loves them and that they are worthy of His love. So the lesson is, no matter what you’ve done or who you are, you are worthy because God loves you. You matter as a person because you are God’s child. All of us, every single one of us, even those who don’t believe in Him—He just loves us and finds us worthy of that love. That isn’t always an easy thing to understand or accept. The story of my life covers a lot of different sins, including a sin I believed was too horrible to ever be forgiven. But even with all that, God found me worthy of His love, and kept pursuing me. God pursues everyone. He wants the people who abused me just as much as He wants me. He is in an endless pursuit of their lives and hearts. So I hope that people read my story and believe that God’s love is so vast and so powerful and so encompassing, and that they have a place alongside Him, in the splendor of His love.
About The Authors
© Crystal McVea

Crystal McVea is the author of Waking Up in Heaven. With a deep rooted passion for the needy and lost, Crystal speaks around the country bringing a message of hope and redemption. She is a schoolteacher and lives in Oklahoma with her husband Virgil, a US Army veteran, and their four children. To learn more, go to CrystalMcVea.com.

Photograph by Lorraine Stundis

Alex Tresniowski is a former human-interest writer at People and the bestselling author of several books, most notably The Vendetta, which was purchased by Universal Studios and used as a basis for the movie Public Enemies. His other titles include An Invisible ThreadWaking Up in Heaven, and The Light Between Us.

Product Details
  • Publisher: Howard Books (April 2013)
  • Length: 272 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781476711874

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