This story is reproduced with kind permission from Guideposts magazine.
When I was sent to the base hospital at Camp Berkeley, Texas, early in December 1943, I had no idea I was seriously ill. I’d just completed basic training, and my only thought was to get on the train at Richmond, Virginia, to enter medical school as part of the Army’s doctor-training program. It was an unheard- of break for a private, and I wasn’t going to let a chest cold beat me out of it.
But days passed, and I didn’t get any better. It was December 19 before I was moved to the recuperation wing, where a jeep was to pick me up at 4 a.m. the following morning to drive me to the railroad station.
A few more hours and I’d make it! Then about 9 p.m. I began to run a fever. I went to the ward boy and begged some aspirin. Despite the aspirin, my head throbbed, and I’d cough into the pillow to smother the sounds. Three a.m. – I decided to get up and dress.
The next half an hour is a blur for me. I remember being too weak to finish dressing. I remember first a nurse, and then a doctor, coming to the room and then a bell-clanging ambulance ride to the X-ray building. Could I stand, the captain was asking, long enough to get one picture? I struggled unsteadily to my feet. The whirr of the machine is the last thing I remember.
When I opened my eyes, I was lying in a little room I had never seen before. A tiny light burned in a nearby lamp. For a while I lay there, trying to recall where I was. All of a sudden I sat upright. The train, I’d missed the train!
Now I know that what I am about to describe will sound incredible. I do not understand it any more than I ask you to; all I can do is relate the events of that night as they occurred. I sprang out of bed and looked around the room for my uniform. My uniform was not on the bed-rail. I stopped, staring. Someone was lying in the bed I had just left.
I stepped closer in the dim light, then drew back. He was dead. The slack jaw, the grey skin looked awful. Then I saw the ring. On his left hand was the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity ring I had worn for two years.
I ran into the hall, eager to escape the mystery of that room. Richmond, that was the all-important thing – getting to Richmond. I started down the hall for the outside door. ‘Look out!’ I shouted to an orderly bearing down on me. He seemed not to hear, and a second later passed the very spot where I stood as though I had not been there.
It was too strange to think about. I reached the door, went through, and found myself in the darkness outside, speeding toward Richmond. Running? Flying? I only knew that the dark Earth was slipping past while other thoughts occupied my mind, terrifying and unaccountable ones. The orderly had not seen me. What if the other people at medical school could not see me either?
In utter confusion I stopped by a telephone pole in a town by a large river and put my hand against the guy wire. At least the wire seemed to be there, but my hand could not make contact with it. One thing was clear; in some unimaginable way I had lost my firmness of flesh, the hand that could grip that wire, the body that other people saw.
I was beginning to know too that the body on the bed was mine, unaccountably separated from me, and that my job was to go back and rejoin it as fast as I could. Finding the base and the hospital again was no problem. Indeed I seemed to be back there almost as soon as I thought of it. But where was the little room I had left? So began what must have been one of the strangest searches ever to take place; the search for myself. As I ran from one ward to the next, past room after room of sleeping soldiers, all about my age, I realised how unfamiliar we are with our own faces. Several times I stopped by a sleeping figure that was exactly as I imagined myself. But the fraternity ring, The Phi Gamma ring was lacking, and I would speed on.
At last I entered a little room with a single dim light. A sheet had been drawn over the figure on the bed, but the arms lay along the blanket. On the left hand was the ring. I tried to draw back the sheet, but I could not seize it. And now that I had found myself, how could one join two people who were so completely separate? And there, standing before this problem, I thought suddenly; ‘This is death. This is what we human beings call ‘death’, this splitting from one’s self’. It was the first time I had connected death with what had happened to me.
In that most despairing moment, the little room began to fill with light. I say ‘light’, but there is no word in our language to describe brilliance that intense. I must try to find words, however, because incomprehensible as the experience was to my intellect, it has affected every moment of my life since then. The light that entered that room was Christ: I knew because a thought was put deep within me, ‘You are in the presence of the Son of God.’ I could have called him ‘light’, but I could also have said ‘love’, for that room was flooded, pierced, illuminated, by the most total compassion I have ever felt. It was a presence so comforting, so joyous and all satisfying, that I wanted to lose myself forever in the wonder of it.
But something else was present in that room. With the presence of Christ (simultaneously, though I must tell it one by one) also had entered every episode of my entire life. There they were, every thought and event and conversation, as palpable as a series of pictures. There was no first or last, each one was contemporary, each one asked a single question, ‘What did you do with your time on Earth?’
I looked anxiously among the scenes before me: school, home, scouting and the cross-country track team- a fairly typical boyhood, yet in the light of that Presence it seemed a trivial and irrelevant existence. I searched my mind for good deeds. The Presence asked, ‘Did you tell anyone about Me?’ I answered, ‘I did not have time to do much. I was planning to, then this happened. I am too young to die!’
‘No one,’ the thought was inexpressibly gentle, ‘is to young to die.’ And now a new wave of light spread through the room already so incredibly bright and suddenly we were in another world. Or rather, I perceived all around us a very different world occupying the same space. I followed Christ through ordinary streets and countryside and everywhere I saw this other existence strangely superimposed on our own familiar world.
It was thronged with people. People with the unhappiest faces I have ever seen. Each grief seemed different. I saw businessmen walking the corridors of the places where they had worked, trying vainly to get someone to listen to them. I saw a mother following a 60-year -old man, her son I guessed, cautioning him, instructing him. He did not seem to be listening. Suddenly I was remembering myself, that very night, caring about nothing but getting to Richmond. Was it the same for all these people; had their hearts and minds been all concerned with Earthly things, and now, having lost Earth, were they still hopelessly fixed here? I wondered if this was Hell. To care most when you are most powerless; this would be Hell indeed.
I was permitted to look at two more worlds that night- I cannot say ‘spirit worlds’ for they were too real, too solid. Both were introduced the same way; a new quality of light, a new openness of vision, and suddenly it was apparent what had been there all along. The second world, like the first, occupied this very surface of the Earth, but it was a vastly different realm. Here was no absorption with Earthly things, but- for want of a better word to sum it up – with truth.
I saw sculptors and philosophers here, composers and inventors. There were universities and great libraries and scientific laboratories that surpass the wildest inventions of science fiction.
Of the final world I had only a glimpse. Now we no longer seemed to be on Earth, but immensely far away, out of relation to it. And there, still at a great distance, I saw a city- but a city, if such a thing is conceivable, constructed out of light. At that time I had not read the Book of Revelation, nor, incidentally, anything on the subject of life after death. But here was a city in which the walls, houses, streets, seemed to give off light, while moving among them were beings as blindingly bright as the One who stood beside me. This was only a moment’s vision, for the next instant the walls of the little room closed around me, the dazzling light faded, and a strange sleep stole over me….
To this day, I cannot fully fathom why I was chosen to return to life. All I know is that when I woke up in the hospital bed in that little room, in the familiar world where I’d spent all my life, it was not a homecoming. The cry in my heart that moment has been the cry of my life ever since: Christ, show me yourself again.
It was weeks before I was well enough to leave the hospital and all the time one thought obsessed me: to get a look at my chart. At last the room was unattended: there it was in medical shorthand: Private George Ritchie, died December 20, 1943, double lobar pneumonia.
Later, I talked to the doctor who signed the report. He told me there was no doubt in his mind that I had been dead when he examined me, but that nine minutes later the soldier who had been assigned to prepare me for the morgue had come running to give me a shot of adrenaline. The doctor gave me a hypo of adrenaline directly into the heart muscle, all the while disbelieving what his own eyes were seeing. My return to life, he told me, without brain damage or other lasting effect, was the most baffling circumstance of his career.
Today over 19 years later, I feel that I know why I had the chance to return to this life. It was to become a physician so that I could about man and then serve God. And every time I have able to serve our God by helping some broken-hearted adult, treating some injured child or counselling some teenager, then deep within I have felt that He was there beside me again.
Guidepost magazine has in its possession affidavits from both the Army doctor and attending nurse on the case which attest to the fact that Dr. Ritchie was pronounced dead on the morning of December 20, 1943.
Probably as remarkable as the story itself is the transformation it caused in the life of Dr. Ritchie. He was transformed from an indifferent Christian into a man whose life is centred in Christ. For 18 years he has been active in youth work in Richmond, Virginia, and in 1957 founded the Christian Youth Corps of America for the purpose of developing Christian character in young people. Dr. Ritchie’s vision is ” a world run by men who are run by God.”
Dr George Ritchie’s full testimony is recorded in his book, “Return from Tomorrow.”