I only met one person who claimed to have died and gone to heaven, then came back. This was years ago, around the time books started coming out about near-death experiences. I remember this woman saying she had gone into the hospital for a routine procedure and had died on the operating table. While the doctors worked frantically to resuscitate her, she said she left her body and traveled through a dark tunnel toward a bright light. She found Jesus waiting for her on the other end. She reported that heaven was everything it was cracked up to be. But the best part, as far as she was concerned, was that she had shed at least 30 pounds. As with most crash diets, the pounds didn't stay off, since the woman found her portly frame still waiting for her when she returned to the operating table.
Accounts of near-death experiences go back at least to the time of Plato. However, it's not clear how long people have been tunneling their way into heaven. St. Paul mentions being caught up to the "third heaven," without elaborating on his method of entry. Both the Bible and Islamic texts record otherworldly visions in which the span between heaven and earth is traversed by a ladder. The Old Testament patriarch Jacob has a dream in which he sees a ladder reaching up to heaven, with angels ascending and descending. Likewise, the prophet Muhammad mounts to heaven on a ladder of light from the site of the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. According to the prophet, this ladder is that "to which the dying man looks when death approaches."
Most ancient civilizations believed the earth was sandwiched between a heavenly realm where God (or the gods) dwelled and an underworld belonging to the dead and to the denizens thereof. To get to heaven, you had to climb; hence, the need for ladders. The popular belief that heaven was located somewhere above the clouds persisted long after the notion of heavenly spheres had been replaced by planets and galaxies. When a Soviet cosmonaut first breeched the heavens in 1961, he triumphantly announced that God was nowhere to be found. The response was simply to move God's realm further beyond reach. Jack Chick, a prolific publisher of fundamentalist religious tracts, now insists the gateway to heaven may be found in the Orion Nebula, which he notes is 16 trillion miles wide and is known for "its exquisite beauty and luminous colors."
When the Soviet cosmonaut first rocketed to heaven, he was less impressed with what lay beyond the earth than with what he had left behind. "I saw for the first time how beautiful our planet is," Yuri Gagarin later said, a sentiment shared by many who followed him into space. When American astronauts circled the moon in 1968, they were awestruck by the sight of the earth rising above the lunar surface as they came around the far side. The picture they took of the earth from the window of their Saturn module is one of the most famous in space exploration.
There may be a message in this for those who believe that God is to be found in places beyond mortal reach. Jacob dreamed of a ladder that reached to heaven, but he never sought to climb it. In fact, his head never left the stone he used for his pillow. That stone became a shrine on which he poured out oil for sacrifice. There was no need to look elsewhere for God or to reach for the stars. He now knew that the earth beneath him was hallowed ground. "This," he said, "is the gate of heaven."