Review: ‘After Death’ (2023), starring Mary C. Neal, John Burke, Michael Sabom, Jeffrey Long, Don Piper, Howard Storm and Dale Black

November 28, 2023

by Carla Hay

A scene from “After Death” (Photo courtesy of Angel Studios)

“After Death” (2023)

Directed by Stephen Gray and Chris Radtke

Culture Representation: The documentary film “After Death” features a predominantly white group of people (with one African American, one Latino and two Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Various people give their testimonials about having near-death experiences where they believe they went to heaven or hell, even though these spiritual experiences are not considered to be provable through science.

Culture Audience: “After Death” will appeal primarily to people who want to watch a documentary that promotes one-sided Christian teachings along with stories of near-death experiences.

Don Piper in “After Death” (Photo courtesy of Angel Studios)

“After Death” is essentially a series of scenes of people talking about experiencing what they believe to be heaven or hell when they came close to death or were considered to be clinically dead. The movie has some re-enactments with actors. The testimonials of near-death experiences seem sincere, but the documentary’s filmmakers only chose to interview people with Christian points of view, ignoring other religions. Most of the interviewees have authored books, so there’s a sales agenda too.

Directed by Stephen Gray and Chris Radtke, “After Death” is from Angel Studios, a faith-based company that is focused on Christian content. Even so, the movie could have done a much better job of acknowledging that these spiritual experiences don’t only happen to Christians. Instead, the movie gets very preachy in presenting these Christian points of view as the “right” way to think about issues pertaining to life after death.

There isn’t much diversity in the types of people who were selected to be interviewed in this documentary. Most are upper-middle-class white Americans who have “doctor” as part of their titles. The stories are fascinating, but “After Death” has erratic film editing that has a frustrating tendency to interrupt someone’s story and then revisit it later in the movie. It’s meant to keep viewers in suspense to hear the rest of the story, but it just comes across as sloppy filmmaking.

Dale Black, a former airplane pilot, nearly died in plane crash in 1969, in Burbank, California. He describes having an out-of-body experience where he could see himself and two other pilots on the ground within five feet of each other after the crash. He says that this experience convinced him that he has a spirit that’s separate from his body.

Dr. Michael Sabom, a cardiologist, says he was initially a skeptic about life after death until he talked to resuscitated patients. He adds, “There’s a process of dying,” but that medically, death cannot fully be measured.

Howard Storm was a 38-year-old professor and an atheist who was living in Paris with his wife in 1985, when he began experiencing severe abdominal pain. He was rushed to a hospital, where he didn’t get immediate care because a doctor wasn’t available to treat him right away. Storm says he fell into a coma and had a near-death experience that he describes in the movie as a miraculous recovery.

Dr. Jeffrey Long, an oncologist and researcher, says that common near death experiences are people saying that they felt they left their bodies and watched people or things on Earth, such as the place where they died. Other common experiences include seeing a light, hearing music, and seeing the spirits of dead people.

Don Piper, an author, says that his own near-death experience happened when he was in a car accident in Huntsville, Texas, in 1989. During the accident, the car’s steering wheel went into his chest. Also interviewed are district attorney investigator Swen Spjut and Anita Onarecker Wood, an eyewitness at the scene of Piper’s accident. Wood doesn’t have much to add except to confirm that Piper looked like he was dead, and she was shocked that someone could survive the injuries that he had.

Dr. Mary Neal, an orthopedic surgeon, describes her own near-death experience that happened when she was kayaking in Chile while she was on a trip with her husband. During this kayaking trip, she fell down a waterfall in an accident. She says that while she was unconscious, she never felt more alive, and she felt like she was being held by Jesus Christ.

Not all of these near-death experiences are stories that resulted in bliss and happiness. Don Piper says that after he got a glimpse of what he believes is heaven, he didn’t want to go back to his life on Earth. He says that this led him to experience depression and wishing that he had died in his car accident so that he could be in heaven. Don’s wife Eva Piper says she felt confused over why Don had a period of time when he didn’t seem to be happy to be back to his life after the car accident.

Steve Kang, a former Buddhist who converted to Christianity, describes a life-changing moment that doesn’t seem like a near-death experience but more like a drug-induced hallucination. Kang, a South Korean immigrant, says he felt like an outsider in school when he was a kid. As a teenager in high school, he was heavily involved in drugs. In 1998, when he was a teenager and a self-described “stoner,” he became suicidal and cut himself with a knife, but he saw a vision of a “grandpa spirit” telling him not to kill himself. Kang says he turned his life around after that incident.

Paul Ojeda, a recovering cocaine addict and founder of Austin Powerhouse Church, says his near-death experience came during a drug overdose. He says he didn’t see a bright light but saw a dark tunnel. He sensed that he was in some kind of hell, and when he tried to justify his life in his mind, the tunnel sped up faster and faster. Ojeda says he pleaded for God’s help and obviously ended up coming out alive from this experience.

Howard Storm, a minister, says his near-death experience was also hellish. He describes feeling like he was in a tunnel where people were sadistically trying to tear him apart. Storm describes being rescued by a light force that he believes was God. Storm says that at the time he had this experience, he had family relationships that were “troubled.”

Storm says he had an unhappy childhood, when his father was abusive to him, which caused Storm be in the habit of numbing his emotions. After his near-death experience, Storm says he became a religious “zealot” (his words), and this life change led to the end of his marriage. He adds that his wife left him and “poisoned” their kids against him, but he eventually reconciled with his father.

Also interviewed are neurologist Dr. Ajmal Zemmar and neurosurgeon Dr. Karl Greene, two after-life believers who share a few experiences that they had with patients which convinced these doctors that there is another state of being after death. The International Association of Near-Death Experiences is mentioned as a group that provides support and other resources for people with these experiences. The documentary does not interview any skeptics to provide any counter-arguments.

If someone believes that human death is final, watching “After Death” probably won’t change that person’s mind. However, the anecdotes and stories presented in the movie can be considered compelling arguments. It’s too bad that many of these stories end up being lectures about Christianity instead of being presented as universally relatable to all people, regardless if they are religious or not.

Angel Studios released “After Death” in U.S. cinemas on October 27, 2023.

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