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“Omigosh! It must be so depressing,” people say about studying these near-death experiences. Try “fascinating” rather than depressing, with the challenge of trying to work out all their possible meanings and implications.

For anyone coming from a religious tradition, that will be the likeliest screen through which an NDE is filtered. A middle-aged woman, devoutly Catholic, was not surprised to find she had a guide with her during a pleasant NDE: “Oh, it was Saint Jude,” she said confidently. “I pray to him all the time, so he knows me best.” There it is—the sense of being known and in familiar territory. She had no difficulty retuning to her church and devotional life with a deepened sense of its validity. The messages of a blissful NDE, such as unconditional love, service to others, and a lessening of materialism support the teachings of most religions and can easily be understood in those terms.

For those with a non-hell-like but distressing NDE, or whose experience does not easily mesh with the religious tradition, the situation is murkier. In my own case, I awoke from an NDE believing beyond question that there is—not exactly a place, though there was a recognition of placeness, of “being somewhere”—in which, in otherwise emptiness, there are mysterious, impersonal but knowledgeable entities able to announce with authority that one has been wiped out of existence. One is wiped out entirely and for all time, past as well as future, along with everyone and every thing on earth. Backwards and forwards, all of it, poof—gone.

Nothing about that NDE fit with anything in my background or understanding—not the out-of-body experience or the shooting into space, not the impersonal entities that I did not recognize as being symbols from outside my own religious tradition, not their message, not the utter emptiness, and certainly not the perceived absence of God. This was clearly an other-worldly event, and though not quite hell, it was certainly  not like heaven. Nothing about the event was on my radar, in my belief system, or in my conscious storehouse of concepts.

But we are patterning creatures, looking for coherence. My memory bank took the pieces of the experience and put them together with a scrap of information about doctrine that I had heard about (but had not believed as fact), and came up with—the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, the idea that God has decided beforehand who will be saved and who will be, if not damned to hell, at least booted away from the presence of God. Quite obviously, in my conclusion, I was on the wrong side of the deal. God had decreed that I be blotted out. Had I done something to deserve this? I had no idea. Was there something really bad about me, some hidden evil of which I was unaware? No idea.

Was this the only possible interpretation of that NDE? No. Decades later, I know that. But when the NDE happened, it was the only one in my pantry of possibilities, so to speak; it was the only one available, the only one I could put together from the pieces of information stored at that time in my mind. Perhaps ironically, it was a stubborn resistance to that interpretation that led me, eventually, to develop a far deeper, better informed, and more nuanced faith within that same tradition (though without predestination).

It is worth emphasizing that one of the oddities of this type of experience is the appearance in an NDE (and sometimes in a dream) of an image or a symbol from a different cultural tradition. The result, as in my case, may be a predictable lack of recognition, or a bewilderment, like that of a young Jewish woman who identified the guide in her NDE as “a Jesus look-like” and struggled later to understand what he was doing in her experience. With only a literal reading of the event, there will be a great possibility for confusion and misunderstanding.

For people who find themselves in an NDE moving—or being pulled—downward, especially if perceiving a reddish glow, the theological filter is likely to render it, as one man said in shaking horror, “a reflection of the fires at the gates of hell.” Greater familiarity with the entire range of symbolic functions of fire would provide a more complete way of understanding that experience and putting it to productive use in the rest of life. Until then, the man is left with only his terror and the perceived prospect of eternal punishment, both the fruit of a strictly literal interpretation.

Almost always, the literal reading of a near-death or similar experience will be the least useful, and often the most harmful interpretation.