There’s been such a mix of responses to the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death, and now a couple of people have asked me whether I think he had a hellish NDE.
First, belief in “God-as-karma,” otherwise known as “People get what they deserve,” points to our looking for a sense of justice. Where does it come from? It seems to be part of the intrinsic human makeup, at least after a rudimentary developmental level. In individual terms, developmental psychology indicates that somewhere between the ages of 3 and 8, kids just naturally develop a sense of fairness, whether in cookie distribution, levels of discipline, or a myriad of other situations. In species developmental terms, the first known, written legal code (Hammurabi, c. 1750 BCE), defined an elemental sense of justice almost 4,000 years ago. It shows up in the Torah (Ten Commandments and assorted elements of law in Deuteronomy and Leviticus), and in worldwide oral traditions.
In fact, the instinct for justice is universal, even across some species. Interestingly enough, I read a review recently of the book Wild Justice, a study showing that mammals have a moral sense. One study has shown that laboratory animals also react negatively to unfairness in the distribution of rewards. So, a sense of justice clearly seems to be part of our wiring and no doubt serves a vital role in the survival of relationships in social groups. On the larger scale, then, in order to maintain civilization, we need there to be fairness, justice. People should get what they have coming, good or bad.
But does wanting the world to be just make it so? No. What works well in building social relationships breaks down in the reality of circumstances in the physical world. Here, Joplin, Missouri and Tuscaloosa, Alabama are torn apart, babies and all. Some people spend decades imprisoned for acts they did not commit. Innocent people suffer anguish at the whim of Osama Bin Laden, who winds up in a million-dollar villa. Considering everything he’s done to other people, shouldn’t we want him to suffer, even to suffer forever?
It seems to me helpful to hear what so many people who have had an affirmative near-death experience say about judgment. What they report defies easy description. Tens of thousands of accounts have been reported in the past three decades, many of them including portrayal of a life-review, a nearly instantaneous run-through and evaluation of everything they had done in their life that had hurt or benefitted other living beings. The key is that in the life review they not only witnessed their actions but experienced their effects. In short, the pain and joy a person had given over the years was the cumulative pain and joy experienced in the review—what goes around, comes around. God-as-karma? And if the experience of review/judgment can be that powerful for ordinary people, what would it be for a Bin Laden? Think of all that pain, that grief and torment! Yeah, he gets hell.
Although the experiencers report how vividly they felt the pain they had inflicted, and their regret for it, rarely do they explain it as punishment; rather, it was more a balancing. The most common response over the years has been a feeling of being overwhelmed by understanding—a life-changing “Oh, now I get it,” “I see how it all works, how I could have done things differently.” Yes, they feel the pain and their own guilt, but it is less significant than the enormity of the revelation of what life could be—could have been—when lived out of compassion and love.
I have never heard one of these life-review accounts described in terms of a place of fearful judgment, nor of a time sequence of punitively imposed eternal suffering (and in a timeless afterlife, what would be “everlasting,” anyway?) What matters is that shattering understanding, far from vengeance, that is typically a stunning experience of comprehension—pain, regret, “getting it,” and an understanding turned on its head.
To my mind, this can certainly be understood as both the wrath and the love of God, as psychologist Richard Beck keeps pointing out in his blog Experimental Theology. To quote his “Wrath of God” post last week, “[T]he accounting books of justice are not ‘balanced’ through a just world, God-as-karma mechanism. Rather, the ‘balancing’ comes through God absorbing the wound of sin, dissipating it in the Divine love… The residual of evil isn’t balanced out via karma and just deserts. Rather, it is soaked up in the love of God.”
Overwhelmingly, the great majority of near-death experiencers have maintained that what they discovered in their NDE was a compassion beyond our understanding and a love that can transform all hatreds. Of course it exceeds our human comprehension, and our egos’ greedy passion for retribution, and our insistence that God share our characteristics; but surely the Mind of God must have room for more than vindictiveness. More and more, it seems to me that we are asked not for vengeance but for transformation.
Maybe Bin Laden had a punitively hellish experience, not the life review described by so many NDErs, though I am unsure what of value that would achieve. But I am left wondering, what could be more terrible than to revisit himself and discover so directly the results of his misunderstanding?