Mind you, I am not claiming this, merely sharing an intriguing post that I just stumbled upon in another blog. (Click the link above to go there.) Developmental psychologists, take note. Also interesting, of course, relative to the interpretation of near-death experiences, whether glorious or horrendous. How much of our interpretation of NDEs is rooted in assumptions about divine reward and punishment, and what different understandings might arise from an atheistic perspective? What would be gained? What lost? And for those of us who are not atheist, what is our response to this prospect of, say, 5,000 years of humanity without God?
Dave has sent a comment to the post about Osama Bin Laden’s death, saying in part:
…Therefor, why not take it that this [life and death] is an intended process that we, and all other living things are subjected to. If this truly is the case, stop judging this process that forges on ahead whether we like it, agree with it, or not. Instead, accept it as it is, study it, and learn from it. This means dump all the religious dogma that we’ve been hampered with, albeit that some truth is contained within. However, real truth cannot be fully convayed by mere words, it’s something you feel, and enables you to act accordingly.
The real truth we seek is found through sensing the creative force within us (God), and from that perspective, experiencing this process (school) that we’re all involved in…
Every one of the enduring religious traditions has originated not in the intellectualized rules of a religious dogma but in the personal experiences of a single individual. Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Confucianism–all began with an individual who so powerfully felt and studied his own encounters with that creative force that other people were drawn to hear and then follow, from which sprang teachings–which, because human beings love to keep memorabilia so they won’t forget, became formalized into dogma.
Always, at the center, is the clear spring of encounter. It is our task to remember that doctrine is simply the clothing of direct and intensely personal experience, and to apply to our own experiences the same careful study and discernment that will prove them worth keeping. Really knowing a religious tradition and understanding deeply how it works can be a big help with this. (It’s more than being bossed around!)
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?
“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.
In a book I was reading today, the author was saying that the effects of a traumatic NDE can be dealt with by a long series of therapeutic exercises. I believe he’s right. I also believe that most experiencers do not have the time, the interest in reliving their torment, nor the financial means to undergo years of therapy in order to integrate the experience.
What are your thoughts? Would it be worth getting past the questions, the anxiety, the emotional and spiritual torment, to be “fixed”? Would you do that?
Almost always, a person who’s had an NDE wonders, “Why me?”
If you’ve had a great NDE, you wonder if you’re special, if you’re supposed to do something remarkable with your life, be famous, be another Mother Teresa. You may have discovered the secret of the universe, and it may be true–and you may wonder if you’re expected to go out and sell tickets so you can talk about it all the time. The safe answer to all of those is, “Probably not.” Just be a kinder, more aware version of who you are. Be the most of who you are.
But if your NDE was frightening, or terrible, or convinced you that you’re going to hell when you die, or left you feeling guilty, you’re probably wondering what’s wrong with you. Does this mean you’re damned? Kicked out of heaven? A wicked, horrible person? Are your sins that terrible–or was that a psychotic episode? Again, the safe answer is, “Probably not.” The bad news is that you’re going to have to work harder than if you’d had a beautiful NDE to figure out the real meaning of the experience in your life.
Here is a most important fact: There is NO evidence that good people get good NDEs and bad people get bad ones. Yes, what is called the “conventional wisdom”–the folklore of just about everybody–tells us that people get what they deserve. But a quick look around tells us that the real world doesn’t work that way. Babies and little children and kindly, helping, delightful people were just as likely to be killed in the recent string of tornadoes as were the drug dealers and child abusers.
What 30 years of study tell us is that nobody knows why people get the NDEs they do. Saints have had terrible experiences, hellish experiences, glimpses of nightmarish scenarios. But they were still saints. People who are generally disapproved of–whoever is on your list of “mustn’ts”–have reported NDEs full of light and love and wisdom.
So what’s the point of being good if it doesn’t make a difference in whether you get punished? And why would you be treated that way if you’re not a bad person? For one thing, because maybe it’s not about punishment. Maybe it’s about learning something you wouldn’t have otherwise. And maybe the point of being “good” is because it’s a happier, more satisfying way to live.
If you choose to, you can believe that a terrible NDE means hell. That’s not the choice I would recommend, because it means you’ll be living in fear your whole life. What I recommend is that you keep coming back here while the site fills up with information and ideas, and hopefully with sharing by other people in your situation who have found ways to get through to a better way of feeling about themselves, the world, and–if you’re religious–probably God. Stay tuned.