It finally dawned on me that I was going to have to say something intelligible in response to my own question, which caught me under-prepared, just when life itself got over-busy. Therefore, my apologies for the delay in posting part two of this topic. Excuses! Many thanks for your thoughtful and interesting comments. Feel free (as some of you surely will) to help me sort through my own thinking.
The question was/is: What is the function of a distressing near-death experience? The honest answer, of course, is rather like the answer to “Is there a God?” because none of us, now or ever, has had a provable reply. What is the function? I don’t know. However, that is not quite the same as saying, “I haven’t a clue”; and as four thousand years or so of theological debate have neither definitively answered the question about God nor exhausted the conversation, I figure we can at least take a crack at the NDE question.
It seems to me that even before approaching an answer, we have to recognize three preliminary factors: first, antiquity; second, conventional wisdom; third, the power of emotion;
Antiquity. I am convinced that it was experiences like the most deeply torment-filled NDEs that supported, ages ago, the development of doctrines of hell. The mistake that was made, and it is entirely understandable and is still made, is that, because the event is experienced as so phenomenally real, it was and is also interpreted as literally, materially real. Add to this the empirical reality of volcanoes, demonstrating to the ancients that there really is fire underground. The perceived reality of the story-told events, coupled with the empirical reality of molten fires, became and becomes a matter of geography rather than experience, which leaves us with the Hell of legend, which is how it wound up in Holy Writ. If that is the way you choose to interpret this whole question, you will recognize that I am about to take a road less traveled.
Whether one believes or dismisses the traditional idea, humanity is now by and large pinned against the wall of its own consciousness by the millennia-old and nearly universal conception that there is a more or less tangible place or condition of hideous torments waiting after death as punishment for whatever we have done wrong in life. Even when arguing rationally or even atheistically against the concept, the very existence of the argument acknowledges it as a living idea; believed or not, the concept sits like a scowling potential somewhere in our mental set.
The second preliminary observation is about the conventional wisdom, thoroughly entrenched in human consciousness by the time the story of Job was written. The conventional wisdom says that good people get good experiences, and bad people get bad ones. If you have fortune, health, people who love you, a good job, an iPad, you must be a deserving person; and if you’re broke, sick, alone, unemployed, and non-digitized, you must be a no-good, lazy bum. If you’re happy, you’re on the good side of the universe/God; if you’re suffering, you must deserve it. Right? Hah. That’s the problem with the conventional wisdom: that it’s wrong as often as it’s right. Maybe oftener. Having a distressing NDE says absolutely nothing in that sense about the person who has it. Oh, yes, it’s about the person, but not in the judgmental sense implied by reward-punishment thinking. More on this in the next post.
Third preliminary observation: What keeps the concept, like the events themselves, pinned so strongly in us is the same aspect of consciousness that keeps any near-death experience stable and lifelong in memory—the power of the emotional charge. A genuine, transcendent, full-blown spiritual and/or near-death experience carries an earthquake’s worth of emotional charge. When distressing NDEs are the topic, the sheer dread (terror, fear, angst, whatever) of our death anxiety, which is the terror of annihilation of our personal self, is augmented by the awe-full guilt we felt when our parents caught us in the wrong, when we think (if we do) of Original Sin, when we were called to the principal’s office, when our boss calls us on the carpet, when our superego growls to us, “I’ve been telling you, bad, bad, bad.”
When this powerful charge is joined with preliminary observations #1 and #2, the stage is set for a catastrophic interpretation, an identification of hell, that spans cultures. Like looking at a tree limb overhead on a wilderness trail and seeing a mountain lion poised to spring, civilization itself can be held motionless by contemplation of the traditional hell. We are paralyzed by an ontological fear, unable to think straight.
Lousy. Terror and guilt are a toxic combination; yet this is so wired into our systems, it is almost impossible to escape. It is crippling. The remedy, I believe, is to learn that there actually are other ways of thinking—and then to think them. [To be continued]