As important as I believe it is to poke deeply into the relationship between religion and near-death and similar experiences, as we’ve been doing of late, I’m taking this post to go back to basics. Just what is a “distressing NDE” and does having one inevitably involve an encounter with hell?
What are we talking about? There are psychological events which are experienced as an encounter beyond physical existence. Being close to death is a fairly reliable trigger for this kind of happening, which has led to the term “near-death experience.” In actuality, nearly identical events occur under a wide variety of circumstances, including people who are in no danger of dying. The events may be called spiritually transformative experiences (STE), extraordinary human experiences (EHE), mystical experiences, religious or conversion experiences, or near-death experiences (NDE). however, because of its familiarity, I use the term “NDE” to apply broadly rather than exclusively. Yes, that is, strictly speaking, inaccurate; however, it’s efficient. Bear with me for the sake of word count!
What all these terms share is a range of uncannily powerful experiences in which an individual may perceive what seems to be a visible reality beyond the physical world, or in which the person’s ordinary sense of reality is shattered by a sudden and overwhelming new comprehension of how things work, often by an encounter with transcendence. Interpreted as physical reality, these are often described as visits to heaven or hell.
Pleasant or harrowing, psychotherapist Alex Lukeman has described this kind of instant revelation as bringing “the destruction of traditional and habitual patterns of perception and understanding, including religious belief structures and socially accepted concepts of the nature of human existence and behavior.” (Read that again, slowly, to get the full picture.) A common response is, “There’s more! This isn’t all there is!”
Distress or hell? The great majority of these revelations are experienced as pleasant, even blissful, although adjusting to the new understandings can be extremely difficult. However, for an unknown percentage of individuals, the experiences are marked by fear and even terror, intense emotional and psychological pain, or by desperate anxiety and sometimes guilt. Based on a count in published research studies over a 25-year period, I have estimated that perhaps one in five NDEs is distressing. However, “distressing” covers a good amount of territory.
For many individuals, what is frightening is not what happens but that something happens which is so far out of the norm. “What’s going on? No! I’m not supposed to be up on the ceiling with my body down there on the bed. No! I am not supposed to be shooting into space with who-knows-what going on around me. Absolutely no! I am not supposed to be in these dangerous and out-of-control situations, and because I’m no longer safely on earth, it seems that some of those people must be dead, and I’ve never been so scared in my life, and somebody put me back!”
Another major category of distressing numinous experience involves a sense of being alone in a great emptiness, perhaps out in space, or someplace unfathomably huge—perhaps abandonment in the cosmos—what is called the Void. Sometimes this is accompanied by a message that earthly existence has been a trick or a joke.
In the least frequent cases, the experience itself includes features which the person perceives as evidence of being in hell. There may be a sense of falling, of smelling something decidedly unpleasant, of hearing discordant noises or voices, of seeing redness and believing it to be fire—or even of visualizing fire itself. Alternatively, coldness, a barren landscape, and/or a perception of seeing wandering and featureless people may be understood as hell. Least common among the experiences I have encountered are any mentions of beasts or demonic creatures; the fact that such NDEs are reported on YouTube suggests the power of the event more than the frequency of its occurrence in a population of experiences. An identification of hell may also come later, when a bewildered and frightened experiencer is trying to figure out what that was that happened, and decides it must have been hell.
There’s more! This isn’t all there is!
Negativity? These kinds of experiences range from vaguely disturbing to deeply traumatizing, enough so that reactions like those in PTSD may be commonplace.
The pleasant experiences have commonly been referred to as “positive NDEs,” leading to the label of “negative NDEs” for the unpleasant ones. I have mostly avoided calling them negative because although these events are painful, and often deeply so, when carefully explored and interpreted they almost always turn out to have valuable insights for the person involved. As a glorious light-filled NDE may represent the heights of spiritual experience, these represent the depths; but they are still spiritual experiences, experientially “real encounters with God or gods, or real contact with higher-order realities”—with thanks to Wiki for the phrase—and therefore meaningful.
The principal difficulty is that our first interpretation is almost universally literal, as if the event were a trip to a foreign landscape, which of course leads inevitably to talk of hell or some other punishing afterlife scenario. That interpretation has been ingrained into us by centuries and centuries of Western conviction. We know of no alternative explanation.
Although the actual content of most such experiences bears only a weak resemblance to the doctrines or teachings of the Abrahamic religious traditions, it is at this point that doctrinal afterlife assumptions come into play because they are so deeply embedded in the culture. The weakness I find in that is twofold: first, that people are so often crippled by their fear and guilt about a literal meaning of the NDE as they understand it (punishment, unworthiness, blame, the wrath of God) that their life becomes deformed. Second, a literal assumption of the experience as an afterlife phenomenon precludes our learning anything of value for us while we are alive, here, now, in this place. Meaningfulness gets pushed ahead until after we die. What a waste of experience!
Coming posts will explore this further, along with the ongoing discussion of how to fit or reshape core beliefs with this experiential strangeness. If you are new to this website and blog, you may find it helpful to check out the other articles and information tucked behind the tabs at the top of the window. It’s all quite a discussion, and your comments and questions are welcome.