In Near-Death Episodes, Heaven Is Mostly Described, But Some Brushes Are Hellish
You know the visions, which are mainly idyllic. A person glimpsing the "other side" during a brush with death returns with remarkable accounts of glorious landscapes, indescribably beautiful colors, flowers that flow with a remarkable music, radiant open skies, and a brilliant yet soft Light.
It is a land of warmth and love in most cases and yet there is another side to such experiences -- one that draws far less reportage and yet must be taken into consideration.
For if most of those who report near-death episodes describe what seems like Heaven, there are indications that a substantial though largely unreported number experience the opposite: a landscape and beings that are anything but heavenly. Many believe these glimpses are of hell, the place of punishment.
In one survey conducted by researcher Arvin S. Gibson in Salt Lake City, about twelve percent of such episodes were of this kind -- though some may have been what Catholics would describe as the lower reaches of purgatory.
"These near-death accounts give evidence that there is an area in the otherworld with people or spirits who apparently did not follow the body of laws that govern humanity, or at least who fall into the undefined category of 'wicked,'" wrote Dr. Craig R. Lundahl of Western New Mexico University and Dr. Harold A. Widdison of Northern Arizona University in a book entitled, The Eternal Journey.
"The percentage of hell-like near-death experiences is probably much larger than has been previously claimed," added Dr. P. M. H. Atwater of Virginia in a paper entitled "Is there a Hell? Surprising Observations about the Near-Death Experience."
"Most researchers of the near-death experience report that unpleasant cases are quite rare, numbering less than one percent of the thousands thus far investigated and of the eight million tallied by a Gallup poll during a survey on the subject in 1982," stated Dr. Atwater. "Yet my experiences interviewing near-death survivors since 1978 have consistently shown me otherwise, suggesting an abundance of such cases: 105 out of the more than 700 I have queried."
The consensus remains that the majority of those experiencing death return with a highly positive take on it. Most lose their fear of death and describe a fantastic landscape, as if at springtide -- with frequent encounters with angels, deceased loved ones, and Jesus.
In the vast majority of accounts, death is described as more pleasurable than anything the "experiencer" had previously experienced.
But there are those who have indicated the underside in stark, jarring terms, and one of them, Angie Fenimore, a Protestant who found herself in purgatory after attempting suicide, claimed to have been told during her trip to the afterworld that "most people who are dying today are going to a place of darkness," according to Drs. Lundahl and Widdison. "Several people have reported that they glimpsed other beings who seemed trapped in an apparently most unfortunate state of existence."
"My first introduction to the near-death experience was in a hospital room listening to three somber people describe what they had seen while technically 'dead,'" wrote Dr. Atwater. "Each spoke of a grayness and cold, and about naked, zombie-like beings just standing around staring at them."
Such was most powerfully described by a former atheist and college professor named Howard Storm in an interview called My Descent into Hell (in our bookstore).
A key question, however, is whether non-Catholics who describe such negative afterlife effects are speaking of hell or purgatory. Certain levels of that in-between state have been described by seers and mystics as cold and gray. As Dr. Atwater points out, the word "hell" is actually Scandinavian and refers to Hel, the Teutonic queen of the dead. According to myth, "to Hel" is where people went who were good but not quite good enough for "Valhalla," or Heaven.
But the descriptions often include hellish figures that hint at something far worse that purgatory and are often accompanied by a feeling of danger.
Such brings up the prayer for assistance of the Blessed Mother -- who has been described by a number of near-death experiencers as appearing in their visions, including non-Catholics, and whose famous prayer, the Hail Mary, is invoked for help "now and at the hour of our death."
"Sometimes fearful scenes and sensations recur afterward, as when an experiencer is unexpectedly faced with the onslaught of some perceived cyclone, whirlpool, tidal wave, or perhaps an unchecked fall into a void," noted Atwater. "Amazing as it may seem, I noticed that the same scene that one individual considers wonderfully positive another may declare as negative or horrific."
In a few cases, attacks by demonic creatures have been reported, and whatever the experience, virtually all return with the lesson that the most important thing in life is love.
During the negative near-death experiences, witnesses have described going down a tunnel instead of up and experiencing a barren, muddy environment instead of an attractive one. Some have described entities that seemed half human and half animal. Children who have had brushes with death do not describe negative episodes, according to the researcher.
"Only the adults in my inquiry reported such stories," said Atwater. "This puzzled me. Why would some adults describe the existence of hell when children never did?"
Perhaps the Bible holds an answer in the passage (Matthew 18:2-5) where Jesus "called a little child and had him stand among them. And He said: 'I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven."
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