Not all Divine encounters are as pleasant as the
ones described in the preceding chapters. In fact, some are downright
horrible. In accounts of near-death experiences, only a few rare
cases of terrifying or "hellish" reports have been noted, in sharp
contrast to the more positive variety. Frightening Divine encounters
are also relatively rare in the world's mystical literature, but
it can be found. In the scriptures of the world's major religions,
however, we find that hellish or frightening encounters are at
least as common as the blissful luminous vision.
The issue of the validity of "hellish" NDEs was
first raised by Maurice Rawlings, initially in Beyond Death's
Door (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1978), and more recently in
To Hell and Back (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1993). Rawlings
contends that positive NDE accounts have been overemphasized to
the point that negative ones are ignored. In fact, says Rawlings,
some people who have an NDE actually go to "Hell" before being
resuscitated! For example, when one patient's heart beat stopped,
he later reported that he
For Rawlings, this is one of several examples that indicate not
only that Hell exists, but that the Devil can portray himself
as a Being of Light. All the positive near-death accounts, then,
are not necessarily to be taken at face value. The impression
of "salvation for all" that the luminous spirit leaves could very
well be a trick of the Devil to keep people from accepting Jesus
Christ as Lord and Savior.
... was floating, pitch black, moving fast. The wind whistled
by and I rushed toward this beautiful, blazing light. As I
moved past, the walls of the tunnel nearest the light caught
fire. Beyond the blazing tunnel a huge lake of fire was burning
like an oil spill. A hill on the far side was covered with
slabs of rock. Elongated shadows showed that people were moving
aimlessly about, like animals in a zoo enclosure.
An old stone building was on the right, mostly rubble,
with different levels of openings crammed with people trying
to move about.
Down the hall I saw an old friend who had died. The last
I recall, they were dragging the river for him; he had been
involved with gambling. I yelled to him, "Hi there Jim!" He
just looked at me. Didn't even smile. They were talking to
him around the corner when he started screaming. I ran, but
there was no way out. I kept saying "Jesus is God." Over and
over I would say, "Jesus is God."
Someway, somehow, I got back as you were putting in the
stitches. I loved every one of those stitches. Only God could
have gotten me out of a mess like that. I'll never forget
Other experiencers reported that they had the impression
that they went straight to a hell-like environment in a brush
with death. As George Godkin of Alberta, Canada reported in 1948:
I was guided to the place of the spirit world called
Hell. This is a place of punishment for all those who reject
Jesus Christ. I not only saw Hell, but felt the torment that
all who go there will experience....2
Another patient, who had more than one near-death experience,
discovered on the first one "snakes and fires and things so horrible
that it resulted in a religious awakening." After having converted
to Christianity, this person had a second clinical death that
"produced a wonderful, heavenly experience, the one that he wanted
in the first place."3 Similarly,
a patient who was resuscitated at the Knoxville football stadium
Religious sources, of course, offer plenty of support for any
contention that some otherworldly encounters are frightening.
The Hebrew Bible (the Christian "Old Testament") is replete with
such references. During the exodus from Egypt to Israel, Moses
is said to have led his people to the top of mount Sinai to receive
the ten commandments. They came to the mount,
...moving through a vacuum as if life never ended, so
black you could almost touch it. Black, frightening, and desolate.
I was all alone somewhere in outer space.
I was in front of some kind of conveyor belt which carried
huge pieces of puzzle in weird colours that had to be fitted
together rapidly under severe penalty from an unseen force.
I knew it was Hell, but there was no fire or heat or anything
that I had expected.
I was alone, isolated from all sound, until I heard a
mumbling, and I could vaguely see a kneeling form. It was
my wife. She was praying at my bedside. I never wanted to
be a Christian, but I sure am now. Hell is too real.4
This God who appears in smoke and fire was even more terrifying
to His enemies. Because of the misdeeds of the people of Sodom
and Gomorrah, the latter received "brimstone and fire from the
LORD out of heaven," to the point that when the Hebrew patriarch
Abraham looked "toward Sodom and Gomorrah, and toward all the
land of the plain, ...the smoke of the country went up as the
smoke of a furnace" (Gen. 19:24, 28). Just prior to leading the
ancient Hebrews out of captivity in Egypt, "the LORD sent thunder
and hail, and fire ran along upon the ground; and the LORD rained
hail upon the land of Egypt." Through this action God killed "all
that was in the field, both man and beast; and ... every herb
of the field..." (Ex. 9:23).
And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that
there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon
the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so
that all the people that was in the camp trembled...
And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the
LORD descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended
as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly
(Ex. 19:16-18, KJV).
In the Book of Job, God permitted Satan to destroy
the family and possessions of a righteous man named Job, and inflict
Job himself with boils all over his body. God answered Job's cries
for an answer to his plight "out of the whirlwind" (Job 38:1).
God posed the righteous man with a series of questions, centering
on how a measly mortal could possibly understand the ways of the
LORD. God inquired of Job,
|Canst thou draw out Leviathan with a hook?...
Who can open the doors of his face? his teeth
are terrible round about....
Out of his mouth go burning lamps, and sparks
of fire leap out.
Out of his nostrils goeth smoke, as out of a
seething pot or caldron.
His breath kindleth coal, and a flame goeth
out of his mouth (Job 41:1, 14, 19-21).
The point of this interrogation, of course, was
to impress upon Job the might of God. If Leviathan is a creature
of awesome horror, then how much more powerful must the LORD then
be, to be able to "draw out Leviathan with a hook?" Moreover,
Satan appears as one of many in the celestial court, and does
not inflict evil except as God allows. In the Book of Job, as
elsewhere in the Hebrew scriptures, the fearful omnipotence of
God is far beyond the comprehension of humans, even beyond the
most terrifying of His adversaries.
In the New Testament gospels, Jesus preached a message
of love and peace. However, in the book of Revelation, the cosmic
Christ is identified with the terrifying warrior God of the Hebrew
testament. The Son of God has "eyes like unto a flame of fire,
and his feet are like fine brass" (Rev. 2:18; cf. Dan. 10:6).
The seer of the New Testament had a vision in which
... heaven opened and behold a white horse; and
he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness
he doth judge and make war.
His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on his head were many
crowns, and he had a name written, that no man knew, but he
And he was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood: and his name
is called the Word of God.
And the armies which were in heaven followed him upon white
horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean.
And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should
smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron:
and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of
Almighty God (Rev. 19:11-15).
These heavenly forces are pitted against those
of a horrible beast, "a great red dragon, having seven heads and
ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads." This dragon is identified
with "that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth
the whole world...." For the discerning, the author of the New
Testament book gives a clue as to the identity of the beast: "...it
is the number of a man, and his number is six hundred threescore
and six" (666) (Rev. 12:3, 9; 13:18). Divine forces are foretold
to be victorious eventually, with the beast and those who worshipped
his image to be "cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone"
It is difficult to imagine a more terrifying conflict
in which to be embroiled. Many modern scholars suggest that this
is a cosmic representation of a battle taking place at the time
of writing, between the Christian branch of Judaism and the Roman
empire. As with Rev. 17:9, "the seven heads are seven mountains,..."
i.e., the seven hills of Rome. In Hebrew, letters have numerical
equivalents, and "666" can be seen as the sum total of the numerals
associated with the name "Nero Caesar" and perhaps those of other
Roman emperors. It is quite possible that the New Testament writer
believed that a cosmic conflict was also taking place, of which
contemporary troubles were an earthly manifestation. At any rate
it is clear that some Biblical writers viewed the Divine encounter
as being at least as terrifyingly awesome as a demonic vision.
The Islamic tradition makes frequent reference
to hell as the abode of evil-doers. Followers are given vivid
outlines of the pleasures following death for those who follow
Allah, and equally graphic descriptions of the horrors of hell
for those who don't. The Qur'an says that "for those who disbelieve,
garments of fire will be cut out for them; boiling fluid will
be poured down on their heads" (Surah XXII, 19). Hell is a place
where transgressors find both "a boiling and an ice-cold draught"
(Surah XXXVIII, 58). Winds are "scorching" and water "scalding"
(Surah LVI, 42). The downcast evil-doers will be
Scorched by burning fire,
Drinking from a boiling spring,
No food for them save bitter thorn-fruit
Which doth not nourish nor release from hunger
(Surah LXXXVIII, 3-7).
The enemies of the gods in Hinduism likewise have
plenty to reckon with. In a hymn to Agni, the "god with fiery
jaws," we find that his "flames are impetuous and violent; they
are terrible and not to be withstood." The worshipper pleads with
Agni to "always burn down the sorcerers... every ghoul."5
Similarly in the Atharva-Veda, a warrior calls upon
the god Indra, and Indra's companions Arbudi and Nyarbudi to help
in a military campaign:
|Thy thunderbolt, O Indra,... shall advance,
crushing the enemies. Slay them that resist,
pursue, or flee, deprive their schemes of
The arms, the arrows, and the might of the
bows; the swords, the axes, the weapons, and
the artful scheme that is in our mind... do
thou make our enemies see, and spectres also
make them see!
(And also make them see)... the spooks with
fourfold teeth, black teeth, testicles like a
pot, bloody faces, who are inherently
frightful, and terrifying!...
Dissolved, crushed, slain shall the enemy lie,
O Nyarbudi! May victorious sprites, with fiery
tongues and smoky crests, go with (our) army!6
In the Bhagavad-Gita, the vision of a god of light
is at once magnificent and terrifying. The mortal Arjuna has the
following to say about the god Varuna:
Seeing your mighty form with many mouths
O mighty armed, with many arms, thighs, feet
With many bellies and many terrible tusks
The worlds quake with fear and I do too....
I see your mouths, terrible with tusks
Resembling the fire of time the destroyer....7
To this, Arjuna's Lord and God responded that He
indeed is "time, destroyer of worlds."8
Certain texts in Buddhism define the fate of those
who reject scriptural authority. Such evil doers shall be assigned
to "Avici Hell." The woes of this afterlife encounter is described
in vivid detail:
|Having died in this form,
They shall be endowed with
the bodies of monster serpents,...
Deaf, stupid and legless,
Writhing about on their bellies
By little insects
Pecked at and eaten,
Day and night suffering woe
And enjoying no respite.
For maligning this scripture
They shall suffer punishments
such as these.9
One of the major philosophical problems raised
by all of these terrifying accounts is that we are never really
sure whether the forces behind them are divine, demonic, or simply
imaginary. The benign "being of light" in near-death experiences,
for example, could be just Satan in disguise. On the other hand,
in the scriptural accounts, God (or the gods) is (are) presented
as being at both loving and dreadful. If both God and his cosmic
adversaries are capable of presenting themselves as a loving light
or as a fiery fearsome warrior, proper identification of one or
the other is left in serious doubt. One wonders how the horrifying
nature of these kinds of Divine encounters and hellish abodes
could possibly fit with the same traditions that simultaneously
espouse the existence of a benign and loving Being of Light. Which,
if either, of these versions of the experience of God represents
the true nature of Divinity?
Christian mystic Jacob Boehme developed an intriguing
theology that attempts to explain these apparent contradictions.
In the beginning, says Boehme, God was a unitary entity consisting
of both loving light and fiery wrath. The wrath, however, was
held in harmonious balance with the love and light. But then Lucifer,
in the beginning one of God's most beautiful light-angels, decided
that he wanted to be equal to or greater than Christ the Light.
The greedy divine adversary utilized the fiery wrath of God in
order to achieve his goal. However, because "the devil... was
created in heaven, and carried the source of darkness in himself
and brought himself completely into the darkness of the world,
light is now painful for him.... Because he will not help to direct
God's joyous drama he must now direct in God's wrathful drama
and be an enemy to God."10 Thus,
the devil became the prince of darkness and of a fiery hell. As
we might well imagine, this "fire in the darkness is a fire of
anguish, and is antagonistic, and painful in its essence."11
Boehme goes on to tell us that we experience hell
in our own souls. For Boehme, "all sorrow, anguish and fear concerning
spiritual things, proceedeth from the soul." This is because the
soul is trapped, as it were, in the body. This "poor soul is entered
into a strange lodging.... Whereby that fair creature is obscured
and defaced, and is also held captive therein, as in a dark dungeon."12
The mystic then explains that the soul is but a
small particle, or microcosm of Divinity. Like the cosmic version
of heaven and hell, the soul is partitioned, wherein "...the eternal
darkness in the soul is hell, a source of anguish, which is called
God's wrath; and the eternal light in the soul is the kingdom
of heaven, where the fiery, dark anguish has been changed into
joy."13 Hell is experienced
when we lose sight of the light, "for when the light is extinguished,
thou standest in the darkness. Within the darkness the wrath of
God is concealed, and if thou awakenest it, then it burns in thee."14
This is not to say, however, that we should be afraid
of or run from these kinds of frightening images. Rather, a person
|...should not be discouraged, dismayed, and
distrustful, when the gates of hell and God's
wrath meet him and present themselves before
him.... We must suffer the Devil to domineer,
rush and roar over us.15
Interestingly, the Tibetan Book of the Dead offers
similar advice to those who experience terrifying encounters after
we die. We should not be afraid of the images that are before
us; instead, we ought to face them to overcome them. In the Tibetan
text we encounter a horrifying creature known as the "Great Glorious
Buddha-Heruka," who is
|dark brown of colour; with three heads, six
hands, and four feet...; the body emitting
flames of radiance; the nine eyes widely
opened, in terrifying gaze; the eyebrows
quivering like lightning; the protruding teeth
glistening and set over one another;... the
heads adorned with dried [human] skulls...;
black serpents and raw [human] heads forming
a garland for the body; the first of the right
hands holding a wheel, the middle one, a
sword, the last one, a battle-axe...16
Despite the fearsome characteristics of this apparition,
the Book of the Dead makes it clear that we should "fear that
not" and "be not awed." Visions can be expected following death,
and is simply "the embodiment of thine own intellect." Rather,
we should recognize it to be "the Bhagavan Vairochana, the Father-Mother.
Simultaneously with recognition, liberation will be attained..."17
This will allow the person to achieve at-one-ness with the deity,
and achieve Buddhahood.
In fact, if we are frightened by such images, and
flee from them, then we are inviting the "blood-drinking [deities]
of the Vajra Order." Similar in some respects to the former creature,
these entities are "dark-blue in colour, with three faces, six
hands, and four feet firmly postured; in the first hand [holding]
a dorje, in the middle [one] a skull bowl...."18
Like the last creature, this one is simply "the embodiment of
thine own intellect." Again we should "be not terrified," but
believe in them as the Father and Mother and in doing so achieve
Buddhahood. Continuing to fear these creatures sets one into a
rather vicious cycle of encountering more and more horrible creatures,
and not being able to achieve Buddhahood.
Christian mystic St. John of the Cross also says
that we might very well expect to encounter a hellish darkness
or fire before we see the light of God. This is sometimes necessary
in order to purge the soul. By way of analogy, John tells us that
"the loving knowledge or divine light we are speaking of has the
same effect on a soul that fire has on a log of wood":
The soul is purged and prepared for union with the
divine light just as (the) wood is prepared for transformation
into (the) fire. Fire, when applied to wood, first dehumidifies
it, dispelling all moisture and making it give off any water it
contains. Then it gradually burns the wood black, makes it dark
and ugly, and even causes it to emit a bad odor. By drying out
the wood, the fire brings to light and expels all those ugly and
dark accidents that are contrary to fire. Finally, by heating
and enkindling it from without, the fire transforms the wood into
itself and makes it as beautiful as the fire itself....19
Both the Christian mystics and the Tibetan Book
of the Dead offer some intriguing insights into the phenomenon
of hellish experiences. We find that such frightening images can
be overcome, and should not be feared. Frightening experiences
in a religious or near-death context can be faced bravely so that
a person can move on to a more positive state of being.
Interestingly, while these negative images have
parallels across traditions, the same cannot be said for "hellish"
near-death experiences. In the latter case, there are relatively
few reports. Rawlings' examples come primarily from evangelical
Christians. This would suggest that near-death accounts of this
sort are culturally bound, and probably reflect the expectations
of the experiencer. While negative near-death experiences clearly
have strong parallels with several major religious traditions,
there is not as yet sufficient grounds to support their existence
as a common human experience associated with dying. In the words
of psychologist Kenneth Ring, who affirms the cross-cultural reality
of the more positive variety of near-death experiences, the negative
versions "merely reflect the fact that hell is actually the experience
of an illusory separative ego fighting a phantom battle."20