Terrifying Encounters

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

... 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 it. 1

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.

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 found himself

...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

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,

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).

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).

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 himself.
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" (Rev. 19:21).

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

Toiling, weary,
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 and eyes
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




Divine Encounters
Terrifying Encounters


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