I saw hell in my Near Death Experience (NDE) in the form of a very painful life-review that contained images of hell in the form of seeing the pain that I had caused others. After this experience I am convinced that hell exists. However, after having supported my experience of ‘hell’ with ten years of NDE research it is also very clear that there are many myths about hell.
Looking deep into the Near Death Experience and the research of people who have actually been to hell, will give us real insight into the true nature of hell and with this understanding we can gain the most important insight of all: how to avoid it.
Excerpts from Chapter Eight about: what does Hell look like?:
There is little doubt that the negative life-review feels like hell. Margot Grey says about the experience that, “The hell-like experience is defined as being one which includes all the elements comprehended in the negative phase (extreme fear or panic, emotional and mental anguish), only more so in that feelings are encountered with a far greater intensity.”
As such we could say that the near death experience is actual proof of hell as people who have negative experiences in a sense experience hells gate. However, let me be quick to say that in the near-death research, these negative experiences do not happen to everyone. Also there seems to be less insight on why exactly they happen. Some researchers find no accounts or very few of hell-like experiences, like Moody who explains that his subjects have been mostly normal and nice people.
Other researchers like Fenwick and Grey found that 15 percent and 12 percent had hellish experiences. P. M. H. Atwater in her large sample of over 3,000 near-death experiences found that 18 percent had “unpleasant experiences,” and hereof only a third had experiences that were “truly hellish.” What is interesting here is that Atwater found the 15 percent with adults, while only 3 percent with children.
The largest estimate made on life-reviews alone, was made by George Gallup and William Proctor in 1982, who estimated out of 8 million Americans, 2.5 million had experienced “the impression of reviewing or re-examining” their life. This is almost a third of the total number of near-death experiencers and this number is confirmed by Dr. Jeffrey Long who in his research also found about 35 percent had a life-review.
When studying the research I find that there is a distinction between having a life-review, having a life-review with negative contents, and having a deep hell-like experience. Some researchers speculate that negative experiences are harder to come by because people mostly remember positive experiences. I like this explanation because it is very close to my own experience. Fenwick tells us that “about 15 percent did mention moments of terror, although the experience as a whole had been seen as positive.”
I think this is a good answer because the pain of my own experience was weighed out by the extremely positive feeling of joy and love from the light. According to Fenwick, “Although actions which have been carried out are often seen as shabby and self-interested, the person does not feel judged; guilt is made more tolerable by the supportive quality of the surrounding light of love.”
Instead of trying to calculate anyone’s chance of having a life-review or ‘going to hell,’ I would just like to establish that life-reviews and negative experiences do exist. Grey concludes that, “I nevertheless found indicators that pointed to the fact that negative encounters, while infrequent, do however definitely exist.” I can affirm this conclusion from my own experience—whether it truly exists or is merely a psychological event, it does happen to some people.
What I mean to say is that even though hell has been misused as a tool to create fear, I do not believe that we can rule out its existence. And even though hell might have been misunderstood and misinterpreted, it does not mean that we should not try to understand it so that we can avoid it. Therefore, I will look into the meaning of hell in the light of my own experience of it in hope that something can be learned from it.
The term Hell that we use today can be traced back to the name “Hel” in Norse mythology. Here we find Hel as the goddess of the underworld Helheim. The English root is “Helan” and cross-checking this word, we find that it translates into “Celare” in Latin. Celare in Latin then translates back into “conceal” or “hidden” in English.
What we now have found is that hell is a hidden and concealed place. This fits with the Greek underworld Hades, which has the same meaning, “Unseen.” And this brings us back to Plato’s cave again where we can use the allegory to explain what hell is. Living inside the cave as our body, we live in a dark world of illusion made from the shadows of our ignorance. So, if we ask what does Satan look like then the answer would be: the darkness of our own ignorance.
Outside the cave is the true world that is bathed in the light of the sun. However, this reality is hidden and concealed, because we live in darkness inside the cave. But when we leave the body at the moment of death, we escape the darkness of the cave. Everything that was before unseen is now fully displayed in its true light and glory.
This new world is a powerful revelation, and we are blinded by it. We have been used to the darkness for so long that the true light of existence is too much for our eyes. The true nature of existence outside the cave is beyond our comprehension, and we are totally overwhelmed. The light of the sun shines with infinite love and we are overwhelmed in total humility.
Then, as we regain our eyesight, we look back toward the cave from where we came. We now remember the life that we lived inside the cave. Our lives were filled with delusion from living in the shadow world of the darkness. The darkness caused us to be unaware of reality, and therefore we were selfish, conceited, and proud. This made us cause pain and suffering to others.
Dannion Brinkley tells us that “I had felt the pain and anguish of reflection, but from that I had gained the knowledge that I could use to correct my life.” This was also my experience, and it is also a general conclusion of the near-death research: “the sense of judgment and guilt does not exist.”Becoming aware of our negative actions happens within a source of unlimited love. Moody found that there is no accusation or threat because people “feel total love and acceptance coming from the light.” And, therefore, the review is more a kind of Socratic questioning to make the person “proceed along the path to the truth by himself.”
The positive feelings of peace and joy are the most common emotions in the near-death experience, reported by 88 percent of people who have had near-death experiences. And as I mentioned before, Fenwick also finds that even among those who suffered a negative life-review, 15 percent, the near-death experience as a whole had been positive. This is an important finding that fits perfectly with my own experience. The fundamental nature of reality, our absolute nature of mind, has this quality of peace, joy, and love.
Brinkley explains that this can be compared to the non-judgmental compassion that a grandfather has for a grandchild. This is the same as in Buddhism where the mother meets the child—we are the children and the light is our mother. When we return to our mother, we are greeted with love and compassion. Therefore, in the near-death experience, “most of the individuals interviewed did not experience any reward-punishment crisis.”
To make this point clearer, I will look into what it means to sin. Father Laurence Freedman opens the door to a deep understanding of what sin is by saying, “The Greek for sin means to miss the target. Sin is what turns consciousness away form truth. Being the consequence of illusion and selfishness, sin includes its own punishment. God does not do the punishing.”
This statement fits very well with another near-death experiencer who explains that, “Nobody judges you; you judge yourself…Nobody says ‘you’ve been bad’…You know better than anyone, because it’s your thoughts and your motives…And one gets precisely and exactly what one deserves. It’s utterly fair.”
The Greek term for sin means that as an archer misses his target with his arrow, so our consciousness misses the target of the truth. The target of our consciousness is to be conscious and aware. If we miss this target, we “go wrong” or “fail to do, neglect.”Another old Greek meaning of the word “sin” is that “I should lose my sight by Ulysses’ hand.” Here, sin means to be blind of the truth, and it is due to our blindness that we sin. This blindness leads a person to “fail of one’s purpose,” which again matches my experience of the negative life-review perfectly.
This makes us see a sinner as someone who is blind because the person’s consciousness is turned away from truth, and, thus, the purpose of this person’s life has failed. Now, if we look at the biblical term, “The Fall of Man,” this in Greek is translated as “failure” or “error of judgment.” Man has fallen by failing the purpose of life due to error in judgment. From this perspective leaving the Garden of Eden means that we have left our essence—the knowledge of who we are. Disconnected from our souls, we live in ignorance of our true nature, and this causes us to suffer.
We also find this conclusion in The Gnostic Gospels where Elaine Pagels explains that,
Remaining unaware of their own selves, they have no root. The Gospel of Truth describes such existence as a nightmare. Those who live in it experience terror and confusion and instability and doubt and division, being caught in many illusions. Whoever remains ignorant, a creature of oblivion, cannot experience fulfillment.
Now that we have gone through a different understanding of what hell might be, and what it feels like, I will look into where this judgment comes from. Here I will just rephrase the quote of Father Freedman, “Being the consequence of illusion and selfishness, sin includes its own punishment. God does not do the punishing.”
So where then does this punishment come from? The Hebrew word for hell is “Sheol,” and it takes us in this direction. The root of this word is “Shaal,” which means “to ask” or “to inquire.” In most religions, we find the Lord, God, or some servant inquires. In many accounts of near-death experiences, we also find that a being of light or an angel leads the person through the life-review.
For me, my experience was different. I was alone with myself, and it was me passing judgment on myself. Another near-death experience describes the inquirer in a way that is very similar to my experience, “It was me judging me, not some heavenly Saint Peter.” This is also the view of Moody, who concludes that the judgment comes from within. We also find this perspective on the nature of reality in Buddhism, where Soygal Rinpoche says, “Ultimately all judgments take place within our own mind. We are the judge and the judged.”
This means that from an absolute perspective, the negative life-review is created by our own mind. The fundamental reality of the universe is consciousness beyond the construct of the negative review. Enlightenment, or absolute consciousness, is the ultimate nature of existence, and is free of any construct of the conditioned mind. We also find that near-death researchers agree with this view. Grey explains that, “In all the ‘core experiences’, respondents quite categorically state that there was no sense of judgment, that any judgment came from themselves.”And Fenwick concludes that, “It does look quite possible that in the NDE, as in life, we tend to create our own Heaven or Hell.”
Not only do we create our experience of hell, but there is also evidence to suggest that our environment impacts the negative experience. A German study on near-death experiences found a big difference in the negative experience in the near-death experience between West and East Germany. In this study 29 percent of West German near-death experiencers had a negative experience, while 60 percent of the East German near-death experiencers had a negative experience.
This suggests that both mental and cultural conditioning in a person’s environment does affect the near-death experience. So, if we create our own hell and our environment can have an influence on its negative content, should we then not disregard hell as purely illusion? It could be that hell is merely a religious creation that has no inherent reality of its own.
Well, some people would probably think so, but I truly believe that it is not that simple. It is true that among some other cultures, like Aboriginal and First Nations peoples the research, so far, does not find life-reviews in the near-death experience. This could suggest that the life-review is a conditioning that comes from our Western culture, which would be a very interesting subject for future research.
However, even though these non-Western cultures seem to have a lack of life-reviews, they still have negative experiences. One aboriginal study of near-death experiences by Dr. Nsama Mumbwe of the University of Zambia found no life-reviews. But as Melvin Morse explains, “many of these African people interpreted the event as somewhat evil. Half of the participants in this simple study thought that the NDE signified that they were ‘bewitched’ or about to be.”
So, however we choose to interpret the experience, it looks as if we still do find negative experiences in all cultures. Therefore, I would suggest that the experience is a mental projection and an illusion to the enlightened mind. But unless a person is fully enlightened or only doing good actions, I do not believe that the possibility of having a negative life-review or a negative experience can be completely disregarded.