The function of the Religious Experience Research Centre is the study of contemporary spiritual and religious experience. The Research Centre was founded by Sir Alister Hardy in 1969 as the Religious Experience Research Unit at Manchester College, Oxford. It moved to Lampeter from its previous home at Westminster College, Oxford in July 2000. The Centre’s aim is to study, in a disciplined and as scientific a manner as possible, contemporary accounts of religious or spiritual experiences and to publish its findings.
The CUA is an ecumenical organization uniting people and churches around the world with a vision of God’s all-inclusive love. They are active in evangelism and outreach to the public, spreading the Good News of God’s victorious plan of salvation for all people. They educate and ordain ministers, hold conferences, encourage networking and church planting by believers, and create new resources to deepen and reform Christianity and bring people together from various denominations and traditions in a shared discovery of truth. The CUA affirms in their Statement of Faith(1) the Golden Rule, (2) divine justice and life after death, (3) universal salvation, (4) human nature and destiny, (5) the mystery of faith, (6) divine revelation and the pursuit of truth.
The Universalist Herald is the oldest continuously published liberal religious periodical in North America. It is devoted to a living religion and vital faith that motivates individual responsibility and positive action. Their Universalist doctrine is about love, their sacrament is the quest for Truth, their prayer is service, to dwell together in peace, to seek knowledge in freedom, to serve humanity in fellowship, and to the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the Divine, to covenant with each other and with God. They provide (1) biographies and interviews of notable Universalists; (2) book reviews and editorials on Universalism; (3) articles on Universalism, Universalist theology, mysticism, social justice, the history of Universalism, (4) articles to reflect upon, the holidays, and Universalist hymns.
This website is dedicated to promoting the Spiritual Philosophy of Zarathushtra and Zoroastrianism. They provide (1) information about Zarathushtra; (2) articles and books for sale about Zarathushtra and Zoroastrianism; (3) various translations of the Gathas; (4) an online book entitled “Homage Unto Ahura Mazda”; (5) a Zoroastrian cyber-temple; (6) discussion group archives; (7) a picture gallery; and (8) a links page to other Zoroastrian resources.
This is a book available through the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America (FEZANA) website. For more information about this book please contact Roshan Rivetna (email address). Donations for costs of printing and postage can be made. FEZANA serves as the coordinating body for 27 Zoroastrian Associations in the United States and Canada. Other resources include: (1) the FEZANA Journal and Journal archives; (2) administration and activities; (3) a Zoroastrian Youth of North America (ZYNA) website; (4) Bulletin archives; (5) an events calendar; (6) important messages from the FEZANA President; (7) and a links page to other resources.
Edward Henry Whinfield (1836-1922) (see Wikipedia article) published an initial series of 253 quatrains in 1882, as “The Quatrains of Omar Khayyám.” One year later 500 quatrains were published in a bilingual edition: a Persian text with the English translation. This time eight collections of quatrains were used. A selection of 267 quatrains were selected from this edition, for a new edition, in 1893, with the English text only. In 1901 the collection of 1883 was corrected and enlarged in a second edition in 1901, to which eight quatrains were added. The final version can be downloaded as a PDF file. On this website you can search their library and English e-library; search the Rubaiyat; read their articles; and bibliography. And much more.
The Project Gutenberg website offers over 58,000 free eBooks. Browse their Catalog for free ebooks. Here you will find the world’s great literature here, with focus on older works for which U.S. copyright has expired. You can access a variety of versions of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: read the book online; download the EPUB with images; download the EPUB with no images; download the Kindle ebook with images; download the Kindle ebook with no images, download a plain text file version; and more.
Mitofsky International and Edison Media Research. (2002). Exploring religious America. Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, May 10, 2002, Retrieved May 16, 2002, from: www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/week534/cover.html
Origen. (1994). Origen de principiis. In Roberts, A. R., and Donaldson, J. (eds.) Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 4 (pp. 260-279). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers. (Roberts and Donaldson original work published 1885).
I am pleased to write the Foreword for this online book entitled God Is With Us: What Near-Death and Other Spiritually Transformative Experiences Teach Us About God and Afterlife by Dr. Ken R. Vincent. I am the publisher of this wonderful book written by Dr. Vincent (whom I will affectionately refer to as Ken from this point on) which I published as a labor of love and a with a sense of urgency – not only because of my great admiration of Ken – but because his book contains divine revelations which I believe can literally change the world and bring people from all religious backgrounds and cultures together. One glance at the news headlines tells you this is something desperately needed in this world today. Although all the major world religions and many scientific fields of endeavor are covered in this book – make no mistake – this is a book about God. The vision of God that Ken presents in this book is consistent with scholarship of both ancient and modern religious experiences. As Ken’s magnum opus, this book gives the reader a profound understanding of his conclusions drawn from his scholarly search for a “generic” or “universal” God developed from his research into a mind-boggling number of scientific fields such as the following:
In other words, do you know why the Christian religion describes priests of the Zoroastrian religion worshiping the King of the Jewish religion? Knowing the answer to this question is a crucial step in understanding the concept of a “universal” God and the tremendous influence the much older religion of Zoroastrianism had on the world’s major religions. Inside this online book, Ken answers this question by shedding light on information previously known mainly to scholars. He guides the reader into the historical religious concept of “Universalism” – the revelation that God has a plan to ultimately provide salvation to all humanity.
At its heart, Universalism describes a God of unconditional and inescapable love and light extending to everyone no matter what their religious belief or background. It is a divine revelation given to Zoroaster, the prophet of the Magi religion, which was eventually incorporated in all the major world religions. Zoroastrianism describes a God who occasionally sends “saviors” such as Moses, Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad to lead their people toward enlightenment and salvation. In this book, and to a greater extent, in Ken’s paperback book entitled The Magi: From Zoroaster to the “Three Wise Men,” he discusses this important fact.
Ken is a retired Psychology professor, a founding Board member of the Christian Universalist Association, an expert in Universalism and the major world religions such as Zoroastrianism, and a member of IANDS (along with many other qualifications). More about Ken can be found in the Chapter of this book labeled “About Ken.” I consider Ken a special “guru” of mine because of his greater understanding of these lofty subjects and how he provides the layperson with a thorough and easy-to-read understanding of how they relate to NDEs and other STEs.
I have several experts I consider gurus for whom I go to for gaining more knowledge on such subjects. They are experts in their field who mostly impart their expertise freely for the sake of humanity. In fact, the Urban Dictionary defines the word “guru” in a number of ways; but I prefer their definition as follows:
“A teacher – a learned man [or woman] who shares their knowledge and enlightens all ignorant [people] and works for the mass uplifting of the society by imparting knowledge.”
There are many such gurus to be found on the Internet who fit this definition; but there are several such experts like Ken who have contributed so much to making this www.near-death.com website what it is today. How these experts became so important to my own personal research and enlightenment is a story worth telling. I will try to be as brief and precise as I can.
Before I had my own personal computer, I was a book worm reading everything I could get my hands on the subject of NDEs and Christianity. One of the books I read was Ken’s wonderful book entitled Visions of God from the Near-Death Experience which I highly recommend. But as a fundamentalist, the information I was reading about NDEs conflicted a lot with my strict Christian belief system. During the 1980’s, I had a “crisis of faith” partly due to this conflict which ultimately led me to being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The medication I began taking was in every way a lifesaver. One might say the medicine took away the “manic street preacher” inside of me and ultimately made me a more liberal Christian. The major source of information which greatly resolved my internal conflict between fundamentalist Christianity and near-death studies was my first guru – Edgar Cayce (www.edgarcayce.org) – the Christian mystic whose information was my “bridge” connecting Christianity with near-death studies. The brand of Christianity revealed by Edgar Cayce agreed with what I was reading in all the NDE books which is: (1) the reality of Universal Salvation; (2) the Unconditional Love and Universal Mind that is God; and (3) the higher teachings and “hidden mysteries” of Jesus concerning a personal “resurrection” as a spiritual regeneration within a living person and – for those who have not experienced this spiritual “resurrection” – a bodily “resurrection” of the soul by means of reincarnation which is the divine method for the evolution of the soul. According to Cayce, this system of bodily reincarnation also allows those who have already attained spiritual regeneration to reincarnate to help others in their soul’s evolution and to help prepare the way for the “Kingdom of Heaven” on Earth. The Cayce Organization and their website is filled with wisdom on these mysteries which were ordained to be revealed at this time in history.
When I graduated with a computer science degree in the 1990’s, the World Wide Web was in its infancy. At this time, I discovered my second guru – Marcus P. Zillman, M.S., A.M.H.A. (www.zillman.us). He is an international Internet expert who played a major role in bringing artificial intelligence to the Web in the form of bots and intelligent software agents. He has authored hundreds of free publications available for downloading including over 80 white papers, Internet MiniGuides, How-To videos, and eBooks about a variety of subjects available to both the “newbie” as well as the “seasoned” veteran. His free resources allows me to be currently aware of important Internet sources especially in web development. One might say he was my “bridge” connecting my desire to present near-death studies on the World Wide Web via a website.
Then when I began creating the www.near-death.com website, I had already known whom I refer to as my third guru – P. M. H. Atwater, L.H.D, (pmhatwater.hypermart.net) – who was one of the early researchers in near-death studies and one of the very few researchers who actually is an NDE experiencer. Her books, articles and website gave me a perspective of NDEs which agreed with my growing liberal Christian view. From almost the beginning of my website, she has personally allowed me to freely reprint numerous articles of hers including a column in my monthly newsletter which spanned almost a decade. As someone who often presents NDE information to the Edgar Cayce organization, her knowledge was my “bridge” connecting NDE studies with NDE mysticism .
Sometime after the new millennium, I read an article in the Journal of Near-Death Studies entitled “The Near-Death Experience and Christian Universalism.” I was so impressed with the article that I contacted the author who eventually became my fourth and latest guru, Dr. Ken R. Vincent, to ask permission to reprint it on my website. After reading other articles by Ken published on the website The Universalist Herald (www.universalist-herald.org) of which he is now the retired Webmaster, another profound element to my knowledge base was added. His expertise provided me with another vital bridge for connecting NDE studies with Universalism in a way I have never known before. At the time, I considered myself somewhat of an NDE and Christian universalism expert; but in reading Ken’s writings I discovered someone who actually is a scholar of both of these subjects and someone who stands far beyond my comprehension of them. We agreed that he would be the NDE and Universalist guru on my website.
After reprinting his article “The Near-Death Experience and Christian Universalism” – which is now Chapter 10 of this online book – I became diverted with webmaster duties as my site was getting larger. Reprinting some of Ken’s articles remained at the top of my To-Do list. Ultimately, Ken emailed me a number of his articles in book format which are the Chapters of this book. Upon reading them, I knew I had to immediately build this book which Ken is offering at no cost. I know this new book of Ken’s will enlighten many people as it enlightened me. Building his book on my website has definitely been a labor of love.
And there is an enormous amount of profound information in this book as each Chapter ties in with the next. Much like the so-called “crimson thread” which weaves revelations of Jesus in the Hebrew Bible, so does Ken’s paperback book The Golden Thread: God’s Promise of Universal Salvation – as well as this new book – weave a “golden thread” of Universalism through all the major world religions tying them all together. Ken shares some Chapters of his paperback book here in this new book.
The reader will also be amazed how Ken ties near-death studies with scholarly topics such as:
What NDEs and STEs teach us about God and the afterlife
Modern scientific research into religious experiences
Psychology as it relates to NDEs and STEs
The parallel levels of moral development between individuals, religions, and entire cultures
The parallel levels of religious development in individuals and world religions
The five universal concepts found in all religions
Why religion would probably cease to exist without STEs
Why modern STEs are identical to STEs in ancient religious texts when you remove the supernatural elements
Why personal religious experience is becoming more fundamental than theology
The nine categories of resurrection appearances of Jesus which are identical to modern ADCs involving Jesus
How modern scientific research of religious experiences reveals principles of Universalism
Personal cases of Universalist mystical religious experiences
How NDEs agree with Universalism including Christian Universalism
The vast amount of historical and Biblical evidence supporting Universalism
One of the most profound NDE testimonies ever documented because of its authenticity, authority, and aftereffects
How the more ancient religion of Zoroastrianism influenced doctrines found all the Western religions
The scientific research into negative religious experiences
The history of how the false doctrine of eternal damnation crept into Christianity hundreds of years after the death of Jesus
The types of Universalists in America today
How Universalism is the key for resolving the strife in the modern world
and much more…
In conclusion, I know Ken’s research will enlighten you in so many ways as it did me. A vast number of the missing pieces in my knowledge base concerning NDEs, STEs, religious studies, and Universalism have been filled in thanks to Ken and I am eternally grateful. – Kevin R. Williams, B.Sc.
In 1975, the near-death experience burst into contemporary consciousness with the publication of Raymond Moody‘s famous book Life After Life. The public was newly fascinated, unaware that the phenomena had been described throughout recorded history (the story of Er in Plato’s Republic being the most famous example).
From the beginning of NDE studies, some researchers have included individuals who had only come “close to death” with those who were resuscitated after being clinically dead for a brief period of time. In their effort to clarify the terminology, Peter and Elizabeth Fenwick in their book The Art of Dying coined the term “temporary death experience” to separate those who came near to death from those who revived following clinical death.
Continuing this effort to define the characteristics of the NDE, Vince Migliore used a large sample from the files of the International Association of Near-Death Studies (IANDS) and published it in his book A Measure of Heaven. Comparing a sample of 193 accounts of clinical death to a sample of 189 accounts of “NDE-like” experiences (e.g., mystical experiences) that were not near death, Migliore found that the NDEs were more in-depth than the mystical experiences, but the difference was not statistically significant.
Unfortunately, there is still no agreed-on definition of the NDE or other religious experiences in the literature.
3. Near-Death Experience Commonalities
People can and do have mystical experiences that resemble near-death experiences without dying. St. Paul’s out-of-body experience (OBE) in which he went to heaven is a famous example (2 Corinthians 12). The NDE is unique among religious /mystical /spiritual experiences in that its “trigger” is clinical death, and we now have over 35 years of research that enable fascinating insights into what the NDE teaches us about God and afterlife.
I begin with Jeff Long‘s “proofs of afterlife” from his book Evidence of the Afterlife because of the magnitude of the sample (N=1300) and the fact that 613 subjects were given an objective questionnaire. They are as follows:
(1) NDErs report increased alertness and consciousness.
(4) NDErs report experiences while under anesthesia.
(5) NDErs report life reviews that include experiencing the feelings of others.
(6) NDErs report seeing dead relatives, including people unknown to them who were identified to them later by viewing family photographs.
(7)NDErs who are children report having every NDE element of older NDErs, and this is true whether their account is told during childhood or as an adult who had the experience in childhood.
(8) NDErs who were non-English-speakers from Long’s database form the largest collection of cross-cultural NDEs and provide evidence that NDEs are the same all over the world.
(9) NDErs report that their lives were changed as a result of their NDE and, for the majority, the change was for the better.
To this list of “proofs,” we can add the “Shared Death Experience” which Raymond Moody describes in his book Glimpses of Eternity. This occurs when a person or persons at the bedside of an individual who is dying experiences the beginning of the dying individual’s first moments of death, including such things as alternate reality, mystical light, OBE, coliving the life review, unworldly or heavenly realms, and mist at death.
(3) These consistent beliefs in life after death contrast with the widely divergent creation myths of different religions.
In other words, the above studies taken together demonstrate the NDE to be a world-wide phenomenon and that it is at the generic core of afterlife beliefs in the world’s religions. Organized religion is, at best, second-hand.
5. Insights into God and Afterlife
Using the same tools that social scientists employ to study all other facets of human behavior, researchers have gained fresh insights into how humans experience God in the here-and-now and in the hereafter. The following 9 findings are the ones I personally find most compelling:
a.God (aka, Ultimate Reality/Great Spirit) Is With Us and Not Distant
In the NDE, the experiencer is often brought before a divine judge/being of light for a “life review“. This can be frightening, comforting, or both; nevertheless, it is awesome. Judgment is virtually universal in world religions.
e. What’s In Your Heart – Not What You Believe – Is What Matters
Religious groups that declare that theirs is the only path to God and salvation are totally wrong. NDE and other religious experiences (e.g., after-death communications, death-bed visions) are replete with stories of people of all faiths and denominations in heaven.
f. “By Their Fruits You Shall Know Them”
Virtually all of the books on the NDE and other religious experiences mentioned in this article speak to the fact that these events change people’s lives for the better, with some authors devoting a whole chapter to this finding.
Research into the NDE and other spiritual experiences broadens our understanding of God and afterlife and serves as an essential counter to the oppressive religion that is all too common in today’s world. Thanks to research over the past 150 years, we currently know more about how humans experience God and afterlife than at any time in recorded history.
To me, the greatest contribution of Sir Alister Hardy and the Religious Experience Research Centre has been to demonstrate that religious /spiritual /mystic experiences are, in fact, quite common. The picture emerging is of a generic God and afterlife that are universal; its essential elements are an “off-the-rack” fit for all the world’s religions but a “tailor-made” fit for none of them. What is universal is from God; the remainder of religion is cultural. I pray that we continue this research.
1. Introduction to the Developmental View of Religion
When I was a freshman at Baylor University, I took a required religion class from Prof. Kyle Yates. Professor Yates was one of the scholars who worked on the Revised Standard Version of the Old Testament (a.k.a. the Hebrew Bible). When we got to the Persian period of Hebrew history, he began to talk about Zoroaster, the prophet of the Magi. Inspired by his lectures, I went to the library and read the hymns of Zoroaster and thought to myself, “Wow! God talked to someone who wasn’t Jewish!” This started my life-long quest for the generic God in the world’s religions.
For many years, I’ve been active in interfaith work, and my friends and colleagues here in Houston form a tapestry of the world’s religions. I have learned from them. Now that I’m retired, I’m a little old man who lives on the fourth floor of the Rice University Library, still steeped in the world’s religions.
Today, I will be your guide to the Afterlife. You may have been hoping for Beatrice and Dante, but the worship committee wasn’t quite able to conjure them up. I’m going to give you a three-layer view of how people — both ancient and modern — have viewed Afterlife. This is what we in psychology call a “developmental” view of religion because it reflects the way both individuals and societies normally mature.
2. Magic, Deeds and Universalism as Levels of Religious Development
The most rudimentary level of religious development is MAGIC, which includes bribery or other manipulation of the gods in order to guarantee a positive outcome for your Afterlife. In the middle layer, Afterlife is dependent on your DEEDS during your life on Earth, and the history of religious art illustrates the development of this idea across time and cultures. (Interestingly, MAGIC has often been practiced in conjunction with GOOD DEEDS.) The top layer of development is UNIVERSALISM, the concept that God is too good to condemn anyone to Eternal Hell, and that all humans will go to Heaven, either immediately or eventually.
Most people in the world, regardless of their religion, believe that judgment for the Afterlife is determined by one’s deeds in this life. Simply stated, if your good deeds outweigh your bad deeds, you go to Heaven. But if your bad deeds outweigh your good deeds, you go to Hell.
This is the story of humanity. My point is that human beings across time and culture share one story, although I must tell you that in the East, after an intermediate stage of Heaven or Hell, you have a “sequel” — called “reincarnation“. In other words, in the East, your deeds affect not only your intermediate destination of Heaven or Hell, but also determine the condition of your next life.
3. A Final Judgment of Deeds as the Intermediate Level of Religious Development
a. The Egyptian Book of the Dead
The oldest judgment scene we have in art is a depiction of the EGYPTIAN Book of the Dead which has been seen in tomb art as early as about 3,000 BCE. After the deceased goes into the darkness (which is the body of Nut), he or she comes forth into the light, into the Great Hall of Truth. Osiris is the King of the Afterlife, and Isis is his queen. For over 3,500 years, Osiris was known as the “Resurrection and the Life”. Your deeds in life were judged by weighing your heart against a feather, and woe to those whose heart is heavy with sin!
Next we have judgment in ZOROASTRIANISM, the religion of the Magi. Here, three angels preside over judgment — Mithra, Sraosha, and Rashnu. Rashnu holds the scales, Sarosha is the judge, and Mithra listens to appeals. Your good deeds are weighed against your bad deeds, and then you pass over a bridge. If your good deeds are heavier, the bridge is wide open to you, and you pass over easily. If your evil deeds outweigh your good ones, the bridge becomes narrow, and you fall into Hell. This razor-sharp bridge imagery lives on in Shi’ite Islam.
Next we move from West to East. Most Westerners think that reincarnation is instantaneous, but this is not generally so. For the overwhelming majority of HINDUS and BUDDHISTS, there is an intermediate state between death and re-birth. This intermediate state is presided over by Yama or Yamaraj. In HINDU mythology, Yama was the first king and king of the dead. His assistants weigh your good deeds and, depending on the outcome, you go to Heaven or Hell for three generations. In BUDDHISM, as in its parent religion, Yama judges the dead. Yama is known as “Yama” in Tibet, Nepal, Southeast Asia and Western China. In Eastern China, Korea, and Japan, his name changes, but he is always the same fair judge of the dead. Where he is the king of Heaven in Hinduism, he presides over Hell in Buddhism. In the Tibetan Book of the Dead, a twelfth-century Buddhist work, the intermediate state lasts for 49 days before you are re-born.
4. Magic as the Rudimentary Level of Religious Development
Now let’s step back to analyze the way MAGIC is used to influence Afterlife. Obviously, we are aware of cultures in both the Eastern and Western hemispheres that have used human or animal sacrifice to bribe the gods to do or not do something the petitioner asks. However, this practice has been abandoned by the world’s major religions and can be found in only indigenous religions today. On the other hand, belief in magical powers is still very much a part of our modern culture when it comes to “stacking the deck” in favor of a Heavenly Afterlife.
In most religions, there is a tension between the moral justice of judgment according to deeds and magic to insure a positive verdict. The keys to effective magic are that:
(1) You have to be “in the club”, and (2) You or your priest must know the “secret words”.
a. Magic in the Egyptian Book of the Dead
In ancient Egypt, the scales of judgment are older than the pyramids, but they co-exist with the magic text of the Egyptian Book of the Dead that enables the deceased to overcome past sins. Countering this are not only the scales, but the instruction for Merikare (2200 BCE) which reinforces the idea of judgment according to deeds.
Additionally, there is the story of Si-Osiris (son of Osiris) and his father, Setne Khaemweset (fourth son of Ramesses II). Si-Osiris is a seer. He and his father watch a funeral procession in which a rich man was being carried with his elaborate belongings to a princely tomb. Shortly after this, they observed the funeral of a poor man wrapped only in a cloth who was being taken for burial in the desert sand. The Egyptian prince remarks to his son that he hopes for a good funeral in preparation for a glorious Afterlife, but his seer son remarks that all things are not as they appear to be. He puts his father into a trance, and the two are transported to the land of the dead where the evil rich man is suffering a hellish fate and the righteous poor man is being comforted by Osiris, Isis, and the Egyptian gods, and is living afterlife in regal splendor.
In ancient Greece, the Afterlife in very early times was seen as a very gloomy place where everyone went. But by the time of Plato, the idea of judgment according to deeds had developed. In Plato’s Republic, the story is told about Er, the world’s oldest recorded near-death experiencer, who revives on his funeral pyre and tells of a judgment at death by three judges. The good ascend to Paradise, and the evil descend to Hell. But after a period of time, Plato also mentions the possibility of reincarnation. Pythagoras also was an advocate of reincarnation. In the mysteries that were popular in the later Greek and Roman periods, we are given a chance for an “up-grade” in the Afterlife via the magical rites of the mysteries of Orpheus, Dionysus, Demeter and Persephone, Mithra, Isis and Osiris, etc. According to the mysteries of Orpheus, one of the things you were to say was, “I am a child of Earth and the starry Heaven, but Heaven is my home”. Here again, you have to be in the club, and you have to know the secret words.
c. Magic in Judaism’s Day of Atonement
In ancient Judaism, the sins of the Jewish people were magically put into a goat (scapegoat) on the Day of Atonement. Here again, you have to be “in the club” and you (or the priest) have to know the secret words (Leviticus 16:21-22). Modern Jews no longer do this, knowing that God hears our prayers.
d. Magic in Christianity’s Faith in the Name of Jesus
In Christianity, this magic level is practiced by those who say that “belief in Jesus” assures an exclusive ticket to Heaven. You have to be “in the club” (that is, be a Christian), and you have to know the secret words, which in Fundamentalist Christianity are found in John 3:16 or John 14:6. While Liberal Christians and many moderate Christians see Jesus as the “suffering servant” of Isaiah who died to bring us the word, Fundamentalist Christians delight in being “saved“. That belief alone will save you is an idea as old as the followers of the Hindu gods Shiva and Lord Krishna. Its positive side is the devotional path in which the followers identify with and emulate the god. In Christianity, we see this positive emulation in those kind and loving souls who model their lives on Jesus. One is reminded of the words of the beautiful old Gospel hymn, “In the Garden”:
“He walks with me, and He talks with me, and He tells me I am His own.”
e. Magic in Hinduism’s Devotion to a God’s Name
In Hinduism, the devotional path is expressed in the prayer:
“Krishna, Krishna, Hare, Hare”, in other words, “Krishna, Krishna, Redeemer, Redeemer.”
Magic in Hinduism is best illustrated by the idea that if you die with the name of Vishnu or one of his incarnations, such as Rama or Krishna, on your lips all of your sins are taken away and you go straight to Nirvana (heaven). There are times when we all need a little magic. The last words of Gandhi were “Rama, Rama.”
f. Magic in Buddhist Texts and Chants
In Buddhism, magic is represented in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Being “in the club” (that is, being Buddhist) and having your relative or a monk read the secret words of the Book of the Dead by your corpse. This will enable you to become aware in the Afterlife and chose the things which will assure you a good re-birth. Also in Pure Land Buddhism by invoking the name of the Buddha at death, you will be transported to a Pure Land of Bliss in the West by Amitabha (the Buddha of Infinite Light), who is also known as O-Mi-To (China) and Amida (Japan) (Flotz, 2004, p. 73; Nigosian, 2000, p. 89). There you can continue the process of liberation under blissful conditions. Another “savior” Bodhisattva is Ti-tsang and anyone who chants his name will have their sins wiped away (Teiser, 1988, p. 187).
5. Universalism as the Highest Level of Religious Development
a. Universalism in Zoroastrianism
Having looked at the developmental level below judgment by deeds, let us look at the level above it — UNIVERSALISM. The concept of Universalism as an idea is as old as Zoroaster. Around 1600 – 1200 BCE (like Moses, the exact date of his life is not known), Zoroaster preached these basic concepts; see if they sound familiar:
This idea may be as old as Zoroaster, but it is as new as modern-day near-death experiencers, many of whom died into Hell but found themselves rescued when they called out to God or (in the West) called out to God or Jesus.
“We are not discouraged by the time it takes to save all the humans and all of the animals.”
When one looks at the plight of humanity through the eyes of a parent, it is easy to see that Universalism makes sense. God is infinitely nicer than the best human beings you know. If you are a panentheist like me, you know that God is in all of us, and we are all in God. God knows the assets and limitations of each human soul. Unlike the State Board of Pardons and Parole, God knows how to rehabilitate people.
Once upon a time before time mattered, people worshiped the Great Spirit, saw every living thing as possessing a spirit, and saw Afterlife as a Happy Hunting Ground. That sounds Universalist to me. So maybe we have come full circle. To quote Jesus in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas:
“Have you discovered the beginning, then, so that you are seeking the end? For where the beginning is, the end will be.”
As a Universalist Christian, I look forward to the time when, as Jesus taught, God will save the Lost Sheep and the Prodigal Son.
Hinduism is very diverse, but all Hindus believe in the Law of Karma. Karma means that good actions bring good results and evil actions bring evil results, i.e., your actions in this life determine your fate in the afterlife and reincarnation. For Hindus, union of the soul (Atman) with the Most High God (Brahman) is the ultimate goal. Although the Atman and Brahman are of the same substance, the soul retains its identity when it unites with Brahman (Moksha) in virtually all denominations of Hinduism. It is analogous, they say, to a drop of water (the soul) that unites with the ocean (God) but always knows it is a drop of water. This concept is retained in most forms of Buddhism but changes in some sects of Theravada Buddhism which claims that the soul loses its identity in God (the Infinite), as stated by John Hick his book, Death and Eternal Life.
In Hinduism, the high God (Brahman) is beyond form, but is manifest in many forms (gods). After all, how is God manifest to a hamster? Here are some Hindu verses that speak to this:
“Whatever form any devotee with faith wishes to worship Me, I make that faith of his steady” (Bhagavad-Gita 7.21).
“Whosoever offers to Me with devotion a leaf, a flower, a fruit, or water-that offering of Love, of the pure-hearted I accept” (Bhagavad-Gita 9.29).
“By Me is pervaded all this universe, by Me in the form of the unmanifest. All beings rest in Me, and I do not rest in them” (Bhagavad-Gita 9.4).
2. Universalism in Buddhism
Buddhism does not deal with God per se, but rather is a “fast track” salvation system of the reincarnation type which allows for the Buddhist to attach him/herself to other religions such as the shamanic Bon religion of Tibet, Daoism in China, or the Shinto religion in Japan.
Most Westerners think that reincarnation is instantaneous, but this is not generally so. For the overwhelming majority of Hindus and Buddhists, there is an intermediate state between death and rebirth. This intermediate state is presided over by Yama or Yamaraj. In Hindu mythology, Yama was the first king and king of the dead. His assistants weigh your good deeds and bad deeds and, depending on the outcome, send you to Heaven or Hell for three generations. Other Hindus assert that Karma is constantly reassessed on a sort of “Karma credit card,” and that the length of your stay in Heaven or Hell is determined by how much “good” or “bad Karma you have “charged.” Obviously your Karma also determines your fate regarding reincarnation.
Saviors (avatars) are also a part of Hinduism. Dying with the name of Vishnu or one of his incarnations on your lips (such as Rama or Krishna), assures that all of your sins will be taken away and you advance directly to paradise. The last words of Gandhi were, “Rama, Rama.”
In Buddhism, as in its parent religion, Yama judges the dead. Yama is known as “Yama” in Tibet, Nepal, Southeast Asia and Western China. In Eastern China, Korea, and Japan, his name changes, but he is always the same fair judge of the dead. Although he is the king of Heaven in Hinduism, he presides over Hell in Buddhism. In the Tibetan Book of the Dead, a twelfth-century Buddhist work, the intermediate state before rebirth lasts 49 days.
In Pure Land Buddhism, by invoking the name of the “savior” BodhisattvaAmitabha Buddha at death, you will be transported to a Pure Land of Bliss by Amitabha (the Buddha of Infinite Light), who is also known as O-Mi-To (China) and Amida (Japan). Once there, you can continue the process of liberation under blissful conditions for as long as it takes. Other Pure Land Savior Bodhisattvas include Ti-tsang and Guanyin (Khuan-Yin) the female Bodhisattva of Compassion.
3. Universalism in Sikhism and Jainism
The other children of Hinduism — Sikhism and Jainism — also have a judgment after death by Yama (king of the Dead), reincarnation, and the potential for ALL to achieve union with God (the Infinite).
Sikhism is a merger of Islam and Hinduism that developed in the 16th Century when its founder, Guru Nanak, had a revelation from God. The god of the Sikhs is a personal god, much like the god of the Abrahamic religions; however, the Sikh salvation system is the Hindu model of reincarnation in which ALL have the potential to reach the highest state:
“‘How then is truth to be attained? How is the veil of illusion to be destroyed? Nanak says, ‘through obedience to the divine order, which is written in your heart.'”
Jainism is a religion of the “axial age” (6th Century BCE), when Mahavira, the last of its twenty-four “holy ones,” appeared. Hindus and religious scholars see Jainism as an off-shoot of Hinduism, but some Jains maintain that it evolved independently. Jains see the Universe as having always existed, but having different eons or ages. Humans reincarnate through heavens, earth, and hells, but ALL have the possibility of reaching the infinite.
So we see that Universalism is fundamental to the ancient religion of Hinduism and its children. Hell is not permanent in the intermediate state between death and rebirth, and the process of reincarnation allows for ALL to ultimately unite with God (the Infinite).
Some years ago, I was attending a Hindu workshop for teachers, and they talked about their religious “children,” namely, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism. I can’t recall if there was a Jain in attendance, but I do remember talking at length with the Sikh who presented that day. Can you imagine this happening with Western religions? Think of a Zoroastrian conference where Jews, Christians and Muslims show up and congenially admit that Zoroastrianism is the basis for all three of their religions!
Omar Khayyám is one of my heroes. I have read translations of his poem, the Rubaiyat, hundreds of times over the past 50 years. Amazingly, each repetition still brings some fresh insight! Rubai means “quatrain,” a four-line stanza in which there are two sets of rhyming lines. The Rubaiyat is a collection of quatrains written over a period of many years by Omar Khayyám, a Sufi mystic living in the late 11th and early 12th Centuries.
Within Omar’s poetry, I recognize a person much like myself: someone unable to be an orthodox believer but too optimistic to be agnostic! His verses reflect the impossibility of certainty in religion, philosophy, or science; he questions the theological tenants of all religions. Ultimately, he was simply a lover of God. He believed his own mystical experiences which became the basis of his faith.
287 Although the creeds number some seventy-three, I hold with none but that of loving Thee; What matter faith, unfaith, obedience, sin? Thou’rt all we need, the rest is vanity.
2. Omar Khayyám: The Theologian
One of Omar’s most important theological truths is that God is ONE. His mystical experiences convinced him that there is ONE TRUTH behind all the world’s religions:
63 Hearts with the light of love illuminated well, Whether in mosque or synagogue they dwell, Have their names written in the book of love, Unvexed by hopes of heaven or fears of Hell.
Omar had the good fortune to live in Nishapur, a prosperous city on the Silk Road, at a time when the Moslems had ruled Iran for 500 years. Significantly, a large minority of followers of the Zoroastrian religion whom Omar called “Magians” still resided in this area. He was also acquainted with the beliefs of smaller religious minorities in the region – Jews and Christians, as well as Buddhist travelers. In his poem, he shows respect for all of these religions. He recognizes that ALL yearn for God – that all are seeking the ONE.
34 Pagodas, just as mosques, are homes of prayer, ‘Tis prayer that church-bells chime unto the air, Yea, Church and Ka’ba, Rosary and Cross Are all but divers tongues of world-wide prayer.
3. Omar Khayyám: His Parallels With Jesus
While any monotheist may become a Sufi, they are most often associated with Islam. Ultra-orthodox Sufis may choose to obey Islamic law but add some mystical component. Other Sufis (like Omar) view Islamic law much the way Jesus viewed the ritualistic Jewish Law – that it is more important to obey the spirit than the letter of the law. Consequently, Omar was admired by some Sufis who used his poem as a teaching tool but, like Jesus, he was cursed by those who were victims of his barbed criticisms of religious hypocrisy. In another behavior reminiscent of Jesus, Omar openly associated with sinners. Both believed that God wants us to speak, act, and live from our hearts.
368 Hear now Khayyam’s advice, and bear in mind, Consort with revelers, though they be maligned, Cast down the gates of abstinence and prayer, Yea, drink, and even rob, but oh! Be kind!
4. Omar Khayyám: The Polymath
Omar was a scientist, astronomer, and mathematician. Everyone who has ever taken algebra has been taught his binomial theorem! As an astronomer, he revised the Persian calendar to be as accurate as our present Georgian calendar, but he did so 500 years earlier and without the use of telescopes!
Many people have attempted to translate the Rubaiyat; some translations are academic, literal, and “dry as a bone,” while others are simply paraphrases. At one time or another, I have owned 21 different translations. Probably the best-known one is that of Edmund Fitzgerald who first published in 1859 but subsequently made 4 other translations over the next 30 years. It is Fitzgerald’s version of this familiar verse that falls so easily on our ears:
“A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou, A book of poems beneath the bough.”
5. Omar Khayyám: The Poet of the World
However, my favorite translator is E. H. Whinfield because of his effort to balance the meaning of the poems with a pleasing rhythm. While keeping the words as literally accurate as possible, he takes enough “poetic license” to insure that the poems remain beautiful when read aloud. Whinfield made 3 translations of the Rubaiyat. His second translation was selected by Joseph Campbell for the epic series, The Masks of God, so I assume that Campbell favored this translation too.
Contrary to what you may have assumed when you were exposed to the Rubaiyat as an adolescent, the poem is NOT about living for the moment without regard for tomorrow! Omar does not advocate irresponsibility, but he does want to persuade people to BE ALIVE IN THE MOMENT – to enjoy what we have today – NOW! He is addressing those who live “in the past” or those who imagine that happiness is not possible until some imagined goal is achieved or current problem resolved!
30 To-day is thine to spend, but not tomorrow, Counting on morrows breedeth naught but sorrow; Oh! Squander not this breath that heaven hath lent thee Nor make too sure another breath to borrow!
6. Omar Khayyám: The Philosopher of the World
Omar’s respect for the insight of other religions includes the “middle way” of Buddha and Lao Tzu which asserts that it is best to live modestly – shunning poverty or wealth.
168 Let him rejoice who has a loaf of bread, A little nest wherein to lay his head; Is slave to none and no man slaves for him; In truth, his lot is wondrous well bested.
Like Jesus who told us that “the Kingdom of God is within you,” Omar claims that one can attain mystic union with God in the “here and now.” This is the universal insight repeated by all mystics throughout the ages. When our primary goal is to truly seek and love God, we are joined by persons from a diversity of religious affiliations, and academic arguments on textual minutia become irrelevant.
49 In Synagogue and cloister, mosque and school, Hell’s terrors and heaven’s lures men’s bosoms rule, But they who master Allah’s mysteries, Sow not this empty chaff their heart to fool.
Omar explains that some time may be needed to achieve mystic unity with God – it can’t be bought or obtained through reason alone:
302 The “Truth” will not be shown to lofty thought, Nor yet with lavished gold may it be bought; But, if you yield your life for fifty years, From words to “states” you may perchance be brought.
One of the many points argued by scholars is Omar’s meaning of the word, “wine.” Obviously, wine is forbidden in Islam. Is the meaning of “wine” literal, symbolic, or both? Personally, I think Omar often uses “wine” literally as “beverage,” but he also uses it metaphorically to express “mystical ecstasy.” In this stanza, “wine” is clearly symbolic:
262 In taverns better far commune with Thee Than pray in mosques and fail Thy face to see! Oh, first and last of all Thy creatures Thou ‘Tis Thine to burn, and Thine to cherish me!
In this stanza, the meaning of “wine” is literal:
349 Tell Khayyam, for a master of the schools, He strangely misinterprets my plain rules: Where have I said that wine is wrong for all? ‘Tis lawful for the wise, but not for fools.
46 Khayyam! Why weep you that your life is bad? What boots it thus to mourn? Rather be glad. He that sins not can make no claim to mercy, Mercy was made for sinners – be not sad.
7. Omar Khayyám: The Cosmologist
Omar touches on the idea of predestination, which is a major theological position in Islam, as well as the “Christianity” of Protestant Reformer John Calvin. As an astronomer, Omar is aware of the predictability of most of the visible cosmos, and he fears that predestination is a possibility:
100 When Allah mixed my clay, He knew full well My future acts, and could each one foretell; Without His will no act of mine was wrought; Is it then just to punish me in Hell?
One of the recurring analogies in Omar’s poetry is God as “potter” and humankind as “pots.” Literally, we are made of dust, and to dust we return. Omar reminds us that the clay in our earthenware cup could, in the past, have been human!
32 This jug did once like me, love’s sorrows taste, And bonds of beauty’s tresses once embraced. This handle, when you see upon its side, Has many a time twined round a slender waist!
He acknowledges the possibility that there may be no afterlife:
107 Drink wine! Long must you sleep within the tomb, Without a friend, or wife to cheer your gloom; Hear what I say, and tell it not again, “Never again can withered tulips bloom.”
He hopes that, at death, all our questions will be answered:
87 Make haste! Soon must you quit this life below, And pass the veil, and Allah’s secrets know; Make haste to take your pleasure while you may, You wot not whence you come, nor whither go.
This stanza is a favorite of mine and Joseph Campbell’s:
491 Man is a cup, his soul the wine therein, Flesh is a pipe, spirit the voice within; O Khayyám, have you fathomed what man is? A magic lantern with a light therein!
8. Omar Khayyám: The Sufi Universalist
Omar knows he is a heretic and cannot be otherwise:
60 From Mosque an outcast, and to church a foe, Allah! Of what clay didst thou form me so? Like sceptic monk or ugly courtesan, No hopes have I above, no joys below.
293 Did no fair rose my paradise adorn, I would make shift to deck it with a thorn; And if I lacked my prayer-mats, beads, and Shaikh, Those Christian bells and stoles I would not scorn.
A discussion about Omar wouldn’t be complete without mentioning his affinity for Zoroastrians. Another Sufi, Attar of Nishapur, went so far as to declare, “We are the eternal Magians – we’re not Moslems.” Attar felt that the Islamic religion, as it was practiced, lacked the quality of love that dominated the old Persian religion of Zoroaster and Christianity. In the next verse, Omar talks about being a Zoroastrian and not being a good Moslem:
281 Ofttimes I plead my foolishness to Thee, My heart contracted with perplexity; I gird me with the Magian zone, and why? For shame so poor a Moslem to be.
Some scholars postulate that Omar was a Zoroastrian and that his frequent use of “tavern” is a symbol for “Magian fire temple,” but the following verse suggests otherwise:
334 Am I a wine-bibber? What if I am? Zoroastrian or infidel? Suppose I am? Each sect miscalls me, but I heed them not, I am my own, and what I am, I am.
9. Omar Khayyám: The Panentheist
Sufiism is pantheist or panentheist. Pantheist means that God is all. Panentheist means that God is all and more. Panentheism is acceptable to Islam – as it is to Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism. The next verse speaks to this:
389 Nor you nor I can read the eternal decree To that enigma we can find no key; They talk of you and me behind the veil But, if that veil be lifted, where are we?
The mystic knows the panentheistic reality that God is everywhere, although many people fail to realize this or take the time to recognize it. The following verse echoes William Blake‘s idea that, if the doors of perception were cleansed, all could see the reality of God and God’s Universe:
247 The world is baffled in its search for Thee, Wealth cannot find Thee, no , nor poverty; Thou’rt very near us, but our ears are deaf, Our eyes are blinded that we may not see!
305 Allah, our Lord, is merciful, though just; Sinner! Despair not, but His mercy trust! For though today you perish in your sins, Tomorrow He’ll absolve your crumbling dust.
318 Sure of thy grace, for sins why need I fear? How can the pilgrim faint whilst Thou art near? On the last day Thy grace will wash me white, And all my “black record” will disappear.
193 They say, when the last trump shall sound its knell, Our Friend will sternly judge, and doom to hell. Can aught but good from perfect goodness come? Compose your trembling hearts, ’twill all be well.
276 O Thou! Who know’st the secret thoughts of all, In time of sorest need who aidest all, Grant me repentance, and accept my plea, O Thou who dost accept the pleas of all!
204 Can alien Pharisees Thy kindness tell, Like us, Thy intimates, who nigh Thee dwell? Thou say’st, “All sinners will I burn with fire.” Say that to strangers, we know Thee too well!
This last verse refers to mystical insight in which the knowledge of God is gained directly. Like mystics and Universalists everywhere, Omar knows that in the end, we will ALL be united with God.
Once upon a time, before wisdom was confined to books, Shamans of the “Great Spirit” anticipated an afterlife for their peoples. But the earliest existing expression of the Universalist idea of an afterlife where God saves ALL people can be found in the revelation of Zoroaster, Prophet of the Magi. Truly, it is one of many profound influences that Zoroaster’s new religion had on the subsequent development of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Known as Zoroaster by the Greeks and Zardust by the Arabs, he is properly called Zarathustra by the followers of the religion he founded. (Since he is best known in the West by the Greek name Zoroaster, that name will be used in this paper; interestingly, the Greek name “Jesus” also became favored over the Hebrew “Yeshua.”)
According to the Holy Book of the Magi, Zoroaster was born in eastern Iran and lived from about 660 BCE to 583 BCE. Like Moses (who is thought to have lived between 1600 and 1200 BCE), there is virtually no corroborative historical evidence for his life outside the religious writings. Most scholars place Zoroaster’s life earlier in history (as long ago as 1200 – 1800 BCE), mainly due to the ancient Eastern Persian language he used to compose his Hymns (Gathas).
Zoroaster’s parents were middle-class, and his father was probably a horse or camel trader as well as a priest. He was married and had children. His major revelations occurred at age 30 after he, like Jesus, went into the wilderness to seek God. After this experience, he was inspired to say that:
“God declared to me that silent meditation is the best for attaining spiritual enlightenment” (Y43.15).
The Holy Book of the Magi relates how Satan tempted him in the wilderness with a promise of a 1,000-year rule. He preached for ten years without success, after which he converted his cousin, the rest of his family, and King Vishtaspa.
2. An Introduction to Zoroastrianism
Once Zoroastrianism was adopted by the kings of Persia, the religion spread throughout the Persian Empire. The Magi, who at that time were priests of the old pagan religion in western Iran, accepted and taught the new religion of Zoroaster; some believe that Zoroaster himself was a Magus of the old religion prior to his divine revelations. His Hymns to God (Gathas), about the length of the Gospel of Matthew, were first recited orally and eventually written into the Holy Book of the Magi (Avesta). We know that he was assassinated by a rival priest at the age of 77 years. While Zoroaster claimed no divinity for himself, later traditions created miraculous stories that were characteristically attached to persons held in high esteem in the ancient world. A fond tradition claims that Zoroaster laughed (instead of crying) at birth!
In the religion of the Magi, humanity has free will to choose between good and evil, and we are required to be active participants with God in the eventual defeat of evil. The core beliefs are often summarized succinctly in the phrase:
“Good thoughts, good words, and good deeds.”
Zoroaster’s name for God is “Ahura Mazda” which means, “Lord of Life and Wisdom” or simply “Wise Lord.” This can be compared to the literal translations of the names for God in Hebrew Scriptures: “Yahweh” which means “I AM” and “Elohim” which means “God“. For Zoroaster, God is wholly good; God unconditionally and totally loves all his Creation and all humanity – always. God is not angry, jealous, or vengeful; God would never tempt humans into doing evil. We are made of the essence of God and are cherished by God. Fasting, celibacy, and the austere life have no place in the religion of the Magi; one is simply directed to BE LIKE GOD – Do Good and Oppose Evil. (Christians may recall that in Matthew 5:48, Jesus also commands us to be like our heavenly Father.) Because all creation is sacred, it is also humanity’s duty to protect creation and not defile it or pollute it. (In a very real way, Zoroaster was the first environmentalist!)
God is opposed by an evil force called “The Demon of the Lie” which Zoroaster described as “that which is not and never was” — almost as if he saw the devil as a vacuum. Satan is responsible for all death, destruction, decay, and darkness. Satan has no physical presence on Earth but does have the ability to corrupt God’s creation. However, Satan is dim-witted and disorganized and can be defeated by the Good!
Like Christianity, the religion of the Magi has a concept of the Holy Spirit as being the part of God that is present with us on the Earth. God is both immanent (present) and transcendent (other). It is the Holy Spirit or Mentality of God (Spenta Mainyu) that counters the Evil Spirit or Mentality (Angra Mainyu). In the words of Zoroaster:
“Through his Holy Spirit And his Sovereign mind, Ahura Mazda will grant Self-realization and immortality To him whose words and deeds Are inspired by righteousness, Moral courage and Divine Wisdom.” (Y47.1)
3. Zoroastrianism: The Origin of God as Light
Both the ancient Magi and the modern followers of Zoroaster see God as Light, the oldest non-anthropomorphic conception of God. God is the light above us, around us, and within us. For Zoroaster, the contrast between light and darkness is always a metaphor for the conflict between Good and Evil. In speaking of the God of the Magi, the 3rd-century Greek philosopher Porphyry said:
“When you break subatomic particles down to their most elemental level, you are left with nothing but pure light.”
Sometimes observers of this religion from ancient to modern times have mistaken the Magi for fire worshipers because of the “eternal flame” present in all of their temples. However, the fire has never been worshiped; the flame of the fire represents LIGHT, their symbol for God.
4. Zoroastrianism: The Origin of a Final Judgment
Concepts of the afterlife in the religion of the Magi are almost identical to those of Christianity. Joseph Campbell suspects direct borrowing of the ideas of the Magi by Dante in his vivid descriptions of a multi-layered Heaven and Hell. According to Zoroaster’s vision, each human soul is required to face judgment on the “Bridge of Judgment.” If there is a preponderance of good deeds, the soul is allowed to pass over a wide bridge to Heaven on which the good deeds meet him or her in the form of a beautiful 15-year-old girl. The soul of the saved asks:
“Who are thou, for I have never seen a young girl on Earth more beautiful or fair than thee?”
In answer, the young girl replies:
“I am no girl, but thy own good deeds.”
If the human soul contains a preponderance of evil deeds, a young girl “who has no semblance of a young girl” comes to meet it, and the soul of the damned says:
“Who are thou? I have never seen a wench on Earth more ill-favored and hideous than thee.”
In reply, the ill-favored wench says:
“I am no wench, but I am thy deeds – hideous deeds – evil thoughts, evil words, evil deeds, and evil religion.”
Unlike Dante whose Limbo is for the righteous who are not Christians, Limbo in the religion of the Magi is for those whose good deeds and bad deeds are in equal balance. The Hell of the Magi is not eternal but only a temporary detour while you “shape up” and the evil in you is purified. Zoroastrians, like other Universalists, believe God is too good to sentence humans to Eternal Hell. Some modern minimalist scholars dispute the fact that Zoroaster was a Universalist and say that Universal Salvation came into Zoroastrianism later; however, as Mary Boyce points out in Textual Sources for the Study of Zoroastrianism, the religion was definitely Universalist many years before Christianity when the 4th century B.C. Greek, Theopompus stated that:
“Zoroaster prophesies that some day there will be a resurrection of all the dead. In the end Hades shall perish and men (people) shall be happy …”
5. Zoroastrianism: The Origin of Angelic Beings
In the religion of the Magi, the Archangels – called the “Bounteous Immortals” – are very powerful, as you can tell from their names: “The Good Mind“, “Righteousness”, “Divine Power”, “Universal Love”, “Perfection”, and “Immortality.” Interestingly, half are male and half are female. They were created by God and with the Angels serve as a link of communication between humanity and God. Additionally, they are manifestations of the characteristics present in men and women of good will – those that each of us needs to integrate into our lives in order to serve God. For instance, good men and women manifest the characteristics of the Archangel of the Good Mind, while evil people are beset with the Evil Mind. The Archangels have been called deities erroneously by some scholars. Some scholars maintain that Zoroaster’s original conception was that of highly abstract Archangels which represent mere aspects of God. Tradition and, more importantly, followers of the modern Zoroastrian religion interpret them literally as Archangels. The Magi also believed that there were Earth Angels of which the prophet Zoroaster was one. Dr. J. J. Modi sees parallels between the Christian angel Michael and the Zoroastrian angel Mithra, as well as between the Christian angel Gabriel and the Zoroastrian angel Sraosha.
The name of Mithra may sound familiar to Westerners because of a heretical cult during Roman times that extended as far west as England. This “mystery religion” (which allowed only men) worshiped Mithra as a god, and its popularity is said to have rivaled the early Christian movement. Curiously, Mithra’s birthday is December 25, a date adopted later by the Christian Church for Christmas in its effort to discourage participation in this pagan celebration. Mithra is still worshiped as a god in India. However, in the orthodox religion of the Magi, Zoroastrians consider Mithra “only” an Angel and not even an Archangel! Sophy Burnham, author of A Book of Angels, credits Zoroaster with the development of the concept of angels. Before their contact with the Magi, the Hebrews often refer to the messengers of God as simply men (as in Genesis 18 when three men, one of whom is God, appear to Abraham). After their contact with the Magi, Judaism and later Christianity and Islam have a well-developed system of Archangels and Angels.
6. Zoroastrianism: The Origin of Universalism
Both a spiritual afterlife of the soul and a physical resurrection at the end of time are concepts of Zoroaster. Humanity can fall prey to evil, but after “purification” in Hell, ALL are saved at the end of time. When the victory over evil is complete, the end of time will come where nothing ever dies or decays, and there is no darkness – only LIGHT.
In the spirit of Universalism, Zoroaster tells of future Saviors possibly coming from different nations:
“Indeed such shall be the Saviors Of the countries who follow The call of Duty by good thoughts Because of their deeds Inspired by righteousness In accord with your command O Mazda, they certainly have been marked out As smiters of wrath.” (Y48.12)
7. Zoroastrianism: The Origin of Dualistic Good Versus Evil
One ongoing issue in Zoroastrianism present since antiquity is the debate between those who interpret Zoroaster’s understanding of God as “ethical dualism” (monotheism) and those who maintain the concept of “cosmic dualism” (God and Satan co-exist). Although Zoroaster was very sure that God is wholly good and that man is free to choose good or evil, his teachings were unclear about the source of evil in the world. That is, if God the Creator is all good, where does evil come from? Those supporting ethical dualism (monotheism) would answer that evil originates in the mind of humanity and is the byproduct of creation; because the Universe is incomplete and unfinished, there is a capacity to alter the status quo. That is why humanity must be active in helping God to overcome evil. The Zoroastrian scholar and modern-day believer, Professor Farhang Mehr, sees Zoroaster as a pure monotheist who taught ethical dualism rather than cosmic dualism.
Throughout the long history of this religion, the concept of cosmic dualism has been more widely accepted; that is, a belief that good comes from God and that evil comes from Satan, although God is Eternal and Satan is not. Interestingly, this same concept of cosmic dualism is used throughout the New Testament by both Jesus and St. Paul, although the monotheism of Christianity is never doubted. Satan is a very real and powerful being to Jesus; he is tempted by Satan in the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13). He asks:
“Put on the whole armor of God so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the Devil.” (Ephesians 6:11)
The proponents of cosmic dualism feel comfortable with modern-day “Process Theology” which expresses the idea that God cannot bestow free will and remain all powerful. A concept in modern physics that may reinforce the reality of cosmic dualism is that “a little chaos” is present in every atom of the Universe.
The God of the Magi is Universal, and Zoroaster was the first to proclaim this truth. In the words of the Persian (and Zoroastrian) King Darius:
“I am King of all the Nations by the will of God.”
In the words of Zoroaster, God is supreme:
“When I held you in my very eyes Then I realized you in my mind, O Mazda, As the first and also the last for all Eternity, As the Father of Good Thoughts, As the Creator of Righteousness And Lord over the actions of life.” (Y31.8)
8. Zoroastrianism’s Influence on World Religions
Although the Persian Empire fell to Alexander the Great (331 BCE), the Magi continued to be very influential throughout the Middle East and the Western World, and the religion of the Magi continued as the primary religion in the middle east until the Moslem conquest (642 CE). The Magi were prized as teachers of great wisdom and power, and Zoroaster remained a highly respected figure.
Of course, Zoroastrian ideas have been enormously important to subsequent religious thought. Many scholars contend that it was Zoroaster’s cursing of the Hindu gods that initiated the break between the religious approaches of the East (Hindu, Buddhism) and those of the West (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). In the Dead Sea Scrolls of the Essenes, the imagery of the “Sons of Light” and “Sons of Darkness” is a direct borrowing from the Religion of the Magi. Six hundred years after the Muslim conquest, the Sufi Mystic, Attar of Nishapur, wrote:
“We are the Eternal Magi, we are not Muslims.”
The Cypress slender Minister of Wine in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is a Magi. Omar Khayyam once said he wore the belt of a Magi because he was ashamed of his Islam.
Zoroaster taught that God loves us all and that, after evil is finally defeated, ALL humanity will be saved at the end of time, although those whose bad deeds outweigh their good deeds will need to be “purified” in Hell before joining God in Heaven.
The following example illustrates the views of Zoroaster concerning Universal Salvation:
“If you understand these laws of happiness and pain Which Mazda has ordained, O mortals, (There is) a long period of punishment for the wicked And reward for the pious But thereafter eternal joy shall reign forever.” (Y30.11, emphasis added)
ABSTRACT:Near-death experiences (NDEs) have been reported since ancient times. Before the advent of modern reporting methods in medicine and the social sciences, the credibility of these accounts was often compromised through editing by church authorities or retelling by secondary sources. The autobiographical account of the NDE of George de Benneville, an 18th-century physician and lay minister, would satisfy the criteria of contemporary near-death researchers. In addition, de Benneville’s life is so well-documented that researchers have confidence in his personal credibility. The hopeful Universalist message in his account is also consistent with the reports of modern-day NDEs. We provide a complete account of de Benneville’s NDE and compare it with both ancient and modern NDEs. We discuss his experiences within the context of comparative religion in general and Universalist Christian theology in particular.
Near-death experiences were rarely recorded prior to modern resuscitation techniques, but there is no doubt they have occurred since the dawn of humanity. In his Republic, the ancient Greek philosopher and educator Plato told the story of Er, a man who revived on his funeral pyre and recounted his near-death experience (NDE) (Plato, 1892/4th century B.C.). In the 1st century, Plutarch recounted the story of Thespesius of Soli who died of a blow to the head but revived during his funeral three days later (Plutarch, 1918/1st century). In the 6th century, St. Gregory the Great told the story of a man named Stephen who died but came back to life before his body could be embalmed (Gregory the Great, 1959/6th century). The 8th century English theologian and scholar the Venerable Bede described the near-death experience of a man named Drythelm of Cunninghame who “rose from the dead” in 696 A.D. (Bede, 1907/8th century). In his Ecclesiastical History, Bede also included two deathbed visions with similar themes. All these accounts stressed the necessity of living a righteous life in order to avoid punishment in the afterlife. Plato did not indicate Er’s reputation, but Plutarch stated that Thespesius had fallen into living a less-than-sterling life, Gregory wrote that Stephen’s character was mixed, and Bede noted that Drythelm became more religious and entered a monastery after his NDE.
Despite our fascination with these and other examples from ancient and medieval literature and the fact that they sound similar to modern NDE accounts, they are of little use to the modern near-death researcher. One of the most essential criteria for modern near-death research is that the account be an autobiographical or “first-hand” telling of the experience. In her analysis of medieval and modern accounts of otherworld journeys, Carol Zaleski noted:
“We cannot simply peel away the literary wrapper and put our hand on an unembellished event. Even when a vision actually did occur, it is likely to have been re-worked many times before being recorded” (Zaleski, 1987, pp. 86-88).
She suggested, for example, that the Church would have been eager to insure that these accounts did not contradict “truth” as defined by Church doctrine.
Before the advent of modern medicine and social sciences, there was little value placed on reporting events objectively. This was true for most mystical religious experience in general and near-death experiences in particular. Not until the end of the 19th century was organized research into these fields initiated by the British Society for Psychical Research and, subsequently, its American counterpart. Against this suspicious background of NDEs interpreted through historians and theologians, we are fortunate to have one 18th-century NDE account that would meet the standards of modern researchers. In 1741, George de Benneville wrote his first-person NDE account. By examining his life and reputation, we hope to show that his NDE can be accepted as authentic and credible.
3. The Life of George de Benneville
George de Benneville (1703-1793) was a physician and lay minister in Europe and an advocate of the doctrine of Universal Salvation that, in the end of time, all creatures will be restored to what he called “happiness and holiness.” He brought the spirit of German Pietist communities to the new world, principally in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, but he made frequent journeys to the Southern states.
The youngest of nine children born to Huguenot refugees, de Benneville was born and brought up in the British royal court in London, his father being a nobleman from Normandy. His godmother was Queen Anne. After growing up in England, he traveled to France and eventually settled in Germany, where he had his near-death experience at the age of 36, and from whence he emigrated to America in the second quarter of the 18th century, arriving in Philadelphia, but eventually settling and marrying in what is now Berks County, Pennsylvania. He built there a large house that contained a schoolroom for both immigrants and Native American children, a large room used by many religious groups, and a space for his medical practice. He learned and used many herbal remedies from tribes in the area, some of whom often would camp outside his house. He also assisted in the first German language edition of the Bible published in the United States, and put the Bible passages that justified Universal Salvation in red type.
De Benneville believed that there was an essential unity behind every appearance of religious diversity. Thus he was able to incorporate into his medical practice Native American remedies and even some of their symbols and language. In 1757 he and his family moved near Philadelphia, where he continued his medical practice while opening an apothecary shop. He treated the wounded of both sides at the Battle of Germantown in 1777 and even permitted British troops to be buried in his family plot. He died of a stroke in 1793 (De Benneville, 1804; Morgan, 1995, pp 28-33).
4. The Near-Death Experience of George de Benneville
This is de Benneville’s NDE in his own words. The spelling and punctuation are left in their original form.
“I felt myself die by degrees, and exactly at midnight I was separated from my body, and saw the people occupied in washing it, according to the custom of the country. I had a great desire to be freed from the sight of my body, and immediately I was drawn up as in a cloud, and beheld great wonders where I passed, impossible to be written or expressed. I quickly came to a place which appeared to my eyes as a level plain, so extensive that my sight was not able to reach its limits, filled with all sorts of delightful fruit trees, agreeable to behold, and which sent forth such fragrant odours that all the air was filled as with incense. In this place I found that I had two guardians, one at my right hand and the other at my left, exceeding beautiful beyond expression, whose boundless friendship and love seemed to penetrate through all my inward parts … They had wings and resembled angels, having shining bodies and white garments.
“He that was at my right hand came before me, and said:
“My dear soul and my dear brother, take courage, the most holy trinity hath favored you to be comforted with an everlasting and universal consolation, by discovering to you how, and in what manner, he will restore all his creatures without exception, to the praise of his glory, and their eternal salvation; and you shall be witness of this, and shall rejoice in singing and triumph with all the children of God, therefore as a reward for the friendship and love that you have born for your neighbours, on whose accounts you had many extreme griefs, and shed many tears, which God himself, who shall turn all your griefs to exceeding great gladness.”
“Then he took his place at my right hand. After that the second guardian who was at my left hand appeared before me, and spoke thus:
“My dear soul, my dear brother, be of good cheer, thou shalt be strengthened and comforted after your griefs with an universal and eternal consolation … You must be prepared to pass through the seven habitations of the damned; be of good courage and prepare yourself to feel something of their sufferings, but be turned inward deeply during the time, and you shall thereby be preserved.”
“Then he took his place at my left hand; immediately we were lifted up in the air, and sometimes after we arrived in a dark obscure place, where nothing but weeping, lamentation, and gnashing of teeth, could be understood. A dreadful place, as being the repository of all sorts of damned souls, under condemnation with the torments, pains, griefs and sufferings which their sins had merited, for each one had his works to follow him in death. All iniquities and sins were reduced to seven classes or habitations: there was an eternal confusion there, that which one made, the other destroyed.
“The duellist, in his fire of anger, burns against his enemy, and they pass as a flame and firebrand of hell, one through the other. You might see fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, thieves, the covetous, drunkards, slanderers, ravishers, etc., each laboring and being employed with his sins and iniquities. One might also see all kind of conditions of men, divines, deputies, controvertors, advocates, judges, lawyers, and in a word one might discover whatsoever any of them had done upon earth. In each habitation I discovered that those who were abased and that appeared sorrowful for their sins, were separated from the others of seven habitations of the damned, where I knew one I had been acquainted with upon earth. I discovered also that he had an habitation among the damned, and that they were able to see the elect from that habitation where he was, but were not able to pass through because there was a great gulph between them, so that all are obliged to dwell where they are. It is impossible to describe my condition, as I had great compassion towards the sufferers, inasmuch as I had part of their sufferings.
“After we had passed through we were lifted up some distance from the place, where we reposed ourselves; and a messenger was sent to us, who watered or refreshed us as with a river of pleasure, saying, eat, my beloved, and drink, my friends, to refresh yourselves after all your toils and pains; my dear soul, and my dear brother, (addressing himself to me) the most holy trinity always works wonders in all times within his poor creatures without exception, and he will order for a time, and half a time, that you shall return into your earthly tabernacle, to publish and to proclaim to the people of the world an universal gospel, that shall restore in its time all the human species without exception to its honor and to the glory of its most holy trinity … Hallelujah.
“Beholding the messenger attentively, I discovered that he had a most glorious body, dressed in a robe whiter than snow, filled with the most exalted love and friendship, joined with the deepest humility which penetrated me through and through, and suddenly there was heard a great multitude of the heavenly host, and the messenger said, as he flew to join the same, with a sweet voice:
“Holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and who is to come.”
“The multitude were innumerable, and there was one who surpassed in grandeur, brightness, beauty, majesty, magnificence and excellence, all the others; even the son of the living God, being the brightness of his glory and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high. As the multitude approached the glory caused us to fall down, and to adore in spirit and in truth the son of the living God, who marched in the midst of the multitude.
“After they had passed us, we were lifted up, and caused to follow them, for the air carried us the way they went, in a different manner than before. Oh! the wonders of our God! When we arrived in the place of the seven habitations of the damned, we could perceive no more darkness, obscurity, pain, torments, lamentations, afflictions, nor gnashing of teeth. All were still and quiet, and an agreeable sweetness appeared through the whole. Then all the heavenly host shouted with one voice and said:
“An eternal and everlasting deliverance, an eternal and everlasting restoration, universal and everlasting restitution of all things.”
“Then all the multitude adored the most holy trinity, and sang the song of the Lamb, even the song of the triumph for the victory gained by him, in the most harmonious manner. And at the end, all the multitude being upon their knees, said with a loud voice:
“Great and marvelous are thy works, O Lord, God Almighty, just and true are thy ways. Oh! King of Saints.”
“Presently they passed through the seven habitations of the damned and a multitude were delivered from each, and being clothed in white robes, they followed the heavenly host, praising and glorifying the most high for their deliverance; one might know them amongst the others: they all retired by a different way than that which they came. The messenger then came and conducted us into a most wonderful place, and ordered my two guardians to conduct me into five celestial mansions, where the Lord’s elect abide; and then to reconduct me to dwell yet a time, and half a time in my earthly habitation, and to preach to the lower world the universal everlasting gospel; and that the most holy trinity hath a pure universal love towards all the human race, without exception, and to each one in particular; then turning himself towards me he said:
“My dear soul, my dear brother, thou shalt be favored of the most holy trinity, to be conducted by thy guardians, who shall never leave thee; when thou shall have need of their counsel, thou needest but to call them, and they shall be day and night present at thy service; they shall conduct thee into five of the heavenly mansions at this time, where thou shalt partake in a certain degree, of the celestial glory as much as thy spirit shall be able to receive, as not being yet sanctified and purified sufficiently, and then thou shall be reconducted into thine earthly tabernacle, for a time and half a time and shall preach to the lower world the universal everlasting gospel, and that the most holy trinity hath a pure universal love towards all the human race without exception, and towards each one in particular.”
“The fountain of grace bless and preserve thee, and cause his face to shine upon and in thee, and enlighten thine understanding both in time and in eternity, Amen. Our knees bending of their own accord, he laid his hand upon my head, and blessed me, and immediately took wing and swiftly fled away.
“After that, my guardian conducted me into five celestial habitations, where I discovered many wonders. Some had greater brightness, glory, and majesty than others, and, as the places were, so were the inhabitants; some were clothed in garments whiter then snow; others had transparent bodies, and others again had white bodies resembling crystal. It is impossible to express these things. They were moved by boundless burning love, rising up and then plunging themselves into the deepest humility; all their motions were penetrating, being filled with love and friendship … Their actions and manners are strengthened and animated with brightness, being filled with light as with the rays of the sun; it was the fire of heavenly love, which by inflaming all their hearts, causes them all to burn in the same spirit. They have no need of any way of speaking there, but the language and motions of eternal and universal love without words for their actions, their motions speak more than all words. I was then conducted into five habitations of the elect. At the first, a great multitude came before us with songs to the honor and glory of the most high, and of the victory gained over the damned. They received us with triumph, great zeal, love and friendship, saluting us with profound humility, and conducting us into a large room; there was a great table covered and furnished with all sorts of fruit, not only pleasant to behold, but also exceedingly delicious to the taste.
“In the mean time while we were taking our repast, the celestial multitudes formed songs, and sang psalms of praise and thanksgiving to the most holy trinity. After that we were conducted into all the five celestial habitations (that I was to see) where I saw many wonders, impossible to describe. First, many thrones lifted up of inexpressible beauty and magnificence; upon one of these thrones I beheld the royal high priest, surrounded with exceeding great brightness, and clothed in most excellent majesty, being employed in kind intercession before his father, for all the human species, pleading the sufficiency of his blood-shedding to deliver and sanctify a thousand such worlds as ours. All the elect, with the heavenly spirits, joined their intercession with that of their high priest, the only chief king, being reconcilers, saviors, and restorers in the same spirit. This mutual intercession appeared like incense ascending on high into the sanctuary of the Lord. Over against the throne I discovered Adam with Eve, rejoicing in the only mediator between God and men, and adoring together the most holy trinity for the deliverance of their children out of the great miseries and eternal condemnation into which their sin and fall had brought them, and upon their bended knees adoring the only mediator for the intercession he makes in behalf of mankind. Also I beheld a multitude of spirits flying and enflamed with the fire of heavenly love, while we adored, humbled in nothingness, rendering our religious homage to the most high for his intercession and the deliverance of all mankind. Then my guardian, who was at my right hand, coming before me, said thus:
“Dear soul, my dear brother, do you see these spirits flying, who are vanished in the spirit of love and gratitude, humbled and self-annihilated as it were, adoring before the throne of grace, and praying the saviour for the intercessions he made for them. These are lately delivered from the infernal prisons; it is from them that the tincture of the blood of Jesus Christ hath been shed even to the last drop, notwithstanding they had dwelt a long time shut up in the place of the damned, under the power of the second death, and have passed thro’ many agonies, pains and tribulations …”
“Upon that, I perceived that Adam and Eve approached, and Adam spoke to me after his manner:
“My dear brother, rejoice with universal and eternal joy, as you are favored with the heavenly visions! it is in this manner that our adorable royal high priest, mediator, and intercessor, shall restore all my descendants to the glory of our God, and their eternal and universal salvation for the kingdom of eternal love hath power sufficient to draw all mankind out of their bondage, and to exclaim and say; O death, where is thy sting, etc. But my dear brother, this love of our God in Jesus Christ, by the power of his holy spirit, shall not only gain the victory over all the human species, but also surmount or overflow the kingdom of Satan entirely, with all the principalities of the fallen angels, and shall bring them back in their first glory, which they have had in the beginning. I will make all things new, said the Lord of hosts, and the end shall return into its beginning, ‘O my Lord and my God, what great wonders hast thou caused to pass before mine eyes! Who am I, O my God, dust and ashes, an ungrateful and rebellious creature, I should not dare to lift mine eyes towards the heavens if the blood of Jesus Christ thy son did not plead for me. My soul rejoices and is glad, she shouts for joy; ‘O my God, whom I adore, love, and respect; before whom I desire to be without ceasing, self-annihilated at thy feet. O my God and my love, the seraphims and cherubims burning with the fire of thy heavenly love, adore and honor thee; give me thy grace also, O my God, that I may be consumed before thee, while I sing the majesty, glory, and the memory of God, who hath created and redeemed me. I would praise him incessantly, not in shadow or figure, but in reality and truth. I would continue devoted to thee, and always be swallowed up in the ocean of love without a wish to leave it.”
“Being in this manner conducted into five celestial habitations, I discovered many mysteries, saw many miracles, and beheld the wonders of the most holy trinity among the children, the elect, and heavenly inhabitants, and perceiving how some surpassed others in brightness, light, splendor, majesty, friendship, love, humiliation, and self-abasement, concerning of which things my tongue is too feeble to speak, and my pen to write. I adore the marvelous ways of my God, with all the happy spirits.
“Many thrones, palaces, edifices, temples, and buildings were erected in all parts, with fruit trees intermixed, rivers of pleasure gliding along through the celestial land, which appeared like a garden of heaven, even the paradise of God. It is the court of the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, which the eye has not seen nor the ear heard, and which the hearts of men have not received. It is the celestial globe where the New Jerusalem, or Mount Sion, is placed, where the bosom of Abraham is; where the sufferers who came out of their tribulations are refreshed, and rejoice forgetting all their miseries; being come out of their purifications, they are made to rejoice in Sion; O magnificent globe! O thou city of the Great God! stately city of this place! where shall a mortal find convenient phrases to lift out a little of thy glory and splendor? It is the glory and magnificence of the most holy trinity, where God is pleased to manifest himself in his pomp and beauty. The blessed angels have their employment in serving God; they compose the court of the Great King. O my God, I am not able to express that which penetrates me, of the grandeur, magnificence, splendor, pomp and majesty of thy dwellings, or of the inhabitants in those transparent places, hallelujah and victory for ever … AMEN.
“Then my guardian took me up, and reconducted me to the house from whence I came, where I perceived the people assembled, and discovering my body in the coffin, I was reunited with the same, and found myself lodged within my earthly tabernacle, and coming to myself, I knew my dear brother Marsey, and many others, who gave me an account of my being twenty-five hours in the coffin, and seventeen hours before they put me in the coffin, which altogether made forty-two hours; to me they seemed as many years; beginning then to preach the universal gospel, I was presently put in prison, but soon set at liberty again. I visited all my brethren, preaching the gospel and taking leave of them all, because that my God and Sovereign Good called me to go to America and preach the gospel there. I took my departure for the same in the 38th year of my age, and it is forty-one years since I first arrived here. The 28th of July next, 1782, I shall be 79 years of age. Blessed be the name of the Lord forever.”
5. The Visions of George de Benneville
The NDE is considered to be one category of mystical experience with an easily identifiable “trigger,” that of dying briefly. Other mystical experiences include visionary experiences, out-of-body experiences, deathbed visions, and after-death communications. Modern studies have shown that about 40 percent of the populations of developed countries have had mystical experiences (Hay, 1987; Wood, 1989). There is some evidence that the number increases to as high as 65 percent when subjects are interviewed personally rather than being queried by written questionnaire (Hardy, 1979).
A legitimate question often asked is how we know these people are not simply delusional. Social scientists have now accumulated enough data to state that 5 percent of the population experiences psychosis in their lifetime (Wood and Wood, 1999). In comparing the relatively small percentage of psychotic persons to the number reporting mystical experience, the mystics clearly predominate. While visionary experience is more commonly identified with mental illness than nonvisionary mystical experience, research in the 19th century, as well as research in the 20th century using random samples, showed the majority of persons experiencing hallucinations were not psychotic (Bentall, 2000; West 1995). In reviewing de Benneville’s personal history carefully, there is no evidence that his visions were the result of psychosis.
In addition to his NDE, de Benneville had visionary experiences. His first vision occurred as a teenager while he was changing his shirt at a ball. In his words, he:
“… fell into a fainting fit and had a vision of myself burning as a firebrand in hell” (1804, p. 7).
After an interval of 15 months, he had a vision of Jesus revealing to him that his sins were forgiven and that all people would receive salvation. When he began to talk about this vision to others, his story was brought to the attention of French Calvinist ministers who were in exile with him. He said:
He was cast out of the Calvinist church, his own personal religious experience having trumped church authority. As we still find today, persons whose mystical religious experience is accepted by their church community tend to remain within it, while those whose congregations condemn them exit rather than deny the truth of their own experience.
De Benneville’s next religious experience was at age 17 years when he heard an internal voice:
“… calling me to go to France to preach the Gospel” (1804, p. 13).
His fourth experience, which occurred during the time he was preaching on the European continent, was a vision of heaven where people were worshiping God. He reported falling ill in his late 30s and suffering a high fever from “a consumptive disorder” (1804, p. 18). He again had visions of a fine plain filled with fruit trees and inhabitants who were “clothed in garments white as snow” (1804, p. 19). This is the only one of his visionary accounts considered to be compromised because of the presence of fever. He subsequently died and had an NDE, as related above.
6. Judgment or Life Review in World Religions
De Benneville’s NDE is similar to many pre-modern NDEs in which the person died but revived near the time of burial. The theological idea that humans face Judgment of Deeds, often called a life review in NDE accounts, dates to ancient Egypt. It appeared in the instruction for Merikare more than 4,100 years ago (Assmann, 2005). Coexisting with this Judgment were the Pyramid Texts and Book of the Dead, which provided the deceased with magical instruction to insure a positive outcome (Spence, 1990/1915). We do not claim that these Egyptian texts were based on NDEs or mystical religious experiences; they were simply Egyptian theology with a familiar “ring.” In Zoroastrianism, judgment is determined by weighing good deeds against bad deeds. Those who do not measure up are purified in Hell until they “shape up” (Vincent, 1999, pp. 46-47), after which all are saved.
In both Plato‘s and Plutarch’s accounts, the NDErs witnessed Judgment, Heaven, and Hell; after a period of time, the deceased were reincarnated (Plato, 1892/4th century B.C.; Plutarch, 1918/1st century). These Greco-Roman accounts echoed the theology of the Eastern religions — Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, and Jain (Bhattacharji, 1987; Evans-Wentz, 1957; Merh, 1996; Nigosian, 2000; Vincent, 2005). In the Hindu religion and its derivatives, there is Judgment, followed by an intermediate state of Heaven or Hell that is not permanent; reincarnation follows for all except the few who are pure. Reincarnation has only begun to be studied objectively, but Ian Stevenson and Jim Tucker at the University of Virginia Medical School and their colleagues have gathered 2,500 contemporary cases suggestive of reincarnation (Tucker, 2005).
In the Christian account of Gregory the Great, a man named Stephen was taken before the heavenly judge and had his case dismissed because of “mistaken identity.” Curiously, his neighbor died during the same hour, also with the name of Stephen (Gregory the Great, 1959/6th century). This kind of error is commonly reported in Hindu NDEs (Pasricha and Stevenson, 1986). While he was dead, Stephen found himself on a bridge with Heaven on one side and Hell below the bridge. He observed that the unjust would slip off the bridge and fall into Hell (Gregory the Great, 1959/6th century). This kind of “bridge” imagery is also present in Zoroastrianism and Shiite Islam (Moulton, 1980). In Bede’s account, the Christian NDEr was shown Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory (Bede, 1997). As mentioned before, the Medieval Church often edited accounts to conform to official dogma. Gregory the Great admitted as much when he wrote:
“God allows some souls to return to their bodies shortly after death, so that the sight of hell may at last teach them to fear eternal punishments in which words alone could not make them believe” (Gregory the Great, 1959/ 6th century, p 237).
7. From Judgment to Universal Salvation
In de Benneville’s NDE, we have a first-hand account from a reliable individual. In it, he asserted the primary tenet of Universalism, that after purification in Hell, all will be saved. De Benneville’s NDE reinforced his earlier vision that caused his abrupt change in theology from Calvinist predestination to Christian Universalism. De Benneville’s NDE conformed to modern NDEs in two important aspects:
(1) NDEs are largely positive in nature, and
(2) Those who initially find themselves in Hell can reverse their fortune by calling out to God (Vincent, 2003).
In fact, de Benneville’s account was compatible with the contemporary account of George Ritchie (1998) who recounted that in the hellish regions of his NDE, angels were trying to help those in Hell. In his vision, Ritchie was told by Jesus:
“You are right, for I, Love, be lifted up, I shall draw all men [people] unto Me” (p. 44).
This is virtually identical wording to the great Universalist Biblical passage in the Gospel of John:
“… and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32 NRSV).
The first person to speak of Universal Salvation was not a Christian, but rather Zoroaster, the ancient Persian prophet of the Magi, who lived about 1200 A.D. (Vincent, 1999). Zoroaster said that God based salvation on good deeds in this life; Christian Universalism added Jesus’s message of forgiveness (Matthew 6:12-15). Christian Universalism is supported by numerous verses in the Hebrew Bible  and New Testament  (Vincent, 2005). The earliest theological writing on Christian Universalism was that of St. Clement of Alexandria in the 2nd century. His pupil, Origen, was Universalism’s most influential theorist (Vincent, 2005).
In the 7th century, Universalism was dealt a blow when Origen’s theology was condemned by the Roman Catholic Church, although it remained viable in the Churches of the East. In the West, Universalism was relegated to the realm of mystics until the Reformation (Hanson, 1899). Julian of Norwich was one of the best examples of this. Although her Universalist mystical experiences of God and Jesus were contrary to Roman Catholic doctrine, she wrote that both her experiences and Catholic teaching must be true in some sense, a “dance” that enabled her to keep in the good graces of the Catholic Church (Hick, 1999).
De Benneville’s NDE was preceded by a mystical religious experience in the form of a vision that was Universalist in nature, a theological concept completely contrary to his religious upbringing. Departing from the Calvinist view of salvation for a few “elect,” de Benneville spent the remainder of his life as a minister and physician witnessing for his understanding of a God too good to condemn anyone to Eternal Hell. His reversal was as dramatic a change as that of St. Paul (1 Corinthians 15:3-8; Galatians 1:13-16) who went from persecuting Christians to being one of Christianity’s major evangelists. In recent years, there has been much documentation that both mystical religious experiences and NDEs change the lives of those who have them in positive and lasting ways (Greyson, 2000; Hay, 1987). In de Benneville’s autobiography, we have a credible person’s account of his mystical experiences and NDE. His life reflected his belief in God’s Universal, unconditional love for all.
ABSTRACT: I explore the near-death experience (NDE) in the context of the theology of Christian Universalism. I provide data on various models of Christian theology, and present the model of Restorative Universalism as the one most compatible with reports of afterlife in the NDE. I interface quotations from actual NDE accounts with New Testament verses to illustrate these similarities. Restorative Universalism includes a judgment (“life review” in NDE terminology), followed by punishment for some but eventual universal salvation for all. I present an analysis of New Testament verses supporting the theologies of “Jesus Saves,” Predestination, Good Works, and Universal Salvation, which reveals Salvation by Good Works to be supported by the greatest number of verses, followed by verses advocating Universal Salvation for All. Christian Restorative Universalism is based upon these two predominant New Testament teachings and affords the greatest harmony with the NDE.
Of all the theological explanations for the near-death experience (NDE), the Doctrine of Universal Salvation, also known as Universalism, is the most compatible with contemporary NDE accounts. Universalism embraces the idea that God is too good to condemn humankind to Eternal Hell and that, sooner or later, all humanity will be saved. Interestingly, a belief in Universal Salvation can be found in virtually all the world’s major religions (Vincent, 2000, pp. 6-8). It is particularly essential to Zoroastrianism, the religion of the Magi (Vincent, 1999, pp. 9-10 and 46-47).
The Universalist theology that acknowledges a temporary Hellish state for those who need some “shaping up” before proceeding to their ultimate reward is termed more specifically “Restorative Universalism.” In my book Visions of God from the Near-Death Experience, I included a chapter on frightening NDEs, coupled with Hell as portrayed in sacred scriptures. My intention then was to present the topic of Universal Salvation in the world’s religions from a spiritual perspective (Vincent, 1994). In this article, I want to show that Christian Universalism, a doctrine with solid support in the New Testament, blends seamlessly with the experience of NDErs.
By exploring the connections between the NDE and Universalist theology, I have no interest in reviving the so-called “Religious Wars” in the NDE movement (Ellwood, 2000; Ring, 2000; Sabom, 2000a, 2000b). I do hope to offer a source of comfort to NDErs, both Christian and non-Christian, who may have had their experience marginalized by assaults from Fundamentalist or Conservative Christians. They can be assured that a more loving alternative to Christian “exclusivity” (that is, “only Christians go to Heaven”) exists within the same New Testament they have known since childhood.
In a recent national poll for Religion & Ethics Newsweekly and U. S. News & World Report (Mitofsky International and Edison Media Research, 2002), only 19 percent of Christians and 7 percent of non-Christians stated a belief that their religion was the only true religion. This contrasted with a 1965 poll in which 65 percent of Protestants and 51 percent of Catholics reported that “belief in Jesus Christ as Savior was absolutely necessary for Salvation” (Glock and Stark, 1965).
Americans appear to be becoming more Universalist in their orientation. The 2002 study also found that “an individual’s spiritual experience (as opposed to doctrines and beliefs) is the most important part of religion” was answered in the affirmative by 69 percent of Christians and 73 percent of non-Christians (Mitofsky International and Edison Media Research, 2002). Americans also appear to be more spiritually aware, or at least more willing to admit it. In 2002, 86 percent of Americans stated that they had “experienced God‘s presence or a spiritual force that felt very close to you one or more times” (Mitofsky International and Edison Media Research, 2002).
Spirituality has always been part of religious experience. In this article, I will explore how Universalist ideas are expressed in the Bible, and, more importantly, how Universalism helps place the near-death experience within the context of Christian theology.
3. Validity of the Bible
To examine these questions, we must first consider the status of the Bible and theological interpretations of it. In polls regarding the validity of the Bible, about one-third of Americans reported a belief that the Bible is “the actual Word of God” (about as many as report being Fundamentalist). One-sixth (about the number of non-Christians in America) described it as a “book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts.” One-half believed it to be the “inspired Word of God but that not everything should be taken literally” (Mitofsky International and Edison Media Research, 2002, p.2; Wood, 1989, pp. 130 and 361). These views of the general population reflect modern scholarship regarding the Bible. Today, Biblical inerrancy is a view adhered to by only the most Fundamentalist scholars (Borg, 2001).
From the time the Bible was written to the present, individuals have reported mystical experiences (Argyle, 2000; Hick, 1999; James, 1901/ 1958). The NDE is unique among the categories of mystical union with God (Borg, 1997) because of its identifiable “trigger.” The big question is: How much credibility should one give to reports of mystical experiences in the Bible, as most are not first-person accounts but rather written down as “much-told tales” following many years of oral tradition?
As stated above, most scholars do not consider the Bible to be inerrant. In light of this, it becomes untenable in theological interpretation to base one’s theological program on one or two Bible verses. For example, the basis of papal authority is inferred from two verses in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 16:18-19). Even more difficult is justification for the Trinity, which is not in the Bible and can at best only be inferred by the fact that God, God’s Spirit, and Jesus are mentioned together in two verses (Matthew 28:19; 2 Corinthians 13:13). I will discuss further below how theology can be based on a preponderance of verses in the New Testament.
4. Christian Universalism
At this time, let me state that I am a Unitarian Universalist Christian and, like most Liberal Christians, I believe that God was in Jesus, but not that Jesus was God. Universalism as a theological system traces its history back to Origen (185-254 CE) (Origen, 1885/1994). The Universalist Church in North America was, for a time during the 19th Century, the fifth or sixth largest denomination in the United States (Howe, 1993). The Universalist Church merged with the Unitarians in 1961, and Unitarian Universalist Christians still make up a majority of our members worldwide. In the United States, ours has developed into an interfaith church in which Unitarian Universalist Christians comprise only a minority.
As stated above, there are several variants of Christian Universalism. Some Universalists believe that God will save you “no matter what.” This is a variant of “Jesus Saves” theology, except that “Jesus Saves Everybody” by his atoning sacrifice (Howe, 1993, pp. 34-35). Another variant is the belief that Christians will be saved immediately, and all others will be saved after becoming believers (Howe, 1993). Restorative Universalism assumes a judgment (“life review” in NDE terminology) and punishment for some, followed by Universal Salvation for all.
Today, most Christians who profess a belief in Universal Salvation belong to variety of other denominations. Despite their questions about doctrine, most Liberal Christians choose to remain within more mainline denominations, most often for reasons of tradition. Examples of prominent contemporary Universalist Christian theologians in other denominations are Jan Bonda of the Dutch Reformed Church (1993/1998); Tom Harpur, an Anglican (1986); John Hick of the United Reformed Church (Hick, Pinnock, McGrath, Geivett, and Phillips, 1995), and Thomas Talbott, an Independent Christian (Talbott, 1999).
It is noteworthy that, in a addition to being a Christian scholar, Tom Harpur is a near-death researcher, and he included a strong Universalist Christian statement at the end of his book, Life After Death (1991).
Christian theologies are systems created to explain the diverse and conflicting accounts given by the various authors of the New Testament. Often theologians will arrive at differing interpretations of what the words in a particular Bible verse mean. For example, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6) is a primary verse used by “Jesus Saves” theologians; however, this verse has been interpreted by Liberal Christians as meaning that salvation comes from following the teachings of Jesus, rather than through his death on the cross (Borg, 2001; Harpur, 1986; Hick, 1993a).
In an article in Christianity Today entitled, “The Gift of Salvation,” Timothy George (1997) made the case for “Jesus Saves” theology by citing just 23 verses from the New Testament. By my own calculations, there were 139 verses in the New Testament supporting “Jesus Saves” , theology; 551 verses supporting Salvation by Good Works, with 389 of those verses being the words of Jesus himself; and 178 verses supporting Universal Salvation, including 31 verses that speak to Hell not being permanent. It is worth noting that a fourth theological position, the Doctrine of Predestination, has 77 verses to support it (Hastings, Grant, and Rowley, 1953). One can see from the sheer magnitude of data that Salvation by Good Works has the most support, followed by Universal Salvation for All. The two taken together form the case for Christian Restorative Universalism.
5. Universalism and the Near-Death Experience
When it comes to the near-death experience, Universalism appears to be the most compatible theological position. Why is that so? Let us explore some basics of Christian Restorative Universalism and the NDE.
“I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third Heaven – whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person – whether in the body or out of the body 1 do not know; God knows – was caught up into Paradise and heard things that were not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.” (2 Corinthians 12:2-5)
One of the most commonly reported characteristics of a deep NDE is the experience of Light or Being of Light (Vincent, 1994). Some NDErs feel that this Light represents God or God’s emissary, as in the following:
“I was in the Universe and I was Light. It takes all the fear of dying out of you. It was Heavenly. I was in the Presence of God.” (Vincent, 1994, p.27)
“I went directly into the Light, and my pain ceased. There was a feeling of extreme peace.” (Vincent, 1994, p. 27)
“God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.” (1 John 1:5)
“Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.” (James 1:17)
“He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light.” (1 Timothy 6:15-16)
NDErs routinely report an immense amount of unconditional love radiating from the Being of Light:
“An absolute white Light that is God-all loving. The unification of us with our Creator.” (Vincent, 1994, p. 27)
“I left my body, and I was surrounded by God. It didn’t feel male or female, young or old, just me. I was surrounded by Love … I looked down at the little girl in bed … Later when I realized it was me, I was back in my body.” (Vincent, 1994, p. 21)
“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (1 John 4:7-8)
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end.” (Lamentations 3:22)
Near-death experiencers report a feeling of “Oneness with God” and a sensation of being “In God”:
“It is something which becomes you and you become it. I could say, “I was peace; I was love.” It was the brightness … It was part of me.” (Vincent, 1994, p. 29)
“For in him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)
“For from him and through him and to him are all things.” (Romans 11:36)
“One God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:6)
Sometimes NDErs encounter Jesus in the Light:
“The light was in me and between the molecules, the cells in my body. He was in me – I was in him … I knew all things. I saw all things. I was all things. But not me; Jesus had this. As long as I was “in Him,” and he was “in me,” I had this power, this glory (for lack of a better word).” (Vincent 1994, p. 57)
“I left but stood there wanting to help this poor soul (which was in effect me). Then I was on the third level and a voice said, “choose.” I saw Jesus, the Blessed Mother, and the archangel Michael. My message was unconditional love; learn to love your family; you love others, but learn to love your family.” (Vincent, 1994, p. 59)
These accounts recall the Apostle Paul’s experience of Jesus. Many scholars consider his account in 1 Corinthians 15:5-8 as the only first-hand account of the resurrection of Jesus (Funk and the Jesus Seminar, 1998; Harpur, 1986; Hick, 1993b). Paul also provided verified secondhand accounts of Jesus’ appearance to Peter and James. In Acts, we have a description of Paul’s experience of Jesus:
“Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from Heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:3-4; also Acts 22:6-7; Acts 26:12-14)
Researcher Philip Wiebe (1997) maintained that there is (no difference between modern-day visions of Jesus and similar visions of Jesus described in the Bible. Although Wiebe excluded NDEs from his research, numerous NDE accounts over the past quarter century attest to face-to-face meetings with Jesus. Curiously, even people of religions other than Christianity have described encounters with Jesus (Rommer, 2000).
Before turning our attention from the Light, it is worth noting that Fundamentalists often counter this common NDE phenomenon with a verse from St. Paul:
This is of dubious relevance for NDEs for two reasons: first, it places too much weight on a single Bible verse; and second, the overwhelming amount of data leaves no doubt that the Light experienced by the NDEr radiates love. Jesus told us how to distinguish false prophets:
When Jesus himself was accused of being Satanic, he explained:
“And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebub and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.’ And he called to them and spoke to them in parables, ‘How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end is come.'” (Mark 3:22-26)
Fundamentalist Christians cannot have it both ways. The Light cannot represent goodness for a Christian and deception for non-Christians. Satan may be a neon sign, but God is the Light of the Universe.
Jesus told us that God is our Father too:
“I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” (John 20:17)
“‘I will be your Father and you shall be my Sons and Daughters’ says the Lord Almighty.” (2 Corinthians 6:18)
“Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, would give him a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, would give a snake? If you then who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in Heaven give good things to those who ask Him?” (Matthew 7:9-10)
What kind of parent abandons his or her child? Surely not the loving God Jesus talked about.
“I found myself in a corridor. The corridor did not end. I was not afraid. There was a white light. Very clear white colors of light. Off to the side, I could see shades of gray. Off to the side, I could see my childhood passing, going left to right. I thought to myself, “I am getting younger.” I did not see my adult life. I felt like I was not alone, but I did not see anybody.” (Vincent, 1994, p. 95)
“During the Judgment [it was] like on a Rolodex. I could feel the person by me. I was waiting for the bad to come up, but nothing bad was coming up.” (Vincent, 1994, p. 93)
For others, there is a perception of one’s effect on other people:
“I saw this life pass in front of my eyes, like watching a movie. I felt others’ pain, joy, sorrows.” (Vincent, 1994, p. 93)
For some, life review is a negative experience:
“It was not peaceful, much baggage, much unfinished business. All things are connected. You are not your body, you are a soul; mine was in limbo. I knew I would be in limbo for a long time. I had a life review and was sent to the void.” (Vincent 1994, p. 119)
Jesus taught that we must be judged, but that God is Light and goodness:
“God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.” (1 John 1:5)
NDErs often note that the Being of Light in the life review offers total acceptance:
“My near-death experience was before Moody’s book came out. When it did, I said, “Oh my God! Mine is pretty classic – just like the book. It was incredibly clear – my life – going through what happened. There were figures around I did not know. The white Light was wonderful! It was just love. I knew my life would be reviewed. It was like flipping pages. I knew I had done things I was not proud of, but there was total acceptance. I wanted to stay, but I was told to go back and be loving.” (Vincent 1994, p. 91)
I have already noted above that this is also true when the Being of Light is specifically identified as Jesus. This is the picture that the New Testament presents of Jesus. In the mystic Gospel of John we read:
“You judge my human standards. I judge no one.” (John 8:15)
“And I, when I am lifted up from the Earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32)
Jesus said: “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:30)
The following makes it clear that Jesus is an advocate for both Christians and non-Christians:
“My children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father; Jesus Christ the Righteous. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:1-2)
“You are judging yourself. You have been forgiven all your sins, but are you able to forgive yourself for not doing the things you should have done and some little cheaty things that maybe you’ve done in your life? This is the judgment.” (Ring and Valarino, 1998, p. 167)
“I didn’t see anyone as actually judging me. It was more like I was judging myself on what I did and how that affected everyone.” (Ring and Valarino, 1998, p. 167)
“I told the Light that … I expected him to judge me rather sternly. He said, “Oh, no, that doesn’t happen at all.” However, at my request, they then played back over the events that had occurred in my life … and I was the judge.” (Ring and Valarino, 1998, p. 167)
Jesus clearly told us:
“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” (Matthew 7:1-2)
The judgment of Jesus is not based on belief in Doctrine. The test is not about correct belief, but good deeds:
“Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in Heaven.” (Matthew 7:21)
Good deeds will be rewarded:
“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.” (Matthew 16:27)
St. Peter reiterated:
“I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation, anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to Him.” (Acts 10:34-35)
St. Paul said:
“For he will repay according to each one’s deeds.” (Romans 2:6)
“And the dead were judged according to their works as recorded in the books.” (Revelation 20:12)
d. Hell Is Not Permanent
The experience of Hell has been recorded in NDEs since the beginning of modern research (Ritchie and Sherrill, 1978). In current near-death research terminology, these are called “frightening” NDEs.
In religious terms, the place of punishment is called variously “Hell,” “Hades,” “Limbo,” “Purgatory,” “Gehenna,” and “Eternal Punishment.” Modern day near-death researchers have about as many types of frightening NDEs (Atwater, 1992; Greyson and Bush, 1992; Rommer, 2000) as the ancient and medieval authors had categories of Hell (Zaleski, 1987). Often in the NDE, accounts of Hell are not permanent:
“I was in Hell … I cried up to God, and it was by the power of God and the mercy of God that I was permitted to come back.” (Rommer 2000, p. 42)
“God, I am not ready, please help me. I remember when I screamed (this) an arm shot out of the sky and grabbed my hand and at the last second I was kept from falling off the end of the funnel, the lights flashing; and the heat was really something.” (Greyson and Bush, 1992, p.100)
If Hell is not permanent, one might wonder why Jesus said the “goats” will endure “eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46).
Universalist scholar Thomas Talbott noted that the Greek word for “forever” is better understood as “that which pertains to an age” (1997, pp. 86-92). For example, when Jonah was swallowed by the great fish, he “went down to the land whose bars closed on me forever” (Jonah 2:6). However, the story ended when Jonah was released by God from his bondage after just three days. In other instances – his parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:34-35) and his descriptions of a prisoner’s fate (Matthew 5:25-26, Luke 12:59) – Jesus indicated that punishment is not eternal but lasts only until one’s entire debt is paid (Matthew 18:34). The following are classic passages supporting Christian Universalism (Howe, 1993, pp 34-35):
“For Christ also suffered for sins once and for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the Spirit in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey.” (1 Peter 3:18-20)
“For this reason the Gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is, they might live in the Spirit as God does.” (1 Peter 4:6)
According to Christian Universalism, in the end, we will all be united with God. Two of Jesus’ most poignant parables proclaim Universal Salvation. In Matthew, God (the Good Shepherd) sought and saved the lost sheep; the sheep did not return to the flock of its own accord. The parable ends, “So it is not the will of your Father in Heaven that one of these little ones should be lost” (Matthew 18:14). In the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), the returning son did not ask to be a member of the family, but for a job as his father’s servant. It was God (the father) who took him back into the family. The father was the character with the active role. People often have difficulty with this story because they wrongly identify with the good son and not with the father. Considering how much human parents love their own children, the story puts some perspective on how much God, who is all good, loves each of us. This theme is echoed in the mystic Gospel of John:
“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold, and 1 must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (John 10:16)
“And I, when I am lifted up from the Earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32)
Universal salvation is reiterated in numerous writings of the other Apostles:
“When all things are subjected to him then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all.” (1 Corinthians 15:28)
“For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.” (1 Timothy 4:10)
“And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying, “This is the covenant I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts and I will write them on their minds,” he also adds: “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.” (Hebrews 10:15-18)
“He has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on Earth.” (Ephesians 1:9-10)
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.” (Titus 2:11)
One of the most profound aspects of the NDE is its aftereffects (Greyson, 2000). Experiences of God change and affirm lives, and sometimes this represents a “soft” change:
“It took some time for me to realize I was consumed with an insatiable thirst for knowledge. Dr. Pat Fenske wrote in the June, 1991, Vital Signs newsletter that individuals shift to a higher level of consciousness. This I can relate to 100 percent and this has enabled me to understand why I look at things from an entirely different perspective than most people.” (Vincent 1994, p. 109)
“Why did this experience change me so greatly? Why am I convinced that this was the most real thing that ever happened to me when logic and common sense dictate it wasn’t. Why so many unexplained events since then. The experience left me a changed person but not knowing why, full of questions and still seeking answers.” (Vincent, 1994, p. 113)
In some cases, the changes following an NDE are dramatic – as life changing as St. Paul’s mystical religious vision of Jesus that transformed him from a persecutor of Christians to an Evangelist for Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:3-8; Galatians 1:13-16). That kind of powerful effect occurred in the life of art professor Howard Storm, who, after his encounter with Jesus during his NDE, abandoned his atheism and became a Christian minister. Storm related that when he began to pray, his NDE changed from a Hellish experience to a positive, loving one: “Simply stated, I knew God loved me” (Ring and Valarino, 1998, p. 292).
Like NDEs, deathbed visions (Osis and Haraldsson, 1977) and post death visions (Kircher, 1995) point to an afterlife. But NDEs, like mystical religious experiences throughout the ages (Argyle, 2000; James, 1901/1958), are especially rich in insights as to the nature of God. NDEs, like other mystical religious experiences, both complement and continue the testimony of that great repository – of Western mystical experience, the Bible.
God’s love is greater than we imagine or than we can imagine – this is the testimony of the prophets, sages, saints, mystics, and ordinary people throughout the ages who have shared with us their incomparable sense of Oneness with God and God’s unconditional love for us all. Truly God is with us always and, in time:
“All flesh shall see the salvation of God.” (Luke 3:6)
Origen. (1994). Origen De Principiis. In Roberts, A. R., and Donaldson, J. (eds.) Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 4 (pp. 260-279). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers. (Roberts and Donaldson original work published 1885).