What is hell? If we truely want to know the answer to this question we can look at old images from the middle ages and dogmatic religious interpretation. But we can also look into present day experiences of people who come close to death through so-called near-death experiences and draw paralls from these experience to what religion tells us.
There is little doubt that the negative or distressing life-review in near-death experiences feels like hell. Margot Grey says about the experience that, “The hell-like experience is defined as being one which includes all the elements comprehended in the negative phase (extreme fear or panic, emotional and mental anguish), only more so in that feelings are encountered with a far greater intensity.”[i]
Let me be quick to say that in the near-death research, these negative experiences do not happen to everyone. Also there seems to be less insight on why exactly they happen. Some researchers find no accounts or very few of hell-like experiences, like Moody who explains that his subjects have been mostly normal and nice people.
Other researchers like Fenwick and Grey found that 15 percent and 12 percent had hellish experiences.[ii] P. M. H. Atwater in her large sample of over 3,000 near-death experiences found that 18 percent had “unpleasant experiences,” and hereof only a third had experiences that were “truly hellish.”[iii] What is interesting here is that Atwater found the 15 percent with adults, while only 3 percent with children.
The largest estimate made on life-reviews alone, was made by George Gallup and William Proctor in 1982, who estimated out of 8 million Americans, 2.5 million had experienced “the impression of reviewing or re-examining” their life.[iv] This is almost a third of the total number of near-death experiencers and this number is confirmed by Dr. Jeffrey Long who in his research also found about 35 percent had a life-review.[v]
When studying the research I find that there is a distinction between having a life-review, having a life-review with negative contents, and having a deep hell-like experience. Some researchers speculate that negative experiences are harder to come by because people mostly remember positive experiences. I like this explanation because it is very close to my own experience. Fenwick tells us that “about 15 percent did mention moments of terror, although the experience as a whole had been seen as positive.”[vi]
I think this is a good answer because the pain of my own experience was weighed out by the extremely positive feeling of joy and love from the light. According to Fenwick, “Although actions which have been carried out are often seen as shabby and self-interested, the person does not feel judged; guilt is made more tolerable by the supportive quality of the surrounding light of love.”[vii]
There is also a theory that the life-review happens to people who suddenly find themselves near death. Kenneth Ring suggested that people in an accident or suffering a heart-attack are more likely to experience a life-review than people who had a near-death experience during a long drawn-out illness. Fenwick also found evidence to support this in that the life-reviews that he found did occur in ‘sudden death’ situations.[viii]
Instead of trying to calculate anyone’s chance of having a life-review or ‘going to hell,’ I would just like to establish that life-reviews and negative experiences do exist. Grey concludes that, “I nevertheless found indicators that pointed to the fact that negative encounters, while infrequent, do however definitely exist.”[ix] I can affirm this conclusion from my own experience—whether it truly exists or is merely a psychological event, it does happen to some people.
What I mean to say is that even though hell has been misused as a tool to create fear, I do not believe that we can rule out its existence. And even though hell might have been misunderstood and misinterpreted, it does not mean that we should not try to understand it so that we can avoid it. Therefore, I will look into the meaning of hell in the light of my own experience of it in hope that something can be learned from it.
The term Hell that we use today can be traced back to the name “Hel” in Norse mythology. Here we find Hel as the goddess of the underworld Helheim. The English root is “Helan” and cross-checking this word, we find that it translates into “Celare” in Latin. Celare in Latin then translates back into “conceal” or “hidden” in English.[x]
What we now have found is that hell is a hidden and concealed place. This fits with the Greek underworld Hades, which has the same meaning, “Unseen.”[xi] And this brings us back to Plato’s cave again where we can use the allegory to explain what hell is. Living inside the cave as our body, we live in a dark world of illusion made from the shadows of our ignorance.
Outside the cave is the true world that is bathed in the light of the sun. However, this reality is hidden and concealed, because we live in darkness inside the cave. But when we leave the body at the moment of death, we escape the darkness of the cave. Everything that was before unseen is now fully displayed in its true light and glory.
This new world is a powerful revelation, and we are blinded by it. We have been used to the darkness for so long that the true light of existence is too much for our eyes. The true nature of existence outside the cave is beyond our comprehension, and we are totally overwhelmed. The light of the sun shines with infinite love and we are overwhelmed in total humility.
Then, as we regain our eyesight, we look back toward the cave from where we came. We now remember the life that we lived inside the cave. Our lives were filled with delusion from living in the shadow world of the darkness. The darkness caused us to be unaware of reality, and therefore we were selfish, conceited, and proud. This made us cause pain and suffering to others.
Now, from the outside of the cave, we see all of this in its true light, and we realize that we were wrong. We believed in the illusion of the shadows, and in doing so we became lost. Being ignorant, we hurt others, but now we understand that this is not what life is about. The essence of life is far greater and much more profound than we had ever imagined inside the cave. Thus, hell is the pain of looking within and seeing the festering wound from living in the dark nothingness of the cave.
In The Tibetan Book of the Dead we find a similar explanation of what happens when we leave the body. Here we find “The Lord of Death,” who holds a mirror in which the naked soul is reflected.[xii] The mirror is the true light, and this metaphor of a mirror as reflecting the truth is also used in psychology. Carl Jung uses this picture to explain the power of the unconscious to mirror the individual objectively: “Giving him a view of himself that he may never have had before. Only through the unconscious can such a view (which often shocks and upsets the conscious mind) be obtained.”[xiii]
From the Buddhist perspective, the conscious mind is the unenlightened mind, and the unconscious mind is the enlightened mind. Our enlightened nature is the mirror, which objectively reflects our unenlightened nature. To put this in context with the science we looked at earlier, the objective mirror would be the ultimate reality, or our true self as pure consciousness.
Our true nature is pure consciousness as the fundamental level of the universe. When the conceptual mind dissolves at the moment of death, the essence of the mind returns to that from which it is produced. The unenlightened constructs of our minds, are dissolved into the true nature of the mind.
In this way, our subjective and relative mind is reflected onto the objective and absolute nature of our mind. What was before hidden in our unconscious mind is now seen as the reflection in our objective mind. In other words, what was unconscious before now becomes conscious.
This is the pain of awakening, when our unconscious actions become conscious. And this is possible because in every moment of our lives, our unconscious mind records our actions. When this subconscious memory suddenly becomes conscious, there is an experience of pain from the shocking revelation. This is the pain of looking within and this is the pain of hell.
This revelation can become very painful if our illusion has been very strong because the illusion is a layer of lies that separate us from reality. Sometimes, we believe so strongly in the lie that it becomes the truth for us, and when the real truth is revealed, this delusion becomes painful.
For me, the experience of the negative life-review was like being caught lying. I recall as a child the feeling of being discovered not telling the truth. In fact, most of us probably do remember some incident as a child when our parents caught us telling untruthful stories. At that moment when we were exposed, we felt fear and pain. This is the pain of re-entering reality after the layer of the delusion has been removed.
Now imagine a life in which we have built lie upon lie, layer upon layer. In our stubborn ignorance, we have rejected the truth throughout our entire lives. At the moment of death, when we leave the cave, all of these layers come off and we are exposed to the raw truth. This moment will be very painful, and therefore fearful, if we have built up many layers of lies without facing the truth while alive.
In that moment when all the layers come off, we free fall into the structure-less, primal state of our existence. This is an experience so far from the delusions of our minds that the exposure of stripping our souls naked causes great fear and pain. And when we find ourselves completely naked looking into the mirror, seeing the images of people we have hurt, we will be struck by overwhelming regret.
Buddhist Soygal Rinpoche explains the experience.
Whether we like it or not, our true nature is revealed. But it is important to know that there are two aspects of our being that are revealed at the moment of death: our absolute nature, and our relative nature–how we are, and have been, in this life. As the body dies, the senses and subtle elements dissolve, and this is followed by the death of the ordinary aspects of our mind, with all its negative emotions of anger, desire, and ignorance. Finally nothing remains to obscure our true nature, as everything that in life has clouded the enlightened mind has fallen away. And what is revealed is the primordial ground of our absolute nature.[xiv]
[i] Grey, Return From Death, 58.
[ii] Fenwick, Fenwick, The Truth in the Light, 188.
[iii] Atwater, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Near-Death Experiences, 30.
[iv] Greene, Krippne, Panoramic Vision, in Doore, What Survives? 65.
[v] Long, Near Death Experience, www.nderf.org, overview.
[vi] Fenwick, Fenwick, The Truth in the Light, 191.
[vii] Fenwick, Fenwick, The Truth in the Light, 115.
[viii] Ibid, 120.
[ix] Grey, Return From Death, 56.
[x] Latham, Howlett, Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources, Volume I.
[xi] Liddell, Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, Volume I.
[xii] Evans-Wentz, The Tibetan Book of the dead, 37.
[xiii] Jung, Man and His Symbols, 218.
[xiv] Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, 259.