1. Introduction to Spiritually Transformative Experiences
Religious experiences, currently known by the term, “Spiritually Transformative Experiences” (STEs) have been studied scientifically for the past 150 years by social scientists and biomedical researchers. For purposes of this study, Spiritually Transformative Experiences have been divided into four categories:
While most reported STEs are “positive” in that they are pleasant and provide clarity or insight, a significant minority of reported cases are “negative” in that they are frightening. As indicated by the word, “Transformative,” the most consistent characteristic of both positive and negative STEs is that they change people’s lives.
Most of you know me as a Professor of Psychology, but you may not realize that my main research focus over the past 20 years has been to ascertain the role that religious experience plays in the human psyche. The material I research can usually be found in no more than one or two chapters of a Psychology of Religion textbook. Just let me remind you again: Research into Spiritual Experiences CAN BE and IS conducted using the same criteria that we use to investigate any other psychological phenomena (Vincent, 2006). These include:
(1) Case studies of transpersonal experience
(2) Sociological surveys that tell who and what percentage of the population have STEs
(3) Psychological tests that measure not only the mental health of the individual but also evaluate the depth of mystical experiences
(4) Biomedical and neuroscience testing, including the EEG, PET-scan, and functional MRI to, in some cases, document genuine altered states of consciousness and demonstrate that mystical experiences are not just wishful thinking; additionally EEGs and EKGs allow us to document death in NDEs that occur in hospitals
(5) Sociological and psychological investigations that assess the after-effects these experiences have on people
Even though we are talking about human experience that is basically “religious” in nature, scientists have a legitimate role to investigate it using all the tools of analysis at our disposal. In this way, we separate ourselves from the sensational and fictitious accounts of the National Enquirer and gradually move toward a greater understanding of the broad spectrum of human experience.
2. Surveys of Spiritually Transformative Experiences
Current research documents the following facts:
(1) A large percentage of the population have experienced STEs.
(2) The overwhelming majority of those having STEs are mentally normal and not psychotic.
(3) STEs change people’s lives for the better (Vincent, 2006).
To date, research has shown that negative STEs are far less common than positive ones.
In his initial study of 3,000 cases of STEs sent to the Religious Experience Research Centre (RERC) (formerly at Oxford; now at University of Wales Lampeter), Sir Alister Hardy (1979, p. 28) found 4% negative.
Somewhat later, using 4,000 cases at the RERC, Merete Jakobsen (1999, p. iv) also found 4% negative experiences.
Recently, Zinzhong Yao and Paul Badham (2007, pp. 9,45-46) of the RERC found in studying 3,196 Chinese that 56.7% had religious experiences, but only 8.5% of them were negative. They compared this to a 1987 British survey which found 12% negative experiences (Yao & Badham 2007, p. 185).
Regarding NDEs, in a monumental analysis of over 21 studies, Nancy Evans Bush (2006) found 17.2% of them to be negative.
3. Judgment and Afterlife in Ancient and Modern World Religions
Do Spiritually Transformative Experiences prove the existence of a God who interacts with us personally? Do encounters with dead humans prove the existence of an afterlife? From my perspective, they point in that direction for this reason:
Virtually all religions have their genesis in the Spiritually Transformative Experience of their founder.
Also, the subsequent theology of virtually all ancient and contemporary religions includes some form of Judgment by Divine Beings and subsequent relegation to Heaven or Hell based on the ratio of good to bad deeds of the deceased person while on Earth. Hell, of course, is the ultimate experience of the “Dark Side.”
Before we go any further, it is important to realize that when one studies the experiential aspect of comparative religion that:
The angels, saints, and jinn of the West = The “gods” of the East.
This is because they perform the same function. This will become apparent as we look at some variations in cultural expectations surrounding Judgment.
In Ancient Egypt, we have a Judgment in the Book of the Dead whereby the heart of the deceased is weighed against a feather, and woe to those whose heart is heavy with sin! This Judgment is presided over by the savior god Osiris and his wife Isis (Budge, 1895/1967, pp. 253-261).
Later, in Zoroastrianism (the religion of the Magi), Judgment is conducted by three angels whose duty is to weigh the good deeds against the bad deeds of the deceased. If his or her life reflects an overwhelming preponderance of GOOD deeds, they are allowed to proceed across a WIDE bridge; if the deceased has been more evil than good, the bridge becomes narrow, and he or she falls into hell.
In Medieval Christian artwork, the Archangel Michael still holds the scales, but Jesus sits above him as judge.
Now let us move from West to East. In Hinduism and its children, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism, Yamaraj (King Yama) is the judge of the dead. In all these religions, weighing your good deeds against your bad deeds on the divine scales of justice determines not only whether or not you go to heaven or hell in the intermediate state but also the status of your next life after reincarnation (Masumian, 1995, pp.5-7, 143). To me, reincarnation is the only major theological difference in world religions. The East has it, and in the West, reincarnation is only a minority position (such as in the Christianity of the Gnostics and the Islamic sect of the Druze).
We see these same themes repeated in the Native American religions of North America, Mezzo-America, and South America where the themes of Paradise and Punishment are repeated (Nigosian, 2000, pp. 382, 384).
In virtually all religions, assignment of the deceased to the “Dark Side” is either:
4. Near-Death Experiences
(1) The first type is the NDE that is initially frightening but later turns positive, most often after the person calls out to God or God’s emissary.
The following two examples describe distressing near-death experiences that turn positive. (Note that both contain graphic imagery of hell.)
“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’m not ready, please help me … I remember when I screamed (this), an arm shot out of the sky and grabbed my hand at the last second. I was falling off the end of the funnel, the lights flashing; and the heat was really something.” (Greyson & Bush, 1992, p. 100)
“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. The life review was so disquieting. I saw many different ways my life could have taken. I saw my past life in there and other past lives I was unable to recall.” (Vincent, 1994, p. 119)
It is interesting to note that these experiences are highly similar despite differences in time or culture. Thomas Harriot (who was a member of the Jamestown Colony in 17th Century Virginia) recorded two stories of NDEs told to him by the Roanoke Indians which, significantly, took place prior to the arrival of the British settlers. The first story told of an Indian who died and was buried; the next day, the grave seemed to move, and he was dug up. He told of being very near a terrible place of torment, but the gods saved him and let him come back to life to teach his friends what they should do to avoid hell. The second story was similar, except that in this story, the Indian went to Paradise (Baym, pp. 76 – 80).
James McClenon (1991) discusses NDEs in Medieval China and Japan. In one case, he tells of a ruler named Muh who died but revived 2-1/2 days later. He told of meeting the Emperor of Heaven, hearing beautiful music, seeing 10,000 dances, and returning to life with prophetic information. Prof. McClenon notes that these Medieval Taoist NDEs resemble modern ones.
5. Deathbed Visions
The next example describes the death-bed vision of a 7th Century Mahayana (Northern) Buddhist. They believe that the Amida Buddha is a “savior god” who can rescue you from hell and take you to the pure land of bliss. Once there, you can work out your final ascent to Nirvana under blissful conditions:
“A butcher is dying. He first has a vision of hell, whereupon he was terrified into chanting the name of ‘Amida;’ He then had a vision of the Amida Buddha offering him a lotus seat and passed peacefully away.” (McClenon, 1994, p.176)
6. After-Death Communications
If a negative after-death communication is delivered by a stranger, he or she is properly termed a “ghost!” If it comes from some super-human entity, it is usually called a “demon.” The following two examples are taken from Merete Jakobsen’s Negative Spiritual Experiences: Encounters with Evil (pp.17, 21).
The first is an evil presence in a British house:
“This evil presence was masculine and seemed to come from the wall facing me, nearer and nearer as though straining to get me. I saw nothing but the blackness of the room, as my sister had (previously), but although it is 20 years or more ago, I’ll never disbelieve that there are powers of evil. A very violent family had lived there.”
The second account is Danish and takes place in the woods:
“As we progressed, I found several dead birds along the path. We reached an open space where there had been a bonfire. I felt more and more anxious and eventually said to my husband, ‘I don’t know how you feel, but I have a sense of evil and horror in this wood.’ My husband said he had not wanted to tell me, but he had heard that a satanic cult had used the wood. I wanted to go home immediately. I find it extraordinary that human evil can change the whole atmosphere in a large wood.”
7. Religious /Spiritual /Mystical Experiences
There are ancient and modern accounts of tours of the afterlife. St. Paul, in 2 Corinthians 12 tells us of his out-of-body experience in which he is transported to the third level of heaven. Mohammed in Sura 17:1 of the Quran, tells us of his out-of-body experience in which he also is transported to heaven.
Other religious figures in history have had encounters with evil, including Jesus’ encounter with Satan recorded in the Synoptic Gospels and Buddha’s encounter with the demon, Mara. The following is St. Teresa of Avila‘s account of her mystical experience of hell:
“The entrance, I thought, resembled a very long, narrow passage like a furnace, very low, dark and closely confined; the ground seemed to be full of water which looked like filthy, evil-smelling mud, and in it were many wicked-looking reptiles. At the end, there was a hollow place scooped out of a wall like a cupboard, and it was there that I found myself in close confinement. But the sight of all this was pleasant by comparison to what I felt there … I felt a fire within my soul, the nature of which I am utterly incapable of describing … The fact is that I cannot find words to describe that interior fire and that despair which is greater than the most grievous torture and pains … There was no light, and everything was in the blackest darkness” (Bush, 2002)
There are accounts of individuals who are given tours of both heaven and hell. One is the story of Arda Viraf, a 9th Century follower of the religion of the Magi who was given hensbane (a non-hallucinogenic drug) that put him in a coma for several days. (Segal, 2004, pp.195-196) The Magi had chosen him for this holy quest because of his righteousness. He awoke to tell of his tour of heaven and hell. The psychiatrist George Ritchie (1998, pp.37-41) who had an NDE in 1943 tells of visiting hellish realms invisible but on the earth-plane, as well as tours of other realms where people were trapped because of their own desires. All around these lost souls were Beings of Light just waiting to assist them out of their hellish state. During his NDE, Ritchie reports that he was given this tour by Jesus Christ himself!
8. Hell is for Rehabilitation and is Not Eternal
Is there a way out of hell? Most (but not all) religious experience researchers think so. Both Nancy Evans Bush (2002) and Barbara Rommer (2000, p. 27) note that these negative NDEs are for instruction and are thought to be a “wake-up call” to those who have them. This echoes the purpose of hellish experience as expressed in the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Evans-Wentz, pp. 28-68).
Both the Northern Buddhist and Universalist Christian traditions have saviors (Amida Buddha and Jesus) who rescue people from hell (Vincent, 2005, p. 8). In the New Testament book of 1 Peter (1 Peter 3:18-20; 1 Peter 4:6, NRSV), it is stated that Jesus descended into hell after his crucifixion but before his resurrection:
“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, NRSV)
It would seem from modern NDE accounts like some of those mentioned above; Jesus is still rescuing people from hell (Vincent, 2003). There is also an interesting 18th Century autobiographical NDE account by Dr. George de Benneville who died of a “consumption-like” illness and revived at his wake 42 hours later (Vincent & Morgan, 2006). He told of seeing angels rescuing people from hell, after they had repented.
As in the Buddhist DBV above, the Amida Buddha stands ready to save any human who finds him or herself in hell if they call out to him as few as ten times (Nigosian, 2000, p.89). It should be noted that in all of the Eastern religions, hell is not permanent but is a method for instruction. In the West, this was the view of the Christian church for its first 500 years but has become a minority view since that time (Hanson, 1899/2007, p. 139-141). In Islam, there are a few references in the Hadith to the view that hell is not permanent, but this view is held by only a few of the Sufis (Vincent, 2005, p. 12).
Only 150 years ago, scientific research into STEs began. The scientific methods used to do this research are the same as those used to research any other social or biomedical phenomena. We now know that, like positive STEs, negative STEs are widespread, that they occur in people who are normal and not mentally ill, and that they change people’s lives for the better. While it may be too early to reach any final theological conclusions from this data, it would appear that there is a universal underpinning to the religions of the world, that humans are accountable for their actions, and that nothing good is ever lost.
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