1. Introduction to Universalism in Religious Experience Research
What is a religious experience? What can we learn from “mystical” experiences, and how do “spiritual” experiences affect our lives? You may be unaware that social and biomedical scientists have been exploring these questions aggressively for the past 100 years. My own research into religious experience began over 20 years ago, and during that time, I began to recognize a recurring pattern of Universalist principles among the conclusions of my fellow researchers. Granted, many of them may be unaware of the term “Universalist” and the vital role of Universalist thought in early Christianity and world religion; however, their findings sound like classic Universalism:
(1) God loves ALL and will save ALL.
Research into religious experiences can be and is conducted using the same criteria that is used to investigate any other psychological phenomena. These include:
(1) Case studies of transpersonal experience
(2) Sociological surveys that tell who and what percentage of the population have religious experiences
(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, in some cases, the EEG, PET-scan, and fMRI to document genuine altered states of consciousness and demonstrate that mystical experiences are not just wishful thinking; EEGs and EKGs that allow us to document death in near-death experiences (NDEs) that occur in hospitals
(5) Sociological and psychological investigations that assess the after-effects these experiences have on people
(6) Controlled experimental research (such as Pahnke’s experiment testing psychedelics)
Religious or spiritual experiences relate to the direct experience of the Holy Spirit of God (or if you prefer, Ultimate Reality according to David Hay, former head of the Religious Experience Research Centre, both terms describe the same phenomena, but “religious” experience is preferred by people who attend church and “spiritual” experience is favored by people who don’t. I also include those religious experiences that point to life after death — namely near-death experiences, death-bed visions, and after-death communications.
a. God Loves ALL and Will Save ALL
(1) Bill and Judy Guggenheim’s Research of After-Death Communications
“No one regardless of cruelty of malicious crimes he or she may have committed on earth is ever forgotten or forsaken.” (Guggenheim, B., & Guggenheim, J., 1996)
They go on to state that the criterion for healing seems to be admission of responsibility for the hurt, pain, and suffering they have caused others (www.after-death.com).
(2) Ken Ring and Evelyn Valarino’s Near-Death Experience Research
One of the most thoughtful and prolific near-death researchers is social psychologist Ken Ring (www.kenring.org). In his most recent book with Evelyn Valarino (www.elsaesser-valarino.com) Lessons from the Light, he reiterates his absolute certainty that everyone will come to the light. He tells the story of a person sexually abused by her father who, when asked if Adolf Hitler would eventually come into the light, and she said, “Yes.” Later she said, “Even my father will see the light.” In an earlier book, Heading Toward Omega, Ken Ring states:
“Indeed, the strongest evidence of the NDErs’ universalistically spiritual orientation and in many ways the culmination of the qualities already discussed is their belief in the underlying unity of all religions and their desire for a universal religious faith that will transcend the historical divisiveness of the world’s great religions.” (Ring, 1985)
(3) Richard Bucke’s Comparative Religion Research
Richard Bucke, a Canadian neuropsychiatrist and comparative religion scholar, saw a unity of all religions and people. His universalist perspectives came to him in a powerful mystical experience and lead him to research and write the book Cosmic Consciousness.
(4) Mark Webb’s Philosophy of Religion Research
The philosopher Mark Webb (www.webpages.ttu.edu) notes in his article, “Religious Experience as Doubt Resolution,” that:
“Nearly all religious experiences result in the belief that the universe is an essentially friendly place; that is, that we shouldn’t worry about the future. People who have had experiences of this sort tend to live more calmly than others, having acquired a strong feeling that the world is essentially just and that they particularly are ‘cared for.’ This is true even of those experiences that include a conviction that the world is fallen and sinful, because they also include a conviction that God is sovereign and loves his creatures. The second area agreement is that all humans are closely interrelated in some way … the pragmatic value of these two results is clear: people who believe these propositions will tend to be happier and more concerned about each other.”
(5) J. Harold Ellens’ Religious Experience Research
“God has declared God’s covenant of unconditional and universal grace to all people, guaranteeing that we are all God’s people and God is our God, no matter what.
Rev. Ellens is a committed Universalist who was once accused of heresy by an elder for preaching Universalism and subsequently brought before trial by the Presbyterian hierarchy where the charges were eventually dismissed.
(6) Tom Harpur’s Life After Death Research
“If we truly believe in an all-loving gracious Source of all things, the kind of accepting presence imaged by the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, then it seems to me to be utterly incongruous to hold that anyone will be lost. We are all God’s off-spring or children as New Testament Christianity — and most other religions — makes clear … I fail to see how heaven or eternal life would be bliss of any kind unless one were assured that all will be sharers in it. At this ultimate family occasion, there will finally be no empty chairs, no missing faces.”
(7) Nona Coxhead’s Religious Experience Research
“For just as the sun shines of everyone without discrimination, the realization that love and light will be fully accessible to all of us following our bodily demise is a message of joy that those who have returned from ‘the gates of death’ bring us.”
(8) Meg Maxwell and Verena Tschudin’s Religious Experience Research
Religious experience researchers Meg Maxwell and Verena Tschudin, in their book, Seeing the Invisible, note:
“The most striking element of the personal experiences in the collection of the Religious Experience Research Centre is that they are overwhelmingly positive in nature. They enhance and enrich life; they point forward; they are positive; they are benign.”
(9) John Hick’s Mystical Experience Research
The great Universalist/pluralist philosopher John Hick (www.johnhick.org.uk) acknowledges that he has had several mystical experiences. In his book The Fifth Dimension, he notes that what we know from mysticism is that:
“If our big picture is basically correct, nothing good that has been created in human life will ever be lost … this is not a faith wherein no harm can befall us in this present life, or those we love, but a faith that ultimately, in Lady Julian’s words (Julian of Norwich), ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.'”
(10) Paul Robb Religious Experience Research
“If there is a single message in the accounts of this book, I believe it is this: God loves us all without exception. No matter how black the soul, the soul is still loved. I believe God’s love is like sunlight. The sun gives off light; it is incapable of giving off darkness. God gives off love; he is incapable of giving off anger or hatred or vengeance or jealousy or punishment. The themes of God’s love, and His kindness, occur again and again in the accounts in this book and at the Religious Experience Research Centre.”
(1) Dr. George Ritchie’s Near-Death Experience Research
The first near-death experience I ever read was that of the psychiatrist George Ritchie. Dr. Richie happens to be the professor who trained near-death pioneer Raymond Moody (www.lifeafterlife.com). In his elaborate vision described in his book Ordered to Return in which his guide was no less than Jesus himself, he was shown a variety of hellish experiences, some which were on the earth-plane and others in other realms. In all of these places, there were beings of light standing by the lost souls, and these angels were trying to get them to change their thoughts. Ritchie also relates that Jesus told him that he would draw ALL people to himself, echoing that great Universalist passage:
“When I (Jesus) am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to me.” (John 12:32)
(2) Leslie Weatherhead’s Theological and Psychical Research
“Hell may last as long a sinful humanity lasts, but that does not mean that any individual will remain in it all that time. The time of purging can only continue until purification is reached. And a God driven to employ endless hell would be a God turned fiend himself, defeated in his original purpose … but God will never desert the soul.”
(3) Kevin Williams’ Near-Death Experience Research
“Universal salvation is the concept that everyone will eventually attain salvation and go to heaven. This is a foreign concept to most Christians today, although it was not to many early Christians. Many Christians today cannot accept the NDE because it generally affirms Universal Salvation. While it is true Universal Salvation is generally affirmed in NDEs, it is not true that everyone enters heaven immediately upon death. It is well-documented in NDEs people going to hell upon death. However, NDEs show hell to be a temporary spiritual condition, much like Catholic purgatory, not eternal damnation.”
(4) Nancy Evans Bush’s Negative Near-Death Research
Near-death researcher and experiencer Nancy Evans Bush (www.dancingpastthedark.com) who is a retired pastoral counselor of the Congregational Church has recently completed the analysis of 31 research studies on negative near-death experiences that shows, in addition to the fact that “good” people sometimes have negative experiences, there is evidence that these experiences are for instruction and that eventually, “a positive experience is likely to emerge.”
(5) Barbara Rommer’s Negative Near-Death Research
This same view is shared by internist and near-death researcher Barbara Rommer who wrote Blessing in Disguise about negative near-death experiences. Rommer reports that negative experiences often change to positive, and it is her belief that if they are allowed to continue, the white light of God and peaceful experiences will and do unfold.
(6) F. W. H. Myers’ Psychical Research
Psychical researcher F. W. H. Myers, in his book Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death, notes that in veridical cases indicative of afterlife, there seems to be a:
“… disintegration of selfishness, malevolence, pride. And is this not a natural result of any cosmic moral evolution? … the student of these narratives will, I think, discover throughout them uncontradicated indications of the presence of Love, the growth of Joy, and the submission to Law.”
(7) Karlis Osis and Erlendur Haraldsson’s Deathbed Research
A death-bed vision occurs when a person is dying and tells people in the room what he or she is seeing at the point of death. In their book, At the Hour of Death, psychical researchers Karlis Osis (www.aspr.com) and Erlendur Haraldsson (www.hi.is) note that in a cross-cultural study of 1700 people in the United States and India, only one of these cases was hellish. In all cases, the take-away person was an apparition of a dead person, either a dead loved one or a religious figure. This was true, regardless of whether the person was Christian, Hindu, Jew, Moslem, or unbeliever.
While a good many researchers like the Unitarian Sir Alister Hardy (www.studyspiritualexperiences.org), author of The Spiritual Nature of Man and founder of the Religious Experience Research Centre (formerly at Oxford) at the University of Wales Lampeter have had religious experiences themselves, there are a few like the Unitarian William James (www.survivalafterdeath.info), author of The Varieties of Religious Experience, who have not. My own commitment to Universalism is based in part on my own two mystical experiences of God but also on the testimony of hundreds of people I have interviewed and the thousands more I’ve read about in the works of the authors I have cited. Although this ongoing research has expanded the known “data” available, in a very real way, I don’t know any more than I knew fifteen years ago when I wrote this conclusion in my book, Visions of God from the Near-Death Experience:
— God is love.
— We are all connected.
— We are all part of God.
— God’s plan for the Universe may be beyond humanity’s understanding, but we are a part of it.
— Hell is the absence of God.
— Hell is the land of the self-preoccupied who have shut out the Love of God and others.
— It is never too late to call out to God, even from Hell.
— It is never too late to turn to the ones who love you and go toward The Light.
Bucke, R. M. (1931). Cosmic consciousness: A study in the evolution of the human mind. New York, NY: E. F. Dutton. (Original work published 1931).
Bush, N. E. (2006). Distressing western near-death experiences: Research summary. Paper presented at the IANDS Conference, M.D. Anderson Hospital, Houston (DVD available from: iands.com).
Coxhead, N. (1986). The relevance of bliss: A contemporary exploration of mystic experience. St Martins Pr.
Ellens, J. H. (2008). Understanding religious experiences. London, UK: Praeger.
Guggenheim, B., & Guggenheim, J. (1996). Hello from heaven: A new field of research-after-death communication confirms that life and love are eternal. New York, NY: Bantam Books.
Hardy, A. (1997). The spiritual nature of man: A study of contemporary religious experience. Oxford, England: The Religious Experience Research Centre. (Original work published 1979).
Harpur, T. (1991). Life after death. Toronto, Canada: McClelland and Stewart.
Hick, J. (1999) The Fifth Dimension. Boston, MA: One World.
James, W. (1994). The varieties of religious experience. New York, NY: Modern Library. (Original work published 1901).
Maxwell, M., & Tschudin, V. (2005). Seeing the invisible: Modern religious and other transcendent experiences. Ceredigion, Wales: Religious Experience Research Centre. (Original work published 1990).
Myers, F. W. H. (1915). Human personality and its survival of bodily death. London, England: Logmans, Green. (Original work published 1903)
Osis, K., and Haraldsson, E. (1977). At the hour of death: A new look at evidence for life after death. New York, NY: Avon.
Ring, K. (1985). Heading toward omega: In search of the meaning of the near-death experience. Harper Perennial.
Ring, K., and Valarino, E. E. (1998). Lessons from the light: What we can learn from the near-death experience. New York, NY: Plenum/Insight.
Ritchie, G.G. (1998) Ordered to return, My life after dying. Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads Publishing Co.
Robb, P. (2006). The kindness of God: How God cares for us. Outskirts Press.
Rommer, B. R. (2000). Blessing in disguise: Another side of the near-death experience. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn.
Vincent, K. R. (1994). Visions of God from the near-death experience. Burdett, NY: Larson.
Weatherhead, L. (1990). The Christian agnostic. Abingdon Pr.
Webb, M. (1985). Religious experience as doubt resolution, International journal for philosophy of religion.
Williams, K. (2002) Nothing better than death: Insights from sixty-two profound near-death experiences. Xlibris Corp.