When we die: the netherworld and the final struggle
by Michael H. Brown
Those who escape a condemnation to hell have the joy of knowing that they are saved. They are going to find their way to heaven. Once we die our free will as we knew it on earth also dies. We now have seen God, have gotten at least a glimpse of Him during judgment, and once we have seen Him we want to do nothing but His will. This is what we are told by both theologians and those who have had so-called near-death experiences.
That's the good news, and good news it is: we live forever, and most avoid hell. But that doesn't mean a direct ascent into heaven. There are gray areas in life on earth, and there are also gray areas after. Unless we have been purified of every spot, cleansed of all the contact during our lifetimes with evil, we need to go, however long or briefly, to a place of purgation. This is clear from both the Bible, mystical revelations, and, as we will see, near-death experiences. It only makes sense that there would be a place in-between. God in His mercy would not allow just the two extremes of total bliss in heaven or eternal horrifying torture in hell. It is in Maccabees 12:42-46, in which atonement is made for the deceased, and alluded to in other parts of Scripture, including 2 Timothy 1:16-18 and 1 Samuel 31:13. There is written evidence from as long ago as A.D. 211 that Christians were praying for the dead (why pray for them if they could only be in hell or heaven?), and ancient Jews also prayed for the dead. It was a part of synagogue ritual.
But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself. Let's hover for a moment on the entrance to purgatory and the final struggle. While most of those who have near-death experiences describe the incredible delight, the tremendous light and peace of death -- a surprisingly pleasant experience -- at times the evil one comes around as a final test for the soul. Or to drag off those who have destined themselves for hell. This is why we have a devotion to the archangel Michael, the demon battler, and why at the end of the Hail Mary we ask for the Virgin to pray for us at the hour of death. With the help of heaven we are not bothered.
But there are those who are. They are mainly great sinners or unbelievers. And their accounts are sobering. Take as an example Howard Storm, a professor of Art at Northern Kentucky University and a man who was an avowed atheist. On June 1, 1985, at the age of 38, Storm had a near-death experience due to a perforation of the stomach and his life was forever changed. After leaving his body he heard his name being called and followed some beings into a hallway that was like haze or fog.
"It was a light-colored haze," Storm recounts on a website. "It wasn’t a heavy haze. I could see my hand, for example, but the people who were calling me were 15 or 20 feet ahead, and I couldn’t see them clearly. They were more like silhouettes, or shapes, and as I moved toward them they backed off into the haze. As I tried to get close to them to identify them, they quickly withdrew deeper into the fog. So I had to follow into the fog deeper and deeper. I knew that we had been traveling for miles, but I occasionally had the strange ability to look back and see the hospital room. Walking for what seemed to be a considerable distance, these beings were all around me. They were leading me through the haze. I don’t know how long ... there was a real sense of timelessness about the experience. In a real sense I am unaware of how long it was, but it felt like a long time – maybe even days or weeks.
"As we traveled, the fog got thicker and darker, and the people began to change. At first they seemed rather playful and happy, but when we had covered some distance, a few of them began to get aggressive. The more questioning and suspicious I was, the more antagonistic and rude and authoritarian they became. They began to make jokes about my bare rear end which wasn't covered by my hospital dicky and about how pathetic I was. I knew they were talking about me, but when I tried to find out exactly what they were saying they would say, 'Shh, he can hear you, he can hear you.'
"Wondering what was happening, I continued to ask questions, and they repeatedly urged me to hurry and to stop asking questions. Feeling uneasy, especially since they continued to get aggressive, I considered returning, but I didn’t know how to get back. I was lost. There were no features that I could relate to. There was just the fog and a wet, clammy ground, and I had no sense of direction. All my communication with them took place verbally just as ordinary human communication occurs. They didn't appear to know what I was thinking, and I didn't know what they were thinking. What was increasingly obvious was that they were liars and help was farther away the more I stayed with them. Hours ago, I had hoped to die and end the torment of life. Now things were worse as I was forced by a mob of unfriendly and cruel people toward some unknown destination in the darkness. They began shouting and hurling insults at me, demanding that I hurry along. And they refused to answer any questions. Finally, I told them that I wouldn’t go any farther. At that time they changed completely. They became much more aggressive and insisted that I was going with them. A number of them began to push and shove me, and I responded by hitting back at them. A wild orgy of frenzied taunting, screaming, and hitting ensued. I fought like a wild man. All the while it was obvious that they were having great fun. It seemed to be, almost, a game for them, with me as the center-piece of their amusement. My pain became their pleasure. They seemed to want to make me hurt – by clawing at me and biting me. Whenever I would get one off me, there were five more to replace the one. Every new assault brought howls of cacophony. Then at some point, they began to tear off pieces of my flesh. To my horror I realized I was being taken apart and eaten alive, slowly, so that their entertainment would last as long a possible."
Fortunately for Storm -- who is now a minister -- he heard a voice telling him to pray and finally did. He said the Lord's Prayer. That saved him. He was brought back. His full account can be viewed at the website (be careful for New Age accounts). And it shows us the serious business of the afterlife and how our choices on earth affect us forever.
It certainly sounds as if Storm was headed for hell. Most people are not condemned to that torment. But there are the nearly equal pains of purgatory. Although we may escape hell and the kind of demons Storm encountered, when we die there are things for which we must atone. Mystics tell us that the lowest level of purgatory is in fact similar in some ways to hell, that there is fire, that there is extreme cold, that there are many spiritual torments. In the 19th century a nun in purgatory was allowed to appear to a living nun, and after it was discerned that the apparition was not a demonic deception, the living nun recorded a description of the various levels, including the lowest.
"No one can have a real understanding of the sufferings in purgatory," said the nun, whose revelations were granted a Cardinal's imprimatur. "No one thinks of them in the world. Even religious communities forget that they should pray for the poor souls and that they should inspire their pupils with this devotion."
Who is harassed by demons? Who goes to the lowest level? One would guess repentant murderers, philanderers, abortionists, occultists, thieves, misers, rapists, child molesters, tyrants, sadists, and the like. A safe bet is that you would also find adulterers and sodomists. It is a place of heavy purification.
What a fire it is.
One woman who committed suicide in 1991 recalled a death experience in which she landed on a shadowy plane with black mist swirling around her. The mist formed a barrier that kept her prisoner and it was like outer space but without a single glimmering star.
What comes to mind is what Christ described as the "outer darkness" (Matthew 8:12).
A terrible, lonely, painful place.
A place where the most serious sins are purified in serious manner.
And the greatest pain is the absence of God.
Next: the levels of purgatory
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