The wrong side of the pearly gates

Most people who have near-death experiences go to Heaven - all clouds and light. But those who end up in hell find a nightmare of their own making, writes Genevieve Fox

When 27-year-old Angie Fenimore attempted suicide four years ago, she finally turned her back on a childhood of abuse, a lifetime of misery, her husband and two young sons. So eager was she to get to the pearly gates and green meadows beyond that she took an overdose to finish off what she had started when she slit her wrists with a razor.

But Angie neither managed to kill herself nor get to heaven. She did, though, have what is known as a near-death experience (NDE), the very thing that had convinced her to kill herself in the first place. Her own stepmother had had such an experience after a car accident and told an enticing story of a "warm enveloping of peace". It was just such inner tranquillity that Angie craved. Of the one million Americans and approximately half a million British people who report near-death experiences, 95 per cent have a positive, and often life-changing, experience and speak of visiting a place which they invariably describe as heaven or paradise. Not Angie. She ended up in hell.

As with many people who claim to have ended up on the wrong side of the pearly gates, Angie's hell was nothing like the fiery realm of Christian folklore . There were no horned devils with red-hot tridents, none of the sadistic torturers and disembowelled bodies of Bosch and Bruegel. Apart from being sucked, painfully, into a malevolent darkness, Angie's hell was unique, a psychic dramatisation of the very things that drove her to suicide in the first place. Her hell is inhabited by listless, expressionless suicide victims who were entirely self-absorbed. "I knew that I was in a state of hell," she says, "but this was not the typical fire and brimstone hell that I had learnt about as a child."

Why didn't Angie, who, incidentally, has joined the throng of post-NDE born-again Christians, end up in a hell of fire and brimstone? Why is it that whenever people have pleasurable near-death experiences, it's an archetypal package of verdant pastures, a reunion with favourite relatives and a journey down a tunnel to a dazzling and benign light, yet hell consists of vivid and grizzly personal experiences with a few faded archetypes thrown in?

For scientists and sceptics, the answer is simple. NDEs are merely visions on the brink of death, out-of-body experiences induced by oxygen starvation to the brain which cause the bright lights and tunnel sensations common to all NDEs. In other words, hell doesn't exist, there is no verifiable afterlife, and all those glimpses of a so-called Heaven are merely wish fulfilment.

Whether or not physiological facts disprove the survival of our bodies after death, the personalised visions of psychic voyagers may be explained by the way in which the iconography of hell has become increasingly irrelevant in modern times. "In medieval times the prospect of hell was more real," says the Reverend Doctor Gordon Wakefield, former director of Oxford's Alistair Hardy Research Centre for spiritual experiences. "We've been more cheerful in recent times."

Not if Angie's experience is anything to go by. But when Giotto depicted adulterers hanging by their genitals in his fresco "The Last Judgment", for example, there is no doubt that the prospect of hell was far from mythical. Artists and laymen alike firmly believed their sins would be punished by gruesome torture. Hell was an unsavoury prospect which held currency in Europe for 1500 years, right up to the mid-19th century. According to the Rev Wakefield, the notion of hell as a place of fire and brimstone stopped being taught by the Roman Catholic church 50 or 60 years ago and by the Anglican church even earlier. "The red hot oven doesn't figure very much these days."

The burning cauldron may be outmoded, but it didn't stop Angie being tormented. Just recompense, religious fundamentalists might argue, for the sin of suicide.

Angie did go to church as a child, but why should somebody who hasn't been fed apochryphal stories of hell actually end up there? Ian McCormack, for example, a young Australian who was stung, supposedly to death, by four poisonous jellyfish off Mauritius, found himself in a menacing darkness where shady figures with monstrous, guttural voices told him to shut up, saying, "You're in hell."

"You don't need to have a belief in hell in order to have the experience," says David Lorimer, president of the International Association of Near- Death Experiences. "You have the experience and try to form an explanation for it afterwards. We live in a religious imagination of an idea of Heaven and hell, even though we don't necessarily believe in it any more."

Most of us may no longer believe in hell, which explains why the 20th century hasn't come up with any eschatological visions of its own to supplant Bruegel's tortured bodies or Dante's Inferno. During the trauma of struggling for life after an operation or an overdose, archetypal images of life beyond invade our psyche. Our contemporary vision of hell is a hallucinogenic hotchpotch of medieval torture and contemporary, non-allegorical Room 101 nightmares.

Hence when Alan Sullivan, a truck driver from Connecticut, lost consciousness, or had an NDE, during a heart by-pass operation, he met the "skeletal" Grim Reaper, "cloaked, with yellowish bones and bony hands" of Christian folklore, as well as his mother. This is his first, and joyful, "meeting" with her since she died when he was only seven years old. Then, as if in a bad dream, he is cruelly separated from her when he rejoins the physical world.

These foretastes of hell may be explained by the fact that our predominantly secular age is none the less a moral one. Do something bad and there'll be "hell to pay". The metaphor of hell is still potent. But those who believe the goodies end up in a metaphorical Heaven and the baddies in hell are in for a disappointment, says David Lorimer. "A positive or negative NDE is in no way related to the moral character of the person involved." According to his "ethics of interconnectedness", we're all in it together and we will all experience empathetically the experiences, good and bad, of others. "It's an elaboration of the golden rule, you reap what you sow."

He may be right. The hell supposedly glimpsed by the cyclically depressed, Heavy Metal addict Angie, who had been sexually abused and emotionally deprived as a child, is peopled not by some three-headed Cerberus but by her own psychic ghosts. The first person she encounters is a self- obsessed and wild-haired, black-clad biker "fixed in a thoughtless stupor".

Nobody doubts the authenticity of an experience such as Angie's. But whether it proves the existence of an afterlife is, as Kevin Thomas of the Catholic Media Office puts it, one of life's "non-provables". In the light of Angie's earthly life, Jean-Paul Sartre's theory seems more plausible. In Huis Clos, three newly dead find themselves trapped in a hot, windowless room with no distractions save their own bickering.

"So this is hell," concludes Garcin. "I'd never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture chambers, the fire and brimstone, the 'burning marl'. Old wives' tales! There's no need for red-hot pokers. Hell is ... other people!"

You have been warned.

'Beyond Darkness: My Near-Death Journey to the Edge of Hell and Back', by Angie Fenimore, is published by Simon and Schuster.

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