John Casey is a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge

ACCORDING to yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph, “negative” Near Death Experiences are increasingly being reported. They are much less comforting than the “positive” Near Death Experiences we are used to hearing about.

One woman who was ill from meningitis writes: “I had reached a critical stage of the illness, and was hovering between life and death. A three-legged being – rather like the Isle of Man symbol – was pulling my legs down to infinite depths.” Others have also reported the sensation of being dragged down into a dark pit by beings which strongly resembled our traditional picture of demons.

This is all very interesting. The earlier reports about light and peace seemed to fit our current prejudices against punishment. Whatever might happen in the next life, it would somehow have to be – well, nice. Now people are telling us how they felt they were being dragged into a pit. We remember the words of Isaiah: “Yet thou shalt be brought down to Hell, to the sides of the pit.”

Alexander Pope has some sour lines about churchmen softening Christian doctrine: “To rest, the Cushion and soft Dean invite/ Who never mentions Hell to ears polite.” It is curious that in our own time a majority of people hold on to a faith in some sort of Heaven, but reject the once-universal belief in Hell. And even though the bishops of the Church of England last year reaffirmed the doctrine of possible future punishment, several hastened to reassure us that they were not thinking of anything so primitive as flames and devils.

Yet it seems that some people still do have those very ideas at the back of their minds, and that these come to the surface in moments of extreme danger. This is not surprising. Some belief in a hell is found among the ancient Egyptians, in Buddhism and in late Judaism. The Egyptian Book of the Dead is all about how, after death, our good and bad deeds are weighed in the balance, and how the heart, which knows of our evil doings, may rise up in testimony against us: “Oh heart, rise not up as a witness against me, turn not against me before the tribunal!” The finest passages in the Koran are about the final days, and the Last Judgment when “whoso has done an atom’s weight of evil shall see it”.

But it is Christianity which has produced the subtlest and strongest philosophy about Hell. This is because Christianity has expended immense intellectual energy in trying to work out why moral evil is of infinitely greater significance than physical evil. There is a notorious passage in Newman in which he says it would be better for all mankind to perish in the greatest agony than for one venial sin to be committed.

For Christians, sin is a turning away of the human will from God. The most obdurate and serious sin is the choice of oneself rather than God, through pride. Christians have seen this as a choice of nothingness rather than the fullness of being which is God, and they have often thought of Hell as a state of unrelieved egoism. Contrary to Sartre, Hell is self -ishness rather than “other people”. Heaven, accordingly, is loss of self in the contemplation of God.

Dante wrote some famous, extraordinary lines in his Inferno as the inscription over Hell Gate: “Justice moved my High Maker, the Divine Power made me, and the Primal Love.” Dante is actually saying that Hell is the product of God’s love. The truth is that traditional Christian beliefs in Original Sin, the fallen nature of man, the need for redemption and the contrasting perfection of God necessitate a doctrine of Hell.

So these experiences involving the Isle of Man symbol and such like suggest that the pendulum may be swinging back towards the ancient orthodoxies.

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