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  •  Copyright © 2014 by Dr. Ken R. Vincent.

 

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God Is With Us: What Near-Death and Other Spiritually Transformative Experiences Teach Us About God and Afterlife by Dr. Ken R. Vincent is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Based on a work at http://www.near-death.com/god-is-with-us.html. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://www.near-death.com/terms.html.

 
  •  Readers wishing to contact author Dr. Ken R. Vincent may email him at:  professorvincent@yahoo.com.
 
  •  Published by: Near-Death Experiences and the Afterlife
  Webmaster: Kevin R. Williams, B.Sc.
  Carmichael, CA 95608
   
  •  In Association with: International Association for Near-Death Studies
  2741 Campus Walk Avenue, Building 500
  Durham, NC 27705-8878
 
  •  Cover and text design and typesetting by Webmaster Kevin R. Williams, B.Sc.
 
  •  Cover art:  Hubble Space Telescope photo of galaxy Messier 74. Courtesy of NASA.
 
  •  Other Books by Dr. Ken R. Vincent:
 
Visions of God book cover.

Visions of God from the
Near Death Experience

by Dr. Ken R. Vincent

Many of our most inspiring and straightforward visions of God, afterlife, and values for living have come through near-death experiences. In gathering together the spiritual highlights of many such experiences, Dr. Vincent does a real service for readers who need quick access to "the good stuff." The result is an inspirational book that gently reminds us how much we have always known deep inside. A HARDBACK edition of the book is also available.

The Golden Thread book cover.
The Golden Thread: God's Promise of Universal Salvation
by Dr. Ken R. Vincent

In our modern pluralistic world, the barriers imposed by the old doctrine of religious exclusivity are confronted every day by individuals, families, and nations. Now more than ever, the inspirational message of God's Universal and eternal love for all humanity needs to be retold. By reacquainting readers with the God who is too good to condemn anyone to Eternal Hell, this book offers a Biblical interpretation present in Christianity from the earliest Jesus-Followers to the 21st Century. EBOOK and Amazon KINDLE editions of this book are also available.

The Magi book cover.
The Magi: From Zoroaster to
the "Three Wise Men"
by Dr. Ken R. Vincent

Do you know why Zoroastrian priests are on your Christmas cards? In The Magi, Dr. Ken Vincent shines light on a topic previously known mainly to scholars; he provides the layperson searching for Christian origins an extremely readable but thorough exploration of a religion which predates Christianity by hundreds of years. This easy-to-read introduction highlights the parallels between Zoroaster and both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament and shows the use of Zoroastrian imagery in the Dead Sea Scrolls. An appendix includes an English translation of the complete hymns of Zoroaster.

 
 
About Dr. Ken R. Vincent 
Compiled by Kevin Williams
 
 

Dr. Ken R. Vincent received his doctorate in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado in 1973. He is currently retired from teaching Psychology and the Psychology of Religious Experience at Houston Community College. He is a member of the Alister Hardy Society for the Study of Spiritual Experience and the International Association of Near-Death Studies (IANDS). Dr. Vincent served as a founding Board member of the Christian Universalist Association and is the former webmaster of The Universalist Herald website. His writings all contain a strong undercurrent of Universalist thought. In his book The Magi: From Zoroaster to the Three Wise Men, he compares the religion of the Magi (Zoroastrianism) to Christianity and shows the parallels of Universal Restoration in both faiths. In Visions of God from the Near-Death Experience, the wisdom of the prophets and sages of the world's religions is superimposed upon the accounts of modern-day near-death experiencers to illustrate the similarities between them. Dr. Vincent‘s book The Golden Thread: God's Promise of Universal Salvation documents the solid support for Universal Salvation in the Bible as well as research into NDEs and Mystical/Religious/Spiritual Experiences. This online book is entitled God Is With Us: What Near-Death and Other Spiritually Transformative Experiences Teach Us About God and Afterlife. Correspondence regarding this online book should be sent to: professorvincent@yahoo.com.

Table of Contents 
 

DEDICATION:  Photos of the one whom this online book is dedicated.

FOREWORD:  Webmaster Kevin Williams introduces the author of this online book, Dr. Ken R. Vincent, and gives reasons why this important work should be read and understood by people from all backgrounds and religious preference.

CHAPTER 1:  The Search for God and Afterlife in the Age of Science - Near-death experiences and other transpersonal experiences point to the existence and nature of God and ongoing personal consciousness following physical death. In this article, the history of these experiences are reviewed prior to 1850 and of their study during three periods of scientific research between 1850 and the present.

CHAPTER 2:  Developmental Revelation - There is a parallel between the development of the individual and the progress of whole cultures throughout history and that evidence for this maturation process can be found in the stories of the world's religions. Because the Bible documents a 2000-year period of human development, it is particularly rich with examples of developmental revelation.

CHAPTER 3:  Ken's Guide to "Universals" In Religion - Dr. Vincent presents five "universals" common to all religions, the most important being the spiritually transformative experience - the basis for their founder's authority. The world religions continue in large part because a substantial number of believers have their own spiritually transformative experiences. Dr. Vincent explains how this has been demonstrated by over 100 years of scientific research and how, without spiritually transformative experiences, religion would probably cease to exist.

CHAPTER 4:  Separating the "Super" from the "Natural" - Ancient religious writings describe "supernatural" experiences which do not occur in the modern world. In this article, Dr. Vincent separates the "supernatural" from "natural" religious experiences by explaining how modern researchers have applied the scientific method to such experiences and discovered they are not limited to the realm of a few ancient saints, prophets, and sages.

CHAPTER 5:  Religious Experience of Jesus Compatible with Modern Research - Dr. Vincent documents how the Jesus Seminar used modern scholarship to separate the mythology from the reality regarding Jesus and how Jesus' mystical experiences were no different from modern mystical experiences, except in degree, thereby showing a continuity of religious experience from Jesus' time to the present.

CHAPTER 6:  Resurrection Appearances of Jesus as After-Death Communication - Although a bodily resurrection of Jesus is implied by the Gospel writers because of the empty tomb, Dr. Vincent reveals how the "resurrection" appearances of Jesus described in the Bible are more in accord with the phenomenology of modern after-death communications of Jesus, other divine figures and ordinary people.

CHAPTER 7:  Resurrection Appearances of Jesus as After-Death Communication: Rejoinder to Gary Habermas - Dr. Vincent uses data from religious/spiritual experience research to defend his thesis about Jesus' resurrection appearances described in the Bible as being visionary after-death communications instead of "reanimated corpse" appearances. Dr. Vincent also describes how, over the past 150 years, religious experience researchers have successfully applied the tools of science and begun to unlock the mysteries of how humans experience God and afterlife.

CHAPTER 8:  Religious Experience Research Reveals Universalist Principles - For the past 100 years, social and biomedical scientists have been studying transpersonal experiences (such as NDEs and Mysticism) and though they might not be aware of the theological term "Universalism", their conclusions support it. Dr. Vincent has recognized a recurring pattern of Universalist principles in the writing of his fellow researchers of NDEs and other Spiritually Transformative Experiences, including the Oneness of all things and an Ultimate Reality whose love is inescapable.

CHAPTER 9:  Mystical Religious Experiences and Christian Universalism - Christian mystics such as Jesus have often been at odds with the religious leaders when they put religious dogma above mystical experiences of God. Dr. Vincent offers some personal and social science evidence from modern researchers who have shown that such mystical experiences are quite common and that they reinforce what Jesus taught about God's love for everyone.

CHAPTER 10:  The Near-Death Experience and Christian Universalism - In this article, Dr. Vincent explores the near-death experience (NDE) in context of Christian Universalism. He also shows how Universal Salvation and Salvation by Good Works are the most compatible theological systems supporting the NDE phenomenon. He does this by presenting an analysis of New Testament verses (among other things) which supports these principles.

CHAPTER 11:  An Eighteenth-Century Near-Death Experience: The Case of George de Benneville - Dr. Vincent and Rev. Dr. John Morgan discuss one of the most credible and documented cases of a NDE - that of an 18th-century physician and lay minister by the name of Dr. George de Benneville - whose hopeful Universalist message is consistent with the reports of modern-day NDEs but put him at odds with his Calvinistic his religious upbringing and associates.

CHAPTER 12:  Zoroaster: The First Universalist - Zoroaster was known as a the Prophet of the Magi (the so-called "wise men" of Matthew 2) and a miracle-worker who is believed to have lived somewhere between 1200-1800 BCE. Although almost nothing was known of his ideas in post-Classical Western culture until the late 18th century, his name was already associated with lost ancient wisdom. Enlightenment writers such as Voltaire promoted research into Zoroastrianism in the belief that it was a form of rational Deism, preferable to Christianity. Elements of Zoroastrian philosophy entered the West through their influence on Judaism and Christianity.

CHAPTER 13:  Omar Khayyam: Sufi Universalist - Omar Khayyám (1048–1131 CE) was an Islamic mystic from Persia who was enormously influential in mathematics, philosophy, astronomy and Islamic theology (among other things). His poetry has inspired people from all around the world including Dr. Vincent who presents the great mystic's Universalism expressed through his verses.

CHAPTER 14:  Universal Salvation in Hinduism and Its Children - Dr. Vincent explains the Universalist principles found in Hinduism and its "branches": Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism. Central to these religions is the law of "karma" in which a person's deeds in life determines their status not only in the intermediate state of Heaven or Hell, but also their next life with the ultimate goal of liberation from the cycle of reincarnation and towards a permanent union with God through good deeds.

CHAPTER 15:  Scientific Investigation of the "Dark Side" - Dr. Vincent documents the scientific research into spiritually transformative experiences (STEs) which show negative experiences do occur, but are not widespread as positive ones and that they also change people's lives for the better. STEs such as NDEs and ADCs reveal Universalist principles that humans are accountable for their actions and that nothing good is ever lost.

CHAPTER 16:  Magic, Deeds, and Universalism: Afterlife in the World’s Religions - Dr. Vincent describes in detail the three levels of religious development in human beings. The lowest level of religious development is where "magic" rituals are performed, such as animal or human sacrifice, to appease the gods in order to guarantee a positive outcome in the afterlife. The next level of religious development is the realization that your deeds in life determine your afterlife outcome. But the highest level of religious development is Universalism which views God as Jesus did, for example, as being infinitely nicer than any parent and realizing that we are all a part of God and can never be lost.

CHAPTER 17:  What Near-Death and Other Spiritually Transformative Experiences Teach Us About God and Afterlife - Scientific research into NDEs and other "NDE-like" spiritually transformative experiences such as Mystical Experiences and ADCs have broadened our understanding of God and the afterlife and are the basis for the world's great religions. Dr. Vincent reveals insights from this research including the divine nature within everyone, how good deeds really do matter, how it's what's in your heart that matters most and not so much what you believe in your head, that hell is not a permanent spiritual condition, and that everyone has the potential and ultimate goal of being a permanent resident of the highest heaven.

APPENDIX A:  The Salvation Conspiracy: How Hell Became Eternal - Dr. Vincent explains how modern Biblical scholarship and archeological findings have confirmed that Universalist principles were dominant during the first 500 years of Christianity and how mistranslations of scriptures contributed to reinterpretations of the nature of Hell as being eternal torture. Dr. Vincent also discusses how the historical merging of Church and State led to the corruption of Jesus' Universalist teachings.

APPENDIX B:  Where Have All the Universalists Gone? - Universalism has been a part of the world's great religions since their very beginnings. Although Universalism as a separate Christian denomination has dwindled in membership significantly over the years, Dr. Vincent describes how Universalism is growing in the hearts and minds of virtually all Christian denominations, as well as other world religions. Is the growing number of Universalists sufficient to counter the false claim that God loves only people of a particular brand, of a specific sect, of a special religion? It is time for a revival of the Universalist Church to gather together all who enthusiastically affirm that God is too good to condemn anyone to eternal torture.

REFERENCES:  This bibliography contains all 200+ references which this online book used.

ABOUT DR. KEN R. VINCENT:  The author of this online book, Dr. Ken R. Vincent, has a brief biography on this page.

SELECTED RESOURCES:  Recommended Internet resources are listed such as websites on NDEs and other Spiritually Transformative Experiences, websites on Universalism, websites on Zoroaster, and websites on the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

PERMISSIONS:  This page contains permissions information where all the chapters of this online book were previously published such as in the in the Journal of Near-Death Studies, De Numine and The Universalist Herald.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS:  Webmaster Kevin Williams is acknowledged as the web developer of this online book.

Dedication 
 
This book is dedicated to my wife Pam who is my best friend and first editor.
 
Return to Book Table of Contents  
Foreword
by Kevin R. Williams, B.Sc.
 
Kevin Williams photo.

I am pleased to write the Foreword for this online book entitled God Is With Us: What Near-Death and Other Spiritually Transformative Experiences Teach Us About God and Afterlife by Dr. Ken R. Vincent. I am the publisher of this wonderful book written by Dr. Vincent (whom I will affectionately refer to as Ken from this point on) which I published as a labor of love and a with a sense of urgency - not only because of my great admiration of Ken - but because his book contains divine revelations which I believe can literally change the world and bring people from all religious backgrounds and cultures together. One glance at the news headlines tells you this is something desperately needed in this world today. Although all the major world religions and many scientific fields of endeavor are covered in this book - make no mistake - this is a book about God. The vision of God that Ken presents in this book is consistent with scholarship of both ancient and modern religious experiences. As Ken's magnum opus, this book gives the reader a profound understanding of his conclusions drawn from his scholarly search for a "generic" or "universal" God developed from his research into a mind-boggling number of scientific fields such as the following:

Thanatology:  near-death experiences out-of-body experiences after-death communications death-bed visions the scientific research of life after death Theology:  Universalism Jesus Seminar Christology angelology conceptions of afterlife in early civilizations resurrection reincarnation Anomalous Experiences:  religious experience spiritually transformative experiences (STEs) mysticism shamanism Religious Studies:  science and religious studies comparative religions phenomenology of religion Jewish and Christian origins mythology Consciousness Studies:  altered states of consciousness neuroscience psychiatry psychedelic experiences Psychology:  psychology of religion psychology of moral development transpersonal psychology social psychology analytic psychology phenomenological psychology parapsychology Philosophy:  phenomenology metaphysics eastern philosophy social philosophy Historiography:  ancient history history of early Christianity history of Universalism Social Science:  sociology social studies psychical research spirituality studies

The Magi book cover.

Concerning comparative religion, Ken asks Christians the following:

"Do you know why Magi Zoroastrian priests are on your Christmas cards?"

In other words, do you know why the Christian religion describes priests of the Zoroastrian religion worshipping the King of the Jewish religion? Knowing the answer to this question is a crucial step in understanding the concept of a "universal" God and the tremendous influence the much older religion of Zoroastrianism had on the world's major religions. Inside this online book, Ken answers this question by shedding light on information previously known mainly to scholars. He guides the reader into the historical religious concept of "Universalism" - the revelation that God has a plan to ultimately provide salvation to all humanity.

At its heart, Universalism describes a God of unconditional and inescapable love and light extending to everyone no matter what their religious belief or background. It is a divine revelation given to Zoroaster, the prophet of the Magi religion, which was eventually incorporated in all the major world religions. Zoroastrianism describes a God who occasionally sends "saviors" such as Moses, Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad to lead their people toward enlightenment and salvation. In this book, and to a greater extent, in Ken's paperback book entitled The Magi: From Zoroaster to the "Three Wise Men," he discusses this important fact.

Ken is a retired Psychology professor, a founding Board member of the
Christian Universalist Association, an expert in Universalism and the major world religions such as Zoroastrianism, and a member of IANDS (along with many other qualifications). More about Ken can be found in the Chapter of this book labeled "About Ken." I consider Ken a special "guru" of mine because of his greater understanding of these lofty subjects and how he provides the layperson with a thorough and easy-to-read understanding of how they relate to NDEs and other STEs.

I have several experts I consider gurus for whom I go to for gaining more knowledge on such subjects. They are experts in their field who mostly impart their expertise freely for the sake of humanity. In fact, the Urban Dictionary defines the word "guru" in a number of ways; but I prefer their definition as follows:

Multi-colored icon.   "A teacher - a learned man [or woman] who shares their knowledge and enlightens all ignorant [people] and works for the mass uplifting of the society by imparting knowledge."

There are many such gurus to be found on the Internet who fit this definition; but there are several such experts like Ken who have contributed so much to making this www.near-death.com website what it is today. How these experts became so important to my own personal research and enlightenment is a story worth telling. I will try to be as brief and precise as I can.

Visions of God book  cover. Before I had my own personal computer, I was a book worm reading everything I could get my hands on the subject of NDEs and Christianity. One of the books I read was Ken's wonderful book entitled Visions of God from the Near-Death Experience which I highly recommend. But as a fundamentalist, the information I was reading about NDEs conflicted a lot with my strict Christian belief system. During the 1980's, I had a "crisis of faith" partly due to this conflict which ultimately led me to being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The medication I began taking was in every way a lifesaver. One might say the medicine took away the "manic street preacher" inside of me and ultimately made me a more liberal Christian. The major source of information which greatly resolved my internal conflict between fundamentalist Christianity and near-death studies was my first guru - Edgar Cayce (www.edgarcayce.org) - the Christian mystic whose information was my "bridge" connecting Christianity with near-death studies. The brand of Christianity revealed by Edgar Cayce agreed with what I was reading in all the NDE books which is: (1) the reality of Universal Salvation; (2) the Unconditional Love and Universal Mind that is God; and (3) the higher teachings and "hidden mysteries" of Jesus concerning a personal "resurrection" as a spiritual regeneration within a living person and - for those who have not experienced this spiritual "resurrection" - a bodily "resurrection" of the soul by means of reincarnation which is the divine method for the evolution of the soul. According to Cayce, this system of bodily reincarnation also allows those who have already attained spiritual regeneration to reincarnate to help others in their soul's evolution and to help prepare the way for the "Kingdom of Heaven" on Earth. The Cayce Organization and their website is filled with wisdom on these mysteries which were ordained to be revealed at this time in history.

When I graduated with a computer science degree in the 1990's, the World Wide Web was in its infancy. At this time, I discovered my second guru - Marcus P. Zillman, M.S., A.M.H.A. (www.zillman.us). He is an international Internet expert who played a major role in bringing artificial intelligence to the Web in the form of bots and intelligent software agents. He has authored hundreds of free publications available for downloading including over 80 white papers, Internet MiniGuides, How-To videos, and eBooks about a variety of subjects available to both the "newbie" as well as the "seasoned" veteran. His free resources allowed me to be currently aware of important Internet sources especially in web development. One might say he was my "bridge" connecting my desire to present near-death studies on the World Wide Web via a website.

Then when I began creating the www.near-death.com website, I had already known whom I refer to as my third guru - P. M. H. Atwater, L.H.D, (pmhatwater.hypermart.net) - who was one of the early researchers in near-death studies and one of the very few researchers who actually is an NDE experiencer. Her books, articles and website gave me a perspective of NDEs which agreed with my growing liberal Christian view. From almost the beginning of my website, she has personally allowed me to freely reprint numerous articles of hers including a column in my monthly newsletter which spanned almost a decade. As someone who often presents NDE information to the Edgar Cayce organization, her knowledge was my "bridge" connecting NDE studies with NDE mysticism .

   
Dr. Ken R. Vincent photo.

Sometime after the new millennium, I read an article in the Journal of Near-Death Studies entitled "The Near-Death Experience and Christian Universalism." I was so impressed with the article that I contacted the author who eventually became my fourth and latest guru, Dr. Ken R. Vincent, to ask permission to reprint it on my website. After reading other articles by Ken published on the website The Universalist Herald (www.universalist-herald.org) of which he is now the retired Webmaster, another profound element to my knowledge base was added. His expertise provided me with another vital bridge for connecting NDE studies with Universalism in a way I have never known before. At the time, I considered myself somewhat of a NDE and Christian universalism expert; but in reading Ken's writings I discovered someone who actually is a scholar of both of these subjects and someone who stands far beyond my comprehension of them. We agreed that he would be the NDE and Universalist guru on my website.

The Golden Thread book cover.After reprinting his article "The Near-Death Experience and Christian Universalism" - which is now Chapter 10 of this online book - I became diverted with webmaster duties as my site was getting larger. Reprinting some of Ken's articles remained at the top of my To-Do list. Ultimately, Ken emailed me a number of his articles in book format which are the Chapters of this book. Upon reading them, I knew I had to immediately build this book which Ken is offering at no cost. I know this new book of Ken's will enlighten many people as it enlightened me. Building his book on my website has definitely been a labor of love.

And there is an enormous amount of profound information in this book as each Chapter ties in with the next. Much like the so-called "crimson thread" which weaves revelations of Jesus in the Hebrew Bible, so does Ken's paperback book The Golden Thread: God's Promise of Universal Salvation (on the left) - as well as this new book - weave a "golden thread" of Universalism through all the major world religions tying them all together. Ken shares some Chapters of his paperback book here in this new book.

The reader will also be amazed how Ken ties near-death studies with scholarly topics such as:

   
1. What NDEs and STEs teach us about God and the afterlife
2. Modern scientific research into religious experiences
3. Psychology as it relates to NDEs and STEs
4. The parallel levels of moral development between individuals, religions, and entire cultures
5. The parallel levels of religious development in individuals and world religions
6. The five universal concepts found in all religions
7. Why religion would probably cease to exist without STEs
8. Why modern STEs are identical to STEs in ancient religious texts when you remove the supernatural elements
9. Why personal religious experience is becoming more fundamental than theology
10. The nine categories of resurrection appearances of Jesus which are identical to modern ADCs involving Jesus
11. How modern scientific research of religious experiences reveals principles of Universalism
12. Personal cases of Universalist mystical religious experiences
13. How NDEs agree with Universalism including Christian Universalism
14. The vast amount of historical and Biblical evidence supporting Universalism
15. One of the most profound NDE testimonies ever documented because of its authenticity, authority, and aftereffects
16. How the more ancient religion of Zoroastrianism influenced doctrines found all the Western religions
17. The scientific research into negative religious experiences
18. The history of how the false doctrine of eternal damnation crept into Christianity hundreds of years after the death of Jesus
19. The types of Universalists in America today
20.  How Universalism is the key for resolving the strife in the modern world
21. and much more...
 

In conclusion, I know Ken's research will enlighten you in so many ways as it did me. A vast number of the missing pieces in my knowledge base concerning NDEs, STEs, religious studies, and Universalism have been filled thanks to Ken and I am eternally grateful.

- Kevin R. Williams, B.Sc.       
 
Return to Book Table of Contents  
Chapter 1
The Search for God and Afterlife in the Age of Science
 
Dr. Ken R. Vincent at bookshelf.
  Table of Contents
1. Abstract and Keywords
2. Introduction Transpersonal Experiences
3. Transpersonal Experiences Prior to 1850
 
a. Plato, Zoroaster, St. Paul and St. Gregory the Great
4. First Period of Scientific Research into Transpersonal Experiences (1850s-1920s)
 
a. Mid-19th Century Medical Science, Eastern Religions and Psychical Research
b. Important Ground-Breaking Transpersonal Studies
 
I. Frederick Myers' Study
II. Henry Sidgwick's Study
III. James Hyslop's Study
IV. William James' Study
5. Intermediate Period (1930s -1950s) and Second Period (1960s to Present) of Scientific Research into Transpersonal Experiences
 
a. Carl Jung and Transpersonal Experiences
b. Abraham Maslow and Transpersonal Psychology
c. Timothy Leary's LSD Research
d. Walter Pahnke's Psychedelic Research
e. Transpersonal Experiences and Psychosis
f. Sir Alister Hardy's Religious Experience Research
g. Osis and Haraldsson's Transpersonal Experience Research
h. The Beginning of Near-Death Experience Research
i. Scientific Theories Attempt to Explain Near-Death Experiences
j. Inducing Transpersonal Experiences
k. Religion and Near-Death Experiences
6. Conclusion
 
 1.  Abstract and Keywords  

 

ABSTRACT:  Near-death experiences (NDEs) and other transpersonal experiences -- those that transcend the usual personal experiential limits of space and/or time -- point to the existence and nature of God and ongoing personal consciousness following physical death. In this article, I review the history of these experiences prior to 1850 and of their study during three periods of scientific research between 1850 and the present. I conclude that:

a. A large percentage of the population has experienced NDEs and other transpersonal experiences.
b. The overwhelming majority of these experiencers are mentally healthy.
c. These experiences change people's lives for the better. I contend that although NDEs and other transpersonal experiences cannot prove the existence of a personal God and afterlife, they definitely point to them.

KEYWORDS:  near-death experience; transpersonal; mysticism; God; afterlife.

 

 2.  Introduction Transpersonal Experiences  

 

Abraham Maslow. Transpersonal experiences involve perceptions that transcend the usual personal limits of space and/or time. Also known as "mystical experiences," "religious experiences," or "spiritual experiences," transpersonal experiences include: direct communication of humans with God or other divine beings; near-death experiences (NDEs); deathbed visions (DBVs); and after-death communications (ADCs). Individuals who restrict their study of transpersonal experiences to NDEs sometimes call other transpersonal experiences "near-death-like experiences" or, more awkwardly, "a near-death experience in which the person didn't die." Unlike parapsychologists, who try to explain paranormal phenomena, transpersonal psychologists focus on the anomalous experiences of non-psychotic individuals and the effects of these experiences on them.

By their nature, many transpersonal experiences point to the existence and nature of both God and an afterlife of continued personal consciousness beyond physical death. Scientific study of "transpersonal experiences" developed between the second half of the 19th century and the present (Basford, 1990, pp. viii-ix). Whereas William James coined the term "transpersonal experience," Abraham Maslow greatly expanded the serious study of transpersonal experiences by deeming transpersonal psychology a "fourth force" in psychology after psychoanalysis, behaviorism, and humanism (Daniels, 2004, pp. 366-370).

In this paper, I will not address transpersonal experiences involving mediums, nor will I address faith healing, because I have not researched those areas. Rather, my focus will be the development of the study of near-death and near-death-like experiences over the past 150 years. I begin with a brief discussion of transpersonal experiences prior to the mid-19th century.

 

 3.  Transpersonal Experiences Prior to 1850  
  a.  Plato, Zoroaster, St. Paul and St. Gregory the Great  

 

Gregory The Great. All of human history is testimony to humanity's experience of the transpersonal. Prior to research into transpersonal experiences by biomedical researchers and social scientists, these accounts were often anecdotal and frequently "much-told tales." Twenty-five hundred years ago, Plato recorded the NDE of Er in his Republic (Plato, 4th century BC/1892). First-hand accounts from credible sources in the ancient world are rare. Zoroaster composed a poem that documented his direct experience of God (Vincent, 1999, pp. 91-127). St. Paul also told in his own writings of his life-transforming ADC of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:5-8). Additionally, St. Paul told of his out-of-body experience in which he was transported to the third level of Heaven (2 Corinthians 12:2-5).

In the 6th century, St. Gregory the Great in Book 4 of his Dialogues (Gregory, 6th century AD/1959) provided a treasure-trove of transpersonal experiences including NDEs, ADCs, DBVs, and vivid dreams. These and other examples from ancient and medieval literature have some validity by the very fact that they sound so similar to modern transpersonal accounts; however, in almost all cases there is simply not enough in the ancient record to make a judgment on the veracity of the story. In her analysis of medieval and modern accounts of other-world journeys, Carol Zaleski (1987) noted:

Multi-colored icon.   "We cannot simply peel away the literary wrapper and put our hand on an unembellished event, even when a vision actually did occur, it is likely to have been re-worked many times before being recorded" (pp. 86-88).

She suggested, for example, that the Church would have been eager to insure that recorded accounts did not contradict "Truth" as defined by Church doctrine. Nevertheless, in the medieval world, first-hand accounts of transpersonal experiences became more commonly reported in the lives of the saints. A modern interdisciplinary collaboration between a historian and a psychiatrist into medieval transpersonal experiences revealed that visions appeared to have been related to mental illness in only 4 of the 134 cases the authors studied (Kroll & Bachrach, 1982).

 

 4.  First Period of Scientific Research into Transpersonal Experiences (1850s-1920s)  
  a.  Mid-19th Century Medical Science, Eastern Religions and Psychical Research  

 

Max Muller. In the mid-19th century, medicine was becoming a science. Physicians were rapidly learning about the human body, discovering that many of their long-revered treatments and medications were ineffective and/or toxic (Benson & Stark, 1997, pp. 109-114). Social sciences became a reality in large part due to the invention of modern statistics (Wood & Wood, 1996, p. 23). Concurrently, comparative religion emerged as a topic of study for the first time in the West since the classical period (Nigosian, 2000, pp. 412-413). This period witnessed the publication of Max Müller's Sacred Books of the East (1897) that enhanced Western knowledge of Eastern religion. Simultaneously, archeology was changing from a "treasure hunt" for adventurers into a methodical science (Oakes & Gahlin, 2003, pp. 26-41).

In the mid-19th century, physicians began to report DBVs and the rarer NDEs in their medical journals (Basford 1990, pp. 5-10,131-137; Walker & Serdahely, 1990, p. 108). Aided by social scientists, case studies and observations of transpersonal experiences began to be verified. In the 1880s, the Society for Psychical Research was formed in England, and shortly thereafter, the American Society for Psychical Research was founded (Cardeña, Lynn, & Krippner, 2000, p. 6). The membership of these bodies largely consisted of physicians, professors, and preachers. Its members were interested in interviewing subjects and assessing the credibility of case studies involving transpersonal experiences.

 

  b.  Important Ground-Breaking Transpersonal Studies  
  I.   Frederick Myers' Study  
 
Fredric W. H. Myers.

 

Ground-breaking studies produced by this new group of psychical researchers include Frederick Myers's Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death (1903) and Sir William Barrett's Deathbed Visions (1926). The following veridical account taken from Myers's classic work documents the infrequent phenomena of physical contact with a vision. It is the case of an appearance to Baron Basil Fredorovich von Driesen of his dead father-in-law with whom he had not been on good terms. The purpose of the father-in-law's ADC was for reconciliation. Basil reported shaking the apparition's hand which he described as "long and cold," after which the vision disappeared. The next day after the church service, the priest told Basil and his wife:

Multi-colored icon.   "This night at 3:00, Nicholas Ivanovitch Ponomareff appeared to me and begged me to reconcile him to you."

Thus, on the same night the son-in-law and the priest, at separate locations, saw a vision of the same dead man (Myers, 1903, pp. 40-42).

 

  II.   Henry Sidgwick's Study  

 

Henry Sidgwick photo. Another important study in the 19th century was Henry Sidgwick's Report on the Census of Hallucinations (Basford, 1990, p. 161). The British study included over 15,000 non-psychotic people and found roughly 10% of the participants reported apparitions, including ADCs and religious visions. This was also the case in a 1990s replication of the study using a representative sample of over 18,000 participants (Bentall, 2000, pp. 94-95). Although people with schizophrenia can and do report mystical experiences along with their psychosis (Siglag, 1986), more often than not people without mental illness report seeing religious figures whereas people with schizophrenia report being religious figures.

III.   James Hyslop's Study  
 
James Hyslop.

 

James Hyslop wrote many books on transpersonal experiences. His Psychical Research and the Resurrection (1908) is interesting. It includes not only veridical examples of ADCs and DBVs but also a treatise on the resurrection as an ADC in which Hyslop stated that:

Multi-colored icon.   "The existence of veridical apparitions would substantiate all that is useful in the story of the resurrection and make human experience in all ages akin" (p.383).

This same approach, emphasizing that Jesus' resurrected body was (quoting St. Paul) a "spiritual" body (Hyslop, 1908, p. 377), was taken at mid-century by the Anglican Canon Michael Perry, who wrote The Easter Enigma: An Essay on the Resurrection with Specific Reference to the Data of Psychical Research (1959). This thesis was again raised at the end of the 20th century by Phillip Wiebe who authored Visions of Jesus (1997). These and other modern authors made the case that post-resurrection appearances of Jesus are visionary experiences indistinguishable from ADC reports throughout history (Hick, 1993, pp. 41-44; Maxwell & Tschudin, 1990, pp. 66-67, 78, 105, 119, 150, 166, 168; Wiebe 1997, pp. 3-88).

 

  IV.   William James' Study  
 

 

William James. The premier publication of the first period of research into transpersonal experiences was William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience published in 1902. In it, he boldly stated, In one sense the personal religion [currently termed transpersonal or spiritual] will prove itself more fundamental than either theology or ecclesiasticism. Churches, when once established, live at second-hand upon tradition; but the founders of every church owed their power originally to the fact of their direct personal communication with the Divine. Not only the superhuman founders, the Christ, the Buddha, Mahomet, but all the originators of Christian sects, have been in this case; -- so personal religion should still seem the primordial thing, even to those who continue to esteem it incomplete (James, 1902/1994, pp. 35-36; bracketed material added).

He went on to state that, the difference in the natural 'fact' which most of us would assign as the first difference which the existence of a God ought to make would, I imagine, be personal immortality. Religion, in fact, for the great majority of our own race means immortality, and nothing else (James 1902/1994, p. 569).

Further validation for William James' assertion that the founders of every religion obtained the spiritual knowledge from direct transpersonal experiences of God can be found in Christopher Partridge's (2004, pp. 14-24) New Religions. Partridge listed over 200 religions that were founded or came to prominence in the last century; virtually all of their founders were transformed and inspired by a transpersonal experience such as a voice, a vision or other mystical experience of God, or an ADC from a religious figure.

 

 5.  Intermediate Period (1930s -- 1950s) and Second Period (1960s to Present) of Scientific Research into Transpersonal Experiences 
  a.  Carl Jung and Transpersonal Experiences  

 

Carl Jung. During the 1920's, research into transpersonal experiences began to wane. In my opinion, possible reasons for this include the death of the founders of research into transpersonal experience, the rise of atheism and Marxism culturally, and Freudianism and behaviorism in the social and biomedical sciences. In an article focusing exclusively on NDEs, Barbara Walker and William J. Serdahely (1990) noted the same "dry" period. Carl Jung (1961) became a lone "voice in the wilderness" regarding the importance of religious and spiritual experience in healthy human functioning

  b.  Abraham Maslow and Transpersonal Psychology  

 

Abraham Maslow photo. As the father of humanistic psychology, Maslow revolutionized the study of psychology by emphasizing the healthy personality rather than psychopathology. Toward the end of his life, he went beyond this innovation by resurrecting James' term "transpersonal" and founding the field of transpersonal psychology (Maslow, 1964, pp. x -- xi, 19 -- 29; Partridge, 2004, pp. 366-370). During this same period, scientists had begun to use the electroencephalogram (EEG) to study meditation and other altered states of consciousness, demonstrating that meditative states were physiologically different from ordinary consciousness and not merely the "wishful thinking" of believers (Wulff, 1997, pp. 69-89, 95-116). Concurrently, the facilitation of religious experience using psychedelic drugs became the object of scientific study.

  c.  Timothy Leary's LSD Research  

 

Timothy Leary. Timothy Leary was a respected professor of psychology at Harvard and one of the world's foremost researchers on personality at the time he began to experiment with LSD and other psychedelic drugs (Wulff, D. M.,1997). He did so in the best of company -- with Huston Smith, a Methodist minister, theologian, and researcher on comparative religion, and Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World and The Doors of Perception (Smith, 2000, p. 6). One of Timothy Leary's early research projects at Harvard was nicknamed his "Prisoners to Prophets" program (Leary, 1983, pp. 83-90). In this study, he supervised the administration of LSD to prisoners who were then followed after their release from jail. Initially, the LSD group had a lower recidivism rate than those in the control group who had not received psychedelic drugs. However, later these results were questioned, and it was suggested that their success could be better attributed to the interaction of the students with the prisoners, helping them readjust to society and helping them find jobs. In fact, a 34-year follow-up showed recidivism to be slightly higher for the LSD group (Horgan, 2003).

Leary sincerely thought he had discovered something beneficial to society; a shortcut that would enable everyone to become a mystic. Thus he was for some time the champion of psychedelic drugs. He and his sophisticated friends did not have negative experiences with LSD, and some had gleaned insights under its influence. Leary thought that the mystical experience was caused by the drug; sadly, the causality and dynamics of such experiences turned out not to be that simple.

I was an undergraduate student in psychology at the time this initial research was being carried out. One day, one of my professors came into class and announced that he was doing LSD research, and he wanted us all to take the drug as a part of his experiment. Now, this was in the days prior to strict guidelines for ethical research on human subjects, and it was not uncommon for professors to include among course requirements that students participate in their experiments. I was much relieved when my professor said that if we had jobs, we were not required to participate. He then went on to tell us that this stuff was SO good that he would give us some if we came to his office after class! He did caution that if we took it on our own, we had to promise to take it with a friend, as there were a few people who had "unusual side-effects." A few years later, after a number of people had experienced what came to be known as "bad trips," the Federal Government made psychedelics illegal. Clearly, the experience of God was not IN the drugs, as Leary had hoped.

 

  d.  Walter Pahnke's Psychedelic Research  

 
Walter Pahnke photo. About this time, a Harvard researcher named Walter Pahnke (Argyle, 2000, pp. 64-66; Smith, 2000, pp. 199-205) conducted a controlled experiment at Andover Theological Seminary in which he divided seminarians into two groups: one given psychedelics and the other given a placebo. He then put both groups into a 2½-hour Easter Service. The result was that a significant number of those given the psilocybin reported mystical experiences compared to the control group. What Pahnke had done was what shamans have done for centuries: use drugs to get their subjects "off-center." Psychedelic drugs induce perceptual distortions and force the subject out of one's normal mind-set, but it is the shaman -- or, in case of Pahnke's experiment, the Christian ministers -- who plays the critical role of guiding the experiencer. In the case of Native American shamans, the setting is a hogan where the participant is surrounded by fellow worshipers, fire, and chanting. In the Christian Easter service, the "Christian shamans" provided the context of music, liturgy, and prayer. The total spiritual setting is the "trigger" of the mystical experience; the drugs aid only to the extent that they allow the experiencer to step out of ordinary reality (Wulff, 1997, pp. 188-193). As Sufi mystic Abu Said (Vincent, 1994, p. 40) put it:
 
Multi-colored icon.   "The way to God is but one step, the step outside yourself."

 
  e.  Transpersonal Experiences and Psychosis  

 

Michael Argyle photo. In addition to the relationship between transpersonal experiences and psychedelic drugs, there is also some overlap between transpersonal experiences and psychosis. This was the focus of a recent book entitled, Psychosis and Spirituality (Clarke, 2001). Mysticism can be differentiated from psychosis through psychological assessment. Ralph Hood (2001, pp. 20-31) developed two scales to measure the in-depth nature of religious mystical experience: the Religious Experience Episode Measure (REEM) and the Mysticism Scale (M-Scale). These instruments separate mystics from non-mystics but do not clearly differentiate mystics from psychotics. To achieve the latter, a diagnostician needs also to use an instrument that differentiates people with and without psychosis. Use of more than one test for differential diagnosis is commonplace in psychology; for example, the diagnosis of learning disability requires administration of both reading and IQ assessments (Vincent, 1987, pp. 45-58).

Although it is possible to be both mystic and psychotic, modern research has uncovered many more people having mystical experiences than having psychoses (Argyle, 2000, pp. 71-72, Hood, 2001, pp. 410-411). These differences are further highlighted in a study using word analysis to differentiate the verbal descriptions of mystics, psychedelic drug users, psychotics, and people not included in any of those groups. The researchers found that the descriptions of the various experiences do not match (Oxman, Rosenberg, Schnurr, Tucker, & Gala, 1988). In general, studies on mysticism and mental health have consistently shown that the overwhelming majority of mystics are mentally "normal" or "healthy."

 

  f.  Sir Alister Hardy's Religious Experience Research  

 

In 1969, Sir Alister Hardy, a biologist, set up the Religious Experience Research Unit at Oxford University, now the Religious Experience Research Centre at the University of Wales, Lampeter (Rankin, 2008, p. 3). This venture marked the beginning of large-scale research into mystical experiences. In order to research mystical religious experience within the general population, Hardy made an appeal to the general public through newspapers and pamphlets with the question:

Multi-colored icon.   "Have you ever been aware of or influenced by a presence or power, whether you call it 'God' or not, which is different from your everyday self?"

Alister Hardy. He invited readers to send in their responses. Ten years later, Hardy (1979/1997) published a book based on the first 3,000 responses he had received to this question on mystical experiences.

Next, moving beyond self-selected sample methodology, researchers undertook large-scale survey research. In 1977, David Hay and Ann Morisy (Hardy, 1979/1997, pp. 124-130) asked the same question to a British national sample of 1,865 persons: 35% responded "yes." Between the times of the appeal in the British newspaper and the objective large-scale population survey, Andrew Greeley (1974) and his colleagues at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago began asking a very similar question:

Multi-colored icon.   "Have you ever felt as though you were very close to a powerful spiritual force that seemed to lift you out of yourself?"

A sample of 1,467 Americans showed 39% answered "yes." Over the years, repeated national samples have shown that the number of people responding affirmatively to this question has ranged from 35%-50% (Wood, 1989, p. 856). When respondents have been interviewed rather than surveyed, the number has increased to over 60% (Hay, 1987, pp. 136-137).

Possibly because more Americans are feeling more confident in their spirituality, or maybe because the question was phrased differently, when asked recently:

Multi-colored icon.   "In general, how often would you say you had experienced God's presence or a spiritual force that felt very close to you?"

Bodhisattvas descending from heaven. 86% of Americans reported one or more transpersonal experiences. Who knows? Maybe we humans are coming "out of our (spiritual) closet" (Mitofsky International and Edison Media Research, 2002)!

In the first 3,000 cases of mystical experiences that Hardy and his colleagues collected, one of the "triggers" of mystical experience "was the prospect of death." More recently, Mark Fox (2003, pp. 243-329) has analyzed these "crisis experiences" (CE) and compared them to other non-crisis mystical experiences (non-CE). Whereas most of these CEs were NDEs, it was hard to tell from the voluntary reports whether or not these individuals had died or, in some cases, only come close to death. In spite of this limitation, Fox conducted the study because these CE/NDEs had occurred prior to the popularization of the NDE. He found remarkable similarity between these two groups. In other words, one of the ways to have a mystical experience is to die! This link between the NDE and other mystical experiences is a commonly reported finding (Cressy 1994, 1996; Fenwick & Fenwick, 1995, pp. 229-236; Kircher, 1995, pp. 81-91; Ring, 2005, pp. 51-52; Vincent, 1994, pp. 9-17).

Recently, Xinzhong Yao and Paul Badham of the Alister Hardy Research Centre have published a major research project entitled, Religious Experience in Contemporary China (2007). Yao and Badham surveyed 3,196 Chinese. Religion is suppressed in China, and it should be no surprise that few respondents indicated a religious affiliation, but 56.7% reported religious/spiritual experiences. Using Buddhism as an example, only 2.3% of the Chinese reported being Buddhist, but 27.4% said they had worshiped Buddha within the past year, and 18.2% reported a religious experience involving Buddha or bodhisattvas at some time during their lives (Holmes, 2006).

 

  g.  Osis and Haraldsson's Transpersonal Experience Research  

 

Karlis Osis. Another major cross-cultural study on transpersonal experiences is reported in Osis and Haraldsson's book At the Hour of Death (1977) which documents 1,708 cases of deathbed visions recorded by physicians and nurses in the United States and India. These researchers compared patients with deathbed visions to patients whose diagnosis would have resulted in psychotic hallucinations such as brain disease, uremia, and fever in excess of 103 degrees. They also took medication effects into account. The apparitions of the dying in both the U.S. and India involved dead relatives and religious figures; in no case, in either the U.S. pilot study or the cross-cultural study, was the "take-away" person ─ the relative or religious figure whom the patient perceived had come to take the patient to the afterlife ─ an apparition of a living individual. In general, deathbed visions were similar in both countries, though there were some differences. One-tenth of the Americans and one-third of the Indians expressed negative emotions when religious figures appeared. Indians were more anxious about dying, probably because the Hindu religion teaches Judgment. However, once the dying experience began, it was almost always pleasant for both Indians and Americans. The only report of a person going to Hell was that of an Italian American woman. The most striking difference between deathbed experiences in the U.S. and India is one that could have been anticipated: the religious figures that came to take the person into the afterlife corresponded to the person's religion. Christians saw God, Jesus, angels, and Mary. Hindus saw such figures as Yamaraj, the Hindu god of death, as well as Krishna, Rama, and Durga, (Osis & Haraldsson, 1977, pp. 52-78, 218).

A byproduct of the Osis and Haraldsson study was that it included 120 people who were near-death experiencers (NDErs). Like the deathbed visioners, the NDErs in India and the U.S. had similar experiences. The one exception was that in the U.S., people reported being told to return or that they "had work to do." In India, they were apt to be told that their name was "not on the list." One Hindu reportedly was told by a Hindu messenger of death that they had brought the wrong person. Interestingly, this report included an account in which another man of the same name was in the same hospital, and when the initial patient regained consciousness, the other man with the same name died (Osis & Haraldsson, 1977, pp. 147-159).

Also in the 1970s, research was conducted on objectifying psychiatric diagnosis. The results of this research culminated in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders III (DSM-III) in 1980. I was privileged to work on this project (American Psychiatric Association, 1980, p. 481). The DSM-III removed Freudian mythology from the diagnostic nomenclature and forbade a diagnostician to jump to a diagnosis based on a single symptom like hallucinations. More importantly, it acknowledged that religious experience was not in itself pathological; in other words, it was now OK for God to talk to you!

 

  h.  The Beginning of Near-Death Experience Research  

 

Raymond Moody. In 1975, Raymond Moody published Life After Life and coined the term "near-death experience." Immediately after this publication, serious research into the NDE began. The International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS) was founded in November, 1977, by Raymond Moody, Kenneth Ring, Bruce Greyson, Michael Sabom, John Audette, and a few others (International Association for Near-Death Studies, 2009). Research into the NDE quickly captured the attention of the public, overshadowing all other transpersonal experiences. This conclusion is evidenced by the sheer volume of NDE research (Holden, Greyson, & James, 2009, pp. 1-10). Highlights of serious research into NDEs include Ring's first objective analysis of NDE characteristics (1980). Shortly thereafter, Sabom (1982) carried out the first prospective study on the NDE. Ring and Sharon Cooper recently researched what the blind "see" when they have an NDE (Ring & Valarino,1998, pp. 73-95). More recently, Jeffery Long and Paul Perry (2010) have published an analysis of 613 cases from Jeff and Jody Long's Near-Death Experience Research Foundation (NDERF) Website. One fruitful area of research has been into the aftereffects of NDEs and other transpersonal experiences. Briefly, the effects are overwhelmingly positive and life-changing, and they do not fade over time (Hay, 1987, pp. 153-167; Ring & Valarino 1998, pp. 123-144).

 

  i.  Scientific Theories Attempt to Explain Near-Death Experiences  

 

Bruce Greysom. As questions have been raised regarding the NDE and its characteristics, scientific research has attempted to deal with them. For example, when the press consistently claimed that all NDEs were pleasurable experiences dominated by feelings such as peace, love, and joy, Greyson and Nancy Evans Bush (1992), in their article "Distressing Near-Death Experiences," countered with their analysis of experiences dominated by feelings such as isolation, torment, or guilt. When the astronomer Carl Sagan, acting as an arm-chair psychoanalyst, made the claim that NDEs were just people reliving their birth experiences, his "theory" was soon refuted in an article by Carl Becker that included data on not only newborn physiology but also the lack of similarity between features of the NDE and birth (Becker, 1982). In a study by Susan Blackmore (1983) entitled "Birth and OBE," she found no difference in reports of passing through a tunnel as a transition into another reality for persons born by Caesarean section or delivered vaginally. Finally, although the majority of NDEs are pleasurable, the process of birth is widely acknowledged to be traumatic. In all of recorded history, only one person is said to have laughed instead of crying at birth Zoroaster (Vincent, 1999, p. 3). Sagan has not been the only skeptic of the NDE, but his case does illustrate that when questions are raised, scientific investigation follows. "Explanatory Models for Near-Death Experiences" by Greyson, Kelly and Kelly (2009, pp. 213-234) provides an excellent overview of research supporting and refuting claims about the origins of NDEs.

 

  j.  Inducing Transpersonal Experiences  

 

Brain stimulation. Michael Persinger offered more than theories on the NDE and other transpersonal phenomena (Kelly, Greyson, & Kelly, 2007, pp. 382-383). Using electromagnetic stimulation, he attempted to create NDE-type phenomena in the laboratory, and some of his subjects reported bits and pieces of phenomena similar to the NDE and other transpersonal experiences as well as extraneous phenomena such as dizziness and tingling (Greyson, 2000, p. 335). However, a recent Scandinavian study failed to replicate his findings (Keller, 2005). Based on Persinger's research, his student, Todd Murphy (2006), began marketing electronic devices to enhance meditative experiences. If transpersonal experiences could be safely induced in the laboratory using electrical stimulation, would this ability fulfill the age-old dream of giving everyone a mystical experience, change people for the better, and bring about a "new age?" On another note, Persinger expressed the belief that his research demonstrates that the NDE and other transpersonal experiences are located within the brain (Kelly, Greyson, & Kelly, 2007, pp. 382-384). However, brain stimulation can be interpreted as "cleansing the doors of perception" and leading to illumination (Kelly, 2007, pp. 603-607).

Since ancient times, people have attempted to induce transpersonal experiences. In the ancient world people used initiation into the "mysteries" (Meyer, 1987, pp. 3-13). Regarding the induction into the Mysteries of Isis, Apuleius gave an account that is in all probability autobiographical:

Multi-colored icon.   "I approached the confines of death. I trod the threshold of Prosperine: and born through the elements I returned. At midnight I saw the sun shining in all its glory. I approached the gods below and the gods above, and I stood beside them, and I worshipped them." (Meyer, 1989, p. 199).

Raymond Moody photo. He went on to state that he could not reveal more because it was a mystery! Historians have not established what percentage of people were able to have an induced transpersonal experience in the ancient world. The ancients' methods also are not known, but the idea that they had such knowledge continues to be intriguing (Ring, 1986).

In one attempt at induction, Moody invented the psychomanteum to facilitate ADCs in a non-intrusive way. Using a slightly tilted mirror, low light, a soft chair, and a dark room, Moody was able to create the condition for about half of his subjects to experience visits from their dead loved ones (Moody & Perry, 1993). This experiment has been replicated several times (Hastings et al., 2002; Roll, 2004). I am not alone among my colleagues in feeling that this modern-day necromancy is not without risks. If these visions are indeed real, as Moody noted (1993, p. 112), the people who show up may not be the ones hoped for; if the apparitions are the products of the subject's unconscious mind, it is probably best to leave them undisturbed.

 

  k.  Religion and Near-Death Experiences  

 

Faravahar. This brings us to another aspect of NDE research: religion and NDEs. Fox (2003, pp. 55-97) saw a deafening silence among theologians, who generally have not tackled the topic. This omission seems to be true for theologians in Christianity as well as other religions. However, Judith Cressy (1994), a minister and doctorally trained pastoral counselor, wrote linking the commonalities between NDEs and mysticism. Liberal Christian theologian Marcus Borg (1997, pp. 37-44, 171) has supported the validity of transpersonal experiences; he has also voiced tentative optimism about the validity of NDEs. John Hick, the world's foremost Universalist/Pluralist Christian theologian, is an enthusiastic endorser of transpersonal experiences and tentatively hopeful of the veracity of NDEs (Hick, 1999). Canadian theologian Tom Harpur has also addressed how multiple aspects of NDEs relate to Christianity in general, to specific Christian sects, and to world religion. He concluded his book Life After Death (1991) with a strong statement relating NDEs to Christian Universalist theology.

Outside of Christianity, endorsement for NDEs' relevance to religion is sparse. Some years ago, I was watching a television program in which the Dalai Lama was asked how NDEs affected his belief in reincarnation. He replied that NDEs reflect the "Bardo" state -- in Buddhist theology, the intermediate state between death and rebirth. Recently, Zoroastrian priest Kersey Antia (2005) has written about Zoroastrianism, NDEs, and other transpersonal experiences. Writers on comparative religion have also written on the NDE. Zalesky's (1987) Other World Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times, Farnaz Masumian's (1995) Life After Death: A Study of The Afterlife in World Religions, and Gracia Fay Ellwood's (2001) The Uttermost Deep are good examples of books on NDEs and comparative religion. Recently, Gregory Shushan (2009) examined five ancient and culturally independent civilizations and concluded that the core elements of their afterlife beliefs are similar to those of NDEs. He stated:

Multi-colored icon.   "Ultimately, this study points to a type of single experiential 'reality,' which may or may not indicate a single transcendental reality" (Shushan, 2009, p. 199).

Warren Jefferson photo. Warren Jefferson (2008) has written about the NDEs of North American Indians and documented that many of their afterlife accounts include reincarnation experiences. Finally, Marianne Rankin (2008) has written an excellent overview of transpersonal experiences, including NDEs, entitled, An Introduction to Religious and Spiritual Experience. This work covers experiences in world religions, ancient and modern, East and West.

I have already discussed Osis and Haraldsson's (1977) wonderful comparison between Americans who were primarily Christian to East Indians who were primarily Hindu, but both authors were psychologists and not theologians. Some NDE researchers, including me, are not afraid to link findings from NDE research with their religious beliefs. These authors include Conservative Christians Maurice Rawlings (1978) and Michael Sabom (1998), Mormon Christian Craig Lundahl (1981), and Universalist Christians Ken Vincent (2003, 2005) and Kevin Williams (2002).

 6.  Conclusion  

 

The search for God and afterlife in the Age of Science highlights an overlooked aspect of the so-called conflict between religion and science. For the past 150 years, social and biomedical scientists have researched the very nature of religion itself using all the tools available to modern science. NDEs and other transpersonal experiences can and are investigated in the same way all other psychological phenomena are investigated. The validity of these experiences is based on several data sources, including:

1. Case studies of transpersonal experience (Bucke, 1901/1931, pp. 9-11, 287-289, 357-359; Guggenheim & Guggenheim, 1996; Maxwell & Schudin, 1990; Wiebe, 1997, pp. 40-88; 2000, pp. 119-141).
2. Sociological surveys that reveal who and what percentage of the population have NDEs and other transpersonal experiences (Argyle, 2000, p. 56; Wood 1989, p. 856).
3. Psychological assessment instruments that measure not only the mental health of the individual but also evaluate the depth of mystical experiences (Hood, 2001; Hood, Spilka, Hunsberger, & Gorsuch, 1996, pp. 183-272).
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 transpersonal experiences are not just wishful thinking (Hood et al., 1996, pp. 193-196; Newberg, D'Aquili, & Rause, 2001; Wulff, 1997, pp. 169-188), and EEGs and EKGs that enable the documentation of the dying process in NDEs that occur in hospitals.
5. Sociological and psychological investigations that assess the after-effects these experiences have on people (Greyson, 2000, pp. 319-320; 345; Hick, 1999, pp. 163-170; Hood et al., 1996, pp. 410-411).
6. Controlled experimental research such as Walter Pahnke's experiment on the effects of psychedelics (Argyle, 2000, pp. 64-66; Smith, 2000, pp. 199-205).

In my opinion, although the NDE and other transpersonal experiences do not prove the existence of a personal God and afterlife, they definitely point to it. Research to date documents the fact that:

1. A large percentage of the population has experienced NDEs and other transpersonal experiences.
2. The overwhelming majority of those having NDEs and other transpersonal experiences are mentally healthy and not psychotic.
3. NDEs and other transpersonal experiences change people's lives for the better. It also appears that NDEs and other transpersonal experiences represent phenomenological realities at the origin of virtually all the world's major religions.
Return to Chapter Table of Contents
Return to Book Table of Contents  
Chapter 2
Developmental Revelation
 
Dr. Ken R. Vincent at pulpit.
  Table of Contents
1. The Parallels Between the Moral Development of an Individual and Entire Cultures Throughout History
2. Kohlberg's Three Levels of Moral Development
 
a. The Pre-Conventional Level of Moral Development
 
I. The First Stage of Pre-Conventional Morality: Punishment and Obedience Orientation
II. The Second Stage of Pre-Conventional Morality: Reciprocity
b. The Conventional Level of Moral Development
 
I. The First Stage of Conventional Morality: The "Good Boy / Nice Girl" Phase
II. The Second Stage of Conventional Morality: The View of "Law and Order"
c. The Post-Conventional Level of Moral Development
 
I. The First Stage of Post-Conventional Morality: The Democratic Social Contract
II. The Second Stage of Post-Conventional Morality: Universal Ethical Principle
 
A. Post-Conventional Morality in Various World Religions
B. Farhat-Holzman's Analysis of Some Religions Acceptance of People at All Levels of Development
C. An Example of One Religion's Moral Development from the Lowest to the Highest Throughout History
 1.  The Parallels Between the Moral Development of an Individual and Entire Cultures Throughout History  
 
Multi-colored icon.   "When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I thought as a child, I reasoned as a child, but when I became a man I put away childish ways." (1 Corinthians 13:11)

Jean Piaget. This familiar passage of St. Paul describes normal human development.

My thesis is that there is a parallel between the development of the individual and the progress of whole cultures throughout history and that evidence for this maturation process can be found in the stories of the world's religions. Because the Bible documents a 2000-year period of human development, it is particularly rich with examples of developmental revelation.

There are many approaches to studying human development and religion, and these are reflected in the research of developmental psychologists like Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, Jane Loevinger, and others. James Fowler, who is both a psychologist and theologian, devised a compelling list called, "Seven Stages of Faith Development."

The theory of human development with the most cross-cultural and comparative religious research to its credit (and my personal favorite) is that of Larry Kohlberg. It is the one I have selected to explore with you in greater detail. To date, the consensus of his research shows that, when education and socioeconomic status are controlled for, human beings around the world from all faiths and cultures vary widely among themselves and that no faith or culture is clearly superior.

 

 2.  Kohlberg's Three Levels of Moral Development  
 

According to Kohlberg, there are three levels of moral development, each of which has two stages:

a. The Pre-Conventional Level of Moral Development
b. The Conventional Level of Moral Development
c. The Post-Conventional Level of Moral Development

It is important to realize that not all people reach all stages of development, neither in the past nor today.

 

  a.  The Pre-Conventional Level of Moral Development  
  I.   The First Stage of Pre-Conventional Morality: Punishment and Obedience Orientation  
 

 

Larry Kholberg photo. The "pre-conventional" level is the most remedial, and its first stage is called the "punishment and obedience orientation". This is the stage of pre-schoolers. The child at this stage lacks the mental structure to understand the rules but does understand rewards and punishment.

Children at this age are not educable, but they are trainable. This is also the moral level of your dog or cat.

Consider this example: At about age 3 or 4 years, your daughter has figured out that pushing the chair up to the kitchen counter will allow her to get to the cookie jar. Later, you come into the kitchen, see the chair and the empty cookie jar with its lid off, and you see the child with crumbs all over her face. When you ask,, "Did you take the cookies?", your child gives the "right" answer -- "No, I didn't take the cookies!" The parent is often devastated, assuming that his child is not only STEALING but LYING! The parent fails to realize that the child does not yet make the connection between cause and effect. Thankfully, very few adults remain stuck at this moral level.

Weighing of the heart. In the Bible, the best-known example of this is the second Creation Story (Genesis 2:4; Genesis 3:24) in which you might substitute the "forbidden fruit" for the cookie jar. Adam takes no personal responsibility but blames Eve for giving him the fruit, and Eve blames the snake for her misbehavior!

In the same story in Genesis, we are introduced to the oldest form of punishment -- the banishment of Adam and Eve from Paradise. As demonstrated in the work of Jane Goodall, this links us with the behavior of baboons who banish members of their clan for "crimes" of dominance, sex, and murder.

In the 5,000-year-old Egyptian Book of the Dead, this stage of morality is reflected in the behavior of the deceased who is expected to lie to the god Osiris in the Afterlife by reciting a magic formula known as the Negative Confession in which he denies all wrong-doing. We see this same magic formula in the Christian theology of "Jesus Saves." All one needs to know is John 3:16 and/or John 14:6. This is a gross distortion of the teachings of Jesus. Another Christian theology at this level is Predestination. In predestination, individuals cannot influence their own salvation and like the small child have no understanding of the reason for the rules. Before we leave the level of "magic" in human development, it is important to note that in times of distress, any of us may want a little magic! In Hinduism, it is said that if you die with the name of the god Vishnu or one of his incarnations like Rama or Krishna on your lips, all your sins will be taken away. Gandhi, who achieved the highest level of spiritual development, died with the name of Rama on his lips!

 

II.   The Second Stage of Pre-Conventional Morality: Reciprocity  
 

Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac. The second stage of "pre-conventional morality" is that of reciprocity. This is the stage most of us reached in elementary school and is adopted to satisfy personal needs. At this stage, the rules exist to be manipulated. Children will give favors in order to get similar rewards in return. They discover that they can make "deals", i.e., "if you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours". A child will say, "I don't want to play that game. That is YOUR game, and we played that yesterday. Today is MY turn." Even in modern times, some adults get stuck at this stage.

Obviously, this level includes primitive religions in which an animal or human is sacrificed as a bribe to the gods with the understanding that the gods will do (or not do) something for the worshipers. Also, the idea in the Hebrew Bible that the righteous will always prosper, and that if something bad happens to you, it's because you have sinned belongs at this level. Some years ago, a student told me of working at an affluent church school that did not admit handicapped students; because it was evidence that their parents had sinned. In the Book of Job, Job's friends express this view. The Prayer of Jabez is a "give me" prayer and at this level.

In the Bible, this level of morality is also represented in the law of:

 
Multi-colored icon.   "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." (Exodus 21:24)
 

Getting stuck with this mentality can lead to barbarism and reminds us of the relentless retaliatory strikes we hear about on the evening news between the Israelis and Palestinians. Unless people are encouraged to higher levels of thinking, in the words of Martin Luther King, we are all at risk of becoming "blind and toothless". The only good thing about this rule is that you are only allowed to take one eye for one eye and one tooth for one tooth.

Many of those to whom Moses preached were no doubt at either the first or second stage of "pre-conventional" morality -- largely equivalent to that of today's small children. It also appears that the people addressed by Mohammed 2000 years later were at this level.

 

  b.  The Conventional Level of Moral Development  
  I.   The First Stage of Conventional Morality: The "Good Boy / Nice Girl" Phase  
 
Ruth.

 

The next level of moral reasoning is the "conventional" level which is reached by most people in adolescence; most adults never progress beyond one of its two stages. The first of these stages is the "good boy/nice girl" phase in which "right" behaviors are the ones that please the person's reference groups, including family, friends, and peers. This is the first stage that goes beyond the manipulation of others for personal gratification and includes a genuine consideration for others. It is the first level at which the Golden Rule can be understood, if not practiced.

In the Bible, the beautiful story of Ruth reflects this level of development when she declares:

Multi-colored icon.   "Where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God." (Ruth 1:16)

Although this love passage is sometimes used for modern weddings, Ruth is not saying this to her husband -- she is addressing her mother-in-law, Naomi. Ruth wants to remain with her mother-in-law because she loves her -- not because she thinks Naomi's God is superior!

This is the stage where the need for a personal god is strongest. In Hinduism this is the devotional path exemplified by the worshipers of Lord Krishna:

Multi-colored icon.   "Krishna, Krishna, Hari, Hari": Krishna, Krishna, Redeemer, Redeemer.
 

In Christianity, we see this manifested in those kind and loving people that model their lives on Jesus. One is reminded of the words of the beautiful old hymn, In the Garden:

 
Multi-colored icon.   "And he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own..."
 
  II.   The Second Stage of Conventional Morality: The View of "Law and Order"  
 

 

The second stage of the "conventional" level of morality is compatible with the view of "law and order". At this stage, morality is defined as "doing one's duty" and "obeying the rules". At this stage, rules are "right" because they have been formulated by one's superiors -- a prophet, king, judge, president, or priest. This represents a step upward because, for the first time, the values of society as a whole are placed above the needs of the individual, his close family, or his friends. This is the mentality of "my country right or wrong."

In the Bible, this is the mentality of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) and represents the stern but fair God of Moses and Mohammed.

Lazarus and the Rich Man. Returning to ancient Egyptian religion, the concept of the justice of weighing of the departed good deeds is reinstated. As in Christianity, it co-exists with magic (e.g., The Book of the Dead's magic formula of Salvation and Christianity's "Jesus Saves"). The story appears of a grandson of Rameses II named Sa-Osiris, who is a seer, and his father. They were watching a funeral procession in which a rich man was being carried with his elaborate belongings to a princely tomb. Shortly after this, they observed the funeral of a poor man wrapped only in a cloth who was being taken for burial in the desert sand.

The Egyptian prince remarks to his son that he hopes for a good funeral in preparation for a glorious afterlife, but his seer son remarks that all things are not as they appear to be. He puts his father into a trance, and the two are transported to the land of the dead where the evil rich man is suffering a hellish fate and the righteous poor man is being comforted by Osiris, Isis, and the Egyptian gods, and is living afterlife in regal splendor.

This shows the development of morality and justice in the Egyptian religion, and some Christian scholars think this is the origin of the story of the rich man and Lazarus in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 16:19-31). The main point here is to underscore the great antiquity of the belief that salvation is by works. The idea that your good deeds must outweigh your bad deeds is found in all the worlds' major religions. In ancient Egypt it is Anubis, the jackal headed god, who holds the scales of justice, in Christianity it is the Archangel Michael, in Islam it is the Archangel Gabriel, in Zoroastrianism it is the angel Rashnu, and in both Hinduism and Buddhism it is the yamadoots of the god of death Yama. In the Eastern Religions, Yama presides over both your fate in the intermediate state between death and rebirth, and your reincarnation. It is worth noting that salvation by works is the predominant message in the New Testament with 389 of the 551 verses supporting it on the lips of Jesus himself. The Unitarian William Ellery Channing called it "salvation by character."

According to Kohlberg, MOST of humanity will remain at this "conventional" stage of moral development.

 

  c.  The Post-Conventional Level of Moral Development  
  I.   The First Stage of Post-Conventional Morality: The Democratic Social Contract  
 

 

Zoroaster. Only one-third of humanity will reach the "post-conventional" level of morality. The first of its two stages is called, "the democratic social contract", and one-fourth of modern adults achieve this level. To these people, rules are obeyed because there is a consensus of the electorate.

Also, the rules can be CHANGED whenever the majority of people agree to change them. The government of the United States is based on this level of morality, as were (to some extent) the governance of the early Christian church which, among other things, ordained women (Romans 16:1). While God's laws are unchangeable, the ways religions operate can and do change. Also, Process Theology fits here (i.e., the idea that God has endowed the Universe with free will and that we are co-creators with God). While Process Theology is a hot topic in today's divinity schools, the idea that we are co-creators with God in helping bring about the perfection of the world is as old as Zoroaster. In the New Testament, you find this idea in Acts 3:20-21 and 2 Peter 3:11-13.

 

  II.   The Second Stage of Post-Conventional Morality: Universal Ethical Principle  
 
A.   Post-Conventional Morality in Various World Religions  
 
Justice with scales.

 

The final stage of "post-conventional" moral development is that of the "universal ethical principle", and only about 10% of humanity functions at this level. It recognizes a universal connection to nature, to each other, and to God. At this stage, the rights of each individual are as important as the rights of the majority, and the individual follows the dictates of his or her conscience while at the same time being aware of the rights of others. This person is aware that what is "right" and what is "legal" may not be the same and that the dictates of conscience must be followed.

This stage is epitomized by the Golden Rule, often associated with Christianity but present in virtually all of modern mainstream religions. Zoroaster does not need to give his followers a commandment that prohibits murder -- he does tell them that their good thoughts, words, and deeds are required to help God defeat evil in this world. Lao Tzu says:

Multi-colored icon.   "Respond to anger with virtue."
 

And the Buddha tells us to:

 
Multi-colored icon.   "Overcome anger by love; overcome evil by good."
 

Within Islam, the sect called Sufis strives to reach a sublime level of mystic union with God. A Sufi motto is:

 
Multi-colored icon.   "It's not the letter, it's the spirit."
 

In Judaism, this highest level is epitomized by the Book of Isaiah. Gandhi's tactics of civil disobedience were a good example of "post-conventional" thinking leading to action, making the world better.

In the Bible, the whole of Jesus' message of love and kindness speaks to this highest level.

Think of the difficulty of his simple-sounding formula:

 

Multi-colored icon.   "Do unto others as you would have them do to you ... Judge not ... Forgive and you will be forgiven ... Blessed are the peacemakers ... Turn the other cheek ... Let him who is without sin cast the first stone ... Love your enemies ... It is not what goes into your mouth but what comes out that is important."

 

You may recall from stories in the New Testament that Jesus himself encounters people who clearly could not comprehend his message. More than once he simply refers them back to:

 
I. The Ten Commandments (Matthew 19:16-20, Mark 10:17-20, Luke 18:18-20).
II. Or to the two Great Commandments, i.e., to love God and to love your neighbor (Matthew 22:37-40, Mark 12:28-34, Luke 10:25-28).
III. At the highest level: forgiveness is yours for the asking (Matthew 6:12; Matthew 7:7-11).
IV. And salvation is Universal (Matthew 18:14, Luke 3:6; 1 Timothy 4:10; Hebrews 10:15-17).
 

Bahaullah. Every mystic knows that we will all be reconciled with God, and Universal Restoration is a minority theme in all the world's religions. Zoroaster, Jesus, and Bahá'u'lláh mention universalism directly; the Rabbis of the Midrash tell us that one cannot stay in Hell over one year! In the Hadith, Muhammad predicts that there will be a time when Hell is empty of humans. In Eastern religions, reincarnation offers the hope for universal redemption.

When we look at religions in modern times, it is clear that some have a broad appeal and others have a more narrow appeal. I think that the greatest risk for individual believers is to get "stuck" in a religious community that does not value personal growth. I have personally met people (including some ministers) whose intellect and spiritual experience have awakened them to a higher level of morality but whose congregations have discouraged or prohibited them from their pursuit.

B.   Farhat-Holzman's Analysis of Some Religions Acceptance of People at All Levels of Development  
 

 

In her analysis of the behavior of believers, the historian Laina Farhat-Holzman contends that some religious movements are accepting of persons at all levels of development and consciously make room for:

 
I. Those persons who base their belief on the "magic" of holy relics.
II. Those persons whose religion is confined to ritual.
III. Those persons who struggle to understand the teachings of their prophets.  
   
C.   An Example of One Religion's Moral Development from the Lowest to the Highest Throughout History  
 

 

Two excellent examples of religions that span the range of moral development from the lowest to highest levels are Roman Catholic Christianity and Hinduism.

Moses with the Ten Commandments. In scholarly literature, the results of objective studies are mixed when analyzing the differences between denominations or religions. The most consistent finding has been that fundamentalists have a lower level of moral development than liberals. Interestingly, this appears to be true for those liberals professing no religion, as well as for those who practice Christianity or another religion. Some fundamentalist Christians have charged that these attempts at objective measurements have been biased; however, I believe that there is an alternate explanation.

Developmental psychologists have known for some time that people can truly understand only the moral stages just above and just below their own. Moses was above the masses of Jews of his time but NOT so far ahead that they could not understand him. Jesus was speaking to a more sophisticated group morally, one that had already been socialized by the "conventional" rules of Moses. In other words, Moses HAD to happen BEFORE Jesus could happen. If Jesus had confronted the people of the Exodus with, "Love thy neighbor…", his message would not have been understood by them.

Often we religious liberals are hard on fundamentalists whom we accuse of being literal, concrete, and rule-bound. However, I must come to their defense with regard to this fact: these "conventional" people with specific messages are the ones most able to appeal to those at the level of "pre-conventional" morality and help raise them up. Although we reject their religious message and viewpoints, it is good to remember that humanity must crawl before it can walk. Years ago, an optimistic friend of mine questioned a fundamentalist who explained that:

 
Multi-colored icon.   "We are fundamentalists because we NEED the tight controls of a ‘Thou Shalt Not' morality; otherwise, we would go wild!"
 

Another important truism for religious liberals to remember is that ALL children must pass through ALL stages of morality. No matter how intelligent your child may be, her moral maturity cannot be inherited at birth! All children need to experience structure and kindness so that they can develop to the stage where the Golden Rule can be understood and, ultimately, to the level where it can be lived. Research into how to accomplish this is mixed, but activities which require reasoning and exploration of moral issues appear to foster a progression toward the "post-conventional" level. Adults who have had an opportunity in college to explore moral issues must continue to find forums for discussion, reasoning, and moral growth. I think that this is an excellent challenge for Sunday Schools and Adult Education programs in our churches!

In closing, I'd like to express my own opinion about developmental revelation expressed in the Biblical stories. Although the stories of the Old Testament are part of our literary culture, Christianity has wallowed too long in their primitive "pre-conventional" morality. And although there is nothing more beautiful than the declaration of St. Paul that "love is patient and kind," many churches have allowed themselves to stagnate in his largely "conventional" message.

In the recent past, a movement has been gradually growing which takes seriously the "post-conventional" morality of the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels. In my view, this should be the predominant message heard in our churches, inspiring people to "climb up" to the next rung on the moral ladder. But it's easier to worship Jesus than to follow his teachings. The "post-conventional" morality of Jesus demands that we live in the Kingdom of God RIGHT NOW -- that it is possible to be ONE with the Father. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus proclaims that:

Multi-colored icon.   "The Kingdom of God is within you." (Luke 17:21)
 

We need to call it forth for the sake of ourselves, for the sake of all humanity, and for the sake of our whole planet.

Return to Chapter Table of Contents
Return to Book Table of Contents  
Chapter 3
Ken's Guide to "Universals" in Religion
 
Dr. Ken Vincent.  
  Table of Contents
1. Ken's Introduction to Religion and Universalism
2. Ken's Five "Universals" in World Religion
 
a. Spiritually transformative experiences
b. Prayer / Meditation
c. The Golden Rule
d. Faith healing
e. Miracle stories
3. Religious Practices That Are NOT Universal
4. Conclusion
 1.  Ken's Introduction to Religion and Universalism  

 

Universalist logo. It is my nature to see the forest rather than the trees. Indoctrinated in the discipline of social science, my automatic response to any claim of "truth" is usually, "Where's your data?" So when it comes to world religion, it should not be surprising that I've been on a life-long quest to find the "universal truths" common to them all.

Before I begin, I'd like to share some of the vital events in my own religious life that may help to explain the metamorphosis into mystic and Universalist. During my childhood, I loved wandering in the pasture of my family's West Texas ranch where I became a "junior mystic 3rd class." God's presence was always with me there (although I knew it was my own responsibility to watch out for rattlesnakes)!

About the same time, I first learned of religions different from my own Methodist doctrine when three of my best friends told me they were Jewish. Some grown-ups contended that God would condemn my non-Christian friends to eternal hell, but I knew that idea was clearly incompatible with the God in the pasture! My own parents countered that they thought my Jewish friends would go to Heaven, but my Great Aunt Alice -- who was a Universalist -- went one step further. She was positive that ALL people went to Heaven! Even though she couldn't explain the theology behind Universalism, she had planted the concept of Universalism in my growing brain and heart.

Fast forward to my freshman year at Baylor University where I took the required religion classes. Reading the Bible, I discovered that the dogma emphasized by the denomination was either absent or contradictory. Jesus liked to eat well and drink alcohol, and the Trinity could not be found. Also, there was no mention of abortion at all! Instead of morphing into a nice conservative Christian, I became a Unitarian at age 18 -- what we in Developmental Psychology call a "lateral" change. My developmental level had not increased; I had merely changed perspective. During this "Taliban" phase as a new Unitarian, I would fanaticize about climbing to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to destroy the image of God as an old man and replace it with God as pure LIGHT!

Zoroaster. Two very positive things did happen at Baylor. First, I was introduced to Zoroaster -- wonderful, wonderful Zoroaster! It was the first time I'd realized that God talked to somebody who wasn't a Jew! Second, I discovered Omar Khayyam, the Sufi mystic with an "attitude." My search for the "generic" God had begun! Many years have passed, and I can say with some assurance that I've graduated to "senior mystic 2nd class," but my quest is far from over.

Whether the high God (or if you prefer Ultimate Reality) connects with creation in a personal way or not, there are two things that are true about God: God is REALLY BIG and God LIKES CHANGE! The further our science "sees" into the universe and our physics postulates other realities, the bigger God becomes. Change is a constant in the universe, and the only thing that is permanent is God.

For clarity, it is important to understand that all my references to "God" should be understood as a "generic" God. Some people have difficulty using the word "God," usually because it conjures up images of a scary God who is angry and judgmental. Jesus called God, "Father/Abba," an affectionate, personal term. In world religions, God has many names: Ahura Mazda, Allah, Brahman, Tao, Yahweh, etc. These names are "God" in ethnic garb. In the 20th Century, it became fashionable to come up with alternative names for God, such as "Ultimate Reality," "Ground of Being," "Holy Other," or my personal favorite which appeared in the UU World a few years ago, "The Evolutor!" So feel free to translate your favorite word for "God" when I say, "God."

Some folks like to claim that their religion offers the one, exclusive path to God. But confining God to one religion would automatically make God small, petty, and in a very real way, evil. The God of the mystics and the God of religious revelation is constant. Fundamentally, the trappings of culture and the limitations of language are what make one religion different from another. So any "truth" about God in world religion must be universal or nearly universal. Right now, you probably realize that this is going to be a VERY short list.

 

 2.  Ken's Five "Universals" in World Religion  
 

So, as promised, here are the five things that I find to be "universals" in world religion:

a. Spiritually transformative experiences
b. Prayer / Meditation
c. The Golden Rule
d. Faith healing
e. Miracle stories  
 
  a.  Spiritually Transformative Experiences  

 

William James. Virtually all religions are based on spiritually transformative experiences a.k.a., mystical/religious/spiritual experiences. These experiences are the basis for their founder's authority, and one need only look at Christopher Partridge's book New Religions to see that this is still true. Religion itself continues in large part because a substantial number of believers have their own mystical experiences, and this has been demonstrated by over 100 years of scientific research. William James' classic work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, was published in 1901 but is still in print today. Using the basic tools of observation and case studies, he began to research religious visions and mystical experience. James was able to formulate some working hypotheses on the nature of religious experiences, and many of these have been validated by subsequent research projects.

The big news today in the study of spiritually transformative experiences is sheer numbers! Social scientists now have documented thousands of people who have come forward to tell of their direct experience of God.

Large-scale surveys on mystical experience began in 1969 when Alister Hardy founded the Religious Experience Research Unit at Oxford University. In order to research mystical religious experience within the general population, Sir Hardy made an appeal to the general public via newspapers and pamphlets which asked the question:

Multi-colored icon.  "Have you ever been aware of or influenced by a presence or power, whether you call it ‘God' or not, which is different from your everyday self?"

Alister Hardy. Readers were invited to send him their responses. Ten years later, Hardy published The Spiritual Nature of Man based on the first 3,000 responses he had received to this question (of which 95% were positive). Over the years, organizations like the Alister Hardy Religious Experience Research Center, the Gallup Poll, and the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago have found the numbers of people responding positively to survey questions on religious experience in developed countries range from 35-50%. When people are interviewed rather than surveyed, the response rate goes up to around 65%. In one study, one-fourth of the respondents reported that they had never told anyone else of this experience for fear of being thought "mentally ill" or "stupid."

Xinzhong Yao and Paul Badham have completed a major research project entitled, Religious Experience in Contemporary China. They surveyed 3,196 Chinese using a semi-structured questionnaire. Since religion is suppressed in China, it should be no surprise that few gave a religious affiliation; however, 56.7% reported religious/spiritual experiences. Using Buddhism as an example, only 2.3% of the Chinese reported being Buddhist, but 27.4% said they had worshiped Buddha within the past year and 18.2% reported a religious experience involving Buddha or bodhisattvas at some time during their lives.

Erlandur Harldsson photo. Spiritually transformative experiences that point to an afterlife (e.g. near-death experiences, death-bed visions, and after-death communications) also show a remarkable similarity across time and culture. Regarding afterlife, the unresolved difference is reincarnation, even though it retains a minority opinion in virtually all religions.

In one of the most important cross-cultural studies ever done on spiritually transformative experiences, Osis and Haraldsson's At the Hour of Death documents 1,708 cases of deathbed visions recorded by physicians and nurses in the United States and India. The study also included 120 near-death experiences. The apparitions of the dying in both the U. S. and India primarily involved dead relatives and religious figures, and in NO case in both the U. S. pilot study and the cross-cultural study was the "take-away" person (the relative or religious figure who came to take the patient to the afterlife) an apparition of a living individual. It should be noted that virtually all reincarnation religions have an intermediate state of Heaven and Hell before rebirth. In general, death-bed visions were similar in both countries, but there were some differences. The most striking difference was that the religious figures that came to take the person into the afterlife corresponded to the person's religion. Christians saw God, Jesus, angels, and Mary; Hindus saw Yamaraj (the Hindu god of death), as well as Krishna, Rama, Durga, etc.

 

Regarding the research to date on spiritually transformative experiences, it is valid to say that:

1. They happen to a large percent of the population.
2. The overwhelming majority of those people are normal, healthy, and no more apt to be mentally ill than the general population.
3. They change people's lives for the better.
 
  b.  Prayer / Meditation  

 

Amida Buddha. Virtually all religions practice prayer and/or meditation. Interestingly, there are religions that believe that the high God does not communicate with humans. This is true of most all Buddhists, many Hindus, and Unitarian Deists. In these religions, religious experience (e.g. Buddha's' enlightenment) is possible because it is put into the workings of the universe, and prayer is to lesser divine beings. It is important to realize that the angels, saints, and jinn of the West are the small "g" gods of the East because they perform the same functions. Some of these lesser gods/angels were created by the high God, but most of the entities prayed to around the world are dead humans. Humans have worshiped the dead since the beginning of recorded history and quite probably before. Two dead humans, Osiris and Isis, were worshiped by the ancient Egyptians for over 3,500 years and are still worshiped by some New Agers. One should remember that Roman Catholics who make up 2/3 of all Christians pray not only to God and Jesus, but also to the saints and angels. Jesus and St. Mary are dead humans; so are Lord Krishna, Rama and Seta, the Amida Buddha. Rama and Krishna have a similar relationship to Vishnu of the Hindu trinity as Jesus does with the Cosmic Christ of the Christian Trinity.

When people pray to lesser divinities, it would appear that the ancient Hindu idea that all sincere worship to God in all God's forms is acceptable and heard. The Bhagavad-Gita (7.21) says:

Multi-colored icon.  "Whatever form any devotee with faith wishes to worship Me, I make that faith of his steady."

Also as John Hick (www.johnhick.org.uk) points out in his book Disputed Questions:

Multi-colored icon.  "A second possibility (the first being atheism) is that of religious exclusivism; our own God -- whether we be Jew or Christian, Hindu or Moslem -- exists, whilst the others are figments of the human imagination. This possibility, however, is rendered implausible, in my view, by the fact that the effects in human life of devotion to these different Gods are so similar -- both the good effect of the overcoming of self-centeredness and the growth of love and compassion..."
 
  c.  The Golden Rule  

Virtually all religions have a positive or negative statement of the Golden Rule:

Multi-colored icon.  "Treat others as you want to be treated."

I am indebted to John Hick and John Morgan for continually pointing this out.

 
  d.  Faith Healing  

 

Irreducible Mind book cover. Faith healing is universal if you include healing prayer. In their 800-page book, Irreducible Mind, Edward Kelly, et al. devote 124 pages to psychophysiological influences, many of which are directly or indirectly related to faith healing. The short answer is: If you pray for yourself, it does help. The data are mixed about other folks praying for you. Also, there are some rare individuals who appear to be gifted with genuine healing abilities. For whatever reason, Rasputin could stop the bleeding of the little prince, but there is no record that he could will a severed arm to grow back. If meditation is added to prayer, even more positive research has been published, as in Mario Beauregard and Denyse O' Leary's book, The Spiritual Brain. In Wondrous Events, James McClenon (www.jamesmcclenon.com) notes that indigenous priests and shamans often supplement what appears to be genuine psychosomatic healing with fraud and trickery.

 

  e.  Miracle Stories  
St. Peter attempting to walk on water.

 

As Kenneth Woodward's The Book of Miracles demonstrates, all major religions have miracle stories, not only in their ancient holy books but also in their ongoing literature. There are stories of a rabbi bringing a child back from the dead, a Christian monk using a holy relic to do the same, and a Sufi named Habib walking on water. A Hindu saint named Shankara assumed the body of a dead king, brought it back to life and ruled in his stead for a while. The special powers of Buddhist yogis include: flying through the air, walking through walls, and the ability to disappear. Prior to the Age of Enlightenment in the West, truly supernatural miracles like Moses parting the water, Jesus walking on water, and Buddha levitating and gliding over the water could be found in all religions. Interestingly, the few actual writings by the ancient mystics themselves don't include truly supernatural miracles. St. Paul is a good example of this; although he based his authority on his own spiritually transformative experiences (1 Corinthians 15:8, 2 Corinthians 12:2-4, Galatians 1:11-12, Galatians 1:15-17), his letters describe no miracles. Contrast what St. Paul wrote about himself with what was written about him in the Acts of the Apostles where he performs numerous miracles, including raising the dead (Acts 20:9-12).

 

 3.  Religious Practices That Are NOT Universal  

 

The Empyrean. Psychic powers such as mediums and divination are part of some religions but are not universal. The use of placebos when practiced by physicians is not "religious" faith healing. Charity and social justice programs exist independent of religious organizations, as do social clubs.

As mentioned earlier, there is a lot about religion that is NOT about God but IS about culture, and for many people, their religion and culture are inseparable. It is all right for religion to have cultural elements, provided they are not evil or destructive, but it is important to know the difference. When you read genuine first-hand accounts of spiritually transformative experiences -- whether they are ancient, medieval, or modern -- one thing that becomes abundantly clear is that God rarely provides details. Examples of human embellishment to religious practice include fasting, circumcision, self-flagellation, and abstinence from certain foods, alcohol, or sex. It is obvious the religious rules in books like Leviticus were written by priests in need of Prozac! Additionally, they often enable the person following the rules to feel "holier than thou" and to judge those disobeying the rules to be less favored by God. In contrast to cultural rituals that serve to say you are in the "club," the Golden Rule serves everyone.

 

 4.  Conclusion  

 

To summarize, when thinking broadly about the "universals" common to all religions, the most important is the spiritually transformative experience -- the very basis of all religion. Prophets, gurus, and saviors base their authority on them, and the spiritually transformative experiences of ordinary people help sustain religion. In fact, without spiritually transformative experiences religion would probably cease to exist. Second, prayer and/or meditation enrich the lives of those who practice it. Third, the Golden Rule is the essence of mature religion in practice. Fourth, faith healing appears to help some people, although how it works is far from settled. And fifth, miracles will always impress the naïve and uneducated, but we all can enjoy them from the standpoint of mythic reality.

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Chapter 4
Separating the "Super" from the "Natural"
 
Dr. Ken R. Vincent and Pam.
  Table of Contents 
1. An Overview of "Miracles" in Religious Experience
2. An Analysis of the "Miracles" of Three Famous Prophets
 
a. The "Miracles" of Zoroaster in Zoroastrianism
b. The "Miracles" of St. Paul in Christianity
c. The "Miracles" of Muhammad in Islam
3. The "Super" Removed from the "Natural" in World Religions
4. Conclusion
 1.  An Overview of "Miracles" in Religious Experience  

 

Supernatural means, literally, "over or above nature" but is commonly understood as an event that transcends the Laws of Nature. For millennia, all of nature's fury, blessings, and awesome mysteries were attributed to the gods or God. In most religious writings, however, we also encounter those "miracles" in which a Divine hand intervenes to contradict nature's laws.

Alister Hardy photo.In the mid-19th Century, researchers began to apply the scientific method to the phenomenon of religious experience. Biomedical science dissected the underpinnings of "faith healing," "placebo effect," "voodoo effects," and other aspects of cures for psychosomatic illnesses. Psychical researchers explored religious phenomena such as exorcisms. At the turn of the century, William James in his classic work Varieties of Religious Experience stated that, "the founders of every church owe their power originally to the fact of their direct personal communication with the Divine." In the 1970's, Sir Alister Hardy's The Spiritual Nature of Man demonstrated that -- far from being the realm of a few saints, prophets, and sages -- religious experiences occur in a large percentage of the general population. Over the years, an enormous amount of research has been undertaken into life after death, deathbed visions, after-death communications, near-death experiences, and reincarnation. Today, there is ample evidence of religious experience, a tremendous amount of anecdotal evidence pointing to an afterlife, data on psychosomatic research relating to faith healing, and some research relating to exorcism. Though the efforts of interdisciplinary science, we now know that religious experiences are not only "natural" but rather common. Conversely, truly nature-defying "miracles" are simply not present in the modern world.

 

 2.  An Analysis of the "Miracles" of Three Famous Prophets  

 

In this paper, I will show how the "super" and the "natural" can be separated when the same standards of analysis are applied to both ancient and modern accounts. To illustrate, I have selected three famous religious persons from history: Zoroaster, St. Paul, and Muhammad.

 

  a.  The "Miracles" of Zoroaster in Zoroastrianism  
Zoroaster.

 

Zoroaster is the ancient Persian prophet who is credited with the divergence of religious approaches in the East and West, as well as providing the roots for subsequent Western religions -- including the concepts of angels, demons, Heaven, Hell, Satan, and the resurrection of the body. Highly ethical for its time, Zoroaster's new religion advocated that man's free will to choose:

Multi-colored icon.   "Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds" helps defeat evil.

Like Moses and Buddha, the dates of his life are uncertain; a date of 7th Century BCE is often given, although the archaic language used in his hymns to God suggests a date as early as 1600-1200 BCE. The first of his revelations occurred at age 15 years, but his major revelations occurred at age 30 when he, like Jesus, went into the wilderness to seek God. Virtually all scholars, ancient and modern, agree that Zoroaster himself is the author of his hymns (Gathas). In them, he tells us that it was revealed to him that:

Multi-colored icon.   "Silent meditation is best for attaining spiritual enlightenment" (Yasna 43.15).

Zoroaster also says that God is supreme:

Multi-colored icon.   "When I held you in my very eyes, then I realized you in my mind, O Mazda (God), as the first and also the last for all eternity, as the Father of Good Thoughts, as the Creator of Righteousness and Lord over the actions of life" (Yasna 31:8).
Multi-colored icon.   At the end of our lives, our own good deeds will determine whether we go to Heaven or Hell; at the end of time, after those who are evil are purified in Hell, ALL will be saved (Yasna 30:11).

Zoroaster's religious experiences of God were similar to those of mystics of all ages. Only after his death are "miraculous" tales attached to him -- beginning with his birth. Later accounts in the Avesta (the Holy Book of the Magi) and the Zand (a Talmud-like continuance of holy writings) tell of exorcisms and miracles being performed by Zoroaster, beginning in his childhood (similar to stories of Jesus' childhood in the Apocryphal gospels).

 

  b.  The "Miracles" of St. Paul in Christianity  

 

St. Paul by Bartolomeo Montagna. St. Paul's religious experiences include his after-death communication with Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:8), his out-of-body experience in which he is taken to the third level of Heaven (2 Corinthians 12:2-4), and his speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:18). He states frankly that the Gospel (Good News) that he preaches did not come from humans but was communicated to him by Jesus from beyond the grave (Galatians 1:11-12, Galatians 1:15-17). Paul both acknowledges and encourages the religious experiences of others (1 Corinthians 12:8-11; 1 Corinthians 14:26-33). While he says that others have the ability to heal (1 Corinthians 12:9), his letters do not tell of his healing; in fact, Paul writes that he was not even able to heal himself (2 Corinthians 12:7-9).

Contrast Paul's own letters with the stories about him in the Acts of the Apostles (thought to have been written by the author of the Gospel of Luke). In Acts, Paul performs a negative miracle by temporarily blinding a sorcerer (Acts 13:8-11) -- an excellent example of the "nocebo" effect (negative counterpart to "placebo"). Paul heals a man who was crippled from birth (Acts 14:8-10) and even raises the dead (Acts 20:9-12). Clearly, this author's depiction of Paul is very different from what Paul said about himself.

 

  c.  The "Miracles" of Muhammad in Islam  

 

Mohammed Receiving Revelation From The Angel Gabriel. The final example comes at the end of the Classical World with Muhammad. His teachings were memorized by some of his followers, and others who were literate transcribed them. (According to Karen Armstrong, the Quran was compiled and edited some 20 years after Muhammad's death.) Muhammad works no miracles in the Quran, although he does mention miracles of past prophets. Interestingly, he includes the story of the child Jesus who made clay birds miraculously come alive (Quran 5:110). Although not in the New Testament, this story can be found in several apocryphal infancy gospels, including the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (2:4-8).

In the Quran, Muhammad tells of his religious experiences of God through the Angel Gabriel (Quran 96) and his "dark night of the soul" when he had no revelations for two years (Quran 93). Muhammad describes his out-of-body experience, known as the "Night Journey," in which he is transported to Heaven (Quran 17:1). Interestingly, Aisha, one of Muhammad's wives, testified that his physical body remained next to her during this out-of-body experience.

Although Muhammad's religious experiences can be compared to those of persons today, the Hadith (later oral history) proclaims Muhammad a miracle-worker! The Moslem theologian Al-Ghazzali lists 45 miracles, including Mohammad feeding an army with a handful of dates, his blinding an entire enemy army by throwing a handful of dust, and his restoring the eye of one of his companions. Even better -- Muhammad was given a miraculous birth!

 

 3.  The "Super" Removed from the "Natural" in World Religions  

 

Max Muller portrait. Our three ancient examples -- Zoroaster, St. Paul, and Muhammad -- suggest that ancient religious experience existed without supernatural occurrences. Buddha said that supernatural miracles were "for the uninitiated." Nevertheless, according to Max Muller, editor of the Sacred Books of the East, miracles are part and parcel of religion. To the unsophisticated of the world, belief in supernatural miracles and the magical power of religious icons remains vital.

In most of religious writing, "natural" religious experiences are mixed with "super," nature-defying miracles. Jesus is a good example of this. Along with his ethical teachings, we find miracles like turning water into wine (John 2:1-11) and healing a man blind from birth (John 9:1-7). Yet the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) record the fact that Jesus' attempts at faith-healing and exorcism did not always work and that some of the people exorcised by Jesus became re-possessed (Matthew 12:43-45, Luke 11:24-26). When Jesus was unable to heal folks in his own hometown, the Gospel of Mark (Mark 6:6 TNIV) notes that, "he was amazed at their lack of faith" (emphasis added), revealing him to be a "faith healer."

Erlandur Harldsson photo. Truly "supernatural" miracles such as Moses parting the water, Jesus walking on water, and Buddha levitating and gliding over the water are outside the experience of the modern world and have yet to be demonstrated for science. These ancient stories are better explained in two ways. The first is that of "mythic reality," meaning that they are "true but didn't happen." As metaphors, a kind of Truth is expressed that the miracle-worker was an extraordinary person, favored by God. Modern people who read these stories too literally and tried to replicate the "miracle" have had rude consciousness-awakening! In 1967, an attempt by a group of "hippies" to levitate the Pentagon (in Washington D. C.) resulted in dismal failure. In 1972, L. S. Rao, an Indian yogi, announced that he would walk on water; the televised event, however, showed the guru taking one step into the tank and immediately sinking to the bottom! The second explanation for miracle stories is simple fraud. An example of fraud from the Old Testament is the story of Bel and the Dragon (Daniel 14:1-42); this chapter is included in the Bibles of Catholics, Orthodox, and Coptic Christians and but is relegated to the Apocrypha in the Protestant Bible. Currently, a website by Erlendur Haraldsson lists several negative and inconclusive attempts to validate whether the "god men and women" of India are fraudulent or genuine.

 

 4.  Conclusion  

 

Logo of the Hadith. The actual words of these three prominent religious figures -- Zoroaster, St. Paul, and Muhammad -- reveal ample evidence for a variety of religious experiences similar to those collected by The Religious Experience Research Centre. However, the nature-defying miracles attributed to them are always embellishments of subsequent writers.

To me, the "super" miracles are superfluous. It is "super" enough that human experience of the Divine is an integral part of our human nature! It is even more "super" that modern research can be used to demonstrate the phenomenological reality of religious experience. Religion is not something in old, old books; as William James realized:

Multi-colored icon.   "Personal religion will prove itself more fundamental than either theology or ecclesiasticism."
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Chapter 5
Religious Experience of Jesus Compatible with Modern Research
 
Dr. Ken R. Vincent on stairway.
  Table of Contents
1. Introduction to the Mystical Experiences of Jesus
2. Religious Experience and Aftermath
3. Faith Healer (Placebo Effect)
4. Separating the "Super" from the "Natural"
5. Transfiguration
6. Psychic Ability
7. Resurrection
8. Conclusion
 1.  Introduction to the Mystical Experiences of Jesus  

 

The Miracle of the Catch of 153 Fish. As a religious experience researcher for the past 20 years, I have long asserted that the religious / transpersonal / mystical experiences of Jesus related in the New Testament Gospels were no different than those of the rest of us, except in degree. While most of us feel blessed to have received the light of a lone "candle" and others describe a more impressive "incandescent bulb," Jesus perceived a "beacon!" The most consistent finding to know about all religious experiences is that they change people's lives.

Modern scholarship has devised some methods to separate myth from reality regarding Jesus. In The Five Gospels and Acts of Jesus, the Jesus Seminar attempted to uncover what is authentic about Jesus, including his mystical experiences and healings, as well as the visionary experiences of him following his death. Throughout this paper, I will site their conclusions to provide a current theological perspective.  

 2.  Religious Experience and Aftermath  

 

Richard Bucke photo. There are two ways to sound profound about God. One is to study religion, and the other is to have a religious experience. Jesus would have learned something of Hebrew Scripture during his Jewish childhood; later, he witnessed the inspired preaching of John the Baptist. But this secondary kind of knowledge paled in comparison to what must have been a profound spiritual experience of God that transformed his own life and, unknowingly, affected the course of history for the next 2000 years! The Jesus Seminar members were skeptical that Jesus' primary religious experience occurred at his baptism by John, but they did acknowledge that Jesus, "had visionary experiences on occasion" and they did not rule out the possibility that his "baptismal experience involved a vision of some kind."

The Alister Hardy Religious Experience Research Centre (RERC) files contain ample evidence of the life-changing effects of religious experience. For example, in The Spiritual Nature of Man, Sir Alister Hardy sites the life-changing effects of Rev. Leslie Weatherhead's religious experience at age 19 that sealed his commitment to a life in ministry (case 385). Neuropsychiatrist Richard Bucke had a profound spiritual experience at age 35 which led him to research and write a major book on mystical experience, Cosmic Consciousness. Additionally, Bucke continued the path of service, becoming the head of a psychiatric hospital in London, Ontario, Canada. Mary Austin was a prolific author of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who wrote about the plight of women and American Indians. In her book Experiences Facing Death, she not only describes her spiritual experience of the presence of God at age 5 or 6, but also that it was "the one abiding reality" of her life and that she would recall it throughout her life as a source of comfort.

In An Introduction to Religious and Spiritual Experience, Marianne Rankin tells the story of St. Thomas Aquinas who stopped writing theology altogether following his profound mystical experience:

Multi-colored icon.   "He proclaimed his theology mere straw in comparison to what had been revealed to him."

When people have a profound spiritual experience, they characteristically require some time to process its meaning and implications. The Gospels tell us that Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days (which is "Bible talk" for "a long time"). Following his spiritual experience of Jesus, St. Paul spent three years in reflection before deciding how his life's work should proceed (Galatians 1:18). In his book, The Power of Now, modern-day mystic Eckhart Tolle tells that after his spiritual experience:

Multi-colored icon.   "For the next five months, I lived in a state of uninterrupted deep peace and bliss ... I knew, of course, that something profoundly significant had happened to me, but I didn't understand it at all."

He goes on to tell how it took years of reflection and study to make sense of it.

Religious experiences are usually positive, but many are not. Jesus must quote Scripture to counter the proposals of Satan (Matthew 4:1-11). The Jesus Seminar was evenly divided as to whether Jesus was tested in the wilderness. Nevertheless, 4% of the first 3,000 cases gathered by the RERC were negative, and in Negative Spiritual Experiences, Merete Jakobsen notes that:

Multi-colored icon.   "[Religious] rituals are the only protection against horror and darkness of the soul."

In other words, what worked for Jesus works for the rest of us.

Similarly, modern people are often puzzled about who they can trust to share their profound experience. Fear of being thought mentally ill by friends or family is nothing new. When Jesus starts to preach, his family thinks he is "out of his mind, and went to restrain him" (Mark 3:21, NRSV). In Something There, David Hay notes a 1985 study found 40% of religious experiencers have never told anyone of their experience.

In Seeing the Invisible, Meg Maxwell and Verena Tschulin note that, in addition to fear of being thought insane, modern spiritual experiencers often relate being rebuffed when they shared their experiences. This was especially distressing when the rejection was by their minister.

 

 3.  Faith Healer (Placebo Effect)  

 

Irreducible Mind book cover. We know Jesus was a faith healer because his cures were contingent on the person's "belief" or "unbelief" (Matthew 13:54-58). Also, the Gospels tell plainly that some of his exorcisms were not permanent (Matthew 12:43-55). The Jesus Seminar acknowledged that Jesus was a faith healer and an exorcist and considered some of his cures genuine; of course, examples of the supernatural healing, such as Jesus' reattaching a severed ear (Luke 22: 50-51), were dismissed. Unlike the descriptions detailing the crude resuscitation techniques of Old Testament prophets Elisha and Elijah (2 Kings 4:32-35, 1 Kings 17:17-23), the Gospels do not describe Jesus' method of resuscitation of near-death experiencers (Luke 7:11-17, Matthew 9:18-26, John 11:38-44). The Jesus Seminar did not consider any of his resuscitations genuine.

Today, there is a large body of literature demonstrating the effectiveness of the placebo effect/faith healing. In Timeless Healing, Hubert Benson lists a variety of physical ailments receptive to the placebo effect. In Irreducible Mind, Edward Kelly and Emily Williams Kelly, et al., devote 124 pages to psychophysiological influences, including religious practices like prayer, faith healing, and voodoo.

 

 4.  Separating the "Super" from the "Natural"  

 

St Paul. St. Paul is one of the few ancients who left his own first-hand account of his religious experiences. Most significantly, he describes his after-death communication with Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:8) and states frankly that the Gospel he preaches did not come from humans but was communicated to him by Jesus from beyond the grave (Galatians 1:11-12, Galatians 1:15-17). Paul both acknowledges and encourages the religious experiences of others (1 Corinthians 12:8-11; 1 Corinthians 14:26-33). He describes an out-of-body experience in which he is taken to the third level of Heaven (2 Corinthians 12:2-4). While he says that others have the ability to heal (1 Corinthians 12:9), his letters do not tell of healings; in fact, Paul writes that he was not even able to heal himself (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). Contrast Paul's own words with the stories about him in the Acts of the Apostles in which it is claimed that he performed miracles and even raised the dead (Acts 20:9-12)! Unfortunately, Jesus was not so lucky as to have control over his own writings.

 

 5.  Transfiguration  

 

Spiritual Encounters with Unusual Light Phenomena book cover. The "transfiguration" (Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36) is pregnant with theological symbolism. Nevertheless, part of modern religious experience includes reports of two or more individuals seeing an apparition of a dead person or religious figure at the same time. A 1970s study (N=434) in Los Angles, California, USA, found 2% of the residents had reported a vision of a dead person that was part of the reality of another person (Kalish, 1973). In Seeing the Invisible, a male and female both share a vision of light and then Jesus (case 3015). In Spiritual Encounters with Unusual Light Phenomena: Lightforms, Mark Fox notes that 10 of his 400 cases were shared experiences, including two soldiers in Northern Ireland seeing a light that gradually took the form of the Virgin Mary (case 3008). At the transfiguration, Jesus' face:

Multi-colored icon.   "... shown like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white."

In another of Mark Fox's examples, a woman reports:

Multi-colored icon.   "Suddenly I was filled with a wonderful light, and I felt my face streaming with light. My mother said afterward that she would never forget my face" (case 1160).
 
 6.  Psychic Ability  
 

A Measure of Heavenbook cover. The Gospels relate several episodes in which Jesus exhibits psychic powers, namely, his telepathic ability with the "woman at the well" (John 4:4-42), and two cases of precognition, one regarding the miraculous catch of fish (Luke 5:4-7) and the other, the fish with the coin in its mouth to pay the Temple tax (Matthew 17:24-27). In A Measure of Heaven, Vince Miglorie analyzes reports (N=787) sent to the International Association of Near Death Studies (IANDS) website of which 24% were individuals who did not have a life-threatening condition. In other words, they had religious experiences similar to a near-death experience, but they were not dead or near death. One of the after-effects reported was an increase in psychic ability. While 75.5% of the clinical death group reported the development of healing and psychic abilities, the non-life-threatening spiritual experience group reported a 61.9% increase. The existence of reported psychic abilities is not proof of psychic powers which are notoriously hard to validate. Nevertheless, Ralph Hood, Peter Hill, and Bernard Spilka note that inevitably, surveys of paranormal experience and mystical experience are highly correlated (Hood et al, 2009).

 

 7.  Resurrection  

 

Most modern liberal theologians hold with St. Paul (1 Corinthians 15) that the resurrection of Jesus was a visionary experience (Jesus raised up by God in a spiritual body rather than a physical body). The empty tomb does not solve the dilemma, since no one saw Jesus' body rise spontaneously or be removed by others. A treasure-trove of after-death communications from ancient times to the present RERC files can be produced that resemble the appearance stories of Jesus in the Gospels, but this topic is to huge to cover here.

 

 8.  Conclusion  

 

The Gospels are not "pure Jesus." Instead, they are a mixture of mythic lore and supernatural miracles, intermingled with his genuine words and religious experiences. Nevertheless, as a liberal Christian, I take comfort in the continuity of religious experience from Jesus' time to the present. Jesus knew God, and my belief is that the difference between Jesus and the rest of us is not one of difference but one of degree.

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Chapter 6
Resurrection Appearances of Jesus as After-Death Communication
 
Dr. Ken R. Vincent with green background.
  Table of Contents 
1. Abstract and Keywords
2. Introduction to Jesus' Resurrection and ADCs
3. Paul's ADC with Jesus
4. Peter's Description of Jesus' Resurrection as Spiritual
5. Resurrection ADCs of Jesus in the Four Gospels
6. Resurrection ADCs of Jesus in the Acts of the Apostles
7. The Nine Categories of Jesus' Resurrection Appearances
8. Ancient ADCs of Jesus Compared with Modern ADCs of Jesus
 
a. He Appeared to Individuals
b. He Appeared to Small Groups and Large Groups
c. Sometimes Jesus' Former Friends Did Not Recognize Him
d. Sometimes People Touched Jesus
e. In One Account, Mary Magdalene was Asked Not to Touch Jesus
f. Jesus Appeared and Disappeared Instantly and Walked Through Locked Doors
g. Jesus Broke Bread, Served Breakfast, and Ate!
h. Jesus Used His Psychic Powers - To Predict Where To Catch Fish
i. Jesus Converted People (Like St. Paul)
9. Veridical Cases of ADCs
10. Aftereffects of ADCs
11. Conclusion
 1.  Abstract and Keywords  

 

ABSTRACT:  Scientific research into after-death communication began at the end of the 19th century. During this early period, psychical researcher James Hyslop and theologian Rudolph Otto wrote about the resurrection of Jesus as a visionary/spiritual experience - as opposed to a physical, "bodily" resurrection. More recently, liberal theologians and religious experience researchers have also favored this view. The purpose of this article is to:

a. Underscore the fact that the resurrection of Jesus as an after-death communication is solidly based in the only first-hand account of Paul and the verified secondary accounts of Peter and James (1 Corinthians 15:5–8) in the New Testament.
b. Demonstrate that, although a physical resurrection is implied by the Gospel writers because of the empty tomb, the appearance stories of Jesus are more in accord with the phenomenology of modern after-death communications by Jesus, other divine figures, and ordinary people.

KEYWORDS:  resurrection, Jesus, after-death communication, visions, apparitions.

 
 2.  Introduction to Jesus' Resurrection and ADCs  

 

The Resurrection of Christ by Noel Coypel. Easter is a day when Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus; it is an occasion much more significant than their celebration of Jesus' birth at Christmas. Resurrection literally means "rising from the dead and coming back to life." Emory University professor Luke Timothy Johnson (1998, p. 11) has gone so far as to call the resurrection the "grounding for the entire Christian life."

Was Jesus raised in a spiritual body or a physical body? In most traditional Christian churches, listeners will hear of a physical, bodily resurrection; in fact, a 2005 Newsweek (2009) poll found that half of Americans believe in a physical resurrection. This inference is based on the stories of Easter morning in the four Gospels, which relate that Jesus' body was not in the burial tomb when Mary Magdalene (present in all Gospel accounts), accompanied by one or more women (in other Gospel accounts), arrived there. This view has been perpetuated by millions of Christians since the 4th century who learned to recite from the Apostle's Creed the phrase, "... resurrection of the body and life everlasting."

Interestingly, the same 2005 Newsweek poll (2009) showed one-third of Americans think that Jesus' resurrection was a spiritual one! My purpose is to present this view as the authentic one, first, because it is more consistent with the New Testament accounts, and second, because it is most compatible with scientific research into spiritually transformative experiences over the past 125 years. As a religious experience researcher myself, I am convinced that mystical religious experiences are a normal part of a healthy, non-psychotic human life and that the religious experiences of Jesus represent the same phenomena as those of all people, despite time or culture.

In the early 20th century, philosopher and psychical researcher James Hyslop (1908, p. 383) and theologian Rudolph Otto (1950, pp. 222–229) began to see the resurrection of Jesus as a visionary/spiritual experience - what is now called an after-death communication (ADC). More recently, liberal theologians (Funk & the Jesus Seminar, 1998, pp. 449–495) and religious experience researchers (Wiebe, 1997, pp. 106–107; 121; 212-222) have favored a spiritual resurrection over a physical resurrection.

Multi-colored icon.   "An after-death communication (ADC) is a spiritual experience that occurs when someone is connected directly and spontaneously by a deceased family member or friend" (Guggenheim & Guggenheim, 1996, p 15).

Guggenheim and Guggenheim (1996) acknowledged that Jesus and his mother Mary are the best-known ADCs but elected not to make the comparison for fear of offending Christians (p. 11). Obviously, I have included Jesus, his mother Mary, and other divine beings, as that is the purpose of this paper.

 

 3.  Paul's ADC with Jesus  
The Conversion of St. Paul by Caravaggio.  

 

In the New Testament, Paul has the distinction of being the earliest writer, as well as the only writer to give a first-person account of Jesus' resurrection. Paul's ADC with Jesus occurred about four years after Jesus' death, and he wrote about this experience about 20 years later (White, 2004, pp. 150, 172). Paul was not a follower during Jesus' lifetime but became one of the most influential Apostles, having enormous influence over the direction of early Christianity, especially in the West. Paul's letters also provide the only verified second-hand reports of the resurrection - those of Peter, an early disciple of Jesus, and James, the brother of Jesus, whom Paul had met. These are Paul's own words: 

Multi-colored icon.   "He (Jesus) appeared to Cephas (Peter) and to the Twelve. Then he appeared to more than 500 brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the Apostles. Last of all, as one untimely born, he appeared also to me." (1 Corinthians 15:5-8 NRSV)

About 80 years after the death of Jesus (White, 2004, p. 252), Luke - widely accepted to be the author of the Acts of the Apostles - tried to suggest that Paul's experience of Jesus was somehow different from the appearances of Jesus to his former earthly companions. Luke clearly explained that he was a compiler of stories that were handed down to him (Luke 1:1-3). Luke's accounts of Jesus appearing to Paul in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 9:3–9; Acts 22:4–16; Acts 26:9–18) are somewhat contradictory, but in all three accounts Paul saw a "light from heaven" and heard the voice of Jesus. Although this experience sounds like a modern ADC (Fox, 2008, p 41-43), it does not square with Paul's own first-person account that: 

a. He had "seen Jesus our Lord" (1 Corinthians 9:1 NRSV).
b. "God ... was pleased to reveal his Son to me" (Galatians 1:15-16).
c. "He [Jesus] appeared also to me" (1 Corinthians 15:8b).

Paul stated definitely that his ADC from Jesus was identical to that of the others (1 Corinthians 15:5–8 NRSV). Paul was equally adamant that resurrected bodies are spiritual in nature:

Multi-colored icon.   "It is sown in a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body" (1 Corinthians 15:44 NRSV).

He emphasized the point that:

Multi-colored icon.   "Flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable" (1 Corinthians 15:50 NRSV).

In other words, Paul knew nothing about a physical resurrection of Jesus. Many years after Paul's letters were written, the writers of the Gospels implied a physical resurrection of Jesus because of the empty tomb. In reality, the empty tomb adds nothing (Funk et al., 1998, p. 463), as no one saw Jesus revive and walk out of the tomb, and no one saw anyone remove Jesus' body as was later claimed (Matthew 28:11–15).

 

 4.  Peter's Description of Jesus' Resurrection as Spiritual  

 

Written about 50-65 years after Jesus' death under the name of Peter (White, 2004, p. 274), the First Letter of Peter also presents a spiritual resurrection. It states:

Multi-colored icon.   "He [Christ] was put to death in the flesh but made alive in the Spirit" (1 Peter 3:18b NRSV).
 
 5.  Resurrection ADCs of Jesus in the Four Gospels  

 

From Jesus to Christianity book cover. The Gospel of Mark is the earliest, written about 40-45 years after Jesus' death (White, 2004, p. 233). Its original ending had no resurrection appearances but ended with the mystery of an empty tomb. Much later, resurrection stories were added to Mark that appears to be a synopsis of those in the other three Gospels (Funk et al., 1998, pp. 465-467).

The Gospel of Matthew, written 50-60 years after the death of Jesus (White, 2004, p. 244), has a pre-resurrection story at the time of Jesus' death stating that:

Multi-colored icon.   "The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many" (Matthew 27:52–53 NRSV).

The writer of Matthew had Jesus appear first to Mary Magdalene and the "other Mary" who took hold of his feet and worshiped him. The second ADC of Jesus was placed in Galilee where he appeared to his 11 disciples:

Multi-colored icon.   "When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted." [emphasis added] (Matthew 28:9-10, Matthew 28:17 NRSV).

The Gospel of Luke, written 60-70 years after the death of Jesus (White, 2004, p. 252), told of two of Jesus' Apostles meeting Jesus while walking on the road to Emmaus. Luke said that their "... eyes were kept from recognizing him." After talking to Jesus and inviting him to supper, he broke bread, they recognized him, and he vanished from their sight. Later he appeared to the Apostles and asked them to touch him. Luke reported that Jesus stood among the disciples suddenly, saying:

Multi-colored icon.   "Peace be with you," and the disciples were startled and terrified and "thought they were seeing a ghost." Then he ate a piece of fish (Luke 24).

The Gospel of John, written 65-90 years after the death of Jesus (White, 2004, p. 310), includes many other appearance stories. When Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene, she did not recognize him until he spoke her name. Unlike the Gospel of Matthew in which Mary Magdalene touched Jesus, Jesus told Mary not to touch him. Jesus later appeared suddenly in a locked room to all the Apostles but Thomas. Because Thomas doubted their story, Jesus appeared again to the Apostles while Thomas was present and asked Thomas to touch the wound in his side. Later, Jesus appeared to seven Apostles who were fishing in the Sea of Tiberias; they hadn't caught anything, and Jesus - using his psychic ability - told them where to cast their nets. They then recognized him, and Jesus served them fish and bread (John 20-21).

 

 6.  Resurrection ADCs of Jesus in the Acts of the Apostles  

 

Christ Appearing to his Disciples. The Acts of the Apostles was written 80 years after Jesus' death (White, 2004, p. 252). It states that Jesus appeared to people for 40 days, after which he ascended to Heaven on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 1). (This is curious because there is a previous Ascension story in Luke [Luke 24:50–53].)

What is the purpose of placing the Ascension story 40 days after Easter, if Jesus was raised up to God on Easter Day? A problem exists only for those advocating a "physical body" scenario. Using Paul's view - which is the modern view - that Jesus' resurrection was an ADC, no explanation is needed because spiritual beings can appear at will from the afterlife whether the percipient is an ancient who viewed heaven as "above the earth" or a modern who views heaven as "another reality."

 

 7.  The Nine Categories of Jesus' Resurrection Appearances  

 

In summary, I have identified nine categories of Jesus' resurrection appearances in the accounts of the New Testament:

a. He appeared to individuals.
b. He appeared to small groups and large groups.
c. Sometimes Jesus' former friends did not recognize him.
d. Sometimes people touched Jesus.
e. In one account, Mary Magdalene was asked not to touch Jesus.
f. Jesus appeared and disappeared instantly; he walked through locked doors.
g. Jesus broke bread, served breakfast, and ate!
h. Jesus used his psychic powers - to predict where to catch fish.
i. Jesus converted people (like St. Paul).

All of these behaviors exhibited by the resurrected Jesus have been reported throughout history. Turning now to modern accounts of after-death appearances of Jesus, other divine figures, and ordinary people, such accounts demonstrate that all of the above nine behaviors exhibited in the New Testament are present in modern-day accounts by non-psychotic individuals and verified by modern religious experience researchers.

 

 8.  Ancient ADCs of Jesus Compared with Modern ADCs of Jesus  
  a.  He Appeared to Individuals  

 

The following is a 20th century account by a British woman:

Multi-colored icon.   "All at once I felt someone near me, a Presence entered this little room of which I became immediately conscious. This feeling or second sense could be very frightening, but I was not afraid or alarmed. I saw in my mind our Blessed Saviour, and the picture of Him has never left me." (Maxwell & Tschudin, 2005, p. 115)
 
  b.  He Appeared to Small Groups and Large Groups  

 

Post-death visions seen by more than one person - whether the vision is a religious figure or an ordinary person - are well-documented (Guggenheim & Guggenheim, 1996, pp. 285-300; Kalish & Reynolds, 1973; Myers, 1903, pp. 62-65; Wiebe, 1997, pp. 15-88). In a study of 434 residents of Los Angeles, including persons of Black, European, Japanese, and Mexican origins:

Multi-colored icon.   "... slightly over 2% reported post-death encounters that were part of the reality of another person present at the time" (Kalish & Reynolds, 1973, p. 219).
In a study of 400 mystical experiences that involved light, 2.5% involved multiple witnesses (Fox, 2008, p. 64).

In the following account, a woman and her husband-to-be shared a vision of Jesus while they were walking in the moonlight:

Multi-colored icon.   "Then the figure emerged, a most brilliant sight. We were both speechless, but not afraid, it was so beautiful. The figure, Jesus Christ, glided onto the centre of the road while we were on rough pavement ... We still remember every detail, but our views on religion have deepened; although, still, we are not too religious." (Maxwell & Tschudin, 2005, pp. 77-78).

 
  c.  Sometimes Jesus' Former Friends Did Not Recognize Him  
The Supper at Emmaus by Rembrandt.  

 

On the Road to Emmaus: 

Multi-colored icon.   "Their eyes were kept from recognizing him" (Luke 24:16).

Modern people have also experienced visions of Jesus in disguise (Migliore, 2009, pp. 137–139).

The following is a woman's vision of Jesus while she was meditating: 

Multi-colored icon.   "I went forward, alone, toward an old man who stood at the very end of the rose-covered arches. I stopped before him. He asked me if ministry was what I really wanted. I replied affirmatively. He then used his thumb to make the sign of the cross on my forehead, my hands, my feet, my lips, and over my heart - in that order. Then he said, 'Go in peace.' I wondered who he was. He looked at me with sad eyes and said, 'Don't you know me?' With his words, the illusion of the old man fell away, and I realized that he was Christ" (Sparrow, 1995, pp. 150–151).

  d.  Sometimes People Touched Jesus  

 

In one account, a woman touches Jesus' hair (Sparrow, 1995, p. 32). Ordinary people also come back from the dead, and their loved ones report having touched them:

Multi-colored icon.   "After the sudden death of my husband about nine years ago, I had several experiences, which proved to me that there is a life after death. I am not a Spiritualist, nor a Churchgoer, but I try to follow Jesus, and I am a great believer in meditation, as a way to God. After his passing, I both saw and spoke to my husband and held his hand. This hand was strong and not at all ghost-like, nor was his appearance. I was alone at the time, so no medium there to act as a link. Probably this is not a detail to prove God's existence, but to me, it indeed did." (Hardy, 1997, p. 47)

John Hick (2006, p. 34) noted that other holy figures have appeared to their followers and provided an account of a young Hindu embracing Lord Krishna. In a study of 293 widows and widowers, Dewi Rees found not only that slightly less than half of them had contact with their deceased spouse but also that 2.7% actually touched them (Fenwick & Fenwick, 2008, p. 121).

 

  e.  In One Account, Mary Magdalene was Asked Not to Touch Jesus  

 

This next modern visionary account is of a woman's dead husband:

Multi-colored icon.   "Not long afterwards, I awoke shaking violently from head to foot. He had appeared to me, radiant, smiling, his usual happy self. I had impulsively gone forward to greet him, saying, 'Do you know - I've just been having a dream.' Something stopped me before I touched him - he was there, completely himself, but of a different 'substance.' I drew back, as it were, looking in through a frame, to another dimension. I stopped, and said to him, 'I know, I understand.' This experience, following his death, has given me great comfort..." (Hardy, 1997, p. 47).

 
  f.  Jesus Appeared and Disappeared Instantly and Walked Through Locked Doors  

 

Modern visions of Jesus include his appearance to Charles Finney, a 19th century minister:

Multi-colored icon.   "There was no fire or light in the room; nevertheless, it appeared as if it were perfectly light. As I went in and shut the door, it seemed as if I met the Lord Jesus Christ face to face. It did not occur to me that it was a wholly mental state; it seemed that I saw him as I would see any other man." (Bucke, 1991, p. 288)

 
  g.  Jesus Broke Bread, Served Breakfast, and Ate!  

 

Long March to Freedom book cover. In Visions of Jesus, Phillip Wiebe (1997, p. 43) recounted a modern story of Jesus offering wine.

In his book, Long March to Freedom, Tom Hargrove (1995, pp. 277, 334) described his experience of being held captive by the FARC in Colombia. In the book, Tom briefly described his vision of Jesus, and he was kind enough to send me an expanded account of this encounter:

Multi-colored icon.   "Terribly depressed, I went to El Templo on May 26. Alone by my broken cross of bamboo, I started to cry. Then something strange happened. Was it a religious experience or a hunger-induced hallucination? I don't know. But I thought I saw an ephemeral, bearded man walking from the woods to El Templo. I described him in my diary as having a Kris Kristofferson beard, and wearing jeans, red plaid flannel shirt, high leather boots - the lace-up kind.

"The man came closer, and his face seemed exactly that of the stereotyped Jesus whose portrait hangs on Sunday School walls. He laughed, and told me to sit on a log.

"'I'm sorry I was crying,' I said.

"'You can cry here whenever you wish,' the man replied.

"Then somehow, he opened a liter bottle of Gallo Hearty Burgundy and poured two crystal goblets of red wine.

"We drank, then he said he must leave, but maybe we could visit again. He added (I wrote in my diary), but I might include him more when I'm having fun after I leave here.

"That ephemeral man walked back into the forest, and I was alone again. I had never before and have never again had such an experience. What made it still stranger was (that) I have never remotely thought of Jesus dressed in jeans, red flannel shirt, and lumberjack boots." (Tom Hargrove, personal communication, August 23, 2002)

When I questioned Tom, he said:

Multi-colored icon.   "If Jesus had been dressed in robes and sandals, I would be less inclined to think it's real. It's the only story that I have a hard time telling. It didn't change me, but it sure enough impressed me. I guess it did make a big difference to me." (Tom Hargrove, personal communication, August 23, 2002).

 
  h.  Jesus Used His Psychic Powers - To Predict Where To Catch Fish 

 

In this example, Jesus' Mother Mary also appears to have had psychic powers. After giving a talk on the scientific study of the paranormal a few years ago, a colleague (personal communication, October 31, 2001) came to tell me of her grandmother's vision of the Virgin Mary. In Galveston's Hurricane of 1900, her grandmother's family fled to the third floor of their house as the water rose almost to that level. Her grandmother prayed the rosary, and the Virgin Mary appeared to her and told her they would be spared. The water then began to recede.

 

  i.  Jesus Converted People (Like St. Paul)  

 

An Introduction to Religious and Spiritual Experience book cover. According to one account, a Jew had an encounter with Jesus, after which he converted to Christianity and went on to become a bishop (Rankin, 2008, pp. 101-102). A modern account involves an atheist who saw Jesus and then became a believing Christian (Maxwell & Tschudin, 2005, pp. 104-105). Mark Fox (2008, pp. 41-42) cited a Hindu who had a vision of Jesus and then converted to Christianity.

The following account is from a woman who was worried about the fate of her dead brother because he had not become a Christian. Five months after his death, she reported:

Multi-colored icon.   "I looked up off to my right, my brother was there with the Lord! They were life-sized very very real, very solid and distinct and three-dimensional. They were very close, shoulder-to-shoulder, and I only saw the upper portion of them. Leon (her brother) was facing me, the Lord was wearing a robe and facing him, and they were both smiling. My brother appeared younger than when he died and looked very healthy. Nothing needed to be said - Leon was with the Lord and that's all I wanted to know." (Guggenheim & Guggenheim, 1996, p. 309)

This story echoes the great Universalist passage:

Multi-colored icon.   "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw ALL people to myself" [emphasis added] (John 12:32).

 
 9.  Veridical Cases of ADCs  

 

The validity of an ADC is greatly enhanced when the experience can be verified by others. These "veridical" cases of mystical religious experiences occur when more than one person sees the vision at the same time or when the vision imparts information that would not or could not have been known to the person who experienced the vision (Fox, 2008, pp. 57-77; Maxwell & Tschudin, 2005, p. 78; Myers, 1903, pp. 40-42).

 

 10.  Aftereffects of ADCs  

 

John Hick photo. To me, the most impressive aftereffect of any mystical/religious/spiritual experience - including ADCs - is how they have changed people's lives for the better (Hardy, 1997, pp. 101-103; Hay, 1987, p. 157; Hick, 2006, pp. 51, 206; Maxwell & Tschudin, 2005, pp. 36-44; Yao & Badham, 2007, p. 45). Mother Teresa heard the voice of Jesus asking her to serve the poor in India (Rankin, 2008, p. 206). When Martin Luther King was wavering about his commitment to the Civil Rights movement, he heard the voice of Jesus giving him reassurance and courage to go on (Marsh, 2005).

The next two 20th-century accounts are from David Parke, a Unitarian Universalist minister. The first occurred after his wife had a stillborn child:

Multi-colored icon.   "Late at night, under a soft October rain, a Christ-like presence entered my life that night as if to say, 'David, your baby is with God, and you and your bride will recover from this loss, and you will become parents again.' In faith, I saw in my mind's eye my unborn son rising on a sunbeam to Heaven. I never doubted that God in Christ came to me and spoke to me that night." (David Parke, personal communication, January 22, 2010).

His second experience took place the following year when he was a young divinity student at the University of Chicago:

Multi-colored icon.   "Then mid-way through my first year, the crucified Christ appeared to me in my dormitory room. For those few moments - I do not know for how long - Jesus Christ crucified occupied my entire personal horizon. His tragic visage and piercing eyes penetrated to the bottom of my soul. He did not speak. I did not speak. Although unspoken, the message was clear:

"I come from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Your life is your own, but it is also God's. Do not be diverted by self-indulgence and concern for the opinions of others. You are called to minister - and to minister is to suffer as I have suffered. Give yourself to those who come to you in brokenness. Listen to them. Heal them. Love them. You can do less, but more than this you cannot do. I am with you always."

"You will understand, friends, that other than my own birth and the birth of my children, this was the most important moment of my life." [emphasis added]. (David Parke, personal communication, January 22, 2010).

 
 11.  Conclusion  

 

John Crossan photo. Based on the evidence of modern accounts of ADCs of Jesus, other divine beings, and ordinary people, it is apparent that the resurrection appearances of Jesus in the Gospels resemble the modern ones. Modern liberal biblical scholars, such as the Jesus Seminar, see the empty tomb story as a later development (Funk et al., 1998, p. 462).

Recent scholarship into spiritually transformative experiences - including ADCs - indicates that they are quite common in the general population in the U.S., Europe, and China (Argyle, 2000, pp. 47-59; Fenwick & Fenwick, 2008, pp. 120-121; Yao & Badham, 2007, pp. 184-192). Although ordinary people appear to their loved ones - usually only one or two - Jesus has continued to appear throughout the ages both to those who love him and to others.

Although ADCs of Jesus, other divine figures, and ordinary people - both ancient and modern - do not prove afterlife, they definitely point to it and show a continuity of experience that is part of the phenomenological reality of humanity. This phenomenon is a source of great comfort to me, and I hope it is to other people who are skeptical of a physical resurrection.

Return to Chapter Table of Contents
Return to Book Table of Contents  
Chapter 7
Resurrection Appearances of Jesus as ADC: Rejoinder to Gary Habermas
 
Dr. Ken R. Vincent and Pam.
  Table of Contents 
1. Abstract and Keywords
2. Rejoinder to Habermas' Critique of Resurrection Appearances of Jesus as ADC
3. A Critique of Habermas and His "Six Major Dissimilarities"
 
a. A Critique of Habermas' Major Dissimilarity #1
b. A Critique of Habermas' Major Dissimilarity #2
c. A Critique of Habermas' Major Dissimilarity #3
d. A Critique of Habermas' Major Dissimilarity #4
e. A Critique of Habermas' Major Dissimilarity #5
f. A Critique of Habermas' Major Dissimilarity #6
 1.  Abstract and Keywords  

 

ABSTRACT:  Gary Habermas has chosen to respond to my paper on the resurrection of Jesus as an after-death communication using theological arguments that try to prove the resurrection of Jesus was somehow a religious event unique in all human history. I counter his assertions with data from religious/spiritual experience research and, to a lesser extent, liberal Christian scholars. I restate my conclusion that Paul's first-hand and verified second-hand accounts of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 are comparable with modern after-death communications; the difference between Jesus and others is not one of kind but of degree. Over the past 150 years, religious experience researchers have successfully applied the tools of science and begun to unlock the mysteries of how humans experience God and afterlife.

KEYWORDS:  resurrection, Jesus, after-death communication, visions.

 

 2.  Rejoinder to Habermas' Critique of Resurrection Appearances of Jesus as ADC  
The Miracle of the Catch of Fish.

 

Gary Habermas was correct in stating that he and I agree that Jesus was raised from the dead and that there is a substantial amount of data from religious experience research that points to an afterlife (Habermas, 2012). He acknowledged that scholars before me have suggested that Jesus' post-resurrection appearances might be interpreted as a variation of after-death communications (ADCs), also known as post-death visions. Although he affirmed the similarities between Jesus' post-resurrection appearances and modern-day ADCs, he was adamant that they are not the same. I believe that Habermas' theological roots prevented him from accepting anything but a resurrected Jesus with a physical body, returned to Earth in a supernatural miracle, unique among other holy figures or ordinary people. As I have maintained in previous writings:

Multi-colored icon.   "Truly supernatural miracles such as Moses parting the water, Jesus walking on water, and Buddha levitating and gliding over the water are outside the experience of the modern world and yet to be demonstrated by science" (Vincent, 2007, p. 7), but religious experience is as common today as it was in ancient times.

Some time after the editor of this Journal submitted my article to Habermas for his review and he agreed to write a response, he and I spoke on the telephone at length (personal communication, July 12, 2012). I was pleasantly surprised to learn that he had some knowledge of the growing amount of data on transpersonal experiences being mined in the fields of social science and medicine. However, in his References, he cited only two religious experience researchers: Michael Perry and myself (Habermas, 2012).

William James photo. My article was intentionally based on research into spiritually transformative experiences (mystical experiences, deathbed visions, near-death experiences, ADCs) as integral to the normal, healthy human life experience. Habermas (2012) faulted me for ignoring "historians, philosophers, and New Testament researchers" (p. 151) and chose to frame his arguments in theological terms. However, my paper dealt with the universality of religious experience across time and culture, and any reference to philosophy or theology was only tangential. For me, theology is basically an argument about a book - or, in the case of the vast Hindu scriptures, a set of books. In my view, spiritually transformative experience is the basis for all that is holy in scripture, and the validity of the Bible or any other sacred book rests on the religious experience(s) in it. I share the view of William James that religious experience is primary, and religion is secondary (James, 1902/1990, p. 35).

My doctorate is in counseling psychology, and I am a religious experience researcher; I use the older term "religious" because the topic of my original article is the resurrection. Many of my colleagues prefer to use the word "spiritual" rather than "religious." I am not quite as hostile to the idea of religion as Raymond Moody (2012) who stated that:

Multi-colored icon.   "Notions of afterlife can exist independent of religion. In fact, I can now say with assurance that 'religion' and 'afterlife' are two entirely different concepts linked together only by religious dogma" (p. 32).

Sir Alister Hardy photo. Sir Alister Hardy (1997), founder of the Religious Experience Research Centre, asserted that religious experience is not supernatural but rather is part of normal reality (pp. 131–142). Some time ago, I began reading scientific literature exploring the ADC phenomenon in which Jesus has appeared to modern people. More importantly, I began paying special attention to the first-hand accounts of people I knew to be credible and not psychotic. When I reexamined the stories of Jesus' resurrection in the New Testament, I was delighted to find that they resembled modern ADCs (Vincent, 2012).

Habermas' (2012) "Response" began with some "forceful reasons" (p. 149) that Jesus' post-resurrection appearances are different from ADCs before he presented his "six major dissimilarities" (p. 153) between Jesus' post-resurrection appearances and contemporary ADCs. I will now try to provide some clarity.

Habermas took issue with my using L. Michael White (2004) for references in dating the gospels. Granted, conservative scholars tend to prefer the earliest dates possible for New Testament writers and liberal scholars generally use later dates, but I did not choose White to "favor my conclusions" (Habermas, 2012, p. 151). I did so for economy; White has used broader time spans, and I find White to be a generally fair source. The 10-year discrepancy in dates is irrelevant to my case; even the earlier date of 60CE is 30 years after Jesus' death and provides plenty of time for myth-making to begin.

Christ Appearing To His Disciples by William Blake. Habermas (2012) cited my assertion that Paul's first-hand and second-hand accounts (1 Corinthians 15:4–8) of Jesus being raised in a spiritual body offer more credibility than the later Gospel writers' reports of an empty tomb that implies a bodily resurrection. Sociologist and religious experience researcher James McClenon (2002, p. 116) classified experience as first-hand, second-hand, and folkloric (greater than second-hand). By this standard, most of the Bible is folklore. Many religious experience researchers and liberal Christian scholars (Funk & the Jesus Seminar, 1998, pp. 449–495) took 1 Corinthians 15 as the only reliable information about Jesus' resurrection.

In addition, Habermas (2012) took issue with my assertion that Paul's view of a spiritual resurrection is an ADC. He claimed that what I call the "modern view" is actually out-of-date. It is most decidedly not out-of-date with religious experience researchers and liberal Christian scholars such as G. Riley (2001, pp. 154-156), J. Tabor (2006, pp. 230-238, 329-330), W. E. Phipps (2008, pp. 188-210), P. Wiebe (1997, pp. 121-125), J. Hick (2008, pp. 88-95), A. F. Segal (2004, pp. 393, 403-440, 448), J. McClenon (1994, pp. 75-77), J. H. Ellens (2008, p. 159), M. Borg (1997, pp. 92-93), and T. Harpur (2011, pp. 131-156).

Finally, the Jesus Seminar, a group of liberal scholars intent on separating the authentic words of Jesus from the mythic parts of the Gospels, focused in 1995 on Jesus' resurrection:

Multi-colored icon.   "More than 90% of the Fellows and a huge majority of the Associates agreed that Jesus' resurrection did not involve the resuscitation of a corpse" (Scott, 2008, p. 45, emphasis added) and that his body decayed in the usual way.

In my mind, this conclusion puts them in agreement with Paul who clearly stated:

Multi-colored icon.   "What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable” (1 Corinthians 15:42 NRSV).

Habermas' (2012) point on the translation of John 20:17 is well taken. He stated that new translations have Jesus telling Mary Magdalene not to "hold on" to him rather than to "touch" him. However, this variant in translation does not alter my assertion that the resurrection was a spiritual experience. Modern ADCs sometimes include an aspect of touch between the living and the deceased.

Erlendur Harldsson photo. In my view, Habermas (2012) grasped at straws when he cited an obscure point of logic that things can appear similar but not be the same. With this point, he seemed to exclude the possibility that things that appear similar could be the same. In asserting that Jesus' resurrection was unique among all others, Habermas' position flies in the face of the larger truth of Occam's Razor that favors the simplest explanation: Jesus' post-resurrection appearances resemble modern-day ADCs, and so they are. Science is based on observation, and Habermas's argument for exceptionalism in the case of Jesus defies common sense.

Habermas' (2012) survey of scholars who support his view is countered by an exceptionally large number of scholars who favor my position - the largest group being the Jesus Seminar. Their analysis of the true words and deeds of Jesus remains a major piece of scholarship (Funk, Hoover, & the Jesus Seminar, 1993; Funk & the Jesus Seminar, 1998). More importantly, new cases of ADCs are continuously being added to databases in departments of social science and medicine in universities and medical schools. Erlendur Haraldsson's (2012) latest book, The Departed Among The Living, is an excellent example that chronicles 449 cases in Iceland.

 
 3.  A Critique of Habermas and His "Six Major Dissimilarities"  
 
Habermas began his "Six Major Dissimilarities" with his defense of the empty tomb.
 
  a.  A Critique of Habermas' Major Dissimilarity #1  

 

Personally, I prefer to leave the question of the empty tomb a mystery, as an empty tomb is simply unnecessary for Jesus' spiritual resurrection (Vincent, 2012). The Jesus Seminar felt that the empty tomb represented a later development (Funk & the Jesus Seminar, 1998, p. 462). In "Brand X Easters," Robert Price (2008) noted that the original Gospel of Mark has no resurrection story but ends with the empty tomb. Price also stated that many ancient Hellenistic texts have a missing body and an assurance from a heavenly voice or visitor that the person has been taken to heaven; he asserted that this is enough evidence to indicate an ascension (Scott, 2008, pp 49–53). Price's examples include Herakles, Romulus, and Apollonius of Tyana. Space does not allow me to explore all the possible explanations for the empty tomb [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13], but it is worth noting that James Tabor (2006, pp. 233-240, 319-330) gave several explanations for the empty tomb and proposed his own theory that Jesus was reburied in a family tomb.

 

  b.  A Critique of Habermas' Major Dissimilarity #2  
The Tomb of Jesus.

 

Habermas contended that Jesus predicted his own death, unlike cases of modern ADCs. However, the text in Matthew states that at Jesus' death:

Multi-colored icon.   "The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many" (Matthew 27:52–53 NRSV).

These were clearly spiritual resurrections, as the bodies of these long-dead saints would have been thoroughly decomposed. Jesus himself anticipated a spiritual resurrection when he proclaimed that at death people become "like angels in heaven" (Matthew 22:30, Mark 12:25, Luke 20:36). According to the Jesus Seminar, Jesus' predictions of his own death were put on his lips after the fact (Mark 8:31, Mark 9:31, Mark 10:33–34; Funk et al., 1993, pp. 78, 83, 94). But is the Jesus Seminar correct in this incidence? Mystical experiences of God and psychic ability go hand-in-hand, and Jesus is no exception (Vincent, 2010, p. 12). Premonitions were 7% of the first 3,000 cases gathered by Sir Alister Hardy, founder of The Religious Experience Research Centre (Hardy, 1997, pp. 26, 45-6). Ordinary people sometimes have premonitions of their own death; Abraham Lincoln is a famous example (Moody, 1994, pp. 3-4). The problem with the New Testament or any other holy book is determining what is factual and what is later myth-making. Modern cases of ordinary people's religious/mystical experiences enhance the credibility of ancient accounts.

 

  c.  A Critique of Habermas' Major Dissimilarity #3  

 

Habermas said that the ancients were aware that Jesus' resurrection appearances were somehow different from other ADCs. Crossan (1998, pp. xiii–xxxi) refuted this point by arguing that Paul's Greco-Roman audience would have had no problem with Jesus' resurrection because it fit well with their conception of the behavior of gods, heroes, and dead humans.

 

  d.  A Critique of Habermas' Major Dissimilarity #4  
The Crowd at Fatima.

 

Habermas stated that, according to the New Testament, Jesus made multiple post-resurrection appearances, and that such multiplicity is unlike the ADCs of ordinary individuals. I would add - more profoundly - that modern ADCs with Jesus indicate that Jesus' resurrection is still in progress (Vincent, 2012)! Jesus' mother Mary, who was declared the "Queen of Heaven" by Pope Pius XII (Phipps, 2008, pp. 50-51), is considered by comparative religion scholars to be a goddess in her own right. Apparitions of Mary to multiple witnesses are well-documented, including 14 people at Knock, Ireland in 1879 (Fox, 2008, pp. 39-40); most famously, Mary appeared to 70,000 people who witnessed a unique celestial event at Fatima, Portugal in 1917 (Sparrow, 2002, pp. 125–126). It is worth mentioning that divine beings from other religions such as Lord Krishna (Hick, 2006, p. 34), Amitabha, and Guanyin (Yao & Badham, 2007, pp. 5, 38), also appear to modern people. In ADCs, ordinary people usually have no need to appear to anyone other than their loved ones. In Hello From Heaven, Bill Guggenheim and Judy Guggenheim (1995) reported instances of ADCs of ordinary people who reappear many years later (p. 256), who sometimes appeared to help loved ones recover lost objects or money (p. 275), who appeared to protect their families from harm (p. 290), who appeared to prevent suicide (p. 307), and who occasionally appear to two or more people (p. 322). Divine Beings have a greater number of people who love them; therefore, they have a greater need to comfort, warn, assure, and save their followers and other souls. The phenomenology of the ADCs is the same for ordinary people and Divine Beings, whether the occurrence is ancient or modern.

 

  e.  A Critique of Habermas' Major Dissimilarity #5  

 

Habermas returned to the idea that Luke's description of Paul's experience of Jesus in the Acts of the Apostles - written many years later by an author who admitted he was not an eyewitness - is somehow more accurate than Paul's first-hand account. Luke discounted Paul's own account (Phipps, 2008, p. 256; Vincent, 2012). Contrary to Habermas' assertion that light is foreign to ADCs, it occasionally appears in ADC accounts (Fox, 2008, p. 51). More relevant is the fact that Paul himself did not mention light in his own descriptive writing of his religious experience of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:4–8).

 

  f.  A Critique of Habermas' Major Dissimilarity #6  

 

Osiris: Death and Afterlife of a God book cover. Habermas claimed that the majority of modern scholars accept the resurrection of Jesus as a bodily event. This is not remarkable. I am certain that a return to second century Egypt - at a time when the ancient Egyptian religion was being threatened by the spread of various Greco-Roman religions and Christianity - would find a majority of Egyptian priests voting "yes" on the physical resurrection of Osiris and his subsequent elevation to King of the Dead (Mojsov, 2005, pp. 38–53, 111–119).

At the beginning of my original paper, I stated that my view of Jesus' resurrection in a spiritual body is favored by liberal theologians and, more importantly, by religious experience researchers. I contended that the differences between Jesus' post-resurrection appearances - as well as Jesus' initial mystical experience of God - and those transpersonal experiences of others are not one of kind but of degree (Vincent, 2010a). In conclusion to this dialog with Habermas, I persist in that contention. Thanks to religious experience research over the past 150 years, including mystical/spiritual experiences, near-death experiences, deathbed visions, and ADCs, humanity currently knows more about how we experience God and afterlife than we have known at any other time in recorded history (Vincent, 2010b, 2011).

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Chapter 8
Religious Experience Research Reveals Universalist Principles
 
Dr. Ken R. Vincent.
  Table of Contents
1. Introduction to Universalism in Religious Experience Research
2. Twenty Religious Experience Researcher's Universalist Conclusions
 
a. God Loves ALL and Will Save ALL
 
(1) Bill and Judy Guggenheim's Research of After-Death Communications
(2) Ken Ring and Evelyn Valarino's Near-Death Experience Research
(3) Richard Bucke's Comparative Religion Research
(4) Mark Webb's Philosophy of Religion Research
(5) J. Harold Ellens' Religious Experience Research
(6) Tom Harpur's Life After Death Research
(7) Nona Coxhead's Religious Experience Research
(8) Meg Maxwell and Verena Tschudin's Religious Experience Research
(9) John Hick's Mystical Experience Research
(10) Paul Robb Religious Experience Research
b. Hell Is for Instruction and Is Not Permanent
 
(11) Dr. George Ritchie's Near-Death Experience Research
(12) Leslie Weatherhead's Theological and Psychical Research
(13) Kevin Williams' Near-Death Experience Research
(14) Nancy Evans Bush's Negative Near-Death Research
(15) Barbara Rommer's Negative Near-Death Research
(16) F. W. H. Myers' Psychical Research
(17) Karlis Osis and Erlendur Haraldsson's Deathbed Research
3. Conclusion
 
 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:

a. God loves ALL and will save ALL.
b. Hell is for rehabilitation (not torture) and is not eternal. In addition, people who know that God loves us ALL show greater respect and kindness toward others in this earthly life.

Research into religious experiences can be and is conducted using the same criteria that is used to investigate any other psychological phenomena. These include:

a. Case studies of transpersonal experience
b. Sociological surveys that tell who and what percentage of the population have religious experiences
c. Psychological tests that measure not only the mental health of the individual but also evaluate the depth of mystical experiences
d. 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
e. Sociological and psychological investigations that assess the after-effects these experiences have on people
f. 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.

 

 2.  Twenty Religious Experience Researcher's Universalist Conclusions  
  a. God Loves ALL and Will Save ALL  

 

The following is a sampling of 20 religious experience researchers whose conclusions can reinforce our confidence in the validity and truth of our Universalist message.

 

(1)   Bill and Judy Guggenheim's Research of After-Death Communications  
 
Bill and Judy Guggenheim photo.
 

Multi-colored icon.   "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  
 
Ken Ring and Evelyn Valarino photo.

 

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:

Multi-colored icon.   "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 photo.

 

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  
 
Mark Webb photo.

 

The philosopher Mark Webb (www.webpages.ttu.edu/mawebb/) notes in his article, "Religious Experience as Doubt Resolution," that:

Multi-colored icon.   "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  
 
J. Harold Ellen photo.  

 

The Presbyterian minister and theologian J. Harold Ellens writes in his book Understanding Religious Experience that he personally has had at least a dozen such religious experiences. He states that:

Multi-colored icon.   "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 (www.jharoldellens.com) 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  
 
Tom Harpur photo.  

 

Journalist, near-death researcher, and former Anglican priest Tom Harpur (www.tomharpur.com) is a committed Universalist. In his book Life After Death, he states: 

Multi-colored icon.   "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  
 
Nona Coxhead photo.  

 

Religious experience researcher Nona Coxhead in her book The Relevance of Bliss states: 

Multi-colored icon.   "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  
 
Verena Tschudin photo.  

 

Religious experience researchers Meg Maxwell and Verena Tschudin, in their book, Seeing the Invisible, note: 

Multi-colored icon.   "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  
 
John Hick photo.  

 

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: 

Multi-colored icon.   "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  
 
Paul Robb photo.  

 

Paul Robb (www.kindnessofgod.com), author of The Kindness of God, a book that is a collection of religious experiences, notes: 

Multi-colored icon.   "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."

 
  b. Hell Is for Instruction and Is Not Permanent  
(11)   Dr. George Ritchie's Near-Death Experience Research  
 
George Ritchie photo.  

 

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: 

Multi-colored icon.   "When I (Jesus) am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to me." (John 12:32)

 
(12)   Leslie Weatherhead's Theological and Psychical Research  
 
Leslie Weatherhead photo.  

 

The prolific liberal Christian writer, Methodist theologian, psychical researcher, and committed Universalist Leslie Weatherhead states in The Christian Agnostic

Multi-colored icon.   "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."

It should be noted that Rev. Weatherhead was converted to Universalism in theology school as a result of a powerful mystical experience.

 

(13)   Kevin Williams' Near-Death Experience Research  
 
Kevin Williams photo.  

 

Kevin Williams, webmaster of the #1 NDE website on Google and Yahoo (www.near-death.com), is a committed Universalist. In his book, Nothing Better Than Death, he states that: 

Multi-colored icon.   "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."

 
(14)   Nancy Evans Bush's Negative Near-Death Research  
 
Nancy Evans Bush photo.  

 

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." 

(15)   Barbara Rommer's Negative Near-Death Research  
 
Barbara Rommer photo.  

 

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. 

(16)   F. W. H. Myers' Psychical Research  
 
Fredric W. H. Myers photo.  

 

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: 

Multi-colored icon.   "... 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."

(17)   Karlis Osis and Erlendur Haraldsson's Deathbed Research  
 
Erlendur Haraldsson photo.  

 

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/osis.html) and Erlendur Haraldsson (www.hi.is/~erlendur/) 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. 

 3.  Conclusion  

 

Alister Hardy photo. 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:

Multi-colored icon.   God is love.
Multi-colored icon.   We are all connected.
Multi-colored icon.   We are all part of God.
Multi-colored icon.   God's plan for the Universe may be beyond humanity’s understanding, but we are a part of it.
Multi-colored icon.   Hell is the absence of God.
Multi-colored icon.   Hell is the land of the self-preoccupied who have shut out the Love of God and others.
Multi-colored icon.   It is never too late to call out to God, even from Hell.
Multi-colored icon.   It is never too late to turn to the ones who love you and go toward The Light.
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Chapter 9
Mystical Religious Experiences and Christian Universalism
 
Dr. Ken R. Vincent and Pam.
  Table of Contents 
1. Introduction to Mystical Religious Experiences
2. Universalism Among Mystics
3. Early Research of Universalist Mystical Experiences
4. Modern Research of Universalist Mystical Experiences
5. Mystics Are Happier!
6. Differentiating Mysticism from the Occult
7. Research on Childhood Mysticism
8. Case Studies of Universalist Mystical Religious Experiences
 
a. Ken R. Vincent's Mystical Experiences
b. Alister Hardy's Religious Experience Research
c. Mary Austin's Mystical Experiences
d. John Hick's Mystical Experiences
e. Evelyn Underhill's Mystical Experiences
f. Richard Bucke's Mystical Experience Research
g. Hannah Whitall Smith's Mystical Experience Research
h. Leslie Weatherhead's Mystical Experiences
i. A Case from David Hay's Mystical Experience Research
j. Richard Bucke's Mystical Experience
k. A Case from Timothy Beardsworth's Mystical Experience Research
9. Summary
 1.  Introduction to Mystical Religious Experiences  

 

Isaiah the Prophet. The very personal, direct experience of God -- when the barriers between the human being and God's Universe dissolve -- is termed a mystical religious experience. Both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament tell of many who were immersed in the Spirit of God. Within their pages, we are allowed to share the visions of God through the eyes of the Prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 1:1, Isaiah 6:1-8) and to enter into the ecstatic mystical experience as told by St. Paul (2 Corinthians 12:2). For Christians, Jesus is the one who most perfectly became One with God (John 10:30). In addition to those named in the Bible, "saints", "sages", and "mystics" blessed with this intimate knowledge of God have existed from the beginning of time, and we are fortunate to have the writings of many who were emboldened to act in their societies following their experiences. (Later in this chapter, some of the well-known Universalist mystics will be discussed.) But were you aware that religious mystics are still among us today? Over the past hundred years, researchers in the scientific study of religion have been able to determine that "mystical" experiences of God are not really so rare! (Data from this scientific inquiry will be explored later in this chapter.) When I have taught adult Sunday school classes or Psychology of Religion classes on the topic of mystical religious experience, inevitably those who can recall their own mystical experience of God understand me perfectly while those who have not had this kind of personal experience often remain skeptical! In this chapter, I hope to offer some personal and social science evidence which will help to expand the understanding of this phenomenon.

To me, the fact that everyone has not had a personal mystical experience is a source of sadness. The great dream of all mystics is that we could, in the words of William Blake, "cleanse the doors of perception" so that all might experience directly the loving presence of God in the here-and-now. In reality, "unknown" and "anonymous" mystics have been discovered among ordinary people in almost half the population. Two more facts regarding mystical experiences help to put this experience into perspective: The first is that mystical religious experiences usually occur only once or twice in the lifetimes of about half of those reporting them, and the second is that mystical religious experiences, although always profound, definitely vary in intensity from one person to another. Some years ago I was watching a television interview of Mother Theresa who related that she had only one mystical experience -- a vision of Jesus telling her to go to India and serve the poor! When I teach, I often make the analogy that some of us received a candle of light while Jesus received a beacon!

Mystical religious experiences are categorized as either "spontaneous" (they "just happen!") or "sought-after." Meditation is the only safe way to induce this experience, but there is no guarantee that meditation will produce the desired outcome.

Jesus and Holy Spirit. All true mystical experiences serve to reinforce what Jesus taught about God's love for us. Mystics through the ages have reminded us to stay the true course, reject dogma, and not let mechanical ritual substitute for good works and kindness. Like Jesus, Christian mystics have often been at odds with the church leaders when those leaders have put authority, church business, and theological interpretation above the compassion of God.

Jesus promised the continuous presence of the Holy Spirit (John 14:26), and St. Paul expressed his unquestioned belief that the direct experience of God is open to everyone (2 Corinthians 3:18). Conservative Christian scholar Luke Timothy Johnson correctly notes that mystical religious experiences described in the New Testament are often ignored in modern studies of Christian origins. This direct contact between God and humanity in the New Testament is also discussed by moderate Christian scholar James D. G. Dunn, in his book Jesus and the Spirit.

 

 2.  Universalism Among Mystics  

 

Evelyn Underhill photo. Universalist theology is rooted in religious mystical experience and can be found in mystics writing as early as the 2nd Century and continuing throughout the Dark Ages, the Reformation, and the Age of Enlightenment. Mystic and researcher Evelyn Underhill considers these prominent Universalist mystics to be among the greatest: Clement of Alexandria (160-220), Origen (183-253), Macarius of Egypt (295-386), Gregory of Nyssa (335-394), John Scotus Erigena (810-877), Jacob Boehme (1575-1624), and Jane Leade (1625-1704). The Carmelite Priest and mystical researcher Bruno Borchert adds these Universalists: Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390) and Hans Denck (1500-1527). In my view, no list of Universalist mystics would be complete without George De Benneville (1703-1793).

Jane Lead, who founded a society of Universalists called the Philadelphians in 17th Century London, described her mystical experience in which the nature of post-mortem punishment was revealed to her. Recorded in her book, The Enochian Walks with God, she states that God's love triumphs, that punishment is for reforming, and that all are reconciled with God in the end. George De Benneville -- physician, preacher, and mystic -- wrote of his Universalist mystical religious experience and his in-depth near-death experience in his book entitled, The Life and Trance of Dr. George De Benneville. Like Jane Lead, these personal experiences convinced De Benneville that Hell is for purification and that, in the end, all will be united with God.

Julian of Norwich. Throughout the history of Christianity, mystics not identified formally as Universalists have nevertheless advocated Universalist ideas. This is hardly surprising, as in the West the Catholic Church had condemned Origen's form of Universalism as heretical, and Universalism had to go underground until the Reformation. In contrast, the Eastern Church (Oriental Orthodox, a.k.a. Nestorian Church or Assyrian Church of the East) accepted Universalist theology. Greats such as Theodore of Mopsuestia placed Universalism solidly in the liturgy. Additionally, Universalism is recorded in the Eastern Church's 13th century Book of the Bee (Chapter LX). Universalist thinking continues in less emphatic form in the liturgy of the Eastern Church today.

A good example of Universalism in the writings of "unofficial" Universalist mystics is the great 14th century English mystic, Julian of Norwich. Though her Universalist mystical experiences of God were contrary to Catholic Church teachings of Hell and Purgatory, she wrote that both must be true in some sense, though she did not see it. This "dance" she did between church dogma and her mystical religious experiences was enough to keep her in the good graces of church officials. Nevertheless, her Universalism shines through. She writes:

Multi-colored icon.   "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well ... And He is very Father and very Mother of Nature: and all natures that He hath made to flow out of Him to work His will shall be restored and brought again into Him by the salvation of man through the working of Grace ... All this being so, it seemed to me that it was impossible that every kind of thing should be well, as our Lord revealed at this time ... And to this I had no other answer as a revelation from our Lord except this:

"What is impossible to you is not impossible to me. I shall preserve my word in everything and I shall make everything well."

Thus she echoes the Universalist message of St. Paul that God will be "all in all" (1 Corinthians 15:28).

It is this Universality of God's love for all and God's presence in all that is the hallmark of all mystical religious experience whether or not theological statements of Universalism are proclaimed. As George Fox, founder of the Quaker movement, was known to repeat:

Multi-colored icon.   "All creatures in God, and God in all creatures."

Mystical religious experiences are not limited to Christianity and are Universal, as expressed by the early 20th Century mystic and researcher Evelyn Underhill (Anglican):

Multi-colored icon.   "This unmistakable experience has been achieved by the mystics of every religion; and when we read their statements, we know that all are speaking of the same thing."

 William James, the first American-born psychologist, believed that:

Multi-colored icon.   "The founders of every church owed their power originally to the fact of their direct personal communication with the divine."

If God loves us all, how could this be otherwise? This case for Universality has been well documented by other Christian writers, including John Hick (Universalist) who bases his Universalism in part on his own mystical experiences of God and Bruno Borchert (Carmelite priest).

 

 3.  Early Research of Universalist Mystical Experiences  

 

In studying the accounts of mystics from Biblical times to the present, it is easy to hear the recurring themes of:

(1) The continuity of God's love, and
(2) The Oneness with God and the Universe.

 

William James photo. However, some of the first modern philosophers and theorists, lacking any objective data to support their views, dismissed religion as superstition and labeled mystics as having mental problems. The best example of this faulty reasoning is Sigmund Freud who pronounced that religious founders like Jesus were psychotic and that religious people were neurotic. Fortunately, at the time Freud was making unsupported claims (that would later be refuted), a champion arose to counter his flawed theories.

Over a hundred years ago, William James, the first American psychologist, began his serious study of religious experience. His classic work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, was published in 1901 but is still in print today. Using the basic tools of observation and case studies, he began to research religious visions and mystical experience. James was able to formulate some working hypotheses on the nature of religious experiences, and much of what he hypothesized has subsequently been tested in large-scale research projects that have subsequently validated his observations.

 

 4.  Modern Research of Universalist Mystical Experiences  

 

Alister Hardy photo. The big news today in the study of mystical religious experiences is sheer numbers! Social scientists now have documented thousands of people who have come forward to tell of their direct experience of God. Researchers can now state with absolute certainty that Freud was wrong -- the number of people with personal experience of God is at least eight times greater than the number of people who have suffered psychotic episodes!

Large-scale surveys on mystical experience began in 1969 when Alister Hardy founded the Religious Experience Research Unit at Oxford University. In order to research mystical religious experience within the general population, Sir Hardy made an appeal to the general public via newspapers and pamphlets which asked the question:

Multi-colored icon.   "Have you ever been aware of or influenced by a presence or power, whether you call it 'God' or not, which is different from your everyday self?"

Readers were invited to send him their responses. Ten years later, Hardy published a book based on the first 3,000 responses he had received to this question. The Alister Hardy Religious Experience Research Center at Oxford also found that 95% of reported mystical experiences in their British national sample were positive.

Ann Morisy photo. The next significant step taken by social scientists to objectify research on this topic was in 1977 by David Hay and Ann Morisy. Using the same question about the experience of God used in the previous study, they studied a random sample of 1,865 British persons (rather than a self-selected group as in the first survey), and 35% responded "yes" to the question. Repeating the Alister Hardy question on mystical religious experience ten years later, a British Gallup Poll found that the number responding "yes" had risen to 48%. In Australia, a similar study the same year found 44% of the population reporting "yes" to the same question.

Between the appeal in the British newspaper for accounts and the objective large-scale population survey, Andrew Greeley and his colleagues at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago began their surveying using a similar question:

Multi-colored icon.   "Have you ever felt as though you were very close to a powerful spiritual force that seemed to lift you out of yourself?"

A national sample of 1,467 Americans showed 39% responding "yes". Over the years, repeated national samples have shown that the number of people responding affirmatively to this question has varied from 35% to 50%.

In a poll of Poles, Andrzej Kokoszka of the Copernicus School of Medicine in Krakow found that 54% of those surveyed reported at least one profoundly altered state of consciousness. These included:

(1) "Experience contact with a Divine Being or God" (36%)
(2) "Experience of the impression that you understood everything, only it was impossible to utter this impression" (often called "cosmic consciousness") (28%)
(3) "Experience of the feeling of being One with the Universe" (16%)

Some evidence supports an increase in mystical experiences. Three in-depth British studies in which the respondents were interviewed rather than surveyed yielded positive response rates of over 60%. One-fourth of the respondents reported that they had never told anyone else of this experience for fear of being thought "mentally ill" or "stupid." When Americans were recently surveyed with the question:

Multi-colored icon.   "In general, how often would you say you had experienced God's presence or a spiritual force that felt very close to you?"

An incredible 86% reported that this had happened to them one or more times!

 

 5.  Mystics Are Happier!  

 

Emile Durkheim photo. A survey of British by Hay and Morisy noted that people reporting mystical religious experiences tended to have greater psychological well-being than those who report no mystical religious experiences. In his survey of Americans, Andrew Greeley noted the same phenomenon: "Mystics are happier." Ralph Hood has demonstrated a correlation between high scores on a scale of mystical experience and measures of mental health. Prof. Hay notes that studies on mysticism and mental health refute Sigmund Freud's hypothesis that religion was symptomatic of neurosis and religious experience was perhaps temporary psychosis. Hay further notes that studies in England, the United States, and Australia consistently show that mysticism is more apt to be reported by people in the upper-middle and professional middle classes rather than the lower classes. This disproves the Marxist hypothesis that religion is the "opiate of the masses." Also, the hypothesis of the sociologist Émile Durkheim that religious experience is typically an "effervescent group phenomenon," is refuted by a Gallup Poll survey in Britain in 1987 which found that 60% of accounts of religious experience occurred in the context of solitude.

Research into the mental health of those who have mystical experiences has shown mystical experiencers to be normal or healthy. My own feeling is that this may be due to the fact that it takes a certain amount of guts to come forward and tell others that you have been personally touched by God. This has become easier over the past forty years because research in the social sciences has documented that mystical experiences are common. Still, the tendency is for people not to come forward with mystical experiences unless they are sure that the people listening will accept them.

 

 6.  Differentiating Mysticism from the Occult  
Saul and the Witch of Endor.

 

People who engage in occult practices like to pretend their practices are mystic, but there is an easy test to determine the difference. The occult has to do with manipulating the paranormal for selfish personal ends such as influencing a person to become your lover, inflicting ill upon a person (as in the case of Voodoo dolls), or seeing the future with the intent of changing an outcome in your own favor. The most famous example of occult practices is found in the Book of 1st Samuel (1 Samuel 28:3-16) in which King Saul asks the medium of Endor to perform necromancy and conger up the spirit of the dead prophet Samuel in order to foresee the outcome of the next day's battle. In short, the occult is all about, "me, me, me!" Mysticism is about God and from God. Nothing evil ever comes from God (James 1:12-17). Whereas mystical experiences are positive and lead to happiness, psychologist Michael Argyle notes occult experiences have the opposite effect.

 7.  Research on Childhood Mysticism  
Kalevi Tamminen photo.

 

Interestingly, children's acknowledgment of the presence of God declines with age. When Finnish researcher Kalevi Tamminen asked children ages 7 to 20:

Multi-colored icon.   "Have you at times felt that God was particularly close to you?"

84% of the first-graders acknowledged the presence of God. Interestingly, by the end of high school, the number had declined to 47%.

The modern world is often hostile to spirituality. There is also evidence that people may have mystical experiences but deny them. Carl Sagan, the famous physicist, once stated that he had felt on several occasions that his dead parents had tried to contact him, but he dismissed this as being impossible. He is unusual, as most people alter their beliefs when confronted with their own personal experience. On this topic, almost 40% of Americans report contact with the dead, according to the National Opinion Research Center.

 

 8.  Case Studies of Universalist Mystical Religious Experiences  

 

Despite the incredible variety of human beings and human cultures, all true mystical religious experiences have an underlying similarity. Most importantly, mystics never "let go" of their experience, and it permanently alters their perspective on life. For those who know this experience personally, as well as for those who are gaining these insights vicariously, I wanted to present some of the powerfully moving accounts of mystical religious experiences expressed in the words of the mystics themselves. These cases give a greater insight into the experience itself as well as its effect on the individual.

 

  a.  Ken R. Vincent Mystical Experiences  
Ken R. Vincent photo.

 

I will begin with two of my own mystical religious experiences which were spontaneous. The first was one that is quite commonly reported. In fact, in a sermon some years ago, Rev. Horace Westwood described his own mystical experience that was virtually identical to this one of mine:

Multi-colored icon.   It occurred in the winter of 1973 when I was 29 and a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Northern Colorado.

Late one cold afternoon, I was in the parking lot with my back to the panorama of the Rocky Mountains, looking instead at a small dead tree in a snow bank. All at once, I was lifted up, and I was one with God and the Universe. I felt timeless and immortal. A few moments later, I was back to my normal state, but the moment has never left me. It left me knowing that we are all a part of God and that God is with us always.

Mystical experiences can happen at any time. St. Teresa had a mystical experience while cooking eggs for her convent -- she reportedly burned the eggs! My second mystical experience occurred during my mid-forties while teaching at the University of Houston:

Multi-colored icon.   I was at a football game in the Astrodome, waiting in the concession line. All at once, I felt as if I were inside the minds of all the people around me and that I could feel what they were feeling. I could feel their happiness, their love for their friends and family, and their joy at being together. Though it only lasted for a few moments, it was like tapping into the Spirit of God.

I had often wondered what God gets out of Creation, and I got an answer that day: God gets to be all of us!

Mystical experiences vary widely from mild to overwhelming. Mine were definitely not of the magnitude of St. Paul or even Ralph Waldo Emerson, but I present them as examples of mild mystical experiences.

 

  b.  Alister Hardy's Religious Experience Research  
Sir Alister Hardy.

 

The following account is from a 56-year-old British female, one of the modern cases from Alister Hardy's Religious Experience Research Unit at Oxford University that appeared in his book, The Spiritual Nature of Man:

Multi-colored icon.   "On this occasion I found instead that I was overtaken by an intense feeling of affection for and unity with everyone around as they ran to catch buses, took children shopping, or joyfully met their friends. The feeling was so strong that I wanted to leave my silent vigil and join them in their urgent living. This sense of 'Oneness' is basic to what I understand of religion. Hitherto I think I had only experienced it so irresistibly towards a few individuals -- sometimes toward my children or when in love. The effect of the experience has been, I think, a permanent increase in my awareness that we are 'members one of another,' a consequent greater openness toward all and a widening of my concern for others."

  c.  Mary Austin's Mystical Experiences  
Mary Austin photo.

 

The next account appeared in the 1937 edition of the Universalist magazine, The Christian Leader and is from author Mary Austin who had a mystical experience as a child:

Multi-colored icon.   "I must have been between 5 and 6, when this experience happened to me. It was a summer morning, and the child I was had walked down through the orchard alone and come out on the brow of a sloping hill where there was grass and the wind blowing and one tall tree reaching into the infinite immensities of blueness. Quite suddenly, after a moment of quietness there, earth and sky and tree and windblown grass and the child in the midst of them came alive together with a pulsing light of consciousness. There was a wild foxglove at the child's feet and a bee dozing about. And to this day, I recall the swift inclusive awareness of each for the whole -- I in them, and they in me, and all of us enclosed in a warm, lucent bubble of livingness. I remember the child looking everywhere for the source of this happy wonder, and at last she questioned -- 'God' -- because it was the only awesome word she knew. Deep inside like the murmurous swinging of a bell she heard the answer, 'God, God.' How long this ineffable moment lasted I never knew. It broke like a bubble at the sudden singing of a bird, and the wind blew and the world was the same as ever, only never quite the same."

 
  d.  John Hick's Mystical Experiences  
John Hick photo.

 

Obviously, how people interpret their experience depends on their time and culture. Regarding my own mystical experiences, I freely admit that these experiences reinforced my belief that God communicates with human beings. I also interpret them in the same way as the great contemporary Universalist theologian, John Hick (www.johnhick.org.uk) who notes that he too has had mystical experiences that convinced him:

Multi-colored icon.   "We know the Transcendent Holy Presence to be profoundly good to exist and in which the unknown future holds no possible threat."

The following are two mystical religious experiences of John Hick, the world's foremost Universalist/pluralist philosopher, extracted from his autobiography. His first mystical experience (which was spontaneous) occurred at age 18 years while riding on the top deck of a bus:

Multi-colored icon.   "As everyone will be very conscious who can themselves remember such a moment, all descriptions are inadequate. But it was as though the skies opened up and light poured down and filled me with a sense of overflowing joy, in response to an immense transcendent goodness and love. I remember that I couldn't help smiling broadly -- smiling back, as it were, at God -- though if any of the other passengers were looking, they must have thought that I was a lunatic, grinning at nothing." (Hick, 2005)

His next mystical experience was the "sought-after" variety and occurred many years later when Dr. Hick was practicing Buddhist meditation:

Multi-colored icon.   "I have once, but so far only once, experienced what was to me a startling breakthrough into a new form or level of consciousness. I was in that second stage ... and when eventually I opened my eyes the world was quite different in two ways. Whereas normally I am here, and the environment is there, separate from me, there was now no such distinction; and more importantly, the total universe of which I was part was friendly, benign, good, so that there could not possibly be anything to fear or worry about. It was a state of profound delight in being. This only lasted a short time, probably not more than two minutes." (Hick, 2005)

 
  e.  Evelyn Underhill's Mystical Experiences  
Evelyn Underhill.

 

The great 20th-Century mystical researcher, Evelyn Underhill, was herself a mystic. Early in her career, she described herself as a "passionate amateur of experience" and was very much interested in comparative religion. Later in her career, because of her mystical experiences, she identified herself primarily as a Christian, although she continued to be interested in world religion. The following mystical experience occurred to her in 1923 at the age of 48 years and is at the time of her centering on Christianity. This account is from Armstrong's biography of her:

Multi-colored icon.   "Such lights as one gets are now different in type: all overwhelming in their emotional result: quite independent 'sensible devotion', more quiet, calm, expansive, like intellectual intuitions yet not quite that either. Thus yesterday I saw and felt how it actually is, that we are in Christ and he is in us -- the interpretation of the Spirit -- and all of us merged together in him actually, and so fitly described as his body. The way to full intercessory power must, I think, be along this path."

 
  f.  Richard Bucke's Mystical Experience Research  
Richard Bucke photo.

 

The following is an account of a middle-aged female from Dr. Richard Bucke's Cosmic Consciousness:

Multi-colored icon.   "I was losing my consciousness, my identity, I was powerless to hold myself. Now came a period of rapture so intense that the Universe stood still, as if amazed at the unutterable majesty of the spectacle! Only one in all the infinite Universe! The All-loving, the Perfect One! The Perfect Wisdom, truth, love, and purity! And with the rapture came the insight. In that same wonderful moment of what might be called supernatural bliss, came illumination ... What joy when I saw there was no break in the chain -- not a link left out -- everything in its time and place. Worlds, systems, all bended in one harmonious whole. Universal light, synonymous with Universal love!"

In this account from Cosmic Consciousness, a 35 year old journalist, Paul Tyner, describes "the crowning experience of my life:"

Multi-colored icon.   "Now, indeed, it is plain, that being lifted up he shall lift all men with him-has lifted, is lifting and must ever continue to lift out of the very essence of his transcendent humanity. Immortality is no longer an hypothesis of the theologian, a figment of the imagination, a dream of the poet. Men shall live forever, because man, invincible to all effects of time and change, and even of murderous violence, lives today in the fullness of life and power that he enjoyed in his thirty-third year, with only added glory of goodness and greatness and beauty ... This is the truth given age upon age to all men in all lands, and persistently misunderstood -- the truth at last to be seen of all men in its fullness and purity."

 
  g.  Hannah Whitall Smith's Mystical Experience Research  
Hannah Whitall Smith photo.

 

Hannah Whitall Smith was a writer and the wife of a Quaker minister. In Chapter 22 of her book, The Unselfishness of God and How I Discovered It, she relates two mystical religious experiences of Universalism. Interestingly, some "Christian" publishers delete this chapter on Universalism. She writes:

Multi-colored icon.   "And with this a veil seemed to be withdrawn from before the plans of the universe, and I saw that it was true, as the Bible says, that:

"As in Adam all die, even so in Christ should all be made alive." (1 Corinthians 15:22)

"As was the first, even so was the second. The 'all' in one case could not in fairness mean less than the 'all' in the other. I saw therefore that the remedy must necessarily be equal to the disease, the salvation must be as universal as the fall… God is the Creator of every human being, therefore He is the Father of each one, and they are all His children; and Christ died for every one, and is declared to be:

"...the propitiation not for our sins only, but also for the sins of the whole world" (1 John 2:2).

"However great the ignorance therefore, or however grievous the sin, the promise of salvation is positive and without limitations… The how and the when I could not see; but the one essential fact was all I needed -- somewhere and somehow God was going to make every thing right for all the creatures He had created. My heart was at rest about it forever."

 
  h.  Leslie Weatherhead's Mystical Experiences  
Leslie Weatherhead photo.

 

This next account of a Universalist mystical experience is from Sir Hardy's The Spiritual Nature of Man, and describes Rev. Dr. Leslie Weatherhead's youthful experience:

Multi-colored icon.   "This is the only way I know in which to describe the moment, for there was nothing to see at all. I felt caught up into some tremendous sense of being within a loving, triumphant and shining purpose. I never felt more humble. I never felt more exalted. A most curious, but overwhelming sense possessed me and filled me with ecstasy. I felt that all was well for mankind - how poor the words seem! The word 'well' is so poverty stricken. All men were shining and glorious beings who in the end would enter incredible joy. Beauty, music, joy, love immeasurable and a glory unspeakable they would inherit. Of this they were heirs."

  i.  A Case from David Hay's Mystical Experience Research  
David Hay photo.

 

In this account from Prof. David Hay's Exploring Inner Space, a female writer recalls a mystical religious experience from childhood -- an account that echoes an experience of the famous mystic Julian of Norwich:

Multi-colored icon.   "My father used to take all the family for a walk on Sunday evenings. On one such walk, we wandered across a narrow path through a field of high, ripe corn. I lagged behind, and found myself alone. Suddenly, heaven blazed upon me. I was enveloped in golden light, I was conscious of a presence, so kind, so loving, so bright, so consoling, so commanding, existing apart from me but so close. I heard no sound. But words fell into my mind quite clearly -- 'Everything is all right. Everybody will be all right.'"

  j.  Richard Bucke's Mystical Experience  
Richard Bucke photo.

 

The following account is that of Richard Bucke, a Canadian neuropsychiatrist and scholar of comparative religion whose mystical religious experience inspired him to research and write Cosmic Consciousness:

Multi-colored icon.   "All at once, without warning of any kind, I found myself wrapped in a flame-colored cloud. For an instant I thought of fire, an immense conflagration somewhere close by in that great city; the next, I knew that the fire was within myself. Directly afterward there came upon me a sense of exultation, of immense joyousness accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination impossible to describe. Among other things, I did not merely come to believe, but I saw that the universe is not composed of dead matter, but is, on the contrary, a living Presence; I became conscious in myself of eternal life. It was not a conviction that I would have eternal life, but a consciousness that I possessed eternal life then; I saw that all men are immortal; that the cosmic order is such that without any peradventure all things work together for the good of each and all; that the foundation principle of the world, of all the worlds, is what we call love, and that the happiness of each and all is in the long run absolutely certain. The vision lasted a few seconds and was gone; but the memory of it and the sense of the reality of what it taught has remained during the quarter of a century which has since elapsed. I knew that what the vision showed was true. I had attained to a point of view from which I saw that it must be true. That view, that conviction, I may say that consciousness, has never, even during periods of the deepest depression, been lost."

 
  k.  A Case from Timothy Beardsworth's Mystical Experience Research  
A Sense of Presence book cover.

 

The following is an account of a 55-year-old male taken from Prof. Timothy Beardsworth's A Sense of Presence:

Multi-colored icon.   "One lunch time I had been helping to dry dishes after the meal, and was standing before the open drawer of the sideboard putting knives and forks away. I was not thinking of anything, apart from vague attention to the job I was doing. Suddenly, without warning, I was flooded with the most intense blue-white light I have ever seen. Words can never adequately nor remotely touch the depth of this experience. It was like looking into the face of the sun, magnified several times in its light-intensity. It would be truer to say that I lost all sense of self in a total immersion in Light. But more 'real' than the Light itself was the unbearable ecstasy that accompanied it. All sense of time or self disappeared, yet it could only have been a fraction of a second. I knew only a sense of infinite dimension, and a knowledge that this was the Spirit of God Almighty, which was the hidden Life-Light-Love in all men, all life and all creation. I knew that nothing existed apart from this Spirit. It was infinite Love, Peace, Law, Power, Creation and the Ultimate Truth and Perfection. It was all Wisdom, Tolerance, Understanding and Eternal Life for all people. I also knew that had I been suffering from any so-called incurable disease whatsoever, I would have become instantly whole. Then after the fraction of a second -- I became myself again, still standing beside the open drawer putting knives and forks away. That one moment was and remains the most vital moment of my life, for there has never been a repetition. But out of it was born the Mission to which I have for many years dedicated my life..."

 
 9.  Summary  

 

Regarding mystical religious experiences, it is valid to say that:

a. They happen to a large percent of the population.
b. The overwhelming majority of those people are normal, healthy, and no more apt to be mentally ill than the general population.
c. They change people's lives.

Modern accounts assure us that truly God is with us always, and that in time:

Multi-colored icon.   "All flesh shall see the salvation of God" (Luke 3:6).

Until then, the Bible can be our source for accessing the Holy Spirit promised to us by Jesus, and Jesus' teachings instruct us in the way to build the Kingdom of God within our midst. Testimony of those in the Bible and that of the mystics assure us all that God is there for all of us, and mystical religious experiences serve as a continuing reminder of the loving presence of God in our lives.

Multi-colored icon.   The Spirit of God has been and is with us always.
Multi-colored icon.   There is no doubt we live in God.
Multi-colored icon.   Amen.
Return to Chapter Table of Contents
Return to Book Table of Contents  
Chapter 10
The Near-Death Experience and Universal Salvation
 
Dr. Ken R. Vincent
  Table of Contents
1. Abstract and Keywords
2. Introduction to NDEs and Universal Salvation
3. Validity of the Bible
4. Christian Universalism
5. Universalism and the Near-Death Experience
 
a. Out-of-Body Experiences
b. Light
c. Judgment or Life Review
d. Hell Is Not Permanent
e. Universal Salvation
f. Aftereffects
6. Summary
7. Notes
 1.  Abstract and Keywords  

 

ABSTRACT:  I explore the near-death experience (NDE) in the context of the theology of Christian Universalism. I provide data on various models of Christian theology, and present the model of Restorative Universalism as the one most compatible with reports of afterlife in the NDE. I interface quotations from actual NDE accounts with New Testament verses to illustrate these similarities. Restorative Universalism includes a judgment ("life review" in NDE terminology), followed by punishment for some but eventual universal salvation for all. I present an analysis of New Testament verses supporting the theologies of "Jesus Saves," Predestination, Good Works, and Universal Salvation, which reveals Salvation by Good Works to be supported by the greatest number of verses, followed by verses advocating Universal Salvation for All. Christian Restorative Universalism is based upon these two predominant New Testament teachings and affords the greatest harmony with the NDE.

 

KEYWORDS:  near-death experience; Universalist; Restorative Universalism; Christianity.

 

 2.  Introduction to NDEs and Universal Salvation  

 

Stained Glass Artwork by Pam Vincent. Of all the theological explanations for the near-death experience (NDE), the Doctrine of Universal Salvation, also known as Universalism, is the most compatible with contemporary NDE accounts. Universalism embraces the idea that God is too good to condemn humankind to Eternal Hell and that, sooner or later, all humanity will be saved. Interestingly, a belief in Universal Salvation can be found in virtually all the world's major religions (Vincent, 2000, pp. 6-8). It is particularly essential to Zoroastrianism, the religion of the Magi (Vincent, 1999, pp. 9-10 and 46-47).

The Universalist theology that acknowledges a temporary Hellish state for those who need some "shaping up" before proceeding to their ultimate reward is termed more specifically "Restorative Universalism." In my book Visions of God from the Near-Death Experience, I included a chapter on frightening NDEs, coupled with Hell as portrayed in sacred scriptures. My intention then was to present the topic of Universal Salvation in the world's religions from a spiritual perspective (Vincent, 1994). In this article, I want to show that Christian Universalism, a doctrine with solid support in the New Testament, blends seamlessly with the experience of NDErs.

By exploring the connections between the NDE and Universalist theology, I have no interest in reviving the so-called "Religious Wars" in the NDE movement (Ellwood, 2000; Ring, 2000; Sabom, 2000a, 2000b). I do hope to offer a source of comfort to NDErs, both Christian and non-Christian, who may have had their experience marginalized by assaults from Fundamentalist or Conservative Christians. They can be assured that a more loving alternative to Christian "exclusivity" (that is, "only Christians go to Heaven") exists within the same New Testament they have known since childhood.

In a recent national poll for Religion & Ethics Newsweekly and U. S. News & World Report (Mitofsky International and Edison Media Research, 2002), only 19 percent of Christians and 7 percent of non-Christians stated a belief that their religion was the only true religion. This contrasted with a 1965 poll in which 65 percent of Protestants and 51 percent of Catholics reported that "belief in Jesus Christ as Savior was absolutely necessary for Salvation" (Glock and Stark, 1965).

Mitofsky International & Edison Research logos. Americans appear to be becoming more Universalist in their orientation. The 2002 study also found that "an individual's spiritual experience (as opposed to doctrines and beliefs) is the most important part of religion" was answered in the affirmative by 69 percent of Christians and 73 percent of non-Christians (Mitofsky International and Edison Media Research, 2002). Americans also appear to be more spiritually aware, or at least more willing to admit it. In 2002, 86 percent of Americans stated that they had "experienced God's presence or a spiritual force that felt very close to you one or more times" (Mitofsky International and Edison Media Research, 2002).

Spirituality has always been part of religious experience. In this article, I will explore how Universalist ideas are expressed in the Bible, and, more importantly, how Universalism helps place the near-death experience within the context of Christian theology.

 

 3.  Validity of the Bible  

 

To examine these questions, we must first consider the status of the Bible and theological interpretations of it. In polls regarding the validity of the Bible, about one-third of Americans reported a belief that the Bible is "the actual Word of God" (about as many as report being Fundamentalist). One-sixth (about the number of non-Christians in America) described it as a "book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts." One-half believed it to be the "inspired Word of God but that not everything should be taken literally" (Mitofsky International and Edison Media Research, 2002, p.2; Wood, 1989, pp. 130 and 361). These views of the general population reflect modern scholarship regarding the Bible. Today, Biblical inerrancy is a view adhered to by only the most Fundamentalist scholars (Borg, 2001).

James D. G. Dunn photo. The Bible contains a treasure trove of ancient accounts of mystical religious experiences. Conservative Christian scholar Luke Timothy Johnson (1998) correctly noted that modern studies of Christian origins ignore the mystical religious experiences so clearly described in the New Testament. Moderate Christian scholar James D. G. Dunn noted, in referring to Jesus, that "there is no incidence of a healing miracle that falls clearly outside the general character of psycho-somatic illness" (1975/1997, p. 71). Nevertheless, his book is a study on what may be called "communicative theism," the direct contact between God and humanity in the New Testament. Even the liberal Jesus Seminar voiced no doubt that Jesus appeared to some of his followers after his death (Funk and The Jesus Seminar, 1998).

From the time the Bible was written to the present, individuals have reported mystical experiences (Argyle, 2000; Hick, 1999; James, 1901/ 1958). The NDE is unique among the categories of mystical union with God (Borg, 1997) because of its identifiable "trigger." The big question is: How much credibility should one give to reports of mystical experiences in the Bible, as most are not first-person accounts but rather written down as "much-told tales" following many years of oral tradition?

As stated above, most scholars do not consider the Bible to be inerrant. In light of this, it becomes untenable in theological interpretation to base one's theological program on one or two Bible verses. For example, the basis of papal authority is inferred from two verses in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 16:18-19). Even more difficult is justification for the Trinity, which is not in the Bible and can at best only be inferred by the fact that God, God's Spirit, and Jesus are mentioned together in two verses (Matthew 28:19; 2 Corinthians 13:13). I will discuss further below how theology can be based on a preponderance of verses in the New Testament.

 

 4.  Christian Universalism  

 

Origen. At this time, let me state that I am a Unitarian Universalist Christian and, like most Liberal Christians, I believe that God was in Jesus, but not that Jesus was God. Universalism as a theological system traces its history back to Origen (185-254 CE) (Origen, 1885/1994). The Universalist Church in North America was, for a time during the 19th Century, the fifth or sixth largest denomination in the United States (Howe, 1993). The Universalist Church merged with the Unitarians in 1961, and Unitarian Universalist Christians still make up a majority of our members worldwide. In the United States, ours has developed into an interfaith church in which Unitarian Universalist Christians comprise only a minority.

As stated above, there are several variants of Christian Universalism. Some Universalists believe that God will save you "no matter what." This is a variant of "Jesus Saves" theology, except that "Jesus Saves Everybody" by his atoning sacrifice (Howe, 1993, pp. 34-35). Another variant is the belief that Christians will be saved immediately, and all others will be saved after becoming believers (Howe, 1993). Restorative Universalism assumes a judgment ("life review" in NDE terminology) and punishment for some, followed by Universal Salvation for all.

Today, most Christians who profess a belief in Universal Salvation belong to variety of other denominations. Despite their questions about doctrine, most Liberal Christians choose to remain within more mainline denominations, most often for reasons of tradition. Examples of prominent contemporary Universalist Christian theologians in other denominations are Jan Bonda of the Dutch Reformed Church (1993/1998); Tom Harpur, an Anglican (1986); John Hick of the United Reformed Church (Hick, Pinnock, McGrath, Geivett, and Phillips, 1995), and Thomas Talbott, an Independent Christian (Talbott, 1999).

Tom Harper photo. It is noteworthy that, in a addition to being a Christian scholar, Tom Harpur is a near-death researcher, and he included a strong Universalist Christian statement at the end of his book, Life After Death (1991).

Christian theologies are systems created to explain the diverse and conflicting accounts given by the various authors of the New Testament. Often theologians will arrive at differing interpretations of what the words in a particular Bible verse mean. For example, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6) is a primary verse used by "Jesus Saves" theologians; however, this verse has been interpreted by Liberal Christians as meaning that salvation comes from following the teachings of Jesus, rather than through his death on the cross (Borg, 2001; Harpur, 1986; Hick, 1993a).

In an article in Christianity Today entitled, "The Gift of Salvation," Timothy George (1997) made the case for "Jesus Saves" theology by citing just 23 verses from the New Testament. By my own calculations,' there were 139 verses in the New Testament supporting "Jesus Saves" , theology; 551 verses supporting Salvation by Good Works, with 389 of those verses being the words of Jesus himself; and 178 verses supporting Universal Salvation (1)(2)(3), including 31 verses that speak to Hell not being permanent. It is worth noting that a fourth theological position, the Doctrine of Predestination, has 77 verses to support it (Hastings, Grant, and Rowley, 1953). One can see from the sheer magnitude of data that Salvation by Good Works has the most support, followed by Universal Salvation for All. The two taken together form the case for Christian Restorative Universalism.

 

 5.  Universalism and the Near-Death Experience  

 

When it comes to the near-death experience, Universalism appears to be the most compatible theological position. Why is that so? Let us explore some basics of Christian Restorative Universalism and the NDE.

 

  a.  Out-of-Body Experiences  

 

NDEs often begin with an "out-of-body" experience (OBE). The Bible records this 2000-year-old OBE by St. Paul:

Multi-colored icon.   "I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third Heaven-whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person - whether in the body or out of the body 1 do not know; God knows - was caught up into Paradise and heard things that were not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat." (2 Corinthians 12:2-5)

 
  b.  Light  
Being of Light.

 

One of the most commonly reported characteristics of a deep NDE is the experience of Light or Being of Light (Vincent, 1994). Some NDErs feel that this Light represents God or God's emissary, as in the following:  

Multi-colored icon.   "I was in the Universe and I was Light. It takes all the fear of dying out of you. It was Heavenly. I was in the Presence of God." (Vincent, 1994, p.27)
Multi-colored icon.   "I went directly into the Light, and my pain ceased. There was a feeling of extreme peace." (Vincent, 1994, p. 27)
Multi-colored icon.   "God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all." (1 John 1:5)
Multi-colored icon.   "Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights." (James 1:17)
Multi-colored icon.   "He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light." (1 Timothy 6:15-16)

NDErs routinely report an immense amount of unconditional love radiating from the Being of Light: 

Multi-colored icon.   "An absolute white Light that is God-all loving. The unification of us with our Creator." (Vincent, 1994, p. 27)
Multi-colored icon.   "I left my body, and I was surrounded by God. It didn't feel male or female, young or old, just me. I was surrounded by Love ... I looked down at the little girl in bed ... Later when I realized it was me, I was back in my body." (Vincent, 1994, p. 21)
Multi-colored icon.   "Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love." (1 John 4:7-8)
Multi-colored icon.   "The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end." (Lamentations 3:22)

Near-death experiencers report a feeling of "Oneness with God" and a sensation of being "In God": 

Multi-colored icon.   "It is something which becomes you and you become it. I could say, "I was peace; I was love." It was the brightness ... It was part of me." (Vincent, 1994, p. 29)
Multi-colored icon.   "For in him we live and move and have our being." (Acts 17:28)
Multi-colored icon.   "For from him and through him and to him are all things." (Romans 11:36)
Multi-colored icon.   "One God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all." (Ephesians 4:6)
Jesus Christ portrait.

Sometimes NDErs encounter Jesus in the Light:

Multi-colored icon.   "The light was in me and between the molecules, the cells in my body. He was in me - I was in him ... I knew all things. I saw all things. I was all things. But not me; Jesus had this. As long as I was "in Him," and he was "in me," I had this power, this glory (for lack of a better word)." (Vincent 1994, p. 57)

Multi-colored icon.   "I left but stood there wanting to help this poor soul (which was in effect me). Then I was on the third level and a voice said, "choose." I saw Jesus, the Blessed Mother, and the archangel Michael. My message was unconditional love; learn to love your family; you love others, but learn to love your family." (Vincent, 1994, p. 59)

These accounts recall the Apostle Paul's experience of Jesus. Many scholars consider his account in 1 Corinthians 15:5-8 as the only first-hand account of the resurrection of Jesus (Funk and the Jesus Seminar, 1998; Harpur, 1986; Hick, 1993b). Paul also provided verified secondhand accounts of Jesus' appearance to Peter and James. In Acts, we have a description of Paul's experience of Jesus: 

Multi-colored icon.   "Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from Heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" (Acts 9:3-4; also Acts 22:6-7; Acts 26:12-14)

Researcher Philip Wiebe (1997) maintained that there is (no difference between modern-day visions of Jesus and similar visions of Jesus described in the Bible. Although Wiebe excluded NDEs from his research, numerous NDE accounts over the past quarter century attest to face-to-face meetings with Jesus. Curiously, even people of religions other than Christianity have described encounters with Jesus (Rommer, 2000).

 

Before turning our attention from the Light, it is worth noting that Fundamentalists often counter this common NDE phenomenon with a verse from St. Paul:

Multi-colored icon.   "Even Satan disguises himself as a being of Light" (2 Corinthians 11:14)

This is of dubious relevance for NDEs for two reasons: first, it places too much weight on a single Bible verse; and second, the overwhelming amount of data leaves no doubt that the Light experienced by the NDEr radiates love. Jesus told us how to distinguish false prophets:

Multi-colored icon.   "You will know them by their fruits" (Matthew 7:16)

When Jesus himself was accused of being Satanic, he explained:

Multi-colored icon.   "And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, 'He has Beelzebub and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.' And he called to them and spoke to them in parables, 'How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end is come.'" (Mark 3:22-26)

Fundamentalist Christians cannot have it both ways. The Light cannot represent goodness for a Christian and deception for non-Christians. Satan may be a neon sign, but God is the Light of the Universe.

Jesus told us that God is our Father too:

Multi-colored icon.   "I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God." (John 20:17)
Multi-colored icon.   "You have one Father - the one in heaven." (Matthew 23:9)
Multi-colored icon.   "'I will be your Father and you shall be my Sons and Daughters' says the Lord Almighty." (2 Corinthians 6:18)
Multi-colored icon.   "Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, would give him a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, would give a snake? If you then who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in Heaven give good things to those who ask Him?" (Matthew 7:9-10)

What kind of parent abandons his or her child? Surely not the loving God Jesus talked about.

 

  c.  Judgment or Life Review  
The Vision of the Last Judgment byy William Blake.

 

Judgment, in NDE terminology, is called "life review." This is usually a positive experience:  

Multi-colored icon.   "I found myself in a corridor. The corridor did not end. I was not afraid. There was a white light. Very clear white colors of light. Off to the side, I could see shades of gray. Off to the side, I could see my childhood passing, going left to right. I thought to myself, "I am getting younger." I did not see my adult life. I felt like I was not alone, but I did not see anybody." (Vincent, 1994, p. 95)

 

Multi-colored icon.   "During the Judgment [it was] like on a Rolodex. I could feel the person by me. I was waiting for the bad to come up, but nothing bad was coming up." (Vincent, 1994, p. 93)

For others, there is a perception of one's effect on other people:

Multi-colored icon.   "I saw this life pass in front of my eyes, like watching a movie. I felt others' pain, joy, sorrows." (Vincent, 1994, p. 93)

For some, life review is a negative experience:  

Multi-colored icon.   "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." (Vincent 1994, p. 119)

In Christianity, sometimes God is seen as Judge of the World, but more often, Jesus is seen as the Judge (Masumian 1996). In Jesus' parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), he stated that judgment began prior to him, was ongoing, and occurred immediately after death. In the Judgment of the Nations (Matthew 25:31-46), Jesus is Judge of all the world, both Christian and non-Christian. Judgment is based on good works done to the "least of these" (Matthew 25:40).

Jesus taught that we must be judged, but that God is Light and goodness:

Multi-colored icon.   "God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all." (1 John 1:5)

NDErs often note that the Being of Light in the life review offers total acceptance:

Multi-colored icon.   "My near-death experience was before Moody's book came out. When it did, I said, "Oh my God! Mine is pretty classic - just like the book. It was incredibly clear - my life - going through what happened. There were figures around I did not know. The white Light was wonderful! It was just love. I knew my life would be reviewed. It was like flipping pages. I knew I had done things I was not proud of, but there was total acceptance. I wanted to stay, but I was told to go back and be loving." (Vincent 1994, p. 91)

I have already noted above that this is also true when the Being of Light is specifically identified as Jesus. This is the picture that the New Testament presents of Jesus. In the mystic Gospel of John we read:

Multi-colored icon.   "You judge my human standards. I judge no one." (John 8:15
Multi-colored icon.   "And I, when I am lifted up from the Earth, will draw all people to myself." (John 12:32
Multi-colored icon.   Jesus said: "My yoke is easy, and my burden is light." (Matthew 11:30)
The Return of the Prodigal Son.

The following makes it clear that Jesus is an advocate for both Christians and non-Christians:

Multi-colored icon.   "My children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father; Jesus Christ the Righteous. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world." (1 John 2:1-2)

With Jesus as Judge, no one is ever abandoned - Christian or non-Christian. Jesus told us that the Kingdom of God is not only for the pure (Matthew 5:8) but also for the impure (Matthew 15:2, Luke 18:10-14), the pagan (Matthew 15:21-28), and the heretic (Luke 10:25-37; John 4:16-30). NDErs often feel that they judge themselves, as these quotes from three NDErs indicate:

Multi-colored icon.   "You are judging yourself. You have been forgiven all your sins, but are you able to forgive yourself for not doing the things you should have done and some little cheaty things that maybe you've done in your life? This is the judgment." (Ring and Valarino, 1998, p. 167)
Multi-colored icon.   "I didn't see anyone as actually judging me. It was more like I was judging myself on what I did and how that affected everyone." (Ring and Valarino, 1998, p. 167)
Multi-colored icon.   "I told the Light that ... I expected him to judge me rather sternly. He said, "Oh, no, that doesn't happen at all." However, at my request, they then played back over the events that had occurred in my life ... and I was the judge." (Ring and Valarino, 1998, p. 167)

Jesus clearly told us:

Multi-colored icon.   "Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get." (Matthew 7:1-2)

The judgment of Jesus is not based on belief in Doctrine. The test is not about correct belief, but good deeds:

Multi-colored icon.   "Not everyone who says to me, "Lord, Lord," will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in Heaven." (Matthew 7:21)

Good deeds will be rewarded:

Multi-colored icon.   "For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done." (Matthew 16:27)

St. Peter reiterated:

Multi-colored icon.   "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation, anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to Him." (Acts 10:34-35)

St. Paul said: 

Multi-colored icon.   "For he will repay according to each one's deeds." (Romans 2:6)
Multi-colored icon.   "For God shows no partiality." (Romans 2:11)

St. John of Patmos wrote:

Multi-colored icon.   "And the dead were judged according to their works as recorded in the books." (Revelation 20:12)
 
  d.  Hell Is Not Permanent  
Ascent of the Blessed painting.

 

The experience of Hell has been recorded in NDEs since the beginning of modern research (Ritchie and Sherrill, 1978). In current near-death research terminology, these are called "frightening" NDEs.

 

In religious terms, the place of punishment is called variously "Hell," "Hades," "Limbo," "Purgatory," "Gehenna," and "Eternal Punishment." Modern day near-death researchers have about as many types of frightening NDEs (Atwater, 1992; Greyson and Bush, 1992; Rommer, 2000) as the ancient and medieval authors had categories of Hell (Zaleski, 1987). Often in the NDE, accounts of Hell are not permanent:

Multi-colored icon.   "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)

Multi-colored icon.   "God, I am not ready, please help me. I remember when I screamed (this) an arm shot out of the sky and grabbed my hand and at the last second I was kept from falling off the end of the funnel, the lights flashing; and the heat was really something." (Greyson and Bush, 1992, p.100)

If Hell is not permanent, one might wonder why Jesus said the "goats" will endure "eternal punishment" (Matthew 25:46).

Universalist scholar Thomas Talbott noted that the Greek word for "forever" is better understood as "that which pertains to an age" (1997, pp. 86-92). For example, when Jonah was swallowed by the great fish, he "went down to the land whose bars closed on me forever" (Jonah 2:6). However, the story ended when Jonah was released by God from his bondage after just three days. In other instances - his parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:34-35) and his descriptions of a prisoner's fate (Matthew 5:25-26, Luke 12:59) - Jesus indicated that punishment is not eternal but lasts only until one's entire debt is paid (Matthew 18:34). The following are classic passages supporting Christian Universalism (Howe, 1993, pp 34-35):

Multi-colored icon.   "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)

 

Multi-colored icon.   "For this reason the Gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is, they might live in the Spirit as God does." (1 Peter 4:6)

Modern NDE accounts suggest that Jesus is still rescuing people from Hell!

 

  e.  Universal Salvation  
Good Shepherd painting.

 

According to Christian Universalism, in the end, we will all be united with God. Two of Jesus' most poignant parables proclaim Universal Salvation. In Matthew, God (the Good Shepherd) sought and saved the lost sheep; the sheep did not return to the flock of its own accord. The parable ends, "So it is not the will of your Father in Heaven that one of these little ones should be lost" (Matthew 18:14). In the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), the returning son did not ask to be a member of the family, but for a job as his father's servant. It was God (the father) who took him back into the family. The father was the character with the active role. People often have difficulty with this story because they wrongly identify with the good son and not with the father. Considering how much human parents love their own children, the story puts some perspective on how much God, who is all good, loves each of us. This theme is echoed in the mystic Gospel of John:  

Multi-colored icon.   "I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold, and 1 must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd." (John 10:16)
Multi-colored icon.   "And I, when I am lifted up from the Earth, will draw all people to myself." (John 12:32)

Universal salvation is reiterated in numerous writings of the other Apostles:  

Multi-colored icon.   "When all things are subjected to him then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all." (1 Corinthians 15:28)

Multi-colored icon.   "For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe." (1 Timothy 4:10)

Multi-colored icon.   "And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying, "This is the covenant I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts and I will write them on their minds," he also adds: "I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more." Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin." (Hebrews 10:15-18)

Multi-colored icon.   "He has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on Earth." (Ephesians 1:9-10

Multi-colored icon.   "For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all." (Titus 2:11)
 
  f.  Aftereffects  
The Conversion of St. Paul painting.

 

One of the most profound aspects of the NDE is its aftereffects (Greyson, 2000). Experiences of God change and affirm lives, and sometimes this represents a "soft" change:

Multi-colored icon.   "It took some time for me to realize I was consumed with an insatiable thirst for knowledge. Dr. Pat Fenske wrote in the June, 1991, Vital Signs newsletter that individuals shift to a higher level of consciousness. This I can relate to 100 percent and this has enabled me to understand why I look at things from an entirely different perspective than most people." (Vincent 1994, p. 109)

Multi-colored icon.   "Why did this experience change me so greatly? Why am I convinced that this was the most real thing that ever happened to me when logic and common sense dictate it wasn't. Why so many unexplained events since then. The experience left me a changed person but not knowing why, full of questions and still seeking answers." (Vincent, 1994, p. 113)

In some cases, the changes following a NDE are dramatic - as life changing as St. Paul's mystical religious vision of Jesus that transformed him from a persecutor of Christians to an Evangelist for Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:3-8; Galatians 1:13-16). That kind of powerful effect occurred in the life of art professor Howard Storm, who, after his encounter with Jesus during his NDE, abandoned his atheism and became a Christian minister. Storm related that when he began to pray, his NDE changed from a Hellish experience to a positive, loving one: "Simply stated, I knew God loved me" (Ring and Valarino, 1998, p. 292).

 

 6.  Summary  
Erlender Harldsson photo.

 

Like NDEs, deathbed visions (Osis and Haraldsson, 1977) and post death visions (Kircher, 1995) point to an afterlife. But NDEs, like mystical religious experiences throughout the ages (Argyle, 2000; James, 1901/1958), are especially rich in insights as to the nature of God. NDEs, like other mystical religious experiences, both complement and continue the testimony of that great repository - of Western mystical experience, the Bible.

God's love is greater than we imagine or than we can imagine - this is the testimony of the prophets, sages, saints, mystics, and ordinary people throughout the ages who have shared with us their incomparable sense of Oneness with God and God's unconditional love for us all. Truly God is with us always and, in time:

Multi-colored icon.   "All flesh shall see the salvation of God." (Luke 3:6)
 7.  Notes  

 

1  All Scripture quotations in this article are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible (NRSV), copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Return to Chapter Table of Contents
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Chapter 11
An 18-Century Near-Death Experience: The Case of George de Benneville
by Dr. Ken R. Vincent and Dr. John Morgan
 
Dr. Ken R. Vincent at podium.
  Table of Contents 
1. Abstract and Keywords
2. Introduction to Near-Death Experiences
3. The Life of George de Benneville
4. The Near-Death Experience of George de Benneville
5. The Visions of George de Benneville
6. Judgment or Life Review in World Religions
7. From Judgment to Universal Salvation
8. Discussion
9. About the Authors
 1.  Abstract and Keywords  

 

ABSTRACT:  Near-death experiences (NDEs) have been reported since ancient times. Before the advent of modern reporting methods in medicine and the social sciences, the credibility of these accounts was often compromised through editing by church authorities or retelling by secondary sources. The autobiographical account of the NDE of George de Benneville, an 18th-century physician and lay minister, would satisfy the criteria of contemporary near-death researchers. In addition, de Benneville's life is so well-documented that researchers have confidence in his personal credibility. The hopeful Universalist message in his account is also consistent with the reports of modern-day NDEs. We provide a complete account of de Benneville's NDE and compare it with both ancient and modern NDEs. We discuss his experiences within the context of comparative religion in general and Universalist Christian theology in particular.

KEYWORDS:  near-death experience; Universalist Christianity; religious experiences; afterlife; transpersonal.

 

 2.  Introduction to Near-Death Experiences 

 

Gregory the Great. Near-death experiences were rarely recorded prior to modern resuscitation techniques, but there is no doubt they have occurred since the dawn of humanity. In his Republic, the ancient Greek philosopher and educator Plato told the story of Er, a man who revived on his funeral pyre and recounted his near-death experience (NDE) (Plato, 1892/4th century B.C.). In the 1st century, Plutarch recounted the story of Thespesius of Soli who died of a blow to the head but revived during his funeral three days later (Plutarch, 1918/1st century). In the 6th century, St. Gregory the Great told the story of a man named Stephen who died but came back to life before his body could be embalmed (Gregory the Great, 1959/6th century). The 8th century English theologian and scholar the Venerable Bede described the near-death experience of a man named Drithelm Cuningham who "rose from the dead" in 696 A.D. (Bede, 1907/8th century). In his Ecclesiastical History, Bede also included two deathbed visions with similar themes. All these accounts stressed the necessity of living a righteous life in order to avoid punishment in the afterlife. Plato did not indicate Er's reputation, but Plutarch stated that Thespesius had fallen into living a less-than-sterling life, Gregory wrote that Stephen's character was mixed, and Bede noted that Cuningham became more religious and entered a monastery after his NDE.

Despite our fascination with these and other examples from ancient and medieval literature and the fact that they sound similar to modern NDE accounts, they are of little use to the modern near-death researcher. One of the most essential criteria for modern near-death research is that the account be an autobiographical or "first-hand" telling of the experience. In her analysis of medieval and modern accounts of otherworld journeys, Carol Zaleski noted:

Multi-colored icon.   "We cannot simply peel away the literary wrapper and put our hand on an unembellished event. Even when a vision actually did occur, it is likely to have been re-worked many times before being recorded" (Zaleski, 1987, pp. 86-88).

The Venerablew Bede. She suggested, for example, that the Church would have been eager to insure that these accounts did not contradict "truth" as defined by Church doctrine.

Before the advent of modern medicine and social sciences, there was little value placed on reporting events objectively. This was true for most mystical religious experience in general and near-death experiences in particular. Not until the end of the 19th century was organized research into these fields initiated by the British Society for Psychical Research and, subsequently, its American counterpart. Against this suspicious background of NDEs interpreted through historians and theologians, we are fortunate to have one 18th-century NDE account that would meet the standards of modern researchers. In 1741, George de Benneville wrote his first-person NDE account. By examining his life and reputation, we hope to show that his NDE can be accepted as authentic and credible.

 3.  The Life of George de Benneville  

 

George de Benneville portrait. George de Benneville (1703-1793) was a physician and lay minister in Europe and an advocate of the doctrine of Universal Salvation that, in the end of time, all creatures will be restored to what he called "happiness and holiness." He brought the spirit of German Pietist communities to the new world, principally in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, but he made frequent journeys to the Southern states.

The youngest of nine children born to Huguenot refugees, de Benneville was born and brought up in the British royal court in London, his father being a nobleman from Normandy. His godmother was Queen Anne. After growing up in England, he traveled to France and eventually settled in Germany, where he had his near-death experience at the age of 36, and from whence he immigrated to America in the second quarter of the 18th century, arriving in Philadelphia, but eventually settling and marrying in what is now Berks County, Pennsylvania. He built there a large house that contained a schoolroom for both immigrants and Native American children, a large room used by many religious groups, and a space for his medical practice. He learned and used many herbal remedies from tribes in the area, some of whom often would camp outside his house. He also assisted in the first German language edition of the Bible published in the United States, and put the Bible passages that justified Universal Salvation in red type.

De Benneville believed that there was an essential unity behind every appearance of religious diversity. Thus he was able to incorporate into his medical practice Native American remedies and even some of their symbols and language. In 1757 he and his family moved near Philadelphia, where he continued his medical practice while opening an apothecary shop. He treated the wounded of both sides at the Battle of Germantown in 1777 and even permitted British troops to be buried in his family plot. He died of a stroke in 1793 (De Benneville, 1804; Morgan, 1995, pp 28-33).

 

 4. The Near-Death Experience of George de Benneville  

 

Angel. This is de Benneville's NDE in his own words. The spelling and punctuation are left in their original form.

"I felt myself die by degrees, and exactly at midnight I was separated from my body, and saw the people occupied in washing it, according to the custom of the country. I had a great desire to be freed from the sight of my body, and immediately I was drawn up as in a cloud, and beheld great wonders where I passed, impossible to be written or expressed. I quickly came to a place which appeared to my eyes as a level plain, so extensive that my sight was not able to reach its limits, filled with all sorts of delightful fruit trees, agreeable to behold, and which sent forth such fragrant odours that all the air was filled as with incense. In this place I found that I had two guardians, one at my right hand and the other at my left, exceeding beautiful beyond expression, whose boundless friendship and love seemed to penetrate through all my inward parts ... They had wings and resembled angels, having shining bodies and white garments.

"He that was at my right hand came before me, and said:

"My dear soul and my dear brother, take courage, the most holy trinity hath favored you to be comforted with an everlasting and universal consolation, by discovering to you how, and in what manner, he will restore all his creatures without exception, to the praise of his glory, and their eternal salvation; and you shall be witness of this, and shall rejoice in singing and triumph with all the children of God, therefore as a reward for the friendship and love that you have born for your neighbours, on whose accounts you had many extreme griefs, and shed many tears, which God himself, who shall turn all your griefs to exceeding great gladness."

"Then he took his place at my right hand. After that the second guardian who was at my left hand appeared before me, and spoke thus:

"My dear soul, my dear brother, be of good cheer, thou shalt be strengthened and comforted after your griefs with an universal and eternal consolation ... You must be prepared to pass through the seven habitations of the damned; be of good courage and prepare yourself to feel something of their sufferings, but be turned inward deeply during the time, and you shall thereby be preserved."

Hell. "Then he took his place at my left hand; immediately we were lifted up in the air, and sometimes after we arrived in a dark obscure place, where nothing but weeping, lamentation, and gnashing of teeth, could be understood. A dreadful place, as being the repository of all sorts of damned souls, under condemnation with the torments, pains, griefs and sufferings which their sins had merited, for each one had his works to follow him in death. All iniquities and sins were reduced to seven classes or habitations: there was an eternal confusion there, that which one made, the other destroyed.

"The duellist, in his fire of anger, burns against his enemy, and they pass as a flame and firebrand of hell, one through the other. You might see fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, thieves, the covetous, drunkards, slanderers, ravishers, etc., each laboring and being employed with his sins and iniquities. One might also see all kind of conditions of men, divines, deputies, controvertors, advocates, judges, lawyers, and in a word one might discover whatsoever any of them had done upon earth. In each habitation I discovered that those who were abased and that appeared sorrowful for their sins, were separated from the others of seven habitations of the damned, where I knew one I had been acquainted with upon earth. I discovered also that he had an habitation among the damned, and that they were able to see the elect from that habitation where he was, but were not able to pass through because there was a great gulph between them, so that all are obliged to dwell where they are. It is impossible to describe my condition, as I had great compassion towards the sufferers, inasmuch as I had part of their sufferings.

"After we had passed through we were lifted up some distance from the place, where we reposed ourselves; and a messenger was sent to us, who watered or refreshed us as with a river of pleasure, saying, eat, my beloved, and drink, my friends, to refresh yourselves after all your toils and pains; my dear soul, and my dear brother, (addressing himself to me) the most holy trinity always works wonders in all times within his poor creatures without exception, and he will order for a time, and half a time, that you shall return into your earthly tabernacle, to publish and to proclaim to the people of the world an universal gospel, that shall restore in its time all the human species without exception to its honor and to the glory of its most holy trinity ... Hallelujah.

"Beholding the messenger attentively, I discovered that he had a most glorious body, dressed in a robe whiter than snow, filled with the most exalted love and friendship, joined with the deepest humility which penetrated me through and through, and suddenly there was heard a great multitude of the heavenly host, and the messenger said, as he flew to join the same, with a sweet voice:

"Holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and who is to come."

City of God. "The multitude were innumerable, and there was one who surpassed in grandeur, brightness, beauty, majesty, magnificence and excellence, all the others; even the son of the living God, being the brightness of his glory and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high. As the multitude approached the glory caused us to fall down, and to adore in spirit and in truth the son of the living God, who marched in the midst of the multitude.

"After they had passed us, we were lifted up, and caused to follow them, for the air carried us the way they went, in a different manner than before. Oh! the wonders of our God! When we arrived in the place of the seven habitations of the damned, we could perceive no more darkness, obscurity, pain, torments, lamentations, afflictions, nor gnashing of teeth. All were still and quiet, and an agreeable sweetness appeared through the whole. Then all the heavenly host shouted with one voice and said:

"An eternal and everlasting deliverance, an eternal and everlasting restoration, universal and everlasting restitution of all things."

"Then all the multitude adored the most holy trinity, and sang the song of the Lamb, even the song of the triumph for the victory gained by him, in the most harmonious manner. And at the end, all the multitude being upon their knees, said with a loud voice:

"Great and marvelous are thy works, O Lord, God Almighty, just and true are thy ways. Oh! King of Saints."

Heaven. "Presently they passed through the seven habitations of the damned and a multitude were delivered from each, and being clothed in white robes, they followed the heavenly host, praising and glorifying the most high for their deliverance; one might know them amongst the others: they all retired by a different way than that which they came. The messenger then came and conducted us into a most wonderful place, and ordered my two guardians to conduct me into five celestial mansions, where the Lord's elect abide; and then to reconduct me to dwell yet a time, and half a time in my earthly habitation, and to preach to the lower world the universal everlasting gospel; and that the most holy trinity hath a pure universal love towards all the human race, without exception, and to each one in particular; then turning himself towards me he said:

"My dear soul, my dear brother, thou shalt be favored of the most holy trinity, to be conducted by thy guardians, who shall never leave thee; when thou shall have need of their counsel, thou needest but to call them, and they shall be day and night present at thy service; they shall conduct thee into five of the heavenly mansions at this time, where thou shalt partake in a certain degree, of the celestial glory as much as thy spirit shall be able to receive, as not being yet sanctified and purified sufficiently, and then thou shall be reconducted into thine earthly tabernacle, for a time and half a time and shall preach to the lower world the universal everlasting gospel, and that the most holy trinity hath a pure universal love towards all the human race without exception, and towards each one in particular."

The Empyrean by Gustave Dore. "The fountain of grace bless and preserve thee, and cause his face to shine upon and in thee, and enlighten thine understanding both in time and in eternity, Amen. Our knees bending of their own accord, he laid his hand upon my head, and blessed me, and immediately took wing and swiftly fled away.

"After that, my guardian conducted me into five celestial habitations, where I discovered many wonders. Some had greater brightness, glory, and majesty than others, and, as the places were, so were the inhabitants; some were clothed in garments whiter then snow; others had transparent bodies, and others again had white bodies resembling crystal. It is impossible to express these things. They were moved by boundless burning love, rising up and then plunging themselves into the deepest humility; all their motions were penetrating, being filled with love and friendship ... Their actions and manners are strengthened and animated with brightness, being filled with light as with the rays of the sun; it was the fire of heavenly love, which by inflaming all their hearts, causes them all to burn in the same spirit. They have no need of any way of speaking there, but the language and motions of eternal and universal love without words for their actions, their motions speak more than all words. I was then conducted into five habitations of the elect. At the first, a great multitude came before us with songs to the honor and glory of the most high, and of the victory gained over the damned. They received us with triumph, great zeal, love and friendship, saluting us with profound humility, and conducting us into a large room; there was a great table covered and furnished with all sorts of fruit, not only pleasant to behold, but also exceedingly delicious to the taste.

"In the meantime while we were taking our repast, the celestial multitudes formed songs, and sang psalms of praise and thanksgiving to the most holy trinity. After that we were conducted into all the five celestial habitations (that I was to see) where I saw many wonders, impossible to describe. First, many thrones lifted up of inexpressible beauty and magnificence; upon one of these thrones I beheld the royal high priest, surrounded with exceeding great brightness, and clothed in most excellent majesty, being employed in kind intercession before his father, for all the human species, pleading the sufficiency of his blood-shedding to deliver and sanctify a thousand such worlds as ours. All the elect, with the heavenly spirits, joined their intercession with that of their high priest, the only chief king, being reconcilers, saviors, and restorers in the same spirit. This mutual intercession appeared like incense ascending on high into the sanctuary of the Lord. Over against the throne I discovered Adam with Eve, rejoicing in the only mediator between God and men, and adoring together the most holy trinity for the deliverance of their children out of the great miseries and eternal condemnation into which their sin and fall had brought them, and upon their bended knees adoring the only mediator for the intercession he makes in behalf of mankind. Also I beheld a multitude of spirits flying and enflamed with the fire of heavenly love, while we adored, humbled in nothingness, rendering our religious homage to the most high for his intercession and the deliverance of all mankind. Then my guardian, who was at my right hand, coming before me, said thus:

"Dear soul, my dear brother, do you see these spirits flying, who are vanished in the spirit of love and gratitude, humbled and self-annihilated as it were, adoring before the throne of grace, and praying the saviour for the intercessions he made for them. These are lately delivered from the infernal prisons; it is from them that the tincture of the blood of Jesus Christ hath been shed even to the last drop, notwithstanding they had dwelt a long time shut up in the place of the damned, under the power of the second death, and have passed thro' many agonies, pains and tribulations ..."

"Upon that, I perceived that Adam and Eve approached, and Adam spoke to me after his manner:

"My dear brother, rejoice with universal and eternal joy, as you are favored with the heavenly visions! it is in this manner that our adorable royal high priest, mediator, and intercessor, shall restore all my descendants to the glory of our God, and their eternal and universal salvation for the kingdom of eternal love hath power sufficient to draw all mankind out of their bondage, and to exclaim and say; O death, where is thy sting, etc. But my dear brother, this love of our God in Jesus Christ, by the power of his holy spirit, shall not only gain the victory over all the human species, but also surmount or overflow the kingdom of Satan entirely, with all the principalities of the fallen angels, and shall bring them back in their first glory, which they have had in the beginning. I will make all things new, said the Lord of hosts, and the end shall return into its beginning, 'O my Lord and my God, what great wonders hast thou caused to pass before mine eyes! Who am I, O my God, dust and ashes, an ungrateful and rebellious creature, I should not dare to lift mine eyes towards the heavens if the blood of Jesus Christ thy son did not plead for me. My soul rejoices and is glad, she shouts for joy; 'O my God, whom I adore, love, and respect; before whom I desire to be without ceasing, self-annihilated at thy feet. O my God and my love, the seraphims and cherubims burning with the fire of thy heavenly love, adore and honor thee; give me thy grace also, O my God, that I may be consumed before thee, while I sing the majesty, glory, and the memory of God, who hath created and redeemed me. I would praise him incessantly, not in shadow or figure, but in reality and truth. I would continue devoted to thee, and always be swallowed up in the ocean of love without a wish to leave it."

Heaven and Hell by Emanuel Swedenborg"Being in this manner conducted into five celestial habitations, I discovered many mysteries, saw many miracles, and beheld the wonders of the most holy trinity among the children, the elect, and heavenly inhabitants, and perceiving how some surpassed others in brightness, light, splendor, majesty, friendship, love, humiliation, and self-abasement, concerning of which things my tongue is too feeble to speak, and my pen to write. I adore the marvelous ways of my God, with all the happy spirits.

"Many thrones, palaces, edifices, temples, and buildings were erected in all parts, with fruit trees intermixed, rivers of pleasure gliding along through the celestial land, which appeared like a garden of heaven, even the paradise of God. It is the court of the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, which the eye has not seen nor the ear heard, and which the hearts of men have not received. It is the celestial globe where the New Jerusalem, or Mount Sion, is placed, where the bosom of Abraham is; where the sufferers who came out of their tribulations are refreshed, and rejoice forgetting all their miseries; being come out of their purifications, they are made to rejoice in Sion; O magnificent globe! O thou city of the Great God! stately city of this place! Where shall a mortal find convenient phrases to lift out a little of thy glory and splendor? It is the glory and magnificence of the most holy trinity, where God is pleased to manifest himself in his pomp and beauty. The blessed angels have their employment in serving God; they compose the court of the Great King. O my God, I am not able to express that which penetrates me, of the grandeur, magnificence, splendor, pomp and majesty of thy dwellings, or of the inhabitants in those transparent places, hallelujah and victory for ever ... AMEN.

"Then my guardian took me up, and reconducted me to the house from whence I came, where I perceived the people assembled, and discovering my body in the coffin, I was reunited with the same, and found myself lodged within my earthly tabernacle, and coming to myself, I knew my dear brother Marsey, and many others, who gave me an account of my being twenty-five hours in the coffin, and seventeen hours before they put me in the coffin, which altogether made forty-two hours; to me they seemed as many years; beginning then to preach the universal gospel, I was presently put in prison, but soon set at liberty again. I visited all my brethren, preaching the gospel and taking leave of them all, because that my God and Sovereign Good called me to go to America and preach the gospel there. I took my departure for the same in the 38th year of my age, and it is forty-one years since I first arrived here. The 28th of July next, 1782, I shall be 79 years of age. Blessed be the name of the Lord forever."

 

 5.  The Visions of George de Benneville  

 

David Hay photo. The NDE is considered to be one category of mystical experience with an easily identifiable "trigger," that of dying briefly. Other mystical experiences include visionary experiences, out-of-body experiences, deathbed visions, and after-death communications. Modern studies have shown that about 40 percent of the populations of developed countries have had mystical experiences (Hay, 1987; Wood, 1989). There is some evidence that the number increases to as high as 65 percent when subjects are interviewed personally rather than being queried by written questionnaire (Hardy, 1979).

A legitimate question often asked is how we know these people are not simply delusional. Social scientists have now accumulated enough data to state that 5 percent of the population experiences psychosis in their lifetime (Wood and Wood, 1999). In comparing the relatively small percentage of psychotic persons to the number reporting mystical experience, the mystics clearly predominate. While visionary experience is more commonly identified with mental illness than nonvisionary mystical experience, research in the 19th century, as well as research in the 20th century using random samples, showed the majority of persons experiencing hallucinations were not psychotic (Bentall, 2000; West 1995). In reviewing de Benneville's personal history carefully, there is no evidence that his visions were the result of psychosis.

In addition to his NDE, de Benneville had visionary experiences. His first vision occurred as a teenager while he was changing his shirt at a ball. In his words, he:

Multi-colored icon.   "... fell into a fainting fit and had a vision of myself burning as a firebrand in hell" (1804, p. 7).

After an interval of 15 months, he had a vision of Jesus revealing to him that his sins were forgiven and that all people would receive salvation. When he began to talk about this vision to others, his story was brought to the attention of French Calvinist ministers who were in exile with him. He said:

Multi-colored icon.   "They held to predestination, and I held to the restoration of all souls" (1804, p. 12).

He was cast out of the Calvinist church, his own personal religious experience having trumped church authority. As we still find today, persons whose mystical religious experience is accepted by their church community tend to remain within it, while those whose congregations condemn them exit rather than deny the truth of their own experience.

De Benneville's next religious experience was at age 17 years when he heard an internal voice:

Multi-colored icon.   "... calling me to go to France to preach the Gospel" (1804, p. 13).

His fourth experience, which occurred during the time he was preaching on the European continent, was a vision of heaven where people were worshiping God. He reported falling ill in his late 30s and suffering a high fever from "a consumptive disorder" (1804, p. 18). He again had visions of a fine plain filled with fruit trees and inhabitants who were "clothed in garments white as snow" (1804, p. 19). This is the only one of his visionary accounts considered to be compromised because of the presence of fever. He subsequently died and had a NDE, as related above.

 

 6.  Judgment or Life Review in World Religions  
Egyptian Book of the Dead.  

De Benneville's NDE is similar to many pre-modern NDEs in which the person died but revived near the time of burial. The theological idea that humans face Judgment of Deeds, often called a life review in NDE accounts, dates to ancient Egypt. It appeared in the instruction for Merikare more than 4,100 years ago (Assmann, 2005). Coexisting with this Judgment were the Pyramid Texts and Book of the Dead, which provided the deceased with magical instruction to insure a positive outcome (Spence, 1990/1915). We do not claim that these Egyptian texts were based on NDEs or mystical religious experiences; they were simply Egyptian theology with a familiar "ring." In Zoroastrianism, judgment is determined by weighing good deeds against bad deeds. Those who do not measure up are purified in Hell until they "shape up" (Vincent, 1999, pp. 46-47), after which all are saved.

In both Plato's and Plutarch's accounts, the NDErs witnessed Judgment, Heaven, and Hell; after a period of time, the deceased were reincarnated (Plato, 1892/4th century B.C.; Plutarch, 1918/1st century). These Greco-Roman accounts echoed the theology of the Eastern religions — Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, and Jain (Bhattacharji, 1987; Evans-Wentz, 1957; Merh, 1996; Nigosian, 2000; Vincent, 2005). In the Hindu religion and its derivatives, there is Judgment, followed by an intermediate state of Heaven or Hell that is not permanent; reincarnation follows for all except the few who are pure. Reincarnation has only begun to be studied objectively, but Ian Stevenson and Jim Tucker at the University of Virginia Medical School and their colleagues have gathered 2,500 contemporary cases suggestive of reincarnation (Tucker, 2005).

Yama judging deeds with Citrajupta. In the Christian account of Gregory the Great, a man named Stephen was taken before the heavenly judge and had his case dismissed because of "mistaken identity." Curiously, his neighbor died during the same hour, also with the name of Stephen (Gregory the Great, 1959/6th century). This kind of error is commonly reported in Hindu NDEs (Pasricha and Stevenson, 1986). While he was dead, Stephen found himself on a bridge with Heaven on one side and Hell below the bridge. He observed that the unjust would slip off the bridge and fall into Hell (Gregory the Great, 1959/6th century). This kind of "bridge" imagery is also present in Zoroastrianism and Shiite Islam (Moulton, 1980). In Bede's account, the Christian NDEr was shown Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory (Bede, 1997). As mentioned before, the Medieval Church often edited accounts to conform to official dogma. Gregory the Great admitted as much when he wrote, "God allows some souls to return to their bodies shortly after death, so that the sight of hell may at last teach them to fear eternal punishments in which words alone could not make them believe" (Gregory the Great, 1959/ 6th century, p 237).

 

 7.  From Judgment to Universal Salvation  

 

In de Benneville's NDE, we have a first-hand account from a reliable individual. In it, he asserted the primary tenet of Universalism, that after purification in Hell, all will be saved. De Benneville's NDE reinforced his earlier vision that caused his abrupt change in theology from Calvinist predestination to Christian Universalism. De Benneville's NDE conformed to modern NDEs in two important aspects:

a. NDEs are largely positive in nature, and
b. Those who initially find themselves in Hell can reverse their fortune by calling out to God (Vincent, 2003).

In fact, de Benneville's account was compatible with the contemporary account of George Ritchie (1998) who recounted that in the hellish regions of his NDE, angels were trying to help those in Hell. In his vision, Ritchie was told by Jesus:

Multi-colored icon.   "You are right, for I, Love, be lifted up, I shall draw all men [people] unto Me" (p. 44).

This is virtually identical wording to the great Universalist Biblical passage of John 12:32:

Multi-colored icon.   "... and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself" (John 12:32 NRSV).

Zoroaster. The first person to speak of Universal Salvation was not a Christian, but rather Zoroaster, the ancient Persian prophet of the Magi, who lived about 1200 A.D. (Vincent, 1999). Zoroaster said that God based salvation on good deeds in this life; Christian Universalism added Jesus's message of forgiveness (Matthew 6:12-15). Christian Universalism is supported by numerous verses in the Hebrew Bible [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] and New Testament [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] (Vincent, 2005). The earliest theological writing on Christian Universalism was that of St. Clement of Alexandria in the 2nd century. His pupil, Origen, was Universalism's most influential theorist (Vincent, 2005).

In the 7th century, Universalism was dealt a blow when Origen's theology was condemned by the Roman Catholic Church, although it remained viable in the Churches of the East. In the West, Universalism was relegated to the realm of mystics until the Reformation (Hanson, 1899). Julian of Norwich was one of the best examples of this. Although her Universalist mystical experiences of God and Jesus were contrary to Roman Catholic doctrine, she wrote that both her experiences and Catholic teaching must be true in some sense, a "dance" that enabled her to keep in the good graces of the Catholic Church (Hick, 1999).

In the Church of the East, Universalism continued, and parts of the Universalist teachings of Theodore of Mopsuestia are still in the liturgy of the Nestorian Church today (Hanson, 1999). Christian Universalism was also found in the Chapter 60 of the Book of the Bee, written by the 13th-century bishop Solomon of Basra. With the Renaissance, there was a revival of Universalist Christianity in the West, and for a time in the 19th century, the Universalist Church of America was the 6th largest denomination in the United States. It survives today in the now interfaith Unitarian Universalist Association, of which Universalist Christians (like the authors) are only a small remnant. In the 21st century, Christian Universalism is advocated by a wide variety of Christians from post-Vatican II Catholics to Primitive Baptists (Vincent, 2005, p 5).

 

 8.  Discussion  

 

De Benneville's NDE was preceded by a mystical religious experience in the form of a vision that was Universalist in nature, a theological concept completely contrary to his religious upbringing. Departing from the Calvinist view of salvation for a few "elect," de Benneville spent the remainder of his life as a minister and physician witnessing for his understanding of a God too good to condemn anyone to Eternal Hell. His reversal was as dramatic a change as that of St. Paul (1 Corinthians 15:3-8; Galatians 1:13-16) who went from persecuting Christians to being one of Christianity's major evangelists. In recent years, there has been much documentation that both mystical religious experiences and NDEs change the lives of those who have them in positive and lasting ways (Greyson, 2000; Hay, 1987). In de Benneville's autobiography, we have a credible person's account of his mystical experiences and NDE. His life reflected his belief in God's Universal, unconditional love for all.

 

 9.  About the Authors  

 

Dr. Ken R. Vincent photo. Dr. Ken R. Vincent received his doctorate in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado in 1973. He is currently retired from teaching Psychology and the Psychology of Religious Experience at Houston Community College. He is a member of the Alister Hardy Society for the Study of Spiritual Experience and the International Association of Near-Death Studies (IANDS). Dr. Vincent served as a founding Board member of the Christian Universalist Association and is the former webmaster of The Universalist Herald website. His writings all contain a strong undercurrent of Universalist thought. In his book The Magi: From Zoroaster to the Three Wise Men, he compares the religion of the Magi (Zoroastrianism) to Christianity and shows the parallels of Universal Restoration in both faiths. In Visions of God from the Near-Death Experience, the wisdom of the prophets and sages of the world's religions is superimposed upon the accounts of modern-day near-death experiencers to illustrate the similarities between them. Dr. Vincent‘s book The Golden Thread: God's Promise of Universal Salvation documents the solid support for Universal Salvation in the Bible as well as research into NDEs and Mystical/Religious/Spiritual Experiences. This online book is entitled God Is With Us: What Near-Death and Other Spiritually Transformative Experiences Teach Us About God and Afterlife. Correspondence regarding this online book should be sent to this email address: professorvincent@yahoo.com.

 

John Morgan photo. John C. Morgan, D.Min., is a professor, author of several books, and former Unitarian Universalist minister and church planter. Dr. Morgan is a professor, author of several books, and former Unitarian Universalist minister and church planter for over twenty years. He also served on the founding Board of Directors of the Christian Universalist Association. Before entering the ministry he was a community program director and newspaper journalist. Programs he directed have won national awards, as have his newspaper articles. He holds an undergraduate degree in sociology and religion from Albright College in Reading, Pa., a Master's in the Philosophy of Religion from Oberlin College in Ohio, an M.Div from Andover Newton Seminary outside Boston, and a doctorate in ministry from the Lutheran Theological Seminary of Philadelphia. He has published many articles, poems, and books including Awakening the Soul: A Book of Daily Devotions and The Devotional Heart: The Renewal of American Unitarian Universalism.

Return to Chapter Table of Contents
Return to Book Table of Contents  
Chapter 12
Zoroaster: The First Universalist
 
Dr. Ken R. Vincent.
  Table of Contents
1. Zoroaster, the Prophet of the Magi
2. An Introduction to Zoroastrianism
3. Zoroastrianism: The Origin of God as Light
4. Zoroastrianism: The Origin of a Final Judgment
5. Zoroastrianism: The Origin of Angelic Beings
6. Zoroastrianism: The Origin of Universalism
7. Zoroastrianism: The Origin of Dualistic Good Versus Evil
8. Zoroastrianism's Influence on World Religions
 1.  Zoroaster, the Prophet of the Magi  

 

The School of Athens painting. Once upon a time, before wisdom was confined to books, Shamans of the "Great Spirit' anticipated an afterlife for their peoples. But the earliest existing expression of the Universalist idea of an afterlife where God saves ALL people can be found in the revelation of Zoroaster, Prophet of the Magi. Truly, it is one of many profound influences that Zoroaster's new religion had on the subsequent development of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9]. Known as Zoroaster by the Greeks and Zardust by the Arabs, he is properly called Zarathustra by the followers of the religion he founded. (Since he is best known in the West by the Greek name Zoroaster, that name will be used in this paper; interestingly, the Greek name "Jesus" also became favored over the Hebrew "Yeshua.")

 According to the Holy Book of the Magi, Zoroaster was born in eastern Iran and lived from about 660 BCE to 583 BCE. Like Moses (who is thought to have lived between 1600 and 1200 BCE), there is virtually no corroborative historical evidence for his life outside the religious writings. Most scholars place Zoroaster's life earlier in history (as long ago as 1200 - 1800 BCE), mainly due to the ancient Eastern Persian language he used to compose his Hymns (Gathas).

Zoroaster's parents were middle-class, and his father was probably a horse or camel trader as well as a priest.  He was married and had children. His major revelations occurred at age 30 after he, like Jesus, went into the wilderness to seek God. After this experience, he was inspired to say that:

Multi-colored icon.   "God declared to me that silent meditation is the best for attaining spiritual enlightenment" (Y43.15).

The Holy Book of the Magi relates how Satan tempted him in the wilderness with a promise of a 1,000-year rule. He preached for ten years without success, after which he converted his cousin, the rest of his family, and King Vishtaspa.

 

  2.  An Introduction to Zoroastrianism  

 

Zoroaster. Once Zoroastrianism was adopted by the kings of Persia, the religion spread throughout the Persian Empire. The Magi, who at that time were priests of the old pagan religion in western Iran, accepted and taught the new religion of Zoroaster; some believe that Zoroaster himself was a Magus of the old religion prior to his divine revelations. His Hymns to God (Gathas), about the length of the Gospel of Matthew, were first recited orally and eventually written into the Holy Book of the Magi (Avesta). We know that he was assassinated by a rival priest at the age of 77 years. While Zoroaster claimed no divinity for himself, later traditions created miraculous stories that were characteristically attached to persons held in high esteem in the ancient world. A fond tradition claims that Zoroaster laughed (instead of crying) at birth!

In the religion of the Magi, humanity has free will to choose between good and evil, and we are required to be active participants with God in the eventual defeat of evil. The core beliefs are often summarized succinctly in the phrase:

Multi-colored icon.   "Good thoughts, good words, and good deeds."

Magi depicted in 3rd Century Christian Art. Zoroaster's name for God is "Ahura Mazda" which means, "Lord of Life and Wisdom" or simply "Wise Lord." This can be compared to the literal translations of the names for God in Hebrew Scriptures: "Yahweh" which means "I AM" and "Elohim" which means "God". For Zoroaster, God is wholly good; God unconditionally and totally loves all his Creation and all humanity – always. God is not angry, jealous, or vengeful; God would never tempt humans into doing evil. We are made of the essence of God and are cherished by God. Fasting, celibacy, and the austere life have no place in the religion of the Magi; one is simply directed to BE LIKE GOD – Do Good and Oppose Evil. (Christians may recall that in Matthew 5:48, Jesus also commands us to be like our heavenly Father.) Because all creation is sacred, it is also humanity's duty to protect creation and not defile it or pollute it. (In a very real way, Zoroaster was the first environmentalist!)

God is opposed by an evil force called "The Demon of the Lie" which Zoroaster described as "that which is not and never was" -- almost as if he saw the devil as a vacuum. Satan is responsible for all death, destruction, decay, and darkness. Satan has no physical presence on Earth but does have the ability to corrupt God's creation. However, Satan is dim-witted and disorganized and can be defeated by the Good!

Like Christianity, the religion of the Magi has a concept of the Holy Spirit as being the part of God that is present with us on the Earth. God is both immanent (present) and transcendent (other). It is the Holy Spirit or Mentality of God (Spenta Mainyu) that counters the Evil Spirit or Mentality (Angra Mainyu). In the words of Zoroaster:

"Through his Holy Spirit
And his Sovereign mind,
Ahura Mazda will grant
Self-realization and immortality
To him whose words and deeds
Are inspired by righteousness,
Moral courage and Divine Wisdom." (Y47.1)
 
 3.  Zoroastrianism: The Origin of God as Light  
God is light.  

 

Both the ancient Magi and the modern followers of Zoroaster see God as Light, the oldest non-anthropomorphic conception of God. God is the light above us, around us, and within us. For Zoroaster, the contrast between light and darkness is always a metaphor for the conflict between Good and Evil. In speaking of the God of the Magi, the 3rd-century Greek philosopher Porphyry said: 

Multi-colored icon.   "God's body is Light, and His Spirit Truth."

In more modern times, Einstein saw all matter as frozen light, and physicist Stephen Hawking stated: 

Multi-colored icon.   "When you break subatomic particles down to their most elemental level, you are left with nothing but pure light."

Sometimes observers of this religion from ancient to modern times have mistaken the Magi for fire worshippers because of the "eternal flame" present in all of their temples. However, the fire has never been worshiped; the flame of the fire represents LIGHT, their symbol for God.

 

 4.  Zoroastrianism: The Origin of a Final Judgment  
The Ladder of Divine Ascent.  

 

Concepts of the afterlife in the religion of the Magi are almost identical to those of Christianity. Joseph Campbell suspects direct borrowing of the ideas of the Magi by Dante in his vivid descriptions of a multi-layered Heaven and Hell. According to Zoroaster's vision, each human soul is required to face judgment on the "Bridge of Judgment." If there is a preponderance of good deeds, the soul is allowed to pass over a wide bridge to Heaven on which the good deeds meet him or her in the form of a beautiful 15-year-old girl. The soul of the saved asks: 

"Who are thou, for I have never seen a young girl on Earth more beautiful or fair than thee?"
In answer, the young girl replies, "I am no girl, but thy own good deeds."

If the human soul contains a preponderance of evil deeds, a young girl "who has no semblance of a young girl" comes to meet it, and the soul of the damned says: 

"Who are thou? I have never seen a wench on Earth more ill-favored and hideous than thee."
In reply, the ill-favored wench says, "I am no wench, but I am thy deeds – hideous deeds – evil thoughts, evil words, evil deeds, and evil religion."

Unlike Dante whose Limbo is for the righteous who are not Christians, Limbo in the religion of the Magi is for those whose good deeds and bad deeds are in equal balance. The Hell of the Magi is not eternal but only a temporary detour while you "shape up" and the evil in you is purified. Zoroastrians, like other Universalists, believe God is too good to sentence humans to Eternal Hell. Some modern minimalist scholars dispute the fact that Zoroaster was a Universalist and say that Universal Salvation came into Zoroastrianism later; however, as Mary Boyce points out in Textual Sources for the Study of Zoroastrianism, the religion was definitely Universalist many years before Christianity when the 4th century B.C. Greek, Theopompus stated that: 

Multi-colored icon.   "Zoroaster prophesies that some day there will be a resurrection of all the dead. In the end Hades shall perish and men (people) shall be happy ..."
 
 5.  Zoroastrianism: The Origin of Angelic Beings  
 

 

In the religion of the Magi, the Archangels – called the "Bounteous Immortals" – are very powerful, as you can tell from their names: "The Good Mind", "Righteousness", "Divine Power", "Universal Love", "Perfection", and "Immortality." Interestingly, half are male and half are female. They were created by God and with the Angels serve as a link of communication between humanity and God. Additionally, they are manifestations of the characteristics present in men and women of good will – those that each of us needs to integrate into our lives in order to serve God. For instance, good men and women manifest the characteristics of the Archangel of the Good Mind, while evil people are beset with the Evil Mind. The Archangels have been called deities erroneously by some scholars. Some scholars maintain that Zoroaster's original conception was that of highly abstract Archangels which represent mere aspects of God. Tradition and, more importantly, followers of the modern Zoroastrian religion interpret them literally as Archangels. The Magi also believed that there were Earth Angels of which the prophet Zoroaster was one. Dr. J. J. Modi sees parallels between the Christian angel Michael and the Zoroastrian angel Mithra, as well as between the Christian angel Gabriel and the Zoroastrian angel Sraosha.

The name of Mithra may sound familiar to Westerners because of a heretical cult during Roman times that extended as far west as England. This "mystery religion" (which allowed only men) worshipped Mithra as a god, and its popularity is said to have rivaled the early Christian movement. Curiously, Mithra's birthday is December 25, a date adopted later by the Christian Church for Christmas in its effort to discourage participation in this pagan celebration. Mithra is still worshipped as a god in India. However, in the orthodox religion of the Magi, Zoroastrians consider Mithra "only" an Angel and not even an Archangel! Sophy Burnham, author of A Book of Angels, credits Zoroaster with the development of the concept of angels. Before their contact with the Magi, the Hebrews often refer to the messengers of God as simply men (as in Genesis 18 when three men, one of whom is God, appear to Abraham). After their contact with the Magi, Judaism and later Christianity and Islam have a well-developed system of Archangels and Angels.

 

 6.  Zoroastrianism: The Origin of Universalism  
Christian Universalist Association logo.  

 

Both a spiritual afterlife of the soul and a physical resurrection at the end of time are concepts of Zoroaster. Humanity can fall prey to evil, but after "purification" in Hell, ALL are saved at the end of time. When the victory over evil is complete, the end of time will come where nothing ever dies or decays, and there is no darkness – only LIGHT.

In the spirit of Universalism, Zoroaster tells of future Saviors possibly coming from different nations: 

"Indeed such shall be the Saviors
Of the countries who follow
The call of Duty by good thoughts
Because of their deeds
Inspired by righteousness
In accord with your command
O Mazda, they certainly have been marked out
As smiters of wrath." (Y48.12)
 
 7.  Zoroastrianism: The Origin of Dualistic Good Versus Evil  
The Examination of Job.  

 

One ongoing issue in Zoroastrianism present since antiquity is the debate between those who interpret Zoroaster's understanding of God as "ethical dualism" (monotheism) and those who maintain the concept of "cosmic dualism" (God and Satan co-exist). Although Zoroaster was very sure that God is wholly good and that man is free to choose good or evil, his teachings were unclear about the source of evil in the world. That is, if God the Creator is all good, where does evil come from? Those supporting ethical dualism (monotheism) would answer that evil originates in the mind of humanity and is the byproduct of creation; because the Universe is incomplete and unfinished, there is a capacity to alter the status quo. That is why humanity must be active in helping God to overcome evil. The Zoroastrian scholar and modern-day believer, Prof. Farhang Mehr, sees Zoroaster as a pure monotheist who taught ethical dualism rather than cosmic dualism.

 

Throughout the long history of this religion, the concept of cosmic dualism has been more widely accepted; that is, a belief that good comes from God and that evil comes from Satan, although God is Eternal and Satan is not. Interestingly, this same concept of cosmic dualism is used throughout the New Testament by both Jesus and St. Paul, although the monotheism of Christianity is never doubted. Satan is a very real and powerful being to Jesus; he is tempted by Satan in the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13). He asks:  

Multi-colored icon.   "How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand" (Matthew 12:25-26, Mark 3:23-24, Luke 11:17-18).

In Ephesians 6:11, Paul writes:

Multi-colored icon.   "Put on the whole armor of God so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the Devil." (Ephesians 6:11)

The proponents of cosmic dualism feel comfortable with modern-day "Process Theology" which expresses the idea that God cannot bestow free will and remain all powerful. A concept in modern physics that may reinforce the reality of cosmic dualism is that "a little chaos" is present in every atom of the Universe.

The God of the Magi is Universal, and Zoroaster was the first to proclaim this truth. In the words of the Persian (and Zoroastrian) King Darius:

Multi-colored icon.   "I am King of all the Nations by the will of God."

In the words of Zoroaster, God is supreme:

"When I held you in my very eyes
Then I realized you in my mind, O Mazda,
As the first and also the last for all Eternity,
As the Father of Good Thoughts,
As the Creator of Righteousness
And Lord over the actions of life." (Y31.8)
 
 8.  Zoroastrianism's Influence on World Religions  
Qumran Cave.  

 

Although the Persian Empire fell to Alexander the Great (331 BCE), the Magi continued to be very influential throughout the Middle East and the Western World, and the religion of the Magi continued as the primary religion in the middle east until the Moslem conquest (642 CE). The Magi were prized as teachers of great wisdom and power, and Zoroaster remained a highly respected figure.

Of course, Zoroastrian ideas have been enormously important to subsequent religious thought. Many scholars contend that it was Zoroaster's cursing of the Hindu gods that initiated the break between the religious approaches of the East (Hindu, Buddhism) and those of the West (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). In the Dead Sea Scrolls of the Essenes, the imagery of the "Sons of Light" and "Sons of Darkness" is a direct borrowing from the Religion of the Magi. Six hundred years after the Moslem conquest, the Sufi Mystic, Attar of Nishapur, wrote: 

Multi-colored icon.   "We are the Eternal Magi, we are not Muslims."

The Cypress slender Minister of Wine in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is a Magi. Omar Khayyam once said he wore the belt of a Magi because he was ashamed of his Islam.

Zoroaster taught that God loves us all and that, after evil is finally defeated, ALL humanity will be saved at the end of time, although those whose bad deeds outweigh their good deeds will need to be "purified" in Hell before joining God in Heaven.

The following example illustrates the views of Zoroaster concerning Universal Salvation:

"If you understand these laws of happiness and pain
Which Mazda has ordained, O mortals,