I was listening to an interview with near-death experiencer Peter Panagore on Coast to Coast the other day (link). He told quite a gripping story of his youthful ice-climbing adventures in the Banff area of Alberta and its conclusion in his near death and his profound experiences “out there.” One of those was the commonly experienced life review. He called it Hell because he experienced all the suffering and pain he had caused other people from the point of view of those he hurt. That is, he felt their pain. This is, of course, common to many of the life reviews that the NDEers report.
He called it Hell, no doubt, because he was and still is a Christian of very broad philosophical understanding. Indeed, in the interview he tells us he had been visited by some God-like person as a boy of 6 sitting in a tree. He felt destined for church all his life and eventually acquired a divinity degree.
Also like the other NDEers, Panagore came quickly through his life review (in fact, he is at pains to state that our notion of time just doesn’t fit in the other-world of the NDE, but he says, he has no other language to use in describing his experiences over there). He notes also, and again like so many others, that love was the chief feeling in that world, that this love was of an ineffably more profound kind than anything we experience here. A part of that love was the fact of total, complete forgiveness for him for all the harm and hurt he had done others.
Now in the listener call-in portion of this interview, in the last hour (4 am on the eastcoast) a trucker who identifies himself as an evangelical preacher calls in as Anonymous. He is, however, a serious sinner and has serious problems with the Hell that Panagore has described. His question and the two answers provided by Panagore and the host, Dave Schrader, prompted me to do a lot of thinking on the topic.
First the question, which you can listen to here and or read below:
Dave Schrader: All right, let’s go to phone calls – wild card, line 2, Anonymous calling while trucking through Georgia.
Anonymous: Hey, Dave, great show. Love it when you host.
Dave Schrader: Thank you.
Anonymous: Peter, you have had an incredible story here. Mine I will try and sum up as quickly as I can. I, about ten years ago, really fell in love with Jesus. And became an evangelist at a church and – I had human problems going on – and specifically I will say – I had an addiction to pornography and – I went to the church, and I confessed to the elders. Then the elders held me up in front of the church and – had me confess it to them and then removed me from my ministry.
Unidentified voice: [Expression of disgust.]
Anonymous: At that point I completely fell away from God. I lost faith. I – and since then – since then – I’ve been – I’ve fallen and I’ve fallen and I’ve fallen. I’ve had this - I always have the love for Jesus. but – I have – I’ve cost so much pain from that point – and it’s funny that – I heard you say that you’re in Maine?
Peter Panagore: Yep.
And I’m leaving this life that I’ve run with to move back home to Maine in about a week. uhh to be in my family that I left – but, I guess your, your story and when I hear about your experience in the end – I mean I’m so full of fear as it is. I mean I’m petrified of the changes I have to make and the people that I’ve harmed. And I know that my family is waiting for me and I know that their arms are open to me. But I’m so afraid that when the time comes, if I have to face those fears in the afterlife – it’s almost discouraging to change my ways. Because if that’s what I have to face, and I know the pain I caused, for the most part. but I know from what you say, it’s so much deeper. How can I possibly be a - Is it easier just to stick with the sin?
I thought that was a powerful personal story and a rather shocking close. It poses important questions for me to consider. I paused the playback right there to give myself time to think on my own before hearing what Panagore would say. Some issues I can identify in Anonymous’ story –
- Isn’t Anonymous, who identifies himself as a fallen evangelist preacher, likely to be thinking of Hell in terms of permanence? Where Panagore played the life review as covering absolutely everything but taking either no time at all (because in the afterlife there is no time as we know it) or in any case a finite time ending in the eternal-seeming place of light and love.
- A major idea he’s missing, too, is that the life review is not described as painful or fearsome or agonizingly filled with chagrin and remorse. Instead it is a series of remarkably sympathetic reencounters with people he has hurt. That is, instead of feeling anything for himself (like chagrin or remorse) he feels what the person hurt was feeling. This is sympathy, with-suffering as the German has it (Mitleid).
- Anonymous does not tell us anything about why he is returning to his family. My first thought is that he is sorry for what he has done, for how he hurt them, and he wants to live a different kind of life with their love and support. Surely he has expressed remorse to them and arranged a reconciliation possibility in that manner. But if that is the case, his thinking about what will happen to him in the on-going Hell he appears to find in Panagore’s story, jerks him entirely out of the sympathy mode that reconciliation requires and back into some apparently just self-centered mode.
- In fact, that second-thought thinking also implies that he may have arranged the possibility of reconciliation out of selfish motives in the first place rather than out of sympathy for the people he caused to suffer. As in, to put it simplistically, “OK, if I do good, God will reward me with Heaven.”
- The takeaway most important idea this piece raises in my mind concerns the connection between what we might call remorse and sympathy itself, or love. In religious tradition remorse is always sincere remorse based on a powerful sense of the harm we have done others, and for that to be sincere, it surely has to be based on sympathy with the person(s) suffering. Opposed to remorse would then be guilt, a sense of having made, say, a really serious mistake that got oneself in deep trouble and pain. Guilt goes with fear and seems to be what is motivating the anonymous caller. Sympathy does not. Nor love, which is surely close-allied to sympathy.
- And forgiveness. In Pangore’s experience out of body and near death, in some other place, it seemed to him, the sense of being loved, and forgiven for the pain he had caused those in his life review, was the main thing. This fact had for him an ineffable and utterly significant importance. It was not remorse he felt, but love. This was the transcendence.
- What is transcended there was the usual Earthly sense, that the caller is experiencing, that despite all reconciliation, despite any degree of sincere remorse, guilt remains. Why? Because one feels the forgiveness expressed is insufficient or not actually sincere. And one is somehow back at fear, thus guilt.
- To me this issue needs rethinking from the point of view of the sympathy-based life review and the discovery of ineffably deep and significant love as the ground of being of the entire universe of consciousness.
6. Finally there is the egregious moral ugliness of the elders of Anonymous’s church requiring his public confession and then sacking him. On the surface of it, this is so painfully un-Christian and otherwise also indecent as not to need any commentary. Actually, I might gain good insight from giving more thought to how this can be, but not now.
This vexing crux is the core topic of all the Dostoevsky novels I have read and I think it is the source of his imperishable appeal. Famously he concluded the need for a leap of faith in a God whose forgiveness would indeed transcend our human limitations.
I know there is a conception of God in Christianity as all-forgiving, and that would surely match the conception of God as love, but I cannot find the term in my Googling about right away. However, in doing the Googling I am reminded of how utterly and confusingly important forgiveness, remorse, atonement, salvation are in Christian theology. There are many problems deriving from the need to align one’s belief with one’s reading of the Biblical texts.
For the empirically minded, however, and I mean people like Pangore by that, people who have simply experienced the forgiveness and the love in one way or another, the love and forgiveness are just a fact of life. Albeit a fact of which too few are aware.