Each time I talk to someone who is contemplating suicide (and this has happened more times than is comfortable), I always say the same thing: “What if the next plane of existence is even worse?” I do get a little nervous when I say it to people older than me, because they sometimes say things like “At this point, I don’t even care. I’m just ready for something new.” But if it’s a teenager, as yet incapable of putting their lives in any sort of perspective, they will almost always say something along the lines of, “Nothing can be worse than how I feel.”
To which I say, “All right. But what if hell is exactly the life you are in right now, except that you can’t sleep, can’t dream, can’t age, and can’t die. In other words, more of the same, but for all eternity, impossible to change.”
It’s a sobering thought, isn’t it? I haven’t met a kid yet with any sort of a meaningful response to that. I have many, many ideas on what hell might be like, and most of them involve being trapped in the worst times of your life. A lot of people get hung up on the burning and the ashes and the lakes of fire and the pits and the pitchforks and piercings or torture or demon prison rape gangs or what have you, but I feel fairly confident that a central tenant to any sort of a meaningful hell, if that’s the correct way to describe it, cannot be dependent on physical pain. Beat, abuse, or physically torment a person enough, and their mind and spirit will flee their body. They will go outside of themselves. Sometimes they never come back again, and are driven mad. Subjected to enough torture, a person’s mind breaks, and may never heal. To really be in agony indefinitely, or at least for an extremely extended period, something would have to lock the mind/soul/spirit into an experience in such a way that there is no escape for it.
I’m never going to be an atheist. I’ve experienced too much that defies every logical form of explanation and probability that I can apply to it. And if you haven’t figured out by now, in a blog post titled “Heaven and Earth, PART FOUR” how analytical I can be, then you have absolutely no idea who you’re dealing with here. Perhaps someday an explanation that can be reliably reproduced will emerge, but I would not expect it in my lifetime, and therefore I am left with one resounding warning never far from my thoughts:
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio
then are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
(Hamlet Act I, Scene v)
My already firm belief in an afterlife was further solidified when I met a young man who had killed himself.
Allow me to explain….
When I was a junior in high school, I spent a few weeks in a juvenile psychiatric facility where I got to face down my various mental illness and develop a few more new ones to round things out, thanks to a few hospital staffers who graduated from the Nurse Ratchet School of Bedside Manner. I spent much of my time there in an isolated room with fewer amenities than your average jailed felon — no sheets, no shoelaces, no small metal objects. Although I did get a toothbrush the thickness of a cucumber that would have been impossible to impale myself with. Or effectively brush my teeth for that matter.
For a brief time, though, I did get a roommate. He was a year or two younger than me and called me things like”Yoda,” “Buddha,” “Professor,” or “Brainbox.” He had a habit of reading the stuff I kept with me in our room, things I’d write in my free time before we had to turn over our dangerous pencils, things I had no means to keep private or hidden in such spartan conditions. He marveled early on at a poem that I was writing, although with his own angle of admiration:
“Dude, I bet you could totally talk your way into a chick’s pants in no time with shit like that.”
His suicidal behavior was a lot more exciting than mine, in no small part due to the fact that he had been successful at it, at least for a time. He’d been having a confrontation with a guy at a party and, both drunk and high, went to go get a gun, came back to the party, and shot the guy. Bam. Dead. Realizing that his days of freedom were pretty much over, he attempted to purposefully OD by taking all the drugs he had all at once. When that didn’t seem to be getting the job done, he shot himself.
The next thing he remembers was your textbook out of body experience, hovering over himself as the doctors worked on him. He remembers their names. He remembers them telling each other it was over. He remembers the official time of his own death. But then he feels another presence. It’s his father. His father had left a long time ago and never gotten in contact. His father tells him it’s time to go. He remembers thinking “No way. I’m not going anywhere with you, you son of a bitch.” He repeats this over and over: “I’m not going anywhere with you.”
He doesn’t remember how his heart started beating again. He doesn’t remember one of the doctors saying “Holy shit! I think he’s still in there!” He doesn’t remember the surgery or anything else before waking up in the hospital with an armed police officer standing nearby. They have to tell him these things, but only after he greets one of his doctors by name, and explains to the shocked man how he knows it. At first the doctor thinks he might have overheard somehow, been listening despite his dire, unconscious state. But then he describes them, the things they did and how odd he thought it was that they would fight so hard to save a murderer’s life.
It’s possible he made the whole story up. I’ve considered that. But if he could come up with a story like that, he wouldn’t have needed me to ghost write his letters to the ward’s doctors and psychiatrists, and to the judge considering his case, letters that showed “true remorse and growth” and led to his release from the ward into a shortened stay in juvenile detention.
And if I can’t trust his account, I do trust those of my own dearest and most beloved pastor from my childhood church, Pastor Thomas Anderson, who in his decades of ministering to people in the hospital and at the ends of their lives has told me countless tales of people’s near death experiences, or of their seeing departed loved ones in the moments before they themselves expired.
With all these things to consider, I think it would take a stronger act of blind faith for me to believe that all existence stops with the death of the physical body than for me to believe that there is something yet to come. But can you come back from it? That’s the real question here. It bothers me that I am more convinced of possibilities and potentialities for hell than I am of heaven. If heaven is truly paradise, how or why would anyone want to come back from it? If it is pure bliss, pure peace, pure joy to be in God’s kingdom, I imagine there’s little cause to turn away from it. As sad as it makes us on earth to think that we’ve been “forgotten,” it does make it a bit more acceptable that your old friend might prefer being there than playing ghost detective back on earth with someone who is never completely certain of your presence or intent, and would probably interpret attempts to convey “I know where the gold is buried” as “Dig up my grave” anyway.
It concerns me then, when I feel like I’ve had contact with the departed, be it Scott or the former owners of this house who hung around for a while to make sure we weren’t going to disrespect the place, or my mother’s mother who wanted to let me know that she still loved me a bushel and a peck. Because if they’re doing that, then maybe they aren’t in heaven, at least not all the time. And what does that mean? Some have suggested they might be angels or saints, agents on God’s behalf. That would be nice, I suppose. But I am surprised that God would see fit to allow the departed to reveal their existence to someone who regularly wrestles with the occasionally tantalizing idea of shedding this troublesome mortal life.
And if you think that’s a mindfreak, you should wait until you hear about some of the conversations I’ve had with Jesus.