Like many children, I was subjected to Sunday School every week at the local Protestant church. My parents would drop me off and then have Sunday afternoon free of at least one hyperactive child. I certainly don't blame them, and at that age, around five or six, I had no problem with Sunday School or the concept of God and angels. In fact, the stories they told in Sunday School made the world seem a little friendlier.
Heaven, as it was explained to us children, was especially attractive. I began to imagine what heaven might be like. Oddly, it was really no different than my normal life but with one big difference – it wasn’t populated with ‘bad’ people.
At the age of six, my definition of ‘bad’ was not much more than anything I did not like. So, schoolyard bullies, dictatorial teachers, lima beans with liver (my father’s favorite meal - but he was a Scot so he enjoyed eating things that I found disgusting) and In general, anyone who was an unhappy person and spread their unhappiness to those around them. This definition has not changed much in the last 55 years – although now I refer to these people as simply ‘misguided’.
It never dawned on me how heaven managed to keep out all the ‘bad’ people. I kind of assumed God, like Santa Claus, were keeping tabs on everyone considering we were all under constant divine surveillance.
When we were taught about the devil a light went off in my head. “THAT’s how they keep heaven free of bad people!”. The devil was essentially the doorman, or bouncer, for the Heaven Club. His job was to tempt you and trick you and test you constantly to make sure you were a truly good person. It made perfect sense. What did not make sense to me was why he had such a bad reputation. Not only did he seem to be doing God's work, but he and god even played games together and made bets over who could be broken, such as poor Job. Ignoring the fact the god seemed far crueler than the devil, I had a lot more faith in Heaven once I knew there was some sort of application procedure, thanks to Satan and his friends.
I expressed my glowing approval of the devil and his mission just once in front of everyone when I was asked about the devil by the Sunday School teacher, and from that day on I was pretty much shunned by both the teacher and the students. This was of little consequence to me since I lived in my own little word and had little desire to interact with humans.
It was perfectly obvious to me that it was the devil that I needed to pay attention to, not god, because he would be my ticket into Heaven.
But the more I learned about the devil, the more something did not make sense. It almost appeared as though the devil was the good guy and god was the bad guy. Besides the fact that so much of the slaughter and suffering in the bible was performed by god and not the devil, the only real crime that the devil was guilty of was disobeying god and giving the knowledge of life and death to Adam, which really didn't seem like such a bad thing to me.
Interesting side note
I forgot all about this train of thought until many years later when I was reading about the Gnostic sect known as the Cathars, who believed that the god of Genesis was, in fact, Satan, and Lucifer, the Bringer of Light, came to liberate man. In other words, they believe god was the devil and the devil was god (they also believed in reincarnation and women’s rights, as far as that went in those days). I was amazed that there was an entire religion based on the same idea I had when I was six.
However, the church was not too happy with their beliefs, so they did what the church did so well: Under the command of Pope Innocent III, the church began a 100-year persecution of the Cathers until every last one of them was killed. The last known Cathar Perfectus was executed in 1321.
As an adult, I have adopted the idea that the concepts of god and devil are convenient beliefs we buy into, just like how I bought into the idea of heaven because it made me feel better as a child. I did not appreciate the power beliefs had, that is until I met the devil, face to face, at the moment of death.
This was some years later. I was at the house of my In-laws. My wife, at the time, and I had to visit them because my wife's grandmother was dying. She was quite old, quite Roman Catholic, and did not speak a word of English (only Italian). I was there only to support my wife, as I had no relationship with the grandmother, and really did not like being around a crowd of sad, crying Italians as they waited for their matriarch to die.
I found myself alone, thankfully, at one point. I used this opportunity to hide in a small room in the basement that had one single bed. I lay down. I began to slip off but soon found myself in another state. I was not exactly out of my body, but I was certainly not in mine. It seemed as though I was in someone else's body! It felt fairly comfortable as there was no pain and no distractions like noise or commotion anywhere near me. I was alone in a bed, but I did not know whose body I was in.
Two male figures approached me, one from the right and one from the left. They came close to ‘my’ bedside and were leaning over as if to talk to ‘me’. The man on the left was dressed in the most beautiful dark blue suit. He was quite attractive with a full head of jet black hair, a closely shaved beard, and had a gold medallion around his neck that was one of the most beautiful and intricate pieces of jewelry I had ever seen. He removed the medallion and handed it to me, as a gift. I did not take it. I turned my attention to the man on the right. He was dressed in rags, more or less, and looked identical to the popular image of Jesus-as-a-white-guy that is propagated by the popular church: long hair, beard, cloth robe. He extended his hands to me and when he opened them they were empty except for the stigmata. Clearly, this was Jesus. So who was this other young, handsome guy on my left with the Armani suit and the gold jewelry? It was the devil, tempting me with youth, beauty, fine things, and riches.
Without thinking, in an act of what I can only describe as love, I reached out and took the hand of Jesus. The awareness I was ‘in’ another body began to fade and I slipped back into my body in the small bed in the small room in the basement. This whole experience took maybe thirty minutes. I thought about what had just happened. I was not in any way religious, so this whole experience had me confused.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized ‘I’ was not really making any decisions. I was more of a spectator, looking through the eyes of another person, experiencing the decisions of another person. It was not ‘me’ in that bed, it was someone else I had momentarily become.
I went upstairs so as not to look conspicuously absent. The mood was noticeably darker. I was then informed that Grandmother had just died. As soon as I heard that, it hit me like a freight train: I had just experienced the death of this woman! It was her body I entered at that moment of death. But why? We had no connection and did not even share the same beliefs. I still do not know why. Was it simply due to proximity?
Now the images of the two men made sense. These were not my archetypes, they were hers.
Is this what happens when one dies? Are we presented with a choice? Or was this something of her creation, where she would have the opportunity to show her love for Jesus? I do not know, and I guess I won't until I am on my own deathbed, assuming I don't get hit by a bus first.
More importantly, it became clear to me that it is not the ‘reality’ of what we believe that matters, in the end, it is simply that we believe in it (see related post Vacation in Hell). Perhaps this is why I had this experience, to feel and see ‘first hand’ that is it our beliefs we take with us when we leave, not the facts or proof of their validity.