I read in the New Scientist a while back that people who’ve suffered near death experiences commonly have a sense of drifting out of their bodies, floating above themselves and being drawn towards brightness above them.
Sounds heavenly. But according to the scientists there may be a simpler neurological explanation – the action of oxygen depletion on the brain.
My theory of Hell draws on Montaigne’s description of his near death experience falling off and being crushed by his horse. His delirium made time stand still, pain an irrelevance and his life pass before him scrambled in time and place by hallucination.
A troubled conscience taken into that context must be a special kind of torment. And stripped of all sense of time, it meets many of the classic criteria of Hell.
I watched the film ‘Source Code’ at the weekend. The hero is a massively injured soldier kept alive, artificially, so his brain can be deployed in a virtual timeshift to stop a ‘dirty bomb’. He saves the day. And his brain comes to a stop at a perfect moment – kissing the virtual ‘girl next door’ having saved millions of lives. Heaven.
We could all check out any minute. In olden times often with no warning in a brutal instant. Spartans sought glorious death on the battlefield – not much time to contemplate your sins in that kind of death. But there were plenty of other ways to go.
Montaigne, like the ancient philosophers he drew on, writes a lot about death. He points out:
We call that only a natural death; as if it were contrary to nature to see a man break his neck with a fall, be drowned in shipwreck, be snatched away with a pleurisy or the plague, and as if our ordinary condition did not expose us to these inconveniences… To die of old age is a death rare, extraordinary, and singular, and, therefore, so much less natural than the others; ’tis the last and extremest sort of dying: and the more remote, the less to be hoped for.
These days many of us will go slower and with plenty of time for delirium – troubled or ecstatic. Even in an accident there’s a fighting chance of oxygen, crash teams and intubation keeping you going long enough for a few timeless hallucinations. All the more reason to live well, without regret or a troubled conscience.
As Montaigne observes:
As an ill conscience fills us with fear, so a good one gives us greater confidence and assurance; and I can truly say that I have gone through several hazards with a more steady pace in consideration of the secret knowledge I had of my own will and the innocence of my intentions.
And quoting Ovid:
“As a man’s conscience is, so within hope or fear prevails.”
A clean conscience is a good principle for life. And, although I’m in no hurry to test it, I suspect also for death. If you buy my theory, bad deeds and a bad conscience could last an eternity in our final moments. Good ones potentially shimmer with ethereal light. Whatever you think comes next, a happy ending is another reason to invest in a good life in the here and now.