The Holy Scriptures' teachings regarding the delight of the righteous in heaven and the suffering of the sinners in hell can be found in the brochure "The end of the World and Future Life"(missionary brochure of our parish, number 47). What is heaven? Where is it? In conversation people refer to heaven as up "above" and hell as down "below." People who have seen hell during their clinical deaths always described its approach as a descent. Although, clearly, up and down are relative terms, it would be incorrect to think of heaven or hell as simply different conditions. They are two distinct places though they defy geographical description. Angels and the souls of the dead can only be in one particular place, be it heaven, hell or earth. We cannot denote the location of the spiritual world; it is not within the "coordinates" of our space-time system. That space is different and, although it has its beginnings here, it expands in new directions beyond the reaches of human mind.
Countless incidents from the lives of the saints show us how that spiritual space interacts with the space of our world. In such a way, the residents of Spruce Island saw the soul of Saint Herman of Alaska rising in a column of fire; the Elder Seraphim Glinsky saw the ascending soul of Saint Seraphim of Sarov; and the Prophet Elisha saw the Prophet Elijah taken to heaven in a fiery chariot. As much as we would like to penetrate into this new world, we are prevented by its existence outside of our three-dimensional world.
Most contemporary accounts of clinical death describe places close in proximity to our world, on this side of the threshold. Still, we come across accounts of places that resemble heaven and hell as described in the Holy Scriptures.
For instance, in the works of Dr. George Ritchy, Betty Malts, Maurice Rawling and others there are depictions of hell: "serpents, fiends, unbearable stench, and demons." In his book "A return from tomorrow" Dr. Ritchy tells of his own experiences in 1943 when he saw depictions of hell. The bondage of the sinners to the cravings of this world was unbearable. He saw murderers that were, so to speak, chained to their victims. The murderers cried out and asked for forgiveness from their victims, but they could not be heard. These were purposeless tears and requests.
Thomas Welch tells how he, while working as a lumberjack in Portland, Oregon, slipped and fell into a creek and found himself crushed by giant logs. It took workers more than an hour to find his body and pull it out from between the logs. Not seeing any signs of life, the workers concluded that he was dead. Thomas, meanwhile, in a temporary state of death, found himself on the shores of boundless flaming ocean. He was frozen by fear of the fiery sulfur rushing towards him. This was the fiery Gehenna that cannot be described in words. There, on the shore of the fiery Gehenna, he recognized the faces of a few people who had died before him. All of them stood in absolute horror of the rolling fiery surges. Thomas knew that there was no chance of leaving this place. He began to regret that he had previously shown so little concern for his salvation. Oh, if only he had known what awaited him, he would have lived very differently. Then he noticed someone walking in the distance. The face of the stranger showed great strength and goodness. Thomas understood that this was the Lord and that only he could save his soul, condemned to Gehenna. A spark of hope was kindled in Thomas and he hoped the Lord might notice him. The Lord, however, was walking past him towards something in the distance. "Now, he will depart and then all hope will be lost." Suddenly the Lord turned His countenance and looked at Thomas. It was all that was necessary, just one look from the Lord. In an instant, Thomas was back in his body and alive once again. He had not yet opened his eyes when he could clearly hear the prayers of the workers standing around him. Many years later Thomas could remember everything he had seen there in great detail. It was an unforgettable experience (his experience is written in the booklet "Oregon's Amazing Miracle," Christ for the Nations, Inc. 1976.).
Pastor Kenneth E. Hagin remembers that in April of 1933 when he lived in McKinney, Texas his heart stopped beating and his soul left his body." After this, I began to descend lower and lower. The lower I went, the darker and hotter it became. As we went deeper, I noticed the flickering of ominous flames, presumable hell's, on the walls of the caves. Finally, a large flame burst through and began to pull me. Many years have passed since then. To this day I can picture that hell's flame.
Having reached the bottom of the chasm, I felt the presence of a spirit next to me and it began to lead me. At this moment, above the hellish dark a powerful Voice was heard. I did not understand what was said, but I felt that it was the God's Voice. From the force of this Voice, the whole of the nether world trembled. Immediately the spirit which had been pushing me, let me go and a wind lifted me back up. Gradually the light of this world began to shine. I was, once again, in my room and I jumped into my body like a man jumping into a pair of pants. I saw my grandmother, who started telling me "Dear, I thought you had died." After a time, Kenneth became a pastor in one of the Protestant churches and dedicated his life to God. He wrote about his ordeal in a brochure entitled "My Witness" [4, pg. 91].
Dr. Rawlings dedicates a whole chapter of his book to stories of people who had been to hell. In one of the stories there is a huge field where sinners battle without rest, maiming, raping and killing each other; the air full of their agonizing cries, obscenities and curses. In other stories there are places of fruitless labor, where cruel demons oppress the souls of sinners by forcing them to carry loads from one place to another [4, Chapter 7].
The unbearable torments of hell are well illustrated by the following two stories from orthodox books.
An enfeebled man after suffering for many years finally prayed to the Lord for an end to his suffering. An angel appeared to him and said: "Your sins require cleansing. The Lord offers you to exchange one year of suffering on earth for three hours of hell. Choose." The sufferer contemplated his choices and decided on three hours in hell. Then the angel took him into the pit of hell. All around was darkness, narrowness — everywhere evil spirits, the cries of sinners, and suffering. The soul of the enfeebled began to experience indescribable fear and pain, but only echoes and the surging hellfire answered his screams. No one noticed his groans and bellows; all of the sinners were occupied with their own suffering. The sufferer felt that centuries had passed and that the angel had forgotten him. Finally the angel appeared to him and asked, "Well, how are you brother?" "You tricked me!" exclaimed the sufferer. "Not three hours, but many years I have been here in intolerable pain!" "What years?" the angel asked, "only an hour has passed, and you still have two to go." Then the sufferer begged the angel to return him to earth, where he was willing to suffer as many years as required, if only to leave this place of terrors. "Very well," answered the angel, "The Lord will show His Great Mercy." Finding himself back on his sickbed, the sufferer from that point forward bore his sufferings with meekness, always remembering hells terrors, which are incomparably worse. (from the letters of Sviatogortz, pg. 183, 15th letter, 1883).
Here is the story of two friends. One went to a monastery and led a saintly life and the other remained in the world and lived sinfully. When the sinful friend died, his friend the monk prayed to God for knowledge of his friend's fate. Once, while the monk was in a light sleep, his friend came to him. His friend began to tell him about the intolerable agonies he was experiencing and how a tireless worm was gnawing at him. Having said this, he lifted his clothing over his knee revealing an awful worm, which covered the length of his leg and was consuming it. The lesions on his leg exuded such an odor that the stench woke the monk. He jumped from his cell and the stench from his cell spread through the monastery. As the stench did not decrease with time, all of the monks were forced to move to a different site. The monk who saw hell's prisoner could not rid himself of the stench which clung to him for the rest of his days (from the book "Eternal Mysteries from Beyond the Grave" a publication of St. Panteleimon Monastery, on Mount Athos).
In contrast to these visions of terror, the descriptions of heaven were always bright and joyful. Such is the story of Thomas N., an eminent scientist, drowned in a pool when he was five years old. Fortunately, a relative noticed him and pulled him from the water and took him to the hospital. When the other relatives gathered in the hospital, the doctor told them that Thomas was dead. To everyone's surprise, Thomas awoke. "When I was under the water," Thomas later recounted, "I felt that I was flying through a long tunnel. At the other end of the tunnel, I saw a light that was so bright that I could touch it. There I saw God enthroned and below people or maybe angels surrounding His throne. When I came closer to God, He told me that my time had not yet come. I wanted to remain, but I unexpectedly found myself back in my body." Thomas insists that this vision helped him find the right path in life. He wanted to become a scientist to more deeply understand the world that God created. Undoubtedly he has had great success in this endeavor.
Betty Malts' book, "I Saw Eternity," released in 1977 describes how she died and then found herself on a marvelous green slope. She was surprised that even with three incisions from her operation she could stand and walk freely and without pain. Above her, was a bright blue sky. There was no sun, but light was everywhere. Beneath her bare feet the grass was green, like no green on this planet, and each blade seemed to be alive. Although the hill was steep, her feet moved easily, effortlessly. She could see bright flowers, shrubs and trees. To her left, she saw the figure of a man in a robe. Betty thought to herself, "Could this be an angel?" They walked along without speaking. She felt that he was not a stranger and that he knew her. She felt young, healthy and happy. " I had everything that I had ever wanted; I was everything I had hoped to be; and I was going to where I had always wished to be." Then her life flashed before her eyes. She saw her own selfishness and was ashamed, but she felt love and concern around her. She and her companion came to a wonderful silver palace, "but it had no towers." Music and singing could be heard. She heard the word "Jesus." The palace had walls of precious stone and a doorway of pearl. When the gates opened, for a moment, she saw a street in golden light. Even though she could not see anyone in the Light, she knew that this was "Jesus." She wanted to enter the palace, but on remembering her father was returned to her body. This encounter has brought her closer to God. She now loves people.
Saint Salvianus of Albi, a hieromonk of Gaul during the 6th century, was returned to life after being dead for the better part of a day and told his friend Gregory Tursk the following: "When my cell was shaken four days ago and you saw me dead, I was lifted by a pair of angels and taken to the heights of heaven. There, under my feet, I could see not only the insignificant earth, but also the sun, moon and stars. After this, I was taken through a gate brighter than the sun and led into a building where all the floors shined with silver and gold. That Light defies description. That place was full of people and stretched so far in all directions that I could not see its end. The angels cleared a path before me through the crowd and we entered the place upon which our gaze had rested when we were still afar. Above this place, hovered a bright cloud, brighter than the sun, and from it I heard a voice, like the sound of many waters.
Then I was greeted by other beings; some were in priestly clothing, others in usual dress. My guides explained that these were the Martyrs and other Saints. While I stood, I was fanned by a pleasant fragrance; it filled me in such a way that I felt no need of food or drink.
Sometime thereafter, the Voice from the cloud said, "Let this man return to earth as he is needed by the Church." And I fell down to the ground and cried: "Alas, Alas, Lord, why have You shown me all of this if only to take it away?" But the Voice answered, "Go in peace. I will watch over you until such time as I will return you to this place." Then I went back, crying, through gates by which I had entered.
Another extraordinary vision of Heaven is related by St. Andrew the Christ Lover, a Slav, who was born retarded and lived in Constantinople in the 9th century. Once, during a harsh winter Saint Andrew was lying in the street dying from the cold. All at once, he felt unusual warmth and saw a beautiful youth shining like the sun. This youth took him to heaven, the third firmament. This is what Saint Andrew described upon his return to earth.
"By God's will I spent two weeks in a sweet vision… I saw myself in heaven and I wondered at the untold charm of this beautiful and delightful place. There were many orchards full of tall trees. Their swaying tops pleased my sight and their branches emitted a delightful fragrance. The beauty of these trees could not be compared with any on earth. The orchards were filled with innumerable birds with gold, white and colored wings. They sat on the branches of these heavenly trees and sang so that I lost myself in the singing…
Next, I saw myself standing on heavenly firmament and a youth with a face bright like the sun and dressed in royal purple walking before me. As I followed him, I saw a tall beautiful cross that looked like a rainbow and around it flame-like singers, who sang unto and praised the Lord, crucified for us on the cross. The youth, who walked ahead of me, approached the cross and kissed it. He motioned for me to do the same…
Kissing the cross I felt untold gladness and felt the fragrance more than before. Going further, I looked down and saw below me something like the depths of the ocean. The youth turned to me and said, "Do not be afraid for we must go even higher" and he gave me his hand. When I grabbed it, we were already at the second firmament. There I saw amazing men; their happiness cannot be related in the language of mankind. And so we rose above the third firmament, where I saw and heard the numerous powers of heaven, singing and praising God. We approached a curtain that blazed like lightning. Before it stood youths of flame… And the youth, who had guided me, said, "When the curtain opens, you will see the Lord Christ. Then bow down to the Throne of His Glory…" And so a sort of flaming hand opened the curtain, and I, like the Prophet Isaiah, saw the Lord Himself sitting upon the most high and exalted throne, and Seraphims flew about Him. He was dressed in royal purple garments, His Face glowed and He looked upon me with love. Seeing this, I fell down before him, bowing to the Almighty and to His Throne of Glory. What happiness filled me when I looked upon His Countenance, words cannot explain. Even now, remembering this vision I overflow with inexpressible joy. In trepidation I lay before my Master. Then all the heavenly forces sang a most-glorious and unutterable song, thereafter, not knowing how, I was again in heaven (the third firmament)."
It is interesting to note that when Saint Andrew, not seeing the Virgin Mary, asked where She was, the angel explained: "Did you expect to see the Queen here? She is not here. She has descended to the unsettled world to help the people and comfort the grieving. I would show you Her Holy Place, but there is no time. You must return."
And so, according to the lives of the saints and the stories in orthodox books, we see that the soul reaches heaven only after it has left the earth and traveled the distance between the two worlds. Many times these trips include the snares and plottings of demons. The soul is always led to heaven by angels. The soul never arrives there without guidance. Even St. John of Chrysostom wrote about this: "And then the angels led Lazarus… for the soul does not go into that world on its own for that it cannot do. For if we travel from one city to another, we have need of a guide, how much greater then is the soul’s need in a guide having been taken from the body and presented with the life of the world to come." We must conclude that the contemporary stories of the Light and of the beautiful places are not actual visitations. Rather, they are "visions" or "foretastes" of them from a distance.
Obvious signs of God's Grace always accompany direct visitation of heaven. Sometimes through marvelous fragrance accompanied by a bolstering of man's strengths. For example, the fragrance so fed St. Sabellius that he did not need food or drink for three days and only when he spoke of it, did the fragrance disappear. The intimate experience of visiting Heaven is accompanied by a feeling of reverence before the Resplendence of God and an appreciation of one's unworthiness. Moreover, the personal experience of Heaven cannot be accurately conveyed, because the "eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for those who love Him" and "for now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face" (1 Cor. 2:9 and 13:12).