STANDING IN A VISIONARY GAP
My two part feature on strange visionary claims re John Lennon in perdition (April and May) traced a controversial account of vision journey to the source nobody seemed to know and tried to make some sense of it. Yet despite the vision’s otherwise precise indications there was an information gap at one point. The Colombians hadn’t indicated in what part/circle/level of their Inferno they encountered John Lennon and the main reason for which he was in his reported valley -matters which at any rate Dante readers might expect to be connected. As with most modern otherworld visions which offer only glimpses of hell, the Colombians’ glimpses, though wide ranging, were still episodic. They offered no cartography of perdition, no organization of mental states, or punishments.
I have subsequently found one unusually precise vision of the hell zones which while not mentioning John Lennon (or any named individuals) arguably supplies the nearest clue to what - if Lennon truly resides where the Colombians in all seriousness claim - his whereabouts would surely have to be and the core reason for his being there. And as I feel I sufficiently proved the Colombians were somewhere and couldn’t have invented their story entirely that this other vision can - apparently - supply clues and make coherency-serving links with other visionary/archetypal material is a reason to allow it some consideration.
Again I simply follow my rules for reading visions given in the first John Lennon article. I look for especially the unexpected detail not easily made or borrowed and the kind of factors that create consistent pictures. I’m wary of what I called any “contamination” in transmission and of the borderline between literal and symbolic. There are quite a few claims to otherworld visions now published via book or Net and they are far from being of equal value, interest or reliability. One must beware of deception but also not merely dismiss the unfamiliar. The odd or terrible are sometimes true.
BACKGROUND TO THE HELL CITY VISION
The story, or rather sermon, that frames the description of hell’s layout as a city is based on the Near Death Experience of a certain James Alexander and I regret to say for research purposes it is not told by himself but a preacher, Daryl Turner, who has it from Alexander’s mother. Turner exasperatingly sandwiches Alexander’s rather unique hell account between a verbose, wandering hot gospel message listening through which on a Net recording to get the main point made me glad I wasn’t raised in America to American religion. Turner has an argument in his mind about calling Jesus' hell parable of Dives and Lazarus ( Lk 16: 19-31) a parable; it must be in everything literal. This is an odd position (though typical enough of the fundamentalism which literalizes every word and story) because scholars know the Lazarus story is linked to ideas common in the ancient Middle East and Jesus used the stock material with slight alteration for his audience. However, endorsing material this way wouldn’t mean the names and symbols of Jesus’ parable point to nothing real. Heaven and hell can only be glimpsed, imagined, evoked and Jesus is conveying a general truth.
James Alexander had lived a rather heedless youth in course of which he had won a sports scholarship for Kentucky University. Disinterested in the religion of his youth he was suddenly struck with the leukemia that seemed likely to take his life. However, himself a fighting model of American positive thought with a huge appetite for life, Alexander fought against his illness and with medical assistance appeared cured. Some time later he was struck by further illness (a relapse?) and this time did die in hospital and enough to undergo a full After Death experience which took the form of a dramatic journey to what he would call “The City of Woe”. Frantic for his salvation in the face of his continued ungrateful indifference for life his mother’s bedside prayers allegedly brought him back. Later Alexander would become a Pentecostal minister, rather in the way atheist, Howard Storm, has become a Presbyterian missionary in the wake of his hell descent.
Once dead Alexander reports being immediately seized and chained by demonic spirits and arriving before the most enormous imaginable gates of a “City of Woe”. He read a Dantesque notice (we may assume this irreligious Kentucky extravert hadn’t read Dante who never gets mentioned) “Through these gates you pass into the City of Woe where all hope is lost for ever”. I note specifically the gates of hell seem to be a deeply archetypal theme, the symbol almost of hell itself and thus Jesus speaks of the gates of hell not prevailing against the church (Mt.15:18). The city beyond the gates into which Alexander was dragged and through which he passed down before eventually being finally released by an angel, has seven quite morally, spiritually distinct levels. If they had anything like the subdivisions of Dante’s nine circles we aren’t informed, but we’re told enough to gain a vivid overview one apparently quite unique among modern otherworld visions.
SEVEN LEVELS OF HELL, NOT DANTE”S NINE
Alexander’s city of seven levels is a great simplification compared to Dante’s vision and some others. This may or may not recommend Alexander’s as genuinely (raw) visionary material rather than something expanded by poetic/fictional considerations or cultural/religious contamination over time.
But before enumerating the levels I’ll briefly recall Dante’s arrangement which is not especially biblical in feeling or reference. Dante’s nine circled hell is organized as an inverted expression of the virtues according to pagan philosopher, Aristotle. Its three main divisions cover the sins of incontinence (sins of weakness) of violence and of fraud (the more deliberate sins). Incontinence as lust like the adulterous affair of Francesca da Rimini is near the top of hell while the betrayal of Judas, a form of “fraud” (but only from a highly philosophical point of view!) is right at the bottom. Sins of sexual perversion don’t belong with lust for Dante but rather with “violence”, specifically a form of violence against nature much as theft is a form of “violence” against persons and property or heresy is a form of “violence” against God. So, this Inferno gets quite complicated and acquires all sorts of subsections as when the violent in circle seven are organized in inner, middle and outer rings from the wall Dante and Virgil descend beside. Against this complexity Alexander’s simpler modern vision has, I think, its own logic and if anything a more strictly religious one.
Seven is in any case the sacred number in a whole variety of contexts – the seven spirits of God especially and inversely the seven deadly sins though Alexander’s City of Woe vision in no way seems to be a working out of the latter. Nor does there seem to be any hidden pattern like each level linked to one of the seven visible planets as is the case with the levels of Dante’s paradise. At most it seems like a place which, because it inverts the divine spiritual structure of seven must form itself after that pattern. Likewise it is a city, just as (the centre of) heaven is a city, the New Jerusalem.
Once again, as in the Colombian vision, though we’re not explicitly told so, we can take it this hell/sheol/hades overseen by tormenting, mocking demons is not the post Last Judgment hell of Gehenna into which demons and hades themselves are ultimately to be thrown. Perdition is first torment, then destruction.
THE MAP OF HELL CITY
The First level is said to be that of the Unbelievers or Unbelief. This is the abode of those who have totally rejected Christ and the Gospel in their lifetimes. Mocked by demons who have enchained and thrown them there they grope about in a dark mist which burns them. If this were intended as allegory plainly it would be a symbol(and presumably it is meant as an enactment of) not finding or not wanting to find the way. There is some comparison here with the Limbo and higher levels of Dante’s Inferno in which pagan philosophers, Mohammed and various unbelieving souls, are caught. There is perhaps something here too of the passivity or indifference of Dante’s higher levels which contrasts with the active “violence” of his heretics and blasphemers lower down and this vision’s form of unbelief at the next level.
The Second level contains those who don’t fear God, those who reject or rebel against God, in short a more active form of disbelief, the realm of the blasphemers. This is described as a place of exploding lava and volcanoes and fierce wind (which for Dante's Divine Comedy is associated rather with the circle of lust). A river of fire runs through this section and the wind fans flames and blows many of the rebels, who try to escape from the river, back into it. This zone corresponds somewhat to a report in Bill Wiese’s by now notorious record, 23 Minutes in Hell, in which when he is able to leave the rock chamber (where he suffers demonic torture and hears much blasphemy) he is able distantly to see a river of fire into which those seeking to escape are being pushed back in by demons (rather than a bitter wind though I think Alexander’s report would imply this also occurs because its demons seems involved in most that goes on!).
JOHN LENNON'S LEVEL, MAYBE....
This second section drew my attention because it links most to the Colombians' vision of John Lennon in hell. There seems little question that Lennon could qualify as one who mocks or challenges God (my Lennon articles gave some evidence there was more of this in him than is commonly known and I've read of more since). While the Columbians’ specific “valley of the cauldrons” is not mentioned in relation to this level (all levels are vast with millions of souls from across time) Lennon’s “valley” was definitely described as one of lava. And a valley with lava patches is what would exist among mountains of volcanoes such as are not reported for other levels. The valley’s cauldrons are heated by the lava.
Just prior to their record of Jesus' meeting John Lennon the Columbians mention seeing chambers which again seems likely to place their experience on the level with the river of fire that both Alexander and Wiese witness to and in which (i.e. the chambers) Wiese was temporarily caught. Says one of the young Colombians ”We arrived at some caverns; to some horrible doors, like labyrinths. We didn't want to go inside there”. Then too there’s the point that Lennon is portrayed as calling out to be given “one last chance”. Even this could be telling here.
Curiously, it is specifically mentioned that it is in level Two rather than the other levels that souls are screaming and they especially call to be given “one more chance” with God. (This is in marked contrast to Dante’s inferno where the blasphemer still predictably blasphemes). One wonders, if this is supplying us any authentic glimpse of anything, what psychology might be involved. Would it be that the blaspheming type is noisy, aggressive, presuming and, unlike others, imagines he/she can still prevail upon the God they dismissed in life to have their way? Is it they think they deserve another chance because they have convinced themselves they never really meant what they said? The actual symbolism I see here is that the God mocker is faced with the scene most reminiscent of God as the God of awe and terror. It is reasonably well established as in Colin.J Humphrey’s groundbreaking The Miracles of Exodus, that Sinai had to have been a volcanic mountain within the borders of modern Saudi Arabia. Whatever, it looks from Alexander’s alleged plan of hell that the Colombians, who offer no map of their inferno, would need to have seen Lennon in this second level. Which means that Lennon is not defined there and/or was not strongly motivated during life, (as he might have been and I’d speculated was possible) by other influences on him as from Yoko Ono which would tend to belong to obsessions of the next level.
The Third Level pertains to all forms of idolatry, witchcraft and false religion. The demons here can burn the victims by just looking at them; or they can claw at the flesh of their spirit bodies.(The Colombians insist that on death souls obtain a “body of death” that exists in hell and which in many ways is, like hell itself, more real than the body of the present life). The enacted, symbolic meaning here would seem to be that since the persons have in effect always been worshipping or employing demonic powers beneath the guise of various energies and idols worshipped now they are fully attached to them and can be used and attacked by them. This could be the same level in which the Colombians saw souls pursuing tempting mirages to slake hunger or thirst. This would correspond to pursuing magic though it also more archetypally belongs with mythic punishments as of Tantalus who forever reaches for the fruit and water he sees in Tartarus (a form of hell) that evades him..
The Fourth Level is said to be the level of Hypocrites and Backsliders. Tormenting fire issues out of the floors and walls but most essentially the demons coax and provoke the souls to memory and conscience. These people are forced to remember what they were or could have been. They are mocked for having thrown away keys to paradise they had in their hands, or at least within grasp. It sounds like a punishment not just by conscience and memory but by melancholia and depression.
Whether in its special mixture of objective and subjective torment this could constitute the worst state of hell it is possible that at this fourth level of a city, one not seen like Dante’s Interno as built in circular spirals around an empty shaft-like core, this level is necessarily the “centre” of hell. It is therefore interesting that the Colombians place their hypocrites and backsliders at the “centre” of their hell and declare ”This place is where the worse torments happen, the center of hell. These are the most concentrated forms of torment......The only people there were those who knew Jesus and the Word of God”. The Columbians however insist upon the particularly awful and fiery nature of the torments here and Alexander’s vision though stressing the psychological does see a torment especially by fire which is coming from all directions. Is it then possible visionaries are visiting/seeing the same place?
The Fifth Level is described as the level of Perversion of all kinds, child molesters and the rest - homosexuals in the fundamentalist worldview inevitably. By implication however this is the realm of lust and “fornication” more generally especially since many souls are apparently suffering in spiritual form the effects of the various sexual diseases brought on by their histories of sexual excess, betrayals and viciousness of all kinds. Unlike Dante no separate level is mentioned for “ordinary” (heterosexual) sexual sin like that of the adulterers. Nor indeed for the self indulgent and greedy, the kind of behaviour which sent decadent Romans to the vomitoriums. Such greed would surely have to come under the head of the excess which can itself be a form of perversion. Through this level there runs a river of filth (excrement such as Dante reserves for the flatterers in the realm of the violent?) than fire through which the demons drag souls and a terrible odour prevails so that victims can hardly breathe.
The Sixth Level is the level of the thieves and is unique in being not like the rest of hell, a darkness but a blinding light. It is also exceptionally empty of everything as though everything has been stolen from it. The floor is on fire and souls are forced to walk or run on it (which had been the case for Dante’s hermaphrodites i.e. homosexuals who are “violent” against nature). That theft is placed as low as the sixth – assuming degrees of evil are implied by descent and this isn’t certain in this vision whose “centre” of horrors could be Four – would be consistent with the seriousness theft is taken as a form of sin within Judaeo-Christian tradition where its spirit is felt to underline many other sins so that stealing and coveting compose two of the ten commandments. Presumably the rich who were avaricious or miserly (separate types for Dante) would belong here. In the early centuries of the church the rich were in fact described as guilty of a work of theft against the larger community. If this were indeed the abode of the selfish rich one wonders could there be significance in the fact that in the parable Dives, the rich man, can behold Lazarus from afar i.e. Dives is in a place where he is not in darkness but can “see” in a way not indicated for especially those on the first level.
The Seventh and last level is defined as the realm of the murderers and by every implication the torturers too which I find interesting and a note of possible authenticity since I have always felt the Bible is too quiet on the evil of torture. In the seventh circle a river of blood such as for Dante runs through the seventh circle of the violent, runs through this level and like the voice of Abel calling from the earth the sounds of all those murdered across time cry out. The murderers are forced to undergo repeatedly what they have done to others. If they have sawn or suffocated or tortured someone to death they must themselves experience their crimes over and over again. (It is like the most literal of fulfillments of “the measure you give is the measure you will get” (Mk 4:24). We are not supplied the names of anyone in this circle but clearly the Empress Wu who had the limbs of her son’s favourite concubine hacked off and her body still alive thrown into a privy, would be in this place enjoying repetition of her notorious crime of which this was only one of many. This seems like the least controversial level of the City of Woe, the part likely to trouble most of us least given the history of humanity’s dark side.
THE MEANING OF THE HELL LEVELS
If any of this is authentic what might this organization of these levels mean? Personally I do find it rather “theological” because it could be described as a variation upon its lead theme of unbelief at the first level. Unbelief at the top links to murder at the bottom to the extent all sin is biblically seen as ultimately sin/wrong attitude toward God alone. (“Against you alone have I sinned” says David in Psalm 51 when, if the Psalm is really his, materially he had very much sinned against Uriah the Hittite). Also Jesus says the devil was a murderer from the first (Jn. 8:44). But of course the devil in Eden murders no one, he invokes a spiritual death which engenders physical death later and he does this by encouraging the disbelief of “Has God said?”. So, unbelief and murder have their links though most unbelievers won’t commit murder and some believers will.
It looks then as though one half of hell is filled with forms of obvious unbelief, passive and active plus the over-belief of various superstitions and then the twisted belief of the hypocrites which is given a special central section, possibly the worst one.
The other half of hell can then be seen as filled with another kind of unbelief or willful refusal of belief. The excessive (perverted), persons, the thieves and the murderers, simply don’t believe in God as conscience or nature and they absolutely fail to regard the other person as any kind of image of the divine. They just don’t believe such things; other people exist simply to be the object of their own needs, pleasure, hatreds.
DOES THIS NEW HELL IMPROVE JUSTICE?
I set out to do a bit of spiritual sleuthing, trying to explain, if anyone ever could, the Lennon in hell theme. I am left meditating and speculating upon a recent alleged vision of the organization of the hell zone might mean.
Does this “modern” hell improve anything on tradition and Dante?. In a way for both clarity and justice it arguably does so. It has certainly got rid of the strained philosophical connections and apparently made everything into principally a matter of belief or at least thought. Theoretically this is more just than the medieval hell of Dante.
For example, one of Dante’s more obvious forms of injustice was the story of Francesca da Rimini. Whereas there are adulterers in Dante’s Purgatory and Heaven because they had a chance to repent Francesca and her lover are caught in hell by just a twofold stroke of bad luck that says nothing for divine providence. Francesca who has haunted western art and even music through Tchaikovsky had been pushed young into an impossible and loveless marriage from which she would inevitably want to stray and then she is unfortunate enough to be murdered by the jealous husband thus sending her straight into the Beyond without chance to repent. This is a true medieval muddle that permits no scope to divine mercy. She is technically guilty therefore she must be damned.
The organization and general implications of the City of Woe suggest something saner and more just upon who is there even if – a separate issue – the punishments remain alarming. The emphasis both actual and implied upon belief amounts more generally to a judgment by thoughts which the gospels do more or less affirm in sayings like “and by your words you will justified, and by your words you will be condemned”. (Mt 12:37) Words after all proceed from thoughts. Dante’s universe like that of the world of the OT was one in which everyone is punished for their (worst, most characteristic) deeds and it is undeniably true that the Last Judgment is one which considers “works” (Rev 20:12). However the fact is that we can intend well but still cause bad things to happen and bad things occur to make us worse because of situations over which we have little or no control. Therefore justice would surely require that the beliefs and words which represent our true will and thoughts should be the ultimate basis of any judgment.This could in turn affect how sexual identity and behaviour is to be seen in these visions and as a subject for judgment.
The punishment of all sex linked sins (unless perhaps in the case of the hypocrites but that is not specially mentioned by Alexander) appears to be relegated, and thus perhaps more limited, to the level of perversion and excess. But this would not then cover situations that were based on reasonable moral discretion, special casuistry or need, cases into which those like Francesca’s symbolize and should arguably fall. Such people and situations don’t belong in level five and one would hope not in hell at all. Then again although it’s par for the course that we shall hear that “homosexuals” get relegated here - fundamentalists couldn’t imagine or allow otherwise whether vision revealed it or not! - in fact the term “homosexual”, itself unknown to the Bible, is too broad to have the intended sting in this case. Merely observing “homosexuals and lesbians” within level five doesn’t signify this whole class of persons belong here any more than if one reported seeing Columbians in hell it meant all Columbians go there. However there are, undeniably, gay persons who live a life of excess, mix sex with drug orgies, prostitution of the young and alarming perversions we needn’t begin to describe. Since such people do exist we shouldn’t be surprised to hear there are “homosexuals” in this level of hell if it exists to be mapped as maintained.
ABANDONING ALL HOPE?
The biggest question is always can this place exist because could any good God allow it. Nietzsche understandably objected to Dante’s claim that “Eternal Love” framed this place at whose entrance all hope was to be abandoned. He proposed only Eternal Hate could do it. I have given some kind of answer in the earlier Lennon articles but perhaps this vision gives more. I recall that Alexander’s account says somewhere that the souls in the city were told that they now belonged to Satan. The Colombians likewise portray hell as a kind of demonic fairground and are explicit that the devil has devised the torments and his demons even mockingly tell the victims to praise him. Some of the souls they see have the number 666 attached to their “bodies of death”, as though to emphasize ownership.
Somewhere amid these bewildering and ghastly impressions is likely to be the crux of the matter as regards any punishments. The choice against God, whether actively or passively made, is not a choice for neutrality or some atheist’s hope for eternal sleep. It amounts to a choice for what and who opposes God and in a freewill universe not even God can fully prevent what’s entailed, only warn against it and call to “holiness”. While no one earns heaven the Colombians insist souls must have some holiness to attain it and since no one beyond saints are notably holy I think they mean at least an imputed/virtual holiness through the right attitudes engaged by repentance. Some of the souls they meet have willfully or carelessly refused all repentance before their sudden arrival in hades.
Divine justice perhaps indirectly influences the organization of hell and since even hell can only organize itself in imitation of God and heaven it has a (“spiritual”) sevenfold structure. But for the rest the torments express the devices and pleasure of the Satan, not God. Though not for Lennon the Colombians report real pity and sympathy for other named persons they meet (like Mark, Magdalena and Andrew again chillingly represented in the astrological pattern for the reported time) but though it is said the case of Mark brings tears to Christ’s eyes he tells Mark he can no longer do anything for him. His fate has been set for all time. Salvation in the old carols was deliverance “from Satan’s power” a piece of half forgotten doctrine nonetheless harmonious with the Lord’s prayer which is believed to mean not “deliver us from evil” but “deliver us from the Evil One”.
It would therefore be almost a mercy that Satan’s hades is thrown into the Gehenna of fire in which general destruction, perhaps semi annihilation, could be said to follow on the more specific torments of hades/hell. Then at least the demonic powers have no further power to torture individuals, they must themselves now be tormented. But at this later stage torment becomes perhaps more a matter of pure conscience and experiencing negatively and as fire the God that has been rejected. The bible's Daniel story of the fiery furnace which doesn’t burn the prophet and his companions because he is with one who looks like a god perhaps foreshadows the situation, (albeit Daniel’s fire wasn’t prepared by God). Nevertheless it may be we are to think that the redeemed and the lost will both experience God - but differently. Such is explicitly the doctrine of at any rate the Eastern Churches which have stressed hell much less than the West historically.
The insistence of, and even increase in, visions of hell today may convey the message the modern West needs to revise its entire thinking in this area, though on the whole visionaries seem to be saying it is because we are the end of the age and apocalypse looms.