In 2016 a Michigan pastor called Gerald Johnson had a heart attack and claimed he died when his ‘spirit left my physical body.’
I’m fascinated with near-death experiences. I was riveted by Anita Moorjani’s account in her book, Dying To Be Me, but this one confused me.
As a pastor, you’d expect Johnson to fly straight up to God’s arms, but he says in a viral Tik Tok video that he was denied entry to heaven and plunged straight down to hell. And I’ve not come across another account of a near-death experience in hell.
I’ve heard lots of people describe being alive as hell. Is hell what you make it mean? According to Gerald Johnson, hell is a physical place, but maybe hell only exists in our minds.
What is Hell?
For most people, hell is a place of eternal punishment for those who have committed grave sins in life.
In Christianity, hell is often described as a fiery pit where demons torment sinners. In Greek mythology, the underworld was a cold, dark place where souls were punished for specific crimes. And in ancient Egyptian religion, the underworld was a place of judgment where the souls of the dead were weighed against the feather of Ma’at, the goddess of truth and justice.
But Hell, according to Johnson, is in the earth’s centre.
Johnson says he was punished cruelly; again; this fits everyone’s idea of hell. In Dante’s version, Satan is a three-headed beast who uses each mouth to eat people. But Johnson says he suffered far worse.
He was tormented by karaoke versions of Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’ and Bobby McFerrin’s ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ sung by demons.
Fortunately for Johnson, he was resuscitated and now uses his experience to tell the world that popular music is the devil’s attempt to control people. So apart from banging the drum against popular music, if you’ll excuse the pun, why does Johnson think he was denied his place in heaven?
‘The root of it is that although I did good and gave a lot to people, the thing that I had in my heart was unforgiveness towards people that have done me wrong.
That’s my experience with Hell; it is a real place. God doesn’t send people to Hell; people send themselves to Hell.’
Now I can’t possibly say whether pastor Johnson did visit Satan or is as mad as a box of frogs, but I do agree with him when he says that people send themselves to Hell. And this happens when they’re still alive.
Hell is Other People
Jean-Paul Sartre once famously said, ‘Hell is other people’ in No Exit.
In his play, three characters are in a drawing room. They try to make sense of their punishment but quickly realise that there are no fiery pits or demons to whip them. It’s just the three of them trapped in this room forever.
I once saw a play where a young guy went straight to hell, and his version was sitting in a chintzy, floral living room with a couple showing slides of their caravanning holidays for eternity .— Jean-Paul Sartre
You can interpret Sartre’s quote in many ways. You might think it suggests that the presence of other people can often be a source of frustration and misery. Sartre believed that being in someone’s gaze fixes you in an identity they’ve constructed; we’re forced to conform to their expectations, which takes away our freedom.
And a lack of freedom can feel like hell on earth.
Hell on Earth
I work with clients day in and day out who experience hell on earth.
But they’re not being flayed by demons; they’re not even being subjected to ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ on an endless loop.
They’re suffering their thoughts about what is happening today, what happened in the past or what might happen in the future.
In his book The Body Keeps the Score, Dr Bessel van der Kolk talks about a Vietnam veteran, Bill, who, after his wife had a baby, kept seeing images of bloody and burned children’s faces and hearing the sound of babies crying.
The doctors who attended Bill thought he was psychotic and had paranoid schizophrenia. But van der Kolk disagreed with the diagnosis and said that this man was suffering from his memories.
This is what happens with many of my clients.
It’s possible to create hell on earth purely with our thoughts.
If you keep going over and over something that upsets you or generates fear by worrying about what might happen in the future, you could lie on a beach in the sunshine and feel like you’re in hell. And you are.
In the hell inside your head.
How to Make Your Life Heaven on Earth Instead of Hell
We can create heaven or hell on Earth for ourselves.
If you wake up and the dog has eaten something that’s given him the runs, and the two-year-old has slipped in the mess and is now covered in it, you might be forgiven for thinking your life is hell.
But on the morning you wake up, smell fresh coffee brewing, and find that your partner has already fed the children and walked the dog, your life might feel like heaven.
The only difference is the circumstances.
And how you think about those. No one wants to clear poopy floors and children. But if you woke up fresh after a good night’s sleep, the mess would be annoying and smelly but not hell.
Remember, it might seem compelling that your feeling that life is hell is coming from the circumstances, I mean, the poop is right there, but your feeling will change if you let it. After all, a feeling is only a thought thick.
If you concentrate on the things that upsets, irritate or stress you, you’re not likely to feel better anytime soon. But if you do something or think about something else, the feeling fades. You have to work hard to keep a feeling in place.
As Charles R Swindoll says,
Life is 10% what happens to you, 90% how you react to it
Or sing along with the demons, at least.