I recently attended a lecture by senior members of the Indonesian police about a network of terrorists who called themselves Muslims. Among the Power Point slides presented were mug shots of suicide bombers taken after the fact. Their explosive belts destroyed their bodies but left their heads intact, and the face of each was frozen at the moment of death with an expression of surprise, as if they had just seen or experienced something that really was quite unexpected. Did they behold the gates of Paradise, as they were taught they would by the people who recruited and instructed them in an aberrant version of Islam? Or did they glimpse the depths of hell as they stole away the lives of innocents in their campaign of horror? Where are the souls of those bombers now?
Surely they are nowhere, in the physical sense of a celestial or subterranean locale. If we are talking about a literal cartography of the cosmos, then, no, I certainly do not believe in heaven or hell. Nor, for that matter, do I believe that the word “now” has much relevance. Eternity is not something you check on your watch. If those self-executed murderers’ spirits endured in any way, they were beyond the measurement of present or future time.
Yet I imagine the killers did see something at the moment of their death, and I suspect that all of us do – a sort of final dream that is as real as dreams can be, and which takes us through the last moment of life that probably becomes, for each of us, eternity. The link between our unconscious and our visions of heaven and hell is, for me, one of the most fascinating and troubling areas to explore in the realm of faith. And one about which I continue to learn from books like Marie-Louise von Franz’s 1984 study, “On Dreams & Death: A Jungian Interpretation.” Among other issues, she looks at the difficulty we all have dissociating our spiritual life from our physical corpses, even though “only a few of us today can believe in a concrete reproduction of the old body.”
Dreams are the nearest thing we have to an experience beyond and apart from the body. And at the moment of death, I would suppose that part of that experience must surely be affected by the way our consciousness and our conscience come into play. How much have we loved and felt love? Have we been just or unjust, selfish or selfless, kind or cruel? Just as such questions play on us in our sleep, they must affect us in the moment that we die, and there is finally no bargain we can make with ourselves that will guarantee the desired result. “In that sleep of death,” as Shakespeare wrote, “what dreams may come … must give us pause.”
People of faith, genuine believers who have worshipped and obeyed their God or gods, probably have a better chance than others of experiencing that same sort of transcendent happiness at the moment of death that can come to us, rarely, in our dreams. How comforting to hear the priest administering the last rites say “through this holy unction and His own most tender mercy may the Lord pardon thee whatever sins or faults thou hast committed.” Some who die may enter a world of nightmares, which is the closest thing to damnation that most of us have ever felt. Perhaps others, perhaps most, suddenly sense the void, an end of life with no new beginning at all. But that is almost too horrible for many people to contemplate.
In the Qur’an, one of the most moving and comforting phrases tells us that “every soul shall have a taste of death,” as if mortality were just a passing moment in the endless life of the spirit. I have always liked that thought. But what about the twisted teachings of those who indoctrinate fanatics like the suicide bombers whose heads were collected by the Indonesian police? Did they so believe in their version of their faith that at the moment of death they felt themselves transported to Paradise? Was their last shock of knowledge the vision that the Qur’an offers of “gardens of bliss” where they would recline on thrones, eating the sweet flesh of birds and drinking divine libations while surrounded by pure and beautiful virgins? That might be possible. But as I look at the faces of the murderers, I feel certain that the death their souls tasted was the nightmare that became their eternity.