Heaven and Hell

David Pratt

A theological nightmare

The idea that we live one short life on earth and then spend the rest of eternity in either a hell of torment or a heaven of bliss must rank as one of the most absurd superstitions ever invented by the human mind. No life on earth, no matter how good or how evil, could possibly justify an eternity of reward or punishment. What’s more, if the Christian God created our souls, he must have given us our basic character traits, and would therefore be largely responsible for our actions, and if that is the case, there would be no justice in punishing us, or – for that matter – in rewarding us. And if this God really made us in his own image, wouldn’t that reflect rather badly on God?

Another unjust feature of the traditional Christian scheme of things is that whether we’re sent to heaven or hell doesn’t depend on all the deeds we’ve done during our life but solely on whether we believe in Jesus at the moment we die. This means that an atheist who has lived an exemplary altruistic life would automatically be consigned to the flames of hell, while a person who had committed unspeakable crimes but later repented and turned to Jesus, would go to heaven. This doctrine is partly based on chapter 16, verse 16 of St Mark’s Gospel, where Jesus is made to say: ‘He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.’ We can safely assume that no genuine spiritual teacher could ever have uttered such words. And indeed this verse, and in fact all the last 12 verses of the last chapter of St Mark’s Gospel are known to be a forgery; they are a later interpolation and are not found in the oldest Greek manuscripts. This was admitted in a footnote in the Revised Edition of the Bible, published in the 1880s, but the forged passage was still included as part of the main text.1 But in the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, published in 1901, the forged passage was relegated to a footnote. (Clearly, even the ‘word of God’ evolves!)

Another question raised by orthodox Christian theology is this: How could those who go to heaven ever be happy when they knew of the terrible atrocities being inflicted on the damned in hell? The early Christian theologian Tertullian apparently had no problem with this. He said that he actually looked forward to the day when, after joining the elect in heaven, he would see all those who had opposed Christianity burning in the flames of hell. He wrote: ‘Oh, what shall be the magnitude of the scene. How I shall laugh! How I shall rejoice! How I shall triumph!’2 (Clearly Christian charity was not one his stronger points!)

Many churchmen have left us chilling descriptions of the tortures suffered by the wicked sinners in hell. For example, a Roman Catholic book for children tells how children who get sent to hell will writhe in agony as the blood boils and bubbles in their scalded brains. And an English Baptist clergyman by the name of Spurgeon wrote:

When thou diest thy soul will be tormented alone; ... but at the Day of Judgement thy body will join thy soul and thou wilt have twin hells; thy soul sweating drops of blood, and thy body suffused with agony. In fierce fire, ... thy body will be, asbestos-like, forever unconsumed, all thy veins roads for the feet of pain to travel on; every nerve a string on which the devil shall for ever play his diabolical tune of hell’s unutterable lament.3

However ridiculous it may seem to us now, this superstitious nightmare of an eternal hell has been firmly believed in for over a thousand years.

Distorted echoes of the ancient wisdom

Not surprisingly, the orthodox Christian belief in heaven and hell is held by fewer and fewer thinking people. It’s no more than a very distorted echo of the original teachings of the wisdom religion – that ancient tradition from which all later religions have sprung, and from which they’ve often departed in quite significant ways as they’ve become increasingly mangled and dogmatic. The original teachings on heaven and hell differ from later exoteric doctrines in three important respects.

Firstly, they recognize that there must be an endless variety of after-death states to suit the widely varying quality of the life that each of us has led on earth. We find echoes of this in many religions. Even the Bible, for example, speaks of Hades (or Sheol in Hebrew) as an intermediate state between heaven and hell, and St Paul speaks of a ‘third heaven’. The kabala, the esoteric tradition of the Jews, mentions 7 heavens. The Hindus speak of 7 higher worlds (or lokas) and 7 lower worlds (or talas).

The second important difference is that all the various after-death states were originally regarded as only temporary, never permanent. The Bible sometimes describes hell as ‘eternal’, but it’s worth noting that the Greek word aionios was often used to mean an extremely long, but still limited period of time. The Christian Church Father Origen believed that punishment in hell would eventually come to an end and everyone would be saved, but this view was rejected by the Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Greek Orthodox Churches.

The third important difference is that the after-death states were originally said to be experienced in the invisible worlds interpenetrating our own world, whereas some later exoteric religions have located their heavens and hells in different parts of our own material world. For example, hell has been located at the centre of the earth, on the moon, and in the sun. Others have placed heaven in the sun, or in the earth’s outer atmosphere, or in the depths of space.

According to the ancient wisdom tradition, then, there is no eternal heaven and hell, but a variety of temporary after-death states that are undergone in the invisible worlds. The reason we can’t see these worlds is because they are composed of grades of matter beyond our range of perception.

Worlds within worlds

It’s interesting to examine whether this idea of worlds within worlds makes sense in the light of modern science, or rather, whether modern science makes sense in the light of the idea of worlds within worlds, an idea which has been held by all the greatest mystics and sages throughout the ages. First, let’s take a brief look at three theories which speak openly of other ‘worlds’ or ‘dimensions’, but which bear little or no resemblance to the occult theory.

The first is the theory of ‘baby universes’ put forward by theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. On a scale of a billion-trillion-trillionth of a centimetre, so the story goes, the fabric of space is said to become an effervescing froth of spacetime bubbles, which all have the potential to grow into mature universes, connected to our own by tiny umbilical cords known as ‘wormholes’. The number of universes coming into existence every second in every cubic centimetre of our space could be as many as 10143 (1 followed by 143 zeros); all these universes in turn give birth to countless other universes. As one critic remarks: ‘It is a vision that seems to beg for some form of cosmic birth control.’4 In his latest book, Hawking assures us that even if there was a ‘population explosion’ of baby universes, there would be still no shortage of room, because they exist in a realm of their own – the realm of what he calls ‘imaginary time’; he defines imaginary time as a direction of time at right angles to real time.5 He gets rather irritated with those who reject imaginary time as an irrelevant mathematical trick. Such people, he says, fail to realize that imaginary time is ‘an intellectual leap of the same order as believing that the world is round’.6 Whether this theory will be proved right, or whether baby universes and imaginary time will end up being consigned to the trash can of history remains to be seen. At present, at any rate, there’s not a scrap of observational evidence to support the theory.

The second theory is the ‘many-worlds interpretation’ of quantum physics. According to this theory, whenever an event takes place or a decision is made in which there’s a choice of possibilities, the universe splits, without anybody noticing, so that every possibility is realized but in different universes. This means that an infinity of new universes are generated every instant. We ourselves supposedly exist in countless different universes, doing different things, and thinking different thoughts. This particular brain of ours is only aware of one of these universes – this one. All the other branches of reality are said to be completely inaccessible to us – which is very convenient because it means that they can’t be disproved. This theory too has no direct evidence to support it; it’s simply a rather wild interpretation of one of the equations of quantum physics. It is however surprisingly popular among quantum physicists.

The third theory is superstring theory. This claims that the fundamental particles of matter are really one-dimensional strings – tiny closed loops with length but no thickness – which vibrate and wriggle about in 10 dimensions of spacetime (an earlier version said there were 26 dimensions). The reason we see only three dimensions of space in the real world is because the other dimensions have for some unknown reason undergone ‘spontaneous compactification’ and are now curled up in an area a billion-trillion-trillionth of a centimetre across. The mathematics of superstring theory are so incredibly complex that no one has yet found any solutions to the relevant equations. In fact, superstring theory has yet to make a single testable prediction. Nevertheless it’s become the latest craze among many physicists. But it does have its opponents. For example, Nobel Prize winner Sheldon Glashow has likened it to medieval theology, and another Nobel laureate, Richard Feynman, bluntly dismissed it as ‘nonsense’.

Leaving these three rather fanciful theories aside, much better support for the idea of worlds within worlds is provided by the standard scientific understanding of matter and energy. Matter nowadays is regarded as condensed energy, as bottled-up radiation, or crystallized light. The spectrum of electromagnetic energy is infinite, but scientists can detect only about 100 octaves of it, ranging from radio waves, with wavelengths several metres long, to x-rays, gamma rays, and cosmic rays, with wavelengths less than a billionth of a centimetre long. Visible light is situated somewhere in the middle and covers only one octave.

We’re continuously bathed by a sea of electromagnetic energies of every conceivable frequency. An important property of this energy is that waves of sufficiently different frequencies can pass through one another without interfering. If they did interfere, the world around us would appear as a complete blur. Since matter is condensed energy, it seems reasonable to suppose that the infinite spectrum of energy gives rise to an infinite spectrum of matter, in which grades of matter of sufficiently differing densities, or rates of vibration, can pass through one another without noticeably interacting. Our physical world could be simply one octave of this infinite spectrum of matter-energy, and could be interpenetrated by innumerable other worlds, the lower worlds, or ‘hells’, being denser and more material than our own, and the higher worlds more ethereal, ranging from the astral realms up to spiritual or heavenly realms.

Although mainstream science regards all talk of etheric, astral, and spiritual realms as superstitious nonsense, it’s worth remembering that in the last century most scientists accepted the existence of an ether. The ether can be thought of as a medium of subtler matter pervading all space, and forming the substratum of physical matter. The ether went out of fashion early in the twentieth century, with the arrival of the more abstract theories of Einstein. But all that has happened is that the word ‘ether’ has been replaced by a much vaguer word ‘field’ – nowadays we hear of quantum matter fields, electromagnetic fields, and gravitational fields. Scientists can describe these fields mathematically but they can’t give a satisfactory explanation of what they really are.

If physical matter arises out of the quantum field, what does the quantum field arise out of? Or are we to believe that the quantum field is the ‘bottom level’ of reality, that because our equations stop there, reality must also stop there? One scientist who rejected any human-imposed limits to reality was the distinguished physicist David Bohm. He called the quantum-field level of reality the implicate order, and he likened it to a vast ocean of energy, on which our physical world is just a ripple. But he says that the implicate order in turn unfolds from and is organized by a superimplicate order, and that there may be an infinite number of further, increasingly subtle levels of reality, each level having both a material aspect and a consciousness aspect. As Bohm puts it: ‘everything material is also mental and everything mental is also material, but there are many more infinitely subtle levels of matter than we are aware of’.7

Another scientist with unorthodox ideas is the biologist Rupert Sheldrake. He says that the fields and forces known to science fail to explain how organisms acquire and maintain their forms, they fail to explain instinctual and selfconscious behaviour, and they can’t really account for evolution. He therefore suggests that there are higher-level fields, or what he calls morphic fields. These nonphysical fields include morphogenetic, behavioural, and mental fields, and these correspond to what mystics and occultists might call the astral body, the animal soul, and the human soul. And what Sheldrake calls the morphic field of Gaia, the earth, corresponds to the astral world in which these subtle bodies exist.

Inner worlds and their inhabitants

If there really are worlds within worlds, a natural question is whether they might be inhabited. Since visible light – which simply means light that is visible to us – covers only one octave of the infinite electromagnetic spectrum, could there be entities dwelling in other parts of the spectrum which are normally invisible to us?

There is in fact strong evidence that such entities exist. It all began with the perfecting of radar during the second world war. Radar works by emitting bursts of microwaves which are reflected back by whatever gets in their way. Microwaves lie between radio waves and infrared radiation, and infrared lies just beyond the red part of the visible spectrum. During the war radar was used to detect enemy aircraft and ships before they became visible to the eye. And it was a great success. But something rather embarrassing started to happen. Objects were detected by radar which remained invisible even when they were so close that they should have been visible to the naked eye.

The following famous incident took place during the war. Two US aircraft carriers were patrolling the area south of Okinawa in the North Pacific, when their radars detected a huge force of 200 to 300 enemy aircraft approaching from the northeast. At a range of 100 miles their speed was determined to be nearly 700 miles an hour – faster than any known aircraft in the world at that time. All the American aircraft available were scrambled and directed towards the attacking force. Despite excellent visibility, the fighter pilots saw nothing, even when directly above the attacking force. The ‘enemy’ kept on coming towards the task force, which was now preparing itself for the impending attack. The mysterious formation flew over the fleet, but the crew never saw a thing – just an empty blue sky. There have been many similar incidents since then. These invisible objects are officially known as – or rather dismissed as – ‘radar propagation anomalies’, or ‘spurious echoes’, or ‘radar ghosts’, and sometimes they’re jokingly referred to as ‘angels’.

A pioneering researcher in this field is Trevor Constable, a well-known aviation historian. He discovered that by using an ordinary camera and infrared film, all sorts of invisible objects could be photographed in the sky. He believes that some of them are intelligently designed and controlled craft, but others, he says, have all the hallmarks of living creatures; many look like giant pulsating unicellular organisms or amoebas. The existence of these plasmatic lifeforms has been independently verified by researchers in Europe and the United States. It seems that under certain conditions some of these creatures can alter their density and become physically visible and tangible. Constable discusses many sightings and includes many photos in his book The Cosmic Pulse of Life.8

Back in 1949 the US Air Force came close to admitting that such organisms existed. Some of the luminous UFOs that buzzed its aircraft at high altitudes were observed to pulsate, and in April 1949 a public announcement was made that these objects appeared to behave more like animals than anything else. Since then no further official announcements have been made. But given its widespread use of radar and infrared detectors, the Air Force is certainly aware of these creatures. In his book, Constable includes a photograph of an Air Force fighter plane, armed with Sidewinder infrared homing rockets, trying to intercept one of these creatures above the Mojave desert.

Constable spent many frustrating years trying to arouse the interest of professional scientists and military and government organizations in his work. But with a few notable exceptions, the response he met with was hostile, intolerant, and irrational. No one ever challenged the authenticity of the photographic evidence. But because it shows things that official science can’t cope with, most scientists refused to give the matter any further attention. The idea of crafts or creatures materializing and dematerializing between the etheric and physical realms has no place in the materialistic worldview. Constable was eventually forced to the same conclusion as Max Planck, the founder of quantum physics, who once said: ‘A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light; but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.’

The creatures that Trevor Constable has photographed appear to inhabit the etheric borderland between the physical and astral realms. The astral realms are said to be inhabited by further varieties of elemental beings and also by the souls and astral shells of the dead. Since the middle of the last century a great deal of research has been carried out into paranormal and spiritualistic phenomena. A whole new branch of science – parapsychology – has sprung up, though it receives as yet little recognition from mainstream science. But there’s plenty of evidence, for those willing to see it, that something like the astral realms and astral entities must exist. Either that or there’s an enormous number of hallucinating, self-deluded, and lying individuals walking around.

It’s rather curious that most scientists are quite happy to allow the weirdest mathematical abstractions into their theories, but seem unwilling to give any serious consideration to the evidence for nonphysical grades of matter and nonphysical energies and forces. Unlike the hypothetical baby universes that Hawking has conceived, and the split-off universes connected with the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics, and the extra dimensions required by superstring theory, the astral realms are open to investigation by those possessing the necessary faculties. We can’t see the astral world with our physical senses, but it can be investigated by those who’ve developed their inner senses to some degree. However, it’s said to take the trained spiritual vision of a true seer or adept to reliably distinguish the real from the false in the highly deceptive astral world.

Our after-death journey

According to orthodox science, the human body consists of about 3 dollars worth of chemicals, organized in a highly complicated manner. A person who has just died is essentially composed of the same chemical elements as when he or she was alive. That means that while scientists can give extremely detailed descriptions of the structure of DNA, they’re unable, after 400 years of observation and experiment, to explain the difference between a living human being and a corpse!

According to the theosophic tradition, just as the physical universe is merely the outer shell of inner worlds – astral, mental, and spiritual – so every physical being is animated by inner energy-fields or souls. The physical body dies when the connecting link with the inner bodies is broken. The physical body then proceeds to decay on the physical plane, while the astral model-body that held it together during life and the higher astral form in which the lower mind has its seat slowly dissipate in the lower astral realms. This part of the astral world is sometimes called the kama-loka, the world of desire; it corresponds to the Purgatory or Limbus of the Roman Catholics, the Hades of the ancient Greeks, and the Orcus or Underworld of the Romans.

The death of the physical body is really only the ‘first death’. It’s followed by a ‘second death’ in the astral realms, when the human soul, or reincarnating ego, separates from the astral shell and enters a blissful, dreamlike state of rest, known in theosophy as the devachan, meaning a ‘happy state’; it corresponds to the sukhavati of the Buddhists, the svarga of the Hindus, the Amenti of the ancient Egyptians, and the Elysian Fields of the ancient Greeks. When the energies finding expression in the devachan are exhausted, the thirst for material life begins to reassert itself, and the soul is drawn back to the earth for a new incarnation, clothing itself in many of the same astral and physical atoms that it used in its last life.

According to this perspective, there’s no outside power, no extra-cosmic deity, directing us to heaven or hell. Rather, we’re drawn automatically and unerringly to those realms and conditions with which we resonate most strongly. The length and nature of our feverish and fitful sleep in the kama-loka and our sweet and peaceful sleep in the devachan depend entirely on the sort of life we’ve led on earth, and the extent to which we’ve either indulged our lower, selfish impulses or cultivated our higher, more spiritual aspirations. We therefore create our own heaven and our own hell – both during life and after death.


We live in a questioning and critical age when the religious and scientific dogmas of the past are increasingly being challenged. The idea, for example, of a personal, anthropomorphic God, a sort of magnified image of ourselves, a God who created the universe and ourselves from nothing, who listens to prayers, grants favours, forgives sins, and eventually consigns us to heaven or hell – such a God finds fewer and fewer believers.

At the same time, the idea of a soulless, mechanical universe governed by nothing but chance is not very compelling either. An increasing number of scientists are seeking a more holistic, purposeful, and creative vision of life. There are, however, a few scientists who actually believe that they’re on the verge of discovering a Theory of Everything, a complete and unified theory of the whole universe. Leon Lederman, the director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Chicago, has said: ‘We hope to explain the entire universe in a single, simple formula that you can wear on your T-shirt.’ (Surprisingly, he was quite sober at the time!) Obviously, in an infinite universe there can be no final theory, only limited theories applying to limited contexts and which break down when we go beyond those contexts. Far from being close to a Theory of Everything, official science has barely scratched the surface of reality.

It may well be true that the basic laws and principles of nature can be expressed in fairly simple terms. But what could be more straightforward, and more appealing, than the idea of universal life and consciousness; the idea that every entity is ensouled by a spark of divinity, which embodies in an endless variety of forms in an endless variety of worlds in each grand cycle of its evolution; that instead of being condemned to a single life on earth, followed by an eternity of heavenly bliss or the tortures of hell, we have many lives in which to unfold our full human and divine potential. According to this vision – the vision offered by the ageless wisdom religion – there are no limits to reality except those we impose through our own limited understanding. We live in a universe of spirit as well as of matter, a universe of infinite diversity and infinite wonder.


  1. See H.P. Blavatsky Collected Writings, TPH, 1950-91, 8:206.
  2. See ibid., 5:85-6fn; H.P. Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled, TUP, 1972 (1877), 2:250.
  3. Quoted in G. de Purucker, The Esoteric Tradition, TUP, 2nd ed., 1940, p. 545fn.
  4. E. Lerner, The Big Bang Never Happened, Vintage Books, 1992, p. 161.
  5. Stephen Hawking, Black Holes and Baby Universes, Bantam Books, 1993, p. 112.
  6. Ibid., p. 74.
  7. R. Weber, Dialogues with Scientists and Sages: The search for unity, Arkana, 1990, p. 151.
  8. The Cosmic Pulse of Life, Borderland Sciences Research Foundation, 1990.

November 1997.