“Churches in Hell” is an extract from Gone West: Three Narratives of After-Death Experiences Communicated Through the Mediumship of J. S. M. Ward, B.A., Late Scholar and Freeman of Trinity Hall, Cambridge.
In this chapter, one of the main communicators known as the “officer” talks about after physically dying, he finds himself in the illusory vibrational state we call hell, or the lower astral plane. This communication came via J.S.M. Ward in 1914 at the beginning of World War I. Here, the Officer and his accomplice come across a church, where they strike up a conversation with a deceased vicar.
The Sixth Division - A Church and its Vicar
Letter from The Officer
Sept. 5th, 1914.
“We stayed but a short time in this rest-house, which was a large one, before continuing our journey. Once more the fog engulfed us, and we seemed to turn to the right, and soon I saw the grey mass of a city. This city had a high wall on the side overlooking the great precipice, and it was from one of the towers of the wall that the man we saw fall into the fifth division of Hell had been cast.
“The town consisted for the most part of modern-looking houses of the dreary, respectable type that one sees in many of the London suburbs. Some attempt was evidently made to keep the place moderately clean, and this was the first division in which this had been attempted.
“Seeing a theater, and asking my guide if I might enter it, he permitted me to do so, himself waiting outside. As I entered I saw one of the inhabitants of the city and spoke to him. He seemed slightly taken aback, and said:
“‘We’ve not been introduced!’
“‘Oh, damn it, what does that matter?’ I replied. “‘Please do not swear!’ he answered.
“‘I apologized, and then asked him what sort of plays were shown in this city.’ “‘All sorts, so long as they are not improper. We will not permit any suggestion of impropriety here. Nothing vulgar or immoral is permitted. All our plays and music-halls are conducted on the best principles.’
“I. ‘That’s the first time since I’ve been in Hell that I’ve heard people object to impropriety.’
“He looked pained.
“‘I wish you would not use that word. There is no such place as Hell, and certainly we are not in it.’
“‘Oh, Don’t talk nonsense,’ I began. ‘All this realm is Hell, so what’s the use of pretending it isn’t. I’ve been long enough in Hell to know that.’
“‘Stranger,’ he replied, ‘who are you, and from where do you come?’
“So I told him briefly my history. As I went on he slowly drew away from me, and at length broke in with ‘that’s enough, thank you. Either you are a liar or a villain. I know perfectly well I’m not in Hell. I suppose I’m still on earth, but anyway I never have associated with scoundrels, and I am not going to begin now. Good-day, and let me give you a piece of advice, which I do out of the kindness of my heart — I always was a kind-hearted man — Don’t tell that story to anyone else here, or they will have you thrown over the battlements,’ and he made off.
“I went into the theater. A musical comedy was being performed. A poorer show I’ve hardly ever seen. The music was not absolutely discordant, as it is in the other divisions of Hell, but it was feeble stuff. The very worst kind of so-called popular music. Plot there was none, and the whole show was so banal and trashy, that I cleared out at the end of the first scene. I noticed that the audience seemed as bored as I was, but nevertheless they stayed on.
“Next I tried a music-hall which advertised outside that its show was ‘A most Refined entertainment. Funny without being Vulgar.’ It certainly wasn’t funny, and it certainly was, to my thinking, intensely vulgar — not indecent, but just vulgar. Low comedians of the worst type, vapid songs, silly aimless tricks —in short, absolute trash.
“On coming out, which I did very quickly, I came to a concert hall. Here at least, I thought, I may see something worth seeing, or at any rate hear it. But no, of all the banal twaddle I think that concert was the worst.
“I left as quickly as I could, and seeing a picture-gallery, entered it without expecting much satisfaction, and was not disappointed. All the rubbishy pictures in the world seemed to have been gathered together and hung on the walls of this ugly, pretentious building.
“I then returned to my guide, who had, as it were, concealed his natural brightness, and, led by him, made my way through mean streets towards the center of the town. Here I entered a very ugly brick church built in the pseudo-Gothic style.
“A service was being conducted by a fat, slimy sort of parson, who seemed to mouth his words in a succulent, unctuous manner which irritated me intensely. The service was not absolutely discordant or blasphemous; it was merely hollow and unreal. The prayers were gabbled off as quickly as possible, and it was obvious that there was no real belief behind it. It was merely a form carried through by priest and people because it was considered the proper thing to do.
“I will give you a few of the phrases which struck me in his sermon:
“‘Above all, my dear brothers and sisters, you must help to keep this great city clean of every form of vice. Each and every one of you should make it his or her business to watch for evil, to hunt it out and drive it forth. If you suspect that any person is secretly guilty of some vicious practice, do not rest till you discover his or her secret sin. Even if it is someone near and dear to you, it is your duty to denounce it. If you want help or advice in this great work, come to me and tell me what you suspect. Don’t wait till the evil thing becomes rampant; strike at once. In me you will always find a ready helper. Do not let any false ideas of honor stand in your way. In searching out evil, you are entitled to use any means.
“‘Let me give you an example. A friend of yours does not come to church. You suspect her of carrying on an intrigue with someone else’s husband. You should pretend to be sympathetic; you should trap her into a confession if possible. You should warn her husband; above all, you should tell me.’
“He went on in this strain for some time, and ended up with, ‘and when guilt is established, no mercy must be shown to the guilty members of society. They must be driven out. They must be hurled from the battlements into the great chasm from which there is no return.’
“In conclusion, he announced there would be a social entertainment next day in order to raise funds for church improvements.
“As I was going out I heard one member of the congregation say to another, both men:
“‘What I would like to know is what happens to all the money which he is always raising for church improvements.’
“The other replied, ‘I’m sure he pockets it, or at any rate most of it.’ “The first man, ‘Yes, so I think, but what does he spend it on?’
“The second man, ‘I suspect that he leads a double life — has a second home, you know.’
“I heard no more, but I determined to go to the ‘social entertainment.’
“In due course I arrived there, and in a sort of church hall found the vicar and his curate surrounded by a worshipping band of females. They hung on his every word, and when they got a chance poured scandal into his ear.
Between times they told spiteful tales about the vicar and various female members of his congregation. At length I got a chance of a few words with the vicar alone, and said:
“‘Vicar, I’m going to ask you a plain question between man and man, and you can rely on my discretion. Do you believe in the truths of the Christian religion which you have to teach, or are you, like so many learned divines, personally convinced the whole thing is a myth, and if so, do you really think there is a God, Heaven and Hell, and so forth?’
“He pressed his two hands together and said unctuously: “‘A great deal turns on what you mean by believe.
A clergyman has a great responsibility. He must not say anything which may cause a weaker brother to stumble.’
“I pressed him closely on the point, and at length he said:
“‘Personally I have long thought that the tale of Christ is a myth, a beautiful myth, and I am sure St. Paul thought so. I don’t think the early Christians ever thought otherwise. They regarded it as a symbol which taught a great truth, just as the ancient Egyptians preached of the death and resurrection of Osiris. I don’t imagine for a moment that an educated Egyptian believed that Osiris ever really lived; it was a parable.
Unfortunately the ignorant gradually grew to regard the parable as literally true, and during the Middle Ages this belief became universal. Today we are by degrees recovering the truth and clearing away the dross of superstition, but of course we cannot proclaim these facts from the housetops. Indeed, if we did, we should probably be called agnostics, and turned out of our livings. Still, quietly, we are doing a great work — a great work.’
“I said, ‘If, then, the whole of Christianity is based on a parable, of what use is the Church?’
“He. ‘Of the very greatest, my friend. It is a great moral force. That is what it was originally intended to be, and in that sphere it can be of the greatest benefit. Oh, I foresee a long life of useful work for the Church when freed from all the superstitious accretions which have attached themselves to its ancient form. Many men who at present are disgusted at what they rightly regard as puerile fables will rally to it as a great social factor for the moral uplifting of the masses.’
“‘I think some people are inclined to lay too much stress on its social value, and overlook the importance of its moral influence, but they are materialists; thank Heaven, I am not one of them.’
“I. ‘Do you think there are such places as Heaven and Hell, and is there after all such a being as God?’
“He. ‘With regard to the last point, I think we are not as yet in a position to give a definite answer. We are at liberty to hold our own views. To some people the conception of a God of some sort is necessary, like the parables of Christ, or they would cease to obey the moral law but, personally, while I would not be so presumptuous as to say there is no God, I do not consider one is essential. I consider that this world is governed by laws, and the moral law is the highest. Those who break the moral law sooner or later are punished by that law, so that I do not see that an arbitrary Creator is necessary but, of course, I should not say this to my flock as a whole.’
“I interrupted the flow of eloquence with, ‘Still, it is not necessary to conceive of God as an arbitrary Autocrat. He may be a wise, all-seeing Judge, who co-ordinates His various laws.’
“He. ‘He may be but to turn to the question of Heaven and Hell, I think I may say frankly I don’t believe in either. I consider that each man, roughly speaking, gets his rewards and punishments on this earth either by disease or from his fellow men. Hell I consider a monstrous idea. For my part I should hesitate of course to say there is no life after death, but I doubt it.’
“I stared at him for a minute, and then said, ‘but how did you get here?’
“He. ‘In rather a curious way. I was very ill, and at length became unconscious.
While I was in this state I had some most curious and horrible dreams. I won’t trouble to describe them, but then I was evidently delirious. When I recovered I found myself here, without my wife. No one could tell me exactly how I came here, but being here, and finding that the vicar of this church had just disappeared in a most mysterious way, I took up his cure, and have done his work ever since. Everybody is agreed that he must be dead. That’s the curious thing about life here. People don’t die. I never have a funeral service.
They just vanish. I can’t help thinking the sanitary authorities dispose of the bodies silently, but, after all, I’ve other things to bother about. My parish is a fashionable one, in the best part of the city, and I have to devote my whole time to it.’
“I. ‘But you’ve married again?’
“He. Yes. I soon came to the conclusion that while I was ill, my wife must have died, so I had no hesitation in marrying again. Of course I’m too old to need that sort of thing, but my wife is a great help in the parish — a great help. I’m afraid she is not always tactful, but one can’t have everything.’
“I. ‘Then even you do not realize that you are in Hell?’
“He. ‘What a preposterous question!’
“I then proceeded to give my reasons for knowing we were in Hell, and narrated my adventures since I died. He listened very coldly, and at last broke in with:
“‘Thank you, I’ve heard enough. If I were a swearing man I should use strong language, but as it is, I will content myself with saying that I don’t believe a word you’ve told me. I’m sorry I have wasted my time talking to such a man. If you are not a liar, then, by your own showing, you are an unmitigated scoundrel. Good-day, and I should advise you to leave this city as soon as possible, for although I shall not myself denounce you, being a humane man, others will certainly discover your true character, and then you can expect little mercy.’
“He left me, and a moment later began to tell two women who hurried up to him all about me, so I thought it best to depart without undue delay.
“I close. — H. J. L.”