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Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Critique of Visions of Heaven and Hell


I have a general opinion regarding alleged visions of heaven and hell - never believe them when someone else tells you about them and pray you never receive one. Do I believe a vision of heaven and hell is possible? Yes I do, for with God all things are possible. What I look for is its fruits to see if they are authentic/revelation or a hoax/delusion. An authentic vision of heaven and hell can only possibly lead towards one path for the visionary - a life of extreme ascetical self-deprivation and repentance coupled with an over-abundance of humility and love. A hoax on the other hand does one of two things - it either self-glorifies the visionary giving him an exalted spiritual status to himself and others or it promotes views with good or evil intentions through lies to manipulate the hearer to accept the words of the visionary. 99.9% of all visions of heaven and hell one reads about usually falls into the latter category of being a hoax/delusion, whether conjured up in one's imagination or through demonic influence.

To demonstrate, I will briefly evaluate a popular "vision" of heaven and hell which is being distributed among the Orthodox Christian faithful in the United States, especially through certain monasteries, which gives it an extra ounce of credibility and believability, unfortunately. It is titled "My Spiritual Rebirth" by Dushan Yovanovich (Dusan Jovanovic) of Kragujevac, Serbia. I was given this small booklet a little over ten years ago by a married couple from outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania whom I was friends with through my wife. They received it trough the Greek Orthodox monastery in Saxonburg. The husband whole-heartedly believed in its authenticity, while the wife asked I read it for an evaluation knowing that I have a background in evaluating such material. Having read dozens upon dozens of such visions even by that time, I could pretty much predict its content and structure before even looking at it, and when I did read it I was not disappointed by my assumptions. I emailed this couple back with my negative evaluation, and I received no response and have never heard back from them since.

I don't have any particular background knowledge of the visionary or the publication of the text, but this is not necessary to evaluate it. It is not available anywhere online in either English or Serbian, though a false prophet/wacko named William Tapley, a self-proclaimed "prophet" of the end times, has uploaded it on YouTube, showing us what kind of mentality this stuff attracts. It can be seen in five parts here, here, here, here, and here. I will divide up my evaluation according to the five videos.

Part One

A first sign of delusion is when one actually puts their vision into writing, and if it is an authentic vision they have a high standard of life to follow thereafter. We know from Scripture that only one who is called to be a prophet can record their revelations, so in essence what we read about in the first video is Dushan's calling to be a prophet of God, though he doesn't come out and say it.

Dushan says he received this revelation in 1976 when he was 48 years old, following a Memorial Service he attended in his hometown on July 10th. Leaving the Memorial Service Dushan was returning to a famous Serbian spa where he was receiving therapy and along the way a bus accident caused a traffic jam. Among the passengers of the bus were a monk and nun who were trying to hitchhike their way to Zica Monastery. Since no one would pull over for the monk and nun, Dushan decided to pick them up and take them to the Monastery. While the monk and nun were sitting in the back seat they began to reveal secret things about Dushan's life.

The conversation between Dushan and the monastics is questionable. First of all, one wonders why a monk and nun are traveling alone together. We are immediately lead to assume that these monastics are in fact Saints not of this world. The questioning of Dushan by the monk and nun also resemble psychological games one never encounters in the Lives of the Saints. There is also a contradiction in the text when Dushan comes out and says he was an atheist, and then a few lines later the monk tells him he is not an atheist since he doesn't believe in the theory of evolution. While it is true that an atheist that doesn't believe in the theory of evolution is "intellectually unfulfilled" as Richard Dawkins would put it, it does not mean that one is not an atheist. The argument seems a bit over-simplistic. The monk and nun then try to prove their prophetic credibility, and it seems also like something one would see a psychic do on television to prove their credibility. And as all these things are being said we are supposed to assume that Dushan is still driving safely within the traffic lane. Anyone that is of normal mind would have stopped the car at some point and tried to figure out what was going on, especially when he looked back through the rear-view mirror and saw bright halos over their head. An overall evaluation of this conversation in the car is that it is very odd, unreliable, unique in Orthodox Christian history if true, awkward, and very dramatic as if it were a script to a very bad movie. It also sets the tone for the rest of the vision - just like the people who passed by the monk and nun when they were hitchhiking and supposedly "spat" on them, so also will those who do not believe in the contents of this book receive a harsh punishment from God to the point where it would be better off if we weren't born. At this point we can safely assume that the author of this book is a deluded man. His reactions clearly are not from a man with a normal mind, if authentic. I was left wondering what kind of therapy this man was actually getting in the spa.

As they pull into the Monastery the nun tells Dushan that everything he was told, in this the most incredible car ride ever, should not be revealed for three months, and then only to friends and family. After he parks and goes to open the door of the monk and nun (surprise surprise) the backseat is empty and the monastics had disappeared. Like I said, this "vision" is a typical and predictable B-movie script. Almost laughable actually if people didn't take it so seriously. It is only when the monastics disappear, who never reveal who they are, that Dushan goes a bit insane. He says: "I was afraid I was losing my mind, so I bit my hands, pulled my hair and slapped my face." Sorry, but God doesn't leave His prophets with signs of demonic possession after he makes a revelation to them through the saints.

Part Two

Obviously Dushan is not in the right state of mind to go through any more revelations in his fragile state, but sure enough when he goes back to his hotel room and tries to get some rest the relentless vision continues. The story is still sounding like a movie script that is not grounded in reality, and it only gets worse as we proceed with the text.

We are supposed to assume as he is lying down in bed that he dies and is taken to heaven by an angel wearing a pony tail. As they are walking to a hill where a cloud would take them to heaven, the angel reveals that the monk in the car was the Apostle Peter and the nun was St. Paraskevi, the two patron saints of his family. The moral of the story - never leave a hitchhiker behind. Could be very dangerous advice though.

As the cloud carries Dushan and the angel to heaven, the angel reveals why he of all people were chosen for this special vision - basically its because he loves justice and honesty. When one reads the Lives of the Saints, these are precisely the type of things demons say to delude people in visions. Furthermore, Dushan then reveals something that is just impossible to be true. He says that as the cloud is carrying them to heaven the angel stops the cloud and tells him to look at the earth from a distance one is to assume is very high. But from this high distance he says that not only could he see the "entire" earth and every detail on it, but he could even recognize every face. As one who has been to the top of the Empire State Building in New York City, I can testify that not only could I not see the entire earth even from that distance, but I surely could not distinguish any face from that height on the ground. This gives us yet another reason to find the whole thing questionable.

Even more questionable is when this angel tries to impress Dushan with visions of many angels holding trumpets and an illusion of what it will look like when all the dead will rise for Judgment Day. If Dushan isn't trying to show himself to be a great prophet here, then I don't know how it could be more obvious.

What we are seeing in the entire text so far and as we proceed is something common among hoax stories. The author is first trying to show why God chose him for these revelations, then proceeds to push his agenda by showing that God is revealing to him the answers to controversial issues. One issue we encountered already is atheism and the theory of evolution. The vision of the resurrection of the dead is supposed to answer the issue of what will happen to those who died while out at sea or perished through fire. How will their bodies resurrect? There is a clear agenda here that even though it sounds Orthodox it is still very unusual, since doctrinal issues are matters for the Church to evaluate and not individuals in heavenly and questionable visions that show signs of demonic possession or insanity in the least.

Dushan then sees these resurrected people with pieces of paper on their forehead, some with more writing on them than others. These are a list of sins and thoughts, which again sounds very odd since I can personally attest that my own sins and thoughts could not fully be listed on a small paper on the forehead. In my fictional tales, I prefer the chains of Jacob Marley conjured by Charles Dickens, but this author is clearly no Dickens.

Also, one would think that when one sees their entire family resurrected that he would have had a much more dramatic reaction, but do I really need to go into how lame of a story teller this author is again and how ungrounded he is in reality.

Another questionable instance in the text is when the angel tells Dushan that for 40 days following death the soul of a person relives their entire earthly experience. Such a belief is a common folk belief among simplistic Orthodox that contradicts reality and tries to give a special interpretation for why we have a 40 day Memorial Service for the dead.

Interestingly, in his travels through the Cosmos, he describes the glowing spirits of the dead, but never encounters demons which Scripture says are the spirits of the air. Could the angel here, who is probably in fact a demon, be hiding from Dushan the reality that these human souls are in facts demons? Interesting also that when Dushan starts asking questions, the angel shuts him up and tells him that he could not endure the answers if given to him. Why reveal it then in a vision? Clearly this angel is showing demonic tendencies.

Part Three

The vision then starts to get even weirder when he enters a gate with a cross on it. Within this gate are ever-narrowing roads cut off by even narrower gates guarded by angels and containing also demons. At one point Dushan even enters a gate no wider than his foot, and from here the story starts sounding a lot like Alice in Wonderland. Basically we are to assume here that Dushan went through all seven heavens and enters finally into the dwelling-place of God beyond the firmament. Clearly this is a bad version of what we find in the apocryphal literature of heretics. And what do you know, there is actually a literal river of milk and honey in heaven. Now we get to a story that sounds like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where the angel also prevents Dushan from touching anything. Why? Could they be a demonic illusion?

In the vision of heaven Dushan is told certain trees bear fruit twelve time a year. Dushan is obviously not being consistent here. Are we to assume that in heaven there are years, that souls eat fruit, and that trees in heaven actually go through a period when they are fruitless? He also sees old people with grey hair and beards that actually look like young people, and children who were like the angels. They even play games in heaven. One wonders what kind of games. Games entail competition and losing and are usually not fun for everyone. Even if Dushan were to question the angel on these things, the angel would not answer. Something just keeps getting more and more fishy. The more questions this vision is trying to answer, the more questions it brings up. But we are supposed to leave with the impression that heaven is beautiful and lots of fun.

Dushan then is revealed all the saints and ranks of angels, as is typical in these stories, and even meets his car passengers from that day, the Apostle Peter and St. Paraskevi, who offer him some words of advice. We are also told that it is the angel Gabriel that is leading Dushan. Interestingly when Gabriel introduces him to the Prophets and Martyrs, they bow to Dushan. One would think it would be the other way around at this point.

Dushan also explains the contradiction at this point why he could see in far distances the most minor details - God gave him these super powers. And yet, he does not go into more detail about it as a normal person would who experiences something so extraordinary, but only explains it as to not to appear to be fabricating a story.

As he walks with the Archangel Gabriel they turn West and come into a realm of thick darkness with a stinky smell. Then he begins to describe something from out of Dante's Inferno while trying to remain faithful to a literal interpretaion of the Orthodox icon of the Last Judgment where a large dragon brings souls to hell. At first all he sees are viscious animals and the carcases of dead bodies while they terrified human souls. From this we are to assume that in hell animals eat the bodies of the damned, yet bodies and souls sound very confused and you don't know which is which. The author does a pretty good job here of showing that hell is populated by vampiric like animals that feed off humans. Not Scriptural, but this would actually make a pretty good scene in a movie.

I find it sort of odd that the angel thinks that by answering Dushan's questions it would not be bearable for him, but to see the sight of such horros is bearable. Very weird.

Part Four

Part four continues the vivid description of hell and gets into certain morals that are behind the obvious agenda of this book. Clearly this book is written by an Orthodox Christian who may have the right intentions, but is using a vivid story one reads in many other sources and with his own particular twist to bring people to repentance through fear. Such tales were often seen by heretical groups as a persuasive means of getting their points across with a certain level of authority, but Orthodox Christians should be wiser to avoid such things since rarely are they of any benefit to anyone. For example, what is the point of describing a promiscuous person in the following way:

"The promiscuous, like other sinners, were disfigured with large swellings and open wounds. Their enlarged sex organs reached the ground and upon them, in the pus, crawled snakes and worms."

Can you imagine going on a date and explaining to someone that you wish to remain a virgin until marriage lest you go to hell and your sex organs reach down to the ground with pus on them and snakes and worms crawl on them. That would probably be the end of the date right there. There are much better ways to persuade a person towards a life of virtue than such vivid horrific means. One would think an angel and God would know better, and how impractical such methods are. But of course they do know, which is why we know God does not use such methods to teach a moral tale, as Jesus revealed in His much more persuasive and wise parables. These tales are more in the tradition of the Brother's Grimm than the Prophets and Apostles.

Of course, you cannot have a vision of heaven and hell without seeing the clergy in hell. It is odd that not one clergyman was seen in heaven, but a lot of them are seen in hell. But of course, this serves the agenda of the author very well. Its a great way to teach clergy to not shorten services, or else they will live forever in a vampiric lair chewed upon by wild animals.

The vision eventually and finally comes to an end. After the angel again explains why Dushan is alone worthy of such visions, he sums up everything he should have learned in this lesson. It basically is reduced to doing this and that, while not doing this or that...or else. It is a very basic exposition of what a Christian ought and ought not to do that has been repeated many times over and better said without the need to get into a vision of heaven and hell.

Part Five

Now six hours have passed since his vision began, and Dushan wakes up. He gets up with joy and goes to Zica Monastery to get the books he was told to get by the angel. After being rude to the monk from whom he purchased the books, he gives a list of the books he bought by recommendation of the the Archangel Gabriel. He stays quiet about his experience for the next three months, but has a dramatic change in how he lives his life. His wife asks him about this two days before the three months are up and asks her to wait two days more before he explains. Two days later he reveals everything to his family and then goes to a priest for confession. Everyone he seems to tell believes his story and all live happily ever after. The end.

Two questions are then immediately raised in the readers mind. First, why did he have to wait three months before explaining anything? Possible answers could be brought up, such as for people to see his change in order to believe his vision, but the question remains. Even more odd is that the angel clearly tells Dushan to not tell anyone about the vision except for family and a few friends, and he goes and writes a book for the whole world to read without indicating any change in revelation to him from the angel to do so. This is clear disobedience.

Conclusion

I can get into the dangers and warnings given throughout the Orthodox Christian tradition concerning believing in such visions described above, but I don't think its necessary if one actually examines the vision itself. And such fantastic tales are not all that rare in Orthodox tradition, which are usually evaluated as demonic delusions by the saints. They always contain questionable material and serve a particular agenda either to serve a greater good or maybe even a greater evil. A similar vision circulating among Orthodox today is that of a young Catholic girl from Ecuador who claimed to see Michael Jackson and Pope John Paul II in hell, which can be similarly refuted as above when examined (one could read a Catholic critique of this vision here). The point is to never accept such visions. They are pointless and often do more spiritual harm than good. It makes Christians look very ridiculous also to believe in such tales often used in the medieval West as moral tales for the simple and illiterate. They never say anything more true than what has already been revealed, and often exagerate folk traditions to make them look as credible as the word of God. Let my evaluation above serve as an example of how such things should be read.



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