I am currently reading a book* which examines the similarities between medieval visionary journeys, of which we have several examples, and modern near-death experiences. It turns out there are quite a few. But there is one glaring difference. The medieval examples usually include the subject being shown a choice of paths after death. The one that leads to heaven, maybe after a purgatorial cleansing, and the one that leads in the other direction. Dante's Divine Comedy, while presumably fictitious, is a prime example of this kind.
But modern near-death experiences are almost always wholly positive. There is no division of paths. Everyone feels surrounded by goodness and enveloped in the light of pure love. If there is any suggestion of judgement, it is more the person judging himself with seemingly no serious consequences to be expected.
You might assume this is purely cultural. The medieval person lived in a hierarchical society in which the teachings of the Church regarding salvation and damnation were ubiquitous. The modern person lives in a democracy where the ideas of hell and spiritual responsibility have largely disappeared. There is surely some truth in this.
But is it the whole truth? In both cases, the subject returns to life in this world so the post-mortem experience is clearly incomplete. We are not getting the full picture here.
I think that the reality of what happens after death might lie somewhere between these two scenarios, one of which is focused on justice and the other on mercy. We must assume that the kind of life we have lived and our spiritual state at the end of it have a strong bearing on what happens to us after death. We must assume this because to think otherwise would mean we lived in a meaningless universe without purpose in which case the concepts of love and goodness would themselves be meaningless and illusionary.
However, we live in a spiritual universe, and in the spiritual world like attracts like so we will always gravitate to a plane/state that corresponds to our own inner condition, whatever that might be. This is justice. At the same time, God is a loving and merciful Father and does not leave any soul abandoned. The idea that we are despatched to a condition of eternal suffering for decisions taken without full knowledge (notwithstanding the fact that we do have sufficient knowledge here if we are true to our inner selves) makes no sense in the context of a Creator of love and goodness. But something approximating to hell might be a temporary state for sinners. Hence it is fair to say that those who have faithfully followed Christ, or a spiritual path that approximates to the truth he brought, will go to a place that reflects that reality, while those who have not done so will go to a place that reflects the reality of what they are, bearing in mind that this reality is not how they have presented themselves but how they are in their hearts. This might even, in some respects, compare favourably to the earthly condition but will not be heaven in the sense that there is no proper union with God. 'In my Father's house are many mansions' means there are many inner worlds or planes of consciousness. The idea of heaven and hell with nothing in between is far too simplistic. Perhaps the traditional concept of limbo is one we should entertain where limbo is a state between heaven and hell which may well appear paradisiacal to a new entry from the physical world but is far from the true heaven.
The near-death experiencers all take for granted that they are entering heaven when they see the clear light of love. But this is an assumption. It might be an illusion. It might be an experience that tests the subject to see how he reacts. It might be a preliminary welcome that is the precursor to a more serious examination later on. It might even be a diabolical fake (not that I believe that, but it might be). If we accept there is a spiritual choice to be made at the moment of death, this experience could be part of that.
So, if hell, as pictured in medieval times, now seems an unlikely destination for anyone in perpetuity, it is equally doubtful that everybody, however they have lived, will be granted entry to heaven as 20th century near-death experiences seem to suggest. Once through the gates of death we will probably gravitate to our natural level as determined by our spiritual quality, and though that may seem a higher state than we can experience in this material world, it is most unlikely in the great majority of cases to be the true heaven.
Life after death must depend on life before death. Souls will find themselves in a state of being corresponding to their inner condition, though there will always be opportunities for progress and education. But there must also surely be the need for spiritual purification if a soul is to advance from one state to another. Release from the burdens of physical existence (which includes release from the mental claustrophobia occasioned by enclosure in a physical brain) will inevitably seem liberating, and some of the joy experienced by near-death subjects could be down to this. But perhaps these people are amongst the more spiritually sensitive types anyway which is why they have been given the experience, and the mission to report it, in order to help create a crack in the hard materialism of 20th century humanity. This means that their experience does not necessarily imply that everyone will have the same.
If I had to give my own opinion on what happens after death, I would say that, after a period of acclimatisation, all souls are examined by a judge of some sort, which might include their own higher self though aided and guided by spiritual elders, and put through a purifying process before finding themselves in an environment that corresponds to their degree of spiritual awareness. However, there will be some souls, maybe even many souls at this time of widespread spiritual rejection, who find themselves in a place of gloom which is the objectification of their own inner spiritual darkness. Guides will be sent to such souls but may not be perceptible to them because they have cut themselves off from higher things by their unbelief and materialism. Their spiritual consciousness is too undeveloped to see the helpers and they will have to open their hearts to some degree before they can do so. They must raise their own consciousness before they are able to be aware of the spiritual forces that surround them. This might take some time. For many modern people, sunk in pride and illusion, it might take a lot of time.
In the next world, outer and inner are considerably more one that they are here so it makes sense to refine and purify your consciousness as much as possible while you are still in a body.
* Otherworld Journeys by Carol Zaleski