The purported grandson of the now-deceased cult leader Charles Manson came to Bakersfield in January for a court hearing on the disposition of the convicted murderer's remains. Afterward, Jason Freeman made a somewhat startling statement about the grandfather he never met: "I know his spirit's in heaven."

Freeman's declaration inspired community columnist Sal Moretti to weigh in. In his Feb. 26 column (“If Charles Manson’s in heaven, what does that mean for the rest of us?”), Moretti considers the possibility that Manson is indeed now at God's side.

My reaction is that, though Sal didn’t intend it, his big-hearted openness makes Christianity look foolish, even absurd.

He humbly admits to a limited knowledge of the Bible, but common sense would seem to indicate that anyone who hated everything the Bible teaches, from the 10 Commandments to the two Great Commandments (Love of God and neighbor), wouldn’t end up where God presumably is, or even want to end up there.

But all of this is beside the point. The real question is what kind of place or condition heaven is.

After establishing that as best we can, then we can consider Manson’s fate.

The nature of the afterlife and reasons for taking it seriously have been my primary scholarly interest for the last dozen years, and four books have come out of that. In "When Did You Ever Become Less by Dying?" I look at nine different kinds of evidence, all from psychical research, pointing with force to the actual reality of an afterlife.

Three of these sources tell us more: they hint at the actual nature of the afterlife, or what Sal calls heaven. Deathbed visions occasionally reveal a light-filled world too awesome to describe. Steve Jobs was looking out at such a world just before he died when he exclaimed, “O wow, O wow. O wow!” Another source is the well-developed near-death experience which seems to give the experiencer a foretaste of heaven and quashes forever his or her fear of death. A third, and by far the most important, are the hundreds of accounts by spirits of the deceased describing their actual world. The best of these reach us through world-class mediums working under the watchful eyes of experts, including the founder of modern psychology, William James, and the Nobelist Charles Richet. The similarity in these accounts is impressive. Here is what they tell us.

1. Spirits don’t usually refer to their world as heaven. Their world is actually a spectrum of realms stretching from the lowly joys and satisfactions of a novice soul just come over; to spheres of unimaginable radiance, perfection, and fulfillment that they’ve only heard about or at best visited; to darker, murkier regions where souls of a lower order reside.

2. Spirits aren’t allowed to overreach. They can’t enter a vibration or cross a boundary they aren’t ready for. There is justice in where they end up at death. There is definitely something like a law of karma. They gravitate to their rightful place. They can move ahead only when they’re changed enough to do so.

3. The afterworld provides opportunities for every wholesome interest or avocation—from science to music to theology to astral architecture to homebuilding to fashion design (clothing is a part of the body). It’s a mostly joyful, endlessly fascinating place, full of challenges, for those who desire to grow.

4. Spirits don’t meet an embodied personal God. Instead many find themselves surrounded by an all-pervasive, penetrating Divine Light, full of understanding and love. This Light doesn’t judge them, at least from the outside. They seem to judge themselves.

5. They celebrate the presence of that Light in powerful rituals involving supremely grand music and displays of light, described in astonishing language. Music seems to be the supreme art of their world.

6. There are hellish regions, and large populations who make their home there. What is sometimes referred to as the Shadow Lands is a vast world of many conditions. The landscapes vary from sordid city neighborhoods to parched, gray scrubland to dark, lifeless deserts. The vivid clarity of higher realms is missing. Instead there is a dull overcast. Temporarily lost or confused or stubbornly unrepentant souls populate these regions.

7. “Missionary spirits” minister to souls in the Shadow Lands. Residents can free themselves if they’re willing to face up humbly to their errors and crimes and repent them. Some do. But most jeer at their would-be helpers and seem to prefer their dull lives over the challenges of higher worlds they’re frightened of.

8. Some spirits tell us that no spirit remains forever in the dark regions. But the Creator will never interfere with our free will. S/He will invite tirelessly, but will never force.

9. There are three basic ways to progress in the Afterworld: admitting defects in one’s character, service to others, and yearning for higher states. Service to others demands effort, work, sacrifice. Nowhere do the spirits describe a deity who requires us to flatter him or abase ourselves. That’s not the way to progress.

10. There are no rigid creeds or magical beliefs that souls have to accept. Whether you’re a Baptist or a Catholic or a Mormon or a Hindu or a Buddhist or a Muslim or an Anglican is of no importance unless they inspire love and nobility—as they often do. Many of earth’s favorite religious dogmas are off the mark anyway, and the sooner they’re recognized as such, the better.

11. There are no masks in the astral. You can’t hide what you are: the quality of light shining forth from your body tells all. Even the homes of spirits reflect their spiritual stature. These facts can be humiliating at first, but it spurs spirits on to a greater effort to improve themselves.

12. The Creator places souls in the difficult environment of earth because He (She) loves them. He wants to see them grow in wisdom, love, and power. He knows the only way to bring out their best is to challenge them, in the same way a good teacher challenges her students. Soul-building, or character development, is the whole point of our journey, both on earth and beyond.

The use we make of our free will is absolutely crucial to our progress at all levels.

This is an all-too-brief account of what spirit literature describes, but it will have to do.

I leave you with this question: Do you think Charles Manson lives in one of the light-filled heavenly regions or in the Shadow Lands?

Stafford Betty is a professor of religious studies at Cal State Bakersfield. The opinions expressed are his own.