People are always curious about what happens after death.
While there isn’t much of a scientific process for documenting what happens beyond this world, almost every culture and religion has its own unique ideas about what transpires.
Some groups have come and gone—such as the Egyptians and the Greeks—and so have their ideas about death and the afterlife.
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No more ferry rides across a dark river, piloted by the lonely Charon in return for two coins placed on the eyes. No more jackal-headed Anubis weighing the heart against a feather, and tossing it to crocodilian monsters if the review is unfavorable.
These days, most people who profess belief in an organized religion fall into a tradition inspired by one of five faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam (Abrahamic religions), and Buddhism or Hinduism.
Though the particulars might be different, it seems that each religions espouses the idea of a person’s actions determining their place in the afterlife, while some offer the possibility for returning to this world.
Let’s take a look and see what the official tenets of each faith have to say about what’s beyond.
Around 50% of Christians in the world are Roman Catholic and their belief in the afterlife is informed by the dogma of the Roman Catholic Church, which began around 2,000 years ago as an amalgamation of Jewish and Greek ideologies—blending the monotheistic ethos of the Old Testament and select Hellenistic concepts (such as the Greek language used to write the New Testament). Central to the Catholic faith is the Nicene Creed, in which believers acknowledge “a resurrection of the dead…and life of the world to come.”
But if these two concepts (resurrection and the world-to-come) were inspired by extant faiths like Judaism, some of the ideas of the afterlife certainly drew from the Greek view, such as the notion of dead sinners suffering eternally in the torment of Hades. Perfectly righteous individuals (Saints) are able to enter a paradise-like Heaven, while those who carry non-mortal, venial sins (sins that do not permanently separate man from his maker) are sent to Purgatory to be be spiritually cleansed, before they can ascend to Heaven. Despite popular belief, there is not official stance of the Catholic Church around a place called Limbo—a sort of place for souls that are not sinners, but who have not been baptised for whatever reason.
After death, the soul is judged as a person’s actions are held against their spiritual potential. Those souls who end up on the side of merit will be sent into the “world to come,” while sinners are sent to Gehenom for a process of purification that lasts no more than a year. The concept of eternal suffering is not a Jewish one, though the Talmud mentions it is applicable for a select group of incredible wicked individuals.
For thousands of years, Jewish notions of reincarnation were mostly confined to Kabbalistic writings, but within the last few centuries have become more openly acknowledged. The idea behind reincarnation is that select souls will be sent back down to earth as part of their spiritual rectification. Based on the actions of their past life, they may be reincarnated as a person, animal, plant, or even mineral element—with the goal of transmigrating back up the spiritual food chain as part of their purification. A resurrection of the dead in conjunction with a Messianic Era is also a fundamental tenet, but there is much Rabbinic debate over the particulars, both in the Talmud and its commentaries. Suffice it to say that all agree the Messiah will be a (1) human king descended from King David who will (2) gather the Jews to live in Israel and (3) rebuild the Temple.
Like Christianity, Islam is an offshoot of Judaism. But unlike its Western counterpart, Islam spread in the desert region of Arabia, which was mostly devoid of Greek influence—though populated by the imaginative cosmological worldview of the Babylonians, Persians, and Arab tribes, many of who believed in djinn (genies). The Islamic conception of the afterlife is one with a multi-layered Paradise (Jannah) and a multi-layered Hell (Jahannam). The dead will wait in their graves until Judgement Day, during which Allah will resurrect both the human dead and the djinn, to assess their deeds and send them to Paradise or Purgatory.
The dead are sent to whatever level corresponds to the strength of their faith in Allah while alive—a faith that can be bolstered by good works and reciting praises of the almighty, which are counted on handheld prayer beads. The pleasures or torments of the afterlife are both physical and spiritual—hence the popular reference to a promise of 72 beautiful female companions; it should be noted, however, this idea is not expressed in the Quran, but rather in some collections of spiritual aphorisms by Sunni scholars. The essence of the idea is companionship with pleasurable, pure, and modest beings (houri) in reward for a life of faith and good deeds.
Buddhism famously preaches the doctrine of reincarnation, but it also professes that this endless cycle of rebirth is painful and unfulfilling. Therefore, the ultimate spiritual goal would be achieving a state of enlightenment and become a Buddha (an enlightened one)—breaking free from the endlessly-turning wheel of life, where souls are reborn based on their previous actions. Though most people view Buddhism as devoid of both diety and afterlife, many Buddhist texts (such as the Book of the Dead) discuss many-layered hells where sinners dwell, and many-layered places of enlightenment.
Some Buddhist groups espouse belief in a Pure Land, where Buddhas (enlightened ones) arrive in a spiritual plane that is build up from their positive merits. By contrast, Tibetan Buddhism suggests that the souls of the deceased are granted a vision of a straight path to enlightenment, but they can get pulled away by their own internal fears or base instincts, only to be reincarnated. Therefore, it is very important, while alive, to develop moral actions and thoughts, so that in the ephemeral moments after death, the non-corporeal soul will not be easily swayed into eschewing enlightenment in favor of yet another reincarnation.
This main religion of India is yet another Asian faith espousing belief in reincarnation and the idea that the soul is an internal, immutable being housed in a temporal shell of the body. The Garuda Purana discusses what happens after death, and suggests that souls are whisked away by representatives of the death-god, Yama. The soul travels southward along a very dark tunnel, hence the custom to light an oil lamp and leave it by the head of the deceased.
Their actions are reviewed and they are either assigned a blissful reward in Swarga or painful punishment in Naraka—then they are sent back to the human world for rebirth in whatever form corresponds to their deeds in the previous lifetime. Once the soul exemplifies a life of serving the supreme deity, it can remain in the afterlife, in a state of Nirvana.
Alongside the cyclical journey of the indestructible soul is the idea of Karma, which essentially promulgates that “one reaps what they sow.” There is no concept of judgement or review behind Karma—merely the suggestion of a sort of spiritual mechanical process whereby good deeds and thoughts will yield desired results, while bad deeds and thoughts will yield frustration and misery.
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