Throughout the history of man one of the biggest questions that haunt human existence is the question of the Afterlife. Is there a “God”? Is there a heaven or a hell? Do we have souls? And what happens to it once it leaves this earth and the physical body? The prospect of the unknown has brought about many different ideas and theories; each religion, culture and era has developed their own notions and set truths in order to explain what will happen once we die. In order to gain some understanding on this subject this paper will exam the four biggest religions; Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism and how they explain the unknown and the divine plane beyond ours.
In the Christian religion they believe in the concept that after physical death the soul maintains consciousness and there is an in-between state between death and the resurrection of the body. Another concept is that until the resurrection, which will happen during the Second Coming or the return of Jesus Christ also known as Judgment day, the spirit sleeps. These two ideas are divided into three main sects; The Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, and Protestantism. Although all three of these groups are similar in that they believe that upon death the soul will face judgment for his or her actions while on earth, they each have their different perception of when and how it will happen.
These in-between states mentioned above are classified into two planes, Heaven and Hell, within the New Testament. Even though Hades appears in both the New Testament and in the Revelation, to express the concept of hell, the idea of hell does not derive from the place in Greek mythology that is the underworld the place of the dead. This is due to the fact that it is a place that consists of the undead both good and bad. Therefore to better understand hell one talk’s about Tartarus a place in the underworld even lower than Hades were the wicked go. Hell is described to be a place or state, were souls who have not repented for their sins and/or have rejected Jesus Christ as their savior, suffer eternal damnation. In biblical teachings it is said that the soul passes into hell after God has judged them irredeemable for their actions while on earth. Hades also consist of Elysium, a utopia were those who have lived worthy lives go. This is known as the kingdom of God or Kingdom of heaven, discussed mostly in Revelations in the New Testament. It is considered a place or state that is inherited by the righteous a place of paradise and eternity with god. Although the literalness of heaven is debatable, it is said while on earth, Jesus often preached about the heven as a reward, a final destination, for those who have been virtuous and followed the word of his father. Christians believe that in the end of time Jesus Christ will rise again and all who have died will be resurrected for the Last Judgment. This is when the kingdom of God will be fully established; in Revelation 21 it states that an army of angels will come down from heaven to fight those who oppose God and reestablish Gods eternal reign over all of his creations. It is the final day ware the wicked will be punished and the righteous rewarded. Therefore those who want to be saved must repent for their sins and follow the teachings of Jesus Christ so that they can be with him after Judgment day.
The Catholic Church believes that upon death those souls who have been saved do not go straight to heaven but go through a process of purification in purgatory in order to be cleansed before they can be in God’s presence. Souls who have not been saved however go straight to hell to be damned for all eternity. They also believe that those who have not been baptized cannot go to heaven for they commit original sin, but dwell in Limbo, if they have died without moral sin. Waiting for the Day of Judgment when Jesus will come back to earth to bring those souls to heaven. The Orthodox Church believes that both heaven and hell are in the same dimension, and one does not experience either separated from God, hell just like heaven is simply being with God although hell still means living in eternal damnation and suffering. According to the orthodox tradition God loves all human being including the sinners, therefore he does not cut anyone off from himself but instead those who go to hell are those who self-exclude themselves from everybody else .The Protestants believe that hell was created by God in order to punish the devil, and his fallen angels. It is believed that after judgment day those souls who did not seek deliverance from God while on earth would be sent to hell to be punished for their sins, which are most people. However unlike Martin Luther who believed that the soul stayed unconscious and slept after death, John Calvin, believed that souls maintain awareness after physical death and went straight to hell upon dying. He based this off of the fact that Protestants believed that because Jesus Christ had already paid for our sins on the cross, there should be nothing stopping ones soul from going straight into heaven or hell.
The description for life after death in the Islamic faith comes from the Qur’an, which states two main concepts for the afterlife or Akhirah, the oneness of God and the unavoidable day of resurrection, the Islamic Day of Judgment. Due to this In Islam human beings experience are broken down into four stages, the first two are man’s experience on earth (1. the stage of the womb and 2. The stage of the mortal world). It is in these two stages that man is tested to determine his place in the afterlife. Muslims believe that God holds every human being whether they are Muslim or not accountable for their actions and deed while they live on earth. Therefore it is taught within Islam that the only purpose to life is the preparation for the afterlife and attaining a spot in paradise. In order to do this the Qur’an teaches that man’s has to practice integrity and generosity to others and to devote one’s self to Allah, the one and only God. Salvation only comes with the practice of moral and ethical responsibility while on earth. The last two stages are man’s experience once the spirit leaves its earthly body. The stage of the grave, known as Barzakh, is broken down into three events; the first is when the soul leaves the body, the second is the reflection of ones actions and endeavors while alive, and the third is a state of cold sleep where man awaits Judgment day. The final stage, the hereafter or rest of eternity comes after the Day of Judgment, when all human beings have been resurrected and judged in the eyes of God to either spend their eternal lives in Jannah (heaven or paradise) if they were virtuous or Jahannam (hell or spiritual state of suffering) if they were unrighteous or in denial of the truth of Allah. There are two different types of souls that are excluded from these stages and do not have to wait till Judgment day; the first are those who die fighting in God’s name, they are honored by immediately being allowed to rise to paradise by Gods side; and the second are those who are the enemy of Islam, they are punished by going straight to the spiritual plane of suffering. However, those who are sent to hell do have the ability to ascend to the spiritual state of heaven once they have been purified by Jahannam unless they are non-muslim or Kafir, then they are punished for eternity. Both Jannah and Jahannam have different levels within their own spiritual plane, each reserved, depending on how one was measure during their time on earth.
Due to the fact that Buddhism was born out of Hinduism it contains some of the same basic principles for the afterlife, such as rebirth after death (individual passing from one form to another) and karma (accumulated sums of one’s good or bad deeds), along with the same end goal to escape the never ending cycle of reincarnation because life is suffering. This escape is only obtainable if one lets go of all their desires they hold on the earth using the Buddhist form of liberation or Nirvana. Nirvana is not a place or a state, but the end of rebirth, directly translated it means extinction, referring to the elimination of all ones desires, allowing one to become free from all earthy attachments. Buddhism diverts from Hindu beliefs on the subject of eternal souls, according to Buddha human beings do not obtain a soul. His doctrine of anatta explains that because individuals experience memories, impulses, traditions, desires and so on, they are deceived into thinking that they have souls because these attachments can be perceived as encompassing an ego. However this is not the case, humans are just a container of emotions and habits that are reused over and over again as the body is reincarnated life after life. Therefore in order to escape from the constant suffering that is existence humans need to purge themselves of their false self, leaving nothing to reincarnate hence being free of the cycle(8). The type of rebirth one may have depends on the how moral ones actions were in his or her previous life. For example if one projected negativity such as hatred or greed, committing physical or emotional harm to those around him or her, that person would be reborn into a lower realm (a.k.a animal, ghost, demon etc.). If one were to promote positive and constructive actions based on love, metta (kindness) and peace they would be reincarnated into a happy realm, becoming a person or arising into a heavenly realm in their next life.
In death one need to stay aware of the dying process for as long as possible, because as one passes the thoughts that are experienced impacts either the state they are in after death, or if nirvana is not achieved, their next reincarnation experience. According to Tibetan Buddhism after death, the spirit goes through bardos (a limbo like plane were the individual waits till rebirth), this is made up of three different stages spread over forty-nine days. The first stage is called “Chikai” Bardo or the bardo of dying which can take from a half a day to four, after death, giving the deceased time to realize they have passed. In that moment of realization the spirit experiences a euphoric awareness of a “clear white light”. For those who are more spiritually intuitive this awareness last longer and will lead to a higher plane of truth. However for the average person this will not happen and their spirit will descend into a secondary state or “clear light”. In the second stage, “Chonyid” Bardo or bardo of Luminous mind. The individual will experience the backlash of the karma they had created during their life, facing vision of both serene and wrathful representations of human feelings. In order to achieve nirvana the spirit has to confront and navigate itself through these personifications free of harm. The third stage is the process of rebirth/reincarnation and it is called “Sidpa” Bardo or the bardo of rebirth. It is only the truly enlightened spirits that have shed all their earthly desires through nirvana that can skip the process of the three bardos and ascend directly to the dimension of paradise.
Like Buddhism Hinduism believes in reincarnation, however Hinduism sees the soul (atman) as immortal and eternal while the body is the one that undergoes constant birth and death. A soul goes through the process of reincarnation over and over again until it has fully developed and becomes perfect. Perfection however is not an easy feat, a soul has to enter many bodies live many different lives and have many different experiences. Only after this can a soul finally become part of the divine. For those soles that are never able to make the transformation to perfection, they will only be able to be one with god again through the process of great destruction. Destruction is needed in order to end the cycle of creation, which for Hindus only occurs once the individual spirit separates from the source. After the process of creation has occurred and the soul and true self has separated from the One, it conceals itself and becomes part of an uncivilized form that has both a jiva also known as a false self, and an ego. Because of the ego the form is cursed with earthly attachments such as desires and urges. The Jiva and ego also suffer from delusions and ignorance, the soul having lost all of its knowledge of truth upon separating from God. For this reason they behave in a self-centered manner displaying characteristics that are both selfish and inconsiderate. It is because of this childish behavior, as though they are the only ones in the universe and are completely different from other beings that the soul suffers as it does.
Upon death the jiva and soul survive this time period is seen as both a period of recuperation and learning. Before being reincarnated into another physical body the soul has to go through judgment based on its past life’s Karma. Depending on the morality of their past deeds along with how many other past births they have experienced, the jiva either goes to heaven or hell until they have been rewarded or punished enough for its past life actions. Then taking the knowledge that it has gained from this experience and ready to try again the jiva is prepared to be born again. It is through Karma that the true self slowly awakes within the jiva, because it teaches the jiva that good actions bring about positive results and bad actions pain therefore by making mistakes and learning from them the jiva will overcome its ignorance. This however takes time, therefore throughout the cycle of life the individual jiva experiences a limitless number of births and deaths also known as Samsara. The purpose for this is that each time a jiva is reborn it brings a little bit more knowledge from its time in between physical bodies helping it to gradually realize its unity with God and self. Each physical body it is born into, like in Buddhism, depends on its deeds in its previous life; therefore the jiva may be reincarnated into a lesser life or a higher life. It is not until the jiva has gone through a countless number of rebirths and lifetimes that it can begin to gain some awareness to the truths around it and seek higher forms of happiness. It is this self-awareness that will bring completely detached or want of earthly pleasures and desires that the jiva is in search for, because only then can it be completely liberated (moksha)from the constant cycle of death and birth.
The afterlife allows for so many possibilities because no one truly knows what will become of them or their “soul” once they have passed on. Each of these religions explores different theories and philosophies and has come to their own ideas on the subject, however despite their differences one similar tenant does run through them. They all agree that in the afterlife one will be punished or rewarded based on their actions while on earth. Whether it is by a supreme being such as “God” while existing in another world (heaven or hell) such as the Christians and Muslims believe or through the correction mechanism like Karma that comes through being reincarnated in which the Buddhist and Hindu’s believe.