Many people believe that some aspect of the self continues to exist after death. Throughout history most religions and philosophies have offered a rationale for, and description of, life after death to encourage adherence to their codes of belief and conduct.
Theorists view the relationship between the afterlife and time in various ways. Some view the afterlife as a timeless state of existence after death or after the end of the world. Others view it as a state of never-ending time. Still others view it as the cyclical repetition of incarnation in various forms.
Early Egyptian writings describe the king’s ascent to the sky where he becomes a star and is admitted into the company of the gods. Later the promise of immortality was extended beyond the Pharaoh and his family to the general population. Some Egyptian writings describe the journey of the dead in the underworld. Those who pass the tests on the journey would arrive at the realms of the blessed, which are located either on earth or in heaven.
In contrast to the Egyptians, most people in the ancient Near East (including Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Canaanites, and Israelites) believed that the dead continued to exist in an underworld, which was only a gloomy reflection of their former life. The Hebrew scriptures describe the dead as “shades” (rephaim) who descend to Sheol, a dark and dusty pit located under the earth. Some passages speak of a hope in Yahweh’s help and presence beyond death, but scholars debate whether such passages indicate a belief in either immortality or resurrection. The clearest references to the resurrection of the dead are Isaiah 26:19 and Daniel 12:2. Ecclesiastes 3:19–21 suggests the ascent of the righteous dead to heaven.
The Zoroastrian texts of Persia describe a bridge that leads over hell to paradise. The righteous pass over successfully, but the wicked fall off the bridge into hell where they suffer eternal darkness and sorrow. The good person passes through three levels of heavens to arrive at paradise (“garden” or “park”), a blissful place free of pain and suffering.
Hinduism believes in an endless cycle of death and rebirth (called samsara). Karma, the law of moral cause and effect, determines the future existence of the person. Through the practice of yoga, one can acquire true knowledge that the physical world, including death, is an illusion and thereby obtain Samadhi, the highest level of spiritual perfection. The union of Atman (the essential self) with Brahman (that which is truly real) will result in liberation (moksa) from samsara. Between death and rebirth, people are rewarded in heaven or punished in hell based on the nature of their deeds.
In contrast to Hinduism, Buddhism insists that death is an unavoidable fact of human existence that must be accepted. To overcome the desire for exemption from death, one should follow the Eightfold Path in order to achieve anatman (or Anatta), a state of nirvana or “non-self.” Karma determines in which of six realms a person is reborn. Some Buddhists, however, reject the idea of reincarnation. Buddha’s contemporary, Confucius, accepted the reality of death also but was agnostic regarding life after death. However, many Confucianists today believe in the reincarnation of the soul.
Early Greek thought reflects the concept of a shadowy underworld called Hades, but increasingly it was supplanted by the concept of astral immortality. Orphism and Pythagoreanism promoted an explicit concept of the immortality of the soul, and Plato (and later, Cicero) developed extensive arguments to defend this view. In contrast, Epicureans believed that the person ceases to exist at death, Aristotle was skeptical of individual immortality, and Stoics disagreed among themselves. The mystery religions offered attainment of astral immortality to all who would submit to their secret rites of initiation. Greeks and Romans generally abhorred the idea that the body would have any role in the afterlife. The Romans believed in the apotheosis (exaltation to divinity after death) of certain emperors such as Julius Caesar, Augustus, and Claudius.
Second Temple Judaism, influenced by Persian and Greek thought, developed various conceptions of the afterlife. Some writings teach the immortality of the bodiless soul, but the resurrection of the body became the more popular view. Some writings describe the righteous as transformed into stars or angels. However, they are also said to dwell on a transformed earth. Some Jewish writings divided Sheol into two compartments so that after death the righteous experience the delights of paradise and the wicked suffer the torments of hell.
In the 1st century CE, the Sadducees denied any conception of an afterlife, but their views were not widely held. The Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the body. The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria argued for the preexistence and immortality of the soul. Josephus described the Essenes as believing in the immortality of the soul, but evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls suggests that they actually believed in resurrection of the body. Apocalyptic literature often described the abodes of the blessed and the place of punishment for the condemned. Rabbinic Judaism and modern Judaism have taught an intermediate state and future resurrection of the dead, but some Jews have held more to a Platonic concept of the immortality of the soul.
Both Jesus and Paul accepted the Jewish concept of the resurrection of the body. They taught the conscious existence of the disembodied individual between death and resurrection. Later Christians claimed to find warrant in the New Testament for two other views of the intermediate state: soul-sleep and immediate resurrection. Christians believe that after the Judgment the redeemed will experience the blessings of a renewed heaven and earth, and the unredeemed will either be annihilated or consigned to a state of eternal torment. Later Christian theologians attempted to integrate the Platonic concept of immortality with belief in the resurrection of the body. Through the centuries, Christian mystics and theologians have attempted to describe the blessings of the afterlife.
According to Islam, the dead receive a foretaste of either heaven or hell while they are in the tomb. Martyrs will be admitted immediately to heaven where they receive a special reward. On the last day, the souls of all humankind will arise and be reunited with the body. After being judged according to their deeds, they will spend eternity either in the bliss of heaven or in the torments of hell. Throughout human history, people have claimed to experience visions of the afterlife. These accounts often took the form of tours of heaven or hell.
More recently, some have argued for the reality of the afterlife on the basis of the phenomenon of “near-death experiences.”
See also Christianity; Dying and Death; Ecclesiastes, Book of; Eschatology; Eternity; Immortality, Personal; Judaism; Reincarnation; Zoroaster
Badham, P., & Badham, L. (1987). Death and immortality in the religions of the world. New York: Paragon House.
McDannell, C., & Lang, B. (2001). Heaven: A history (2nd ed.). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Segal, A. F. (2004). Life after death: A history of the afterlife in the religions of the West. New York: Doubleday.