The Concept Of Afterlife In World Religions

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About 7 billion people live in the world right now, all with different personalities living their own distinct lives, yet there is one thing that all these people have in common regardless of how they choose to live their lives: death. And because it is common to be afraid of something as unknow as death, people have tried to describe what happens after we die to try and make the whole idea less frightening. Religions have tried to achieve this goal by describing an afterlife, a life that happens after we die, that gives people a sense of relief in knowing that death is not the end all be all. And although there are many different views on what happens after our time on Earth is done according to whatever religion is describing the afterlife, one can divide them into two main models: a linear model, where after we die, we go to a different plane of existence based on how we behaved when we were alive. The other model can be described as a cyclical one, where after we die, we simply start over a new life with no memories from our past lives. Because these two models are equally important, this paper will focus on both models equally, starting first with the cyclical model.

Although the cyclical model has a couple of different names, such as transmigration or metempsychosis, the term used in this paper will be the most widely used one, reincarnation. From the Latin roots re, meaning again, and incarnare, which means to make flesh, reincarnation is the belief that some aspect of our existence, oftentimes our soul, continues to live on after our bodies have died to return to a new body that repeats the process of existence on Earth. This new body, although it carries some essence or identity from its past life, is usually unaware of its previous existence. While the belief in reincarnation can be found in some Middle Eastern religions, the major religions that hold this belief are Asian religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism. In order to understand how reincarnation works for these religions, one must first understand the idea of karma.

Karma, meaning deeds or actions, is the law of cause and effect that governs our lives-present, past, and future. Analogous to the cause and effect in physics, where if one pushes an object, the object pushes back with equal force, karma works in the same sense that “every mental, emotional and physical act, no matter how insignificant, is projected out into the psychic mind substance and eventually returns to the individual with equal impact” (Kauai’s Hindu Monastery). This law of cause and effect is the reasoning behind reincarnation in many religions. Evil deeds or an evil mental state will lead to bad karma that must be, in a sense, repaid with future good actions, and if a person has accumulated bad karma throughout their life at the moment of their death, then they must live a new life where they can repay this bad karma. This cycle of birthing and dying due to the karma accumulated in the previous life, or Saṃsāra, only ends once the person has fulfilled all the karmas and only goodness is left in them. This basic idea of how karma and rebirthing are related can take different shapes depending on the religion describing it.

According to Hinduism, the purpose of life is not to gain money, fame, or other natural pursuits, the purpose of life is to “personally realize our identity in and with God” (Kauai’s Hindu Monastery), to achieve Moksha or the liberation from the Saṃsāra cycle by resolving all of our past karmas and by learning all the lessons that we must learn in each new life. Once a person dies, if their karma can only be resolved by living a new life, their soul enters a new body that will resolve their karma from previous lives. This is why Hindus believe that we have all lived countless lives, each with different patterns and characteristics suited for the lessons we must learn to achieve Moksha. An important lesson being the understanding that earthly desires can not bring eternal happiness to a soul. This is why human desires are another reason why people reincarnate according to Hinduism; a soul must come back to earth and fulfill its earthly desires until it realizes that the satisfaction from these fulfilled desires is not everlasting. Once Moksha is achieved and the soul has fulfilled all their karmas and learned that true liberation brings eternal happiness instead of earthly desires, the soul can be freed from the cycle of birthing and dying to eventually merge back into God. For Hinduism, death is not the end of existence of a person, but an opportunity for the soul of that person to gain more knowledge to eventually achieve its true purpose.

When it comes to explaining reincarnation as described by Buddhism, one must understand that it is not as straightforward as the Hinduist description of reincarnation. This is because of the Anatman doctrine of Buddhism: the idea that there is no eternal self, or soul, that continues after we die. In the Anatman doctrine, humans do not have a unique spiritual aspect to themselves that returns to another body after death, and they also believe that the idea of “self” is nothing but a human construct. To Buddhism, there is no individual, only collective energy that is transformed into different people. Because of the Anatman doctrine, many Buddhist traditions disagree on what it is in a person that rebirths. Some Buddhists believe that when a person dies, their energy is returned to the universe and, if the energy has bad karma, is transformed and can be sent back into the world into a new person that changes the energy into good karma. The same way that clouds can take different shapes yet they can eventually unite together and be all be part of the same sky, so can energy transform into different people, but eventually, everyone comes back as one form of energy that permeates throughout the entire universe. Buddhism, however, does agree with Hinduism when it comes to Moksha, or a state of Nirvana, as Buddhists call it. When this state is achieved, the human mind has destroyed, through wisdom, the defilements of greed, hatred, and delusion, and the mind has become free, radiant, joyful, and no longer requires rebirthing (Buddhist Studies). In Buddhism, the Saṃsāra cycle is that of suffering that we must break by achieving Nirvana and return our energy to its original place, that of the entire universe.

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Although this cyclical model can take different shapes, the idea is simple: the point of living is to learn and gain knowledge, and death is nothing more than a transformation into a different life that advances the goal of learning.

The other model most often used to describe what happens after we die is that of a linear model, in which, after we die, we go to a different plane of existence in which we spend the rest of eternity. This plane of existence can either be one of infinite pain and punishment, or one of eternal peace and joy based on how we acted while we were alive on Earth. How these places work and how one gets to them depends on the religion.

When looking at the Christian religion, for example, it is clear what the two options for one’s soul are when somebody dies: a person’s soul can either go to heaven, where there is no evilness or they can go to hell, a place of eternal suffering. However, some confusion arises when the question of what happens between the moment of our death and the moment we either go to heaven or hell is asked. This question is often answered in three different ways depending on the Christian denomination. The first explanation is that while we are dead, which is described by the Bible as sleeping, we simply wait for the Judgement Day, in which Jesus Christ will come again to take those who were righteous to heaven, and to send those who were wicked into hell. The second explanation is that of a Purgatory, a place where the souls of the people “endure a period of purification and cleansing, aided by the prayers of the living, prior to the resurrection, final judgment, and new creation.” The third explanation is that, as soon as we die, we are immediately judged by God and Jesus and they decide whether we go to heaven or hell.

Judaism possesses what is perhaps one of the most vague ideas when it comes to the afterlife. In the Jewish bible, Sheol is the place where all the souls go to, regardless of how they behaved while alive, after death. However, because this place is described as a place of darkness that is cut from life and God, and a place full of still shadows with no personalities or strength, Sheol is often referred to as a place where souls await a judgment day that will decide where these souls will actually spend eternity. This judgment day is implied to follow the resurrection of the dead, yet it is unclear when this is going to happen and who exactly is going to be resurrected. According to Judaism, there may be two places where souls can go after they are judged: Gan Eden or Gehinnom. Gan Eden, Hebrew for “Garden of Eden,” first appears in the book of Genesis as God places the first humans into this world where they can enjoy all the good things about God’s creation. However, there is not an ultimate answer in the Jewish religion on what Gan Eden is and how it exactly relates to the afterlife. Gehinnom, on the other hand, is described as a fiery place of judgment where souls go to be punished and cleansed so they can later go to Gan Eden or be destroyed. Besides Gan Eden and Gehinnom, there is also Olam Haba, or “the world to come,” to consider. This “world to come” is considered the ultimate reward for a person’s soul, yet in the same cases as Gan Eden, Sheol, and Gehinnom, it is unclear what this “world to come” is and when will it come. Some Jews view Olam Haba as the Garden of Eden, others view Olam Haba as a second heaven beyond Gan Eden, where those who die and resurrect must, in a sense, die again to then enjoy a bodiless existence with God.

There are obviously more versions of heaven and hell than those presented by Christianity and Judaism; one example is in Norse mythology, where half of those who died in combat would be led to Valhalla hall by Odin, the other half would be led to the Folkvang hall by the Goddes Frey. Both of the places would house the dead that Odin deemed worthy of living there. However, both Christianity and Judaism are a good place to start when one is looking at the different types of linear models of the afterlife across different religions. This is because these two religions share many of the aspects that are found throughout other religions- mainly those of some type of heaven and hell and a type of judgment that decides where the dead person is going.

There are countless of ways in which different religions try to explain the afterlife, an old Native American belief was that when people died, they turned into clouds to roam the sky forever. A Jewish sect even believed that there was a deity but that there was no afterlife. Humans have probably thought about what happens after we die since we have had the ability to think, and we will probably keep thinking about it until the end of time. Something as mysterious and as terminating as death will always cause humans to ponder about it, and religions do a great job in describing many of the ways that humans try to understand this reality that everyone will eventually face.

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