Introduction to concepts of the afterlife

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Beliefs about the afterlife


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"Nobody gets out of life alive." Anon


"Nothing is certain other than death and taxes," Anon


"Life is a disease; it is inevitably fatal," Anon


"There is no murky pit of hell awaiting anyone ... Mind cannot arise alone without body, or apart from sinews and blood ... You must admit, therefore, that when then body has perished, there is an end also of the spirit [that was] diffused through it. It is surely crazy to couple a mortal object with an eternal." Lucretius (Roman poet and philosopher, who lived circa 94 BCE to 49 CE)

Why is belief in the afterlife important?

Human beings, apparently alone among all the life forms on earth, are aware that their life is finite. According to many theologians and mental health professionals, one of the main comforts that people obtain from their religious faith is the assurance that life will not end at their death. They believe that they will continue to exist in some form for all eternity. 


Søren Kierkegaard "... proposed that the awareness and fear of dying is so fundamental to human nature that it underlies most human beliefs and ways of behaving." 1


Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong wrote that only humans are self-aware enough to realize that our lives are counting down toward some unknown end. And it scares us, so we invented religion to give us solace. Religion tells us that good deeds in this life will be rewarded with a place in heaven in the next, while bad people will be sentenced to hell. 2

Another reasons for the widespread belief in an afterlife might be the desire for justice. In some sections of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) the reward for righteous behavior is said to be a long life and many children. But this does not necessarily work out in practice. The world is often not a very fair place: Many good people die young, and childless. Good people sometimes suffer in poverty and/or with disease. Many evil people lead rewarding, rich, healthy, and long lives. Many religions offer a belief in the afterlife that includes a resolution to the justice problem. If there is a final judgment after death, and if some people go to eternal punishment Hell while others go to an eternal reward in Heaven. Evil will be ultimately punished; goodness will be eventually rewarded. The scales of justice, which do not seem to be particularly well balanced during out time on earth, may be compensated for after death. 

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What faith groups believe about the afterlife:


Most Western religions, including most Christian faith groups, have historically taught that there are two possible eventual destination: a reward in Heaven or Paradise, or extreme pain and misery in the torture chambers of Hell -- either for a finite time, or for all eternity.

The most popular religions in North America teach that individuals will be sent to either Heaven or Hell, based upon one or more of the following factors:
bullet Their beliefs at the precise instant of their death.
bullet Their behavior during their entire lifetime.
bullet The presence of any unforgiven sins committed before death.
bullet Church sacraments and rituals that have been performed prior and even after death.
bullet Some combination of the above.

Even within Christianity, there exists a range of beliefs on how one gets to Heaven; all are firmly based on biblical passages:  
bullet Fundamentalists and other evangelicals generally believe that everyone will go to Hell forever, unless they meet a single criterion: They have repented of their sins and trusted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior while they were alive on Earth. Some have special provision for those who have never heard the Gospel and are unfamiliar with the Christian God, the Bible and Jesus' teachings.
bullet Most mainline and liberal Christians either discount the existence of Hell or base one's entry into Heaven on a different, single criterion: committing good works while on Earth, particularly by helping people in need.
bullet Roman Catholics are taught that committing a mortal sin can prevent a person from attaining Heaven, but that church sacraments can fix that. 

In addition, there are many variations in belief about what sequence of events happens after death. Most faiths group assert that their particular beliefs are correct and are firmly based on accurate interpretations of Bible passages. Obviously, most faith groups must be wrong. In fact, it is even possible that all may be mistaken.

Some conflicting belief systems are:

bullet Many people experience painful punishment in Purgatory in order to purify them before they are eventually admitted to Heaven; a very special few go directly to Heaven; many go to Hell at death.
bullet All saved Christians -- those who have accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior, go to Heaven; everyone else, which includes the vast majority of humans, including all non-Christians, will go to Hell.
bullet Everyone will go to heaven.
bullet At death, individuals enter a "soul sleep," a period of unconsciousness. They expect to be awakened later at the Final Judgment. They are then judged and routed to either Heaven or Hell.
bullet Hell is not a torture chamber "out there". It is a state of anguish that people experience while alive on Earth. 
bullet Hell is not a place of punishment. Bible passages about Hell must be interpreted symbolically.
bullet After people die, life does not continue in any form. Nothing is left of the person who once lived, other than the impact of their life on others, and any contributions that they have made to their children's DNA.
bullet We simply don't know what happens after death. Many people claim to know, but they are merely speculating.
bulletEastern religions generally teach that, at death, one's soul is transferred into another living being -- either a human or other animal, who lives another life on earth. Depending on their behavior during their previous life on Earth, they will experience a better or worse next life. Some will eventually escape this sequence of repeated lifetimes and merge with the Ultimate.

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Webmaster's notes:

Some people experience Near Death Experiences (NDEs). One member of the group that sponsors this web site had an ectopic pregnancy decades ago which had ruptured. She has a memory of rising up to the ceiling where she was able to look down at her body on the operating table, and hear statements by medical personel. She recalls staying in the operating room. However, In many NDEs, the person recalls going through a tunnel towards a light and emerging in Heaven. Some even recall meeting previously deceased friends and families there, and even talking to God before returning to Earth.

I have always assumed that many more people would experience NDEs ending up in Heaven than Hell. However, a Google search for:

  • heaven "near death experience" returned about 431,000 hits.

  • hell "near death experience" returned about 427,000 hits.

The two destinations appear to be almost equally reported.

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The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Quoted in: Robert Buckman, "Can we be good without God?, Viking, (2000), Page 78. Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  2. Stuart Laidlaw, "Live like you imagine there's no heaven," an interview of Bishop Jon Shelby Spong, The Star, 2009-OCT-13, at:

Copyright © 2001 to 2018 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2001-FEB-24
Latest update: 2018-AUG-14
Author: B.A. Robinson

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