The Great Unknown - Some Views of the Afterlife
One way that humans have devised for dealing with the tragedy of death and the knowledge of our own mortality is to develop complex visions of what might follow death. Another page on this site deals with modern perceptions of heaven and hell, but here we consider a few case studies of traditional beliefs and modern day religious ideals about the hereafter.
The story of man's dealings with death is the story of the birth of religion, an epic tale recounted in such works as Michener's The Source. Evidence from archaeological finds suggest that humans, while originally simply leaving their dead aside, started to assume a more paternal or mournful role, leaving with corpses various mementos and marking graves. From flower petals to flint, fetal positions to facing east, bear bones to goat horns, man started supplementing the basic corpse. From Neanderthal, and especially Cro-Magnon times evolved an increasingly ritualistic approach. While Mesopotamians dealth with death simply, their contemporaries the Egpytians adopted a much more complex approach.
Beliefs about the transition from the mortal world to eternal life were recorded throughout the more than three thousand years of ancient Egypt's history, though new ideas were incorporated from time to time. Most important for full participation in the afterlife was the need for an individual's identity to be preserved. Consequently, the body had to remain intact and receive regular offerings of food and drink.
The final step in the transition to the afterlife was the judgment in the Hall of Maat (the god of justice) by Horus (the god of the sky) and Thoth (scribe of the dead) by comparing ab (the conscience) and a feather. The ritual was known as the Weighing of the Heart. Heavy hearts were swallowed by a creature with a crocodile head who was called the Devourer of Souls. The good people were led to the Happy Fields, where they joined Osiris, god of the underworld. Many spells and rituals were designed to ensure a favorable judgment and were written in the papyrus or linen "Book of the Dead."
All ancient Egyptians believed in the afterlife and spent their lives preparing for it. Pharaohs built the finest tombs, collected the most elaborate funerary equipment, and were mummified in the most expensive way. Others were able to provide for their afterlives according to their earthly means. Regardless of their wealth, however, they all expected the afterlife to be an idealized version of their earthly existence.
While philosopher Socrates accepted death calmly, in general the Greeks feared death. The journey after death was to a land known as Hades, ruled by a god named Hades. The first part of the journey required crossing the river Styx by being buried with a coin for the boatman Charon. Next, Cereberus, the three-headed guard dog, would have to be appeased with honeycake.
The Underworld offered punishment for the bad and pleasure for the good. On the one hand, the Elysian Fields, a sunny and green paradise, was the home to those who had a led a good life. Others were condemned to a torture. Tantalus, for example, was forced to be perpetually hungry and thirsty while next to a fruit tree and lake that he just barely failed to reach. And Sisyphus was forced to a roll a rock up a hill, only to have it return to the bottom where he began the task. They provide us with the English words tantalize and Sisyphusian task, both of which describe a frustrating futility. Most were not actually tortured, however. Rather, they went on shadows of their previous selves.
One view of life and death propounded in this period said that the short period of life was viewed as a prison, a term which had to be served by the spirit before it could be freed to go to take its place in the glorious Milky Way. Life was the spirit's death, its period of harsh servitude before release was attained. Yet it was seen as wrong for a man to wish to hasten his death, as the purpose of life was to nurture the world and cultivate both the physical and the spiritual plane before moving on. A life spent in service and good deeds, cultivating justice, piety and honor for one's family and country was a highway to the skies, a guarantee of joy to follow. The mortal world was seen as being the center of a revolving universe, the lowest of nine spheres through which the moon and stars turned. The mortal body was only viewed as the outer representation of the spirit, the immortal aspect of man. In that sense, all men were gods, immortal, controlling their own body, feeling, remembering and having awareness of the greater things beyond.
For the Maoris of New Zealand death was represented as a journey. In common with many such beliefs, it included crossing a river. A key hope and expectation was that of reunion with family and friends who had gone before. The deceased would be greeted with wailing and chanted to commemorate their arrival. The path to the other side featured monstrous creatures, dangerous cliffs and fear, but once there, life would be familiar and comfortable. In exceptional circumstances the path between the two worlds could be traveled in either direction, though eating the food of the dead would bind a spirit to stay in the land of the dead. The hut in which a person had died was then abandoned and sealed as a sign of respect.
Similarities can be seen between the Polynesian beliefs described above and the beliefs of the Aztecs. A priest would deliver a formalized speech over the newly dead person, following a ritual to ease their path to the next level of existence. Water was trickled onto the head as during a baptism, and words of mourning pronounced. Papers were laid on the corpse which were intended to aid the person to pass through the hazardous journey they faced. The perils ahead included mountains, deserts, confrontations with serpent and lizards, and a place where the wind would drive with obsidian knives. Once the person had overcome the perils of the Underworld Way, the soul would arrive before Miclantecutli, where it would stay for four years. The final stage required the help of the man's dog, sacrificed at his death, to travel across the Ninefold Stream, and then hound and master, to enter the eternal house of the dead, Chicomemictlan.
For traditional aborigines, the spirit world was closely interwoven with the physical world, so the transition between one and the other was explained in terms of traditional relationships with the land. Death marked the end of the physical life only, with the spirit then released to rejoin the spirits of ancestors, and of the features of the land itself. The "dreamtime" was the world of creation, of the earliest tribal memories, but also of the continuing abode of all those who could not be immediately seen in the physical world. Some tribes believed that the spirit remained to inhabit the place where the person had died, while others believed that it was carried across the sea to the land of the dead. In some tribes, the spirit was believed to have a chance to be reborn at some future time and live another earthly existence.
Liberal Christian Beliefs
Liberal Christians recognize that the writers of the Bible held a variety of beliefs concerning Heaven and Hell. The earliest books of the Bible described an underground cavern where all people, good and bad, spent eternity after death. The later books described Hell as either a place of annihilation or of eternal punishment. Generally speaking, this system of beliefs looks upon Hell as a concept, not as a place of punishment. The idea that a person would suffer eternal punishment for a single oversight, error or sin during life is seen as unjust. Punishment of an individual because she/he had never heard the Gospel is also viewed as irrational and unjust. They feel that a loving God would be incapable of creating such a place.
Conservative Protestant Beliefs
Generally speaking, conservative Protestants believe that everyone has the gift of eternal life. The body dies, but the soul lives forever. The big question is where each person will spend eternity. Heaven is a glorious location where there is an absence of pain, disease, sex, depression, etc. and where people live in new, spiritual bodies, in the presence of Jesus Christ. Hell is a location where its inmates will be punished without any hope of relief, for eternity. The level of punishment will be the same for everyone. The Bible talks about fire and (presumably flesh eating) worms.
The second major belief is that most humans will be sent to Hell after they die. Only those few who have been "saved" will go to heaven. Salvation requires repentance of sins and trusting Jesus as one's Lord and Savior. People who have been saved and make it to heaven will not all be treated equally. Believers who have done many good deeds will be rewarded more in heaven; believers who have led an evil life will be rewarded less.
Roman Catholic Beliefs
Hell is a location where its inmates will be punished without any hope of relief, for eternity. Among those punished will be Satan, the angels that supported him, and persons who have died without having repented their sins. Sincere confession of a mortal sin to an authorized priest and making restitution if required, leads to absolution of the sin, and the avoidance of Hell. The level of punishment will be meted out in accordance with the seriousness of the individual's sin. The fire and brimstone is most clearly evinced in Jontathan Edwards's classic sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."
In Hell, punishment will be in the form of isolation from God, and some supernatural form of fire which causes endless pain but does not consume the body. The Church teaches that "the souls of those who have died in the state of grace suffer for a time a purging that prepares them to enter heaven." They spend time in Purgatory until fully cleansed of imperfections, venial (less serious) sins etc. Purgatory will be terminated at the time of the general judgement. The intensity and duration of the punishment can be reduced by friends and family, if they offer Masses, prayers "and other acts of piety and devotion." For babies who died unbaptized, they entered heaven after staying in limbo for a while.
Members of The Watchtower Bible & Tract Society (WTS) believe that Hell does not exist. They interpret Hell symbolically as the "common grave of mankind." Most people simply cease to exist at death; they are annihilated. The Heavenly Kingdom was established in 1914 CE. A "little flock" or "Anointed Class" of about 135,400 people are believed by this group to currently inhabit Heaven. Another 8,600 are still alive and will also spend eternity with God at a later date. The battle of Armageddon will start soon. Jesus, under Jehovah's divine rage, will execute vengeance upon the rest of Christendom and followers of "Babylon the Great" (other religions). After the world is purified, a theocracy "God's Kingdom" will be established on earth for 1000 years. Those who survive Armageddon, the "other sheep," will live in peace in the newly created utopia. They will be joined by the worthy dead who have been resurrected. After 1000 years of God's Kingdom, Satan, his demon forces and all those rebellious ones who turn against God will be finally destroyed. In order to be saved, a person must accept the doctrines formulated by the WTS Governing Body, be baptized as a Jehovah's Witness, and follow the program of works as laid out by the Governing Body.
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe that not one, but three heavens exist. The highest levels of the Celestial Kingdom are reserved for Mormon couples who have been married in a Mormon temple and thus have had their marriage sealed for eternity. The couples can eventually become a God and Goddess; the husband will then be in control of an entire universe. The Terrestrial Kingdom, is the destination for most individuals. The Terrestrial Kingdom is for "liars, and sorcerers, and adulterers, and whoremongers"
Hell exists, but very few people will stay there forever. Most will eventually "pass into the terrestrial kingdom; the balance, cursed as 'sons of perdition', will be consigned to partake of endless wo [sic] with the devil and his [fallen] angels." Sons of perdition have been defined as once devout Mormons who have become apostates and have left the church. Others define them as persons who have knowingly committed one of the most serious sins and have not repented and sought God's forgiveness. Among these almost unforgivable sins are murder and pre-marital sex.
Seventh Day Adventists
The Seventy-Day Adventists believe in the traditional concept of Heaven and Hell. However, they do not believe that Hell is a place of eternal punishment "with sinners screaming in agony without end." They view Hell as a place where the unsaved will be burned up, reduced to ashes, and annihilated. They cite Biblical verses to show that the "'everlasting' in 'everlasting hell' means 'as long as there is something to burn in hell.' Our God is a loving God and to portray sinners as screaming in agony forever and ever does not portray God in such light."