Is There Life After DEATH?,
A question with two possible answers
If you ask a biologist what happens to you after death, they will probably tell you all there is to know about what happens to your body after your heart stops beating. But is that really a full answer to our Big Question? By life after death, don’t we mean something different than biological or natural life? The major world religions have generally answered this question in one of two ways:
Answer 1: Heaven and hell
The three Abrahamic religions – those that recognise Abraham as their first prophet (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) – all answer this question in a similar way. They say that you are not only your body but you are also your soul. After the death of your body, your soul lives on in a world beyond the physical world.
Answer 2: Rebirth
The major eastern religions (Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism) also teach that there is something about you that survives the death of your body. It does not leave this world though. Instead, it finds another body to go live in. We call this movement from body to body, reincarnation or rebirth (Saṃsāra).
On the basis of the New Testament – which tells us how Jesus died and returned to life – Christians hope that God will give them a new and eternal life after death. They also believe that at some point, their lives will be judged by God. Those who have put their faith in Jesus will go to heaven and those who have rejected him will go to hell. Hell is often depicted as a place full of pain and suffering. But it shouldn’t be taken too literally. Suffering means the anxiety we feel when we are doomed to an eternal life without God – the creator of life and all that is good – by our side. In the same way, heaven is not a place high up in the sky. It is where we are reunited with God, the source of our life.
Because Islam and Christianity both worship the God of Abraham – Allah being the Arabic word for God – these two religions understand the afterlife in a similar way. Like Christians, Muslims think that we have a soul that survives the death of our body. And the idea that there will be a day where God judges humanity is one of the six core beliefs in Islam. On this day, everyone will either be sent to paradise (Jannah) or hell (Jahannam). The faithful go to paradise, which is depicted as a garden with 7 layers of heaven The top one is the garden of Eden and home to Adam and Eve. Whilst in the lower ones, your neighbours will be people like Jesus and Abraham. Hell also has 7 layers, each with a different punishment for a different class of sinner. But this punishment isn’t necessarily eternal, like in Christianity. It is possible that after serving their sentence, a sinner is welcomed into paradise.
The Hebrew Bible – the earliest Jewish texts – is not entirely clear when it comes to the question of the afterlife. There is an underworld called Sheol. But this is not the hell of Christians or Muslims. It is where all dead people go – whether they lived a good life or not – to spend eternity as a shadow of themselves. There is no punishment or suffering here, but neither is it the home of God. The later texts of the Talmud develop the more familiar ideas of judgement, hell (Gehenna) and heaven (Olam Ha-Ba). On the day of judgement, those who followed the laws of Judaism move from this world (Olam Ha-Zeh) to the world to come (Olam Ha-Ba). This is the garden of Eden where God’s throne stands. But Gehenna is home to most ordinary people. Here they’ll be either be punished or cleansed – depending on which scriptural scholar you ask – for a period of twelve months at most. After this period, they’ll be ready to join God. But the truly evil – again depending on which scriptural scholar you ask – will have to spend eternity in hell or be completely destroyed.
The Buddhist tradition is different from the three religions described above in two key ways. First, after death you don’t go to some other world but stay in this one. When your body dies, you are reborn in a different one. Secondly, there is no self or soul, there is no you. Confused? Don’t worry, let’s delve deeper… If there is no soul or self, what is there to be reborn? According to the Buddha, your sense that you are the same person throughout your life is an illusion. For Buddhists, everything is always changing, nothing is permanent. So when you die, not you but the energies that shape you take on a new form. The bits that made you you, are arranged slightly differently and form someone else. This next life is connected to your previous one through something called karma. This is the idea that an action in a previous life has a reaction in the next. Did you do something horrible in a previous life? You might be reborn as a cockroach! The ultimate goal of Buddhism is to escape this cycle of rebirths by reaching enlightenment or Nirvana.
Similar to Buddhism, Hinduism also sees life as a cycle of death and rebirth connected by karma. If you have bad luck in this life, you must have done something wrong in the previous one. To break free of this cycle is again the goal. Hindus call this state of freedom moksha. But unlike Buddhists, Hindus do believe that there is something that makes you, you. They believe that every person has an atman, a soul or spirit. This spirit is always the same, no matter what body it is temporarily living in.
Just like Buddhists, Sikhs believe that life is a cycle of death and rebirth connected by karma. The goal is again mukti, or the freedom from this cycle. Just like Hindus, Sikhs believe that there is a soul that is passed along in a series of rebirths. As you may change into a different set of clothes, so too your soul is reborn in a new body. Sikhs achieve mukti when the soul becomes one with God. The soul originally came from God, but has been separated from him. Because of this it has become impure. But through remembering and meditating on the name of God, the soul can find its way back.
Chinese folk religion
Chinese folk religion’s understanding of the afterlife also centres around the rebirth of souls. However, If you have sinned in your previous life, you are not just reborn in an uncomfortable body in the next. Instead, your soul first goes to hell or Diyu. Souls are taken to this underground labyrinth so they can be punished for their sins. Once they have received their punishment, they are ready to be reborn in a new body. All will have to spend some time here, but how long it takes before you are allowed to enter a new body depends on how serious your sins are.