The question of what happens to us when our bodies die is central to many belief’s and philosophy’s. Many religions differ in their explanations and there are several non-religious theories that are popular among large groups of people.
Most of us can accept the theory that our consciousness is separate from our bodies. Whether you believe in religion or you have more spiritual, non-religious views, this matter seems to be commonly agreed upon. What differs however, is the opinion on what happens to our souls after our physical bodies die.
In this article, we’ll look at the beliefs of different major religions and spiritual ideas. Most people have their own belief of what will happen to them when they pass on. In fact, quite often those who are undecided are the ones who fear death the most. The fear of the unknown can quite often be worse than the fear of death itself and finding a belief you can settle on usually lifts the dread of what happens after we pass on from this life.
The Afterlife in Religion
Even if we’re not religious now, many of us would have been brought up in religious environments, taught religion in schools, or attended places of worship. For these religions you’ll have a great understanding of what they believe happens to your soul when you finish life here on earth. However, when we’re used to one religion it can sometimes be a shock to learn of the teachings of others. They can be starkly different, or eerily similar. Here we will look at the beliefs of five different religions.
As you will see with many of the religions featured here, the thoughts on the afterlife vary with many schools of Buddhism. However, the overlying theme of all teachings is that the way to avoid the cycle of continual life and rebirth (reincarnation) is by achieving ‘Nirvana‘. Nirvana, which can translate to extinguish, blow out, or sometimes bliss, means completely letting go of ones individuality and desires. Enlightenment helps to drive us towards Nirvana and when we achieve this state, we no longer think, feel, or act as individuals with subjective experiences.
The Supreme Buddha, Guatama Buddha, taught that life is suffering and is caused by desire for permanence and identity, among other things. Thus, the state of enlightenment and search for Nirvana is a way to end the cycle of rebirth.
Surprisingly, Buddhists don’t believe in the concept of the soul as other religions mentioned here. They believe that there is no permanent substance that remains after death, rather a combination of individual traits.
“…an endless array of phenomena making up the individual. These can be divided into five basic categories: physical phenomena, emotions, sensory perceptions, responses to sensory perceptions, and consciousness.” (Harold Coward – Life after Death in World Religions, 1997)
In Christianity there can be many differences in what happens after we die. However, most Christians believe in the afterlife, divided into three parts; Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory (Catholicism). The main idea here is judgement after death where the deeds of your life are examined and your place chosen for you accordingly.
Evil deeds are punished and good deeds are rewarded. If you have led an evil life then you will be sent to Hell. If you have led a life with little sin then you will be sent to Heaven. If your life has been a mix of the too or specific deeds have been carried out, then you will be sent to Purgatory. This is a kind of limbo between Heaven and Hell.
Now, it is important to note that many Christians don’t believe in the concept of Hell. Many also believe that being sent here doesn’t have to be eternally. Depending on the gravity of your sins, you will do your time, before entering Heaven.
However, it is also important to note that there is the belief of one life. No reincarnation, but an eternity spent in the after life.
Judaism does believe in the existence of an afterlife, however, because much of this religions emphasis is on life in the here and now, very little dogma appears for the afterlife. Much opinion is left up to the believer. It is possible that Orthodox Jews can believe in a Heaven similar to what’s taught in Christianity, or that a person reincarnates continuously.
They may believe that ‘Evil’ souls are tormented by demons of their own creation, or that these types of souls simply cease to exist after their life is complete.
Although there isn’t much dogma and teachings are focussed on the present life, the Torah does indicate a belief in existence after death. It explains in numerous places that the righteous will be reunited with their loved ones after death, while the wicked will be excluded from this reunion. The eventual resurrection of the dead is a fundamental belief of traditional Judaism. Some schools believe that this isn’t just a one off resurrection timed with the reappearance of the messiah, but that it is a continuous cycle of life, death, and re-birth.
The most important aspect of Judaism is not the thought of what you can do to get into heaven, or how you can excel in the afterlife. Rather, Judaism is focussed on life in the now and how to live it.
Hinduism teaches the life and rebirth of souls over numerous lifetimes. Souls are immortal and the essence of us that carries on in different life, in different times, and in different circumstances. Your soul is part of ‘Jiva’, the limited being, which is subject to attachment, delusion and laws of Karma.
Hindus believe that unless a soul is liberated, then this cycle of life and death will continue endlessly. There is a rest period in between lives as your soul has time to rejuvenate and reflect on the life it has just left and the many that came before it. This reflection period then allows a soul to realign and adjust their goals going into the next life. Every life offers the Jiva an opportunity to learn and grow. This is why someone’s circumstances will change greatly in different lives. Living in certain scenarios will offer greater opportunities to learn different lessons.
When a person dies, a persons soul and consciousness leaves the body through an opening in the top of the head to travel onto another world. This world varies with different teachings and can be described in a myriad of ways. However, it is agreed that the purpose of this resting place is to spend time reflecting before moving onto the next life.
In the Bhagavad-Gita, two paths are described that the soul travels after death. The first is the path of the sun, which is also known as the bright path or path of the gods. The second is referred to as the path of the moon, which is also known as the dark path or path of ancestors. When the soul travels the path of the sun, it never returns again. It has broken the cycle of reincarnation. If a soul travels the path of the moon however, it is to a place of reflection to prepare for the next life.
Hinduism also contains the belief that there are different worlds and that all are subject to cycles of life and re-birth. If a person has lived a life of good deeds they will be reborn into higher level worlds where the sun shines brightly. If the reverse is true and a person has lived a life of mis-deeds or infamy, they will be reborn into the lower worlds and suffer the consequences of their actions.
The afterlife is very important in teachings of Islam and it is believed that on death, the soul carries on to live another physical existence. It is also believed that the day of judgement will come and people will be sent to destinations of eternal Paradise or Hell.
A central teaching of the Quran, and one of the most important teachings of Muhammad, is the Last Day, on which the world will be destroyed and Allah will raise all people and jinn from the dead to be judged. Souls wait in their graves waiting for this day to come and are even aware of its arrival as they will begin to either feel joy or suffering in the days leading up to this day of judgement.
Paradise, also known as “The Garden”, is a place of physical and spiritual pleasure that contains many splendours and limitless food and drink. There are seven heavens.
Hell, or Jahannam, is mentioned frequently in the Quran and the Sunnah. It has seven doors leading to a fiery crater of various levels, the lowest of which contains the tree Zaqqum and a cauldron of boiling pitch. Each level of hell is progressively worse and the highest offences lead to the deepest levels where suffering is felt both physically or spiritually.
It is not known fully what these gravest of offences are, however, it is believed that when someone has sufficiently atoned for their sins, providing they are Muslim, they will be allowed to leave Hell and enter Paradise. Non-believers will perish in Hell eternally.
For many people, finding a certain religion that fits their belief system seems to be impossible. Rather, they combine and hold onto their own set of beliefs. Due to this, theories on what happens to us after death can vary greatly.
A common theme in non-religious spirituality however, seems to be the removal of judgment and punishment. Most people believe in reincarnation for the purpose of evolving and reaching higher levels of consciousness. In this guise, when someone achieves the life lessons and purpose that they set out for themselves, they are allowed to grow spiritually. Conversely, if someone doesn’t achieve what they set out to, then they will reflect on what went wrong and readjust so that they can achieve these goals in the next life.
In this way, non-religious spirituality can be quite similar to Hinduism, with one stark difference however. If you have ‘sinned’ in your past life, or caused hurt to other people, the only punishment you will face is knowing that you have not spiritually evolved.
The afterlife is a place of non-judgement. A place where souls come together to plan and help each other to achieve goals in their next life. It is a placed filled with love, encouragement, and learning.
Non-religious spiritual people believe that once your soul and consciousness leaves your body on death, you travel towards the spirit world where you will have time to acclimatise to being in spirit form again. You will still feel the effects of living in the physical body and it can take a long time to be cleansed of its effects. After that you will have the chance to meet up with your soul group who are usually at similar stages of consciousness as you are.
You will meet with spirit guides and elders to go through your last life and discuss in great detail what went right and what could have been done better. Remember, there is not judgment here, just learning and making sure you’re better set up in your next life to achieve what you are set out to do.
As you progress in consciousness, the need to reincarnate will be much less frequent. Instead, a lot of your learning will happen in the spirit world. You will also get the chance to mentor and help younger souls.
The end result is unknown but many believe that complete enlightenment and the highest levels of consciousness are the end result. Is this possible? Can we ever truly know everything there is to know? It seems difficult to imagine getting to that stage. Some people believe that as we reach higher levels of consciousness, we become able to take a part in creation ourselves. After all, we are all energy – everything that exists. The idea that we can shape this eventually does not seem to be so far-fetched.
As we discussed when we began this article, the theory on what happens to us after we die widely varies. However, it is important to fix on your own belief system to take away the fear of the unknown that often accompanies the thoughts of death.
One thing for sure is that we will never truly know until we experience it ourselves. In certain teachings we have, many times, we just don’t remember. Whatever your beliefs are, the most important aspect to keep in mind is that this life is meant to be lived with love, compassion, understanding, and the quest for knowledge. You might believe that you will be rewarded for this by eternal paradise, or it might allow you to spiritually evolve, the fact is that it is the undercurrent of all teachings we have explored here.
There is of course the theory that nothing happens after death. That you simply cease to exist. In my eyes, we are far to complex for that to happen. We are made of energy and energy exists in one shape or form and this is before we consider our souls or consciousness. The part of us that doesn’t seem to fit in with many scientific explanations. While we may never know exactly what will become of us, we can make sure that we live a life that is the best it possibly could be. Love, laugh, explore, help, learn and more.
Even if it all comes to an end after this life, wouldn’t existence be so much better if everyone lived with those goals in mind?
- Harold Coward, 1997, Life after Death in World Religions
- Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta
- The Holy Bible
- Bhagavad Gita
- The Torah
- The Quran