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The afterlife (or life after death) is a generic term referring to a continuation of existence, typically spiritual, experiential, or ghost-like, beyond this world, or after death. This article is about current generic and widely held or reported concepts of afterlife. See also: Underworld, for a comprehensive catalog of specific traditions and myths about the afterlife.'

Psychological aspects of belief in an afterlife

Afterlife as reward or punishment

Many religious traditions have held that the afterlife will resolve justice by assigning rewards and punishments to people according to how they lived their lives. This belief can be found throughout the ancient world, especially in Greek and Roman religion, as well as in various Asian religions. To the extent that the afterlife is a form of justice, it is usually restricted to humans, as other animals are not held responsible for their actions.

Ancient Egypt

The afterlife played an important role in Ancient Egyptian religion. Egyptians believed that being mummified was the only way to have an afterlife. Without it, you would not have one. The believer had to act well and know the rituals explained in the Egyptian Book of the Dead. If the corpse had been properly embalmed and entombed in a mastaba, the defunct would relive in the Fields of Yalu and accompany the Sun god on its daily ride. If, during the psychomachia, the souls of the defunct were found faulty, the demon Ammit would eat them. In addition to being virtuous, however, one also had to know numerous passwords, spells, and formulas to navigate the afterlife successfully. When the body died, its ka went to the kingdom of dead. Because of all the dangers, the book of the dead was placed in the tomb. While the body was in the fields of Yalu, Osiris demanded work as payback for protection he provided. Statues were placed in the tombs to serve as substitutes for the deceased.

Abrahamic religions

In the monotheistic traditions of Judaism (see Jewish views of the afterlife), most sects of Christianity, and Islam, human souls spend eternity in a place of happiness or torment, such as heaven, hell, or limbo (in Judaism, "eternity" is not applicable to heaven, hell or limbo doesn't exist, and time spent in "purgatory" is definitely not eternal).[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Salvation, faith, and merit

Most Christians deny that entry into Heaven can be properly earned, rather it is a gift that is solely God's to give through his unmerited grace. This belief follows the theology of St. Paul: For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast. The Augustinian, Thomist, Lutheran, and Calvinist theological traditions all emphasize the necessity of God's undeserved grace for salvation, and reject so-called Pelagianism, which would make man earn salvation through good works. Not all Christian sects accept this doctrine, leading many controversies on grace and free will, and the idea of predestination. In particular, the belief that heaven is a reward for good behavior is a common folk belief in Christian societies, even among members of churches which reject that belief.

The dead as angels in heaven

In the informal folk beliefs of many Christians, the souls of virtuous people ascend to Heaven and are converted into angels. More formal Christian theology makes a sharp distinction between angels, who were created by God before the creation of humanity, and saints, who are virtuous people who have received immortality from the grace of God.

The Sufi mystic Rumi beliefs in different development steps of the soul. The souls of virtuous people become angels and later they will return to God.

Unimportance of mortal life

In view of the eternity of afterlife, some consider regular life as relatively unimportant, except for determining one's fate in the afterlife.[1] Life is just a provisional situation, and the metaphor of a tent as provisional housing facility is used as quoted below:

For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.(2 Corinthians 5:1)


Some sects, such as the Universalists, believe in universalism which holds that all will eventually be rewarded regardless of what they have done or believed. On that note, perhaps it is that on the other side of life, in a space we would call death, it would be more that likely that we know everything instantaneously, which would soon follow by boredom. Perhaps it is because we would be bored in knowing everything that we come to here in life and take the present form of humanity, unknowing and curious, yet knowing that it is impossible to know everything without wondering "Why is the Universe Eternal" and failing to realize that it is Eternal to keep us Entertained with Possibility.

Jehovah's Witnesses

Jehovah's Witnesses interpret Ecclesiastes 9:5 as precluding an afterlife:

For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.

They believe that following Armageddon a resurrection in the flesh[2] to an Edenic Earth[3] will be rewarded to all dead and that eternal death (non-existence) is the punishment for sin lacking repentance after Armageddon. Although those who are not dead when Armageddon occurs will be judged and possibly slain while Armageddon because of their potential regretless sins. They believe that death is the price for sinning (that is why all dead will be resurrected - they payed the price already).[4][5]


During the European Enlightenment, many deist freethinkers held that belief in an afterlife with reward and punishment was a necessity of reason and good moral order.

Punishment, retribution, and deterrence

Over the centuries, concepts related to punishment have changed, and so have attitudes about punishment in the afterlife. Earlier views of punishment as retribution have largely given way to a modern view of punishment as properly serving to deter or rehabilitate. (See for example punishment; Cesare, Marquis of Beccaria; Jeremy Bentham; and Michel Foucault) At the same time, views of punishment in the afterlife have softened. For example, Thomas Aquinas and Jonathan Edwards wrote that the saved in heaven will delight in the suffering of the damned. Hell, however, doesn't fit modern, humanitarian concepts of punishment because it can't deter the unbeliever nor rehabilitate the damned. Believers have come to downplay the punishment of hell. Universalists teach that salvation is for all. Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists teach that sinners are destroyed rather than tortured forever. Mormons believe that there are three possible degrees of glory in the afterlife, none of which are hellish. In the 1990s, the Catechism of the Catholic Church defined hell not as punishment imposed on the sinner but rather as the sinner's "self-exclusion" from God.

Afterlife as reincarnation

Another afterlife concept which is found among Hindus, Rosicrucians, Spiritists, and Wicca is reincarnation, as evolving humans life after life in the physical world, that is, acquiring a superior grade of consciousness and altruism by means of successive reincarnations. This succession is conceived to lead toward an eventual liberation or spiritual rebirth as spiritual beings. However, some practitioners of eastern religions follow a different concept called metempsychosis which purposes that human beings can transmigrate into animals, vegetables or even minerals[How to reference and link to summary or text]. One consequence of the Hindu and Spiritist beliefs is that our current lives are also an afterlife. According to those beliefs events in our current life are consequences of actions taken in previous lives, or Karma.

Buddhists, however, believe that rebirth takes place without a self (similar to soul) and that the process of rebirth is simply a continuation of the previous life. The process of being reborn as any other being is based on your karma. And from a Buddhist perspective, the current life is actually a continuation of the past life.

In Tibetan Buddhism the Tibetan Book of the Dead explains the intermediate state of humans between decease and reincarnation. The deceased will find the bright light of wisdom, which shows a straightforward path to move upward and leave the cycle of reincarnation. There are various reasons why deceased not follow that light. Some had no briefing about the intermediate state in the former life. Others only used to follow their basic instincts like animals. And some have fear, which results from foul deeds in the former life or from insistent haughtiness. In the intermediate state the awareness is very flexible, so it is important to be virtuous, adopt a positive attitude and avoid negative ideas. Ideas which are rising from subconsciousness can cause extreme tempers and cowing visions. In this situation they have to understand, that these manifestations are just reflections of the inner thoughts. No one can really hurt them, because they have no more material body. The deceased get help from different Buddhas who show them the path to the bright light. The ones who do not follow the path after all will get hints for a better reincarnation. They have to release the things and beings on which or whom they still hang from the life before. It is recommended to choose a family where the parents trusts in the Dharma and to reincarnate with the will to care for the welfare of all beings.

Rosicrucians [6], in the same way of those who have had near-death experiences, speak of a life review period occurring immediately after death and before entering the afterlife's planes of existence (before the silver cord is broken), followed by a judgment, more akin to a Final Review or End Report over one's life [7].

Some Neopagans believe in personal reincarnation, whereas some believe that the energy of one's soul reintegrates with a continuum of such energy which is recycled into other living things as they are born.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Sikhs also believe in reincarnation. They believe that the soul belongs to the spiritual universe which has its origins in God. It is like a see-saw, the amount of good done in life will store up blessings, thus uniting with God. A soul may need to live many lives before it is one with God.

Afterlife in modern science

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Modern science describes the universe and human beings without reference to a soul or to an afterlife. Scientific method offers few tools for investigating the concepts, and mainstream scientists generally regard claims of scientific evidence for an afterlife to be pseudoscience. However, some investigation has occurred into the biological and experiential aspects of death and near-death experience.

Modern scientific psychology and cognitive science explain human behavior solely in terms of phenomena of the physical brain, and either do not require the presence of a non-brain "soul" or "spirit" that might be expected to continue a separate existence after the death of the brain, or rule it out a priori. However, the nature of consciousness and sentience itself is a subject of ongoing debate. Is consciousness a sole result of the specific configuration of matter of a living brain, or do some forms of consciousness or experience remain present in the matter and energy that used to be a living brain? If the mind and the brain are not completely interdependent, then it is not certain that the subjective experience of a being's consciousness ends at the time of death, which means that scientific biology and psychology may not necessarily rule out theories involving a soul or existence after death. One new aspect of the debate is the possibility of creating an artificial intelligence, raising new questions about what it means to be alive, conscious, dead, and resurrected.

Philosophical arguments

Some non-believers in an afterlife, influenced by positivism, have argued that claims of an afterlife are unverifiable and unfalsifiable, and therefore cognitively meaningless. Some have argued that, on the contrary, particular claims concerning the nature of the afterlife are verifiable and falsifiable: all one has to do to verify/falsify them is die. On the other hand, they argue, the belief in the absence of an afterlife can be attacked as vacuous on the grounds that the statement "I cease to exist" is unverifiable, unfalsifiable, and therefore by the same token cognitively meaningless. In particular, the concept of our own non-existence is inconceivable:

  • What experience corresponds to your own non-existence? None.
  • If there is a life after death, then is there a life before birth? And if there was, can that experience be remembered?

Schopenhauer in particular argued that the idea of an afterlife or immortal soul is contradicted by the fact that it is impossible to attach sense to such a concept as the soul without reference to characteristics such as consciousness, which depend on such physical entities as the brain. Such concepts he argued, are beyond our reach and noumenal (thus unknowable). A counter-argument to that is that consciousness does not directly depend on physical entities, merely that our bodies are merely "temporary tools crafted by our souls" (which leads back to the idea of reincarnation).

Science Fiction

There are many books and science fiction writers that dream up an increasing amount of theories about death. Some examples are the idea that this is all just a dream, or some alien experiment that we will wake up from. The Matrix movies made the idea of a false notion of being alive very popular. Star Trek also made the hologram deck idea popular and a possible cause of all that we sense, think, and feel. Notions of time travellers that can move from one universe to the next have also become popular on television and in movies. The idea that the human body can be cloned forever, and that one will never die in the future is also a common science fiction claim. Some science fiction deals with memories being erased or implanted and various bodies can have the same illusionary and/or true memories downloaded. Cryogenics is already a possible choice today with the belief that future science and medicine techniques will bring the frozen body back to life.

Other Beliefs

There are many different beliefs about what is after death, and even more recently due to the rise and influence of many more religious sects, cults, and the new age movement. A few cults have claimed that aliens in spaceships will take us away once we are dead. Others claim that aliens are breeding us for experiments, or performing tests on us. There is no end to the imaginary ways that we might truly exist and then die. We could be time travelers, or forever repeating in an eternal cycling of universes. Nietzsche wrote about the idea of the eternal return, where we will repeat forever all of our worst and best actions. Other beliefs today involve past life regressions, and reincarnation in ever more complicated ways. For example, one could simply be waking up from dreams within dreams, and never awakening into the real body for a very long time. There is the idea that this is all an illusion, or pure energy, and that we create our own reality, or move to parallel universes. Some believe that we manifest reality based on what we expect or unconsciously wish. The possibilities seem endless, and many wonder if there is a best way to describe what happens after death, making most beliefs mere opinions and full of false statements.

History of afterlife beliefs

ca 1500 BC: Egyptian

Arriving at one's reward in afterlife is a demanding ordeal, requiring a sin-free heart and the spells, passwords, and formulas of the Book of the Dead. One's heart is weighed against the feather of truth and justice (the Goddess Maat). If the heart is lighter than the feather then they may pass on, if it is heavier Ammut will devour them.

ca 1200 BC: Zoroastrian

Zoroaster teaches that the dead will be resurrected and purified to live in a perfected material world at the end of time.

ca 800 BC: Hindu

The Upanishads describe reincarnation, or samsara.

ca 800 BC: Jewish

Writing that will later be incorporated into the Hebrew Bible names sheol as the afterlife, a gloomy place where the unrighteous are destined to go after death. The Book of Numbers identifies sheol as literally underground (Numbers 16:31-33), in the Biblical account of the destruction of the rebellious Korah and his followers.

ca 700 BC: Greek

In the Odyssey, Homer refers to the dead as "burnt-out wraiths." An afterlife of eternal bliss exists in Elysium, but it's reserved for Zeus's mortal descdendants.

ca 400 BC: Greek

In his Myth of Er, Plato describes souls being judged immediately after death and sent either to the heavens for a reward or underground for punishment. After their respective rewards have been enjoyed or suffered, the souls reincarnate.

ca 200 BC: Jewish

The Book of Enoch describes sheol as divided into four compartments for four types of the dead: the faithful saints who await resurrection in Paradise, the merely virtuous who await their reward, the wicked who await punishment, and the wicked who have already been punished and will not be resurrected on Judgment Day.[8] It should be noted that the Book of Enoch is considered apocryphal by most denominations of Christianity and all denominations of Judaism, and should be accorded little, if any weight.

ca 100 BC: Jewish

The book of 2 Maccabees gives a clear account of the dead awaiting a future resurrection and judgment, plus prayers and offerings for the dead to remove the burden of sin.

ca 100 AD: Catholic

Jesus and the New Testament writers of the Bible books mention notions of an afterlife and resurrection that involve ideas like heaven and hell. The author of Luke recounts the story of Lazarus and the rich man, which shows people in Hades awaiting the resurrection either in comfort or torment. The author of the Book of Revelation writes about God and the angels versus Satan and demons in an epic battle at the end of times when all souls are judged. There is mention of ghostly bodies of past prophets, and the transfiguration.

ca 400 AD: Roman Catholic

Saint Augustine counters Pelagius, arguing that original sin means that unbaptized infants go to hell (albeit with less suffering than adults experience).

ca 600 AD: Roman Catholic

Pope Gregory I, Bishop of Rome, articulates the concept that the saved suffer purification after death. This concept would later be called purgatory and accepted as dogma.

ca 900 AD: Zoroastrian

The Pahlavi text Dadestan-i Denig ("Religious Decisions") describes the particular judgment of the soul three days after death, with each soul sent to heaven, hell, or a neutral place (hamistagan) to await Judgment Day..

ca 1100 AD: Roman Catholic

The term purgatorium is first used to describe a state of suffering and purification of the saved after death.

ca 1200 AD: Jewish

Maimonides describes the Olam Haba ("World to Come") in spiritual terms, relegating the prophesied physical resurrection to the status of a future miracle, unrelated to the afterlife or the Messianic era.

ca 1200 AD: Norse

The Prose Edda describes Hel as an unpleasant abode for those unworthy of Valhalla, which is reserved for chosen warriors who die in battle.

ca 1300 AD: Jewish

The Zohar describes Gehenna not as a place of punishment for the wicked but as a place of spiritual purification for the souls of almost all mortals.[1]

ca 1500 AD: Protestant

Martin Luther denounces the doctrine of particular judgment as contrary to the Bible, professing instead the belief that the soul sleeps until Judgment Day.

ca 1800 AD to Present

Many New Age and Science Fiction beliefs become more popular. The variety of beliefs is greatly increased and continues to change, or becomes more eclectic by mixing up beliefs of the past.


President Joseph F. Smith of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints presents an elaborate vision of the Afterlife.

See also

External links


  1. 2 Corinthians 5:6-10; Hebrews 11:13-16,24-26; 1 John 2:15-17 NASB
  2. Acts 24:15 KJV
  3. Insight on the Scriptures vol. 2 pp 574-6
  4. Reasoning From the Scriptures pp 168-175
  5. Jehovah's Witnesses website on Hell
  6. Max Heindel, The Rosicrucian Christianity Lectures (The Riddle of Life and Death), 1908, ISBN 0-911274-84-7
  7. Max Heindel, Death and Life in Purgatory - Life and Activity in Heaven
  8. Fosdick, Harry Emerson. A guide to understanding the Bible. New York: Harper & Brothers. 1956. page 276.
Preceded by:
Birth, Life, Death
Stages of human development
Afterlife (possibly) or Reincarnation (possibly)
Succeeded by:

Further reading

Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion by Alan F. Segal, Doubleday, 2004

Brain & Belief: An Exploration of the Human Soul by John J. McGraw, Aegis Press, 2004

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