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Afterlife

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"Jesus the Advocate,"  also known as "The Narrow Gate to Heaven;" artist unknown
"Jesus the Advocate," also known as "The Narrow Gate to Heaven;" artist unknown

If the soul is immortal upon its creation, as many religions maintain, what happens to it, what does it do, and where does it reside after the death of the body?

Most immortalist religion traditions and folk beliefs, even those that hold that a person has more than one soul, surmise that there after death will be some form of judgement of the soul or its portions, followed by a reward or punishment as appropriate. A belief in after-death judgement even extends to some traditions within Buddhism, despite the idea that their doctrine holds that humans have "no soul," or rather a mutable soul.

The nature of the reward or punishment meted out to the soul after the death of the body, or after a judgement is made upon the newly discarnate soul, varies from one religion or culture to another. Just as variable is the nature of the new abode of the soul once the body has died.

Contents

Heavens, Paradises, and Ascensions

An Angelic Choir assembles on the Stairway to Heaven; artist unknown
An Angelic Choir assembles on the Stairway to Heaven; artist unknown
Damned souls falling over a cliff into Hell, envisioned as a lake of eternal fire; artist unknown
Damned souls falling over a cliff into Hell, envisioned as a lake of eternal fire; artist unknown
A glimpse of Sheol, the land of the dead, as envisioned when the Witch of Endor brought forth a glimpse of the spirit of the prophet Samuel for the Jewish King Saul;  “The Witch of Endor” by Benjamin West, engraving by R. Shipster, from Thomas Macklin’s Bible, London, 1797
A glimpse of Sheol, the land of the dead, as envisioned when the Witch of Endor brought forth a glimpse of the spirit of the prophet Samuel for the Jewish King Saul; “The Witch of Endor” by Benjamin West, engraving by R. Shipster, from Thomas Macklin’s Bible, London, 1797
Reincarnation conceived as birth, life, death, a return to the Supreme Godhead, and rebirth; artist unknown
Reincarnation conceived as birth, life, death, a return to the Supreme Godhead, and rebirth; artist unknown
Achieving Nirvana or freedom from attachment and reincarnation; artist unknown
Achieving Nirvana or freedom from attachment and reincarnation; artist unknown
Apparitions haunting Penn State's "ghost walk," photographed in the 1890s by Professor William Buckhout; the ghosts are actually double-exposure images of his daughters and their friends dressed in white burial shrouds
Apparitions haunting Penn State's "ghost walk," photographed in the 1890s by Professor William Buckhout; the ghosts are actually double-exposure images of his daughters and their friends dressed in white burial shrouds

Among the world's varied religions, beliefs concerning the location and structure of a beautiful afterlife, in English called Heaven, depend on a culture’s understanding of the structure of earth. For example, in ancient cultures in which the earth was assumed to be flat, Heaven was conceived as a series of layers or domes, with the observable stars at the lowest level.

In Indian religions, Heaven is an array of paradise worlds situated above Mount Meru, Hinduism's “axis of the world” which connects the Heavens, Earth, and the Underworlds. These paradises are places where the righteous soul can enjoy the fruits of good karma until its next reincarnation.

African and African-Diasporic traditional religions are diverse and represent an entire continent of religions, as well as descendants of those religions around the world. Because there is no monolithic African and African-Diasporic religion, beliefs about the afterlife, as well as other concepts, are many and varied. However, these elements are widespread: the hereafter is a place of peace and joy, but only those who had been good and helpful on earth would survive to become ancestors. The ancestors interact with the living and receive sacrifices, including drink offerings or libations. They also have children named after them, facilitating their reincarnation.

Among some of the Native American tribes in which hunting for game provided a major source of food, the belief arose that after death, the soul would dwell in a place where animals, fish, and wild fruit were abundant; the English term for this place is "the happy hunting ground."

In traditional Christianity, it is common to conceive of Heaven as a land of clouds, where angels and human souls live in harmony, praising God with song. Entrance to Heaven is sometimes depicted as taking the form of a stairway of ascension; this concept may be rooted in the older Jewish vision of Jacob, who saw a ladder leading to Heaven, and angels passing up and down. Other names for Heaven include the land of the blessed, the golden shore, and the glory-land. Souls are sometimes said to receive new raiment when they arrive, golden shoes, a white robe, and a golden crown; they may also be conceived of having been welcomed with a pair of wings, making them members of "the angel band."

Modern religions, at least in their more academic strata, tend to define Heaven as a condition of closeness to God, rather than a place in another world. Some modern Protestant Christians endorse this perception, and it is also shared with the Baha'i faith.

The Baha'i, as well as Kardecist Spiritualists and Catholic Christians, believe that one can draw closer to the divine even after death, so long as one overcomes rejection of godly guidance and begins to practice moral and ethical virtues such as courage, justice, love, and understanding. For such redeemable souls, Catholics believe that a place called Purgatory, where souls endure temporary punishment commensurate with their moral lapses and crimes during life, is a way-station on the road to Heaven, and that the prayers of those alive can assist the souls who have died by shortening their sojourn there.

Hells, Demotions, and Devolutions

Christianity is not the only extant world religion that teaches the concept of a harsh, painful, fiery Hell. Zoroastrianism, Taoism and Buddhism also have many Hells, both fiery and icy. Older Christian depictions -- notably Dante's Inferno -- also include bitterly cold regions of Hell. Buddhism posits not one, but many Hells, akin to the "circles" of Dante's poem, as each area is dedicated to the punishment of a particular type of sinner.

The demonic torturers of Hell seem to have started as otherworldly prison guards back in ancient Mesopotamia, where their main job was to drag escapees back to the underworld. Later evolutions produced the Egyptian Ammit, the devourer of the dead. To be devoured by her was to be thrown to the lake of fire and disassembled and unmade as a soul.

For some religions, soul-death is the only afterlife punishment that exists. In many African traditional religions, the wicked do not become ancestors. No children are named after them. When they die, they cease to exist.

Sheol, the Land of Dullness

In the earliest traditions of antiquity for which we have any records, the immortal-soul doctrine had not really taken root. Heaven was strictly the abode of the gods, and humans did not go there. For humans, there was barely any afterlife at all: a dark shadowy underworld, beneath the earth, where nothing much happened. This was thought to be the universal fate of all souls, regardless of moral character. Occasionally a deity would make an exception for a prized or heroic devotee. In such cultures, offerings were made to the dead at their funerals and sometimes thereafter, to give them comfort in the afterlife.

The same schema is reflected in the Hebrew Bible: Sheol, the land of the dead, is never described in detail; souls are said to be resting there. The only humans who have access to Heaven are the prophets, who glimpse it in their visions.

Reincarnation

Whereas some traditions view Heaven and Hell as permanent destinations and dwelling places for the soul after death, members of Hindu, New Age, and other reincarnationist traditions concern themselves with he soul's journey from lifetime to lifetime, and view all such places as temporary resting places during the soul's sojourns between earthly lives.

Many African traditional cultures, particularly hunter-gatherers, do not spend much thought on what happens after death. In some cultures, this leaves room for multiple beliefs about the afterlife to coexist. Understanding of reincarnation differs from other cultures discussed here: it is not a discrete, conscious soul that is reincarnated, but a soul's dominant characteristics and traits. This aspect of the soul is reincarnated among one's own descendants.

Nirvana: The Blessed Extinction of the Soul?

Nirvana can be said to have two meanings: extinction (because the word means “extinguish” or “blow out”, like a candle), and ultimate bliss, because that is the effect of liberation. In the Victorian era, westerners seized on the “extinction” concept, which led them to characterize Buddhism as a negative, life-denying religion, dedicated to obliterating oneself.

But Siddhartha Buddha, the founder of Buddhism originally used Nirvana to mean the highest state of profound well-being the soul can attain. The flame of terrified craving for security that spins the wheel of reincarnation is what is “extinguished”. This supreme bliss is attained, not through herculean struggle or a miracle of divine forgiveness, but by removing the fuel from the fire. By removing the fuel of fear, greed, unrighteous anger, the “flame” of life can then be fueled by unforced virtue and the joy of complete liberation.

Buddhists speak of “Nirvana with remainder” — the remainder being the living, conscious, fully liberated body-and-soul — and “Nirvana without remainder” — which means that at the time of death, body and consciousness are both extinguished as one. Since the fear and suffering that we seek to satisfy by reincarnating are gone, there is no reason at all to be reborn.

Ghosts and Haunted Houses

Ghosts are thought by many to be created at the time of death, taking on the memory and personality of the If dead person. They travel to the netherworld, where they are assigned a position, and lead an existence similar in some ways to that of the living.

Spirit work, mediumship, and spirit board divination are methods for contacting and communicating with these souls. If the dead are conceived to be helpful ancestors or spirit guides, relatives or friends of the deceased may make offerings of food and drink to give them honour, ease their conditions, seek their favour, or obtain their assistance.

Ghosts, revenants, and lost souls are also said to haunt houses, roadways, and other locations, especially if they died under unhappy circumstances. Haunted houses, also known as ghost houses, are homes or other buildings believed to be inhabited by disembodied spirits of the deceased who may have been former residents or were otherwise connected with the property. Parapsychologists often attribute haunting to the spirits of the dead who have suffered from violent or tragic events in ta location's past such as murder, accidental death, or suicide. Houses, wilderness areas, and cemeteries may also be haunted by demonic spirits that were never the souls of human beings.

In a house is haunted by the spirit of someone who died tragically and whose ghost returns to its former habitation, it is a practice in some cultures to return the spirit to the graveyard. In African-American hoodoo, for instance, if a child is bothered by a visit from a ghostly relative, a scattering of the deceased's graveyard dirt may be left outside the door. This allows the ghost to look over the child and also return to the grave.

If a ghost is unwanted, it may be banished. The banishing of spirits refers to one or more rituals intended to remove non-physical influences, ranging from ghosts and demons to negative influences or remnant energies.

See Also

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