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Ancient Egyptian papyrus depicting the journey into the afterlife.

The terms afterlife or life after death refer to the continuation of existence of the soul, spirit or mind of a human (or animal) after physical death, sometimes in a spiritual or ghostlike afterworld. Deceased persons are usually believed to go to a specific region or plane of existence in the next life, often depending on the rightness of their actions during life. Some believe the afterlife can be another life in this world (reincarnation). The major views on the afterlife derive from religion, esotericism and metaphysics. There are those who are skeptical of the existence of the afterlife, or believe that it is absolutely impossible, such as the materialist-reductionists, who state that the topic is supernatural, therefore does not really exist or is unknowable.

Types of views on the afterlife

There are two fundamentally different types of views on the afterlife: views claiming to be scientific and religious views.

The afterlife in different metaphysical models

See the list of philosophical questions for related information.

In metaphysical models, theists generally believe some sort of afterlife awaits people when they die. Atheists generally do not believe that there is an afterlife. Members of some generally non-theistic religions such as Buddhism, tend to believe in an afterlife like reincarnation but without reference to God.

Agnostics generally hold the position that like the existence of God, the existence of supernatural phenomena, such as souls or life after death, is unverifiable and therefore unknowable. Some philosophies (i.e. posthumanism, Humanism, and often empiricism) generally hold that there is not an afterlife.

Many religions, whether they believe in the soul’s existence in another world like Christianity, Islam and many pagan belief systems, or in reincarnation like many forms of Hinduism and Buddhism, believe that one’s status in the afterlife is a reward or punishment for their conduct during life.

Afterlife research in the early 20th century

Science, in general, either describes the universe and human beings without reference to a soul or to an afterlife, or tends to remain mute on the issue. A notable exception is a famous study conducted in 1901 by physician Duncan MacDougall, who sought to measure the weight purportedly lost by a human body when the soul departed the body upon death.[2] MacDougall weighed dying patients in an attempt to prove that the soul was material, tangible and thus measurable. These experiments are widely considered to have had little if any scientific merit, and although MacDougall's results varied considerably from "21 grams," for some people this figure has become synonymous with the measure of a soul's mass.[3] The title of the 2003 movie 21 Grams is a reference to MacDougall's findings.

Afterlife in modern science

Some, such as Francis Crick in 1994, have attempted a ‘scientific search for the soul’.[4] Frank Tipler has argued that physics can explain immortality, though such arguments are not falsifiable and thus do not qualify as science.[5]

Some investigations have been conducted which failed to find evidence that “out-of-body” experiences transcend the confines of the brain. For example, one hospital placed an LED marquee above its patients’ beds which displayed a hidden message that could only be read if one were looking down from above. As of 2001, no one who claimed near-death experience or out-of-body experience within that hospital had reported having seen the hidden message. [6]

Afterlife in Ancient Egyptian religion

The afterlife played an important role in Ancient Egyptian religion, and its belief system is one of the earliest known. When the body died, parts of its soul known as ka (body double) and the ba (personality) would go to the Kingdom of the Dead. While the soul dwelt in the Fields of Aaru, Osiris demanded work as payback for the protection he provided. Statues were placed in the tombs to serve as substitutes for the deceased.

Arriving at one's reward in afterlife was a demanding ordeal, requiring a sin-free heart and the ability to recite the spells, passwords, and formulae of the Book of the Dead. In the Hall of Two Truths, the deceased's heart was weighed against the Shu feather of truth and justice taken from the headdress of the goddess Ma'at.[7] If the heart was lighter than the feather, they could pass on, but if it were heavier they would be devoured by the demon Ammit.

Egyptians also believed that being mummified was the only way to have an afterlife. Only if the corpse had been properly embalmed and entombed in a mastaba, could the dead live again in the Fields of Yalu and accompany the Sun on its daily ride. Due to the dangers the afterlife posed, the Book of the Dead was placed in the tomb with the body.

Afterlife in Zoroastrianism

Zoroaster, who lived in Iran around 1000 BCE, teaches that the dead will be swallowed by terror and purified to live in a perfected material world at the end of time.

The Pahlavi text Dadestan-i Denig ("Religious Decisions") from about 900 CE, 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.

Afterlife in ancient Greek and Roman religion

File:Waterhouse - Danaides.jpg
The dead Danaides punished by having to pour water into a leaking cauldron.

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

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 judgments have been enjoyed or suffered, the souls are reincarnated.

The Greek god Hades is known in Greek mythology as the king of the underworld, a bleak place in between the place of torment and the place of rest, where most souls live after death. Some heroes of Greek legend are allowed to visit the underworld. The Romans had a similar belief system about the afterlife, with Hades becoming known as Pluto. The Trojan prince Aeneas, who founds the nation that would later become Rome, visits the underworld according to the epic poem Aeneid.

Afterlife in Norse religion

The Poetic and Prose Eddas, the oldest sources for information on the Norse concept of the afterlife, vary in their description of the several realms that are described as falling under this topic. The most well-known are:

  • Valhalla: (lit. "Hall of the Slain" i.e. "the Chosen Ones") This heavenly abode, somewhat analogous to the Greek Elysium, is reserved for those brave warriors who die heroically in battle.
  • Hel: (lit. "The Covered Hall") This abode is somewhat like Hades from Ancient Greek religion: there, something not unlike the Asphodel Meadows can be found, and people who have neither excelled in that which is good nor excelled in that which is bad can expect to go there after they die and be reunited with their loved ones.
  • Niflhel: (lit. "The Dark" or "Misty Hel") This realm is roughly analogous to Greek Tartarus. It is the deeper level beneath Hel, and those who break oaths, abduct and rape women, and other vile things will be sent there to be among their kind to suffer some pretty harsh punishments.

Afterlife in Abrahamic religions


Writing that would later be incorporated into the Hebrew Bible names sheol as the afterlife, a gloomy place where all are destined to go after death. The Book of Numbers identifies sheol as literally underground (Template:Niv), in the Biblical account of the destruction of the rebellious Korah, Dathan and Abiram and their 250 followers, although it is speculated that this passage should be read literally, signifying an earthquake or split in the earth.

The Talmud offers a number of thoughts relating to the afterlife. After death, the soul is brought for judgment. Those who have lead pristine lives enter immediately into the "World to Come." Most do not enter the World to Come immediately, but now experience a period of review of their earthly actions and they are made aware of what they have done wrong. Some view this period as being a "re-schooling", with the soul gaining wisdom as one's errors are reviewed. Others view this period to include punishment for past wrongs. At the end of this period, approximately one year, the soul then takes its place in the World to Come. Although punishments are made part of certain Jewish conceptions of the afterlife, the concept of "eternal damnation," so prevalent in other religions, is not a central tenet of the Jewish afterlife. According to the Talmud, eternal punishment is reserved for a much smaller group of malicious and evil leaders, either whose deeds go way beyond norms, or who lead large groups of people to evil. In the Talmud, completed by 500 CE, eternal damnation is reserved for the Caesar of Rome, for example, along with other individuals who led many to evil. The modern-day example of someone who would merit eternal damnation in Jewish thought would be Hitler.

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.

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.

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. According to Maimonides, an afterlife continues for the soul of every human being, a soul now separated from the body in which it was "housed" during its earthly existence.

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]


The Early Church: 1st century

File:Domenico Beccafumi 056.jpg
Domenico Beccafumi's Inferno: a Christian vision of hell

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.

The Early Church: 2nd and 3rd century

The non-canonical Acts of Paul and Thecla speak of the efficacy of prayer for the dead, so that they might be "translated to a state of happiness."[9]

Hippolytus of Rome pictures Hades as a place where the righteous dead, awaiting in the bosom of Abraham their resurrection, rejoice at their future prospect, while the unrighteous are tormented at the sight of the "lake of unquenchable fire" into which they are destined to be cast.

The Early Church: 4th and 5th century

Gregory of Nyssa discusses the long-before believed possibility of purification of souls after death.[10]

Saint Augustine counters Pelagius, arguing that original sin means that the unbaptized go to hell, including infants, albeit with less suffering than is experienced by those guilty of actual sins.

Medieval Christianity

Pope Gregory I repeats the concept, articulated over a century earlier by Gregory of Nyssa that the saved suffer purification after death, in connection with which he wrote of "purgatorial flames". The noun "purgatorium" (Latin: place of cleansing[11]) is used for the first time to describe a state of painful purification of the saved after life. The same word in adjectival form (purgatorius -a -um, cleansing), which appears also in non-religious writing,[12] was already used by Christians such as Augustine of Hippo and Pope Gregory I to refer to an after-death cleansing.

The Protestant Reformation

Martin Luther denounces the doctrine of particular judgment, professing instead the belief that the soul sleeps until Judgment Day. John Calvin denounces Luther's doctrine, writing instead that the souls of the elect rest in blessedness while awaiting the resurrection of the dead.

Swedenborg and the Enlightenment

During the Age of Enlightenment, theologians and philosophers presented various philosophies and beliefs. A notable example is Emanuel Swedenborg who wrote some 18 theological works which describe in detail the nature of the afterlife according to his claimed spiritual experiences, the most famous of which is Heaven and Hell.

On the other hand, the enlightenment produced more rationalist philosophies such as deism. Many deist freethinkers held that belief in an afterlife with reward and punishment was a necessity of reason and good moral order.

Afterlife in Latter-Day Saints (Mormonism)

President Joseph F. Smith of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints presents an elaborate vision of the Afterlife. It is revealed as the scene of an extensive missionary effort by righteous spirits to redeem those still in darkness - a spirit prison or "hell" where the spirits of the dead remain until judgement. It is divided into two parts: Spirit Prison and Paradise. Together these are also known as the Spirit World (also Abraham's Bosom; see Luke 16:19-25). They believe that Christ visited spirit prison (1 Peter 3:18-20) and opened the gate for those who repent to cross over to Paradise. This is similar to the Harrowing of Hell doctrine of some mainstream Christian faiths. Both Spirit Prison and Paradise are temporary according to Latter-day Saint beliefs. After the resurrection spirits are assigned "permanently" to three degrees of heavenly glory (1 Cor 15:44-42; Doctrine and Covenants, Section 76) or are cast with Satan into Outer Darkness. (See Doctrine and Covenants, Section 76.) This continues to be the belief system of most Mormons.

Salvation, faith, and merit from ancient to modern Christianity

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.

Christian theologians 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, this however, does not affect the Christian belief which places Biblical teaching above the ideas of society. Some Christian believers have come to downplay the punishment of hell. Universalists teach that salvation is for all. Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists, though they have among the strictest rules on how to conduct their lives, teach that sinners are destroyed rather than tortured forever.

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 people who have received immortality from the grace of God through faith in the Son of God Jesus (John 3:16).


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.

Jehovah's Witnesses

Jehovah's Witnesses understand Ecclesiastes 9:5 to preclude an afterlife:

For the living are conscious that they will die; but as for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all, neither do they any more have wages, because the remembrance of them has been forgotten.

They believe that following Armageddon a resurrection in the flesh[13] to an Edenic Earth[14] will be rewarded to both righteous and unrighteous (but not wicked) dead. Acts 24:15 states, "“I have hope toward God . . . that there is going to be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous.”

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 during Armageddon because of their potential regretless sins. They believe that death is the price for sinning (that is why most dead will be resurrected - they paid the price already).[15][16]

The Modern Catholic Church

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.


The Islamic belief in the afterlife as stated in the Qur'an is unique, its official description is more detailed. The word used to describe Paradise in Islam is referred to as jannat and to describe Hell is jahannam. Jannat and Jahannam both have different levels. Souls will not get there until after the Judgment Day, but their level of comfort while in the grave depends on their belief in The God and hereafter, as well as their deeds during this life. The levels are 7 for Jannat and 5 for Hell.

Islam teaches that the purpose of Mans creation is to worship the Creator of the Heavens and Earth, Allah, the Arabic word used to refer to The One and Only God of the Abrahamic Tradition. Islam teaches that life lived on this Earth is a test for man to determine each individuals ultimate Reward or Punishment in the Afterlife, which is eternal and everlasting.

According to the Qur’an, the basic criteria for salvation in afterlife is:

1. The belief in one and only God 2. To believe in the afterlife, resurrection and Last Judgment 3. Performing good deeds and abstaining from bad actions 4. To believe in ALL the seen and unseen messengers of Allah: All of the Angels (i.e. Gabriel and Michael); All of the Prophets including Adam, Noah, Abraham, Jesus (including his miraculous birth and Second Coming), as well as believing that Muhammad is the last messenger of God, Peace and Blessings upon all of them.

When one holds these to be true, then they are considered to be a Muslim, or one who submits to Allah, and should formally declare their Islam at their local masjid.

Afterlife as reincarnation

An afterlife concept that 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.

Some practitioners of eastern religions follow a different concept called metempsychosis which purposes that human beings can transmigrate into animals, vegetables, or even minerals.[citation needed] 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.

Eastern Religions


The Upanishads describe reincarnation, or samsara. The Bhagavad Gita, an important book for Hinduism talks extensively about the afterlife. Here, the Lord Krishna says that just as a man discards his old clothes and wears new ones; similarly the soul discards the old body and takes on a new one. In Hinduism, the belief is that the body is but a shell, the soul inside is immutable and indestructible and takes on different lives in a cycle of birth and death. The end of this cycle is Moksha or salvation. However, not all Hindus believe in reincarnation.


Buddhists 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. From a Buddhist perspective, the current life is a continuation of the past life. If one dies with a peaceful state of mind, this will cause fortunate karma to ripen and a fortunate rebirth as a human or god will follow. If one dies with a negative state of mind, this will ripen negative karma and a lower rebirth such as an animal, ghost, or hell-being will follow.

In Tibetan Buddhism the Tibetan Book of the Dead explains the intermediate state of humans between death 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 the deceased do 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 trust in the Dharma and to reincarnate with the will to care for the welfare of all beings.


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. But there is more to it than this; there are four classes that are included in this belief...Above these four classes is God "Waheguru" and you can stay with him if you like or take another step and go to your people and serve them. Below these four classes are non humans such as plants and viruses. You move up and down according to your deeds, a good life and death moves you up to a higher class and a bad life and death results in going down a class.Bolo satnam waheguru.

Other believers in reincarnation

Rosicrucians,[17] 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.[18]

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.[citation needed]

Many Wiccans, though not all, profess a belief in an afterlife called the Summerland, a peaceful and sunny place where the souls of the newly dead are sent. Here, souls rest, recuperate from life, and reflect on the experiences they had during their lives. After a period of rest, the souls are reincarnated, and the memory of their previous lives is erased. Shi'a Muslims believe to Raj'a that can be understood as a limited reincarnation.

See also


  1. Near-death experience in survivors of cardiac arrest: a prospective study in the Netherlands
  2. Roach, Mary (2005). Spook – Science Tackles the Afterlife. W. W. Norton & Co. ISBN 0-393-05962-6.
  3. Urban Legends - Reference Page (Soul man).
  4. Crick, Francis (1995). The Astonishing Hypothesis – the Scientific Search for the Soul. Touchstone Books. ISBN 0-684-80158-2.
  5. Tipler, Franl, J. (1997). The Physics of Immortality – Modern Cosmology, God and the Resurrection of the Dead. Anchor. ISBN 0385467990.
  6. Alper, Matthew (2001). The "God" Part of the Brain - a Scientific Interpretation of Human Spirituality and God. Rogue Press. ISBN 0-9660367-0-0.
  7. Bard, Katheryn (1999). Encyclopedia of the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt. Routledge. ISBN 0-4151-8589-0.
  8. Fosdick, Harry Emerson. A guide to understanding the Bible. New York: Harper & Brothers. 1956. page 276.
  9. Acts of Paul and Thecla 8:5
  10. He wrote that a person "may afterward in a quite different manner be very much interested in what is better, when, after his departure out of the body, he gains knowledge of the difference between virtue and vice and finds that he is not able to partake of divinity until he has been purged of the filthy contagion in his soul by the purifying fire" (emphases added) - Sermon on the Dead, AD 382, quoted in The Roots of Purgatory
  11. "purgatory." The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. Columbia University Press., 2003. 06 Jun. 2007.
  12. Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary
  13. Acts 24:15 KJV
  14. Insight on the Scriptures vol. 2 pp 574-6
  15. Reasoning From the Scriptures pp 168-175
  16. Jehovah's Witnesses website on Hell
  17. Max Heindel, The Rosicrucian Christianity Lectures (The Riddle of Life and Death), 1908, ISBN 0-911274-84-7
  18. Max Heindel, Death and Life in Purgatory - Life and Activity in Heaven

Further reading

  • Death and Afterlife: Perspectives of World Religions edited by Hiroshi Obayashi, Praeger, 1991
  • Beyond Death: Theological and Philosophical Reflections on Life after Death edited by Dan Cohn-Sherbok and Christopher Lewis, Pelgrave-MacMillan, 1995
  • The Islamic Understanding of Death and Resurrection by Jane Idelman Smith and Yazbeck Haddad, Oxford UP, 2002
  • 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

External links

Look up afterlife, hereafter in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.


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