How the Major Religions View the Afterlife


The core of the Christian faith is the belief in the resurrection of Jesus (c. 6 B.C.E.–c. 30 C.E.) after his death on the cross and the promise of life everlasting to all who accept his divinity and believe in him. Because Christianity rose out of Judaism, the teachings of Jesus as recorded in the gospels reflect many of the Jewish beliefs of the soul and the afterlife, primarily that a reunion of body and soul will be accomplished in the next world. The accounts of the appearance of Jesus to his apostles after his resurrection show how completely they

believed that they beheld him in the flesh, even to the extreme of the skeptical Thomas placing his fingertips into the still-open wounds of the crucifixion. "A spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have," Jesus told them. Then, to prove his physicality still further, he asks if they have anything for him to eat.

Paul (?–c. 68 C.E.), the apostle and once avid persecutor of Christians, received his revelation from the voice of Jesus within a blinding light while he was traveling on the road to Damascus. He discovered it to be a challenge to convince others in the belief in the physical resurrection of the dead when he preached in Athens. Although the assembled Athenians listened politely to his message of a new faith, they mocked him and walked away when he began to speak of dead bodies standing up and being reborn. To these cultured men and women who had been exposed to Plato's philosophy that the material body was but a fleshly prison from which the soul was freed by death, the very notion of resurrecting decaying bodies was repugnant. Paul refused to acknowledge defeat. Because he had been educated as a Greek, he set about achieving a compromise between the resurrection theology being taught by his fellow apostles and the Platonic view of the soul so widely accepted in Greek society.

Paul knew that Plato had viewed the soul as composed of three constituents: the nous, (the rational soul, is immortal and incarnated in a physical body); the thumos (passion, heart, spirit); and epithumetikos (desire). After many hardships, imprisonments, and public humiliation, Paul worked out a theology that envisioned human nature as composed of three essential elements—the physical body; the psyche, the life-principle, much like the Hebrew concept of the nephesh; and the pneuma, the spirit, the inner self. Developing his thought further, he made the distinction between the "natural body" of a living person that dies and is buried, and the "spiritual body," which is resurrected.

In I Corinthians 15:35–44, Paul writes:

But some will ask, "How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?" You foolish man! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare kernel.…God gives it a body as He has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. For not all flesh is alike.…There are celestial bodies and there are terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another.…So it is with the resurrection from the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown in the physical body, it is raised in a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.

Although he had begun to mix Platonic and Jewish philosophies in a manner that would be found acceptable to thousands of new converts to Christianity, Paul could not free himself completely from the Hebrew tradition that insisted upon some bodily form in the afterlife. However inconsistent it might appear to some students of theology, Paul and his fellow first-century Christian missionaries taught that while the immortal soul within was the most essential aspect of a person's existence, in order for a proper afterlife, one day there would be a judgment and the righteous would be rewarded with reconstituted bodies.

The early church fathers began more and more to shape Christian doctrines that reflected Plato's metaphysical philosophy, but they remained greatly divided over the particular nature of the immortal soul. The Platonists saw the soul as supraindividual and remaining within the universal cosmic soul after its final ascent to oneness with the Divine. The Christian philosophers could not be shaken from their position that each soul was created by God to be immortal and individual, irrevocably connected to the afterlife. Among them was Tertullian (c. 160 C.E.–220 C.E.), who defined the soul as having sprung directly from the breath of God, thereby making it immortal. The body, in the Platonic view, was merely the instrument of the anima—the soul. The highly respected Alexandrian scholar Origen (c. 185 C.E.–254 C.E.) theorized that in the beginning, God had created a certain number of spirit entities who received physical bodies or spiritual bodies as determined by their respective merits. Some might be appointed human forms, while others, according to their conduct, would be elevated to angelic status, or relegated to the position of demons.

Such a concept of the preexistence of souls seemed too close to reincarnation for those learned Christian scholars assembled for the First Council of Constantinople in 543. By then, church doctrine had decreed that it was given each soul to live once, to die, and then to await the Day of Judgement when Christ returned to Earth. Despite his prestige as a learned and wise church father, Origen's views were condemned as heretical. The prevailing view of the early Christian church was the one espoused by Jerome (c. 342 C.E.–420 C.E.), who envisioned God as creating new souls as they were required for the new bodies being born to human parents on Earth. Essentially, orthodox contemporary Christianity continues to maintain the position that each new person born receives a new soul that has never before existed in any other form. In Christian doctrine, the soul is superior to the body because of its divine origin and because it is immortal, but belief in a resurrection of the physical body is also an essential aspect of both the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed, which declare that after the Last Judgment Jesus shall once again appear to "judge the living and the dead."

In Chapter 25 of Matthew, Jesus tells a parable of how the Son of Man is to come and sit on his throne as the people of all nations gather before him so that he might separate them as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. Those individuals who loved their neighbors as themselves will be rewarded with eternal life, but those who have chosen greed and self-interest will be sent away into eternal punishment. In Acts 17:31, it is stated that God has appointed Jesus Christ to judge the world; Acts 10:42 again names Christ as the one "ordained by God to be judge of the living and the dead."

The early Christian Church believed that the Second Coming of Jesus was imminent and that many who were alive in the time of the apostles would live to see his return in the clouds. When this remarkable event occurred, it would signal the end of time and Jesus Christ would raise the dead and judge those who would ascend to heaven and those who would suffer the everlasting torments of hell. The delay in the Second Coming forced the Church to adjust its theology to acknowledge that the time of judgment for each individual would arrive at the time of that person's death.

For the traditional Christian, heaven is the everlasting dwelling place of God and the angelic beings who have served him faithfully since the beginning. There, those Christians who have been redeemed through faith in Jesus as the Christ will be with him forever in glory. Liberal Christians acknowledge that, as Jesus promised, there are many mansions in his father's kingdom where those of other faiths may also dwell. For more fundamental and conservative Christians, the terrifying graphic images depicted over the centuries of the Last Judgment have been too powerful to be eliminated from doctrinal teachings, so they envision a beautiful place high above the Earth where only true believers in Jesus may reign with him.

Hell, in traditional Christian thought, is a place of eternal torment for those who have been damned after the Last Judgment. It is generally pictured as a barren pit filled with flames, the images developed out of the Hebrew Sheol and the Greek Hades as the final resting places for the dead. Roman Catholic Christianity continues to depict hell as a state of unending punishment for the unrepentant, but over five centuries ago, the councils of Florence (1439) and Trent (1545–63) defined the concept of purgatory, an intermediate state after death during which the souls have opportunities to expiate certain of their sins. Devoted members of their families can offer prayers and oblations which can assist those souls in purgatory to atone for their earthly transgressions and achieve a restoration of their union with God.

Protestant Christianity does not offer its followers the opportunities for afterlife redemption afforded by purgatory or any other intermediate spiritual state, but it has removed much of the fear of hell and replaced it with an emphasis upon grace and faith. While fundamentalist Protestants retain the traditional views of heaven and hell, there are many contemporary Protestant clergy who have rejected the idea of a place of eternal torment for condemned souls as incompatible with the belief in a loving God of forgiveness. Hell has been transformed from a place of everlasting suffering to an afterlife state of being without the presence of God. For liberal Christian theologians, the entire teaching of a place of everlasting damnation has been completely rejected in favor of the love of Jesus for all humanity.

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