Judgment of the Dead

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JUDGMENT OF THE DEAD . In religions where a differentiation is made between the righteous and sinners in the hereafter, the decision to which category to assign each individual can be thought to take place in different ways. Sometimes it is an automatic process, as in the Indian doctrine of karman ; each individual's deeds in this life determine his status in his next existence. In other cases, it is believed that the deceased has to pass over a narrow bridge; if he is good there is no difficulty, but if he is evil he is thrown down. This idea is found in ancient Iranian religion, and similar beliefs exist among the Algonquin Indians, the Mari (Cheremis) in Russia, and the Bojnang of the island of Sulawesi. Here no god or personal being seems to be involved in the decision. In other cases, however, a court scene is presupposed, with divine or semidivine judges passing on each individual.

Ancient Near East

The evidence from ancient Mesopotamia is scanty. One Assyrian text tells the story of a crown prince descending into the netherworld and appearing before its king, Nergal, who decides that he is to return to life. It seems likely that this text presents the mythical background of an incantation rite, and thus refers only to a decision in the netherworld whether a sick person should die or recover. It does not refer to a regular judgment of the dead. Texts from the sixth century bce, found at Susa in southwestern Iran, mention some sort of judgment that gives the good some advantage over the wicked, but they hardly represent genuine Babylonian belief; possibly they were influenced by Iranian ideas.

Ancient Egyptian religion is especially known for its concern about life in the hereafter. However, in the Pyramid Texts, the oldest funerary texts at scholars' disposal, there is no reference to a judgment of the dead. Though there is found the idea that the king still carries out his earthly function as a judge, he is not said to judge the dead in general. Several tomb inscriptions from the Old Kingdom warn that anyone who violates the tomb will be "judged by the Great God at the place of judgment." But that again is no judgment of the dead. On the other hand, autobiographical texts from the same period express the wish that the author's name "may be good before the Great God." This seems to imply some kind of judgment in the hereafter. The same is true of inscriptions in which the dead person promises to defend anyone who respects his tomb "in the judgment hall of the Great God." But in the Instruction for Merikare (early Middle Kingdom) there is a clear passage referring to "the judges who judge the sinner" in the hereafter as not being lenient. Therefore individuals should remember that they must die, and that after their deaths their sins will be laid beside them in a heap. Anyone who lives unmindful of the judgment in the hereafter is foolish, but anyone who has not sinned will be like a god in eternal freedom.

A different outlook is reflected in the Coffin Texts. Here magical spells are used to secure various privileges for the deceased in the hereafter. There is also reference to a court of judgment presided over by the earth god Geb, who issues decrees to the benefit of the deceased in the same way as an earthly court might. Gradually it becomes customary to add to the name of the deceased person the epithet maa kheru, which denotes him as cleared by the court of an accusation. This title was also given to Osiris, when he had been declared righteous in the court of Geb and had been reinstated in his royal rights (though he was now in the netherworld). As it became customary to identify every dead person with Osiris, he was also certain of being maa kheru.

The final result of this development appears in the well-known judgment scene in the Book of Going Forth by Day. Chapter 125 describes how the deceased appears before Osiris, the divine judge of the netherworld, who is assisted by forty-two assessors, one for each of the provinces of Egypt. It seems that the reader is here confronted with two different sets of ideas. According to the text, the deceased addresses the assessors, asserting that he has not committed forty-two specific sins; this is often referred to as the "negative confession." The scene depicted, on the other hand, shows the deceased being led before the judges by Horus; in front of Osiris there is a balance, attended by the god Anubis. On one scale is put the heart of the dead man, on the other a feather, the symbol of the goddess Maat ("truth"). The wise god Thoth takes down the result of the weighing on his scribe's palette. The illustrations always present the scales in perfect equilibrium, indicating that the dead man's life has been in accordance with maat, the principle of order and truth. If such is the case, the deceased is declared to be maa kheru, "true of voice," that is, acquitted in the court of Osiris. If not, he will be eaten by the "devourer of the dead."

All this seems to imply high moral standards. But in fact this chapter of the Book of Going Forth by Day is hardly more than another magic spell, intended to protect the deceased from the perils of the other world. The negative confession is rather an expression of acceptance of the validity of certain moral principles (in the last count, of maat ) than a real declaration that one is not guilty. In addition, there are also spells to prevent the heart from "standing up against" the deceased (Book of Going Forth by Day, chap. 30). Thus there is a tension between moral obligations on the one hand and recourse to magical spells on the other.

India and China

Ancient Indian religion seems to know King Yama as the judge of the other world. A late Vedic text (Taittirīya rayaka 6.5.13) states that before Yama those who have been faithful to truth and those who have spoken lies will part company. There is no explicit reference to a judgment, but it may be implied. The weighing of good and wicked deeds is referred to in the Brahmanic texts.

This same Yama appears again in the pantheon of Mahāyāna Buddhism. In China he is called Yenlo or Yenlo Wang. Together with nine others of Chinese origin ("the Ten Kings") he is believed to be the administrator of the punishments of Hell. It is believed that all individuals are to meet him after death and be judged with the strictest impartiality. It is supposed that he fixes the hour of dissolution, and that once the decision is made, nothing can alter or postpone it. In Japanese Buddhism he is called Enma-ō.

Ancient Greece and Rome

In ancient Greece, one finds, in Homer and Hesiod, for example, the idea of a shadowy and dreary realm of the dead, called Hades, to which the "souls" of all dead come; but there are also at times the ideas of a miry place where the wicked are punished and of the Elysian Fields, where a few righteous are allowed to enter. But there is no information on how it is decided who is going where. Homer says that Minos gives laws to the dead but does not act as judge (Odyssey 11.567ff.).

Gradually, however, under the influence of the mystery cults and of the Orphic and Pythagorean movements, the ideas of judgment and retribution were developed. Pythagoras taught a judgment of souls (according to the biography of Iamblichus), and the Orphic judgment is depicted on a vase that shows Aiakos, Triptolemos, and Rhadamanthos as judges.

The ideas of the Orphics and Pythagoreans are reproduced by Pindar and by Plato in some of his dialogues (Gorgias, Apology, the Republic ). Usually, the judges are three, Minos, Rhadamanthos, and Aiakos; in the Apology Plato adds Triptolemos. They give judgment in a meadow, at the parting of the ways, one of which leads to the Abode of the Blessed, the other to Tartaros.

In Gorgias Plato says that in the beginning the dead were sent to the Island of the Blessed or to the punishment in Tartaros; the judgment was pronounced on the day of death, but apparently it was sometimes influenced by the outer appearance of the person in question. Therefore Zeus decreed that souls should be judged naked, without their earthly frame. Punishment could serve for purification and improvement; but there are some evildoers who cannot be saved. Here, in part, Plato is using traditional ideas, possibly Orphic and other; but he may have created the eschatological myth he presents here to illustrate his philosophical ideas.

Such beliefs were probably widespread among the Greeks, as is shown by numerous references to judgment and the fate of souls in Lucian's satires, and by the caricatures of Aristophanes. The classical dramatists rarely mention a judgment of the dead, but there are a few references in Aeschylus, and it figures sporadically in other authors and in grave inscriptions. In Vergil's picture of the underworld, Minos judges certain crimes, and Rhadamanthos is judge in Tartaros (Aeneid 6.426ff., 540ff.).


The writings of intertestamental Judaism contain occasional references to a judgment of the dead. The scene in the seventh chapter of the Book of Daniel, where the Ancient of Days opens the books and passes judgment, is not concerned with individuals, but with the kingdoms of the earth, and it is Israel that stands acquitted. But in chapter 50 of the Ethiopic Apocalypse of Enoch there is an explicit mention of judgment, in which the Lord of the Spirits will show himself righteous, sinners will be punished, and the righteous will be saved. Chapter 51 then speaks of the resurrection of the dead, and says that the Chosen One will sit on God's throne, probably as judge. The same idea is found in 2 Esdras (chapter 7): The earth will give up those who are asleep in it, and the Most High will appear on the seat of judgment. The emphasis here, however, is not on the scene of judgment but on the resurrection, and on the destiny of the righteous and the wicked.

There are occasional references in these scriptures to books in which the deeds of indiviudals are recorded, and according to which they will be judged (Ethiopic Apocalypse of Enoch 47:3, 90:20), but the context does not mention a final judgment in connection with the resurrection. Thus, the weighing of people's works on a balance is referred to (ibid. 41:1, 61:8) without mentioning the judgment.


Jesus tells the parable of the last judgment in chapter 25 of the Gospel of Matthew. The Son of Man is to come and sit on his glorious throne, and all nations will gather before him; he will "separate them as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats." Those who have acted in love for their neighbors will receive eternal life; those who have not will be sent away into eternal punishment.

Though this description of a final judgment is found only in the Gospel of Matthew, it is obvious from other occasional references in the New Testament that the idea was essential in early Christian preaching. Thus, in Acts 17:31, "God has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed [i. e., Jesus Christ]." In Acts 10:42, Christ "is the one ordained by God to be judge of the living and the dead"; in 2 Corinthians 5:10, "we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ [or, in Romans 14:10, of God], so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body." The last judgment is thus connected with the Parousia, or second coming of Christ.

In the Gospel of John, the idea of the judgment has been transformed in a peculiar way. Though it is stated that God the Father "has given all judgment to the Son" (5:22), the reader learns that one who believes "has eternal life" (here and now) "and does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life" (5:24). In other words, the outcome of Christ's judgment is decided here and now, according to the belief or unbelief of each one; this should leave no room for a final judgment at the end of time.

The Christian church has placed considerable emphasis on the idea of the final judgment (that is, rather than on the judgment here and now). Both the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed state that Christ "will come again (in glory) to judge the living and the dead."


In the preaching of Muammad the imminent day of judgment (yawm al-dīn ) has a prominent place. Because many of the accompanying motifs correspond to Jewish and Christian ideas (not the least to the preaching of the Syriac church), it seems obvious that he has taken over the idea of judgment from these sources. The day is also referred to as the day of resurrection, the day of decision (Qurʾān, sūrah 77:13), the day of gathering (64:9), the day of eternity (50:34), and so forth. It is a day of great catastrophes that cause fear and terror on the earth. The judgment is individual. On that day "no soul will be able to help another, for the decision belongs to God" (82:19). Each soul must defend itself (16:112) and cannot bear the load of another (17:15, cf. 16:25); no soul will be able to give satisfaction or to make intercession for another (2:48); no ransom will be accepted (5:36). The works of each person will be documented in an irrefutable way. Books will be produced, in which "everything that they have done, great and small, is recorded" (54:52ff.). "The book will be put (before them), and you will see the sinners fearful at what is in it. It leaves nothing behind, small or great, but it has numbered it. And they shall find all they did present, and your Lord shall not wrong anyone" (18:49). Every individual shall find a book wide open: "Read your book! Today you are yourself a reckoner against yourself" (17:13ff.). The idea of books that are opened is found in the Hebrew Bible (Dn. 7:10) and in other Jewish literature in connection with a judgment scene. In addition, it may be that Muammad, as a merchant, was familiar with the keeping of accounts.

There is also in the Qurʾān the idea of weighing human deeds. "We shall set up the just balances so that not one soul shall be wronged anything; even if it be the weight of one grain of mustard-seed we shall produce it; and we know how to reckon" (21:49). "The weighing that day is true; he whose scales are heavythey are the prosperous, and he whose scales are lightthey have lost their souls" (7:8ff.; cf. 23:102 and 101:5ff.). There is here hardly any connection with the Egyptian ideas discussed above; the ideas of Muammad seem rather closer to those of the Jewish texts.

In the case of Islam, those who stand the trial will enter Paradise, and those who fail will be thrown into Hell. However, no one belief concerning the fate following judgment of the dead is common to all religious traditions. That fate is determined according to each tradition's conception of what happens after death. Just as the judgment of the dead is conceived in different ways within the different traditions, so too is the ultimate fate of the person who is judged.

See Also



A cross-cultural collection of sources on this topic is Le jugement des morts: Égypte ancienne, Assour, Babylone, Israël, Iran, Islam, Inde, Chine, Japon, "Sources orientales," no. 4 (Paris, 1961). For a treatment of the beliefs about the judgment of the dead in Egyptian religion, see Die Idee vom Totengericht in der ägyptischen Religion (Hamburg, 1935) by Joachim Spiegel. See also The Dawn of Conscience (New York, 1933), pp. 250ff., by James Henry Breasted. See my Religions of the Ancient Near East, translated by John Sturdy (Philadelphia, 1973), pp. 122ff., for a brief treatment of Mesopotamian ideas on the judgment of the dead. Volume 1 of H. C. C. Cavallin's Life after Death : Paul's Argument for the Resurrection of the Dead (Lund, 1974) treats the topic as it relates to Judaism. Two discussions of Christian beliefs about the judgment of the dead are John A. T. Robinson's Jesus and His Coming (New York, 1957) and his article "The Parable of the Sheep and Goats," New Testament Studies 2 (May 1956): 225237. The only monograph on Greek ideas about judgment is in Latin: De mortuorum iudicio (Giessen, 1903) by Ludwig Ruhl. See also Fritz Graf's Eleusis und die orphische Dichtung Athens in vorhellenistischer Zeit (Berlin, 1974), pp. 79150, and Franz Cumont's After Life in Roman Paganism (1922; reprint, New York, 1959). On Plato's treatment of the topic, see Les mythes de Platon (Paris, 1930) by Perceval Frutiger. Two studies of the Iranian view are The Zoroastrian Doctrine of a Future Life (New York, 1926) by J. D. C. Pavry, and R. C. Zaehner's The Teachings of the Magi (New York, 1956), pp. 131ff. Arthur Berriedale Keith's Indian Mythology (Boston, 1917), pp. 159ff., and Bimala Churn Law's Heaven and Hell in Buddhist Perspective (1925; reprint, Varanasi, 1973), pp. 96ff., present Indian and Buddhist ideas of judgment.

New Sources

Griffiths, John Gwyn. The Divine Verdict. A Study of Divine Judgement in the Ancient Religions. Leiden, 1991. The definitive cross-cultural survey by a scholar who is both a philologist expert in various domains and an insightful historian of religions. It includes a thorough well-organized bibliography.

Marguerat, Daniel. Le jugement dans l'évangile selon saint Matthieu. Geneva, 1995. A theological and historical study by a prominent New Testament scholar.

Helmer Ringgren (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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