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OTHERWORLD . The belief that human beings are in touch with several dimensions of reality is nearly universal. Indeed, for many cultural groups and most religious ones, the nonphysical world is far more real and important than the material one. In most cultures it is believed that those who have died move into another dimension of reality and that the living can experience the presence of the deceased as well as other aspects of the nonphysical realm. Sometimes this belief is clearly articulated; sometimes it can best be observed by witnessing the rituals that people perform. Often, what people believe is better evaluated by what they do than by what they say they believe.

The available material on the nature and quality of the otherworld has grown to voluminous proportions as anthropological studies have added to the data over the last hundred years. There are only a limited number of disparate points of view concerning its essential nature, yet there is an amazing wealth of difference in specific details. Nearly every large cultural or religious group, from archaic times to the present, has one or another of these points of view concerning the otherworld. The attitude of the religious expert differs from that of the well-informed member of the group, and the latter in turn differs from the basically unconscious attitudes of the large majority of participants in a belief system. Some of the greatest works of literature describe this otherworld in detail, among them the Epic of Gilgamesh of Babylon, the Bhagavadgītā of India, the Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation, several of Plato's dialogues, Vergil's Aeneid, Dante's Commedia, and Goethe's Faust. On the other hand, B. F. Skinner's popular Walden Two (New York, 1948) presents a view of a world with no otherworld as counterpart.

In order to cover this enormous wealth of material, I shall deal first of all with seven quite different understandings of the otherworld. Communion with this dimension of reality on the part of specific groups will then be examined. Nonreligious studies and evidence for the reality of this domain will be surveyed, along with a brief discussion of the worldviews underlying these different conceptions.

Varieties of Belief

In many cultures the otherworld is viewed as a shadowy state, gray and dull. In some groups the soul, or shade, of the person is believed to continue to live near the site of the burial. Ancient Roman and popular Chinese beliefs and rituals suggest that the ghost of the person is envious of living human beings and needs to be placated with offerings of food and other gifts. Some groups believe that the departed spirit of a person lingers near the corpse and renders it unclean. The Navajo practice of abandoning the dwelling in which a death occurs shows the fear with which many view the denizens of the otherworld. Furthermore, the modern fear of haunted places and the interest in ghosts found in nearly all cultures lingers in many of us.

In still another stratum of belief, these unhappy shades are collected together in one place, usually an underworld, to which they pass directly down from the grave. It is a dull, colorless place of half-existence. The Babylonians viewed the place of the dead very much as the Hebrews viewed She'ol, a place of diminished existence where there is no contact with Yahveh. The Homeric Hymns portray the same kind of place. For Dante, this place is described as limbo, where the righteous pagans must remain.

Edgar Herzog's excellent study Psyche and Death (New York, 1967) traces the psychological development of the understanding of afterlife from fear of the dead to a more happy view of the deceased and the otherworld. The life of the deceased from this view point is seen as being much the same as a full life in this world. The otherworld contains the best of human pleasures and joys. There is also a belief that the next world will be much better than this one, with greener grass, more beautiful flowers, and a more positive relation with the divine reality. Raymond Moody's Life after Life (Atlanta, 1975) and Karlis Osis's At the Hour of Death (New York, 1977) describe dying and near-death experiences, report contacts with deceased, and give a largely optimistic picture of the otherworld. This view is found throughout the worldamong some Bantu-speaking peoples and many Polynesian tribes, as well as among some American Indians; it is represented in modern times by nonreligious research into the otherworld.

The most common view of the otherworld gives a picture of several different realms: a highly desirable heaven or heavens, many varieties of fearful and horrible states, and intermediate states through which one passes to arrive at the final destination. The quality of the dying person determines the realm of the otherworld into which he or she will pass. In some cultures the status of the deceased determines the outcome: a warrior killed in battle, a king, or a chief has easy access to the realm of bliss. In later Greek religion some of the heroes were able to escape Hades and enter the realm of the gods, a blissful otherworld. This view implies a soul that is immortal or at least long-lasting; the body is seen as only the temporary carrier of the soul. Mircea Eliade has demonstrated in his monumental study of archaic techniques of ecstasy, Shamanism (Princeton, 1964), that this view of a permanent core of humanness and a realm into which it can pass is found all over the globe and reaches back into prehistoric times. The shaman can leave the body through ecstasy and trance and enter the otherworld. The shaman can, therefore, become the guide of the dying, who must make a perilous journey into the otherworld. The dying can also step into this other dimension to bring back souls lost there and so bring healing to those whose sickness has been caused by a disturbed relation with the otherworld.

One enters this otherworld by way of a journey, passing through difficulties and tests, often crossing a bridge that is razor-sharp. In Hinduism, Islam, some forms of Buddhism, ancient Iranian religion, and Christianity, this journey and the places visited are described using earthly symbols, but the otherworld is perceived as another dimension of reality. Less reflective thinkers in these traditions retain a geocentric point of view, picturing heaven as above and hell as below the earth. Others believe that the entrance into the otherworld is put off until the end of time, when the dead will rise and take their places in a reconstituted heavenly earth or in the abyss or will even be annihilated.

Coming to the place of bliss and avoiding the state of torment can be accomplished in numerous ways. A skilled shaman may help to effect the passage. In Islam, knowing the right formula for acknowledging God may be more significant than the quality of moral or religious practice. In Christianity, having the last rites properly performed and confessing one's sins before death are important factors. The ultimate nature of the otherworld and the powers within it determine one's place there.

In both Hinduism and Buddhism, there is another important aspect of belief in the otherworld. The nonphysical, spiritual dimension is the only reality; religious illumination consists in coming to realize this truth and then, on the basis of this realization, becoming detached from the illusion (māyā ) of this physical world, which keeps one from fulfillment in the real world. This is achieved by spiritual and moral discipline, well exemplified in the life of Gandhi. Much the same point of view is found in Gnosticism, in which the physical world is not only unreal but evil. It is irredeemable and can only be escaped by a process of knowledge (gnōsis ) and asceticism. By the same process one enters progressively higher levels of an eternal spiritual dimension.

Belief in reincarnation or the transmigration of souls is found associated with both these points of view. Those who do not escape from the bondage of evil or the illusory material world are reborn again and again into this world. They are reborn according to their karman, a moral and spiritual accounting of one's life. Karman automatically determines the fate of the individual in the next reincarnation; rebirth can bring one into a higher or lower human state or even into an animal existence. The goal of this process is to be released from this agonizing, continuing reimmersion in the illusory material world, thus passing into heaven as a godlike being or entering nirvāa. This view has filtered down into popular thought in many Eastern cultures, and, as difficult as it is for Westerners to believe, for many of these people the otherworld is more real and important than this one.

Heaven is pictured in a welter of vivid images in the literature and in the art and sculpture characteristic of Hinduism and Buddhism. Hindu and Buddhist temples portray the real world of the gods throughout East Asia. This exciting, richly colored world is worth the moral and spiritual discipline required to become emotionally uninvolved and detached from concern with outer physical illusion. At the end of the great Hindu epic called the Rāmāyaa, the hero leaves his beloved wife so that he can come to the detachment necessary for spiritual advancement in the otherworld.

The Buddhist conception of nirvāa is unique and important; it presents a conception diametrically opposed to the richly sensuous picture of heaven presented by Hinduism and most other world religions. Nirvāa is described mainly in negatives. If, indeed, the physical world is illusion, so is the human ego, which clearly differentiates the contents of that world. According to Zen and many other schools of Buddhism, the distinction between subject and object disappears in the enlightened person. The individual becomes one with reality and merges into it. It is therefore impossible to give any significant descriptions of this ultimate state.

Many statements about nirvāa sound as if the individual was annihilated, whereas others describe nirvāa as a state of ecstatic bliss. Illumination is a taste of nirvāa for the living. Images can be another form of illusion. Thus, the path toward enlightenment leads through imageless (apophatic) prayer to an imageless fulfillment that cannot be described except in saying what the earthly condition is not.

The major world religions (with the exception of Buddhism) perceive inner and outer images as revealing reality rather than hiding it. Various schools in each tradition describe heaven as a place of transformation, where people are gradually or suddenly changed into the quality and likeness of the god image, becoming more and more like Allāh, Ka, Yahveh, or Christ. In some versions this process goes on into eternity; while in certain forms of Hinduism, after a very long time the universe returns to its divided condition, and the whole cycle repeats itself. Heaven and hell are understood by some religious thinkers as a process and by others as a static condition. Important thinkers in most traditions emphasize the inadequacy of all human descriptions of the otherworld.

The last major view about the otherworld is simply that there is none. This very important conception has dominated the Western world for several centuries and has deeply influenced Christianity. The same point of view has been held by the realistic philosophical schools in China described by Arthur Waley in Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China (New York, 1939). However, it is only in the cultures of Western Europe and those that derived from them that this worldview has been fully developed and has achieved wide acceptance. A few archaic cultures, including the people of Kiwai on the Fly River in New Guinea, the Fuegians, and some Bantu-speaking peoples, have little or no conception of any other world than this physical one.

The Western attitude is important because it is based on the philosophical premise that the only reality is physical or material. The only means of coming into contact with reality is through the five senses, which can be clearly differentiated, as described by Descartes in his Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason (1637). The major thrust of Western thought has been in this direction and is well exemplified in the writings of A. J. Ayer, B. F. Skinner, and Konrad Lorenz. Marxism denies the value of any world except the one created on this earth through revolution by the proleteriat. From this frame of reference, any concept of an otherworld is considered illusory, primitive (in the sense of infantile), premodern, and even dangerous. It is for this reason that the subject of otherworld is so largely ignored in modern Western culture and the modern evidence for the continued existence of the deceased is passed over and rejected.

If the materialistic worldview is accepted uncritically, it is quite natural to view all the data on the otherworld as of archaeological interest only. However, starting in about 1900, developments in scientific thought led to the questioning of rational materialism as a viable hypothesis. The materialist point of view is not able to account for the available data on many subjects and the evidence for otherworld in particular. In Encounter with God (Minneapolis, 1972) and Afterlife (New York, 1979), I have presented the development of this thought in detail.

Communion with the Dead

The basic worldview of a person or culture will largely determine the way the otherworld is viewed. From the point of view of Eastern religion and philosophy, the physical world is illusory and the otherworld real, and heaven or nirvāa is the goal to be sought. According to Platonism (the philosophical base for early Christianity) and the modern view of C. G. Jung, human beings participate both in a material universe and in a nonmaterial one. Thus, both the otherworld and this world are important aspects of total reality. Human wholeness depends on dealing adequately with each domain. Both moral actions (as in, for instance, learning to love) and specifically religious practices are essential to human wholeness.

In both of these points of view, the human person is more than just a physical organism operating mechanically or through conditioning. The psyche (or soul) is a complex nonphysical reality sharing the reality of a multifaceted nonphysical otherworld. The psyche can be viewed as preexistent (which leads to the idea of reincarnation) or as created at conception or birth. In both Islamic and Christian thinking, the soul is viewed as having vegetative, appetitive, intellectual, and spiritual aspects. In the views of some thinkers, only the spiritual or intellectual aspects survive in the otherworld. The Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body maintains that most aspects of the personal nonphysical being are preserved and transformed.

In most cultures (not influenced by materialism), contact with the deceased is a part of religious practice. Eliade shows that one of the principal functions of living shamans is to pass over into the otherworld, return, and then help other people deal with both dimensions. Some shamans have mediumistic abilities and can bring back the dead, as the medium of Endor brought forth the ghost of Samuel at Saul's bidding (1 Sm. 28:6ff.). Once belief in an otherworld eroded in Christian cultures influenced by materialism, there was a spontaneous, popular resurgence of the practice of spiritualism, which brings the seeker into contact with the deceased through mediums and their controls.

The belief in ongoing contact with the spirits of the deceased is widespread in this and most countries. Sometimes these visitations are frightening, and at other times helpful or even numinous. J. B. Phillips, the British New Testament scholar, reports in The Ring of Truth (New York, 1967) that C. S. Lewis appeared to him and helped him translate a difficult passage of the Bible. The Christian doctrine of the communion of saints maintains that communion between the living and the dead is possible to those who are deeply rooted within the Christian fellowship. The same idea is found in Islam and Hinduism. These experiences of meeting the deceased, inhabitants of the otherworld, can occur either spontaneously, through religious rituals (particularly highly developed in China), through the trance condition, or through dreams and visions.

Modern Evidence

With the publication of Moody's Life after Life in 1975, a new surge of interest arose concerning reported experiences of an otherworld and of those who existed in it. Moody's study is a careful one; this well-trained philosopher and psychiatrist is cautious not to claim more than his evidence warrants. His work was followed by that of Karlis Osis and Elendur Haraldsson's At the Hour of Death (New York, 1977), Michael Sabom's Recollections of Death (New York, 1981), and Kenneth Ring's Life at Death (New York, 1980). This data has been collected by medical doctors and trained psychologists; Ring's work is a careful statistical study of the data.

Many different kinds of evidence can be studied once one is no longer bound by a materialistic worldview. Some people appear to die clinically and return to life, to report a series of experiences in which they go through a process of detachment from the body, experience an otherworld, sometimes meet deceased friends, relate to a being of light, and arrive at a boundary that they cannot cross if they are to return to life.

People who are at the point of death and who then die are occasionally observed to be participating in both this world and the other one simultaneously, and give reports similar to those who have had near-death experiences. Numerous reports have been studied of encounters with people from the other side. Supporting the possibility of these reports is the development of parapsychology, which suggests that we have faculties other than the five senses for obtaining information. In Doors of Perception (New York, 1970), Aldous Huxley suggests a theory of perception based on the thinking of Bergson, which states that we are in touch with many dimensions of reality but that the five senses block our contact with these dimensions, tying us to the physical world. Franz Riklin, a follower of C. G. Jung has stated that the dreams of the dying usually treat the physical death of the individual as of little significance. Within the framework of Einstein's theory of relativity, physical death loses its finality, because time appears to be relative and not absolute. Some who practice meditation maintain that they are in contact with an otherworld and experience much of what has been described here. Poetic imagination also seems to give access to some other dimension.

Christianity and the Afterlife

Little of the foregoing data has been discovered by those primarily interested in Christianity. Indeed, some of this evidence has been resisted by certain theologians who state that belief in the otherworld is based on faith and acceptance of dogma, rather than on experience. Some academic Christian thinkers maintain that profession of Christianity need not entail the belief in an afterlife or otherworld. Within the wide range of Christian belief and practice, one can find nearly all of the attitudes toward the otherworld that have been described above.

There is, first of all, an academic skepticism that either denies or ignores this aspect of reality. For some scholars, what is continuously ignored is usually of little value or concern. At the other extreme is the archaic belief in the dull, shadowy existence of the deceased and their ghostly presence at the place of death or burial. Many Christians have a view of the otherworld as a place only of bliss, which is unrelated to one's actions or beliefs. Others accept the traditional dichotomy between heaven and hell, while yet others believe in purgatory as a transitional state between the two. For some, the afterlife begins at the millennium, on a rejuvenated and transformed earth; others still imagine a heaven somewhere in the sky (although this image has become difficult to maintain, because of modern space travel). Others regard these different aspects of the otherworld as other dimensions of reality, seeing sensory images of it as purely symbolic. Still other Christians believe in reincarnation and all that it entails. Some see the otherworld as a place of continued growth and development in the presence of divine mind or divine love. This variety of beliefs is found in the other major world religions as well as Christianity.

There is almost total consensus among the religions and cultures of humankind that human beings are not totally extinguished at death and that there is continuing experience in an otherworld. Human beings are also given occasional experiences of this dimension and those continuing to exist in it. These varied views of the nature of an otherworld can be traced historically and cross-culturally; perhaps they may ultimately constitute different aspects of a reality too large for any one description.

See Also

Afterlife; Heaven and Hell; Nirvāa; Supernatural, The; Underworld.


Culianu, I. P. Out of this World: Otherworldly Journeys from Gilgamesh to Albert Einstein. Boston, 1991.

Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism. Rev. & enl. ed. New York, 1964. The authoritative, although not universally accepted, study of the shaman and the technique of ecstasy by which the otherworld is mediated. Provides a cross-cultural worldview with a place for an otherworld.

Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics. 13 vols. Edited by James Hastings. Edinburgh, 19081926. Contains a wealth of detailed accounts of the otherworld in "State of the Dead" and many associated articles. Must be consulted with care because of its moralistic, Christian, and materialistic bias.

Herzog, Edgar. Psyche and Death. Translated by David Cox and Eugene Rolfe. New York, 1967. An excellent anthropological and psychological study of human concepts of death and the otherworld.

Jung, C. G. Psychology and Religion: West and East. Translated by R. F. C. Hull. New York, 1958. Provides a philosophical and psychological framework for understanding religious texts on the otherworld. Offers excellent commentary on the Tibetan Book of the Dead and the Book of the Great Liberation.

Kelsey, Morton. Afterlife: The Other Side of Dying. New York, 1979. The only modern Christian study providing a worldview for the otherworld and nonreligious evidence for continued existence. Presents a picture of the otherworld for a critical modern reader. Contains an extensive bibliography.

McGinn, Bernard. Visions of the End. New York, 1979.

Parabola (New York), vol. 2, no. 1 (1977). The entire issue deals with the subject of death and otherworld. A comprehensive cross-cultural, up-to-date overview.

Ring, Kenneth. Life at Death. New York, 1980. A comprehensive examination of the near-death experience with a careful statistical study.

Turner, Alice K. The History of Hell. New York, 1993.

Zaleski, Carol. Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times. New York, 1987.

Morton Kelsey (1987)

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