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Although belief in a continuing or new life after death is widespread among the peoples of the world, there are profound differences among cultural traditions in conceptions of this afterlife; and even in those civilized societies in which a sharp division between the here and the hereafter is theologically postulated and conventionally accepted, there are personal variations in specific images of the afterlife. Despite the latter, two elements belief in a final moral judgment of personal conduct in the world and belief in the specific existence of an after-world distinct from this worlddefine Christian, Christian-influenced, and to a lesser degree Jewish and Islamic conceptions of the afterlife. For the developed doctrinal and theological concepts, see heaven (theology of); hell (theology of); judgment, divine (in theology); purgatory. This article treats within the perspective of the comparative study of religion the differing conceptions found (1) in primitive societies, (2) in the Bible, and (3) in Greco-Roman religion.

1. In Primitive Societies

Generally speaking, primitive peoples do not share the twin assumptions of a final moral judgment of behavior in the world and the specific existence of an after-world. Accordingly, most anthropologists would not agree with Wilhelm schmidt's assumption of moral judgment and an associated belief in an afterworld as coextensive with primitive monotheism. It seems more acceptable historically to reason that as society becomes increasingly secularized, and in the literal sense civilized, the sphere of moral action contracts and grows more complex; correlatively, the idea that the ultimate loci of the consequences of morality and immorality are in the afterworld emerges with great clarity.

Continuity of the Self. Primitive societies are, as Robert Redfield and Paul Radin have indicated, moral at their core; persons relate to each other in a moral nexus, not as contracting partners in a legal, technical, commercial, that is, civilized order. This sacred quality of primitive life is evident in the ritually celebrated cycles of birth, death, and rebirth of the person, of society, and of nature at large. In these primitive rites of passage and ritual dramas, persons may be, for example, conceived as dying to a given status in the world and being reborn into another status, but without destroying the continuity of self. The self is never merely reduced to the status; rather, it is enriched by experiencing the pain of internal growth and diversification. In a sense, the passage of the person through primitive societies can be understood as a progressive spiritualization. In the Winnebago medicine rite described by Radin, the goal is what Mircea Eliade has called the "perpetual regeneration of the initiate," the "eternal return" to mythical origins, implying an abolition of time and a "reinstatement of the miraculous moment of creation" (Shamanism 31920). Historical, progressive, lineal time, central to the modern scientific world view and expressed in the Hebraic and Christian cosmogonies (in the Christian context based on the historicity of Jesus), is not a primitive conception.

The cyclic and sacred character of primitive life is similarly evident in the common belief, as among the Anaguta of Northern Nigeria, that an infant is the reincarnation of an ancestral spirit in the grandparental generation; hence the person, who has literally died to the world, begins a new spiritual existence, is reborn. The critical point is that primitive society itself emerges as the arena of the original drama of creation and transcendence, of Eliade's "irruption of the sacred into the world" occurring in "primordial" time (The Sacred and the Profane 72). The passage through life takes on the aspect of a moral drama, culminating, as among the Winnebago people of Wisconsin, in the initiate's ultimate effort to grasp the meaning of creation and so win eternal life or rebirth. In these primitive rites, the forerunners of the more explicit and historically specific Christian Sacraments, that which Eliade terms a "nostalgia for Paradise" (Shamanism 508), for the instant of pure being, is evident.

Identity of World and Afterworld. It is clear that the antinomies life-death, natural-supernatural, sacred-profane, and spirit-flesh that weigh so heavily in civilized Christian thought are, in primitive societies, largely irrelevant. Life moves on all levels simultaneously. Ordinary events are suffused with sacred meaning, everything has personality; God, spirits, ancestorsdreamt of, seen, or feltexist. The mode of primitive thinking is existentialist in the most comprehensive sense. Therefore, the split between this world and the afterworld is of little moment. Where conceptions of the afterlife are present, they typically assimilate, as Franz Boas put it, the "social life of the dead [to] the living" (60607). The deceased may maintain an active position in the kinship structure. The afterworld is, with minor exceptions, quite the same as this world; throughout North Asia, as elsewhere, the former is simply a mirror image of the latter. Frequently, the souls of the dead, on their passage to this inverted world, must pass over some obstacle or across a narrow bridge. But this seems to be related to the psychology of mourning and the consequent need for ritualizing the trauma of separation, rather than to a permanent journey to a distinctly conceived afterworld.

Despite the contradictions inherent in certain technical aspects of the primitive view of the afterlife (e.g., the social immediacy of souls versus their indeterminate existence in a "double" of this world), neither the idea of hell nor of other-worldly reward for moral behavior are important themes in primitive religions. This is true even where, as among the Anaguta, there is a clear-cut belief in an accessible supreme creator.

See Also: religion (in primitive culture).

Bibliography: f. boas, Race, Language and Culture (New York 1940). s. diamond, "Plato and the Definition of the Primitive" in Culture in History: Essays in Honor of Paul Radin, ed. s. diamond (New York 1960) 118141; "The Search for the Primitive" in Man's Image in Medicine and Anthropology, ed. i. galdston (New York 1963) 62115. m. eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, tr. w. r. trask (New York 1959; Torchbook 1961); Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, tr. w. r. trask (Bollingen Series 76; rev. ed. New York 1964). r. firth, "Fate of the Soul" in Anthropology of Folk Religion, ed. c. m. charles (pa. New York 1960). p. radlin, The World of Primitive Man (New York 1953; repr. 1960). r. redfield, The Primitive World and Its Transformations (Ithaca, New York 1953). w. schmidt, The Origin and Growth of Religion, tr. h. j. rose (2d ed. London 1935).

[s. diamond]

2. In The Bible

The Israelites believed in some kind of ghostlike afterlife. According to their ideas, all the dead go to sheol, the nether world. Kings and slaves, old and young, "all go to one place" [Eccl 6.6; Ps 88(89).49; Jb 3.1319; 30.23].

Location and Nature of the Abode of the Dead. The Babylonians refer in their myths, e.g., the gilgamesh epic, to the abode of the dead as a place under the earth or on the other side of the world sea. The dead reach it by descending into the earth or by traveling to the farthest point west. Before entering, they must cross the under-ground river or the "waters of death." The Scriptures, too, refer to its locality by the direction in which the dead go, "down to Sheol" (Is 38.18; Ez 31.14; 1 Kgs 2.9). Even the New Testament localizes the abode of the dead in the depths of the earth (Mt 16.18; Lk 16.26; Acts 2.24, 27, 31; Rom 10.7; Rv 1.18; 20.13). According to mythico-dynamic thinking, this realm of death is constantly overflowing its banks. It is present wherever death exercises its sovereignty. Consequently, not only the grave [Ps 39(40).3; 54(55).24; 142(143).7; etc.] and the depth of the earth are linked with it [Ps 62(63).10; 138(139).8; Is 7.11], but also the sea [Ps 68(69).2, 16; Jon 2.4] and the desert (Jer 2.6, 31; Hos 2.5). These "three nonworlds" (J. Pedersen) are considered manifestations of death and belong to the realm of death. In each diminishing of life, the realm of death disrupts the world of the living. Thus illness [Ps 12(13); 21(22); 29(30); 87(88); etc.], captivity [Ps 141(142); 142(143)], persecution and hostility [Ps 17(18); 143(144)], misfortune, poverty, and hunger are all a foretaste of the descent into Sheol and abandonment by Yahweh. The sinner is already living in Sheol (Ps 9A.1618).

The texts of the preexilic as well as most of the post-exilic books draw a most uninviting picture of Sheol. This realm of death is described as an eternal house (Eccl 12.5) with chambers and rooms (Prv 7.27) and gates [Ps 9A.14; 106(107).18; Jb 38.17; Sir 51.9; Wis 16.13; Is 38.10; Mt 16.18; Rv 1.18], a prison (Eccl 9.10) with bars (Jon 2.7) and bolts and bonds [Ps 115(116).3], the land of oblivion [Ps 87(88).13; 114(115).17], a land whence no one can return (Jb 7.910; 10.21; Prv 2.19; Sir 38.21). Sheol is called the "no more" (Is 38.11), destruction [Ps 87(88).12], dust [Ps 21(22).30; 29(30).10; 145(146).4; Is 26.19; Jb 17.16; Dt 12.2]. It is a place of horror [Ps 115(116).3], complete darkness [Jb 10.2122; 17.13; 18.18; 38.17; Ps 87(88).7; 142(143).3], and remoteness from Yahweh. Even so, Satan does not have any influence in the abode of the dead, but Yahweh controls Sheol through His power [Ps 138(139).8; Jb 26.6; Prv 15.11; Is 7.11; Am 9.2].

State of the Dead in the Afterlife. In the Old Testament, death is conceived as the end of the entire living man. Yet this basic conception does not exclude a further existence of the deceased in the realm of the dead, as can be shown by the frequent mention of the dead, of graves, and of funeral customs. For the Israelite, life is life only as it is filled with joy, fortune, wealth, and Yahweh's presence. [see life, concept of (in the bible).] These marks of life are not present in the deceased, who are referred to as r ep āîm, the "weak" [Jb 26.5; Ps 87(88).11; Is 14.9] or as those who have descended into the pit [Ps 27(28).1; 29(30).4; Is 38.18; Ez 26.20; 31.14, 16]. In Sheol, the dead were thought to remain in a state of suspended animation, phantoms of the entire former living man, devoid of all power and vitality (Is 14.10). There is no activity (Eccl 9.10), no pleasure (Sir 14.1117), no participation in or knowledge of what is happening on earth (Eccl 9.5; Jb 14.1217; 21.21). In the older books of the Old Testament there is no doubt that the deceased are taken away from the vital union with Yahweh. In the nether world, no one praises God any more [Ps 6.6; 29(30).10; 113B (115).17; Sir 17.2223; Is 38.18b].

However, the older, pessimistic concept of Sheol as the one place for all the dead, irrespective of the moral value of their lives, begins to change in the later books of the Old Testament. The doctrine of retribution gradually leads to a distinction between the lot of the good and that of the wicked [Ez 32.1732; Is 26.8, 1421; 66.24; Ps 33(34).2223; Wis 3.210, 19; Prv 14.32]. The just man has hope because there will be a reward for his work (2 Chr 15.7; Wis 4.717, 20). In the writings of the postexilic period, a real change in the attitude toward afterlife is observable in the expectancy of resurrection (see resurrection of the dead, 1). Israel's faith in its election by Yahweh and in His mercy and omnipotence, a faith that was justified by His constant intervention in the nation's history and by its experience of the loving union between God and the pious man, had to develop into a trust in Yahweh that amounted to an undocumented guarantee of resurrection and immortality (see immortality, 3). This doctrine developed gradually [Jb 14.1417; Hos 13.14; Is 25.9; 57.12; Wis 1.1316; Ps 36(37).37; 64(65).5a], and some of its theological reasonings were worked out by Isaiah. One finds it in plain words in Dn 12.13; Jb 19.2527; Is 26.1921; 2 Mc 7.911, 14, 2223, 3436. However, even at the time of Christ, the doctrine of individual resurrection, which was explicitly rejected by the sadducees, was not commonly accepted in Israel (Mt 22.2334 and parallels; Acts 23.610). The New Testament hardly speaks about the state of the dead. The afterlife was of little concern for the primitive Christian community because the parousia of the Lord (see parousia, 1) and the fulfillment of the eschatological promises were really the heart of the Christian expectation for the future: union with Christ, experienced in faith and in the sacramental life, is but an anticipation of eschatological salvation; this union will be continued, intensified, and fulfilled in the life to come (Phil 1.2126; etc.).

See Also: heaven (in the bible); hell (in the bible); purgatory; abraham's bosom; hades; gehenna; paradise; judgment, divine (in the bible).

Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963) 50810. p. antoine, Dictionnaire de la Bible, suppl. ed. l. pirot, et al. (Paris 1928) 2:106376. j. schmid, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765) 5:89092. h. eising, ibid. 9:39193. h. j. kraus and b. reicke, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 3:40306. a. jeremias, Die babylonisch-assyrischen Vorstellungen vom Leben nach dem Tode (Leipzig 1887). p. dhorme, "Le Séjour des morts chez les Babyloniens et les Hébreux," Revue biblique 16 (1907) 5978; "L'Idée de l'au-delà dans la religion hébraïque," Revue de l'histoire des religions 123 (1941) 11342. j. p. e. pedersen, Israel: Its Life and Culture, 4 v. in 2 (New York 192640; repr. 1959). e. f. sutcliffe, The Old Testament and the Future Life (2d ed. Westminster, Maryland 1947). o. kuss, Der Römerbrief (Regensburg 1957) 1:24175, with bibliography. a. feuillet, "Mort du Christ et mort du chrétien d'après les épîtres pauliniennes," Revue biblique 66 (1959) 481513. r. h. charles, Eschatology (New York 1963).

[h. kÖster]

3. In Greco-Roman Religion

At the outset, from an extrinsic point of view, it should be observed that Greco-Roman beliefs on the life after death did not come from a revealed religion; they were not fixed once and for all in sacred books; nor were they dictated, maintained, and controlled as dogmas by a religious authority. They were the product of a slow and steady evolution that corresponded closely, although often with marked lags and uncertainties, to the trends or stages in the development of classical culture in general. Belonging as they did to the domain of tenacious traditions no less than to that of innate anxieties and forebodings, they were in no wise monolithic. New beliefs were superimposed on old conceptions without adjustment or elimination. Rites that belonged to an outmoded faith continued to be performed, even when no one any longer understood their precise bearing or original signification. Conceptions that were basically divergent were found not only side by side in a given cultural period but also together, apparently without conflict, in the soul of one and the same individual.

In General. The mingling of markedly diversified ethnic elements, especially in the great Hellenistic and Roman centers, created a mixture of opinions and beliefs that would be difficult to reduce to its primary components. In view of the shortcomings of official religion in the sphere of death and the hereafter, religious conceptions were so exposed to the strong influences of old wives' tales, superstitions, and black magic, that, in the Hellenistic Age and under the early empire, the educated classes abandoned themselves to unbelief, skepticism, or indifference. The masses, who were long isolated from the progress of philosophy and literature, were too deeply engulfed in the precarious conditions of material subsistence to attemptat least on their own initiativea separation of religious rites from superstitious practices or of sound religious sentiments from chimerical fictions.

Intrinsically, Greco-Roman views on the life beyond the grave were conditioned by the evolving ideas of ancient man respecting anthropology, the image of the universe, ethics, and human destiny. From the viewpoint of the earliest beliefs on death, the earliest notions on man were neither spiritual nor materialistic in the modern sense of the terms, but simply "human," in the sense that man did not originally think of himself as a being composed of two "principles." The human being was one, possessing a unity that death did not split into a "lifeless body" and a "surviving soul." The shade in the lower world or the soul in heaven was most commonly only man in his entirety, viewed from the angle of his corporeal dematerialization. The development of the concept of man gradually arrived at an increasingly sharp dichotomy between body and soul. The explanation for the distinction is not to be sought in the different opinions that were held on the nature of the vital principle (breath, blood, heat, eidolon, spark), but rather, on the one hand, in the practice of incineration, which by the very fact that it destroyed the body emphasized the soul, and, on the other, in the influence exercised by dualistic currents in philosophy.

The ancient image of the world passed from the stage in which the earth was looked upon as a flat disk floating on the waters of Ocean to the lofty concept of a universe consisting of concentric spheres in harmonious movement, circumscribed by the sphere of the fixed stars. Yet it did not detach itself from the proud and touching idea that the earth, where man reigned as master, formed the center of the universe in question. Since what survived of man did not attain a degree of dematerialization that would have permitted it to escape the category of "place," the soul found a localization beyond the grave in the precise region to which the scientific image of the world and the ideas on the survival and nature of the soul suggested that it be assigned.

Ethical concepts acquired real influence only from the time when death ceased to be considered a mere passage to another world, where the lot of the dead man was simply a repetition of his social condition on earth. Notions of moral responsibility, of personal conscience, of virtuous conduct, and of sinful life could not make their appearance, however, before the individual as such became conscious of himself. From that time he had to abandon the idea that life was lived on earth only, and he had to submit to moral demands with their inevitable sanctions whereby he could hope, in an existence beyond the grave, for the stern justice and the strict recompense that he had vainly expected on earth.

Human destiny was at first confined within the narrow limits of a terrestrial life, from which man escaped only to the extent to which he, on his part, assured the continuity of his family, tribe, and community. When this restricted cadre was broken to the benefit of the emerging individual human person, the way was open for a concept of survival that, in combining the idea of a reward beyond the grave with the notion of an immortal soul, eventually far surpassed in both duration and intensity the possibilities of life on earth. Thus, the true life could begin or re-begin only after death, which, far from diminishing the significance of the human soul, sent it back to its heaven-ly and divine home.

Early and Classical Greek Beliefs. According to a notion that was held for many centuries, the dead man survived in his tomb. This notion was the source of the meticulous care devoted to funerals, funeral furniture and offerings, and the cult connected, on certain days of the year (e.g., at the Anthesteria at Athens), with the tomb of the dead individual or with the tombs of the dead in general. This was the source too, from Mycenaean times, of the family cult, and then of the community cult of dead men who were especially significant, namely, the "heroes." Subsequently, society, cut off from its ancestral tombs by emigration, apparently was not acquainted with either the cult of the dead or that of heroes. Hence arose the general Greek beliefreinforced by the authority of Homerthat the dead were all found together in the subterranean realm of Hades. In the absence of any moral perspective, Hades was not yet a place of retribution. Given the absolute value of life on earth, it was the exact negative replica of that life. It was marked by the absence of the positive features of earthly existence both on the physical planecountryside, light, warmth, color, and soundand on the psychological planesecurity, freedom, and joy of existence. It was a life in which, by the law of repetition, shades continued the shadow of their earthly sojourn. However, Minoan religion had postulated the existence of Isles of the Blest, located at the end of the world beyond Ocean, to which the gods transported men of divine lineage while they were still alive. This transatlantic eden of living heroes was subsequently changed into the underworld Elysium of the blessed deadmost probably under the influence of the Mysteries of Eleusis. The initiates, in keeping with the law of repetition, continued to celebrate their joyous feasts in their new abode, while the noninitiates had to be satisfied with a shadowy existence in mire ([symbol omitted]ν βορβόρ[symbol omitted]). This, however, was not yet a form of punishment in the strict sense but a deprivation of true life.

Orphic Conceptions. From the 7th to the 6th century b.c., the Orphics, taking over certain popular beliefs regarding the hereafter, went beyond the ritual demands of the Eleusinian Mysteries and substituted for them prescriptions of moral purity. They spread the idea that the noninitiates would be punished in hell for their unworthy lives. Developing also a vague popular notion respecting the transmigration of the soul, the Orphics, from the 6th century, adopted the doctrine of metempsychosis. They maintained that the soul, divinely immortal and essentially independent of the body in which it was entombed (σ[symbol omitted]μα, σ[symbol omitted]μα), was able, by virtue of upright conduct in the course of successive incarnations, to free itself finally from all dependence on a carnal body. It could then live its own proper and true life in an Elysium, which Orphic "teaching" (except in Pindar) has not described in detail.

Pythagorean Conceptions. From the end of the 6th century, Pythagoreanism borrowed from the Orphic Mysteries its views on metempsychosis and the popular notion of a recompense after death. It thus contributed in its turn to the establishment of the belief according to which, in the lower world, Elysium was reserved for the pious, while Tartarus in Hades was a place of punishment for sinners.

Judgment, and Reward or Punishment in the Hereafter. In the classical period (5th and 4th centuries b. c.) the Orphico-Pythagorean belief in the punishment of Hades spread widely, as is evidenced by literature (Aristophanes, Plato) and art (vase paintings). The majority of people were hardly reached by the philosophical arguments of Plato, who sought to prove scientifically the immortality of the soul, but they were deeply influenced by the mythico-religious representations of a rewarding hereafter, of which they learned from mythology and the mysteries. Thus most probably c. 400 b. c., the idea of a iudicium post mortem took definite shape, as is known through the writings of Plato and the south Italian funerary vases of the 4th century. After death every soul appeared before a tribunal in Hades, where a college of three heroes (Minos, Rhadamanthus, and Aeacus) judged it according to its merits. Pious souls were rewarded with the Elysian dwellings as their abode; those of less perfect conduct had to undergo a kind of purgatory; and hardened sinners were condemned for all eternity to the punitive and exemplary tortures of Tartarus.

Hellenistic Beliefs. Plato's affirmation of the divine affinity and immortal nature of the soul ended in the skepticism of the New Academy, while epicurus, following the atomic theory of Democritus, taught that after death the soul, like the body, dissolved into atoms. The early Stoics recognized in their vital principle, which was related to the fiery ether, a vague form of survival, but it was quite impersonal and limited in time. However, with Posidonius and his Platonic leanings, the soul regained a true immortality. The mystery religions and the strong Orphico-Pythagorean beliefs in Magna Graecia promised a hereafter to their adherents. The aspects of this paradise were not so much an indication of a relatively low level of morality as they were a reflection of and transfer of deep longings for a felicity that was no longer threatened by trials or death. According to popular belief, the firmness of which was not influenced by skepticism or by the denials of the educated class, the hereafter was usually located under the earth. This fact is indicated by metrical epitaphs, curse tablets consigning their victims to the infernal deities, Orphic gold plates found in south Italy, and paintings on funerary vases from the same region, etc. Similarly, the allegorical interpretation of the punishments of Tartarus as worked out by the Pythagoreans had no effect whatever on the popular notions respecting reward or punishment in the next world.

Nevertheless, the progress of Hellenistic civilization brought about marked changes regarding the location of the hereafter. On the one hand, in accordance with the new scientific theories on the structure of the earth and the universe, Hades had to be moved either to the dark antipodes of the inhabited earth or to the non-illuminated hemisphere of the world. On the other hand, philosophico-religious teaching on the divine, and therefore heaven-ly, origin of the soul; astrological cosmology, which turned man's eyes heavenward; the increasing importance of the symbolism of fire and light; and the astral myths telling of great mortals being changed into stars, all combined to exert an influence on beliefs. Men gradually adopted the revolutionary idea that after death souls were changed into stars, or rather flew off to the starry sky. Under the Roman Empire, this lunisolar or astral immortality received support from solar pantheism. It would be wrong, however, to exaggerate the expansion of the new belief. Only limited circles were affected. In the leisured class as a whole, skepticism was the rule, whereas the lower strata of the population continued to stick to their old idea of an underworld Hades.

In Early Rome. Primitive Roman beliefs regarding the hereafter were very restricted in scope and character. The dead man was placed in a tomb that was built in the form of a house. He led there a kind of weak existence, and the living had to sustain him by funeral offerings. At the same time he was to be feared, as is evidenced by references to apparitions in dreams, to ghosts, to the role of the ahori or premature dead, and to necromancy. On certain days of the year, too, the dead had official access to the world of the living by the removal of the lapis manalis covering the entrance to the lower world (mundus ). In so far as the dead man was a link in the long chain of his gens or clan, he belonged to the divine ancestral spirits, the Di Parentes. Mixed in the mass of the dead, he formed a part of the Lemures, spirits of the dead who were divided into Lares and Larvae according as they were benevolent or malevolent, respectively. Furthermore, these various connections were all brought under the head of Di Manes, to whom specific rites were assigned: the Parentalia, Lemuria, Larentalia, and later the Rosalia and Dies Violares.

Before the 4th century b. c., the Romans do not seem to have been familiar with an infernal lower world common to all the dead nor with any form of punishment beyond the grave. From this time the Etruscans acquainted them with the Greek representation of Hades, but in the form that the terrifying Etruscan demonology had given it. In the course of the 3d century b.c., Magna Graecia invested this Etrusco-Roman world of the dead, Orcus, with all its rich infernal mythology and with all the Orphico-Pythagorean acquisitions to which the Greek genius had given birth. Through the direct contact between the Greco-Oriental and Roman civilizations, all these ideas and beliefs became more and more thoroughly acclimated at Rome. They received a quasi-sacred and definitive expression in the 6th book of Vergil's Aeneid.

Greco-Roman Beliefs. From the end of the republic, the Greco-Oriental and Roman worlds were fused into a great cultural commonwealth in which the active, general circulation of religious ideas occasioned the flourishing of various forms of syncretistic religion. Still, old conceptions persisted, whether they took on a new life under their old patrons (the various philosophies), whether they adjusted themselves to the form and organization of religious practices coming from the East (the mystery cults), or whether they simply maintained themselves against the winds and waves of innovation, firmly anchored as they were in the hearts of the masses (popular beliefs).

With regard to the concern of philosophy with the problem of the hereafter, Neo-Pythagoreanism (1st century b. c.2d century a. d.) and Neoplatonism (c. a. d. 250c. 500)despite some Oriental elements represented basically currents and ideas of Greek origin. According to the Neo-Pythagoreans, souls, on being freed from the body, escaped into the atmosphere, where they were purified by the winds before they re-entered their original home, the starry spheres. The Neoplatonists taught that the soul, buffeted in some way between the material many and the spiritual One, had the duty to apply itself to the noble task of regaining suprasensible divine life. The syncretistic teachings of the Hermetic literature and of Gnosticism (2d and 3d centuries a. d.) held in common that the soul, having once been cast into matter, could return to its heavenly source only through "true knowledge." Besides the old mysteries, whose promise of immortality was reinforced through contact with Orphico-Pythagorean and Neoplatonic elements, various cults, under a flexible form of mystery religion probably borrowed from the Greek mysteries, honored divinities imported from the East (Cybele-Attis, Isis-Osiris, Sabazios, Mithras), and they attracted the intensely emotional devotion of the masses, among whom the earlier native stock was being submerged by cosmopolitan elements.

It is desirable, however, to give a just evaluation of the expansion of the philosophico-religious doctrines, which appealed strictly to the intellectual aristocracy insofar as it had not limited its hopes to the immortality of fame, and also to appraise the content of the message of salvation afforded by the mystery religions. Several lofty ideas that belonged to philosophy and the mysteries freedom from death of the body by resurrection, deliverance from the death of the soul by spiritual rebirth and divine illumination, deification, divine filiationhad little or no influence on the rank and file of people before Christianity spread among them. Such ideas acquired their real efficacy, expansion, depth, and, in a certain measure, their existence only through the victorious progress of Christianity.

The popular conceptions, which are so vividly revealed by the metrical funeral inscriptions, indicate that common people were practically impervious to the Pythagorean idea that placed Hades in the sublunary region or in the moon itself, and that they had no interest in the system of solar pantheism or in the Gnostic teachings on the fall and ascent of souls through the planetary spheres. The old believers clung obstinately to the cult of the dead at the tomb and to the idea of a lower world in which the shades lived the barest kind of existence in darkness, although they granted that in rare cases the dead, as a reward for a pious life, enjoyed in the Elysian Fields a happy existence of eternal feasting. However, as the godsand lighthad their abode in the heavens, the blessed Hereafter tended to be moved to the celestial heights. There the elect received as their portion the immortal happiness that the philosophicoreligious teachings, the mysteries of Gnostic coloring, and imperial apotheosis had offered to a select few. Hell, in the modern sense, remained fixed in the traditional lower world; its punishments, to which Christianity made its contribution (e.g., in the Apocalypse of Peter ), attained a diversity and refinement that emanated less from a conscience motivated by the unfulfilled desire for perfect justice than from the lower level of human thinking, over which neither the noblest pagan ideas nor the Christian gospel of salvation had effective control.

See Also: cretan-mycenaean religion; etruscan religion; greek philosophy (religious aspects); greek religion; mystery religions, greco-oriental; neoplatonism; neo pythagoreanism; orphism; roman religion; stoicism.

Bibliography: j. t. addison, Life Beyond Death in the Beliefs of Mankind (Boston and New York 1932). f. cumont, Lux perpetua (Paris 1949). a. dieterich, Nekyia (2d ed. Leipzig 1913). l. r. farnell, Greek Hero Cults and Ideas of Immortality (Oxford 1921). f. heiler, Unsterblichkeitsglaube und Jenseitshoffnung in der Geschichte der Religionen (Munich 1950). o. kern, Die Religion der Griechen, 3 v. (2d ed. Berlin 1963). k. latte, Römische Religionsgeschichte (Munich 1960). r. a. lattimore, Themes in Greek and Latin Epitaphs (2d ed. pa. Urbana, Illinois 1962). m. p. nilsson, Geschichte der griechischen Religion, 2 v. (2d ed. Munich 195561). w. f. otto, Die Manen oder von den Urformen des Totenglaubens (3d ed. Darmstadt 1962). c. pascal, Le credenze d'oltretomba nelle opere letterarie dell' antichità classica, 2 v. (Catania 1912). g. pfannmueller, Tod, Jenseits und Unsterblichkeit (Basel 1953). e. rohde, Psyche: The Cult of Souls and Belief in Immortality among the Greeks, tr. w. b. hillis from 8th German ed. (New York 1925).

[g. sanders]


views updated May 23 2018


Theme Overview

Cultures the world over recognize that every life will end in death. However, many claim that some invisible but vital part of the human being, such as the spirit or soul, continues to exist after death. This is known as the afterlife, a state of being that people enter when they die, or a place to which they or their souls go. In some traditions, the individual possesses more than one soul, and each of these may have a separate fate.

Major Myths

Some cultures have associated the afterlife with a geographic location. The notion of the existence of an underworld beneath the world of the living is common. The Babylonians, Assyrians, and other peoples of ancient Mesopotamia, for example, thought the dead lived on in a dusty, bleak underworld called the Dark Earth. Any pit, cave, or pond could be an entrance to that place. People on the islands of Melanesia in the southeastern Pacific Ocean imagine an underground world that is the mirror image of the upper world. Stories from the island of New Guinea, north of Australia, describe an underworld that lies beneath the ocean. Divers have claimed to see the souls of the dead working in undersea gardens. In Navajo mythology, the dead descend into a watery underworld. According to the Ibo of Nigeria, the underworld is ruled by the goddess Ala, who receives the dead into her womb.

Other cultures have placed the afterlife in the sky or among the stars. The Pueblo Indians of the American Southwest believe that the dead become rain clouds. Some Native Americans of the Southeast say that the souls of the dead dwell either in the heavens or in the west.

The west, where the sun sets each day, has often been associated with the afterlife of the spirits. Polynesian islanders, in the central and southern Pacific Ocean, locate their ancestral island in the west and believe that spirits of the dead can return there. The Celtic people from western Europe pictured an other world that was sometimes underground or under the sea, and sometimes an island in the west.

In most accounts, the Celtic other world was a magical place filled with enjoyable activities, such as feasting and, for heroic warriors, fighting. Some descriptions, though, indicate that the land of the dead had a grim and dangerous side. Annwn (pronounced AN-oon), the realm of the dead in Welsh mythology, could be fearsome. Less frightening was Valhalla (pronounced val-HAL-uh) of Norse mythology , a vast palace where warriors slain in battle spent the afterlife feasting, singing, and indulging in playful combat. Their afterlife was not eternal, however. One day Valhalla and the world would be swept away in the gods' last battle. In addition, not all warriors went to Valhalla. Freyja (pronounced FRAY-uh), goddess of love and death, took half of them to her own palace in the afterworld.

In contrast to vivid, lively, and joyous visions of the world beyond, the afterlife pictured by the peoples of the ancient Near East was dim and shadowy. The early Jews called their dismal, ghostly underworld Sheol (pronounced SHEE-ohl). The spirits who dwelled in the Assyro-Babylonian underworld felt neither pain nor pleasure but lived a pale, washed-out version of life on earth, complete with a royal court ruled by Nergal and Ereshkigal, the king and queen of the dead. The Babylonian heroic poem, the Epic ofGilgamesh, contains a description of the afterlife in which the hero's dead friend Enkidu returns as a spirit to describe his existence in the “house of dust.”

Different Fates Peoples of the ancient Near East, such as the Mesopotamians and the early Jews, believed that the afterlife was the same for everyone. Other cultures, however, have expected the dead to be divided into different afterworlds. The Polynesians believe that the souls of common people, victims of black magic, and sinners are destroyed by fire. The souls of the upper classes, by contrast, journey to a spirit world where they live among their ancestors. Some ancient Chinese people believed that the afterlife was different for good and bad people: the souls of good people rose to the court of Tien (pronounced Tyen), or heaven , while the souls of bad people descended into one of the eighteen levels of hell , depending on their crimes in the world.

The Maya people of Central America believed that the souls of the dead went to an underworld known as Xibalba (pronounced shi-BAHL-buh). To escape and go to heaven, the souls had to trick the underworld gods. Among the Aztecs of Mexico, slain warriors, merchants killed during a journey, and women who died in childbirth joined the sun in the heavens. The ordinary dead spent four years traveling through the nine layers of an underworld called Mictlan (pronounced MEEKT-lahn), only to vanish when they reached the ninth level. The Aztecs believed that the rain god Tlaloc (pronounced TLAH-lok) was responsible for the deaths of people who died by drowning or of certain diseases such as leprosy. Tlaloc then sent these people to a happy afterlife that ordinary Aztecs did not share. Wall paintings in the ancient Mexican city of Teotihuacán (pronounced tay-uh-tee-wah-KAN) show the garden paradise that welcomed the souls of Tlaloc's dead.

In Norse mythology, warriors went to heavenly palaces, while other individuals ended up in a cold underworld called Niflheim (pronounced NIV-uhl-heym), or Hel. Among the Inuit (pronounced IN-yoo-it), or Eskimo, of Greenland, a happy land in the sky is the reward for the souls of people who have been generous or have suffered misfortunes in life; others go to an underworld ruled by the goddess Sedna. The Pima and Papago peoples of the American Southwest say that the spirits of the departed travel to a place in the east where they will be free from hunger and thirst.

Some cultures hold the view that the souls of the dead face judgment: the good are rewarded in the afterlife, while the evil are punished. The ancient Egyptians, for example, believed that a soul had to convince the gods that he or she had committed no sins in life. The dead person's heart was placed on one side of a set of scales with a feather from the headdress of Ma'at (pronounced MUH-aht), the goddess of judgment, on the other. If the two balanced, the soul was declared sinless. A monster devoured those who failed the test.

The Zoroastrians of ancient Persia believed that the afterlife held a reward for the virtuous, or those of moral excellence. Those who lived a just earthly life experienced a form of pure light that signified the presence of Ahura Mazda , their only god, who stands for goodness, justice, and order. The ancient Greeks imagined the afterlife as a shadowy realm, called Hades (pronounced HAY-deez) after its ruling deity. They also spoke of a deeper pit of hell, Tartarus, to which those who had acted wrongly were sent to receive punishment. In the Shinto mythology of Japan, the dead go to a land of darkness known as Yomi, where they may be punished for their misdeeds.

After about 200 bce, the Jewish concept of Sheol gave way to a vision of judgment after death. The good entered the presence of God, while the wicked roasted in a hell called Gehenna (pronounced geh-HEN-na). This influenced the Christian and Islamic ideas about hell as a state or place of punishment for evil. Heaven, in contrast, is the union of virtuous souls with God. According to the Roman Catholic Church, there is a state of being between heaven and hell called purgatory, in which tarnished souls are purified on the way to heaven.

The Journey to the Afterlife Many cultures have regarded death as the beginning of the soul's journey to the afterworld. The ancient Greeks pictured sea horses and dolphins carrying virtuous souls to the Elysian (pronounced il-EE-shun) Fields, also known as the Islands of the Blessed. Less noble Greeks undertook a darker journey, asking a boatman named Charon (pronounced KAIR-uhn) to ferry them across the river Acheron (pronounced ACK-er-on), which marked the boundary between the world and Hades.

Many Pacific islanders viewed the journey as a leap. Every island had a reinga, or leaping place, from which the soul was thought to depart. For the Maori of New Zealand, that place is the northernmost point of North Island, known as Cape Reinga. A sacred tree was often associated with the reinga. The Hawaiians believed that the souls of children lingered near the tree to give directions to the newly dead. Other Pacific peoples thought souls swam to the afterlife, and those weighted with sin would sink.

In some cultures, bridges linked the living world and the afterworld, and the crossing was not always easy. The Norse bridge shook if someone not yet dead tried to cross it before his or her time. The Zoroastrians had to cross a bridge the width of a hair. The just survived the crossing; the unjust fell into hell. Both the rainbow and the Milky Way were thought by various peoples to represent the bridge to the land of the gods or spirits.

The Fiji islanders of the south Pacific spoke of a Spirit Path with many dangers, a journey so difficult that the only ones who could complete it were warriors who had died violent deaths. A Native American myth of the far north says that the dead person's shadow must walk a trail the person made during life. Along the way, the person's ghost tries to keep the shadow from reaching the heavenly afterlife.

The living sometimes attempted the journey to the afterworld in search of the secrets, wisdom, powers, or treasures associated with the realm of spirits and of the dead. Welsh heroes entered the realm ofAnnwn to steal a magic cauldron, or kettle. Greek legends tell of the journeys of Orpheus and Odysseus to the land of the dead. The Navajo believe that searching for the realm of the dead can bring death to the living.

Return of the Dead In his play Hamlet, William Shakespeare called death “The undiscovered country from whose bourn [boundary] /No traveler returns.” Yet myths and legends from around the world say the dead do interact with the world of the living in one way or another.

In some cultures, the dead are thought to linger near the living as shades, or spirits. Southeastern Native Americans believe that newly dead souls remain near their villages hoping to persuade others to join them.

In some African myths, the souls of the dead stay close to living relatives in order to help and advise them. To consult with their dead ancestors, Mayan rulers performed a bloodletting ritual known as the Vision Serpent ceremony. During the ceremony, participants experienced visions in which they communicated with the dead.

The belief that the spirits of the dead can do good or ill in the world of the living lies behind some forms of ancestor worship. Ghosts of the dead, whether malicious, helpful, or merely sad, appear in the myths and folktales of many cultures. The Chinese perform ceremonies to honor the spirits of their ancestors and ensure that they will have good feelings toward their descendants. Some Native Americans honor the ghosts of their dead with annual feasts. The Navajo, however, avoid dwelling on death and never mention the dead in their rituals.

The dead sometimes return in another way as well: the soul may be reincarnated, meaning reborn in another body. The notion of multiple rebirths through a series of lifetimes is basic to the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Those who act wrongly in life may be reborn as less fortunate people or as animals or insects. Cultures in some areas of Africa also believe that souls are reborn, sometimes after a period spent in the underworld, or land of the dead.

Preparation for the Afterlife In many cultures, rituals associated with death were meant to help the deceased in his or her journey to the afterlife. The Greeks, for example, provided the dead with coins to pay the ferryman Charon. Although the Romans were less certain about the afterlife than the Greeks, they often followed the same custom and sometimes added treats for the dead person to offer to Cerberus (pronounced SUR-ber-uhs), the three-headed dog that guarded the entrance to the underworld. The Tibetan Book of the Dead gives instructions for the soul to follow on its journey between death and rebirth.

The ancient Egyptians believed that the body had to be preserved after death in order for the spirit to survive, so they went to great lengths to prepare for the afterlife. They built tombs to protect their dead. The most elaborate are the great monuments known as the pyramids. Within the tombs, they placed grave goods, such as food, furniture, and even servants, for the dead person to use in the next life. The Egyptians also developed an elaborate form of mummification, or drying and preserving a body to keep it from decomposing after death. The full process could take as long as two hundred days and was available only to the upper classes.

The Egyptians provided their dead with written instructions, including advice on how to survive the hazardous journey after death and guidebooks to the afterworld. The afterlife took many forms but was often pictured as a comfortable existence in a luxuriant realm of rivers, fields, and islands, although the royal dead were said to join the god Osiris (pronounced oh-SYE-ris) in the heavens. Texts inscribed on the walls of royal tombs included prayers, hymns, and magical spells to protect the dead from the dangers of the soul's journey. They were included in one of the most famous collections of ancient Egyptian writings, the Book of the Dead, copies of which were often buried with the dead.

The Sumerians of Mesopotamia usually made no attempt to preserve the bodies of their dead or to bury them elaborately. One striking exception is a set of royal graves found in the ruins of the ancient city of Ur, located in present-day Iraq. The graves contained not only rare and precious goods but also the bodies of servants, dancing girls, charioteers, and animals, all slain to serve the dead in the afterlife. The Germanic peoples also buried grave goods with their chieftains. An early medieval burial mound at Sutton Hoo in eastern England contained an entire ship along with a quantity of gold and silver items.

The grave goods of male Bushmen of Africa consist of the dead man's weapons. People preparing the body for burial coat it with fat and red powder and bend it into a fetal position, also known as a curled sleeping position. Then they place it in a shallow grave facing in the direction of the rising sun. Other South African tribes follow a different practice. They break the bones of dead people before burial to prevent their ghosts from wandering.

Afterlife in Context

Religions throughout the ages have included a belief in an afterlife. In some cultures, the afterlife is regarded as a place of pleasure and joy. In others, it is a gloomy shadow of earthly existence, a slow fading away, or a remote and unknowable realm. Expectations about the organization of the afterlife also differ. In some societies, everyone is thought to meet the same fate. In others, people are believed to take different paths, depending on how they conducted their earthly lives. Sometimes a judgment by a deity determines the individual's final destiny, or what will happen to them.

Varying visions of the afterlife reveal much about each culture's hopes and fears for the afterlife, and often contain lessons about how people should live. Generally, religions have rules, laws, commandments, or philosophies that ordinary people must follow in order to obtain a good afterlife. Hindus and Buddhists, for example, believe in rebirth and follow the law of karma. Karma, which in the original Sanskrit language means “actions,” refers to the good and bad acts an individual performs during his or her many lives, and the effects, or consequences, of those acts for future lives. Karma does not depend on the judgment of a deity, but is a rational law of nature that simply accepts that humans are responsible for their behavior and will reap the consequences of their actions in their afterlives. The law of karma provides a positive incentive for individuals to do good acts, since they can shorten the number of rebirths they must endure and more quickly achieve nirvana, or liberation from rebirth and unity with the divine.

In contrast, Christianity presents a linear notion of life and death, which occur only once for each human. In this view, humans have only one chance, or lifetime, to either be rewarded or punished, and Christians must abide by the Ten Commandments in order to achieve a good afterlife. Upon death, individuals will be judged by a deity and assigned either to heaven, hell, or purgatory. Christianity emphasizes punishment and judgment, and the fear of hell is a strong motivator for many to avoid sin and its consequences.

The Afterlife in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

The idea of the afterlife is a common subject in art and literature, even in modern times. Literary views of the afterlife are not limited to religious texts. Dante's epic about Catholic afterlife, The Divine Comedy (c. 1320), for example, is one of the most well-known pieces of literature of all time. In it, the author offers views of three different destinations in the afterlife: purgatory, heaven, and hell. More recently, the Alice Sebold novel The Lovely Bones (2002) offers a description of the heavenly world the main character occupies after she is murdered.

Painted depictions of the afterlife were common throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. One of the most famous paintings of the afterlife is The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1504). The painting, which is made up of three panels, shows a vision of hell in its third panel.

The subject of the afterlife is a popular theme in movies and television shows as well. Movies, such as Defending Your Life (1991) and What Dreams May Come (1998), present unique visions of the afterlife, while the television show Dead Like Me (2003) centers on a group of undead “reapers” who have been chosen to escort the souls of the soon-to-be-dead to the next world.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

Many people who have had near-death experiences—injuries or traumas that cause their bodies to “die” for a short time—claim to have seen “the afterlife.” Doctors try to explain these experiences as delusions caused by various chemicals in the brain. Using your library, the Internet, or other resources, find out more about what people who have had near-death experiences report seeing and feeling, and find out more about how these sensations are explained by doctors. Then write your conclusions: are these people glimpsing the afterlife or not?

SEE ALSO Cerberus; Gilgamesh; Hades; Heaven; Hel; Hell; Orpheus; Osiris; Reincarnation; Underworld; Valhalla; Valkyries


views updated May 29 2018


Judaism has always maintained a belief in an afterlife, but the forms which this belief has assumed and the modes in which it has been expressed have varied greatly and differed from period to period. Thus even today several distinct conceptions about the fate of man after death, relating to the immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the dead, and the nature of the world to come after the messianic redemption, exist side by side within Judaism. Though these conceptions are interwoven no generally accepted theological system exists concerning their interrelationship.

In the Bible

The Bible is comparatively inexplicit on the fate of the individual after death. It would seem that the dead go down to *Sheol, a kind of Hades, where they live an ethereal, shadowy existence (Num. 16:33; Ps. 6:6; Isa. 38:18). It is also said that Enoch "walked with God, and he was not; for God took him" (Gen. 5:24); and that Elijah is carried heavenward in a chariot of fire (ii Kings 2:11). Even the fullest passage on the subject, the necromantic incident concerning the dead prophet Samuel at En-Dor, where his spirit is raised from the dead by a witch at the behest of Saul, does little to throw light on the matter (1 Sam. 28:8 ff.). The one point which does emerge clearly from the above passages is that there existed a belief in an afterlife of one form or another. (For a full discussion see Pedersen, Israel, 1–2 (1926), 460 ff. A more critical view may be found in G. von Rad, Old Testament Theology, 2 vols., 1962.) Though the talmudic rabbis claimed there were many allusions to the subject in the Bible (cf. Sanh. 90b–91a), the first explicit biblical formulation of the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead occurs in the book of Daniel, in the following passage:

"Many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to reproaches and everlasting abhorrence" (Dan. 12:2; see also Isa. 26:19; Ezek. 37:1 ff.).

In Second Temple Literature

In the eschatology of the apocryphal literature of the Second Temple period, the idea of heavenly immortality, either vouchsafed for all Israel or for the righteous alone, vies with the resurrection of the dead as the dominant theme. Thus iv Maccabees, for instance, though on the whole tending toward Pharisaism in its theology, promises everlasting life with God to those Jewish martyrs who preferred death to the violation of His Torah, but is silent on the subject of resurrection. ii Maccabees, on the other hand, figures the latter prominently (cf. ii Macc. 7:14, 23; iv Macc. 9:8; 17:5, 18). The doctrine was, however, stressed by sectarian groups and is vividly expressed in the New Testament. For Philo the doctrine of the resurrection is subservient to that of the immortality of the soul and is seen by him as a figurative way of referring to the latter. The individual soul, which is imprisoned in the body here on earth, returns, if it is the soul of a righteous man, to its home in God; the wicked suffer eternal death (see H.A. Wolfson, Philo, 2 vols. (1947–48); index, s.v.Soul, Resurrection).

In Talmud and Midrash

When a man dies his soul leaves his body, but for the first 12 months it retains a temporary relationship to it, coming and going until the body has disintegrated. Thus the prophet Samuel was able to be raised from the dead within the first year of his demise. This year remains a purgatorial period for the soul, or according to another view only for the wicked soul, after which the righteous go to paradise, Gan Eden, and the wicked to hell, Geihinnom (Gehinnom; Shab. 152b–153a; Tanh. Va-Yikra 8). The actual condition of the soul after death is unclear. Some descriptions imply that it is quiescent, the souls of the righteous are "hidden under the Throne of Glory" (Shab. 152b), while others seem to ascribe to the dead full consciousness (Ex. R. 52:3; Tanh. Ki Tissa 33; Ket. 77h, 104a; Ber. 18b–19a). The Midrash even says, "The only difference between the living and the dead is the power of speech" (pr 12:46). There is also a whole series of disputes about how much the dead know of the world they leave behind (Ber. 18b).

In the days of the messianic redemption the soul returns to the dust, which is subsequently reconstituted as this body when the individual is resurrected. It is somewhat unclear whether the resurrection is for the righteous alone, or whether the wicked too will be temporarily resurrected only to be judged and destroyed, their souls' ashes being scattered under the feet of the righteous. A view supporting the doctrine of eternal damnation is found, but this is disputed by the claim, "There will be no Gehinnom in future times" (rh 17a; Tos. to rh 16b; bm 58b; Ned. 8b and Ran, ibid.; Av. Zar. 3b). The doctrine of the *resurrection is a cornerstone of rabbinic eschatology, and separated the Pharisee from his Sadducean opponent. The Talmud goes to considerable lengths to show how the resurrection is hinted at in various biblical passages, and excludes those who deny this doctrine from any portion in the world to come (Sanh. 10:1; Sanh. 90b–91a; Jos., Wars, 2:162 ff.). The messianic reign is conceived of as a political and physical Utopia, though there is considerable dispute about this matter (Ber. 34b; Shab. 63a; and the glosses of Rashi). At its end will be the world to come (olam ha-ba), when the righteous will sit in glory and enjoy the splendor of the Divine Presence in a world of purely spiritual bliss (Ber. 17a). About this eschatological culminating point the rabbis are somewhat reticent, and content themselves with the verse "Eye hath not seen, O God, beside Thee" (Isa. 64:3; Ber. 34b), i.e., none but God can have a conception of the matter. In the world to come the Divine Presence itself will illuminate the world. (For a general discussion see "The Doctrine of the Resurrection of the Dead in Rabbinic Theology" by A. Marmorstein in Studies in Jewish Theology, 1950.)

In Medieval Jewish Philosophy

The medieval Jewish philosophers brought conceptual and systematic thought to bear on the more imagist rabbinic eschatology, and one major problem they faced was to integrate the notions of immortality and resurrection. *Saadiah Gaon was perhaps the most successful among them, since he conceived of the state of the reunited soul and body after the resurrection as one of spiritual bliss (Book of Beliefs and Opinions, 9:5). Due to the nature of Greek psychology, however, the emphasis among the other Jewish philosophers, both Platonist and Aristotelian, is on the soul's immortality – the resurrection being added only because of doctrinal considerations. It is clear in the case of *Maimonides, for instance, that the immortality of the soul is paramount (Guide, 2:27; 3:54). Though he makes the belief in the resurrection, rather than in the immortality of the disembodied soul, one of his fundamental principles of Jewish faith (cf. Mishnah, Sanhedrin, introd. to Helek), it is only the latter which has meaning in terms of his philosophical system. Indeed the resurrection does not figure in the Guide of the Perplexed at all.

In general the neoplatonists saw the soul's journey as an ascent toward the Godhead, and its beatitude as a purely spiritual bliss involving knowledge of God and spiritual beings and some form of communion with them. Their negative attitude toward the flesh, in favor of the spirit, left no room for a resurrection theology of any substance. The Jewish Aristotelians, who thought of the acquired intellect as the immortal part of man, saw immortality in terms of the intellectual contemplation of God. Some of the Jewish Aristotelians held that in their immortal state the souls of all men are one; while others maintained that immortality is individual. This emphasis on salvation through intellectual attainment was the subject of considerable criticism. Crescas, for example, claimed that it was the love of God, rather than knowledge of Him, which was of primary soteriological import (Or Adonai, 3:3).

In Kabbalistic Literature

Kabbalistic eschatology, more systematic than its rabbinic predecessor, is, if anything, more complex in structure and varied as between the several kabbalistic subsystems. The soul is conceived of as divided into several parts, whose origin is in Divine Emanation, and is incarnated here on earth with a specific task to fulfill. The soul of the wicked, i.e., of he who has failed in his assigned task, is punished and purified in hell or is reincarnated again (*gilgul) to complete its unfinished work. In certain cases, however, the wicked soul is denied even hell or reincarnation and is exiled without the possibility of finding rest. Much of the literature is devoted to detailing the various stages of ascent and descent of the soul and its parts. (For a discussion of the various kabbalistic systems, and the variety of views held, see G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, particularly ch. 6.)

In Modern Jewish Thought

Orthodox Judaism has, throughout, maintained both a belief in the future resurrection of the dead as part of the messianic redemption, and also a belief in some form of immortality of the soul after death. The former figures in the liturgy at a number of points, including the morning prayer (Hertz, Prayer, 18), expressing the believer's trust that God will return his soul to his body in time to come. It is also a central motif of the second benediction of the *Amidah (ibid., 134). The belief in the soul's survival after death is implicit in the various prayers said in memory of the dead and in the mourner's custom of reciting the Kaddish (ibid., 1106–09, and 212, 269–71). Reform Judaism has, however, given up any literal belief in the future resurrection of the dead. Reform theology concerns itself solely with the belief in a spiritual life after death and has modified the relevant liturgical passages accordingly.


views updated May 21 2018


Belief in an afterlife is a feature of all the world's religions, although there are major differences among traditions, both historically and contemporaneously, in how the afterlife is construed. Whereas Western religions emphasize the break between earthly life and the afterworld of death and possible resurrection (eternal salvation), some Eastern traditions believe in the eternal cycle of successive lifetimes. Thus while Christianity has traditionally emphasized heaven and hell as opposing afterlife domains that reward or punish people for what they have "reaped on earth," the doctrine of karma in Hinduism and Buddhism states that a person's current existence is a direct result of one's past existences and a determinant of one's future existences. The Christian tradition does not accept the doctrine of reincarnation. Such differences in how the concept of "afterlife" is understood clearly have quite diverse implications for how adherents of particular traditions understand themselves, their place in the social world, and relations with their fellow human beings.

Within Christianity, some of the theological disagreements between Catholicism and Protestantism extend to include conceptions of the afterlife, particularly regarding the means of salvation. The notion of purification for sins committed is deeply grounded in New Testament accounts and in the writing of early church fathers such as St. Augustine. The doctrine of purgatory, however, was a cause of dissension during the Protestant Reformation. In particular, the Reformers rejected the practice of the church in encouraging the faithful to seek indulgences from church officials as a way of redeeming their own sins and those of the souls in purgatory. This practice contravened the Protestant belief in faith alone, and not prayers for the dead, as the means to salvation. The Council of Trent (1545–1563) reaffirmed the Catholic belief in purgatory as an intermediate state between death and possible salvation with Christ. In contemporary Catholicism, reflecting this theology of salvation, prayers for the dead are a routine dimension of the Mass liturgy, as the gathered community invoke God's mercy for any deceased family members and friends who may be in purgatory.

There is also doctrinal disagreement within Judaism as to what comprises belief in an afterlife. Orthodox Judaism adheres to the traditional rabbinic dogma of corporal resurrection and the immorality of the soul, whereas the Reform movement in America (following the Pittsburgh Platform, 1885), rejects both the idea of bodily resurrection and the notion of either eternal punishment or reward, while nonetheless embracing the more ambiguous concept of personal immortality. Notwithstanding the variety of ways in which different traditions envision the afterlife, it is noteworthy that death is recognized as an important life passage deserving of special rituals, whether evidenced by Christian funerals, the sanctity of shivah (period of mourning) and kaddish (prayer for the dead), for Jews, the emphasis on communal mourning in Islam, or the rites of ancestor-worship practiced in communities influenced by Confucianism.

No one, of course, can know whether there is an afterlife, and if there is, whether it approximates the scenes so vividly imagined in great literary works such as Dante's Inferno or James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The lack of plausible evidence has not dampened Americans' beliefs in an afterlife. National opinion polls indicate that almost three-quarters of Americans believe in life after death, a proportion that has remained relatively stable throughout the post–World War II period. Similarly, three of four Americans believe in heaven as a place of eternal reward, and although fewer, approximately 50 percent believe in hell. These beliefs do not vary significantly by either age or level of education. As Andrew Greeley points out, "in both 1944 and 1985 college-educated young people (under thirty) and non-college-educated older people (over sixty) were equally committed to the proposition that there is life after death" (Greeley, 1989: 15). It is also noteworthy that, reflecting Americans' comparatively higher levels of religious belief and involvement, they are significantly more likely than Europeans, for example, to believe in an afterlife.

The tenacity of Americans' beliefs in an afterlife is quite remarkable, especially given the tendency of Catholicism and mainline Protestantism to downplay the salience of concrete images of heaven, and especially hell, over the past three decades. The continuing appeal of such beliefs may be understood, in part, in terms of the broader search for personal meaning and purpose in life that seems to have become more public since the 1950s. The emphases on personal seeking and spiritual journeying prevalent in personal religious narratives and in mass media accounts point to the fact that for many people today material well-being is experienced as unfulfilling unless it is accompanied with some sense of a larger, transcendent meaning. It is also evident that while many contemporary Americans believe in an afterlife, the ways in which they construe it are quite diverse, and in many instances it is removed from traditional concepts of heaven and hell. The post–World War II trend toward the decoupling of personal spirituality from institutionalized religion means that people can envision an afterlife that is autonomous of the images of salvation that are enshrined in various faith traditions. For some, belief in an afterlife is nurtured by their strong experiential sense of an enduring personal spiritual connection with a loved one who has died. Whether people understand heaven and hell as actual afterlife domains, or more symbolically as representing the polarities of good and evil, for many, the belief in some form of continuity beyond one's present life serves to give purpose to life events and experiences that otherwise they would find difficult to integrate.

Concern with questions pertaining to the afterlife also helps to orient people to greater awareness of the finite nature of their own current existence and thus encourages them to set priorities with respect to personal relationships, community involvement, or in their attitudes toward nature and the environment. Although traditionally, therefore, the concept of afterlife denoted an emphasis on "last things" and the possible triumph of life over death, for some people today, the spiritual power of belief in an afterlife may help them focus on more immediate issues of personal salvation and growth in this world.

Notwithstanding Americans' embrace of the idea of an afterlife, it is striking that many people resist talking about issues of death and dying. In recent years, however, death has become a more salient part of public discourse. The aging of the American population has forced health practitioners and policymakers to openly discuss dilemmas of end-of-life care and has encouraged individuals and families to discuss practical matters relating to living wills. Beliefs about the afterlife are also tacitly present in current public debates with respect to physician-assisted death, and the assumption shared by some of its advocates that whatever the after-death experience, it will be preferable to the pain and suffering associated with terminal illness.

See alsoDeathand Dying; Euthanasiaand Assisted Suicide; God; Heaven; Hell; Journeysand Journeying; Near Death Experiences; Reincarnation; Ritesof Passage; Ritual; Shivah.


Greeley, Andrew. Religious Change in America. 1989.

Roof, Wade Clark. A Generation of Seekers: TheSpiritualJourney of the Baby Boom Generation. 1993.

Wink, Paul. "Spirituality and Inner Life." Generations. 1999.

Wuthnow, Robert. After Heaven: Spirituality inAmericaSince the 1950s. 1998.

Michele Dillon


views updated May 14 2018

Afterlife. The condition awaiting humans and the cosmos after death or at the end of time. Beliefs vary greatly between religions, though in origin the major continuing religious traditions, both East and West, had no belief that there would be a worthwhile existence after death. They could not deny that in some sense there is a trace of the dead, in memory and dreams, or in the resemblance of offspring to ancestors; but whatever state the dead may be in, it is a condition of extreme weakness, in which all connection with God and with the living is cut off, and certainly to be avoided or postponed as long as possible: it is, in Sophocles' words, ton apotropon Haidan, Hades to be shunned. The most militant reaction to this occurred in China, in the quest for immortality; and gradually both traditions came to realize that there may be about us that which does endure through the process of time and therefore perhaps through the event of death.

The Jewish tradition has come to believe that the life of human beings continues through death, and that there will be a consummation of the purposes of God in the messianic age. Today, Orthodox Jews still maintain a belief in bodily resurrection, but most Reform Jews are only concerned with spiritual survival. The Jewish equivalent of hell is derived from the mundane ‘valley of Hinnom’, Gehinnom, Gk., Gehenna.

Christian beliefs were formed in the context of acute Jewish debates, in the period of the second Temple, about the likelihood and nature of the afterlife, and are controlled by the astonished and grateful acceptance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus himself had affirmed belief in life after death, arguing against the Sadducees, but not going into detail. Early Christianity put together the two Jewish forms of speculation, thereby talking of the resurrection of the body, but also of the continuing life of the soul in the interval before the resurrection body is restored to it—a ‘gap’ which eventually allowed the doctrine of purgatory.

The afterlife in Islam is known as al-akhira. The Muslim understanding of the afterlife is based on vivid and literal pictures in the Qurʾān.

The early understandings in India of human nature and its destiny much resemble in attitude those of the Jewish Bible. The Vedic imagination could conceive only of this life as a place of guaranteed worth. Neither samsāra nor ātman as immortal soul are present in the Vedas. The advance to ātman was made in the Brāhmaṇas and Āraṇyakas via prāṇa, breath—the recognition that prāṇa is the support of life. Prāṇa is like the logos in the W., since it not only supports life, but is the creator of sound (vāc, see e.g. Jaiminīya Upaniṣad Brāhmaṇa 8. 2. 6), and becomes equated with Brahman as creator. Thus the life-principle in humans (and other manifestations) is eventually believed to be not other than the undying Brahman—so that ātman is Brahman. Rebirth carries the soul through many appearances, so that rebirth has become an evil to be brought to an end. The many hells belong firmly within the process of rebirth, not to any eternal destiny—an understanding which is true of Eastern religions in general.

For Jains, the afterlife is mapped onto a cosmography in which the Middle World includes the part inhabited by humans. Below are a series of hells of increasing unpleasantness; above are a series of heavens of increasing brightness, including the abode of the gods. But those heavens are not the desirable state: this is the Isatpragbhara, the slightly curved (shaped somewhat like curved space in a parabola), where the jīvas which have ceased to be encumbered by bodies abide.

Buddhists pressed further in resisting the Hindu move toward an eternal ātman. While there is continuity of consequence through samsāra, there is no eternal and undying subject of this process (anātman). The process may move through heavens and hells, but these are no ‘abiding city’. The afterlife may involve being reborn as an animal or attaining the condition of arhat: between the two, many Theravādin Buddhists aim for a better outcome in the next birth without aiming too far. In Mahāyāna, the realization of the ultimate goal was brought closer within reach, particularly through devotion to bodhisattvas, whose role it is to save all sentient beings. While sharing Hindus' presuppositions about rebirth, Sikh teaching emphasizes the possibility of attaining mukti during one's present life.


views updated May 11 2018


views updated May 11 2018

af·ter·life / ˈaftərˌlīf/ • n. [usu. in sing.] 1. (in some religions) life after death.2. later life: they spent much of their afterlife trying to forget the fire.


views updated May 18 2018


see life after death