How the Major Religions View the Afterlife

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How the Major Religions View the Afterlife

With all their diversity of beliefs, the major religions are in accord in one great teaching: Human beings are immortal and their spirit comes from a divine world and may eventually return there. Since the earliest forms of spiritual expression, this is the great promise and hope that religions have offered to their followers. It is the believer's eternal answer to the cynicism of the materialist who shouts that there is no afterlife, that death is the end.

Anthropologists can only guess whether or not the earliest members of the Homo sapiens species (c. 30,000 b.c.e.) conducted burial rituals of a quality that would qualify them as religious. However, it is known that they buried their dead with care and consideration and included food, weapons, and various personal belongings with the body. Even the Neanderthal species (c. 100,000 b.c.e.) placed food, stone implements, and decorative shells and bones in the graves with the deceased, which they often covered with a red pigment. Since there are no written scriptures describing the purpose of including such funerary objects in the graves (writing was not developed until the fourth millennium b.c.e.), one must presume the placement of weapons, food, and other utilitarian items beside the dead indicates that these prehistoric people believed that death was not the end. The member of the tribe or clan who was no longer among the living still required nourishment, clothing, and protection to journey safely in another kind of existence beyond the grave. Somehow, there was some part of the person that survived death.

That part of the human being that survives death is known in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism as the soul, the very essence of the individual person that must answer for its earthly deeds, good or bad. Hinduism perceives this spiritual essence as the divine part of a living being, the atman, which is eternal and seeks to be united with the Universal Soul, or the Brahman. Buddhism teaches that an individual is but a transient combination of the five aggregates (skandhas )matter, sensation, perception, predisposition, and consciousnessand has no permanent soul. Of the major world religions, only Buddhism does not perceive an eternal metaphysical aspect of the human personality in the same way that the others do. However, all the major faiths believe that after the spirit has left the body, it moves on to another existence. Some faiths contend that it ascends to a paradise or descends into a hell. Others believe it may achieve a rebirth into another physical body, or may merge with the Divine in an eternal unity. Traditional Christianity, Islam, and Judaism envision a resurrection of a spiritual body at a time of final judgment, but generally speaking, the soul is of greater value and purpose than the physical body it inhabited while on Earth. The material shell within which humans dwell during their lifetime is nothing other than clay or ashes into which God has breathed the breath of life. The physical body is a temporary possession that a human has, not what a person is.

All the major world religions hold the belief that how a person has conducted himself or herself while living on Earth will greatly influence his or her soul's ultimate destiny after physical death. In fact, many teachings state that the only reason for birth into the material world is the opportunity to prepare for the soul's destiny in the immaterial worlds. And what is more, how one meets the challenges of life on Earth, whether or not one chooses to walk a path of good or evil, determines how that soul will be treated after death. All the seeds that one has sown throughout his or her lifetime, good or bad, will be harvested in the afterlife.

When an individual dies, according to many world religions, the soul is judged or evaluated, then sent to what is perceived as an eternal placeheaven or hell. The Hindu or Buddhist expects to encounter Yama, the god of the dead. In the Hindu scriptures, Yama holds dominion over the bright realms and can be influenced in determining a soul's admission by offerings made for the benefit of the deceased by relatives and friends. In the Buddhist tradition, Yama is the lord of hell who administers punishment according to each individual's karma, the cause and effect of his or her actions on Earth. In neither religious expression is Yama at all comparable to Satan, who in Christian belief is both the creator of evil and the accuser of human weaknesses.

In Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, the soul's arrival at either heaven or hell is made somewhat confusing by the teachings of a great, final Judgment Day and the Resurrection of the Dead. And when Roman Catholic Christianity added the doctrine of purgatory in the sixteenth century, the matter became all the more complex because now certain souls were given an opportunity to atone for their sins while residing in a kind of interim area between heaven and hell. While many Christians, Jews, and Muslims believe that the dead lie sleeping in their graves until the Last Judgment, others in those same faiths maintain that judgment is pronounced immediately after death. Likewise, the concept of the World to Come in Jewish writings may refer to a present heaven or fore-tell of a future redemption on Earth.


While the Buddhist text recognizes the existence of a self as a being that distinguishes one person from another, the Buddhist teachings state that the Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim concept of an eternal metaphysical soul is inaccurate. To Buddhists, the human person is but a temporary assemblage of various elements, both physical and psychical, and none of these individual aspects of a whole person can be isolated as the essential self; nor can the sum of them all constitute the self. Everything, all of reality, is in a constant state of change and decay. Because a human is composed of so many elements that are always in a state of flux, always dissolving and combining with one another in new ways, it is impossible to suggest that an individual could retain the same soul-self for eternity. Rather than atman, Buddhist doctrine teaches anatman/or, "no-self."

Although the Buddha (c. 567487 b.c.e.) denied the Hindu concept of an immortal self that passes through a series of incarnations, he did accept the doctrines of karma ("actions," the cause-and-effect laws of material existence) and samsara (rebirth). If the Buddha recognized rebirth into another lifetime but did not believe in an essential self or soul, then what would be reborn? The Buddhist answer is difficult to comprehend; the various components in the perpetual process of change that constitute human beings do not reassemble themselves by random chance. The karmic laws determine the nature of a person's rebirth. Various aspects which make up a functioning human during his or her lifetime enter the santana, the "chain of being," whose various links are related one to the other by the law of cause and effect. While there is no atman or individual self that can be reincarnated, the "contingent self" that exists from moment to moment is comprised of aggregates that are burdened with the consequences of previous actions and bear the potential to be reborn again and again. Because the aggregates of each living person bear within them the fruits of past actions and desires, the moment of death sets in motion an immediate retribution for the consequences of these deeds, forcing the individual to be reborn once again into the unceasing cycle of karma and samsara. However, dharma, the physical and moral laws that govern the universe, flow through everything and everyone, thereby continually changing and rear-ranging every aspect of the human. Although driven by karma, the dharma rearranges the process of rebirth to form a new individual.

In his first sermon, the Noble Truth of Suffering (Dukha), the Buddha presented his views on the aggregates that constitute the human condition:

The Noble Truth of Suffering is this: Birth is suffering; aging is suffering; sickness is suffering; death is suffering; sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief, and despair are suffering; association with the unpleasant is suffering; dissociation with the pleasant is suffering; not to get what one wants is sufferingin brief, the five aggregates of attachment are suffering.

In the Dhammapada (147:51) the Buddha speaks further of the destiny of all human flesh in quite graphic terms:

Behold this beautiful body, a mass of sores, a heaped up lump, diseased, much thought of, in which nothing lasts, nothing persists. Thoroughly worn out is this body, a nest of diseases, perishable.Truly, life ends in death.Of bones is this house made, plastered with flesh and blood. Herein are stored decay, death, conceit, and hypocrisy. Even ornamented royal chariots wear out. So too the body reaches old age. But the Dhamma of the Good grows not old. Thus do the Good reveal it among the Good.

The Buddha's advice to all those who wish to rise above the karmic laws of death and rebirth is to live a contemplative, religious life:

Men who have not led a religious life and have not laid up treasure in their youth, perish like old herons in a lake without fish. Men who have not led a religious life and have not laid up treasure in their youth lie like wornout bows, sighing after the past. (Dhammapada 155:56)

The counsel of the Buddha is quite similar to the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:1921 when he admonished those who would follow him not to expend their energies accumulating treasures on Earth where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourself treasure in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

Dharma is the path to the goal of nirvana, which in Buddhist teachings can represent the final extinction of the desire to exist, or can also suggest a high level of mystical experience achieved through deep meditation or trance. It never means the complete annihilation of the self, only the squelching of the wish to be reborn. Most often, nirvana is meant to indicate a transformed state of human consciousness which achieves a reality independent of the material world.

Once the desire to continue existence in a material flesh form has been extinguished, and "when a son of the Buddha fulfills his course, in the world to come, he comes Buddha." To achieve one's Buddhahood in Buddhism is comparable to realizing Brahma, the Absolute and Ultimate, in Hinduism. Once those levels have been attained, it is believed that one is freed forever from material reality and becomes one with eternal reality.

There are many schools of historical BuddhismHinayana, Mahayana, Tantric, and Pure Landand it is difficult to find consensus among them concerning the afterlife. Tibetan Buddhism's Book of the Dead provides an important source for an understanding of their concept of the afterlife journey of the soul. A lama (priest) sits at the side of the deceased and recites texts from the Book, a ritual which is thought to revive the bla, the life force within the body, and give it the power to embark upon a 49-day journey through the intermediate stage between death and rebirth. Such a recitation by the priest at the bedside of the deceased might include these words from the Tibetan Book of the Dead:

Since you [no longer] have a material body of flesh and blood, whatever may comesounds, lights, or rays are, all three, unable to harm you; you are incapable of dying. It is quite sufficient for you to know that these apparitions are your own thought-forms. Recognize this to be the bardo [the intermediate state after death].

If there is to be no rebirth for the soul, it appears before Yama, the god of the dead, to be judged. In Tibetan Buddhism, there is a direct link between one's earthly lifetimes and intermediate stages of existence in the various spheres of paradise, extending to the appearance of the soul remaining the same as the one it assumed when living as a human on Earth.

Both Buddhism and Hinduism place Yama, god of the dead, in the position of judge in the afterlife, and these passages from the Rig-Veda depict the special reverence with which he was held:

Yama was the first to find us our abode, a place that can never be taken away, a place where our ancient Fathers have departed; all who are born go there by that path, treading their own. Meet the Fathers, meet Yama, meet with the fulfillment of wishes in the highest heaven; casting off imperfections, find anew your dwelling, and be united with a lustrous body.

Regardless of one's religious background, it is in the presence of death that all humans find themselves face to face with the single greatest mystery of their existence: Does life extend beyond the grave? Whether one believes in a supernatural heavenly kingdom, the inescapable laws of karma, or a state of eternal bliss, death remains a dreadful force beyond one's control. For untold millions of men and women the ceremonies of religion provide their only assurance that life goes on when the darkness of physical death envelops them.

Delving Deeper

Carter, John Ross and Mahinda Palihawadana, trans. Buddhism: The Dhammapada. New York: Oxford University Press for the Book of the Month Club, 1992.

Crim, Keith. The Perennial Dictionary of World Religions. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1989.

Eerdmans' Handbook to the World's Religions. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994.

Larousse Dictionary of Beliefs and Religions. New York: Larousse, 1994.

Rosten, Leo, ed. Religions of America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1975.

Sullivan, Lawrence E., ed. Death, Afterlife, and the Soul. New York: Macmillan, 1989.

Wilson, Andrew, ed. World Scripture: A Comparative Anthology of Sacred Texts. New York: Paragon House, 1995.


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

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

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

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

In I Corinthians 15:3544, Paul writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hell, in traditional Christian thought, is a place of eternal torment for those who have been damned after the Last Judgment. It is generally pictured as a barren pit filled with flames, the images developed out of the Hebrew Sheol and the Greek Hades as the final resting places for the dead. Roman Catholic Christianity continues to depict hell as a state of unending punishment for the unrepentant, but over five centuries ago, the councils of Florence (1439) and Trent (154563) defined the concept of purgatory, an intermediate state after death during which the souls have opportunities to expiate certain of their sins. Devoted members of their families can offer prayers and oblations which can assist those souls in purgatory to atone for their earthly transgressions and achieve a restoration of their union with God.

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

Delving Deeper

brandon, s. g. f. religion in ancient history. new york: charles scribner's sons, 1969.

clifton, charles s. encyclopedia of heresies and heretics. new york: barnes & noble, 1992.

crim, keith, ed. the perennial dictionary of world religions. san francisco: harper collins, 1989.

pelikan, jaroslav, ed. christianity: the apocrypha and the new testament. new york: oxford university press and cambridge university press for the book of the month club, 1992.

rosten, leo, ed. religions of america. new york: simon & schuster, 1975.


In India's religious classic work, the Bhagavad Gita ("Song of the Lord"), the nature of the soul is defined: "It is born not, nor does it ever die, nor shall it, after having been brought into being, come not to be hereafter. The unborn, the permanent, the eternal, the ancient, it is slain not when the body is slain."

The oldest collection of Sanskrit hymns is the Rig-Veda, dating back to about 1400 b.c.e. Composed by the Aryan people who invaded the Indus Valley in about 1500 b.c.e., the early Vedic songs are primarily associated with funeral rituals and perceive the individual person as composed of three separate entities: the body, the asu (life principle), and the manas (the seat of the mind, will, and emotions). Although the asu, and the manas were highly regarded, they cannot really be considered as comprising the essential self, the soul. The facet of the person that survives the physical is yet something else, a kind of miniature of the living man or woman that resides within the center of the body near the heart.

During the period from about 600 b.c.e. to 480 b.c.e., the series of writings known as Upanishads set forth the twin doctrines of samsara (rebirth) and karma (the cause and effect actions of an individual during his or her life). An individual has a direct influence on his or her karma process in the material world and the manner in which the person deals with the difficulties inherent in an existence bound by time and space; the individual determines the form of his or her next earthly incarnation. The subject of the two doctrines is the atman, or self, the essence of the person that contains the divine breath of life. The atman within the individual was "smaller than a grain of rice," but it was connected to the great cosmic soul, the Atman or Brahma, the divine principle. Unfortunately, while occupying a physical body, the atman was subject to avidya, an earthly veil of profound ignorance that blinded the atman to its true nature as Brahma and subjected it to the processes of karma and samsara. Avidya led to maya the illusion that deceives each individual atman into mistaking the material world as the real world. Living under this illusion, the individual accumulates karma and continues to enter the unceasing process of samsara, the wheel of return with its succession of new lifetimes and deaths.

The passage of the soul from this world to the next is described in the Brihadarankyaka Upanishad:

The Self, having in dreams enjoyed the pleasures of sense, gone hither and thither, experienced good and evil, hastens back to the state of waking from which he started. As a man passes from dream to wakefulness, so does he pass from this life to the next. Then the point of his heart, where the nerves join, is lighted by the light of the Self, and by that light he departs either through the eye, or through the gate of the skull, or through some other aperture of the body.The Self remains conscious, and, conscious, the dying man goes to his abode. The deeds of this life, and the impressions they leave behind, follow him. As a caterpillar, having reached the end of a blade of grass, takes hold of another blade and draws itself to it, so the Self, having left behind it [a body] unconscious, takes hold of another body and draws himself to it.

By the third century b.c.e. Hinduism had largely adopted a cyclical worldview of lives and rebirths in which the earlier concepts of heaven and hell, an afterlife system of reward and punishment, were replaced by intermediate states between lifetimes. Hindu cosmology depicted three lokas, or realmsheaven, Earth, and a netherworldand 14 additional levels in which varying degrees of suffering or bliss awaited the soul between physical existences. Seven of these heavens or hells rise above Earth and seven descend below. According to the great Hindu teacher Sankara, who lived in the ninth century, and the school of Advaita Vedanata, the eventual goal of the soul's odyssey was moksa, a complete liberation from samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth, which would lead to nirvana, the ultimate union of atman with the divine Brahma. In the eleventh century, Ramanjua and the school of Visitadvaita saw the bliss of nirvana as a complete oneness of the soul with God.

In the last centuries before the common era, a form of Hinduism known as bhakti spread rapidly across India. Bhakti envisions a loving relationship between God and the devout believer that is based upon grace. Those devotees who have prepared themselves by a loving attitude, a study of the scriptures, and devotion to Lord Krishna may free themselves from an endless cycle of death and rebirth. Eternal life is granted to the devotees who, at the time of death, give up their physical body with only thoughts of Lord Krishna on their minds.

Delving Deeper

Brandon, S. G. F. Religion in Ancient History. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1969.

Crim, Keith, ed. The Perennial Dictionary of World Religions. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1989.

Pelikan, Jaroslav, ed. Hinduism: The Rig Veda. Trans. by Ralph T. H. Griffith. New York: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers for the Book of the Month Club, 1992.

Sullivan, Lawrence E., ed. Death, Afterlife, and the Soul. New York, Macmillan, 1989.

Wilson, Andrew, ed. World Scripture: A Comparative Anthology of Sacred Texts. New York: Paragon House, 1995.

Zaehner, R. C., ed. Encyclopedia of the World's Reli gions. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1997.


In regard to the concept of a soul, Islam envisions a human as a being of spirit and body. The creation of Adam as described in the Qur'an (or Koran) is reminiscent of Genesis in the Judeo-Christian Bible as the Lord announces to the angels that he is going to create a human of clay and that he will breathe his spirit into him after he has given him form. "And He originated the creation of man out of clay, then He fashioned his progeny of an extraction of mean water, then He shaped him, and breathed His spirit in him." (Qur'an 32:89)

Muhammed (570 c.e.632 c.e.) appears to have regarded the soul as the essential self of a human being, but he, adhering to the ancient Judeo-Christian tradition, also considered the physical body as a requirement for life after death. The word for the independent soul is nafs, similar in meaning to the Greek psyche, and the word for the aspect of the soul that gives humans their dignity and elevates them above the animals is ruh, equivalent to the Greek word nous. These two aspects of the soul combine the lower and the higher, the human and the divine.

As in the other major religions, how one lives on Earth will prepare the soul for the afterlife, and there are promises of a paradise or the warnings of a place of torment. The Qur'an 57:20 contains an admonition concerning the transient nature of life on Earth and a reminder of the two possible destinations that await the soul after death: "Know that the present life is but a sport and a diversion, an adornment and a cause of boasting among you, and a rivalry in wealth and children. It is as a rain whose vegetation pleases the unbelievers; then it withers, and you see it turning yellow, then it becomes straw. And in the Hereafter there is grievous punishment, and forgiveness from God and good pleasure; whereas the present life is but the joy of delusion."

Muhammed speaks of the Last Judgment, after which there will be a resurrection of the dead which will bring everlasting bliss to the righteous and hellish torments to the wicked. The judgment will be individual. No soul will be able to help a friend or family member, he warns; no soul will be able to give satisfaction or to make intercession for another.

While the doctrine of the resurrection of the body has never been abandoned in Islam, later students of the Qur'an sought to define the soul in more metaphysical terms, and a belief in the preexistence of souls was generally established. In this view, Allah kept a treasure house of souls in paradise available for their respective incarnations on Earth.

The Islamic paradise is in many ways an extension of the legendary Garden of Eden in the Bible. It is a beautiful place filled with trees, flowers, and fruits, but it really cannot be expressed in human terms. It is far more wonderful than any person could ever imagine. "All who obey God and the Apostle are in the company of those on whom is the grace of Godof the Prophets who teach, the sincere lovers of Truth, the witnesses [martyrs] who testify, and the righteous who do good: Ah! What a beautiful fellowship!" (Qur'an 4:69)

Hell is a place of torment, and, like the image held by many Christians, a place of fire and burning. In the Islamic teachings, neither heaven nor hell last throughout eternity. Infinity belongs to Allah alone, and there may exist various stages of paradise and hell for those souls who dwell there.

Delving Deeper

Ali, Ahmed, trans. The Qur'an. New York: Akrash Publishing Karachi for the Book of the Month Club, 1992.

Crim, Keith, ed. The Perennial Dictionary of World Religions. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1989.

Larousse Dictionary of Beliefs and Religions. New York: Larousse, 1994.

Sullivan, Lawrence E., ed. Death, Afterlife, and the Soul. New York: Macmillan, 1989.

Wilson, Andrew, ed. World Scripture: A Comparative Anthology of Sacred Texts. New York: Paragon House, 1995.


"Then the Lord God formed man out of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being" (Genesis 2:7). In the second chapter of Genesis, Yahweh, the god of Israel,

shapes the form of Adam from the clay, then breathes into him the "breath of life," so that Adam becomes nephesh, or a "living soul."

Interestingly, Yahweh also bestows the breath of life into the animals that flourished in the Garden of Eden, and they, too, are considered living souls. Nephesh is closely associated with blood, the life-substance, which is drained away from the body at death, thus establishing in Hebrew tradition the recognition that a living person is a composite entity made up of flesh and nephesh, the spiritual essence. "The body is the sheath of the soul," states the Talmud, Sanhedrin 108a.

The early Hebrews believed that after death the soul descended to Sheol, a place deep inside the Earth where the spirits of the dead were consigned to dust and gloom. "All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again" (Ecclesiastes 3:20). By the time the Book of Daniel was written, in about 165 b.c.e., the belief had been established that the dead would be resurrected and receive judgment: "Many of those who lie dead in the ground will rise from death. Some of them will be given eternal life, and others will receive nothing but eternal shame and disgrace. Everyone who has been wise will shine bright as the sky above, and everyone who has led others to please God will shine like the stars" (Daniel 12: 24).

While the verses from Daniel are the only ones in Jewish scripture that specifically mention the afterlife of the soul, the subject is widely discussed in Rabbinic literature, the Kabbalah, and Jewish folklore. Generally, the soul is believed to have its roots in the world of the divine, and after the physical death of the body, the soul returns to the place of its spiritual origin. Some Jewish thinkers refer to the soul's sojourn on Earth as a kind of exile to be served until its reunion with God.

By the second century b.c.e., many Jewish teachers had been exposed to the Greek concept of the soul as the essential self that exists prior to the earthly body into which it is born and which survives the body's physical death. However, the old traditions retained the view that, an existence in the afterlife requires the restoration of the whole person. As Jewish thinking on the afterlife progressed from earlier beliefs, a school of thought arose maintaining that during the arrival of the Messiah, God would raise the dead to life again and pass judgment upon themrewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked. Such a resurrection was viewed as a restoration of persons who would possess both physical bodies and spirits, thus reinforcing the traditional philosophy that to be a living person was to be a psycho-physical unit, not an eternal soul temporarily inhabiting a mortal body. More often, however, the references to a judgment of the dead in Judaism recall the scene in the seventh chapter of the Book of Daniel in which the Ancient of Days opens the books of life and passes judgment on the kingdoms of the Earth, rather than on individuals.

According to some circles of Jewish thought, the actual Day of Judgment, yom hadin, the resurrection of the dead, will occur when the Messiah comes. On that fateful day, both Israel and the Gentile nations will be summoned to the place of judgment by the blowing of the great shofar (ram's horn) to awaken the people from their spiritual slumber. Elijah the prophet will return and set about the task of reconciling families who have become estranged. The day when the Lord judges "will be dark, very dark, without a ray of light" (Amos 5:20). Those who have maintained righteous lives and kept their covenant with God will be taken to the heavenly paradise. Those who have been judged as deserving of punishment for their misdeeds will be sent to Gehenna, to stay there for a length of time commensurate with the seriousness of their transgressions.

Delving Deeper

Jewish Publication Society Translation. The Tanakh. New York, 1992.

Sullivan, Lawrence E., ed. Death, Afterlife, and the Soul. New York: Macmillan, 1989.

Unterman, Alan. Dictionary of Jewish Lore and Legend. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1997.

Wilson, Andrew, ed. World Scripture: A Comparative Anthology of Sacred Texts. New York: Paragon House, 1995.

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How the Major Religions View the Afterlife

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How the Major Religions View the Afterlife