Life After DeathAs the irritating, yet monotonous beeps of the life-monitor in theemergency room began to slowly die away, George struggled to hang on. It’s notmy time yet, he thought. Please, give me just one more day The beeps soonbecame increasingly far in between, while the doctors frantically bustled on ina futile attempt to stabilize the dying man like a bunch of panicking beestrying to save their doomed hive from a pouring rain. The world turned hazy,then completely dark, as George felt himself slowly floating into the darkness.He flew and flew without end. Then there was the light – that infamous “lightat the end of the tunnel.
” (Randles 2) It gave out a strange, comforting warmththat enveloped him, easing his fears and relieving all doubts. George somehowknew what to do – to just let go. He felt quite at home.
Back on earth, the rhythmic, mechanical beeps suddenly turned into asolid, continuous high E, signaling the end. George was about to cross over.Being bathed in the strangely comforting light, he was soon greeted by his long-lost friends and relatives, beckoning for him to come, come join them. Georgewanted to stay. More than anything he cared for, George wanted to stay righthere, basking in the light of love. But he felt something pull him back. Wait,not yet, he thought.
It’s not my time yet… The next moment, George wassomehow reunited with his physical body, lying on that uncomfortable hospitalbed, amidst the doctors sighing in relief, surrounded no longer by that softglow, but again by that rhythmic beep, beep, beepIs there a parallel between George’s account of a near-death experience(NDE), and what really happens when we ourselves die? Is there indeed a part ofus that conquers death and continues to live a different kind of existence whereit has new powers and undergoes unfamiliar experiences? Is there really aheaven, or numerous heavens, full of blissful joys awaiting some of us and ahell, or countless hells, full of different punishments for others? Or isphysical death, in fact, the end of life as we know it? Such questions aboutdeath and dying has intrigued humanity since the dawn of time. One area towhich we might look for some answers to this puzzle is religion. Unlike science,dealing only with the material and tangible, traditional religion takes anotherview of our reality by recognizing the validity of metaphysical experiences.
World’s major religions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity, as wellas primal pagan ones, such as the Greek and Roman mythology, although quitedifferent in basic fundamentals of belief, all attempt to give its followers anexplanation of the world on the other side of life.In Greek and Roman mythology, Hades is the god of the dead. He was theson of the Titans Cronus and Rhea and the brother of Zeus and Poseidon.
(Cumont34) When the three brothers divided up the universe after they had deposedtheir father, Cronus, Hades was awarded the underworld. There, with his queen,Persephone, whom he had abducted from the world above, he ruled the kingdom ofthe dead.The underworld itself was often called Hades. It was divided into tworegions: Erebus, where the dead pass as soon as they die, and Tartarus, thedeeper region, where the Titans had been imprisoned. It was a dim and unhappyplace, inhabited by vague forms and shadows and guarded by Cerberus, the three-headed, dragon-tailed dog.
Sinister rivers separated the underworld from theworld above, and the aged boatman Charon ferried the souls of the dead acrossthese waters. Somewhere in the darkness of the underworld Hades’ palace waslocated. It was represented as a many-gated, dark and gloomy place, throngedwith guests, and set in the midst of shadowy fields and an apparition-hauntedlandscape.To Greeks and Romans, life after death was not a pleasant thing. Hades,a dark and gloomy place, was originally the apparent destination for all – thegood and the bad. Perhaps with the unintended influence of the incipientcontemporary Christianity, Hades was mollified into a much more organized place,giving rewards to the good and punishments to the wicked. One notable aspect ofthis mythology is that Greeks, much like most of the major religions today,believed in an eternal, undying self in each of us that conquers death andcarries on another life after a physical death.
Today, unlike the Greeks and Romans, Hindus do not believe in a setplace where our undying selves end up after the inevitable physical death.Personal eschatology is concerned with the immediate fate of righteous andunrighteous souls following death, and the conditions governing each category ofsouls between death and the universal resurrection of humanity. Generaleschatology, on the other hand, considers the final destiny of the whole humanrace, especially the events of the last days, that is universal resurrection andfinal judgment. Hinduism, however, is only concerned with personal eschatology.
(Ma’sumian 2)As with any aspect of Hinduism, the teachings of life after death musttake into consideration the many different sectarian beliefs. (Smith 26)Different philosophies of Hinduism hold divergent views about what happens afterdeath, but the twin doctrines of karma and samsara are at the center of theeschatological beliefs of most Hindus. According to the samsara (literally “theround of existence”) doctrine, the present life of each person is shaped by thefruits of the acts he or she performed in previous lives. Karma can be definedas the law of automatic justice.
For every action, there is a reward orretribution; all our present pleasures, pains, and sufferings are the directresult of our past actions. (Ma’sumian 4)As long as our karma results in sins and imperfections, we will continueto be reborn into other existences. More than likely, these successive rebirthswill not be on the same plane of being – they may occur in any of a number oftemporary heavens or hells, or on earth.
Human rebirth is considered mostsignificant because only in human form can we accumulate good karma. (Smith 27)Traditional Hindu literature such as the Puranas identify numerous temporaryheavens and hells that are set aside for karmic retribution. Once theconsequences of virtuous or evil deeds are exhausted, the soul is reborn as ahuman being on earth. The purpose of life is to break the vicious cycle ofbirth-death-rebirth and liberate one’s soul, but very few of us can do this atany given time. (Ma’sumian 4) Once enough good karma is collected, the soul isthen transmigrated to “the kingdom of inexhaustible light,” as mentioned in Rig-Veda.
(Ma’sumian 5) The Vedas are the entire body of Hindu sacred writings.(Ma’sumian 3) The Rig-Veda notes that the way to heaven is perilous andbelievers will have to face many dangers before getting there, including demonswho are ready to devour them should they stray from the right path. To help thefaithful in this dangerous journey, the Rig-Veda identifies a colorful god namedYama, who was the first man to die but is now the god of the dead and the rulerand judge of the departed. (Ma’sumian 5) It is the twin doctrines of samsaraand karma that make the meaning of death and the afterlife in Hinduism verydifferent from the views offered by most other religions.Another major world religion, Buddhism, is also from the East. LikeHinduism, the term Buddhism refers to a diverse array of beliefs and practicesand implies a degree of uniformity that does not exist. (Noss 157) Afteroriginating in India, Buddhism soon spread to various parts of Asia andeventually reached the western hemisphere in the nineteenth century.
Like Hinduism, Buddhism is only concerned with personal eschatology;there is no mention of a collective destiny for humankind. Because Buddhism isessentially a reform movement within Hinduism, Buddhists maintain beliefs in thetwin doctrines of transmigration (Hindu samsara) and karma. According to thesebeliefs, each person is reborn countless times and lives through different typesof existence. The quality of his current life is a reflection of present andpast karma.
Hence, if the individual now lives a comfortable life, this is thereward of good deeds performed in present and past lives. In contrast, thoseexperiencing misery can only blame themselves for evil deeds they are committingor have committed in previous existences. Thus the individual is held totallyresponsible for the quality of the life he is now experiencing, and pointing thefinger of blame at external forces such as a deity, demons, or fate is notacceptable.
(Noss 164)Both Buddhists and Hinduists view the universe as a stage for countlessrebirths of human beings in a spectrum from evil to goodness. Nonetheless,there are notable differences between the two interpretations of thetransmigration, or reincarnation, doctrine. For instance, the Buddhist beliefsystem rejects the Hindu notion of atman (the human soul), the undying self.
(Ma’sumian 44) In fact, Buddhist definition of human existence leaves out anyreference to a soul. The attributes of a person are carried on to the next lifethrough one of the five elements (physical body, feelings, senses, volition, andconsciousness) that make up a human entity: the consciousness. Passages fromBuddhist literature acknowledge the survival and immortality of this part of thepersonality:The mind takes possession of everything not only on earth, but also in heaven,and immortality is its securest treasure-trove. (Buddhist Catena, Anathapindika-Jethavana)In another text, Buddha defines consciousness (Vijnana) as that entitywhich is “invisible, boundless, all-penetrating, and the ground for Rupa (formerbody), Vedana (sensation), Samjna (perception), and Samskara (will).
” (Noss 164)The Buddhist element of consciousness or mind appears to replace the Hindunotion of atman as the only immortal substance in humans.As with its parent religion Hinduism, belief in the twin doctrines oftransmigration and karma makes Buddhism very different from western religions.The main theme of Buddhism is that life is suffering, and the best way toeliminate suffering is to achieve detachment from the world and materialpossessions. However, most people continually fail to become detached, commitevil, and are thus condemned to successive rebirths.Unlike the two personal eschatological religions from the East, the NewTestament of Christianity, which deals mainly with the subject of life and death,has little to say on what happens to individual souls after death. Instead, themajor focus of the eschatology of many New Testament books is general.The final destiny of human kind and dramatic events such as the returnof Christ in glory in the hereafter are major themes in the Synoptic Gospels(the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke).
Here can be found a number ofpassages that refer to the return of Christ as an unexpected event preceding thefinal judgment. (Badham 85) While in some passages the Synoptic Gospels presentGod as the judge of the world, more often it is Christ who is expected todischarge the duties of the judge. For instance, in Matthew’s scene of finaljudgment (25: 31-32) all the nations of the past and present are brought beforeChrist: “When the Son of man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him,then He will sit on His glorious throne. Before Him will be gathered all thenations, and He will separate one from the other as the shepherd separates thesheep from the goats.” (Badham 86)Christ will use the believers’ earthly deeds as the main criterion forjudgment. The lot of the righteous will be eternal life in the Kingdom of Godwhile the evil-doer’s fate is eternal punishment: “And they the wicked will goaway into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matt 25:46)For centuries, Matthew’s vision of the after life, as well as similarprophecies from other authors of the Bible, including the Book of Revelation,inspired many Christian painters including Michelangelo, Giotto, and Moschos tocreate remarkable visual representations of the events of the last days.
(Badham146) In most of their pictures Jesus is glorified in radiant divine light,surrounded by angels. Such pictures over time became the accepted images ofheaven, the final destiny for the righteous. On the other hand, in otherpictures, terrifying devils continue to torture sinners, whose names are missingfrom the Book of Life. It is here that the wicked will burn and be tortured foreternity.
The New Testament contains little specific information on the sate ofthe soul after death. However, like most of its doctrines, the personaleschatology of Christianity revolves around Jesus. Perhaps the majorcontribution of Christian eschatology is the significance it attaches to beliefin the person of Jesus as humankind’s only hope for salvation.
(Badham 172) Oureternal bliss or damnation in the afterlife depends on whether we accept orreject Jesus as our personal savior.Later Christian teaching related Christ’s redemptive role to thedoctrine of “original sin,” which states that, as descendants of the fallen Adam,the first man created by God, all men are sinful and deserve eternal punishment.However, in His loving kindness, God sent Jesus to atone for our sins bysacrificing His life for us and dying in our place.
Those who choose to believein this and accept Jesus as their only savior will enter paradise and experienceeternal life. Those who reject Jesus are condemned to hell-fire and eternaldamnation.Evidence of belief in an afterlife can be found since the beginning ofrecorded time in many cultures. Since then, religions have tried to give itsfollowers an explanation of the world on the other side of life. Greeks andRomans believed in an afterlife where the god of the underworld, Hades,tormented all dead in his unearthly realm. Buddhists and Hindus believe inreincarnation of individual beings, continued on by an undying self, a soul orhis consciousness, and his karma.
Christians believe in the coming of a saviorof mankind, Jesus Christ, whose followers will go to eternal bliss and life,while whose rejecters will eternally burn in hell. Although very different indetails of our future life, all of these spiritual guidance teach and advise itsfollowers good actions and intentions in this life so that one may be rewarded agood life in the next world, whichever it may be. Likewise, the wicked shall bepunished in the most undesired ways for eternity.Works CitedBadham, Paul. Christian Beliefs about Life after Death. London: Harper ; RowPublishers, Inc., 1976.
Cumont, Franz Valery Marie. After Life in Roman Paganism; Lectures Delivered atYale University on the Silinam Foundation. New York: Dover Publications, 1959.Mann, A. T. The Elements of Reincarnation.
Rockport, MA: Element Books, Inc.,1995.Ma’sumian, Farnaz. Life After Death; a Study of the Afterlife in WorldReligions. Rockport, MA: Oneword, 1995.Meek, George W.
After We Die, What Then?; Evidence You Will Live Forever.Columbus, Ohio: Ariel Press, 1987.Noss, D. S. and Noss, J. B.
A History of the World’s Religions. New York:Macmillan Publishing Company, 1990.Randles, Jenny.
The Afterlife: an Investigation into the Mysteries of LifeAfter Death. New York: Berkeley Books, 1994.Reanney, Darryl. After Death: a New Future for Human Consciousness. New York:W. Morrow, 1995.Smith, Huston.
The Illustrated World’s Religions. New York: LabyrinthPublishing Ltd., 1994.