It wasn't over yet.
As the irritating, yet monotonous beeps of the life-monitor in the emergency room began to slowly die away, George struggled to hang on. It's not my time yet, he thought. Please, give me just one more day... The beeps soon became increasingly far in between, while the doctors frantically bustled on in a futile attempt to stabilize the dying man like a bunch of panicking bees trying 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 "light at the end of the tunnel." (Randles 2) It gave out a strange, comforting warmth that enveloped him, easing his fears and relieving all doubts. George somehow knew what to do - to just let go. He felt quite at home.
Back on earth, the rhythmic, mechanical beeps suddenly turned into a solid, 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. George wanted to stay. More than anything he cared for, George wanted to stay right here, 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 was somehow reunited with his physical body, lying on that uncomfortable hospital bed, amidst the doctors sighing in relief, surrounded no longer by that soft glow, but again by that rhythmic beep, beep, beep...
Is 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 of us that conquers death and continues to live a different kind of existence where it has new powers and undergoes unfamiliar experiences? Is there really a heaven, or numerous heavens, full of blissful joys awaiting some of us and a hell, or countless hells, full of different punishments for others? Or is physical death, in fact, the end of life as we know it? Such questions about death and dying has intrigued humanity since the dawn of time. One area to which we might look for some answers to this puzzle is religion. Unlike science, dealing only with the material and tangible, traditional religion takes another view of our reality by recognizing the validity of metaphysical experiences. World's major religions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity, as well as primal pagan ones, such as the Greek and Roman mythology, although quite different in basic fundamentals of belief, all attempt to give its followers an explanation of the world on the other side of life.
In Greek and Roman mythology, Hades is the god of the dead. He was the son of the Titans Cronus and Rhea and the brother of Zeus and Poseidon. (Cumont 34) When the three brothers divided up the universe after they had deposed their father, Cronus, Hades was awarded the underworld. There, with his queen, Persephone, whom he had abducted from the world above, he ruled the kingdom of the dead.
The underworld itself was often called Hades. It was divided into two regions: Erebus, where the dead pass as soon as they die, and Tartarus, the deeper region, where the Titans had been imprisoned. It was a dim and unhappy place, inhabited by vague forms and shadows and guarded by Cerberus, the three-headed, dragon-tailed dog. Sinister rivers separated the underworld from the world above, and the aged boatman Charon ferried the souls of the dead across these waters. Somewhere in the darkness of the underworld Hades' palace was located. It was represented as a many-gated, dark and gloomy place, thronged with guests, and set in the midst of shadowy fields and an apparition-haunted landscape.
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 - the good and the bad. Perhaps with the unintended influence of the incipient contemporary Christianity, Hades was mollified into a much more organized place, giving rewards to the good and punishments to the wicked. One notable aspect of this 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 and carries on another life after a physical death.
Today, unlike the Greeks and Romans, Hindus do not believe in a set place where our undying selves end up after the inevitable physical death. Personal eschatology is concerned with the immediate fate of righteous and unrighteous souls following death, and the conditions governing each category of souls between death and the universal resurrection of humanity. General eschatology, on the other hand, considers the final destiny of the whole human race, especially the events of the last days, that is universal resurrection and final judgment. Hinduism, however, is only concerned with personal eschatology. (Ma'sumian 2)
As with any aspect of Hinduism, the teachings of life after death must take into consideration the many different sectarian beliefs. (Smith 26) Different philosophies of Hinduism hold divergent views about what happens after death, but the twin doctrines of karma and samsara are at the center of the eschatological beliefs of most Hindus. According to the samsara (literally "the round of existence") doctrine, the present life of each person is shaped by the fruits of the acts he or she performed in previous lives. Karma can be defined as the law of automatic justice. For every action, there is a reward or retribution; all our present pleasures, pains, and sufferings are the direct result of our past actions. (Ma'sumian 4)
As long as our karma results in sins and imperfections, we will continue to be reborn into other existences. More than likely, these successive rebirths will not be on the same plane of being - they may occur in any of a number of temporary heavens or hells, or on earth. Human rebirth is considered most significant because only in human form can we accumulate good karma. (Smith 27) Traditional Hindu literature such as the Puranas identify numerous temporary heavens and hells that are set aside for karmic retribution. Once the consequences of virtuous or evil deeds are exhausted, the soul is reborn as a human being on earth. The purpose of life is to break the vicious cycle of birth-death-rebirth and liberate one's soul, but very few of us can do this at any given time. (Ma'sumian 4) Once enough good karma is collected, the soul is then 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 and believers will have to face many dangers before getting there, including demons who are ready to devour them should they stray from the right path. To help the faithful in this dangerous journey, the Rig-Veda identifies a colorful god named Yama, who was the first man to die but is now the god of the dead and the ruler and judge of the departed. (Ma'sumian 5) It is the twin doctrines of samsara and karma that make the meaning of death and the afterlife in Hinduism very different from the views offered by most other religions.
Another major world religion, Buddhism, is also from the East. Like Hinduism, the term Buddhism refers to a diverse array of beliefs and practices and implies a degree of uniformity that does not exist. (Noss 157) After originating in India, Buddhism soon spread to various parts of Asia and eventually 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 is essentially a reform movement within Hinduism, Buddhists maintain beliefs in the twin doctrines of transmigration (Hindu samsara) and karma. According to these beliefs, each person is reborn countless times and lives through different types of existence. The quality of his current life is a reflection of present and past karma. Hence, if the individual now lives a comfortable life, this is the reward of good deeds performed in present and past lives. In contrast, those experiencing misery can only blame themselves for evil deeds they are committing or have committed in previous existences. Thus the individual is held totally responsible for the quality of the life he is now experiencing, and pointing the finger of blame at external forces such as a deity, demons, or fate is not acceptable. (Noss 164)
Both Buddhists and Hinduists view the universe as a stage for countless rebirths of human beings in a spectrum from evil to goodness. Nonetheless, there are notable differences between the two interpretations of the transmigration, or reincarnation, doctrine. For instance, the Buddhist belief system rejects the Hindu notion of atman (the human soul), the undying self. (Ma'sumian 44) In fact, Buddhist definition of human existence leaves out any reference to a soul. The attributes of a person are carried on to the next life through one of the five elements (physical body, feelings, senses, volition, and consciousness) that make up a human entity: the consciousness. Passages from Buddhist literature acknowledge the survival and immortality of this part of the personality:
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 entity which is "invisible, boundless, all-penetrating, and the ground for Rupa (former body), Vedana (sensation), Samjna (perception), and Samskara (will)." (Noss 164) The Buddhist element of consciousness or mind appears to replace the Hindu notion of atman as the only immortal substance in humans.
As with its parent religion Hinduism, belief in the twin doctrines of transmigration and karma makes Buddhism very different from western religions. The main theme of Buddhism is that life is suffering, and the best way to eliminate suffering is to achieve detachment from the world and material possessions. However, most people continually fail to become detached, commit evil, and are thus condemned to successive rebirths.
Unlike the two personal eschatological religions from the East, the New Testament 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, the major focus of the eschatology of many New Testament books is general.
The final destiny of human kind and dramatic events such as the return of 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 of passages that refer to the return of Christ as an unexpected event preceding the final judgment. (Badham 85) While in some passages the Synoptic Gospels present God as the judge of the world, more often it is Christ who is expected to discharge the duties of the judge. For instance, in Matthew's scene of final judgment (25: 31-32) all the nations of the past and present are brought before Christ: "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 the nations, and He will separate one from the other as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats." (Badham 86)
Christ will use the believers' earthly deeds as the main criterion for judgment. The lot of the righteous will be eternal life in the Kingdom of God while the evil-doer's fate is eternal punishment: "And they [the wicked] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." (Matt 25:46)
For centuries, Matthew's vision of the after life, as well as similar prophecies from other authors of the Bible, including the Book of Revelation, inspired many Christian painters including Michelangelo, Giotto, and Moschos to create remarkable visual representations of the events of the last days. (Badham 146) In most of their pictures Jesus is glorified in radiant divine light, surrounded by angels. Such pictures over time became the accepted images of heaven, the final destiny for the righteous. On the other hand, in other pictures, terrifying devils continue to torture sinners, whose names are missing from the Book of Life. It is here that the wicked will burn and be tortured for eternity.
The New Testament contains little specific information on the sate of the soul after death. However, like most of its doctrines, the personal eschatology of Christianity revolves around Jesus. Perhaps the major contribution of Christian eschatology is the significance it attaches to belief in the person of Jesus as humankind's only hope for salvation. (Badham 172) Our eternal bliss or damnation in the afterlife depends on whether we accept or reject Jesus as our personal savior.
Later Christian teaching related Christ's redemptive role to the doctrine 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 by sacrificing His life for us and dying in our place. Those who choose to believe in this and accept Jesus as their only savior will enter paradise and experience eternal life. Those who reject Jesus are condemned to hell-fire and eternal damnation.
Evidence of belief in an afterlife can be found since the beginning of recorded time in many cultures. Since then, religions have tried to give its followers an explanation of the world on the other side of life. Greeks and Romans believed in an afterlife where the god of the underworld, Hades, tormented all dead in his unearthly realm. Buddhists and Hindus believe in reincarnation of individual beings, continued on by an undying self, a soul or his consciousness, and his karma. Christians believe in the coming of a savior of mankind, Jesus Christ, whose followers will go to eternal bliss and life, while whose rejecters will eternally burn in hell. Although very different in details of our future life, all of these spiritual guidance teach and advise its followers good actions and intentions in this life so that one may be rewarded a good life in the next world, whichever it may be. Likewise, the wicked shall be punished in the most undesired ways for eternity.
Badham, Paul. Christian Beliefs about Life after Death. London: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc., 1976.
Cumont, Franz Valery Marie. After Life in Roman Paganism; Lectures Delivered at Yale 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 World Religions. 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 Life After 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: Labyrinth Publishing Ltd., 1994.