The view of death advanced by science — that life just stops, with no souls and no afterlife — can seem hopeless and downright unfair. How could we be born only to die? Where’s the hope in that?
The men and women in lab coats will never be mistaken for ministers of solace. Agents of comfort tend to wear vestments of a more clerical nature.
Political philosopher Karl Marx famously branded religion “the opium of the people,” but few know that he also referred to religion as “the heart of a heartless world.”
The vast majority of people in the world (more than 80%) do take heart in religion, and while the decline of religious beliefs continues apace in the United States, nearly three-quarters of Americans (74%) still affiliate themselves with a specific faith, and nearly two-thirds (65%) identify as Christians, according to the latest Pew Research Center data.
In the face of death, religion gives people hope and helps them formulate an answer to that most uncomfortable question: What happens when we die?
Here we explore perspectives on death and afterlife from the traditions of four major world religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism.
Americans of all stripes know the basic tenets of Christianity, if not by virtue of the faith’s ubiquity, then by the zeal of its practitioners. Spreading the word is big business in this country, and the Christian church has carved out a home in movie megaplexes and theme parks and on cable TV.
From Hollywood to the street-corner preachers of Anytown, USA, Christians have been taking their message to the masses for generations. The kernel of that message appears on T-shirts, bumper stickers, billboards and brightly colored hand-held signs in the end zones of NFL football games.
The Bible verse, from the New Testament, goes like this: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
The “Son” in that verse refers to Jesus of Nazareth, a first-century Jewish prophet who Christians believe is God incarnate. The “eternal life” to which the verse refers is the Christian version of heaven, a good place (the best, really) populated by God, his angels and the souls of the faithful.
Those who believe that Jesus is the one, true, capital-G God, ascend to heaven after they die; the souls of those who do not believe are cast into the Christian version of hell, a fiery pit of despair presided over by the capital-D Devil, aka Satan.
That last bit, the hell part, causes more than a little agita among contemporary Christians who don’t like the idea of bad things happening to good non-Christian people. The statistics on belief in hell, as compiled by Pew, vary among different factions of the church, including: evangelical Protestants (82%), Catholics (63%), Mormons (62%), mainline Protestants (60%), Orthodox Christians (59%) and Jehovah’s Witnesses (7%).
Splintering views on the nature of the afterlife are par for the course in Christianity, which includes hundreds of denominations with unique dogmatic traditions, principles and agendas. Some believe a person must be baptized to go to heaven. Some believe after death a soul must wait in an intermediary space, purgatory, for purification before traveling on to heaven. About one-quarter of Christians, according to Pew, even believe in the reincarnation of souls in another body.
The idea that Jesus is the one and only key to heaven still resonates with a broad base of American Christians, especially in a political climate that rewards intolerance, but specific beliefs about the afterlife drill down through denominations, churches and, ultimately, individual hearts.
Rabbi Jack Paskoff, the longtime leader of Congregation Shaarai Shomayim in Lancaster, says the topic of death, and most matters of spiritual import for Jews, generate diverse opinions in a faith tradition known for candid debate.
He refers to the Pirkei Avot, a nearly 2,000-year-old text in the Jewish scriptural canon that collects the wisdom of ancestors and rabbis. At one place in the text, a rabbi suggests that in death people become “food for worms and maggots.” Elsewhere, a rabbi compares the world to a lobby outside the banquet hall of the afterlife.
Somewhere on the continuum between those views, Jews look for their truth about death and what, if anything, follows.
“Many of us are content with the knowledge that we are not going to know until we get there — if there’s a ‘there’ to which we get,” Paskoff says.
For some Jews, the standard tropes of heaven, hell and purgatory hold sway. Some Jews contend that a Messiah is coming, and that the dead will be resurrected and stand in judgment before the Messiah in Jerusalem. With multiple sacred texts consisting of thousands of pages of instruction, the Jewish faith’s broad scriptural base allows it to accommodate competing views.
“I think that’s part of the beauty of (Judaism),” Paskoff says. “There is a very diverse repertoire, and as a rabbi, I get to draw on that. And as individuals confronting death, (the faithful) get to draw on that also without someone saying, ‘You must believe this.’ ”
As the education and outreach director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Philadelphia, Ahmet Selim Tekelioglu regularly explains Islamic perspectives to non-Islamic populations. In Lancaster County, he delivers the Friday sermon at the Islamic Community Center of Lancaster in Manheim Township once a month, and on that same day he volunteers as a chaplain at Lancaster County Prison, ministering to its Muslim population.
In Tekelioglu’s estimation, any account of Islamic perspectives on death has to begin with Muslims’ understanding that they are sent to this world by God as a test to get to know him and to worship him. Everyday Muslims approach the world as a temporal place.
“You will often find Muslims talk about ‘this world,’ which is in Arabic ‘Dunya,’ of which they say, ‘All of these material possessions, everything, there is an end to it. None of this is perpetual. None of this is permanent. And we need to realize that and work toward the afterlife,’ ” Tekelioglu says. “That becomes an important ethical guidepost for many people.”
(The Islamic conception of life as a proving ground for the afterlife is one of many striking parallels to Christian theology.)
Tekelioglu references a quote from Az-Zalzalah, the 99th chapter of the Quran, verses 7 and 8: “Anyone who has done an atom’s weight of good will reap its rewards; and anyone who has done an atom’s weight of ill will also face its consequences.”
Upon death, the broadly normative prevailing Muslim view holds that the soul leaves the body and experiences an intermediary process of reward and punishment before a final judgment day. On that day, everyone is resurrected and God determines who will spend eternity in heaven and who will go to hell.
Like Christianity, Islam has some very exclusive qualifications to be counted as a Muslim: You should profess your belief in God and the prophet Muhammad as his final messenger. But a gray zone of disagreement exists among Muslim scholars, Tekelioglu says, regarding those who believe in God, but not from a Muslim perspective. Can heaven be their final destination? Certain Quranic verses read more inclusively in that respect, and others more exclusively. Ultimately, Muslims believe, that discretion rests with the highest authority.
“There is no limit to what God can do and who God chooses to reward with heaven and punish with hell,” Tekelioglu says. “So you might be a very observant Muslim, praying five times a day, professing the right things and saying the right things, but certain of your actions may mean that you may be in hell for eternity or a certain amount of time. … The final decision is with God.”
Buddhism’s influence in the Western world continues to grow as some of the religion’s psychological practices have conflated with popular meditation and mindfulness instruction aimed at reducing the stress of fast-paced urban lifestyles.
Originating in India about 2,500 years ago, Buddhism focuses on compassion and composure in life. With respect to death, the standard terminology doesn’t really apply to Buddhism. Instead of souls, Buddhists believe in the immortality of the mind. Instead of an afterlife, Buddhists believe in the perpetual refinement of the mind across time in a continuous series of lives.
Kelsang Chondzin, an ordained Buddhist nun who teaches at Kalpa Bhadra Kadampa Buddhist Center in Harrisburg, describes the three levels of the mind: the gross mind, or the least-refined mind, is the waking mind, which is tied to the body; the subtle mind is used in dreaming and when the mind is in the bardo, a transitional stage between death and rebirth; and the very subtle mind, or root mind, carries the karmic imprint — the consequences of human actions — from life to life.
Chondzin compares death and rebirth to the process of sleeping and waking. When the Buddhist dies, the gross, waking mind dissolves into the subtle mind and, in turn, into the root mind. Rebirth, a reawakening of the mind in a new life, occurs within 49 days of death.
Eventually, through many rebirths, the mind reaches enlightenment, or a state of unperturbed wisdom.
“It’s nice to know that you don’t die,” Chondzin says. “You keep going until you get it right. There’s no way for you to get lost or sputter into nonexistence. You’re going to keep going, and you’re going to keep learning.”¶
Matters of Life and Death is a monthly column that examines issues associated with death and dying. It runs the first Sunday of the month in the Living section. Michael Long is a staff editor and writer for LNP. Email your stories, comments and suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.