Three Questions for Comparing and Contrasting
the Afterlife Beliefs of Six Prominent World Religions
by Jason David Gray
1. What survives the death of the body?
Christianity: There are straightforwardly dualistic conceptions for Christians (i.e. a non-physical soul that separates from the body at death), but there are also contrasting views. For instance, many believe that a spiritual body (which may be three dimensional and physical) is resurrected after death (but that the spiritual body is distinct from our current physical bodies). Many Christians continue to believe in literal resurrection of our earthly bodies.
Islam: There seems to be general agreement that, according to the Quran, the physical body is resurrected for the Day of Judgment, although a small minority appears to hold a dualistic view.
Judaism: Most modern Jews do not believe in post-mortem survival in any literal sense. However, orthodox Jews continue to believe that the physical body will be resurrected by God at the end of time. Some earlier versions of Judaism held dualistic views.
Mormonism: Mormons believe that we as humans are the embodiment of a material soul. This material soul exists eternally, to include the period before our birth as an embodied human. After death minimally the material soul will continue to exist for all who die. However, for most the material soul will be re-embodied, not in the sense that the material soul will be reincarnated on earth, but it will be given a new body so that the embodied material soul can continue toward achieving the (God-like) perfection for which it is striving.
Buddhism: Buddhists do not believe in a soul. If one achieves nirvana nothing of that person survives their bodily death. However, if the person is to be reincarnated there are a couple of different views as to what survives. One of the oldest Buddhist traditions holds that only karma (or the worth of one’s deeds) survives death and is transmitted to another physical body. Other traditions hold that sensations, emotions, perceptions and consciousness survive death and are transferred to another physical body, in the event of reincarnation.
Hinduism: Hindus also believe in reincarnation, and if one is to be reincarnated they believe that the subtle body survives death (the subtle body is a collection of our senses, actions, mind and intellect) and is transmitted to another physical body. If one is a Brahmin (a follower of the creator god and the unchanging essence of the universe) and is not to be reincarnated, then only the essential-self survives death. The essential-self is made of the same thing as Brahma, reunites with Brahma and so there is in effect no personal survival. If one devotes oneself to another god (e.g. Krishna), and is able to avoid reincarnation, then one joins with one’s god in a way that preserves some personal identity, although what actually survives death in this case is a bit unclear (but presumably it is some variation of the subtle body, which allows for the retention of personal identity).
2. What punishment or reward awaits one in the afterlife?
Christianity: The most generally accepted view is that the resurrected person or the soul is destined for Heaven, a place of spiritual peace and union with God, or Hell, a place of everlasting torment. Catholics maintain that there is a third possible destination, Purgatory. Here the deceased is purified by fire for their forgivable sins and made ready to enter heaven.
Islam: Here there seems little controversy. The righteous are destined for Heaven, a place filled with God’s love and represented in terms of physical delights. The damned are destined for Hell, a place of boiling fire and torment.
Judaism: According to some schools of thought only the righteous will be resurrected and taken into Heaven and rewarded with God’s love. The damned will not be resurrected on this view. However, there were/are certain Jewish schools of thought which say that the righteous will go to Heaven and the damned sentenced to eternal isolation from God’s love. In Judaism there is relatively little historical mention of the more traditional notion of eternal torment by fire for the damned, unlike with the Christian and Islamic traditions.
Mormonism: Mormons do not believe in heaven and hell, per se. Rather they believe that the destination for the material soul is embodiment in one of three degrees of glory (these can be thought of as physical realms or kingdoms), or to remain disembodied in two forms of existence that are not recognizably human. The chief distinction between these kingdoms seems to be that in the highest kingdom (reserved for those who most scrupulously followed the Mormon faith) one retains the connections with family that one created on earth. In each of these kingdoms, however, the embodied material soul may progress toward a god-like state of intelligence (and in fact become a god). Those who remain dis-embodied are those who received a direct revelation from Jesus Christ but ignored it, or those who chose to follow Lucifer prior to the creation of the earth.
Buddhism: Either one is punished with reincarnation, in which case one is liable to be re-exposed to the source of all suffering, namely personal desire arising (in part) from having an embodied identity, or one achieves nirvana and is released from all personal desire by dissolving themselves and all their personal wants and cares.
Hinduism: Punishment occurs in the form or reincarnation. Those who have attained the proper karma, the proper knowledge, or have properly devoted themselves to a particular deity will avoid reincarnation and be rewarded by joining the essential unchanging nature of the universe (the Brahma), going temporarily to the world of the fathers, or by joining the deity to which they have been devoted (other than Brahma).
3. On what timeline do afterlife events occur?
Christianity: Christians who accept dualism and some who accept not-literal resurrection of earthly remains believe in immediate resurrection and judgment. However, many believe that the resurrection will not take place until the end of the world, after the return of Christ to earth and the coming of the kingdom of heaven and the end of earth as we know it.
Islam: Some Muslims believe that after death, immediately after being placed in the grave, the dead are questioned about the Islamic faith by two angels. If the deceased answers correctly they are left alone until the Day of Judgment. If they do not they are tormented by the angels in the grave. However, this belief does not have clear support in the Quran. What seems nearly universally accepted among Muslims is that the world will end and at that time there will be a Day of Judgment in which the righteous will be admitted to heaven and the wicked damned for all eternity.
Judaism: As is the case with Muslims most Jews (viz. Orthodox Jews) who believe in an afterlife believe that the dead will be raised on a Day of Judgment at the end of time.
Mormonism: Mormons seem to believe in a judgment day for this earth in which the material souls of the dead will be given a kingdom (i.e. assigned a degree of glory) or left disembodied. However, Mormonism is utterly distinct from Islam and Christianity in that it, in a substantial sense, holds out the possibility of multiple judgment days. Because the Mormons believe the re-embodied material soul can itself progress to a god-like state of intelligence, they also believe that re-embodied souls can become gods and creators of their own worlds upon which they can pass judgment. So in the Mormon faith there may be only a single day of judgment for a given world, but there may end up being multiple gods and so multiple worlds, and thus multiple days of judgment.
Buddhism: The Buddhist timeline for afterlife events depends on the particular Buddhist tradition. Some Buddhist traditions believe that at the instant of death a new life is begun which has the exact same karma as the life that has ended. Other schools believe that there is a period between death and reincarnation, called an intermediate state, during which one may avoid reincarnation and still achieve nirvana. Achieving true nirvana is of necessity instantaneous, since it requires the complete dissolution of the self.
Hinduism: In Hinduism there is no apparent delay between death (which Hindus define as the separation of the subtle body from the physical body) and reincarnation, for those who have bad karma. Likewise, it seems that those whose karma is judged sufficient for escape from the cycle of rebirth are immediately joined with Brahma, arise in re-embodied form the World of the Fathers, or (in the case of devotees) join with their deity of devotion.
FOR MORE DETAILED EXPLANATIONS OF TECHNICAL TERMS (E.G. SUBTLE BODY, KARMA, ETC) OR PARTICULAR CONCEPTS (E.G. THE WORLD OF THE FATHERS), PLEASE SEE THE BACKGROUND PAPER FOR THAT SPECIFIC RELIGION.