Is There Life After Death?
“There exists hope for even a tree. If it gets cut down, it will even sprout again . . . If an able-bodied man dies can he live again?”—MOSES, AN ANCIENT PROPHET.
1-3. How do many seek comfort when they have lost a loved one in death?
IN A funeral parlor in New York City, friends and family quietly file by the open casket. They gaze at the body, that of a 17-year-old boy. His friends from school hardly recognize him. Chemotherapy has thinned his hair; cancer has caused him to lose weight. Can this really be their friend? Just months before, he was so full of ideas, of questions, of energy—of life! The heartbroken mother of the boy tries to find hope and solace in the idea that somehow her son still lives. Over and over she tearfully repeats what she has been taught: “Tommy’s happier now. God wanted Tommy in heaven with him.”
2 Some 7,000 miles [11,000 km] away, in Jamnagar, India, the three sons of a 58-year-old businessman help lay their father’s corpse on a funeral pyre. In the bright midmorning sun, the eldest son begins the cremation procedure by lighting the logs of wood with a torch and pouring a sweet-smelling mixture of spices and incense over his father’s lifeless body. The crackling of the fire is overpowered by the Brahman’s repeated utterances of Sanskrit mantras meaning: “May the soul that never dies continue in its efforts to become one with the ultimate reality.”
3 As the three brothers observe the cremation, each silently asks himself, ‘Do I believe in life after death?’ Having been educated in different parts of the world, they give different answers. The youngest feels confident that their beloved father will be reincarnated to a life of greater status. The middle brother believes that the dead are in a sense asleep, conscious of nothing at all. The oldest simply tries to accept the reality of death, for he thinks that no one can know for sure what happens to us when we die.
One Question, Many Answers
4. What question has distressed mankind for ages?
4 Is there life after death? is a question that has perplexed mankind for millenniums. “Even theologians are embarrassed when faced with [it],” says Hans Küng, a Catholic scholar. Over the ages, people in every society have pondered the subject, and there is no shortage of proposed answers.
5-8. What do various religions teach about life after death?
5 Many nominal Christians believe in heaven and hell. Hindus, on the other hand, believe in reincarnation. Commenting on the Muslim view, Amir Muawiyah, an assistant at an Islamic religious center, says: “We believe there will be a day of judgment after death, when you go before God, Allah, which will be just like walking into court.” According to Islamic belief, Allah will then assess each one’s life course and consign a person to paradise or to hellfire.
6 In Sri Lanka, both Buddhists and Catholics leave the doors and windows wide open when a death occurs in their household. An oil lamp is lit, and the casket is placed with the feet of the deceased facing the front door. They believe that these measures facilitate the exit of the spirit, or soul, of the deceased from the house.
7 Australian Aborigines, says Ronald M. Berndt of the University of Western Australia, believe that “human beings are spiritually indestructible.” Certain African tribes believe that after death ordinary people become ghosts, whereas prominent individuals become ancestor spirits, who will be honored and petitioned as invisible leaders of the community.
8 In some lands, beliefs regarding supposed souls of the dead are a blend of local tradition and nominal Christianity. For example, among many Catholics and Protestants in West Africa, it is customary to cover mirrors when someone dies so that no one might look and see the dead person’s spirit. Then, 40 days after the death of the loved one, family and friends celebrate the soul’s ascension to heaven.
A Common Theme
9, 10. On what fundamental belief do most religions agree?
9 Answers to the question about what happens when we die are as diverse as the customs and beliefs of the people giving them. Yet, most religions agree on one fundamental idea: Something inside a person—a soul, a spirit, a ghost—is immortal and continues living after death.
10 Belief in the immortality of the soul is all but universal in Christendom’s thousands of religions and sects. It is an official doctrine in Judaism too. In Hinduism this belief is the very foundation of the teaching of reincarnation. Muslims believe that the soul comes into being with the body but lives on after the body dies. Other faiths—African animism, Shinto, and even Buddhism—teach variations on this same theme.
11. How do some scholars view the idea that the soul is immortal?
11 Some take the opposite view, that conscious life ends at death. To them, the idea that emotional and intellectual life continues in an impersonal, shadowy soul separate from the body seems beyond reason. The 20th-century Spanish writer and scholar Miguel de Unamuno writes: “To believe in the immortality of the soul is to wish that the soul may be immortal, but to wish it with such force that this volition shall trample reason under foot and pass beyond it.” Among those who refused to believe in personal immortality are the noted ancient philosophers Aristotle and Epicurus, the physician Hippocrates, the Scottish philosopher David Hume, the Arabian scholar Averroës, and India’s first prime minister after independence, Jawaharlal Nehru.
12, 13. What important questions arise about the teaching of the immortality of the soul?
12 The question is, Do we really have an immortal soul? If the soul actually is not immortal, then how could such a false teaching be an integral part of most of today’s religions? Where did the idea begin? And if the soul actually ceases to exist at death, what hope could there be for the dead?
13 Can we find truthful and satisfying answers to such questions? Yes! These and other questions will be answered in the following pages. First, let us examine how the doctrine of the immortality of the soul was born.