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Preach to the choir
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Crux of the matter
Speak of the devil
An act of faith
Afterlife… what an awful word.
—Win Butler
Let's do some living, after we die…
—Mick Jagger & Keith Richards, "Wild Horses"

Afterlife usually refers to some form of "life after death". Various proponents of the idea envisage it as "eternal life", "reincarnation", or something more abstract or weird. Common to most versions of an afterlife is the belief in a soul (or similar concept) which, being the spiritual part or analog of the body, will live forever (or at least for a very long time) without the need for a corporeal body.[1] Purveyors of vague abstractions often offer the idea of an afterlife to believers or to would-be believers as a comforting answer to fears of death, and as a response to esoteric questions like "Why do bad things happen to me?" or "What is the purpose in life?"

Does it actually exist?[edit]

Depictions of the afterlife may be proof more of the endless possibilities of human imagination than anything else.

According to neuroscientific views, the mind, with the components of memories, creativity, beliefs, and opinions that form a person's identity, is a component of the functioning brain.[2] During brain death, which is typically bound to occur in as few as 3 minutes after cardiac arrest,[3] all brain function halts permanently. If the soul is a part of the mind, it would cease to exist at brain death. In the scientific context, there is nothing of one's personality that can exist outside of the biological framework which could float off to some happy place, or live a new life, nothing that could live "after life."

Even setting aside what we know about the human mind and personality, logical questions have always existed regarding the afterlife, the first of which is: "Where would it be?" If it is, as many ancient religions suggested, a physical place "above us in the sky"[note 1] or "deep in the earth",[note 2] then we would have found such places in human exploration. If it is a place for souls to permanently reside, that's a hell of a lot of space needed for the billions who have come before. And there is the endless debate over who and what have access to such afterlife. Animals? Bacteria? Human fetuses? If humans have access to it but other animals don't, what about our ancestors and ancestral cousins, the extinct hominids such as Neanderthals and Afarensis?


Many, though not all, religions have some sort of belief in an afterlife. As for Abrahamic religion, the Tanakh, written prior to the importation of Greek ideas into the Levant, says nothing about an afterlife, and in fact Ecclesiastes denies it:

Ecclesiastes 9:5
For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.

This idea quickly became supplanted by the idea that believers will live on in heaven. As this is considerably more reassuring to those who fear death,the notion survived and propagated as a religious meme. The now traditional heaven/hell dichotomy was not present in many early religions. For example, the ancient Semitic peoples of the Middle East, such as the Babylonians and Canaanites, believed that all the dead go to a shadowy place under the earth regardless of their conduct in life. Traditional Christianity also believes that everyone goes to hell by default; heaven is a privilege to those who have converted.[citation needed]

Reasons for popularity[edit]

The concept of an afterlife is widespread throughout most human religions. One of the important purposes of religious belief is to give explanations of, and reassurances about, the world. Humans and other animals fundamentally fear death; it helps keep us alive long enough to procreate. The idea of simply not existing any longer is also quite upsetting for most people. An afterlife offers hope of once again seeing those who have died and a promise of an escape from death and non-existence. In many religions, the idea of an afterlife, especially where it is associated with punishment and reward, is a handy explanation for why we have to suffer in this life. Unfortunately, setting it up as a black-and-white dichotomy (e.g., heaven vs. hell) opens up thorny problems about who goes where in borderline cases and regarding what happens to good nonbelievers or bad believers.

Where you spend it[edit]

Dying man couldn’t make up his mind which place to go to — both have their advantages, 'heaven for climate, hell for company!'
Mark Twain

There are as many ways to spend an afterlife as there are religions to talk about it.

The stereotypical Christian notion is that there is heaven for the good and righteous and hell for the evil and homosexuals. Heaven is often a very vague and ill-defined blissful place: Hell, the other hand, may be an explicitly described place for endless torture and torment. Perhaps this difference in clarity is why the fear of hell is probably a stronger motivator than the promise of heaven at God's side. Fundamentalist Christians generally insist that everybody goes to hell except those who have accepted the love of Jesus into their hearts (in exactly the way they think you should), and some may even claim that the former go to Hades/Sheol to have a taste of Hell until Judgement Day arrives before being thrown there after it, while the latter go to Paradise first and Heaven later. Alternatively, Christians may believe in annihilationism, where those who would end up in hell simply cease to exist, or universalism, where everybody gets to go to Heaven regardless of their beliefs.

The traditional view in Judaism is that all people remain as disembodied souls until the Messiah comes and raises the dead.[4] Like most religions, however, many other views exist.

Traditional Judaism firmly believes that death is not the end of human existence. However, because Judaism is primarily focused on life here and now rather than on the afterlife, Judaism does not have much dogma about the afterlife, and leaves a great deal of room for personal opinion. It is possible for an Orthodox Jew to believe that the souls of the righteous dead go to a place similar to the Christian heaven, or that they are reincarnated through many lifetimes, or that they simply wait until the coming of the messiah, when they will be resurrected and their physical bodies regenerated. Likewise, Orthodox Jews can believe that the souls of the wicked are tormented by demons of their own creation, or that wicked souls are simply destroyed at death, ceasing to exist.[5]

Some sects of Christianity also adhere to the view that souls await the general resurrection, usually coupling it with a belief in a final Judgement Day.

For most Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs, it is generally a recurring cycle of death and rebirth, and not always as a human. You can come back as a god, a demon, or a louse, or be reborn into any number of other realms (generally referred to as "hells"). Liberation or salvation in these types of theologies involves escaping the usual cycle of life-is-your-afterlife in some way, often through connection to something more transcendent, such as the consciousness of a supreme deity or the experience of unceasing, complete satisfaction.

As noted above, the belief among Middle Eastern people like the Babylonians was that everyone went to the same shadowy underworld, IrkallaWikipedia in their case that was ruled by the goddess Ereshkigal,Wikipedia often together with Nergal.Wikipedia While people there had a gloomy afterlife, described as reduced to eating dust and often either skyclad naked or dressing with feathers, the better the burial and the more libations the offspring gave for the dead, the better the conditions — except for those who died in the desert or had their bodies burned, who simply ceased to exist. They also got to share space with other deities as GeshtinannaWikipedia and demons as Pazuzu.Wikipedia

In Classical mythology, and the previous Mycenaean mythos (if not earlier on, within the Minoans) where it began to take shape, it was at first thought everyone went to the same, dreary, underworld (Hades,Wikipedia ruled by the god of the same name,Wikipedia even if it seems at first his wife, the goddess Persephone,Wikipedia was the actual ruler of that place a la Babylonian as described above and Hades was added later, unlike what mythology has to say in such regard where the inverse happened, or that PoseidonWikipedia also as top dog god ruled initially over that place and later on, when ZeusWikipedia was considered the chief deity, his underworld associations were spun off as Hades), as can be seen in Homer's Odyssey, even if people who messed with the gods would get nasty and imaginative punishments there, and later on people would go to better (Elysium, just for a very few selected ones including the heroes), neutral (Asphodel meadows, the place for most people), or worse (Tartarus, also the place where the Titans were jailed and tormented) parts of such realm depending of their behavior in life. The place was at least described as equalitarian, with the dead not giving a damn about either their past status in life or their current situation and them spending time playing video games, editing wikis as this one, and basically living as when they were alive. As its Mesopotamian equivalent above, Hades was also inhabited by deities such as Hecate, Hypnos,Wikipedia Zagreus,Wikipedia and many others.

Klingons have Sto'Vo'Kor for the honorable and Gre'Thor for the dishonorable.

Paradise for (male) Muslims sounds like one long party with a never-ending string of willing Houris. In fact, if you are male, then this is definitely the afterlife you want. On the other hand, the Muslim Hell is just as bizarrely cruel as the Christian one, so it's a wash on that side.

In fantasy settings, your fate, if you do not decide to become an undead or are transformed into one, is more varied. Among others, you either reincarnate, go to the plane where the deity that you venerated in life is, including pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant ones — even if you shed away the memories of your past life either when you arrive there or when it's decided where you will go depending on your behaviour when you were alive, finally either ending up merging with said place or becoming one of its denizens, or simply cease to exist, often after a long torment.[note 3]

In Science fiction settings, the most extended equivalent of an afterlife is having your mind uploaded to a computer as if it was a computer program when you're dying. Barring philosophical problems as noted in the article, you will of course last as long as the file/program that you've become and are subject to what the operators of the computer may decide to do with you, most notably playing with your perception of time and/or sending you to a digital equivalent of Heaven/Hell/etc.

Of course, not everyone believes in any kind of afterlife. Atheists largely assume that when you're dead, it's over — so live while you can. Carl Sagan famously stated:

Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.[6]

On the other hand, if you find the latter worrisome, you can find some comfort in the possibility of being born again in the future. However, there is no way to know where and when that would happen, and while from the perspective of the newly reborn version of "you", that would be instantaneous (nonexistence, by definition, cannot be felt, after all), your original self and its memories would most likely have been lost forever, rendering it dead for all intents and purposes[7] — which, by the way, is precisely the case in the religions that believe in reincarnation (do you remember your "previous life"?), which raises the question, why even bother? Of course, one can invent loopholes to this reasoning (e.g. what if reincarnation is only enabled by some super-rare or not yet evolved "reincarnation gene", or some other such sci-fi-ish scenario), a potentially polemically useful example of which, "reverse Pascal's wager", was proposed by counterapologist B. Veklych:[8]

I don’t actually know, to be honest, if it’s theoretically possible for someone to ever wake up with a new body. Seems unlikely. But if it is, I bet that the first thing they would see is technicians in labcoats - like near the beginning of "Avatar". And come to think of it, would these future people want to give the gift of another shot at life to someone hate-preaching fire and brimstone (and anyone else known for spoiling people’s lives - who would want to bring back someone like that)? Talk about getting canceled! And for all you know - remember, everything is recorded these days - this might indeed be what will decide your ultimate fate: one politically incorrect tweet or pronouncement, or any other record of being an unpleasant guy, and you’re out forever!

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule but the laws of physics, and explicit atheists who believe in afterlife also exist, some notable examples of which are Jain sage JinasenaWikipedia and philosophers J. M. E. McTaggartWikipedia and David Staume.

It's so good, you can bet on it[edit]

The afterlife also plays a key role in Pascal's Wager, which contrasts the infinite gain of heaven (by believing) and the infinite loss of hell (for not believing) in an effort to show that faith in God is favorable. A God that sends believers in God to hell and unbelievers in God to heaven could actually be the real God if God exists. There is no reason to assume that this God is any more or less likely than, say, the Christian God. For any possible God, there exists another possible God that hands out the opposite rewards and punishments. So if God exists, a scenario in which believers in God go to hell and unbelievers go to heaven is just as likely as believers going to heaven and unbelievers going to hell.

Are there animals in the afterlife?[edit]

Before signing an eternity-long lease, it's important to take a look at the pet policy for each of the three major Abrahamic faiths.

In Catholic Christianity, Pope Paul VI told a boy whose dog just died that one day we will see our animals in the eternity of Christ. Pope Benedict XVI, however, contradicted his predecessors, saying that "for other creatures, who are not called to eternity, death just means the end of existence on Earth". However, neither of these statements were doctrine. According to Pope Francis during an encyclical, the virgin Mary grieves for the sufferings of the crucified poor and for creatures of this world laid waste by human power. Except for snakes: she hates snakes. Pope Francis also said: "Teach us to discover the worth of each thing, to be filled with awe and contemplation, to recognize that we are profoundly united with every creature as we journey towards your infinite light."[9] How this relates to the former papal declaratio the Vox in Rama,Wikipedia the death warrant issued by Pope Gregory IXWikipedia around 1233 condemning the black cat as an incarnation of Satan, remains unclear. Black cats remain rare in Europe today due to their near genocide.[10]

For Judaism, the Midrash states that animals have no portion in the world to come.[11] However, Rabbi Saadiah Gaon, in Sefer Emunot ve-De’ot (The Book of Beliefs and Opinions), writes that animals are eventually compensated for their pain.[12][13] Maimonides believed that reward and punishment in the world to come is exclusive to man.[14] According to Rabbi Shmuel, Rebbe Maharash says that some Kabbalists don't think that animals have immortal souls.[15] According to the teachings of the ArizalWikipedia (the final arbiter of Kabbalah), animals do have souls, and they do go to heaven and hell.[16] Everything from rocks to objects has a spirit. However, they are denied "basking in the delight in G‑d's glory"[17] in the Garden of Eden. Instead, their spirit goes to a place called Tohu, a sort of higher state of existence, whatever that means.[18][19]

In Islam, animals from Earth can't go to heaven, even though animals are originally from Eden (which is a part of heaven). It says in a hadith of Abu Hurayrah, "All scores will be settled on the Day of Resurrection; even the hornless sheep will settle its scores with the horned sheep."[20] It says in another hadith: "Allaa will judge between His creation, jinn, humans and animals. On that Day the score will be settled between the hornless and the horned, until there are no outstanding issues left, then Allaah will say, 'Be dust!' At the point the kaafir will say, 'Would that I were dust!'"[21][22] However, unlike other heavens, JannahWikipedia features its own biosphere which includes camels, horses, and trees.[23]

Of course, a lot more animals have lived on the Earth than humans — indicating that a heaven which included animals would be rather animal heavy. And if we start counting the insects and spiders, then there might be some overcrowding. Policy on pet viruses remains vague. Also, a very large number of the heavenly animals and fish would have been killed and eaten by the people with whom they are now sharing an afterlife. On the other hand, it would be cool to meet a dinosaur.

People often wonder about their pets going to heaven, but no one wonders about them ending up in one of the multiple hells which mankind has invented. Perhaps fortunately, no religion seems to have described an animal hell.

See also[edit]

Eternal External links[edit]


  • Christopher Moreman. Beyond the Threshold: Afterlife Beliefs and Experiences in World Religions Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2010 ISBN 0742562298
  • Thomas Schouweiler. Life After Death: Opposing Viewpoints Greenhaven Pr, 1990 ISBN 0899080820
  • Alan Segal. Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion Doubleday Religion, 2004 ISBN 0385422997


  1. Lakota Sioux, Egyptian religion, Christianity as three examples.
  2. Greek and Roman views, Hopi views, Ancient Judaism, and Christianity.
  3. Checkmate, atheists (of Faerûn)!
  4. It's either a donation or a fee, they haven't decided.


  1. See the Wikipedia article on Physical body.
  2. Rosenberger, Peter B. MD; Adams, Heather R. PhD. Big Brain/Smart Brain. 18th October, 2011.
  3. Safar, P. "Cerebral resuscitation after cardiac arrest: a review." (1986). Circulation. 74 IV138–153 pmid=3536160
  4. Heaven and Hell in Jewish Tradition
  5. The Afterlife
  6. Carl Sagan, 1996 in his article "In the Valley of the Shadow" (Parade magazine) and in Billions and Billions (p. 215)
  7. Death, Nothingness, and Subjectivity
  8. [1], p. 18
  9. All dogs, and cats, and pigs, and goats, and cockroaches go to heaven: So says Pope Francis.
  10. Donald W. Engels (1999). Classical Cats: The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Cat. Psychology Press. pp. 188. ISBN 978-0-415-21251-9. 
  11. Kohelet Rabbah 3:22; Masechet Kallah, chs. 1–2.
  12. Emunot ve-De’ot 3:10. See also Teshuvot HaGeonim (Harkavy ed.) 375.
  13. Chabad
  14. Guide for the Perplexed 3:17. See also Bava Kamma 4:3.
  15. Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, AKA Ramak, stated that animals' souls cease to be when they die. (Ramak, Sefer ha-Pardes, Shaar ha-Heichalot, ch. 10).
  16. See Igrot Kodesh Admor Maharash, p. 92.
  17. Talmud, Berachot 17a.
  18. Igrot Kodesh Admor Maharash, p. 92.
  19. Chabad
  20. Muslim, al-Birr wa'l-Silah wa’l-Adaab, 4679
  21. No. 1966; see al-Silsilah al-Saheehah, part 4, p. 966
  22. About Islam
  23. "Jannah", Encyclopaedia of Islam Online