Death is the most fateful experience of each individual’s life. Whether it is the end of one’s life, or the beginning of a new life, no one knows. Death for the Hindu is merely transition, simultaneously an end to a new beginning. Death for the Christian is destined and is a time of judgement that is made from their former performances in life. These are very different views from two major world religions that both question the different events that may take place after one’s death.
The Christian faith believes that the body is resurrected at death and the soul of an individual is immortal and continues after death. The doctrines of the church teach Christians that after one dies, they will rise before God and be judged. They believe that Christians who have been faithful throughout their life by worshipping Christ and helping other who are less fortunate. A quotation from Matthew 25: 31-46, ‘One day we shall be called to account for the way we have used our gifts, our opportunities and our energies. Above all, we shall be required for the way we have behaved in relation to the poor, needy and the marginalised’, supports the belief of the Christian faith and continues to teach these beliefs to mankind. This judgement that is made by God determines whether a person’s soul will spend eternity in heaven or hell.
Based on Jesus’ teachings and other sources of revelation, Christians believe that heaven is a place of eternal life, extravagance and luxury, ‘The best and sweetest flowers of Paradise God gives to his people when they are upon their knees. Prayer is the gate of heaven, a key to let us in to Paradise’, ‘There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away’ (Revelation 21:4), these quotations show Christians believe that heaven is a place for those who have worshipped God and have followed the teachings of Jesus.
The bible has portrayed heaven as the ‘kingdom of heaven’, where ‘kingdom’ refers to a place of monarchy and sovereignty, where people will be reunited with God. However, Christians can not just enter heaven when they die, but will have to show that they are worthy of entering heaven, ‘For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 5:17-20), this quotation alternatively states that a person who thinks of themselves as higher than God, will never enter heaven. The question that then arises is, where do the unworthy of entering heaven, go after death?
The complete alternative of heaven is hell, where people who have carried out immoral acts, such as murder and rape which are forbidden according to the sacred doctrines of the bible, along with people who do not believe in God and have not followed the Christian faith will live eternally in the brutal conditions that hell facilitates, ‘The sword which shall pierce them with the greatest sorrow will be the thought of having lost God, and of having lost Him through their own fault’, this quotation gives us a small insight of what hell is portrayed as by Christians. St. Augustine says that in Hell, the damned will be forced to think of nothing but God and that will cause them terrible torment. Biblical quotations such as ‘…and shall cast them into a furnace of fire, there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth’ (Matthew 13:42) and In Matthew 25:41, Jesus says ‘Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire’, show that Jesus talks about hell as being a place of fire and where souls are burnt and tortured for eternity.
Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon which was titled Sinners in the hands of an Angry God. This contained a passage with a quotation ‘There will be no end to this exquisite horrible misery’, stating that if a person enters hell, there is no turning back, and they will suffer in the fiery flames of hell. The bible also describes hell as an endless torture scene, with angels and Jesus present either as observers or as officials who are directing the torture of the victims in hell. However, there are two different concepts about the duration of the torture, Annihilationism and traditionalism.
Annihilationism is the belief that unsaved individuals will be punished in hell for only a period of time that is appropriate to pay for the nature and frequency of their sins which they were alive on earth. Annihilationists also believe that when a person’s punishment has finished, and they have paid the full penalty for their sins, they will be exterminated and their soul will cease to exist in any form. This mean that the soul will not be tortured for any longer, however, they will never enter the kingdom of heaven, which consequently means that at that point, their life has come to an end.
In contrast, traditionalism is simply a belief that unsaved individuals will be punished in hell not only for a year, or a decade, but for eternity without any hope of relief, moderation or cessation of the pain. There are many passages and quotations that appear to describe punishment in hell as lasting forever such as ‘the fire that burns them will never be put out’ (Isaiah 66:24) and ‘And many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt’ (Daniel 12.2). These quotations from the bible clearly support the view of traditionalism which shows that even though God’s wish is for all to be saved, the ones who are not will be punished forever.
Although this is the view for many Christians, others including Skeptics, Humanists, Atheists, Agnostics generally believe that there is no afterlife and accept that after death, there is personal annihilation. Roman Catholic Christians also have alternative but similar views as they believe that in between heaven and hell, there is ‘purgatory’. This is where people who have sinned within their lifetime, but have not sinned to the extent that they must enter hell and be tortured for eternity, are punished for their bad deeds until all penalties have been paid. This enables them to be cleansed from sin and can potentially enter heaven where their soul will rest for eternity. Roman Catholics also believe that people who have family and friends to pray for them after they die will be released from purgatory sooner than those who don’t. This is why many Roman Catholics have an overwhelming fear of death as they feel they will certainly suffer, whether it is in hell or purgatory.
Pope John Paul issued a piece entitled Incarnationis Mysterium which suggests that Roman Catholics visit certain holy sites to try and reduce the amount of time they will have to spend suffering after death. In this, there is was an appendix called Conditions for Gaining the Jobilee Indulgence which suggested ways for Roman Catholics to attempt to reduce the amount of time spent suffering after they die by carrying out good deeds during their lifetime such as visiting the elderly who live along, the sick, the handicapped etc. Some Roman Catholics carry out these deeds, but the question that has to be asked is, is this being done from the goodness of their heart, or for the goodness of themselves?
It is clear that different Christians have different views on life after death, but are similar and can be linked together in some sense, for example, annihilationism is vaguely similar to purgatory in the way that people who have sinned are not punished eternally. However, can this be said for the views on life after death for Christianity and Hinduism? Certainly not, as Hindus have a completely different perspective of afterlife.
For Hindus, death is referred to as ‘mahaprasthana’ which means ‘great journey’. Hindus believe in reincarnation, which is the cycle of death and rebirth after a while in spiritual spheres into a new physical body, this is where the soul, which is the true self, remains the same, while the “vehicle” of the soul to make the needed learning experience changes. Death means nothing else but the loss of a vehicle the soul was using during its many reincarnations, which is a physical body.
Saint Tiruvalluvar wrote that ‘death is like falling asleep, and birth is like awakening from that sleep’, this quotation shows that no Hindu should really fear death, as an individual is not the body in which they live, but the immortal soul which inhabits many bodies in its evolutionary journey. ‘Samsara’ is the term referred to by Hindus and means ‘wandering’. They believe that the soul wanders from body to body in one lifetime to another. The Bhagavad Gita, which is the holy text for Hindus, teaches that death should not be feared and there is no reason to grieve, ‘For sure is the death of all that is born, sure is the birth of all that dies: so in a matter that no one can prevent, you have no cause to grieve (Bhagavad Gita Chapter 2 verse 27). This quotation states that all are born again so there is no point grieving over something that cannot be avoided.
However, the reason why all living things are continually reborn is based on the Hindu belief in karma. Karma means ‘action’ and the law of karma is the law of cause and effect. Hindus believe that the life they are living may not be the first one, and they may have been born many more times before that. The law of karma states that any good or bad deeds than have been carried out in one’s life will give an impression and will be carried over to the next life, for example evil and selfish actions will consequently results in a life of suffering. Therefore, it is said to believe that ‘everything has a cause and purpose’, ‘What a man becomes in his next life will depend upon his karma’ (Brihad-aranyaka Upunishad. IV. 4.verse 3). For a Hindu, this belief could provide a strong incentive to live a good, moral life so the fear of suffering in their next life is overcome. The law of karma can also explain the differences in circumstances and inequalities between people around the world.
Although many Hindus aspire to a good rebirth, the ultimate goal of any Hindu is for the atman (soul) to escape Samsara altogether and this is known as ‘Moksha’. Moksha can be described as perfect peace and happiness, or as the soul ‘losing itself in Brahman’. Brahman means God and moksha is a spiritual state of existence in which there is a union with God, ‘When all desires that rest in the heart are liberated shall a mortal man become immortal and attain Brahman’, which shows that when all thoughts are put to rest and when the atman is truly identified as the equivalent of the reality of Brahman, an individual will be able to make moksha their goal and achieve it.
Yoga may be considered as a way of exercise to keep the body healthy and fit where as the true meaning of yoga is unity and integration, and is the means, methods and discipline that will enable an individual to bring union with a personal God, Brahman. There are three recognised ways of doing this and they are ‘karma yoga’, ‘bhakti yoga’ and jnana yoga’. By carrying out these, and using them as a guideline, moksha can be gained. Hindus see their religion as a way of life and many Hindus apply themselves and live their lives wanting to act to the best of their potential in hope that when they die, they will be released from samsara and gain moksha.
Christianity and Hinduism are two major religions that are followed worldwide. They also have very contradistinctive views on life after death. However, both Christians and Hindus turn to their religion to find answers for existence along with death. They also hold tenaciously to the beliefs taught by their particular denominations as a way of comfort. One thing that Christians and Hindus have in common is that they both portray religion as a way of life and use scholarly teachings to influence them on which rightful path to follow in life. Death has been questioned for a very long time and no one has been able to answer the question ‘What happens after death?’, which means no one really knows what events will take place after we die, where we will go or what will happen to us.
Although we try and answer all of these questions with religious beliefs, until one experiences death, the question that has caused distress to people for over 2 millennia still remains, is there an afterlife?