At Brainscape, we understand religion is many things to many people. For some, religion is an important cultural tradition. For others, it gives life meaning and purpose. To still others, it serves as a means of connection and provides a sense of community. What we each take from religion is personal, despite the universal aspects of each.
Ultimately, though, religion seeks to answer some major questions about our existences, especially the big one: “What happens after we die?” The afterlife serves as a major part of each religion, yet few of us know what it is exactly that each religion believes actually happens when we die. Today, we explore what some of the largest religions have to say on the topic.
What Do the Major Religions Believe about the Afterlife?
One of our deepest questions since the beginning of time has always been “What happens after we die?” That’s why this question is featured so prominently in the dogma of most religions. Beliefs about the afterlife are not just present in religion, they’re usually quite central.
Most religions believe in some sort of continued existence after we die, whether it is in some peaceful paradise, a hellish land of punishment, or simply a continuation of the soul or essence in a new life. This continued existence is known as the afterlife. While some religions, like Judaism, don’t specify a single clear theory about what the afterlife will look like, most have detailed descriptions about what we can expect after death, as well as how our time on Earth affects this afterlife. In general, most religions believe in some sort of reincarnation of the soul, or in a type of heaven and hell.
According to Buddhism and Hinduism, we don’t just live one life; we live many. After we die, our soul reincarnates into another life, which will be better or worse depending on how we conducted ourselves during previous lives. According to Buddhism, there are six realms where you can be sent, none of which are permanent: paradise (heaven), hell (suffering), reincarnation as a human or other animal, hungry ghost (constant dissatisfaction), or Asura (constant fighting).
In Hinduism, karma determines where you are sent too, but the levels are less clearly defined (you can reincarnate as just about anything).
In both of these traditions, the cycle of life and death continues until we reach a place of self-actualization and peace, known by Buddhists as nirvana and by Hindus as moksha. After reaching this point of enlightenment, souls are released from the cycle of life and death and from all suffering.
The two religions differ on what happens to the soul next, though. According to Hinduism, the final step is a type of heaven or a unity with the gods called Ioka, while Buddhists believe that the release from suffering is the ultimate step. Traditional Chinese religion shares many of these Buddhist beliefs, but has its own interpretations of this release, including many types of heaven.
Most other major religions believe in a type of heaven or peaceful paradise for the good and a realm of hell or punishment or banishment for the bad. Exactly what each will be like is defined differently in each religion.
According to most Christian traditions, heaven is a place of paradise and peace with God that is reserved for those who have repented of their sins and followed the faith. Hell, on the other hand, is a realm of punishment where those who did not repent are at the mercy of Satan and demons forever. There are some Christian branches, though, that view hell as simply a place that is miserable because it is removed from God. Catholics also believe in purgatory, which allows “good nonbelievers,” unbaptized children, and Christians that died in a state of sin to be cleansed and made worthy of heaven, thus avoiding the punishment of hell.
The Muslim versions of heaven and hell are somewhat more extreme than some Christian versions. Heaven is quite decadent and full of pleasure for those at the top level (of seven) and hell is much more miserable and fiery at the worst level (also of seven). In Islam, you also gain entrance to heaven through faith and good works, but like in Catholicism, there are some good non-Muslims who are allowed into heaven, albeit in lower levels than those who practiced the religion faithfully.
Most Jewish people similarly believe in at least some version of heaven that will exist on Earth after the Messiah comes. The faithful will be resurrected at that time to enjoy heaven, while the rest will stay dead. On the other hand, most Jews do not believe in a hell like the ones described in the Bible and the Quran, but some do think that the wicked will be punished in the afterlife.
Ultimately, most religions believe that the afterlife is where you will be rewarded or punished for your actions while alive. The good and the believers are saved from suffering and the evil or unbelievers suffer for what they have done wrong. For all the ways religions differ in what they believe happens after we die, there are just as many core similarities.
In the end, whatever you believe about the afterlife, good deeds and kindness while on Earth are part of the key to a good afterlife in most religions, something that even non-believers can agree are important to a good life before death.
If you want to learn more about what the major religions believe about the afterlife and more, explore Brainscape’s Religion Crash Course deck. You will learn about not only the differences in the major religions, but also what they have in common.
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