Afterlife and Apocalypse: Accounts of Life after Death across the World
2012. The Fifth Wave. The pandemic that shook the world in 2020. What do these three have in common?
The truth is, they reveal humanity’s – or at least, the Western world’s – predisposition to apocalyptic thought. The belief is that our last moments on this earth could happen anytime and that they will be apocalyptic. Dangerous. Dystopian.
Humans love the idea of a grand, sudden ending. But underneath this casual belief in the end of days are centuries of religious thought, pervasive ideology, and surprising resilience in the face of threats. And unlike what movies seem to suggest, belief in the end of the world is not a Western phenomenon, but rather, a global one.
Most religions and cultures of the world have some ideas about what follows death. The Abrahamic faiths believe in heaven, hell, and judgment day; while Hinduism and Buddhism propose continuous reincarnation. This article will explore the various religious beliefs surrounding death and doomsday. In addition, this article aims to come to an understanding about the surprising resilience of humanity, despite the stories we tell ourselves and the endings we believe we will be forced to face.
The afterlife according to major Southeast Asian religions
In this section, we’ll cover some of the major Southeast Asian religions and their beliefs surrounding the afterlife and apocalypse – if, indeed, they believe in them at all.
Hindus believe that life and death are part of one continuous cycle, known as samsara. Each person’s soul, or atman, leaves their body upon death to be reborn in another form. Some Hindus alternatively believe that before entering the next form, the atman spends some time in other realms.
The form into which one is reborn depends on their karma. This is based upon the deeds they’ve done throughout their life. This is judged by Yama, the God of Death. There is a hierarchy of forms, ranging from human (highest) to insect (lowest). Naturally, the more good deeds one has completed and the better their karma, the better the form they will inhabit. Rebirth as a human, according to Hindus, is a good sign. This is because it suggests that your past life was one of moral living and good deeds.
There is no heaven or hell in Hinduist belief, but they do believe in Brahman, the supreme spirit. The journey of the atman from one body to another is all part of the greater journey to obtain oneness with Brahman. One can only achieve this unification when the soul has learned how to transcend the difficulties of human life. In doing so, a soul is cannily separate from human desires and ambitions.
Hinduism evolved in India, and it is still one of the most prevalent religions in the country today. For more information on Indian culture and traditions, see here and here.
Having developed from Hinduism, Buddhism has very similar principles. This includes those of karma and reincarnation. However, there are several different versions of the belief. Some Buddhists believe that God passes judgment on people to either punish or reward them for their current life, to determine their future life. In this case, the soul follows the cycle of reincarnation based on karma. This is until they reach Nirvana, whereupon they become a Buddha. Nirvana can be seen as the highest form of existence, where the world’s material temptations fall away as one basks in eternal peace. Other versions of Buddhism, however, integrate concepts of punishment and judgment of death from Hinduism.
Like Buddhists and Hindus, Sikhs do not believe in heaven or hell. They believe that death is part of the process of life and that upon death, one merges back into universal nature, losing all sense of individuality. They also believe in reincarnation after death – to them, there is no formal afterlife.
Much like Buddhists and Hindus as well, Sikhs view “heaven” as connection and oneness with a higher power – God, called Va-. Meanwhile, they equate hell to the suffering and pain caused by the ego and material temptations on the earth. Sikhs view knowledge of God as beyond human beings and this life. As in most monotheistic religions, God is omnipresent. This means God is evident in every creation and visible everywhere to those who are spiritually awakened. The enlightened are a new God from the heart or the “inward eye”. Sikhs must meditate on progress, enlightenment, overcome their ego, and approach God. They also believe that God has no gender and that many words hate life.
Sikhism places a heavy emphasis on the here and now. The bulk of your life, and your soul’s value, can be decided in the present moment. Moreover, there is less of an emphasis on punishment for bad deeds. Instead, Sikhs prioritize lessons from those bad deeds, to understand why they were wrong and how they can be amended. The enlightened, spiritual mind is a heaven – and the unenlightened one, a hell. There is no apocalypse looming in the distant future. There is only the present existence and the possibility of improving it through continuous enlightenment.
The afterlife according to major East Asian religions
This section will explore the major East Asian and Middle Eastern religions, and their thoughts on apocalyptic futures and the afterlife.
Zoroastrianism is a religion that was founded by the Iranian prophet Zoroaster. It is based upon the premise that there will be a final renovation of the universe – in which goodwill and the world are restored to their original perfection at the time of creation. Thus, the world, and all its inhabitants, will be in perfect unity with God – known as Ahura Mazda. This is perhaps the closest Zoroastrian doctrine to the concept of apocalypse.
More specifically, Zoroastrians believe that the end of the world will involve Ahura Mazda overthrowing Ahriman, the prince of demons. Ahura Mazda will resurrect all human beings, engage in one Last Judgement, and, thus, restore the universe to its original goodness.
The religion also teaches that salvation for the individual – both at the time of death and at the end of the world – depends on the sum of their words, actions, and thoughts during their lifetime. This impacts not only their soul in the afterlife but, also, the fate of the world.
Zoroastrian beliefs about the afterlife propose that, after death, the soul waits for three nights by their grace. On the fourth night, they visit the Bridge of the Requiter, where their deeds are weighed. If the good outweighs the bad, the soul moves on to heaven. If the bad outweighs the good, they are plunged into hell.
Taoism takes an open approach to the afterlife. Supposedly, whatever one holds to be true is what they will experience upon death. There are many variations and personal interpretations of the religion – some belief in immortal deities, while others prefer not to. Ultimately, however, the foundation of the religion proposes that we are of the Tao when living, and rejoin the Tao upon death. Even while living, you are an expression of the Tao – and that expression never changes, no matter what form your soul takes.
Like Sikhism, Taoism focuses on present life and ways of elongating it. Because of this, the desire to achieve immortality plays a large role in Taoist practices. To qualify to be immortal, there are two categories of criteria to meet. The first is known as internal alchemy, and the second is known as external alchemy.
The former involves mental practices, such as meditation, and a strict diet – with an emphasis on self-control. A strict diet kills demons within the body by purifying the body. It also stimulates and maintains energy. This can also include the consumption of substances such as jade or gold. External alchemy focuses more on physical methods of control, including mastery of the breath, sexual practices, yoga, and the development of medical skills. Taoists believe that one’s soul is interlocked with their vital energy – that which gives them life. Therefore, methods of external and internal purification can increase this vital energy force and prolong your life.
Jainism is very similar to Taoism, Sikhism, and Buddhism in its belief in the principles of karma and reincarnation. Jains believe that actions, thoughts, and beliefs create karma – either good or bad. One who conducts themselves in a consistently harmful manner, in which they pose a danger to any life form, will accumulate bad karma. Alternatively, one who conducts themselves righteously, kindly, and morally will both accumulate good karma and achieve salvation. The main tenet of Jainism is peaceful coexistence with all life forms. Thus, it is not uncommon to see a Jain sweeping with a broom ahead of themselves to avoid crushing living things beneath their feet, or else wearing masks to avoid inhaling another organism.
Jainism has eight hells, which get progressively colder as one descends. It also has several heavens organized in a hierarchy, where all the liberated souls go. However, unlike other religions, punishment in hell is temporary and not eternal. Once a soul has suffered enough, they are reborn into another form, to learn lessons and absolve themselves of the bad karma they collected in their past life.
Jains do not believe in one God. Rather, they believe in multiple deities that are part of the cycles of rebirth. Their religious focus is on the individual soul and the attainment of Moksa – a state of freedom from the cycle of birth and rebirth, as well as karma. This state is akin to the concept of heaven – it involves ultimate peace and full unison with nature. Practicing a spiritual and ethical life, according to Jains, will eventually free one from the limited cycles of birth.
The afterlife according to the Abrahamic faiths
This section will cover the three Abrahamic faiths, in chronological order – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
There is no one belief about the day of judgment Judaism. Some believe that this day will occur following the resurrection of the dead. Others believe that this judgment simply occurs when one dies. Still, she doesn’t believe that the last judgment applies only to non-Jews, and not to the Jewish people.
Jews also have the yearly Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur cycle, where they atone for their sins in the previous year and try not to repeat them in the upcoming year. These practices are intended to aid them in their ultimate journey towards heaven in the afterlife.
Because God is just and merciful, Jews believe that those who are not good, or faithful, spend a variable amount of time in ‘hell’. There, they are forced to review their harmful or wrong deeds, until they are ready to go to heaven. Jewish hell is less about suffering and punishment, and more of a temporary stopover before ultimately arriving in heaven.
Heaven, too, is less of a place, and more of an expression of ultimate union with God. Naturally, good people (who commit good deeds, and practice their faith accordingly) go to heaven.
Most Christian denominations believe that the Second Coming of Christ will signify the final judgment of humanity by God. This will result in the acceptance of some to heaven, and others to hell. This, in turn, depends on the deeds they committed throughout their life and their faith in Jesus. Some Christians believe that this will occur in the distant future, while others – namely the Full Preterists – believe that it has already occurred.
Assortment to heaven or hell, therefore, does not occur immediately upon death. According to Anglican and Methodist beliefs, the soul suspends itself in an intermediate state between death and resurrection. Upon its resurrection, it reunites with its original body and receives its final reward.
The Catholic Church’s teachings are contrary to this. They propose that immediately upon death, each individual undergoes judgment. Afterward, it sends them either to heaven, purgatory (an intermediary waiting point), or hell. Purgatory is a temporary stopover before arriving in heaven. However, those in hell must remain there forever, to be punished for their sins. Catholics, too, believe both in the resurrection of the dead and the Last Judgement, in which they believe that Jesus and the angels will judge each person with perfect justice. At this point, those previously in purgatory will have already been purged of their sins and will be prepared to arrive in heaven.
Finally, some Esoteric Christian denominations (such as the Essenes, the Rosicrucians, and the Spiritualist movement) reject the notion of the Last Judgement. Instead, they propose that because God is merciful, the end of the world will culminate in universal salvation.
There is little difference between Christian and Islamic beliefs surrounding the apocalypse and the afterlife. This is likely because the religions developed not too far from one another, both geographically and chronologically.
Judgement Day, termed “yawm al-qiyamah”, is believed to be the day on which God completes his final assessment of humanity. Between death and resurrection, the soul moves into a temporary waiting place, before or even hell. Preceding Judgement Day is a sequence of events, including a huge black cloud of smoke covering the earth, the sun rising from the West instead of the East, and the arrival of Dajjal. Dajjal is the Islamic equivalent of the Antichrist, or false messiah. He practices black magic to receive God’s followers and lead them astray. Muslims also believe in the return of Christ to fight the Dajjal – and in Christ’s ultimate triumph, whereupon the resurrection will thus occur.
Unlike other Abrahamic faiths, belief in Judgement Day is a fundamental part of Islam. It is not variable amongst different Islamic sects. From Sufis to Shias, all Muslims are expected to have the same beliefs regarding both Judgement Day and the afterlife. Nor does it apply to Muslims alone – the religion proposes that God will resurrect and judge all individuals. He will then send the righteous to heaven (al-janJannahand the wrongdoers to hell (al-nar, literally translating to “the fire”).
It is evident that, over time, as religions developed and spread in different parts of the world, they maintained varying beliefs regarding both the afterlife and the existence of an apocalypse. Of course, there’s no right or wrong belief to have, or religion to follow. What is interesting, however, is those beliefs – particularly those regarding the afterlife – have shaped different cultures.
At individual levels, they influence the way one chooses to live their life. Do they focus on the present, or one where they believe they’ll end up once they die? Do they value the afterlife more than present life?
On collective levels, they influence art, film, and overall cultural perceptions of events. Is the pandemic a sign of the need for a spiritual purge? One of many signs of the apocalypse to come? A punishment from God for our collective sins? Or is it simply a result of unfortunate events that have no moral bearing whatsoever?
Apocalyptic thought and its cultural impacts
There is comfort in knowledge and prediction, especially when it comes to the unknown. Death and the future have a lot in common – both are voids of the unknown onto which humans project their anxieties about themselves and their world.
Regardless of your religion – if you have one at all – and what it predicts about the world’s ending, it is important not to fall victim to hopelessness. The current state of the world, over the past year and a half, has caused much speculation about the upcoming end of times. But it is extremely important – if not for the sake of your mental health, then at least for the sake of those you interact with – to hold onto hope.
One thing that every religion mentioned in this article has in common is the belief that this life – if not also the next – is temporary. Whatever suffering we experience will eventually culminate in peace. Whatever instability we endure will eventually be remedied by calm. And whatever end we meet – the end of a job, of a relationship, or even of a life – is inevitable. The only way we can get through any of these changes, apocalyptic or otherwise, is to hold onto our hope. For, at the end of the day, it is what makes us human.