Life After Death—What Do People Believe?
“If an able-bodied man dies can he live again?”—JOB 14:14.
1, 2. 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 of a 17-year-old boy whose young life was consumed by cancer. The heartbroken mother tearfully repeats over and over: “Tommy’s happier now. God wanted Tommy in heaven with him.” That is what she has been taught to believe.
2 Some 7,000 miles [11,000 km] away, in Jamnagar, India, the eldest of three sons lights the wood on the cremation pyre for their deceased father. Over the crackling of the fire, the Brahman chants the Sanskrit mantras: “May the soul that never dies continue in its efforts to become one with the ultimate reality.”
3. What questions have people pondered for ages?
3 The reality of death is all around us. (Romans 5:12) It is only normal for us to wonder if death is the end of it all. Reflecting on the natural cycle of the plants, Job, an ancient faithful servant of Jehovah God, observed: “There exists hope for even a tree. If it gets cut down, it will even sprout again, and its own twig will not cease to be.” What, then, about humans? “If an able-bodied man dies can he live again?” Job inquired. (Job 14:7, 14) Over the ages, people in every society have pondered the questions: Is there life after death? If so, what kind of life? Consequently, what have people come to believe? And why?
Many Answers, a Common Theme
4. What do people of various religions believe about life after death?
4 Many nominal Christians believe that after death, people go either to heaven or to hell. Hindus, on the other hand, believe in reincarnation. According to Islamic belief, there will be a day of judgment after death, when Allah will assess each one’s life course and consign each person to paradise or to hellfire. In some lands, beliefs regarding the dead are a curious blend of local tradition and nominal Christianity. In Sri Lanka, for example, both Buddhists and Catholics leave the doors and windows wide open when a death occurs in their household, and they place the casket 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. 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 later, family and friends celebrate the soul’s ascension to heaven.
5. What is a central belief on which most religions agree?
5 In spite of this diversity, it seems that most religions do at least agree on one point. They believe that something inside a person—be it called soul, spirit, or ghost—is immortal and continues living after the death of the body. Nearly all of Christendom’s hundreds of religions and sects advocate belief in the immortality of the soul. This belief is also an official doctrine in Judaism. It is the very foundation of Hinduism’s teaching of reincarnation. Muslims believe that the soul lives on after the body dies. The Australian Aborigine, the African animist, the Shintoist, even the Buddhist, all teach variations on this same theme.
6. How do some scholars view the idea that the soul is immortal?
6 On the other hand, there are those who take the 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 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.” Others who believe similarly include people as diverse as 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.
7. What important questions about the belief of the immortality of the soul must now be considered?
7 Confronted with such conflicting ideas and beliefs, we must ask: Do we really have an immortal soul? If the soul is actually not immortal, then how could such a false teaching become an integral part of so many of today’s religions? Where did the idea come from? It is imperative that we find truthful and satisfying answers to these questions because our future depends on it. (1 Corinthians 15:19) But, first, let us examine how the doctrine of the immortality of the soul originated.
The Birth of the Doctrine
8. What role did Socrates and Plato play in advancing the idea that the soul is immortal?
8 The fifth-century B.C.E. Greek philosophers Socrates and Plato are credited with being among the first to advance the belief that the soul is immortal. Yet, they were not the originators of the idea. Rather, they polished and transformed it into a philosophical teaching, thus making it more appealing to the cultured classes of their day and beyond. The fact is that the Zoroastrians of ancient Persia and the Egyptians before them also believed in the immortality of the soul. The question, then, is, What is the source of this teaching?
9. What was a source of influence common to the ancient cultures of Egypt, Persia, and Greece?
9 “In the ancient world,” says the book The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, “Egypt, Persia, and Greece felt the influence of the Babylonian religion.” Regarding Egyptian religious beliefs, the book goes on to say: “In view of the early contact between Egypt and Babylonia, as revealed by the El-Amarna tablets, there were certainly abundant opportunities for the infusion of Babylonian views and customs into Egyptian cults.”* Much the same can be said of the old Persian and Greek cultures.
10. What was the Babylonian view of life after death?
10 But did the ancient Babylonians believe in the immortality of the soul? On this point, Professor Morris Jastrow, Jr., of the University of Pennsylvania, U.S.A., wrote: “Neither the people nor the leaders of religious thought [of Babylonia] ever faced the possibility of the total annihilation of what once was called into existence. Death [in their view] was a passage to another kind of life, and the denial of immortality [of the present life] merely emphasized the impossibility of escaping the change in existence brought about by death.” Yes, the Babylonians believed that life of some kind, in some form, continued after death. They expressed this by burying objects with the dead for their use in the Hereafter.
11, 12. After the Flood, what was the birthplace of the teaching of the immortality of the soul?
11 Clearly, the teaching of the immortality of the soul goes back to ancient Babylon. Is that significant? Indeed, for according to the Bible, the city of Babel, or Babylon, was founded by Nimrod, a great-grandson of Noah. After the global Flood in Noah’s day, all the people spoke one language and had one religion. Not only was Nimrod one “in opposition to Jehovah” but he and his followers wanted to “make a celebrated name” for themselves. Thus by founding the city and constructing a tower there, Nimrod started a different religion.—Genesis 10:1, 6, 8-10; 11:1-4.
12 Tradition has it that Nimrod died a violent death. After his death the Babylonians would reasonably have been inclined to hold him in high regard as the founder, builder, and first king of their city. Since the god Marduk (Merodach) was regarded as the founder of Babylon and a number of the Babylonian kings were even named after him, some scholars have suggested that Marduk represents the deified Nimrod. (2 Kings 25:27; Isaiah 39:1; Jeremiah 50:2) If this is so, then the idea that a person has a soul that survives death must have been current at least by the time of Nimrod’s death. In any case, the pages of history reveal that following the Flood, the birthplace of the teaching of the immortality of the soul was Babel, or Babylon.
13. How did the teaching of the immortal soul spread across the face of the earth, and what was the result?
13 The Bible further shows that God thwarted the efforts of the tower builders at Babel by confusing their language. No longer able to communicate with one another, they abandoned their project and were scattered “from there over all the surface of the earth.” (Genesis 11:5-9) We must bear in mind that even though the speech of these would-be tower builders had been altered, their thinking and concepts had not. Consequently, wherever they went, their religious ideas went with them. In this way Babylonish religious teachings—including that of the immortality of the soul—spread across the face of the earth and became the foundation of the major religions of the world. Thus a world empire of false religion was founded, appropriately described in the Bible as “Babylon the Great, the mother of the harlots and of the disgusting things of the earth.”—Revelation 17:5.
The World Empire of False Religion Expands Eastward
14. How did Babylonian religious beliefs spread into the Indian subcontinent?
14 Some historians say that over 3,500 years ago, a wave of migration brought a pale-skinned, Aryan people down from the northwest into the Indus Valley, now located mainly in Pakistan and India. From there they spread into the Ganges River plains and across India. Some experts say that the religious ideas of the migrants were based on ancient Iranian and Babylonian teachings. These religious ideas, then, became the roots of Hinduism.
15. How did the idea of an immortal soul come to influence present-day Hinduism?
15 In India the idea of an immortal soul took the form of the doctrine of reincarnation. Hindu sages, grappling with the universal problem of evil and suffering among humans, came to what is called the law of Karma, the law of cause and effect. Combining this law with belief in the immortality of the soul, they arrived at the teaching of reincarnation, whereby merits and demerits in one life are said to be rewarded or punished in the next. The goal of the faithful is moksha, or liberation from the cycle of rebirths and unification with what is called the ultimate reality, or Nirvana. Over the centuries, as Hinduism spread, so did the teaching of reincarnation. And this doctrine has become the mainstay of present-day Hinduism.
16. What belief about the Hereafter came to dominate the religious thinking and practices of the vast population of East Asia?
16 From Hinduism sprang other faiths, such as Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. These also hold to belief in reincarnation. Moreover, as Buddhism penetrated most of East Asia—China, Korea, Japan, and elsewhere—it profoundly affected the culture and religion of the entire region. This gave rise to religions that reflect an amalgam of beliefs, embracing elements of Buddhism, spiritism, and ancestor worship. Most influential among these are Taoism, Confucianism, and Shinto. In this way the belief that life continues after the body dies has come to dominate the religious thinking and practices of the vast segment of humanity in that part of the world.
What About Judaism, Christendom, and Islam?
17. What did the ancient Jews believe regarding life after death?
17 What do people who follow the religions of Judaism, Christendom, and Islam believe about life after death? Of these religions, Judaism is by far the oldest. Its roots go back some 4,000 years to Abraham—long before Socrates and Plato gave shape to the theory of the immortality of the soul. The ancient Jews believed in the resurrection of the dead and not in inherent human immortality. (Matthew 22:31, 32; Hebrews 11:19) How, then, did the doctrine of the immortality of the soul enter Judaism? History provides the answer.
18, 19. How did the doctrine of the immortality of the soul enter Judaism?
18 In 332 B.C.E., Alexander the Great conquered the Middle East, including Jerusalem. As Alexander’s successors continued his program of Hellenization, a blending of the two cultures—the Greek and the Jewish—took place. In time, Jews became conversant with Greek thought, and some even became philosophers.
19 Philo of Alexandria, of the first century C.E., was one such Jewish philosopher. He revered Plato and endeavored to explain Judaism in terms of Greek philosophy, thus paving the way for later Jewish thinkers. The Talmud—written commentaries on oral laws by the rabbis—is also influenced by Greek thought. “The rabbis of the Talmud,” says the Encyclopaedia Judaica, “believed in the continued existence of the soul after death.” Later Jewish mystical literature, such as the Cabala, even goes as far as to teach reincarnation. Thus through the back door of Greek philosophy, the idea of the immortality of the soul found its way into Judaism. What can be said about the entry of the teaching into Christendom?
20, 21. (a) What was the position of the early Christians regarding Platonic, or Greek, philosophy? (b) What led to a fusing of Plato’s ideas with Christian teachings?
20 Genuine Christianity began with Jesus Christ. Concerning Jesus, Miguel de Unamuno, quoted earlier, wrote: “He believed rather in the resurrection of the flesh, according to the Jewish manner, not in the immortality of the soul, according to the [Greek] Platonic manner.” He concluded: “The immortality of the soul . . . is a pagan philosophical dogma.” In view of this, we can see why the apostle Paul strongly warned the first-century Christians against “the philosophy and empty deception according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary things of the world and not according to Christ.”—Colossians 2:8.
21 When and how, though, did this “pagan philosophical dogma” infiltrate Christendom? The New Encyclopædia Britannica explains: “From the middle of the 2nd century AD Christians who had some training in Greek philosophy began to feel the need to express their faith in its terms, both for their own intellectual satisfaction and in order to convert educated pagans. The philosophy that suited them best was Platonism.” Two such early philosophers who wielded a great deal of influence on Christendom’s doctrines were Origen of Alexandria and Augustine of Hippo. Both were deeply influenced by Plato’s ideas and were instrumental in fusing those ideas with Christian teachings.
22. How has the teaching of the immortality of the soul remained prominent in Islam?
22 While the idea of the immortality of the soul in Judaism and Christendom is due to Platonic influence, the concept was built into Islam from its beginning. The Koran, the holy book of Islam, teaches that man has a soul that goes on living after death. It speaks of the final destiny for the soul as being either life in a heavenly garden of paradise or punishment in a burning hell. This is not to say that Arab scholars have not tried to synthesize Islamic teachings and Greek philosophy. The Arab world, in fact, was influenced to some extent by Aristotle’s work. However, the immortality of the soul remains the belief of Muslims.
23. What compelling questions regarding life after death will be considered in the next article?
23 Clearly, religions around the world have developed a bewildering array of beliefs in the Hereafter, based on the teaching that the soul is immortal. And such beliefs have affected, yes, even dominated and enslaved billions of people. Confronted with all of this, we feel compelled to ask: Is it possible to know the truth about what happens when we die? Is there life after death? What does the Bible have to say about it? This we will consider in the next article.
El-Amarna is the site of ruins of the Egyptian city Akhetaton, claimed to have been built in the 14th century B.C.E.
Can You Explain?
◻ What is a common theme that runs through most religions’ beliefs about life after death?
◻ How do history and the Bible point to ancient Babylon as the birthplace of the doctrine of the immortal soul?
◻ In what way are Eastern religions affected by the Babylonian belief in an immortal soul?
◻ How did the teaching of the immortality of the soul infiltrate Judaism, Christendom, and Islam?
[Pictures on page 12, 13]
The conquest by Alexander the Great led to the blending of the Greek and Jewish cultures
Augustine tried to fuse Platonic philosophy with Christianity
Alexander: Musei Capitolini, Roma; Augustine: From the book Great Men and Famous Women