This is testified to in one archaeological dig after another, where the dead are buried with artifacts they may need in the next life. Prime examples of this are in Egypt, where the Pharaoh’s tombs contain all that he may need for eternity.
Hinduism, the oldest of the world’s religions, postulates that the souls of all things go back to the source from which they came. In the Bhagavad-Gita, which are part of the Hindu scriptures, we read:
“The soul is never born and never dies
It never comes into existence and later vanishes
The soul is permanent, perennial and old
It never dies when the body dies.”
Man’s soul is imprisoned in a body, but its aim is to be reunited with the Ultimate Reality. This may involve a series of separate existences before one can be liberated. Karma, good or bad actions performed in this life, determines one’s existence in the next. Samsara means a constant series of rebirths until one is good enough to achieve Moksha, liberation from the cycle and reunification with the Brahman, in a state of bliss.
Buddhism shares the concept of Hinduism, but proposes getting beyond desire as the ultimate aim. One can achieve Nirvana (stillness of mind), only after desire has been quenched. Death is not a calamity but a natural process to get back to our origins.
The other religions of India, Jainism and Sikhism, have similar beliefs.
Chinese religions propose the existence of the soul after death. Taoism tells of the yin and the yang, the two forces in the universe that underlie and regulate everything. Yin is the passive, negative force, and yang the active, positive force. When a person dies, his soul, which is his mind and conscience, is yang by nature and joins the ancestral spirits as one of them. The body, which is yin, is returned to the soil and disintegrates.
Confucianism concerns itself with the importance of happy family life here on earth and does not much emphasize the afterlife. But devotion to ancestors is stressed, and altars to ancestors are part of every Confucian home where those who have gone before are reverenced and prayed to for guidance.
Japan’s Shintoists believes in a family of spirits called Kami. When a child is born, his name is kept in a Shinto shrine. At death, his body disintegrates but his Kami survives and is added to the Kami ancestors.
Western religions’ belief in the afterlife is influenced by Zoroastrianism, which predominated in the Middle East in the last centuries of the first millennium. When a person dies, the soul stays around for three days and meditates upon the acts that were done in life. On the fourth day, the soul journeys to the place of judgment, where it is judged according to its performance. If the preponderance of a person’s life has been given over to evil, he goes to hell. If the scales tend to tip on the good side, he will be resurrected and sent to paradise. Paradise is a place of great beauty, light, pleasant scents and noble souls who have lived ethical lives. Hell is a lake of fire from which there is no escape.
In Judaism, the belief is that the soul continues to exist after death. An early idea is that death means rejoining one’s ancestors. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and other patriarchs are “gathered to their people” after death. Another image is of a shadowy place of existence, called Sheol. Later, under the influence of Zoroastrianism, the concept of conscious life after death begins to develop. Daniel 12:2 declares:
“And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to reproaches and everlasting abhorrence.”
Resurrection of the dead became a fundamental belief in Rabbinic Judaism. Today, most traditional Jewish movements accept the concept of the resurrection of the dead. (An exception is Reform Judaism, which officially rejects the doctrine). There will be a judgment after death to determine the fate of the soul. The eternal destination for the righteous is the Garden of Eden, described as a place of great joy and peace. The unrighteous will go down to Gahanna, a place of spiritual purification, where the wicked go to suffer until they have atoned for their sins.
Christians believe in judgment after death. Heaven is a place where the blessed enjoy eternal happiness. Life there will have some continuity with life in the present world (people will have bodies like they do now or new spiritual bodies). Christians also believe in the existence of hell as a place of eternal punishment. Roman Catholics believe in purgatory, which is a temporary place of punishment.
Like Christianity, Islam teaches the continued existence of the soul after death. Muslims believe there will be a day of judgment when all humans will be divided between the eternal destinations of heaven and hell. There are seven different levels of heaven. The levels represent closeness to Allah. In heaven there will be no suffering, no pain, no sickness. It is often described as a better and brighter version of this world. But there is no way to really describe heaven as it is unknowable for those on this earth.
Every spring, the ancient Romans celebrated the return to new life. As the earth begins to produce again, there is cause for rejoicing. The resurrection of the gods Persephone (the goddess of vegetation) and Dionysius (the god of wine) were celebrated with great joy.
Every Easter, two billion Christians around the world —about one third of the world’s population — celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, which is the foundation of their faith.