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There are over four thousand religions present in our world, each of these belief systems offer their followers guidelines for living their best lives in accordance to the values and ethics of their faith. However along with the reward of heaven or paradise for ones dedication to their religion, there is also a consequence for wrong doing: hell. The horror of the unknown as it pertains to religion is an incredibly profound topic as so many different religions attempt to decipher what comes after death. While the idea of an afterlife is a welcome relief for many people from different religious backgrounds, horror plays a significant role in understanding the afterlife as well. Since humans are inherently anxious of not being in control of their destinies, death is terrifying. Very few people know the where, when and how of their ultimate demise and what makes the final moments of their lives even more horrifying is the enigmatic nature of heaven and hell which can seem almost ominous as it is cloaked with nothing but the unknown. Within the fourth thousand faiths followed around the world, there are thousands of possibilities for afterlives; Christianity and Buddhism are two of the most populated religions globally, and yet they could not be more different in the way they view death. The horror of the unknown plays a significant role in religion because it can be assumed that since we are all humans, then we will all go to the same place(s) after we die. Yet the copious amounts of religions that exist attach anxiety to the idea of death and an afterlife because if there are so many concepts of an afterlife, then no individual can know for a fact which heaven or hell they will find themselves a part of, and for a religious person, the idea of being in an afterlife they weren’t expecting for the rest of eternity, is truly horrifying.
Christianity is one of the, if not the most followed religion in the world, it has ancient roots and even intercepts the ideals of other religion’s God, such as Catholicism and Judaism. Millions of people have been raised to live their lives in the likeness of God, and because of their upbringing and religious education, have become accustomed to certain images such as clouds, pearly gates and angels as being synonymous with heaven. Christianity and other such religions believe that if you live your life according to the church and put your unwavering faith and dedication in God then you will be rewarded with ascension into heaven after death. These theocentric religions visualize heaven as paradise, as everyone is made perfect in heaven, and there is no sin or brokenness, only the grace of God: “Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever”. Similarly, Buddhism is a very largely followed religion, however while Christianity, and other affiliated religions are theocentric, Buddhism is rather centered on the self, and ones connectedness to their self, others, the world, and the greater good. Since the central focus of the two religions are so starkly different, it is safe to assume that their ideas of an afterlife also differ. Those who follow the Buddhist schools of faith believe that for all the good they do on earth they gain karma, though this is not an instantaneous ‘what goes around, comes around’ idea, such as the one that is widely accepted in modern times. Instead the karma they receive, based off the karma they produce, will decipher whether they go to heaven or hell. Those that don’t go to hell will go to a dukkha heaven, meaning it is imperfect and temporary and will only be allowed to remain until they spend their karma, then they will return to be reborn on earth. This type of cyclic existence is known as Samsara and can only be broken when an individual is able to achieve the ultimate enlightenment and transcend bad karma. When this happens, they achieve Nirvana; an afterlife thought to be beyond human conceptualization. Human life is fragile and every day that we live, we also face the possibility of death. The hope for most is a painless death in their warm bed at a ripe old age surrounded by those they love, yet death is capricious, cruel, and unfair, and millions are taken too soon, too suddenly, and too painfully. There are over a thousand ways to die, dumb or not, and naturally most are plagued with the anxiety of the when, how, and why they will die, and more importantly who they will leave behind. The thought of leaving your loved ones behind forever is horrifying enough, but the idea of ascending or descending into an unknown afterlife is even more so. Buddhism and Christianity describe two heavens amongst thousands, and mathematically the probability of any one person’s religion out of a possible fourth thousand and two hundred, being accurate is highly unlikely. This produces even further horror as it is truly unknown where any person will find themselves after they die. Of course there is the optimistic possibility that every person will arrive in the heaven of their religion. Yet if a Buddhist, raised to believe in Samsara found himself in a Christian heaven, or vice versa, a Christian brought up with the Bible, discovers she is trapped in the cycle of Samsara it would be a horrifying scenario because neither of those individuals would know what was happening, only that it was different than what they thought they knew would happen.
Hell is another aspect that fuels the horror for the unknown, since many scriptures and religions preach that this is where all sinners will go to repent for their actions. Christians have two separate ideas of what could happen after death, the first is the concept of annihilation, where those who do not give their faith to God at death or after their time in purgatory will be annihilated and cease to exist, this idea is contested by many as it is not in line with the ethics of Christianity, or those of God. Others instead believe that hell only exists because God is opposed to sin, and he must exercise his judgement over human wickedness, sin, true evil, the devil and those who rebel against God. Often described as a place of ‘unquenchable fire’ or a ‘place of torture’, the possibility of hell present when considering the afterlife, increases ones horror of death by an infinite amount, especially for those who have been raised reading scripture that makes such claims: “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will remove from his Kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. And the angels will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Also horrifying is the Buddhist’s hell or Naraka; as it is a part of the cycle of Samsara, Naraka is a temporary hell where those who have inflicted evil onto others in life, will gain bad karma which they are required to pay off completely before they leave hell and proceed to rebirth. Barbara O’Brien, a practitioner of Zen Buddhism, and the author of Rethinking Religion explains that what makes Naraka different, and scarier than Christianity’s hell, is that there are seven different hells that one can go to which is dependent on the person’s wickedness. Ice hells and hot hells are where individuals undergo cyclic punishments of burning, freezing, cooking, blistering, or dismembering until they die, they then come back to life and are subjected to being tortured in this manner until their karma has been paid in full. Along with the way hell is depicted in religious texts, it is equally as terrifying when imagined through a literary text, Dante Alighieri creates a map to a hell where there are nine circles, eight of which are dedicated to punishing sinners of mediocre misdemeanors, while the remaining circle holds pouches reserved for the brutal and eternal torture of the worst sinners: “In the ninth Bolgia the Pilgrim is overwhelmed by the sight of the mutilated, bloody shades, many of whom are ripped open, with entrails spilling out.” Influenced by religion and literature alike, it is not difficult to see why a place said to be filled with frozen traitors, tortured souls, fire, and sin would cause many a sense of horror or distress about their final destination after death. Human nature often causes people to question the afterlife, or even expect the worst, which is why some people are positively petrified of any sort of afterlife, because it could be hell.
The true reason behind the horror of the unknown as it pertains to religion is the simple idea that religion is sometimes scary. It is a colossal and ancient concept that touches millions in different ways, and as much as it inspires some, it terrifies others. The term ‘God- fearing’ wasn’t coined for nothing, many religions create god-fearing followers because God or gods are intimidating, they are omnipresent, conquerors of death who have the ability to judge whether someone goes to heaven or hell for all eternity. Edward Ingebretsen supports the idea that religion, as well as heaven and hell are entities that are both horrifying, and elusive to the people of this world, by stating: “God’s awe-ful face is complex and ambiguous, awful to behold, at once a dreadful promise as well as terrible threat-as the confusing amalgam of rapture and apocalypse in popular rhetoric suggests.” God is all powerful and all knowing, and while he is said to rescue his creations from sin and death on the day of reckoning, the day is not regarded with much other than imagery of death, apocalypse and hell. Religion is a double sided coin, one side fills an individual with feelings of salvation and safety, while the other side reminds them that death marks the end of life and the ominous options for the afterlife are: a heaven, a hell, or nothingness. The horror of the unknown can be applied to religion and to the afterlife because there are so many questions left unanswered, so many proven and disproven deities, and all the while there is the possibility that we are wrong, just as the Egyptians were in believing the dead could take possessions with them into the next life. It is also possible that there is nothing after this life, and that is perhaps the most horrifying thought about not knowing what comes after we die.
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