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Socrates said, “For anything that men can tell, death may be the greatest good that can happen to them: but they fear it as if they knew quite well that it was the greatest of evils” (Proverbia 2017). It is true, no one knows what lies beyond death; and for some, this is inherently frightening. Religion is one place people look for comfort from the idea of death and the unknow. Approximately 87% of the world’s population belongs to one of the three Abrahamic religions- Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (Flesher 2015). The Abrahamic religions all present, in varying style, a picture of the afterlife; and emphasize as part of the religions core beliefs the importance of the afterlife.
The Christian version of the afterlife is likely the image most people are familiar with. The soul of the deceased is judged and directed either to Heaven or Hell. However, as there are multiple denominations and sects of Christianity, there are also multiple variations of this concept. Some branches of the religion, such as Catholicism, believe that there is also a third potential destination called Purgatory. Purgatory is considered to be an intermediate placement for purification of believers that die before absolution; and following purification the soul ascends to Heaven (Religionfacts.com 2016). Another discrepancy is noted regarding what is expected to gain entry to Heaven. Some denominations attest that repentance of sin and submission to God is required; other branches believe that merit alone is enough to gain entrance into Heaven (Grey 2017). Further controversy between denominations is apparent regarding when a soul transfers from Earth to the realms of the afterlife. While all sects believe that the soul is eventually judged and forwarded to either Heaven or Hell, when this judgement actually occurs is debated. Some branches of Christianity believe that there will be a Day of Judgement at the End of Days; during this time the dead will be resurrected as spiritual and uncorrupted bodies (ReligionFacts.com 2017a) Essentially this means that all souls, living and deceased, will be brought forth to God for judgement, all at one time, at the end of time. Other factions uphold the more common belief that judgement occurs immediately following death (Grey 2017). This idea addresses that at the end of physical life your place in the afterlife immediately begins, with no waiting period between the two.
The emphasis Christianity places on the afterlife is multi-faceted. One facet is that it provides a sort of leverage in garnering conversions. By relaying the imagery of souls trapped in Hell in contrast to those in Heaven, Evangelists have not only spread the notion of God’s love, but also the idea of fearing his perpetual abandonment in the afterlife (Grey 2017). Additionally, the afterlife also serves as a promised reward for the righteous. Often in Christianity, it is observed that Earthly suffering is our blight to bear because of the “Original Sin”; and that in some ways it purifies us and brings us closer to God (Grey 2017). Heaven is considered the reward for keeping faith in God, and for the burdens we bear while on Earth. Finally, it serves to caution followers against disobeying God’s laws. Following the rules laid out in the religion secures a place in paradise instead of one in perpetual torment.
Similar to Christianity, Islam emphasizes an afterlife in which the soul either goes to Heaven or Hell. However, there is no discrepancy in Islamic beliefs; the afterlife begins with the resurrection and judgment of souls following the end of time (ReligionFacts.com 2017b). It is believed at this time, everyone will be sentenced to an afterlife fitting their worldly behavior, paradise for the righteous and everlasting punishment for the wicked and non-believers. Additionally, it is to be noted that Islam asserts that during the time between death and resurrection, the souls remain attached to the body awaiting judgement (Mufti 2015). This belief is similar to the less commonly held Christian belief, and in some ways echoes purgatory as those bound for Hell are subject to unrest during this intermediate time as well.
Islam provides a more in-depth description of the afterlife than the other two Abrahamic religions. Additionally, Islam asserts that there are multiple levels of Heaven and Hell (Mufti 2015). Heaven is described as a never-ending place of bliss free from all suffering; and Hell is vividly described as eternal suffering and punishment, filled with fire and torture (Mufti 2015). The images painted of both clearly sway the audience as to which direction they would prefer to go.
Belief in the afterlife is one of the main pillars of Islam, which is a major part of why there is significant emphasis on it. Imam Kamil Mufti also explains in his article “Belief in Life After Death” that because of the correlation between behaviors in life and placement in the afterlife, upholding this belief aids Muslims in behaving appropriately according to the teachings of Islam (2015). Having faith in the afterlife also reinforces the concept of accepting religious law instead of indulging in humanly desires as it reinforces that failing to abstain on during life will result in punishment after judgement.
Judaism is far less emphatic regarding the afterlife than the other Abrahamic religions discussed. Additionally, the afterlife is inherently vaguer in description of what it is and when it is reached. It is also notable that most beliefs regarding the afterlife in Judaism do not come directly from the Torah, instead they originated much later (MJL 2018). Much like Christianity, there is significant debate regarding the resurrection; this is predominantly in regard to who will be resurrected and when. Some groups believe that resurrection will apply to everyone, while others think it pertains only to the righteous (MJL 2018). Regarding when resurrection occurs, there are three main beliefs: it occurs when the Messiah returns, it occurs following the Messiah’s return, or that it occurs immediately following death.
The afterlife in Judaism has many differences from other religions. Judaism recognizes that the pious of all religions will be given entry into Heaven, thought to be the Garden of Eden (MJL 2018). Another key difference is that, in Jewish belief, those sent to Gehunnom (Hell) are only sentenced there for 12 months, during which they receive punishment for purification and then ascend to Heaven (ReligionFActs.com 2017c). This is a very distinct difference as Islam and Christianity both assert that where one is sent in the afterlife is unchanging.
Emphasis upon the afterlife is not as crucial in Judaism as it is in the other religions. This is for many reasons. First, Jews believe that they will all eventually end up in Heaven, therefore the fear of eternal damnation is virtually nonexistent. Second, Judaism recognizes that people who are good, regardless of religion, will be granted entrance into Heaven. This also serves as a partial reason for the lack of active recruitment for conversion. Finally, the requirements for entrance into Heaven according to Judaism are not nearly as stringent as those of Islam and Christianity. Jewish beliefs lean more towards acting in ethical and moral ways (MJL 2018). In contrast, both Christianity and Islam require adherence to fairly strict religious codes and attestation of faith.
Paradise, damnation, purgatory; where will the soul go once life is over? Christian beliefs vary slightly from one denomination to the next. Islam tells us that Judgement day holds every man’s eternal destiny. Judaism offers only hints at what is to come aside from that all believers shall eventually reach Heaven. Despite differences, all three tell us that our place in the afterlife depends upon the lives we lead on Earth. Our deeds and devoutness can be the keys to Heaven, or a sentence to Hell. While what truly occurs once we expire is still a mystery; religion, such as the Abrahamic religions, gives us hope that Socrates may have been correct is saying that death could be our greatest blessing.
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