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The Idea of Heaven and Hell in Ancient Civilizations and Religions

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Throughout the history many civilizations believed in a God or Gods and they also believed in an afterlife concept whether it is a reward or a punishment for what they did in their lives. Death is the absolute truth about people lives whether we like it or not death will come, and many religions created a way to see afterlife and what comes with it. The hope for afterlife is a universal instinct whether it is 5000 years ago or today. It is still one of the most discussed topics even though how far the technology comes. Scientists still can’t explain the afterlife. On the other hand, almost, all religions have some kind of unique way to explain the afterlife. For example, monolithic religions like Islam, Judaism and Christianity believed that in afterlife people souls exist in another world while other religions like Hinduism and Buddhism believed in a reincarnation. And some civilizations had the idea that if they bury important people with their valuable items such as golds, swords, jewelry and any other object which was important for the dead. So, in afterlife those people can use them. Civilizations such as the Aztecs, Greek and Romans, the Egyptians, Ancient Chinese or many old civilizations perceived the idea of burying important items with the people.

The Aztecs which is thought to be originated as a nomadic tribe in Mexico, settled in Mesoamerica around the beginning of the 13th Century They developed a great and complicated social, religious, political organization that affect many of the cities under their control.

Aztecs religion, which is flourished in Mesoamerica gained infamous reputation for their harsh and inhumanly, bloodthirsty sacrifice. To the Aztecs sacrifices was essential because the life would not be possible without offering the Gods blood, those sacrifices especially for the sun to rise again. We can say their afterlife belief was very strange compared to today.

Many people in past and today believe that afterlife is determined by how you lived your life but in contrast, the Aztecs believed that how you lived your life is not important for afterlife the important thing is that how a person died. Person’s afterlife was determined by the idea of how he died. In their belief system afterlife had 4 sections which were East, West, North, South and by people’s way of death it is determined where they go. For example, if you die fighting in a war you would go to a paradise in the east which where sun will rise in the morning or joined to help war god Huitzilopochtli in a battle. Or women who died in child birth considered as honorable and glorious as men who died in a war. But women went to paradise which is west where sun will set every day. These paradise ideas are very different from our modern world religions which people will go to another world which there will be everything that they want. In contrast people who died of illnesses, unremarkable deaths or things like dying from old age not considered as heavenly thing. Those who died from things like that went to underworld and these people had to go to eight levels of challenges to finally found peace to their souls at the ninth level. This is one of the most diverging examples between the Aztec religion and the modern religions and how society sees the death. While in Aztecs if you die from old age and ordinary things people won’t see you as they see warriors and people who died like that went to underworld. Aztecs mostly expects to people die premature but honorable ways. But in modern religions if you die from illness or old age that won’t affect your afterlife because it’s not how you die; it is how you live that determines the whether you go to heaven or hell. For the Aztecs sun was very important for their daily lives. And it affected their afterlife beliefs greatly their entire belief system actually built around the Sun.

In Greeks and Romans civilizations, they believed existence of the afterlife. Even though both of the civilizations do not have any religious background to the afterlife belief, their myths shaped their concepts of afterlife. Greeks believed that when one dies person’s soul and body gets separated. After one’s death and burial get done. Souls get freed from the body and start a journey to afterlife, to the river which separates underworld called Hades and the world. Hermes or Charon assists the dead people while they cross the river in order to dead people to go to underworld. This river is guarded by the famous three headed dog which is called Cerberus. The underworld ruled by the god Hades. In Hades people judged by their past deeds and how they lived their life, what they do bad or good. If one did a minor bad thing they did not get punished, but they did not get rewarded either they will just wander in the underworld while person who did evil thing will be punished. In early times Greeks thought in afterlife only the underworld exists. But some people believed that heroes and other great people do not wander around the Hades and goes secretly to the Elysium which is like a paradise where only the best of the people like heroes and gods’ relatives can go.

The Romans influenced by the Greeks afterlife concept greatly, they believed things like immortality of the soul, reincarnation like later Greeks. Romans believed that dead people affect their daily life, so they kept in touch with dead people through rituals and festivals. They honored the dead each year during Parentalia (February) and Lemuria (May). During Parentalia people visited their ancestors and dead people tombs and offer them wine and food. While in May during Lemuria they did rituals to keep the souls away from their houses and keep their family from the dead’s souls. Romans believed that when one dies their soul travels to the place where if they do good things throughout their lives they go to place where is like a paradise contains great joy. On the contrary if somebody did bad things they go to place where they get tortured and got punishments. This place had 3 part according to the Romans first where people received neither punishment or reward, second one is Tartarus where people suffer for rest of their life and third one is where people with minor deeds go, which they temporarily dwelled before their reincarnation or going to Elysium. This idea of underworld is close to modern world religions Hell idea like Islam or Christianity. Both of the religion has so close idea of hell and heaven that if somebody suffer enough in for their deeds, they can go to heaven afterwards. But there is no reincarnation involved in Christianity or Islam. Also, Romans actually in sometime after replaced the Pagan beliefs into Christianity. The idea of afterlife greatly expanded throughout whole Roman people too. Before Christianity Romans do not have any organized religion system or anything. Some people believed the idea of afterlife some don’t. There were cults in that time which is dedicated to particular god or goddesses, which promised to people happy and peaceful afterlife. But after Christianity most of the people believed the afterlife and because they already believed in a close belief their transition between Roman beliefs to Christianity wasn’t that hard.

The ancient Egyptians believed in immortality so, it affected their idea of afterlife greatly how they see and perceive it. They think death was a short time being, interruption for their lives. They believed death is not the end rather it is a new beginning to another reality. According to the ancient Egyptians after dying, you would be judged by Osiris who is the god of the underworld, afterlife and the death. Egyptians prepared their dead one’s bodies in a complex way for their time which is called mummification and built great tombs and performed many rituals. They buried the important and valuable items with the dead, but they also buried daily life items too, because of the fact that they believed in afterlife people who died remains their daily lives. But these rituals mainly for the important and rich people for example pharaohs because poor people of Egypt couldn’t afford to bury their relatives in a harsh hierarchy system even in death.

Hinduism which is thought to be the oldest religion according to the most scholars is estimated to be around for 4000 years. Hinduism believes in reincarnation of souls. They think that souls are immortal and endure forever. Hinduism does not see death as a bad thing. It is not an end rather it is a natural thing to happen. Afterlife is like resting period where people’s soul rest and prepares itself for the new journey of life when people come to the earth again. Death is only temporary cessation of physical activity Hinduism believes that each incarnation of soul is like a opportunity to overcome your flaws. They believe that you cannot have likes or dislikes, preferences, attachments in order to be liberated. Soul needs to overcome these delusions to achieve completeness. But what happens to soul when someone dies? It depends on many factors actually like what did he/she do in his/her life or the time of the death, state of the mind, activities of his/her children. There are two paths to go in afterlife path of Sun or path of Moon these factors determine the fact that where will one go. When soul actually reaches the path of sun it is a good thing like heaven but when soul goes to path of moon it is more like a hellish path. It is hard to attain path of sun completely. For example, if someone did evil actions it will go to path of moon and suffer there. On the contrary if someone did good things it will go to path of sun and enjoy his/her life. Time of someone’s death is actually important too if someone dies in a festival day while performing puja or bhajan, he/she will go to heaven regardless of its previous deeds. There is also one more important thing, it is that one’s state of mind, at the time of someone’s death if he/she thinks only about the money it will come back to life as a trader or merchant or if one thinks about his children, wife etc. It will come back to that exacts family as a new member. Also, if he/she thinks about evil things he will go to lower worlds and suffer, or he/she thinks about Gods he will go to higher worlds. In Hinduism hell and heaven’s purpose is not to reward or punish the people, they are there to remind souls to the true meaning of life and existence. Whether one go to hell or heaven it will not last long they are there to teach to soul a lesson whether by punishing or rewarding them. Throughout the history Hinduism affected millions of people and civilizations for example Harappan civilization or the entire India. Hinduism is still believed by millions of people and people live their lives according to the Hinduism in this religion afterlife is not a feared thing rather it is where people learn from their mistakes and their soul becomes more mature with every death. Because of that fact in history many of people suicided in ancient India. Hinduism still affects people today’s society and India greatly it is the dominant religions with almost 1 billion followers. People still act accordingly to their religion.

Islam, Judaism, Christianity which are the most known Abrahamic religions has a lot of similarities and differences when it comes to understanding afterlife. These religions believe that death is ultimate reality and it is undeniable. These 3 big religions have holy books that explain the afterlife and other important things, which their followers need to know. In these religions your afterlife is decided by how you lived your life People can be rewarded or punished from your doings in earth. Jews believe that when you die, your soul goes to dark place where is called Sheol.It is like a waiting place before it is decided to go to whether Gan Eden or destroyed completely. In Judaism Hell is not entirely physical contrary to Christianity and Islam Jews believe that in Hell their souls will feel intense shame and incredible degree of humiliation where humans cannot compare to the feeling that felt in earth. Christian’s beliefs about afterlife comes from resurrection of Jesus Christ. His death was God’s divine plan for mankind. People believe that Jesus suffered for mankind. Christians believe that after they die God will judge them for their good doings and bad doings. If individual had a sinful life without repentance may be sent to hell. If an individual repented for their sins by heart, they will go to Heaven forever. On the other hand, Muslims believe after you die there will be judgment day, in that day all human’s fate will be determined. There will be two options in that day Hell and Heaven. In that day all Muslims will try to across a bridge called as-sirat al-mustaqeem. This bridge will determine whether you go to hell or heaven by your deeds and sins. If one goes through the bridge, he will go to heaven but in order to go past bridge one needs to believe in God and Islam completely and had to have good deeds more than the bad deeds. But if one falls from the bridge he will go to Hell where he suffers greatly in pain. According to Islam blasphemous people cannot go to Heaven whether they did good deeds far more than a believer of Islam.

In conclusion, as seen from the essay, throughout the whole history that we know from the archeological studies and sources like holy books, many of the civilizations had an afterlife belief system in some shape or form, the idea of afterlife affected and still affects people greatly in a good way. Throughout history many people believed in different Gods but what they had in common is afterlife belief. It shaped how they live and how they act, how they think greatly. Their rituals and festivals might change but idea behind it still remains the same. Mainly the good people will be better in afterlife while people who did evil things will be tortured or not get rewarded like good people did. The idea of afterlife tends to make people better individuals that is why it is so important. 

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