The Afterlife

There comes a time in everyone’s life when the question about the afterlife shakes the ground. When kids ask this question, we can’t always give the right answer because we can’t be perfectly sure what happens after we die. Do we sleep until the Messiah comes back and revives our souls, or do we face eternal darkness? Is there a place called hell and a place called paradise, or our human lives are all we get in this lifetime? The question about the afterlife was examined many times before you come to think of it and many people have tried to answer it since the dawn of time. There are still few answers science can’t provide for us. According to scientists, we are biological beings, just like everything else around us. We are born as a product of biological processes, we live and when the life cycle is over, we die and decay, just like everything else around us. But where do our thoughts and feelings go? We may be too finite to comprehend what happens to the soul when the body dies, yet we can’t accept the simple answers science provided us with. We want there to be more and we believe there is another world we enter after we cease to exist.


Ancient Beliefs About the Afterlife

The Egyptians believed human beings have many modes. When Christianity started spreading in this region, these people couldn’t explain how they understood human life, death and the world hereafter. According to them, the human soul is made out of three important parts, but five parts make the entire being.

The Ren is the person’s name, which was given at every birth. Efforts were made to preserve that name because it was believed the person will live as long as their name is spoken. They inscribed the name in many writings when they wanted the person to stay remembered and on the contrary, the names of the enemies were hacked in order to be forgotten.

Another part that speaks of the human existence is the person’s shadow or Sheut. The Egyptians believed the person’s silhouette also characterizes parts of the person, so in many hieroglyphs the people and deities were drawn with their shadows as well. The Ib is made of one blood drop, coming from the mother's bloodstream in the course of the conception. The Ib resembles the heart, or more accurately, the metaphysical heart of the being. This part is the emotional state, will, the intention and the human thoughts. When somebody dies, the Egyptian goddess Maat Kheru measures the human heart and decided if the soul will reach the heaven successfully or not. If the heart turned out to be heavier than a feather, it would be eaten by the devouring demon Ammit.

The Ba is the part of the Egyptian soul we know today as personality. They presumed the Ba lived even after the body dies and it is often illustrated as a bird with a human head. This half human half bird depiction can be seen in tombs, how it’s leaving the grave and this world and entering the next one. At the beginning of the Egyptian kingdom, it was believed only the pharaoh has Ba, because of its ability to travel from this world into the underworld and back.

The Ka is the vital force or energy, that makes the distinction between a live person and a dead person. A person was pronounced dead when the Ka left the body. After it leaves the body, the person’s Ka would follow the course of the Sun until it’s time for it to rise in the morning, when it would go back to the body. Together with the body, the priests left the deceased favorite items in the tombs, may that be weapons, jewelry, pots or other everyday objects to make sure the Ka recognizes its own body when it returns. Unlike the Ka, the Ba stayed attached to the body even after the death. Rituals took place to make the Ba leave the body in order to be joined together with the Ka and create the Akh. When the person died, the mummification techniques helped the body stay preserved until the Ba is ready to leave the body permanently to unite with the Ka. The priest would leave the mouth open, so that the Ba can leave the body. Magic spells and curses had to be written down on linen, otherwise, the soul would wander for eternity without reaching the afterlife it deserves. Once the Ba leaved the body and united with the Ka, which happened during the night, the journey through the underworld would begin. When the body was buried, the deceased family members and loved ones would leave offerings for the mummy. They brought beer, oxen, fowl and bread to make sure the soul is fed for the underworld. At the end, the Akh is the human souls who have been judged by Osiris and Maat Kheru as good and pure. It is the transfigured spirit that has mingled with the Gods and survived the afterlife. Criminals and individuals who didn’t deserve a proper funeral couldn’t be blessed with this entity and enter their afterlife. According to the Egyptians, once the entity Akh was created the Ba could leave the body every morning to play with the Gods and return every night in the tomb. That’s why the relatives lit candles in the tombs, to welcome the soul back to the home of the living. At the beginning, only the Pharaoh was known to have Ka and Akh, but later only few souls would be selected by Maat Kheru and enter the underworld with their soul united.

The Afterlife Painted in Greek Mythology

The Greeks had different and less complicated funeral ceremony. Unlike the Egyptians, who thought of death as a natural course of life, Greeks, as well as the Romans were terrified of death. Once the psyche, which is the same as Ka in Egyptian mythology, left the body, the deceased was prepared for the funeral. The closest family members were usually responsible for conducting the burial ritual. The funeral was concluded in three stages. The first part consisted of washing and anointing the body with oils, then dressed up, with silver coin placed in the mouth as an offering and laid on a high bed within the home. The second part is called ekphora or procession. First, the friends and close ones would come to the deceased home on the night when he or she died. They would mourn him and pray the Gods would forgive the sins he committed. Just before the dawn, few men of the deceased family would carry the body to the grave placed on pallbearers and later in history, on the mount drawn hearse. The mourning crowd followed the bearers, women pull their hair and tear their cheeks and the procession would stop at every street corner to attract attention on the family loss. The third part is placing the body in the ground. At some point during history the dead bodies were buried in graves, while other sources say it was cremated. After the body was placed in the grave, Greeks laid rectangular tombs, marble statues and stelai to make sure the dead person is not forgotten. The wife and mother would regularly visit the grave and bring libations and cakes to offer the deceased soul. At first, sacrifices were made before the body was buried, but later this ritual became extinct.

Once the body was buried, there are several myths that explain what happened to the person’s soul. Roman and Greek mythology tell basically the same stories, where only the names of the entities are different. Greek mythology says that after the person dies, his soul goes to the land of the god Hades. He was the ugliest god of all, and a brother of Hera, Poseidon and Zeus. He was not mean or a tyrant, but humans rarely made sacrifices in his name because their flattery couldn’t impress him or his rulership. The underworld was surrounded by the river Styx and guarded by Cerberus. He asked for a silver coin from each passenger, otherwise they couldn’t cross the river and enter the gates of Hades. Once the dead gave the silver coin, they had to stand before three judges: Rhadamanthus, Minos, and Aeacus. They decided which souls lived pure lives and honored the Gods and let them go into the Elysian Fields. All others were sent in the Fields of Punishment, Asphodel Meadows or Tartarus, which is a place we usually describe as hell. The other two were not very heavenly either. The Fields of Punishment were reserved for those who didn’t honor the Gods, while Asphodel Meadows was a place full of indifferent souls who didn’t achieve any recognition in their human lives. Heroes and people with distinguished lives were living in the Elysian Fields after they die but the Isles of the Blessed was an island reserved only for the special few. They could choose to stay in the Fields or be reborn.

Religious View of the Afterlife

The hell and heaven we picture in our minds and see in movies are not real according to the bible. Many Christian religions think and believe that there are verses in the bible that state the opposite, but the hell as an actual place where our souls go after our body dies are simply, fiction. In old bibles, the word hell can’t be found anywhere, while some new translations explain how there are places termed this way. Most verses are taken out of context to scare the nonbelievers and attract amenable crowd. Modern Christians, who believe God will punish them for their rotten behavior by sending them to hell, often mention a place called Gehenna. This place is frequently mentioned in the bible as the place where you’ll end up if misbehaving, but the fact that is forgotten is that this tormenting residence was an actual place when Jesus walked the earth. It was used as a garbage dump, where Jews at the time, threw garbage, things they no longer need, and burned dead bodies of crooks. The place was near Jerusalem and used as a dumpster for a very long time, until hills of waste appeared. When a bible verse states that God will destroy your body and soul in Gehenna, it simply means that your behavior and actions will not provide honorable death. Instead you will be tossed or burned over some smoky, smelly hill and no one will remember your name. Another place modern Christians believe to be the hell is called Sheol. This word translated from Hebrew means an actual grave. In many psalms you can read how righteous and corrupted souls will go to Sheol, which further explains that the text refers to the human death instead of an actual hell. Other places we interpret as hell are also understood in the wrong way, but some Christian religions wouldn’t agree. Conservative Protestants believe that each of us is going to hell or heaven, giving the weight of our actions and some will state that most of us will go to hell. For the reason that only a limited number of people will be the chosen ones who will share the presence of God.

The Abyss is often mentioned in the Quran. The name for this place according to the Islam is called Jahannam, from the Hebrew word for Gehenna. This place has seven gates, each for different sinners to enter. The ruler of the Islamic hell is called Maalik and he has 19 angels. The hell is known to be as big as a palace and so deep that if you throw a stone it would take 70 years to touch the ground. There sinners would burst into flames, drink boiling water, half-scorpions half-snakes would bite them and they would suffer the poison for 40 years. There is a place when the sinless souls dwell as well and it resembles a beautiful garden. It is called Jannah and everything your heart desires will be waiting for you if you deserve to enter those gates. There will be no shame, fear, sorrow or hurt there and you will always be 33 years old. Foods will have new taste every time you try it and the water will be flavored. All your loved ones and relatives will be there too, assuming that their souls made it to paradise.

Mormons also have hell and heaven. They have three heavens actually, each accordingly deserved and reserved. The Mormon couple who has had a wedding ceremony in a Mormon temple, will become God and Goddess and enter the holy gates. Premarital sexual intercourse, murder and leaving the church are one of the most unforgivable sins in this religion. Their hell is called a terrestrial kingdom, where no one stays eternally. Once the soul is empty from evil thoughts it can go to heaven too.

In Hindu religion, there isn’t an actual hell, but in its place the person who sinned is reborn time after time, until the lesson is learned. The goal in life according to this religion is salvation from the earthly life and finding a timeless resting place in the living arms of the personal God. Sometimes it also means that the person must reach the point of dissolving all individual makeup and become a Brahman or the perfect being. Buddhists have similar beliefs. According to their doctrines the world, the universe and ourselves are part of the same structure, and we are all connected with the axis mundi. This axis, contemporarily speaking, is the center of the world, the place where earth and heaven connect. Each individual can enter either one even while still alive. The concept of hell here is identified again with reincarnation and the circle of birth and death can only be broken with achieving Nirvana.

Science and the Afterlife

The ancient Romans believed the human soul leave the body with the last breath. Centuries later, the physician MacDougall measured human bodies while they were on their deathbed to determine if the individual has a soul, and whether or not it dies with the body. He discovered that their bodies were approximately 21 grams lighter when they die. His research was ignored and affirmed false, but we still believe there is a spark in all of us that lives on even when our physical self expires. All religions will agree that the body is just a container where our soul resides, but the soul goes to another place, either hell, heaven or another lifetime here on earth.

Near death experiences are maybe the closest we can get to answering the question about the life after death. There are thousands of medical cases all over the world, regardless of their religious beliefs, status and language, who claimed they saw their soul leaving the body when they thought they were dying. Scientists may try to explain that the images their patients saw are simply the brain reacting to the lack of oxygen, but still some experiences are more than satisfactory on the subject about afterlife. Medically speaking, our consciousness, thoughts and emotions can’t just cease to be, because consciousness is a quantum process. The information found in the quantum micro-tubules that are in the brain neurons can’t be destroyed even when the body’s dead. This means that the information we carry in the smallest brain parts, the soul, the Ka or however you want to name it, doesn’t die, only scatters in the universe.

At the end, whether you believe the soul is absorbed into the universe, sent to hell or paradise, reincarnated or dead, it’s the life you currently living that’s important. Atheist, Mormon, Buddhist or Christian, it’s the life on earth that counts after all.


1. The Soul and the Afterlife

2. How Different Religions View the Afterlife

3. Live Science - Why Stephen Hawking's Comment Doesn't Matter

4. Treatment of the Dead - Preparing for Eternity

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