Since time began, people have tried to make sense of what happens when we die. Evidence of the earliest humans indicates they buried their loved ones with special items, such as jewelry, tools, and other artifacts, presumably to “take with them” to the next life.
In fact, all major religions on earth believe in some sort of afterlife following physical death. Bost of these ascribe to two wildly differing versions: One, a blissful place of rest and joy (“heaven”) and the other, a place of torment, anguish, and pain, or “hell.”
What do these religions believe? How should Christians view the afterlife? And why are there so many versions of the afterlife? Here, we explore all of this and more.
What Do Non-Christians Believe about the Afterlife?
Every major religion, even those who claim no religion, has some belief about what happens after we die, and all are tied into their ultimate beliefs about the soul, change, and the concept of a supreme being.
Some, like Buddhists and Hindus, believe in reincarnation. Put simply, Hindus believe in the concept of a soul, called atman, and they receive a new body and life depending on the good and bad actions of their previous life.
For Hindus, you can be reincarnated as not only humans, but also animals, insects, and plants. Eventually, you achieve Moksha, when you are freed from the cycle of reincarnation and reunited with Braham, their supreme being or Absolute God.
Buddhists, who ascribe to anatman, or “no soul,” don’t believe in unchanging, everlasting souls. They believe when we die, we shift into another form or body. The goal is ultimately to achieve Nirvana, an escape from the reincarnation cycle, and the end to suffering. Some equate Nirvana to a heavenly paradise.
Others, such as Muslims, believe that after death, they enter a dreamless sleep until Judgment Day when they will be resurrected, judged by Allah (Arabic for “God”), and then enter paradise or hell.
The Jewish faith focuses more on life on earth but acknowledges a “World to Come,” a heavenly paradise. They believe they live and die only once, and the actions they take in life will determine their afterlife. Some believe the afterlife involves the resurrection of body and soul, where they will live on in a sort of heavenly Garden of Eden, while others believe it involves living on in some form through their descendants or others they influence in their lives.
Atheists do not believe in God or gods. However, while some don’t believe in any sort of life after death (when you die, it’s the end), others believe in the existence of spirits and an afterlife realm, or reincarnation.
Modern Paganists have varying beliefs. Some believe in multiple gods, while others hold to animism, which is the belief that a life force runs through all things, including rocks, animals, and trees. Some believe in reincarnation after death, while others believe a person’s energy passes into something else to live on, such as the earth.
Other Pagans, such as Wiccans, hold to a notion of a Wiccan Summerland, which is much like Christians’ concept of heaven. Either way, they believe all life continues on in some way; there is no end.
What Do Christians Believe about the Afterlife?
All Christians are united in their belief that when they die, if they believe in Jesus as the Son of God, their souls will enjoy eternal life in heaven. However, some denominations and individuals believe in different forms of the afterlife, as well as what happens to those who do not follow Jesus.
The Bible repeatedly mentions both a heaven — a place of rest and bliss, where they will be part of God’s kingdom, and a hell — a place of darkness and suffering. Some Christians hold to a literal interpretation of heaven and hell as actual places where the soul resides, while others believe heaven and hell are more of a condition, or a state of mind, such as “peace and happiness with God” or “sadness and torment without God.”
Others, such as Catholic Christians, believe in Purgatory, a place of punishment or a “middle zone” where the dead go prior to heaven if they need to be purified from their sins.
What Does the Bible Say about the Afterlife?
The concept of life after death is laced throughout the Bible. Hebrews 9:27 refers to the afterlife as an accepted, obvious course of events, noting almost as an aside, “Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment”
And Ecclesiastes tells us, “The dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7).
Various books of the Bible mention a sort of “sleep” people experience after the death of their bodies until an appointed time when many will “awaken.” As it says in Daniel 12:2, “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.”
But for those who sleep, there is hope. For those who believe in Jesus Christ shall “not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16b).
In his first letter to the Thessalonians, the Apostle Paul offers encouragement, noting that while those we love may sleep in death,
God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. … For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever (1 Thessalonians 4:14, 16-17).
And as Jesus comforted Martha, sister of Lazarus, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die....” (John 11:25-26).
Paul reminds us in Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
And even years before Jesus walked the earth, the prophet Isaiah predicted, “But your dead will live, Lord; their bodies will rise — let those who dwell in the dust wake up and shout for joy — your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead” (Isaiah 26:19).
What Does the Bible Say about Heaven?
For those who repent of their sins and choose to follow Jesus, we get access to God.
As Jesus promised His disciples, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:6-7).
Revelation reveals it as a place of no more death, mourning, crying, or pain (Revelation 21:4), a “new Jerusalem,” filled with glory and everlasting triumph. It shines with brilliance, its city made of pure gold as “pure as glass,” with foundations of sapphire, agate, emerald, and other precious jewels, and its gates of pearl with angels before each one (Revelation 21:11-21).
Jesus describes our heavenly home as God’s house, a palace with many rooms, noting He is going ahead of us “to prepare a place” for us (John 14:2-3).
What Does the Bible Say about Hell?
However, for those who do not believe, the Bible describes a far different place. Jesus calls it a place of “eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46), a “blazing furnace” with “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:42).
Hell is not just a concept but an actual place. Jesus warns us in Matthew 10:28 to “be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell,” and urges us to do whatever we can to avoid sin, even to the point of plucking out an eye that causes us to stumble.
As Jesus says, “It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where ‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched’” (Mark 9:47-48).
It is not only the wicked who embrace sin who go there, either — it is those who do not believe.
“Whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them,” Jesus says in John 3:36.
The Book of Revelation contains a great deal of description about hell, likening it to a place of fury and darkness, an abyss, and a “fiery lake of burning sulfur.”
Why Are There So Many Versions of the Afterlife?
There are so many different versions of the afterlife because there are so many ideas of who God is, what our purpose is on earth, and the connection between faith and action. But the Bible is clear: Everyone who believes in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, repents of their sins, and follows His way is guaranteed eternal life.
Our salvation was purchased through Jesus’ sacrifice, which paid our sin-debt for all eternity and whose life exemplifies how we are to live both on earth and in heaven: In full obedience and alignment with God, our Father.
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Jessica Brodie is an award-winning Christian novelist, journalist, editor, blogger, and writing coach and the recipient of the 2018 American Christian Fiction Writers Genesis Award for her novel, The Memory Garden. She is also the editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate, the oldest newspaper in Methodism. Learn more about her fiction and read her faith blog at jessicabrodie.com. She has a weekly YouTube devotional, too. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and more. She’s also produced a free eBook, A God-Centered Life: 10 Faith-Based Practices When You’re Feeling Anxious, Grumpy, or Stressed.