Religious Afterlife Beliefs

By Kevin Williams


Is there life after death? It's a question that people have grappled with throughout history and across cultures - from the Tibetan Book of the Dead to Embraced by the Light. James Lewis is a world-recognized authority on non-traditional religions. He is the chairman of the Department of Religious Studies at the World University of America. His book, Encyclopedia of Afterlife Beliefs and Phenomena explores the ritual, lore, pageantry, customs, language, theory and other aspects of afterlife. From alchemy to near-death experiences and from Gilgamesh to the collective unconscious, you'll find straightforward, objective and sensitive information on this ever-fascinating and elusive topic. Is there life after death? The following are the various answers to this question from some of history's religious traditions. Be sure to read this website's NDE and Religion Research Conclusions

Afterlife Beliefs and Phenomena Index


Zoroastrianism has been an unusually fruitful faith, exercising an influence on the doctrines of other religions disproportionate to its size. It was founded in ancient Persia in about 1000 BC (some sources say much earlier) by the prophet Zoroaster.

The religion of Zoroaster is best known for its good versus evil dualism. The god of light and the upper world and his angels are locked in a cosmic struggle with the god of darkness and the lower world and his demons. Unlike Christianity, in which the outcome of the war between god and the devil has already been decided, Zoroastrianism portrays the struggle as a more or less even match. Individual human beings are urged to align themselves with the forces of light and are judged according to the predominance of their good or evil deeds.

As for the afterlife, Zoroastrianism teaches that for three days after death the soul remains at the head of its former body. All of the individual's good and bad deeds are entered in a sort of accountant's ledger, recording evil actions as debits and good actions as credits. The soul then embarks on a journey to judgment, walking out onto the Chinvat ("accountant's") Bridge. In the middle of the bridge, there is a sharp edge which stands like a sword; and hell is below the Bridge. Then the soul is carried to where there stands a sword. If the soul is righteous, the sword presents its broad side. If the soul is wicked, that sword continues to stand edgewise, and does not give passage. With three steps which the soul takes forward - which are the evil thoughts, words, and deeds that it has performed - it is cut down from the head of the Bridge, and falls headlong to hell. If, when bad deeds are weighed against good ones, debits outweigh credits, "even if the difference is only three tiny acts of wrongdoing," the sinner falls off the bridge and into hell. Hell is a dismal realm of torment, where the damned can consume only the foulest food for nourishment. If debits and credits cancel each other out, the soul is placed in Hammistagan ("region of the mixed"), a transitional realm in which souls are neither happy nor sorrowful and in which they will abide until the final apocalypse. In latter texts, a person's deeds greet him on the bridge in personified form - a beautiful maiden for a good person; an ugly hag for a bad person - who either leads the soul to paradise ("the luminous mansions of the sky") or embraces the soul and falls into hell, according to whether the person has been good or evil.

After the final battle between good and evil, there will be a general judgment in which everyone will be put through an ordeal of fire; good individuals will have their dross burned away and evil people will be consumed. Thus, the souls of the damned will trade their ongoing torment in hell for a painful annihilation. The souls of the blessed, on the other hand, will be resurrected in physical bodies, which the "wise lord" will make both immortal and eternally youthful. (In a later modification of tradition, both good and evil souls have their dross burned away, so that everyone shares the post-resurrection paradise.)

The concept of resurrection as formulated in Zoroastrianism represents one of the earliest efforts to conceive of immortality. It is part of an optimistic vision of the end of the world, in which the forces of light overcome darkness and all humankind rejoices with the renewal of creation.

Many of the components of this vision of the end times - a final battle between good and evil, judgment of the wicked, resurrection of the dead - were adopted by Jewish apocalyptic thinkers. From texts composed by these apocalypticists, such notions were adopted by Christianity and Islam.


The Essenes were a Jewish monastic sect made famous by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls - the Essene monastery's library, which had been hidden in caves near the Dead Sea - in 1947. A good deal of excitement was initially generated by the scrolls' mention of a "Teacher of Righteousness," which some early investigators mistakenly thought might be a reference to Jesus. The Essenes had also been romanticized by certain occult/metaphysical writers who thought they perceived an ancient mystery school in Josephus's and other authors' writings about this group.

Further investigation into the scrolls, however, indicated that the Essenes were an apocalyptic Jewish sect descended from the pietists (Hasidim, not to be confused with contemporary Hasidism) of the Maccabeean era. They withdrew from society and established a monastery on the shores of the Dead Sea at Qumran in the middle of the second century BC, where they had a community until attacked during the Roman-Jewish war of AD 66-70.

In stark contrast to other forms of Judaism and to early Christianity, the Essene sect believed in the notion of an immortal soul. In their very un-Jewish antagonism toward the flesh, as well as in certain of their notions of soul, they appear to have been influenced by Gnosticism, or by one of the other Neoplatonic mystery religions of the Hellenistic period. Their beliefs about the soul and the afterlife were described by Josephus in "The Jewish War":

"It is indeed their unshakable conviction that bodies are corruptible and the material composing them impermanent, whereas souls remain immortal forever. Coming forth from the most rarefied ether, they are trapped in the prison house of the body as if drawn down by one of nature's spells; but once freed from the bonds of the flesh, as if released after years of slavery, they rejoice and soar aloft. Teaching the same doctrine as the sons of Greece, they declare that for the good souls there waits a home beyond the ocean, a place troubled by neither rain nor snow nor heart, but refreshed by the zephyr that blows ever gentle from the ocean. Bad souls they consign to a darksome, stormy abyss, full of punishments that know no end."


As anyone passingly familiar with the New Testament knows, biblical lands were under the control of the Romans during the lifetime of Jesus. The new social situation resulting from this foreign occupation led to the development of competing factions within the Jewish community. Although all parties agreed on the authority of the Torah, they disagreed on certain interpretations. One powerful faction was the Sadducees, a group of long-time landowners that included many priests. The name of this party may have come from Sadoq, the priest of David.

The Sadducees emphasized the authority of the first five books of Hebrew scriptures (the books of Moses) and dismissed most later interpretations - particularly the oral laws articulated by the Pharisees - as human invention. Consequently, they also rejected the influx of new ideas that was reshaping popular Judaism, such as beliefs in a final judgment and belief in resurrection. As both the historian Josephus and the New Testament witness, the Sadducees emphatically rejected the notion of an afterlife; like the ancient Hebrews, they emphasized the present. As the aristocracy, the Sadducees were comfortable with the ancient Hebrew idea that God's rewards and punishments were meted out in the present life.


You can read more about Christian Gnosticism on this website including Gnostic texts. The Apocalypse of Paul which is remarkably similar to a near-death experience is an account of Paul's NDE to heaven.

Gnosticism was primarily a movement and school of thought prominent in the Hellenistic Mediterranean world and influenced paganism, Judaism, and Christianity. Its core teachings were that this world - especially the human body -  was the product of an evil deity (i.e., the Demiurge) who had trapped human souls in the physical world. Our true home is the absolute spirit (the "pleroma"), and hence we should reject the pleasures of the flesh as a way of escaping this prison. 

Unlike Christianity, in which one is saved by faith, in this school of thought one was saved by proper intellectual insight, or "gnosis" (Greek for "knowledge"). Gnosticism in its original sense died out before the Western Middle Ages, although the term continued to be used to refer to any deviations the Church deemed excessively world-denying, or that seemed to stress mental insight over faith as the essential mode of salvation.

Although many mystery religions and other religious movements in antiquity emphasized a dualism between the body and the soul, none went to the extreme of Gnosticism. Rather than yearning for immortality in this life, the Gnostics viewed living in this world as a kind of hell. Like the southern Asian religions, which may have influenced this school of thought, Gnosticism saw human beings as trapped in a cycle of reincarnation and believed that even suicide could not release one from bondage to the flesh.

Cathars was the name given by the Catholic Church to members of a dualistic heresy of Gnostic origin in the twelfth century. Catharism arose in the eastern Mediterranean region during the Middle Ages and spread slowly westward. Among its most important adherents were the Albigensians of southern France, who were militarily destroyed in the early 1200s by the only successful medieval Crusade, which began in 1209.

Cathars were distinguished from other medieval heretic groups for rejecting such basic Christian beliefs as the doctrine of incarnation, Christ's two natures, the Virgin Birth, and bodily resurrection. They also repudiated the Church hierarchy and sacraments, particularly baptism by water and matrimony, and followed an ascetic lifestyle that included celibacy, vegetarianism, and even ritual suicide. Most Cathars accepted only the New Testament, which they read in its Catholic version.

The Cathars believed the universe consists of two coexisting sphere: the kingdom of the good God, who is spiritual and suprasensible and who created the invisible heaven, its spirits, and the four elements; and the kingdom of the evil god, Satan, who created the material world and who, being unable to make the human soul, captured it from heaven and imprisoned it in the material body. Thus, the fundamental aim of their religious practice was to release the soul from the body by freeing it from Satan's power and helping it to return to its original place in heaven.

In marked contrast with orthodox Christian belief, bodily resurrection was not viewed as part of the scheme of redemption. Rather, only the destruction of the body and of all Satan's visible creation - which is hell - was adequate to ensure salvation of the soul and its ascent to heaven. The only way to do so was to receive the Cathars' unique sacrament, the "consolamentum", which was administered by the laying on of hands.

Individuals could come to recognize evil through a series of reincarnations, and could eventually free their souls from Satan and thereby become perfect. According to Catharism, at the end of time all souls will be saved or damned, even though there were some differences between the doctrine of the absolute dualists and that of the mitigate dualists. For the former group, free will played no part in salvation, and in the end the material world would fall apart after all souls had departed. For the latter, Satan would be captured, and the proper order of all things would be reestablished.


Manichaeism was a religious movement that arose in the third century and spread across the Mediterranean world. Founded by Mani (a Persian born into a Christian and Jewish community in AD 215), Manichaeism was a mixture of Gnosticism, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity that spread across the Western world and lasted for the better part of a thousand years (it may even have lasted until the twentieth century in China). Its central teaching was a severe dualism between spirit and matter, soul and body. St Augustine, the most influential of the church fathers, converted to Christianity from Manicheism, and some have said that Christianity's antagonism toward the flesh was influenced by Augustine's former religion. Although this movement died out during the Western Middle Ages, the term Manichaeism continued to be used to refer to any sect or teaching that seemed to overemphasize the struggle between good and evil.

Mani began preaching his new religion at age 24. He was eventually executed by orthodox Zoroastrians around the year 276 AD. Mani's extreme dualism was similar to certain strands of Gnosticism, which emphasized the antagonism between the body and the soul. The soul was a fallen divine spark from the realm of light, while the body was the creation of the evil god and his associates, the archons. Also as in Gnosticism, Mani saw human beings as trapped in a cycle of reincarnation that not even suicide could end. Manichaeism preached a rather severe asceticism, especially with regard to the sexual instinct.

Through ascetic living and following Mani's teachings, the elect were thought to be able to ascend directly into the light. Everyone else reincarnated until they completely purified themselves. However, at Christ's return, the unrepentant were to be thrown into flames that would engulf the material world.

"I am borne away by the mighty and shining ones." - the Egyptian Book of the Dead

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