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The afterlife (or life after death) is a generic term referring to a continuation of existence, typically spiritual and experiential, beyond this world, or after death. This article is about current generic and widely held or reported concepts of afterlife. See also: Underworld, for a comprehensive catalog of specific traditions about afterlife.

Afterlife as a belief

Most cultures past and present, have contained some belief in an afterlife. This belief is usually manifested in a religion, as it pertains to phenomena beyond the ordinary experience of the natural world. Various evidences have been advanced throughout the ages for the existence of an afterlife:

  • Testimony of individuals who claim experiential knowledge of facets of afterlife
    • by having died and then been sent back to this life (near-death experiences)
    • by having visited the afterlife during a period of unconsciousness (out-of-body experiences)
    • by having seen the afterlife during a revelatory vision
    • by a unique personal gift of remembering an afterlife (before-life) existence
    • by having communicated with (or received a message from) someone who has died (after death communication or electronic voice phenomena)
  • Testimony of individuals who are thought to have special insights into the afterlife
    • holy ones
    • miracle workers
    • spectacular converts
  • Claimed testimony of visitors from the afterlife
    • God(s)
    • Angels
    • Spirits
  • Human intuitions of goodness thought to emanate from the afterlife
  • Rational philosophical or theological arguments
    • The immortal nature of the soul
    • The natural desire for immortality

Formal characterizations of the afterlife have elaborated these testimonies in innumerable ways. These traditions may be broadly distinguished by how they answer questions such as:

  • What happens at the moment of death?
  • Is the afterlife a normal life, or a different type of existence?
  • Are afterlife conditions a consequence of good and bad actions during life?
    • If so, what are these rewards and punishments? Who is assigned to which fate?
  • Is the afterlife eternal?
  • Is the afterlife unchanging or ever-changing?
  • Is it possible to reincarnate as a human or another form of life?

Afterlife as an individual or collective existence

Belief in an afterlife usually entails the belief that something survives the body when death occurs, such as an immaterial soul or spirit. Philosophers have long debated whether the soul or mind has an immaterial or incorruptible quality; see, for example, the Mind-body problem. Some pantheistic systems have seen the afterlife as a process of (re-)assimilation into a cosmic spirit.

While the major monotheistic religions of the world (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and their offshoots) almost universally preach some form of mind-body dualism, many "Eastern" religions, such as the many branches of Buddhism and Taoism do not contain any such claims, and may in fact preach ideologies that are opposed to it. Zen Buddhism in particular is famous for koans and parables that are meant to teach that the nature of consciousness is transient and/or illusory, with some schools going so far as to say that even the concept of a "self" is fundamentally flawed.

Afterlife as reward or punishment

Many religious traditions have held that the afterlife will resolve justice by assigning rewards and punishments to people according to how they lived their lives. This belief can be found throughout the ancient world, especially in Greek and Roman religion, as well as in various Asian religions. To the extent that the afterlife is a form of justice, it is usually restricted to humans, as other animals are not held responsible for their actions.

The afterlife played an important role in Egyptian religion. The believer had to act well and know the rituals explained in the Egyptian Book of the Dead. If the corpse had been properly embalmed and entombed in a mastaba, the defunct would relive in the Fields of Yalu and accompany the Sun god on its daily ride. If, during the psychomachia, the souls of the defunct were found faulty, the demon Ammit would eat them.

In the monotheistic traditions of Judaism (see Jewish views of the afterlife), most sects of Christianity, and Islam, human souls spend eternity in a place of happiness or torment, such as heaven, hell, or purgatory or limbo.

Most Christians deny that entry into Heaven can be properly earned, rather it is a gift that is solely God's to give through his unmerited grace. This belief follows the theology of St. Paul: For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast. The Augustinian, Thomistic, and Lutheran theological traditions all emphasize the necessity of God's undeserved grace for salvation, and reject so-called Pelagianism, which would make man earn salvation through good works. Not all Christian sects accept this doctrine, leading many controversies on grace and free will, and the idea of predestination.

In the informal folk beliefs of many Christians, the souls of virtuous people ascend to Heaven and are converted into angels upon their deaths. However, a more literal reading of scripture suggests that the dead wait until the Last Judgment, which is followed by resurrection for the faithful. More formal Christian theology makes a sharp distinction between angels, who were created by God before the creation of humanity, and saints, who are virtuous people who have received immortality from the grace of God.

In view of the eternity of afterlife, some consider regular life as relatively unimportant, except for determining one's fate in the afterlife. Life is just a provisional situation, and the metaphor of a tent as provisional housing facility is used as quoted below:

For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.(2 Corinthians 5:1)

Some sects, such as the Universalists, believe in universalism which holds that all will eventually be rewarded regardless of what they have done or believed.

Jehovah's Witnesses interpret Ecclesiastes 9:5 as precluding an afterlife:

For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.

They believe that following Armageddon a resurrection in the fleshActs 24:15 KJV to an Edenic Earth (Insight on the Scriptures vol. 2 pp 574-6) will be the reward for resisting the tendency to sin and that eternal death (non-existence) is the punishment for sin lacking repentance. (Reasoning From the Scriptures pp 168-175)Jehovah's Witnesses website on Hell

During the European Enlightenment, many deist freethinkers held that belief in an afterlife with reward and punishment was a necessity of reason and good moral order.

Afterlife as reincarnation

Another afterlife concept which is found among Hindus, Buddhists, Spiritists, and Wiccans is reincarnation, whether as humans, animals, or as spiritual beings. One consequence of the Hindu, Buddhist, and Spiritist beliefs is that our current lives are also an afterlife. According to those beliefs events in our current life are consequences of actions taken in previous lives, or Karma.

Some Neopagans believe in personal reincarnation, whereas some believe that the energy of one's soul reintegrates with a continuum of such energy which is recycled into other living things as they are born.

Afterlife in modern science

Some conceptions of the afterlife are not overtly religious. Certain scientific fields developed in the 20th and 21st centuries, that were previously either unknown or purely theoretical, support interesting speculation and questions regarding the afterlife.

Is consciousness a sole result of the specific configuration of matter of a living brain, or do some forms of consciousness or experience remain present in the matter and energy that used to be a living brain? If the latter is true, even in part, then it is not certain that the subjective experience of a being's consciousness ends at the time of death, which could be interpreted as a form of afterlife.

Also, the nature of consciousness and sentience itself is a subject of wide debate, and not agreed upon by any means. The emerging field of cognitive science attempts to study the nature of consciousness, sentience, and cognition. It is now possible to study the brain at moments closer to death than ever before, which may lead to insights regarding the cessation of cognition, and possibly even insights into the subjective experience of consciousness at those times. Greater understanding of these concepts, and the processes that produce them, might have wide-ranging consequences for conceptions of an afterlife.

The emerging field of artificial intelligence in computing presents interesting questions regarding an experience of afterlife, as well: If a robot is created which possesses cognition and problem-solving comparable to a human, is that robot considered conscious or "alive"? If so, can he, she, or it "die"? The memories of such robots, if they are ever constructed, could theoretically be composed of some form of electronic storage and stored on devices identical in purpose to modern hard drives, which can be completely copied in a matter of seconds or hours. If a backup is made of such a theoretical robot's memory at some point, and that robot's current memory then is damaged, destroyed, or rendered inoperable, and then restored from the backup, in what sense, if any, does the newly restored robot's experience constitute resurrection - especially if, for instance, a wireless network is used to back up the robot's memory to the exact moment of destruction? Assuming that artificial intelligence research continues at the rapid pace it has shown so far, these and related questions may become quite meaningful in the future.

Finally, though it is not a traditional conception of an afterlife by any means, one particular (and controversial) interpretation of quantum physics actually implies that a conscious soul may be immortal in a certain sense - see quantum immortality. (Though, admittedly, in this theory, the organism does not strictly ever "die", so the term "afterlife" may be inappropriate.)

The VERITAS Research Program affiliated with the University of Arizona and led by psychologist Gary Schwartz is dedicated to testing whether there is an afterlife.


Upon death, brain activity ceases and a person's body begins to decompose. This marks the end of the individual's mind in the material world. Most theories of the afterlife require the mind to survive the brain's destruction and continue to function in a non-physical world. Philosophical materialists reject this supposition as gratuitous, appealing to Occam's Razor. Belief in an afterlife is also criticized as unscientific, as it is empirically unverifiable.

A psychological criticism holds that beliefs that are "too good to be true", such as the afterlife, are usually false. Humans instinctively fear death as we know that our eventual deaths are inevitable. Therefore it is unsurprising that a belief system which promises an escape from death would be strongly embraced. People often suspend their better judgment when presented with "too good to be true" promises (consider Nigerian scams and similar instances of fraud), and an escape from death is considered by some to be the ultimate promise.

Philosophical arguments

Some non-believers in an afterlife, influenced by positivism, have argued that claims of an afterlife are unverifiable and unfalsifiable, and therefore cognitively meaningless. Some have argued that, on the contrary, particular claims concerning the nature of the afterlife are verifiable and falsifiable: all one has to do to verify/falsify them is die. On the other hand, they argue, the belief in the absence of an afterlife can be attacked as vacuous on the grounds that the statement "I cease to exist" is unverifiable, unfalsifiable, and therefore by the same token cognitively meaningless. In particular, the concept of our own non-existence is inconceivable (what experience corresponds to your own non-existence? None.) Schopenhauer in particular argued that the idea of an afterlife or immortal soul is contradicted by the fact that it is impossible to attach sense to such a concept as the soul without reference to characteristics such as consciousness, which depend on such physical entities as the brain. Such concepts he argued, are beyond our reach and noumenal (thus unknowable).

See also

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