What happens when we die? Is there life after death? Where does our spirit go after we die? People around the world believe that there’s more to life than death and that our soul lives on beyond the physical. Some religions say that the soul returns to a higher state of being after discarding its earthly body.
There are different terms used to describe what happens when you die that varies from religion to religion. Most of the world's major religions teach of the existence of an afterlife.
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While science tells us that we have a misplaced faith in this afterlife that doesn't exist, religion tells us differently. Science says that when our bodies shut down, we die and that’s it. Religion tells us that our souls live on eternally. Despite these differences in thought, there have been recent scientific studies that prove that our conscience survives death and that we’re learning new ways of measuring the separation of our body from our soul.
There are believed to be over 4200 active religions around the world with the “Big Five” being Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Each of these world religions has its interpretation of the afterlife and what happens to our soul after death. To fully understand these differing beliefs, consider studying each religion’s spiritual texts, books about life after death, and individual accountings of near-death experiences or NDEs.
1. Christian Afterlife
The Christian belief in the afterlife stems from biblical accountings of Christ's resurrection and the second coming of Christ. Afterlife in Christianity says that Heaven, Hell, and an afterlife exist as places where the soul can live on for eternity. The Bible also teaches that there's the death of the body as it lives here on Earth and that consciousness lives on beyond death. This is where the Christian concept of separation of body and soul comes from.
Christianity centers around forgiveness, repentance, confession, and heavenly judgment after death where the soul will either spend eternity in Heaven. Conversely, the soul can be condemned to Hell (or the "second death") if a person has led a sinful life with no repentance. Some of the Christian scripture from the Bible that directly addresses life after death can be found below.
- Matthew 10:28: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
- Revelation 21:4: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
- Ecclesiastes 12:7: “And the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”
- John 11:25-26: “Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.’”
2. Islamic Afterlife
In the Islamic afterlife, the Qur'an teaches some aspects of the afterlife as they compare to Christianity. The Muslim belief of life after death sees the soul returning to God because that is where it comes from. There's also a belief that life here on earth is a time of testing, and that when we die, our test period is over and we can continue on our journey from the physical to the spiritual.
The Qur'an teaches an equivalent of Christianity's Heaven and Hell, and the soul being delegated to one or the other at the time of God's judgment.
The Islamic version of Heaven is called al-janna, or paradise, and is rewarded to those who have done good deeds. Hell, also known as jahanna, is a special place reserved for those who do not believe in God and pursue evil in life. Both Islamic and Christian faiths view death as the end of life on Earth, with the soul leaving the body and returning to God for judgment.
- Quran, 45:24-26: “And they say, ‘There is not but our worldly life; we die and live and nothing destroys us except time.” And they have of that no knowledge; they are only assuming. And when Our verses are recited to them as clear evidences, their argument is only that they say, Bring [back] our forefathers, if you should be truthful. Say, God causes you to live, then causes you to die; then He will assemble you for the Day of Resurrection, about which there is no doubt,’ but most of the people do not know.”
3. Jewish Afterlife
The Jewish faith isn't clear on the existence of an afterlife. The Hebrew Bible and other religious texts teach several core beliefs regarding life after death. For this reason, there isn’t a universal belief or agreement in the afterlife unlike that of Christianity and Islam.
Most Jewish people will simply adhere to the principle of the possibility of the existence of an afterlife. Therefore, the faithful should live in the best way possible during this life in the present.
Some of those teachings of the Jewish afterlife include:
- There’s an underworld called Sheol that is similar to Hell and which can be interpreted as a place the soul goes to after death. The Jewish equivalent of Heaven goes by several different names including the "school on high" or yeshiva shel malla, or shamayim - which means skies or heaven.
- There’s an open-door policy to accessing heaven and there are no gates to prevent access, unlike in the Christian faith. However, our actions here on earth do have bearing on whether your soul is condemned to heaven or hell.
- Genion is the Jewish equivalent to Hell in Christianity. However, in the Jewish tradition, a soul that is sent to Genion for bad deeds done while alive will only go there for a temporary purification process and then be sent either to Sheol, be annihilated, or kept in Genion to undergo a secondary purification process.
- Olam Haba is also known as “the world to come” where some Jewish people believe that the soul will be resurrected and returned to Israel.
- Heaven is a place for the soul to temporarily reside in until they reunite with their physical bodies at the time the Messiah comes.
4. Hindu Afterlife
The Hindu afterlife centers around the belief in reincarnation that is directly tied to a person's karmic deeds during their earthly lifetime. Hindu's believe that a person's conscience survives death and awaits reincarnation to begin another cycle of life known as Samsara.
A popular belief about reincarnation is that the soul reincarnates into different life forms depending on the actions of the person while alive in their prior life. They can come back in the form of another human life, an animal, or an insect.
Returning as an insect signifies that the person created bad karma through bad deeds or actions. Therefore, those actions referred to as Karma, will see to it that the soul goes through a cycle of death and rebirth until gaining access to the spirit world known as the Otherworld.
5. Buddhist Afterlife
The Buddhist belief in the afterlife draws from the Hindu religion and their views of reincarnation and the repeated and continual cycle of death and rebirth. Buddhists believe that the cycle continues until the soul reaches a level of purification or acceptance into the next level known as the Otherworld in the Hindu belief system, and Nirvana in Buddhist beliefs.
There are 31 intricate planes of existence known in Buddhism. These realms are where the soul goes to wait and reincarnate into the next realm. Buddhist have their own interpretations of heaven and hell known as The Fine Material World that can only be reached by living a righteous life free of hatred and animosity towards others. Devas, or deities with god-like powers, rule the 16 realms making up this world in which there is little suffering.
A Buddhist can gain entry into the highest realms only when they have reached a state of non-reincarnation. Purgatory and Hell are collectively referred to as The Sensuous World and make up 11 of those remaining realms of existence. A soul does not stay in any of these realms indefinitely. The cycle of Samsara will eventually lead to a different realm when the soul has learned the lessons in these. In Buddhism, there is no ideation of an eternal heaven or hell.
The Body and Spirit Connection
The above are all concepts about the spiritual world that the world’s leading religions have taught us from the beginning - that when our body dies, our soul lives on. While there is no concrete proof that the soul may live on, scientists are invested in finding out if that is the case.
If you're looking to learn more about spirituality and the afterlife, read our guide on the best spiritual books for beginners.
- Iqbal, Muzaffar. (2008). "Mustansir Mir: Understanding the Islamic Scripture: A Study of Selected Passages from the Qu'ran." Islam & Science, vol. 6, no. 1. Gale Academic OneFile, Accessed 12 May 2020.
- Hasker, William and Taliaferro, Charles, "Afterlife", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2019/entries/afterlife/>.
- San Filippo, David Ph.D. (2006). "Religious Interpretations of Death, Afterlife & NDEs". Faculty Publications. 32. digitalcommons.nl.edu/faculty_publications/32.