Dark Realms - Issue 13
Visions of the Afterlife
Death.It is the one thing everyone on earth has in common.At the same time,however,it is the one aspect of life that is least understood. Where do we go when we die? Every culture and religion has attempted to answer that question, and the answers have given us many strange and enigmatic accounts of the mysterious land that awaits us all when our physical bodies die.
In ancient Egyptian society, the afterlife is portrayed as an odd union of the divine and the mundane. After a person dies, he or she appears before a council of 14 judges in order to defend and explain his or her earthly deeds. After this, the deceased is guided by Anubis, the jackal-headed god of the dead, to a scale which is used to weigh the deceaseds heart against a feather of Maat, goddess of truth and justice. If a person’s heart weighs more than the feather, it is because the heart has been weighted down with vice. In the event of such a dire judgment, the crocodile-headed god Ammit devours the heart and the deceased is cast into oblivion. If the heart weighs less than Maat’s feather, then the deceased has lived a good life and is brought before Osiris, King of the Underworld, who welcomes the deceased into the afterlife.
In the afterlife, the deceased continues the same activities he or she performed on earth. This is why Egyptian tombs were laden with many prosaic objects, such as tools, clothing and food. These objects would be used by the deceased in the new plane of existence. Additionally, the deceased’s body was also deemed critical in the afterlife, hence the care taken to mummify corpses. In fact, throughout much of ancient Egyptian history, the deceased’s liver, stomach, intestines and lungs were preserved in stone or clay Canopic jars topped with effigies of human, jackal, falcon and baboon heads, symbolizing protective spirits known as the Four Sons of Horus.
Why such care in the preservation of the physical body and its organs? Because the Egyptians believed that the ka, a part of the personality, remained in the tomb, connected with the body, and a successful transition to the afterlife required not only the various tools and personal belongings left in the crypt but also the physical remains. It was thought that the transition to the afterlife was nearly a physical journey in which the traveler needed to be well provisioned.
ANCIENT GREECE AND ROME
The mythology of ancient Greece, which was later appropriated with minor changes by the Romans, has given us one of the more familiar and colorful portraits of the afterlife. According to Greek tradition, the souls of the dead were taken across the ominous River Styx on a boat after paying a nominal fee to Charon, the ferryman. The custom of covering a dead person’s eyes with coins as payment to the ferryman is still practiced to this day in some areas of the world.
Once across the River Styx, the dead entered the Underworld, which was ruled by the god Hades and guarded by Cerberus, a monstrous three-headed dog that allowed no living souls to enter, nor dead souls to escape. A trio of judges, Minos, Aeacus and Rhadamanthus, would then pass judgment on the newly arrived souls. Good souls were transported to the Elysian Fields, also known as Elysium, a bountiful paradise in which good deeds on earth were repaid in kind. Souls here could also choose to reincarnate back to the earthly realm, but only after drinking the waters of forgetfulness from the River Lethe. Souls who were judged to be evil were sent to the fires of Tartarus for eternal or temporary punishment. The ancient Greeks also believed in a limbo state, known as Asphodel, reserved for souls neither righteous enough for Elysium nor evil enough for Tartarus.
THE MAJOR RELIGIONS
The world’s most dominant religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—describe the afterlife in roughly similar terms. In Judaism, the deceased remains insensible and lifeless until he or she is resurrected during Olam Ha-Ba, the messianic age of earthly peace and perfection. Olam Ha-Ba also refers to the afterlife itself. When the true Messiah arrives on earth to inaugurate the age of peace, the righteous dead will be resurrected in order to participate in the paradise on earth.
Olam Ha-Ba is also distinguished by two extreme levels: Gan Eden and Gehinnom. Gan Eden, like the Garden of Eden in Genesis to which it refers, is a place of spiritual fulfillment and pleasure, and only those who have led exceptionally righteous lives are allowed to enter. Most people wind up in Gehinnom, also known as Gehenna or Sheol, a place of punishment and repentance for sins committed during life. A person is consigned to Gehinnom for no more than twelve months, after which time the person is released to enjoy the peace and tranquility of Olam Ha-Ba. Truly evil souls, though, are thought to be destroyed after the twelve-month sentence.
Since Judaism begat Christianity, there are many similarities between the Jewish and Christian conceptions of the afterlife. Though Christian denominations have their own variations on the Heaven and Hell mythos, most are in agreement on two basic issues. First, Heaven is a glorious place of perfection in which one’s entrance either wholly or partially hinges upon acceptance of Jesus as the world’s lord and savior. Second, Hell is a place of unimaginable suffering and torment reserved for those who have committed heinous sins and who have not sought forgiveness or cleansing from the Church.
The criteria for admission into either Heaven or Hell differs from one denomination to the next. More liberal Christians, for example, even go so far as to deny that Hell exists and claim that everyone winds up in Heaven, while fundamentalist Christian sects insist that one’s ticket to paradise is assured only by being "saved" (ie: accepting that particular sect’s stylized dogma about Jesus Christ). Thus, a mass murderer who accepts that denomination’s version of the Gospel is guaranteed an immediate place in Heaven, while a well-intentioned humanitarian who doesn’t adhere to that particular sect’s doctrines is consigned eternally to Hell. Almost comic contradictions like this have eroded much of the credibility of some Christian denominations, and the conflicting sets of criteria for admission into Heaven seem to reveal more about the temperaments of the church administrators and theologians than about God or the real nature of the afterlife.
Detailed descriptions of Heaven and Hell, replete with heavenly choirs of angels, legions of hideous demons and hellfire that burns you without ever consuming you, have been given to us throughout history by various artists, theologians and dramatists. Dante’s Divine Comedy is perhaps the most famous, and the second part of this drama, Purgatorio, illuminates that third plane in the afterlife which only Roman Catholicism acknowledges. Purgatory, according to Roman Catholic tradition, is a somewhat hellish, jail-like area in which most people spend time in order to be cleansed of their earthly transgressions before admittance into Heaven. The Roman Catholic Church also describes a fourth level of the afterlife, Limbo, in which newborn infants who die without the rite of baptism are consigned.
The Islamic tradition also splits the afterlife into a paradise for the righteous and a hell for sinners. According to one Islamic tradition, after a person dies, two angels appear before the deceased and quiz the newly dead soul on the Islamic faith. A passing grade allows the deceased to enter Heaven, while incorrect answers doom the soul to Hell. Another Islamic tradition describes a frighteningly narrow and dangerous bridge over Hell; the righteous eventually make it safely across to Heaven, and the infidels fall to their damnation.
OTHER VISIONS OF THE AFTERLIFE
The Buddhist concept of the afterlife involves a series of tiered paradises, the topmost of which is Nirvana. In Nirvana, a soul that has perfected itself through virtuous acts during its many earthly incarnations can finally free itself from its human personality and exist as a sort of pure energy. Each person’s destiny is believed to be determined by karma, which is defined as the sum and consequences of a person’s actions during each successive lifetime. The Buddhist belief in reincarnation, then, can be seen as a series of practice runs by which the soul can control its own destiny in the quest to become perfect.
According to the native Japanese religion, Shinto, everyone becomes a ghostlike supernatural entity, known as a kami, after death. The kami behaves much like a guardian angel, intervening in the daily lives of its still-living loved ones. Worshipping and appeasing one’s ancestors are thus key components of the Shinto faith.
NEW AGE DOCTRINES
New Age beliefs also emphasize the existence of the afterlife, and, interestingly enough, many of these beliefs are in agreement with one another. George Anderson, a compelling psychic medium who claims to see and hear spirits of the dead, paints a fascinating picture of the afterlife. According to the spirits he’s contacted, the afterlife is a peaceful, beautiful place in which we can "thought-project" into existence anything our heart desires.
In the afterlife, our dead loved ones greet us and help us get acclimated to this new plane of existence, and we undergo a "life review" in which we—not God or anyone else—pass judgment on how well we spent our time on earth. Anyone who so desires can have a job in the afterlife, such as working with the spirits of animals or counseling the souls of children who’ve passed away. Those people who commit suicide or perform evil acts throughout their earthly lives aren’t sentenced to a fire-and-brimstone Hell; rather, these troubled souls put themselves on a lower plane of the afterlife, a plane with the soothing atmosphere of a hospice, where the souls can come to terms with the anger, fear and despair that have plagued them throughout their lives. Once they have forgiven themselves and taken responsibility for their actions, they can advance to the higher levels of the afterlife. In Anderson’s view, Hell is simply a self-inflicted state of the soul.
The more flamboyant (and probably less credible) psychic medium and author Sylvia Browne gives an almost ridiculously detailed rendering of the afterlife in her book Life On the Other Side. According to Browne’s ’spirit guide’ Francine, the afterlife is full of non-physical towers, buildings, pyramids, sculptures, libraries and a Hall of the Records that houses chronicles of all human knowledge. It is always 78 degrees in the afterlife, and we are always 30 years old on the other side, no matter the age of the physical body we just left behind on earth. Browne’s version of the afterlife dovetails with Anderson’s version in several ways. For example, in Browne’s view souls can "thought-project" cars, houses or whatever else they desire, and souls undergo a "life review" via a so-called Scanning Machine that projects the events of their lives so the souls can determine if they’ve made any spiritual progress while on earth.
Both Anderson and Browne agree on the idea that souls choose most, if not all, of the events and challenges they undergo on earth, from diseases to apparently random accidents. Browne claims that each of us has made a detailed chart of our current earthly life prior to being born into this world, and each chart is filled with countless difficulties and experiences from which we learn crucial spiritual lessons.
THE LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL
Many people who have survived near death experiences tell strikingly similar tales of leaving their physical bodies and traveling through a long corridor or tunnel with a brilliant light at the end of it. Once they "enter the light" they are met by loved ones and given a choice to stay with them or return to the mortal realm. In some such instances they are told that their time or purpose on earth was not completed. Several cases of people who awoke after they had been pronounced legally dead report that the survivors recall floating above their bodies, watching as medical technicians attempted to revive them.
Blaise Pascal, the famous 17th century philosopher and mathematician, addressed the idea of the afterlife with a shrewd and practical philosophy now known as Pascal’s Wager. "We should always live as if the promise of a paradise beyond this world was assured," Pascal said. "That way, if there truly is an afterlife, our honorable actions on this earth will be rewarded— and, if we’ve ’bet’ wrong and there is no afterlife, we’ve still lost nothing because we will have ceased to exist and won’t be able to feel cheated."
The belief in an afterlife has been a deeply ingrained part of human culture since man’s beginnings. Is it fear of death or intellectual vanity that makes us believe in a world beyond this one? Or is it an intuitive, subconscious recognition of the existence of an authentic life beyond this world? Unlike many of life’s mysteries, we will all find the answer to this question... sooner or later.