The afterlife is a very important concept to both Eastern and Western Religions of the world. For many believers what we do with our earthly lives determines how we spend the rest of eternity once we die. For Western religions like Christianity, Judaism and Islam they only have one chance at life in order to live it right and gain peace in Heaven after death because they do not recognise the concept of reincarnation. This is called a linear process. However, for Eastern religions like Sikhism, Buddhism and Hinduism this is completely different with a cyclical process, this is a necessary concept because they have multiple chances in order to unify with God. The afterlife has a different level of importance for each religion and individuals as none of them have identical beliefs and vary in different ways. In this essay I will evaluate how necessary a belief in life after death is for both Eastern and Western religions.
In most instances religious believers appear to be very focused on obtaining a good afterlife by steering their actions and practices in this life towards doing and being good because they want to unify with God whether it means going to heaven or achieving Mukti etc. I know this because of the many biblical passages referring to the afterlife like “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16).
Christians take a linear approach to life after death so they only have one chance to ensure that they have a better afterlife. Therefore, it is an necessary concept central to Christianity. The notion of an afterlife provides Christians with the ethical motivation in order to behave in a way that would steer them towards an afterlife, it is the motivation to have a faith in Christ and in God and it gives Christians a purpose and a goal in which to strive for. Aquinas uses the afterlife as a goal in his Natural Law Theory which is based on principles of Virtue Theory and Catholicism, we were designed for perfection in order to be united with God. Virtue Theory was developed by Aristotle who based it upon the character of the moral agent, his principles were developing a virtuous character in order to gain Eudaimonia and live a good life. His teleological world view was that in order to understand why we do the things we do we must first understand what our purpose is. This links to Christianity and is a necessary concept because Christians also have to understand the afterlife before considering the best actions to allow them to get there.
It gives Christians a strong coping mechanism for suffering with reassurance that they will no longer feel suffering and pain in heaven and loved ones that they have lost are in a better place beyond this life. As it says in the Bible “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.” (Revelations 21:4). This is necessary because it helps to remove the fear of death and instead gives religious believers a reason to do good acts and be good people in order to obtain an eternity of peace in heaven as part of their individual eschatology.
Some Christians also believe that there is a hope of justice in the afterlife. In this earthly life people who sin are not always served the justice they deserve so the afterlife gives assurance to Christians that those who sin will be punished with an eternity of suffering in hell while those who keep in accordance to a religious faith and follow the teachings of Jesus spend an eternity of peaceful bliss unified with God and Christ. This is supported in the Bible “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulphur. This is the second death” (Revelations 21:8). This is necessary to Christians because the suffering that some people inflict in the world is then punished in hell so they do not escape the consequences of their sins. The afterlife is a permanent and far reaching consequence of our behaviour in our earthly lives so therefore we must do everything we possibly can in this life to ensure our eternity in heaven.
The afterlife is a reward for faith and the belief in Christ. As J. S. Whale says “It is illogical to tell men that they must do the will of God...if you also tell them that the obligation has no eternal significance and nothing ultimately depends on it." This is another necessary concept because it gives our existence meaning. If religious believers did not have a belief in the afterlife then what would be the point in following the teachings of Jesus and God’s will because there would be no outcome to this.
Even philosophers like Immanuel Kant includes the afterlife in his Moral Law theory because the theory requires it to be able to reward people for moral behaviour. Kant suggests that the ultimate goal of humanity is the Summum Bonum but we are unable to achieve this in just one lifetime so he proposed the 3 postulates (God, Immortality and Autonomy). For Kant, God is needed to provide us with the afterlife and immortality is needed in order to have enough time to achieve summum bonum. This is necessary because it is an example that proves that even some non-religious societies and ethical theories would still like to think that there is something waiting for them after death for their obedience.
There are valuable teachings of an afterlife provided by the Bible, particularly in Corinthians and the Atonement and death of Christ. Jesus Christ is the only religious founder in the world that has resurrected after death. Therefore it is a very necessary concept to Christians because Christ shows first hand that there is a life after death when he rises from the dead three days after his crucifixion “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15: 3-8). This is a teaching of St. Paul’s in which he sets out that Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead. This is necessary and central to all Christianity because if this event hadn’t happened the question would be raised that how could there be sufficient enough proof for Christians to believe in a resurrection – their universal eschatology and Parousia depend upon Christ’s resurrection and “second coming”. Parousia is necessary because Christians ar always awaiting their final judgement.
The Sikh ultimate end goal is to achieve Mukti. This is to break the cycle of rebirth and merge with God. This is necessary because if they do not focus on achieving Mukti then they became trapped in an endless cycle of rebirth which results in never unifying with God. “The ignorant and oblivious do not serve the true Guru, how will they find salvation? They die only to be reborn over and over again. They continue to be struck down at the door of death” (GGS: 115) this teaching from the Guru Granth Sahib suggests that if Sikhs become ignorant to the concept of an afterlife then they will never be united with God and serve a continuous cycle of rebirth and transmigration of the soul. They also aim to obtain spiritual liberation on Earth, Jivan Mukht, like the 10 Sikh Guru’s. They achieve their desired afterlife by following the 3 Sikh pillars of Kirat Karo, Naam Japo and wand kay shako. These Sikh pillars then include the 5 Sikh virtues and their vices. E.g Love vs. Lust, Contentment vs. Greed, Ego vs. Compassion and so on. They also perform sewa or selfless service and join the Khalsa which is the Sikh brotherhood. These are all necessary concepts that are geared towards obtaining Mukti and uniting with God with is also necessary to Sikhs because they wish to be at peace and freed from the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth.
Hindus also believe that the “atman” or soul goes through a cycle of reincarnation. The speed at which a Hindu can be freed from Samsara is by having good Karma throughout their earthly lives and each Varna (caste) has its own Dharma or duty which must be followed. Once these duties are fulfilled with a life of good karma, Hindus believe that they then come closer to achieving Moksha. Moksha is a necessary concept to Hindus because only once it has been achieved can the atman rest. In Hindu Holy Scriptures it says “Coming right nigh to me, these great of soul, are never born again. For rebirth is full of suffering, knows nothing that abides: free from it now they attain the all-highest prize.” (Bhagavad Gita 8:15) this teaching implies that those who have a ‘great soul’ or have freed themselves from samsara are now free from suffering and attain the highest prize. Hinduism is polytheistic so it lacks one central being to unite with so the highest prize would be salvation in a higher realm as their reward for good karma in the afterlife. This is a necessary concept because once a Hindu has achieved salvation it means they have achieved self-realisation that they are an immortal soul which gives their life a more spiritual meaning and purpose.
However, there are instances within religion that other teachings, beliefs and practises are of more fundamental importance than the afterlife. This is because these actions are in the here and now and not too incomprehensible to fully understand.
In Christianity some teachings may appear to some as more tangible like the 3 Cardinal Virtues of Aquinas’ Natural Law – Faith, Hope and Charity. These encourage Christians to follow Jesus’ teaching of “Love thy Neighbour” and also into having a devoted faith in Christ. In the Bible, a teaching of Jesus’ says "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another" (John 13: 34-35). This shows that Christ was concerned with agape and compassionate behaviour which is why Joseph Fletcher, a Christian philosopher, devised Situation Ethics. We should do the most loving thing and be compassionate to others rather than focus our actions upon rewards. Some Christians would rather focus on the here and now because what happens to us in our earthly lives pose more immediate impacts. They would rather act like Jesus by observing his teachings and be the best they could be for the lifetime they have and be concerned with how their actions affect themselves and others in the present. The afterlife can sometimes be too incomprehensible so it is irrational to focus on this throughout life as there are so many questions about the afterlife that are impossible to answer which may interfere with a religious believer’s faith and make them unsure.
In many cases religious people act out of love and compassion because it is the right thing to do and not because of any self interest in an afterlife. Maximillian Kolbe was a catholic priest who took the place of a young man with a family who was going to be starved to death in Auschwitz. Kolbe died and the man got to survive the camp and go on to live a life with his wife and children. This was an act of genuine kindness and it was not likely that he thought of taking advantage of the situation to achieve a good afterlife. This act identifies to Christ’s own death where he sacrificed his life for the sake of ours. If Christians where to do such actions for the sake of reward God would know because of his omniscient and omnipotent nature.
Even those who are not religious lead good and moral lives without the need to believe in an afterlife. Many philosophers like Aristotle are examples of this, he was not religious and rather than believe in the ultimate goal of life to be what happens in the afterlife he set out our purpose to be achieving Eudaimonia for ourselves and helping others to achieve it at some point in our lifetime in his Virtue Ethics. Successful people like Bill Gates can provide a further example of someone who is living a successful, happy and moral life without focusing on the effects that life will have after death. He has personally donated more than $28 Billion to charities such as Comic Relief and Children’s Vaccination Programme claiming that he has no better use for the money he earns. This is a more important concept than the afterlife because it focuses more on the good of the community.
Karl Marx is a German philosopher and humanist that suggests religion is the ‘opium of the people’ which means that religion is something in society that induces a false and unrealistic sense of contentment amongst people. Marx believed that religion had certain practical functions in society that were similar to the function of opium in a sick or injured person: it reduced people's immediate suffering and provided them with pleasant illusions. He believed that in the absence of an afterlife and any discernible purpose to the universe, human beings can act to give their own lives meaning by seeking happiness in this life and helping others to do the same. This may be more tangible because this would mean that people would be living their lives for the sake of their own happiness and fulfilling this earthly life to its fullest capacity.
Another important concept from a key philosopher that may be more necessary to Christians is Pascal’s wager – Blaise Pascal devised an argument that suggested that all humans bet their life on the existence of God and the afterlife so we should have a belief in this just so that if there is such thing we are able to achieve it but if it does not exist we cease to exist after death just like everyone else. This is believing in the afterlife as a safety net rather than genuine belief out of faith. This may be more essential to believers because it guarantees that they will end up having an afterlife whether they live according to God's will genuinely or out of self-interest.
The Sikh process of the afterlife is cyclical. Therefore, they have more chances in order to achieve Mukti. This means that they may not concentrate on the afterlife as being the sole importance of life. When the transmigration of the soul happens and they get reborn into new bodies they may not be aware of their past karma. Therefore, they would not know what stage in the cycle they are on in achieving Mukti and would not recognise who or what they used to be. This may lead them to focus more on Sewa. Sewa is selfless service and should not be done with the aim of reward. It should be done out of intrinsic intentions in order to help those in need in the community and not with selfish interests. The alternate view of what is more necessary is helping humanity and not for personal spiritual gains. Guru Nanak said “In the midst of this world, do sewa and you shall be given a place of honor in the Court of the Lord.” This teaching encourages Sikhs to perform Sewa and they will then be honored by coming closer to achieving Mukti.
Guru Nanak proposed that there are more tangible practises in Sikhism than the afterlife. Nanak spoke highly of equality among people and suggested that spiritual liberation should be available to all, by doing this he broke down the caste system. Guru Nanak was strongly against all artificially created divisions and all discrimination, both in word and deed. His idea of a caste-free society transpired also in his concepts of Sangat and Pangat. This was his idea of sitting and eating together at the Langar which is a practise still observed today in the Gudwara.
Nanak stressed the importance of worship on the word of God and claimed that his teachings would be understood and practised in three ways: Vand Chhakkna (sharing and helping those in need/sewa), Kirat Karna (making an honest living, no exploitation or fraud) and finally Naam Japna (chanting the holy name and remembering God at all times). In the Guru Granth Sahib it says “Those who do not serve the true Guru, and do not contemplate on the Shabad (Word of God). They cannot comprehend spiritual wisdom; they are like dead bodies in the world. They go through the cycle of 8.4 million reincarnations, and they are ruined through death and rebirth” (GGS: 88) This suggests that if there is no contemplation or meditation on the word of God then Sikhs will not have the wisdom in order to achieve Mukti. This makes Nanak’s teaching on worship a more vital concept in Sikhism because without worship in the first place it is impossible to achieve Mukti.
Hindus also have a cyclical process so they have multiple chances to learn the laws of cause and effect entailed in karma and that their actions have corresponding results. One thing that distinguishes Hinduism from other religions that may be a more important concept to believers rather than the afterlife is that it has a polytheistic approach. This gives the religion a lot of diversity that is largely accepted and embraced within the faith. Hindus each have their own unique methods of worship that allow them to achieve the afterlife in a higher realm. Hindu families undertake puja with shrines of Hindu deities, each household prefer to worship their favourite deities as there are over 330 million deities. This may be more necessary because Hindus believe that by giving these deities offerings in return they will be given traits like luck from Lakshmi, wisdom from Ganesha, protection off Rama and fertility and devotion for women who worship Parvati etc. Festivals are also a very important aspect of Hinduism as a method of worship as it brings them closer to their deities and also gives them the opportunities to be with the community, family and reconciliate old feuds. This only effects Hindus in their present earthly lives and does not have any influence over the afterlife.
To conclude, a belief in the afterlife is necessary for religious believers because it gives reassurance that their hard work and faith in their earthly lives will be acknowledged and rewarded after death, even if it does seem to be an ambiguous and incomprehensible concept. For western religions, like Christianity, it is essential and much more necessary than it may be for Eastern religions that believe they have multiple opportunities to obtain their pursued destination in their afterlife. But even in Eastern religions it still has significant importance as their teachings and practises are directed towards this final aim of liberation and salvation, much the same as in Western Religions. Author Kim Harrison says “Endings are not always bad. Most times they're just beginnings in disguise.” This could be something that emphasises that religious believers find it necessary to believe in an afterlife.