Restorum in Pax. Rest in Peace. It’s only natural to fear the unknown, how much more so when it comes to the fear of death. We instinctively cling to life. Yet, death comes to us all and is a natural outcome of the decline of our physical selves. But what happens to us? Where do we go?
In Islam, the faithful are assured of a life after death: “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,” (Quran, 45:24-26). In the Jewish tradition, the Torah vaguely describes life after death in figurative ways as it is observed by the living. There is a common theme that those who pass on rejoin their ancestors even as there is a finality to the death of the physical body — “For you are dust and you will return to dust,” (Ecclesiastes 3:19-20).
Still, aside from the relatively few people with near-death experiences and share remarkably similar perceptions, there’s no physical evidence of life after death. In 18th century colonial America, it was common for tombstones to bear a prophetic message from the grave: “Where you are now, I once was. Where I am now, you will be.”
Like in other faith traditions, death isn’t the end of life in Buddhism but a portal to new realms. The physical body dies to this world but the spirit seeks a new body and a new life in the realm beyond. A soul is thus reborn into one of six realms: heaven, human beings, Asura, hungry ghost, animal and hell. Yet none of these worlds are permanent and one’s transition from one realm to the next is dependent on the accumulated karma of the soul — karma being the seed of action that bears the fruit of happiness or suffering.
There is ample evidence of a similar life after death in Christianity, a life that is based on faith. From among many examples, here are two taken from the Gospel of John: Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live,” (John, 11:25), and “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you,” (John, 14:2).
In the Baha’i Faith, there is a special relationship between the soul and the body that exists only during the span of mortal life. When the body dies, it returns to its origins even as the soul ascends to the spiritual realm: “Blessed is the soul which, at the hour of its separation from the body, is sanctified from the vain imaginings of the peoples of the world. Such a soul liveth and moveth in accordance with the Will of its Creator, and entereth the all-highest Paradise….The nature of the soul after death can never be described, nor is it meet and permissible to reveal its whole character to the eyes of men…” (Baha’u’llah: “Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah,” p. 156)
Most religions, then, share a common understanding about life after death:
- There is some realm or world which follows this earthly plane.
- Our behavior in this world influences our happiness in the next one.
- Life after death is understood largely in terms of faith alone and, judging by the lack of empirical evidence, this is an intentional limitation.