‘Heaven and hell might just be a state of mind’
They say death is the only thing guaranteed in this life. It is the one common denominator between us all. It’s also quite possibly the only thing about the human experience that is unknown to us. No one living truly knows happens after death – at least not from a spiritual perspective.
When my brother died in 2017, I found myself thinking about death — specifically what happens after death — more than I ever had before. It happened at a time in my spiritual journey when I had just made the conscious decision to step back from the traditional Christian beliefs I had been raised in and explore other ideas about God and faith.
I had been raised in the Seventh-day Adventist faith which believes that when someone dies they enter an unconscious sleep until Judgement Day. And on “that great getting up morning” we could be reunited with our loved ones if both of us believed in and accepted Jesus Christ as our Saviour.
But in that moment — as I looked in the ground at a wooden box housing the remains of my sibling – I was not sure I believed that any longer.
That traditional Christian belief has provided comfort to many who grieve. But at that time in my spiritual journey, it didn’t bring me any solace. At the burial I remember standing over the grave, looking down at his coffin and asking myself, what happens next?
Thoughts of heaven and hell filled my mind. Where was my brother going? Where was I going? Would I see him again? Is this really the end? I did not know the answer to any of those questions.
Not knowing if I would ever experience my brother – either in the spirit or in the flesh – again has been the hardest part of my grieving process.
In my desire to find some sense of peace or acceptance, I decided to learn what different world religions and faiths believe about the state of the dead and life after death. Until then I had never concerned myself with differing beliefs.
I wasn’t quite sure what I was hoping to discover but, if nothing else, this proved to be an enlightening exercise.
I was already familiar with the Christian belief that people who die after accepting Jesus Christ as their Saviour will receive the gift of eternal life — in heaven — after the second coming of Christ. Those who do not accept Christ will go to hell. Of course, there are some conditions and several different interpretations of this from denomination to denomination. But, in its simplest form, this is the general consensus.
Most Christians believe that their loved ones who have died in Christ are already in heaven, and they will be reunited with them when they get there. While other Christians, like Seventh-day Adventists, believe that the dead are asleep in Christ and will be resurrected at the second coming to join those who are living to spend eternity with Christ in heaven.
I was surprised as I studied to learn that Muslims also believe there is life after death for faithful followers of Allah. On the day of judgement those who have received forgiveness from Allah and lived righteously will earn their reward and will be allowed into Jannah, or paradise.
The Jewish faith, on the other hand is a bit different. Orthodox Jews are still anticipating the coming of a messiah. As such, their ideas on life after death are varied and have been widely debated by religious scholars.
While the faith has long taught that there is – or will be – life after death, the details remain unknown. It is believed that at the time of death the soul returns to God, but whether or not the soul will be reunited with the body is yet to be shown.
Other faiths have very different ideas about life after death which are in bold contrast to these Abrahamic, monotheistic religions.
Buddhists, for example, believe that humans who have not reached a state of Nirvana (total enlightenment) will be reborn immediately after their death. They will receive another body – sometimes human and sometimes animal depending on their karma – and will experience another cycle of life.
Similarly, Hindus believe that when someone dies, he or she is born again into a different body, largely determined by their deeds in a previous life.
Baha’is do not believe in reincarnation or that the soul is reborn in a different body. However Baha’i teachings state that the soul does not die, it endures everlasting, and death is simply a reunion with God.
Each religion mentioned here has its own variation of what life after death might be like. But in reality, none of us knows. Each idea is equally as far-fetched as the other. It requires radical faith to believe any of it.
At the conclusion of all these studies, I am truly no closer to understanding anything about life after death, or if I will ever experience my brother again in this lifetime or another. And to be quite honest, I am no longer trying to figure it out.
At first, I was disappointed because I had hoped to find some comfort in knowing. But now that I know that I will never truly know, I can either be preoccupied by all the “what ifs”, or I can be present in what is and take every opportunity to create a life filled with love, compassion, joy, hope and adventure. A life that makes an impact while I am living and is meaningful beyond the grave.
After all, heaven and hell might just be a state of mind.