Thursday, October 18, 2012

Death & Dying: An Exploration of Beliefs

Is this.... Heaven? / original by Telstar2000

By Misha Davies
IFC Communications Intern

A couple weeks ago, Newsweek released a cover story entitled “Heaven is Real: A Doctor’s Experience of the Afterlife.” Dr. Alexander, a neurosurgeon and a Christian, recounts his near-death experience (commonly referred to as ‘NDE’s) in which he describes what he believes to be the afterlife, or Heaven.

But what if Dr. Alexander wasn't a Christian or an American? What if he had grown up Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, or in a non-Western country? Would he have had the same experience, and would he have called it “Heaven”?

Today on IFC Dialogues we explore some of the beliefs about death through the eyes of our 11 faith communities. It should be noted that our brief exploration will focus on commonly held beliefs of each, and that further investigation should be done to understand the various differences within groups. Even if you do not identify with any of these groups or beliefs, we’d like to hear what you believe and how this relates (or doesn’t) to your personal religious beliefs or philosophy when it comes to death and the beyond.

            Daughter:     Where do they go [when they die]?
            Father:           Everyone has their own word. Heaven. Paradise.
                                    Whatever it's called, someplace beautiful.
            Daughter:     How do you know it's beautiful?
Father:           Because that's what I choose to believe. What do you believe in?

Prometheus (movie), 2012

Beyond the Body

It is interesting to note that the one common idea shared by all 11 IFC-member faith groups is the idea of an eternal “other” that exists outside of the physical being. Most call this eternal “other” a “soul,” though the characteristics each attributes to such a soul can differ widely.

For those in the West, it is safe to say that the common understanding of a soul is the eternal, non-physical part of our being that is still distinctly “us,” carrying on the characteristics and qualities attained in this life beyond our physical lives. But in Buddhism there is no concept of “us” or the “soul” in this sense. While one’s karma might carry into the next life, the subsequent being(s) that are affected by your karma are not considered to be the same person as your concept of “you.” has a great article “Reincarnation in Buddhism” in which Barbara O’Brien explains this concept between non-soul and karma more in-depth. She goes on to explain karma itself:

Karma is not fate, but simple action and reaction, cause and effect… Buddhism teaches that karma means "volitional action." Any thought, word or deed conditioned by desire, hate, passion and illusion create karma.

In simpler terms, karma is cause-and-effect: do something good? You will have “good karma,” or the effect of having goodness unto you. Eventually the end-goal is Nirvana, known both as an “enlightening” or “extinguishing.” Once Nirvana is reached, the cycle of lives guided by karma ends.

In Lives to Come

Some might consider this cycle of rebirth in karma to be reincarnation. However, it is important to note re-emphasize that the lack of a “self” does not allow for worldly reincarnation of the same “soul,” unlike Hinduism. In Hinduism, one’s good acts in this life are rewarded in entrance to heaven, but this is not an eternal stay. Like a merit-based scale, once your good merits have “run out” so to speak, you are re-born into this world. Like Buddhism, escape from the cycle of rebirth is available to those souls who have overcome karmic consequences to reach Moksha, or “freedom, liberation.”

Jain and Sikh religions hold similar beliefs about the soul’s rebirth until it achieves a form of realization similar or equal to that of Moksha

Rebirth is not limited strictly to this realm of being. In the Baha’i faith there are many worlds beyond this one. They believe that the soul begins at conception in this realm and is immortal, living beyond its human life here on a journey of many subsequent worlds that will bring it closer to God. 

Heaven, Hell or Something In-between

Other religious traditions do not believe in the cycle of reincarnation, instead believing in judgments of one’s soul for entering eternal places of heaven or hell. In Zoroastrianism, a soul stays near the body for three nights in order to reflect upon its life. On the third night it receives judgment based on its thoughts, words, and deeds. Judgment can only be about the soul itself without any influence from other souls. If the good outweighs the bad, the soul enters heaven, and if it is less than the sum of its evil, the soul is sent to hell. Souls with equal amounts of each are sent to an intermediate place. However, at the end of the existence of evil, all souls will be reunited.

In Islam, one is also judged based on actions, behavior and faith for entrance into Heaven (Paradise) or Hell. Unlike Zoroastrianism, there is no intermediate place and all judgment is entirely God’s. But Muslims stress God as the “most Merciful and most Forgiving” (STAR, 2008). Protestant Christianity and Roman Catholicism are very similar to Islam, though some believe that faith alone will admit one into Heaven. In all of these cases, followers’ understanding of what Heaven and Hell are can differ greatly. Some believe in literal places of paradise and suffering, while others believe them to be measures of the distance of a soul from God.

For Latter-day Saints (Mormons), the focus of life after death is on a soul’s distance to or from God in the spiritual realm. When a person dies, his or her soul first enters the Spirit World, which is a place of development and learning. Souls who decide to accept Jesus Christ will eventually be reunited with their bodies eternally and become “heirs of God” and “joint-heirs with Jesus Christ” (STAR, 2008). But those who do not accept Jesus will still receive a reward of some kind according to one’s good deeds.

Doctrines Not Required

Adherents of Judaism don’t have any one understanding of what happens when we die. As a religion that is more “of-this-world,” there is not a significant focus on death or any official doctrine that gives authority to any one claim. Some believe that one’s eternal soul returns back to God, while others might believe that our bodies simply return to the ground and our memories are carried on by those who knew us and our deeds in this world.

Your Turn: Exploring Our Beliefs

There are doubtless many different ideas about what happens when we die and whether there is a possibility of life, in whatever form it might be, after this life. And like Judaism, not all adherents of a particular religion will believe the same thing.

We invite you now to share with us what you believe about death.

What do believe happens when we die?
How are these beliefs related to your religious or philosophical tradition?

*STAR is IFC’s Strengthening Teaching About Religion manual. You can order copies here, or learn more by calling (202) 234-6300.

Each section about our different faith communities’ beliefs used information directly from our STAR manual. The following list are the people who contributed to give their perspectives for each faith community that have been utilized in this blog:

  • Baha’i: Sovaida Manni Ewing
  • Buddhism: William Aken
  • Hinduism: Dr. D.C. Rao
  • Islam: Sanaullah Kirmani, Ph.D.
  • Jain: Dr. Sushil Jain
  • Judaism: Rabbis Fred Scherlinder Dobb and Alana Suskin
  • The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: Mr. Ken Bowler
  •  Protestantism: Rev. J. Philip Wogaman
  • Roman Catholicism: Rev. Dr. Francis Tiso (USCCB) with Mike Goggin and Chris Byrnes (IFC)
  •  Sikh: Amrit Kaur
  •  Zoroastrian: Behram Panthaki with Kersi Shroff
A special thanks to Mr. Lance Walker, who helped review the portion covering Latter-day Saints. We hope to have additional individuals of our various faith communities contribute in the future!

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