1. Introduction to the Developmental View of Religion
When I was a freshman at Baylor University, I took a required religion class from Prof. Kyle Yates. Professor Yates was one of the scholars who worked on the Revised Standard Version of the Old Testament (a.k.a. the Hebrew Bible). When we got to the Persian period of Hebrew history, he began to talk about Zoroaster, the prophet of the Magi. Inspired by his lectures, I went to the library and read the hymns of Zoroaster and thought to myself, “Wow! God talked to someone who wasn’t Jewish!” This started my life-long quest for the generic God in the world’s religions.
For many years, I’ve been active in interfaith work, and my friends and colleagues here in Houston form a tapestry of the world’s religions. I have learned from them. Now that I’m retired, I’m a little old man who lives on the fourth floor of the Rice University Library, still steeped in the world’s religions.
Today, I will be your guide to the Afterlife. You may have been hoping for Beatrice and Dante, but the worship committee wasn’t quite able to conjure them up. I’m going to give you a three-layer view of how people — both ancient and modern — have viewed Afterlife. This is what we in psychology call a “developmental” view of religion because it reflects the way both individuals and societies normally mature.
2. Magic, Deeds and Universalism as Levels of Religious Development
The most rudimentary level of religious development is MAGIC, which includes bribery or other manipulation of the gods in order to guarantee a positive outcome for your Afterlife. In the middle layer, Afterlife is dependent on your DEEDS during your life on Earth, and the history of religious art illustrates the development of this idea across time and cultures. (Interestingly, MAGIC has often been practiced in conjunction with GOOD DEEDS.) The top layer of development is UNIVERSALISM, the concept that God is too good to condemn anyone to Eternal Hell, and that all humans will go to Heaven, either immediately or eventually.
One important thing to know about the study of comparative religion is that it is a wide-open field with many scholars from various disciplines participating, such as Joseph Campbell (literature), Mircea Eliade (history), Paul Brunton (philosophy), Carl Jung (psychiatry), and Sir James Frazier (anthropology). Today, we’ll touch on the Afterlife from the perspectives of religion, history, psychology, sociology, and art.
Most people in the world, regardless of their religion, believe that judgment for the Afterlife is determined by one’s deeds in this life. Simply stated, if your good deeds outweigh your bad deeds, you go to Heaven. But if your bad deeds outweigh your good deeds, you go to Hell.
This is the story of humanity. My point is that human beings across time and culture share one story, although I must tell you that in the East, after an intermediate stage of Heaven or Hell, you have a “sequel” — called “reincarnation“. In other words, in the East, your deeds affect not only your intermediate destination of Heaven or Hell, but also determine the condition of your next life.
a. The Egyptian Book of the Dead
The oldest judgment scene we have in art is a depiction of the EGYPTIAN Book of the Dead which has been seen in tomb art as early as about 3,000 BCE. After the deceased goes into the darkness (which is the body of Nut), he or she comes forth into the light, into the Great Hall of Truth. Osiris is the King of the Afterlife, and Isis is his queen. For over 3,500 years, Osiris was known as the “Resurrection and the Life”. Your deeds in life were judged by weighing your heart against a feather, and woe to those whose heart is heavy with sin!
Next we have judgment in ZOROASTRIANISM, the religion of the Magi. Here, three angels preside over judgment — Mithra, Sraosha, and Rashnu. Rashnu holds the scales, Sarosha is the judge, and Mithra listens to appeals. Your good deeds are weighed against your bad deeds, and then you pass over a bridge. If your good deeds are heavier, the bridge is wide open to you, and you pass over easily. If your evil deeds outweigh your good ones, the bridge becomes narrow, and you fall into Hell. This razor-sharp bridge imagery lives on in Shi’ite Islam.
c. The Abrahamic Religions
In the HEBREW Bible, in the Book of Daniel (Daniel 12:1-3), it is the Archangel Michael who presides over the resurrection. Judaism for the most part forbids artwork, but in CHRISTIANITY, Michael takes his place right below Jesus in the judgment of the dead. It is Michael who holds the scales in which your deeds are weighed. This same scene is repeated in ISLAM, but here the Archangel holding the scales is Gabriel.
d. The Eastern Religions
Next we move from West to East. Most Westerners think that reincarnation is instantaneous, but this is not generally so. For the overwhelming majority of HINDUS and BUDDHISTS, there is an intermediate state between death and re-birth. This intermediate state is presided over by Yama or Yamaraj. In HINDU mythology, Yama was the first king and king of the dead. His assistants weigh your good deeds and, depending on the outcome, you go to Heaven or Hell for three generations. In BUDDHISM, as in its parent religion, Yama judges the dead. Yama is known as “Yama” in Tibet, Nepal, Southeast Asia and Western China. In Eastern China, Korea, and Japan, his name changes, but he is always the same fair judge of the dead. Where he is the king of Heaven in Hinduism, he presides over Hell in Buddhism. In the Tibetan Book of the Dead, a twelfth-century Buddhist work, the intermediate state lasts for 49 days before you are re-born.
4. Magic as the Rudimentary Level of Religious Development
Now let’s step back to analyze the way MAGIC is used to influence Afterlife. Obviously, we are aware of cultures in both the Eastern and Western hemispheres that have used human or animal sacrifice to bribe the gods to do or not do something the petitioner asks. However, this practice has been abandoned by the world’s major religions and can be found in only indigenous religions today. On the other hand, belief in magical powers is still very much a part of our modern culture when it comes to “stacking the deck” in favor of a Heavenly Afterlife.
In most religions, there is a tension between the moral justice of judgment according to deeds and magic to insure a positive verdict. The keys to effective magic are that:
a. Magic in the Egyptian Book of the Dead
In ancient Egypt, the scales of judgment are older than the pyramids, but they co-exist with the magic text of the Egyptian Book of the Dead that enables the deceased to overcome past sins. Countering this are not only the scales, but the instruction for Merikare (2200 BCE) which reinforces the idea of judgment according to deeds.
Additionally, there is the story of Si-Osiris (son of Osiris) and his father, Setne Khaemweset (fourth son of Ramesses II). Si-Osiris is a seer. He and his father watch a funeral procession in which a rich man was being carried with his elaborate belongings to a princely tomb. Shortly after this, they observed the funeral of a poor man wrapped only in a cloth who was being taken for burial in the desert sand. The Egyptian prince remarks to his son that he hopes for a good funeral in preparation for a glorious Afterlife, but his seer son remarks that all things are not as they appear to be. He puts his father into a trance, and the two are transported to the land of the dead where the evil rich man is suffering a hellish fate and the righteous poor man is being comforted by Osiris, Isis, and the Egyptian gods, and is living afterlife in regal splendor.
This shows the development of morality and justice in the Egyptian religion, and some Christian scholars think this is the origin of the story of the rich man and Lazarus in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 16:19-31). The main point here is to underscore the great antiquity of the belief that salvation is by works.
b. Magic in Greek Mythology
In ancient Greece, the Afterlife in very early times was seen as a very gloomy place where everyone went. But by the time of Plato, the idea of judgment according to deeds had developed. In Plato’s Republic, the story is told about Er, the world’s oldest recorded near-death experiencer, who revives on his funeral pyre and tells of a judgment at death by three judges. The good ascend to Paradise, and the evil descend to Hell. But after a period of time, Plato also mentions the possibility of reincarnation. Pythagoras also was an advocate of reincarnation. In the mysteries that were popular in the later Greek and Roman periods, we are given a chance for an “up-grade” in the Afterlife via the magical rites of the mysteries of Orpheus, Dionysus, Demeter and Persephone, Mithra, Isis and Osiris, etc. According to the mysteries of Orpheus, one of the things you were to say was, “I am a child of Earth and the starry Heaven, but Heaven is my home”. Here again, you have to be in the club, and you have to know the secret words.
c. Magic in Judaism’s Day of Atonement
In ancient Judaism, the sins of the Jewish people were magically put into a goat (scapegoat) on the Day of Atonement. Here again, you have to be “in the club” and you (or the priest) have to know the secret words (Leviticus 16:21-22). Modern Jews no longer do this, knowing that God hears our prayers.
Judaism in its early years presented a shadowy Afterlife called Sheol which was very similar to the Hades of early Greece. Jewish writing from 400 – 100 BCE which is found in the Catholic, Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, and Coptic Christian Bibles (which Protestants refer to as the Apocrypha) have some references to a Heaven or Hell state prior to the last judgment (2 Esdras 7:75-101). The Apocryphal books also abound with angels who are named (e.g. Raphael in the Book of Tobit). The Jewish Pseudepigrapha (200 BCE – 70 CE) have Heaven and Hell (especially Enoch I, Enoch II, and Enoch III). These books of Enoch are not in the Hebrew Bible, and only 1st Enoch made it into the Coptic Christian Bible. The books were, however used by the Essenes and figure into the Judaism prior to the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. The Rule of Community (also known as the Manual of Discipline) and the War of the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness in the Dead Sea Scrolls of the Essenes are especially rich in imagery of Heaven and Hell. After 70 CE, Rabbinic Judaism developed, and the resulting Hebrew Bible has references to Sheol, the Messianic Time and to the Last Judgment in the Book of Daniel.
d. Magic in Christianity’s Faith in the Name of Jesus
In Christianity, this magic level is practiced by those who say that “belief in Jesus” assures an exclusive ticket to Heaven. You have to be “in the club” (that is, be a Christian), and you have to know the secret words, which in Fundamentalist Christianity are found in John 3:16 or John 14:6. While Liberal Christians and many moderate Christians see Jesus as the “suffering servant” of Isaiah who died to bring us the word, Fundamentalist Christians delight in being “saved“. That belief alone will save you is an idea as old as the followers of the Hindu gods Shiva and Lord Krishna. Its positive side is the devotional path in which the followers identify with and emulate the god. In Christianity, we see this positive emulation in those kind and loving souls who model their lives on Jesus. One is reminded of the words of the beautiful old Gospel hymn, “In the Garden”:
e. Magic in Hinduism’s Devotion to a God’s Name
In Hinduism, the devotional path is expressed in the prayer:
“Krishna, Krishna, Hare, Hare”, in other words, “Krishna, Krishna, Redeemer, Redeemer.”
Magic in Hinduism is best illustrated by the idea that if you die with the name of Vishnu or one of his incarnations, such as Rama or Krishna, on your lips all of your sins are taken away and you go straight to Nirvana (heaven). There are times when we all need a little magic. The last words of Gandhi were “Rama, Rama.”
f. Magic in Buddhist Texts and Chants
In Buddhism, magic is represented in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Being “in the club” (that is, being Buddhist) and having your relative or a monk read the secret words of the Book of the Dead by your corpse. This will enable you to become aware in the Afterlife and chose the things which will assure you a good re-birth. Also in Pure Land Buddhism by invoking the name of the Buddha at death, you will be transported to a Pure Land of Bliss in the West by Amitabha (the Buddha of Infinite Light), who is also known as O-Mi-To (China) and Amida (Japan) (Flotz, 2004, p. 73; Nigosian, 2000, p. 89). There you can continue the process of liberation under blissful conditions. Another “savior” Bodhisattva is Ti-tsang and anyone who chants his name will have their sins wiped away (Teiser, 1988, p. 187).
a. Universalism in Zoroastrianism
Having looked at the developmental level below judgment by deeds, let us look at the level above it — UNIVERSALISM. The concept of Universalism as an idea is as old as Zoroaster. Around 1600 – 1200 BCE (like Moses, the exact date of his life is not known), Zoroaster preached these basic concepts; see if they sound familiar:
He also preached that:
“There is a long period of punishment for the wicked and reward for the pious, but thereafter, eternal joy shall reign forever” (Yasna 30.11).
In other words, Hell is for rehabilitation, not for torture.
This idea may be as old as Zoroaster, but it is as new as modern-day near-death experiencers, many of whom died into Hell but found themselves rescued when they called out to God or (in the West) called out to God or Jesus.
b. Universalism in Judaism
In Judaism, Universalism is reflected in the Messianic Time described primarily in the Book of Isaiah and Jeremiah (Isaiah 2:2, Isaiah 2:4, Isaiah 12:1-2, Isaiah 25:6-8, Isaiah 39:3-5, Isaiah 66:18, Isaiah 66:23, Jeremiah 31:31-34). The Rabbis of the Midrash say that one can stay in Hell only one year.
c. Universalism in Christianity
In Christianity, the idea of Universalism is a very old and enduring theological position. Its major proponent in early Christianity was Origen (185–254 CE). In the nineteenth century, the Universalist Church was for a time the fifth or sixth largest denomination in the United States. In the twenty-first century, Universalism is advocated by Christians from diverse backgrounds, including some post-Vatican II Catholics and Primitive Baptists. The Biblical references which support Universal Salvation                     are second in number only to Good Works as the way to Salvation           .
d. Universalism in Islam and the Eastern Religions
“Surely a day will come over Hell when there shall not be a human soul in it.”
The Bahai religion sees a continuous progression of souls toward perfection after death. In the East, Hinduism and its children — Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism — all allow for the potential for all to be saved. When Pam and I attended the Jade Buddha Temple a few years ago, they were singing:
When one looks at the plight of humanity through the eyes of a parent, it is easy to see that Universalism makes sense. God is infinitely nicer than the best human beings you know. If you are a panentheist like me, you know that God is in all of us, and we are all in God. God knows the assets and limitations of each human soul. Unlike the State Board of Pardons and Parole, God knows how to rehabilitate people.
Once upon a time before time mattered, people worshiped the Great Spirit, saw every living thing as possessing a spirit, and saw Afterlife as a Happy Hunting Ground. That sounds Universalist to me. So maybe we have come full circle. To quote Jesus in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas:
“Have you discovered the beginning, then, so that you are seeking the end? For where the beginning is, the end will be.”
Flotz, R. (2004). Spirituality in the land of the noble: How Iran shaped the world’s religions. Oxford: Oneworld, p. 73.
Nigosian, S. A. (2000). World religions: A historical approach (3rd ed.). Palgrave Macmillan, p. 89.
Teiser, S. (1988). Having once died and returned to life: Representations of hell in medieval China. Harvard Journal of Asiatic studies, p. 187.
Vincent, K. R. (2005). The golden thread: God’s promise of universal salvation. New York, NY: iUniverse.