What happens when we die?

Different religions hold a wide variety of beliefs about what happens after we die. For many people, believing that death is not the end is a comforting thought. The afterlife brings the promise of reward for good people, and punishment for those who have committed evil deeds. Some believe it may also allow a reunion with loved ones who have passed away. Others believe there is no afterlife, and that when we die that is the end. Can we ever really know?

Explore the issues

Watch Shola as she examines religious and non-religious teachings about death and the afterlife.

Reward and punishment

Most religious people agree that death is not the end, but many have different ideas about what happens after life. Christians and Muslims generally believe that when they die God judges them and their souls go to a place of reward or punishment.

Christians call this heaven or hell. Catholic Christians believe in purgatory, which is place for people who are not evil enough for eternal punishment in hell, but not good enough for heaven. In purgatory they are purified to be accepted into heaven.

Muslims call the place of reward in the afterlife Janna. Jahannam is the word they give to the place of punishment. Janna is described as a paradise full of joy and pleasure in the Qur’an, whereas Jahannam is written about as a place of unending punishment.

Many Jewish people also believe in an afterlife, and that when a person dies, God judges them on how they lived. Most Jewish people believe that they should focus on their present life, and not spend too much time thinking about what happens after death.

Birth and rebirth

Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists believe that people live through lots of cycles of birth and rebirth. This means when you die, you will be born again into another life. This cycle is known as samsara. How good or bad the next life will be is decided by how well a person follows their duties on Earth. These duties are called their dharma.

Karma is a kind of cosmic judgement system: good actions collect good karma, which help to ensure an enjoyable and happy next life and bad actions collect bad karma, which will result in a future life that is not as positive or joyous.

This statue of the Buddha can be found in the Shwemokhtaw Pagoda in Myanmar. It shows the Buddha reclining on a bed during his last illness, shortly before he died and entered parinirvana, thereby being released from the cycle of samsara.

The goal for Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists is to escape from the cycle of samsara, and spend forever in a state of bliss. Buddhists call this nirvana or nibbana, and Hindus and Sikhs call it moksha. Karma and samsara work together to ensure there is fairness and that everyone gets what they deserve in the end.

So, beliefs about life after death for most religious people are about fairness and justice. Whether karma decides the next life or God sends a soul to a place of reward or punishment, most religions teach everyone will face consequences for how they have lived, and no one will escape justice in the afterlife.

Words of wisdom

What do religions and non-religious literature and texts have to say about death? Click the picture below to explore wisdom and teachings.

Is death the end?

People who don’t believe in God or other types of higher beings may conclude that death really is the end. Ideas about divine justice and not really having to die at all may be a solace to religious people, but for most atheists (people who believe there is no God or gods) and some agnostics (people who believe we cannot know whether God or gods exist) there isn’t enough evidence for believing in a life after death.

For many atheists and for some agnostics, death is the end, but it’s not necessarily something to feel frightened or worried about. It means freedom to live without fear of punishment in a next life, and this sometimes motivates people to make the most of their time on Earth.

A Jewish grave at Arlington National Cemetery in the USA. It has become a tradition amongst Jews to place small stones onto graves, rather than flowers or other mementos, in order to remember loved ones who have died.

Life, death and the afterlife in pictures

Buddhism – A sky burial

Buddhism – A sky burial

Most people in Tibet are Vajrayana Buddhists and they believe that once the spirit leaves the body after death, the body becomes an empty vessel. In many rocky and mountainous regions of Tibet, it is difficult to bury a body, and it can be hard to find wood to light cremation fires. For these reasons dead bodies will sometimes left on mountains, to be consumed by vultures. This is called a 'sky burial' and is performed by specially trained people, usually monks. It is seen as a lesson about impermanence, a reminder that nothing lasts forever, and also a final act of generosity by the dead person. Why do you think it is important for people to show their beliefs about what happens after death through end of life ceremonies?

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