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Concepts of the after-life (life after death) in Eastern and Western religion (as opposed to scientific thought.)


photo of a great-grandson by Mary Molina, who reserves copyright

Today we are going to have a completely non-scientific digression.

Concepts associated with “afterlife” according to Google (this stuff writes itself):

“Afterlife”: Wikipedia: “The afterlife (also referred to as life after death) is the belief that the essential part of an individual’s identity or the stream of consciousness continues after the death of the physical body.”  This will be the main theme of this post.

  • Wikipedia: “Consciousness after death: “Scientific research has established that the mind and consciousness are closely connected with the physiological functioning of the brain, the cessation of which defines brain death. However, many believe in some form of life after death, which is a feature of many religions.”
  • survival of brain after death: “Bone, tendon, and skin can survive as long as 8 to 12 hours. The brain, however, appears to accumulate ischemic injury faster than any other organ. Without special treatment after circulation is restarted, full recovery of the brain after more than 3 minutes of clinical death at normal body temperature is rare.”
  • consciousness after cessation of blood flow to brain: lasts approximately four seconds before unconsciousness (lack of thought, feelings, or sense impressions) supervenes.
  • “Consciousness after death is a common theme in society and culture in the context of life after death. Scientific research has established that the mind and consciousness are closely connected with the physiological functioning of the brain, the cessation of which defines brain death.”  (Wikipedia: “Consciousness after death”)
  • Eternal oblivion: Wikipedia: “Eternal oblivion (also referred to as non-existence or nothingness) is the philosophical or religious concept of one’s consciousness permanently ceasing upon death. This concept is often associated with religious skepticism and atheism.”
  • Does dying hurt?–The Atlantic: “The last senses to go are usually hearing and touch.  Whether dying is physically painful, or how painful it is, appears to vary. … It probably doesn’t hurt.  Sep 9, 2016”  In fact, when you die, the pain probably stops.  Being alive is what hurts.
  • Dying and returning to life: Wikipedia, “The Lazarus syndrome”: “Lazarus syndrome, (the Lazarus heart) also known as autoresuscitation after failed cardiopulmonary resuscitation, is the spontaneous return of a normal cardiac rhythm after failed attempts at resuscitation. Its occurrence has been noted in medical literature at least 38 times since 1982.”
  • Does dying feel like sleeping?– The Independent: On the sensation of death…
    “Both times I was just “not there”. It was just all black. I would describe it as when you take a nap. A short nap with no dream, you wake up and it feels like you’ve been sleeping a long time, when in reality it’s only been about 15 minutes.”  Feb 25, 2015

These are some of the top question-answers returned by Google when you ask “life after death” or similar questions… they are interesting on this subject for several reasons.

First, the Wikipedia article: “Afterlife.”  The initial distinction is what happens when a person (or animal) dies.  In original human thought, there arose the idea or hope that one’s consciousness could continue or restart after death– this is an easy mental jump because intelligent animals have a hard time accepting that a dead fellow-being is gone or “really dead.”  Elephants, for example, repeatedly try to revive a dead companion and only accept the death after repeated attempts and a significant delay.

The concept of afterlife, therefore, was present very early in human thinking.  What is hoped to happen can be readily divided into two types: first, that the person is reborn on a spiritual plane: call this rebirth.  This can be subdivided into Heaven and Hell but according to the ancient Greeks there was only Hades or the underworld.  The second major type of life after death is reincarnation, subscribed to by Hindu and Buddhist as well as Jain-ist thought; in this afterlife, one returns in the body of another or in the physical form of a higher or lower animal or even an apparently inanimate object.

Reversing course, the scientific or “atheist” concept is simply that a person’s consciousness ends shortly after physical death; for a few seconds or a minute, one is still able to hear, but even that peters out after a little while, never to return.  This is called “eternal oblivion” by Wikipedia, and there is a chapter with this title.  The supporting evidence for this point of view is the experimental finding that consciousness is a phenomenon that occurs when an organized nervous system is awake under sympathetic stimulation (there is a brain region called the median raphe that stimulates the rest of the brain to function.)  When a nervous system becomes disorganized due to deterioration of its components, consciousness is lost.  Once lost, that particular individual consciousness can never be restored.

Everything with a recognizable central nervous system can be said to have “consciousness” but “self-awareness” is probably a more important aspect of consciousness.  “Self-awareness” is the concept that, when one looks in a mirror, one can recognize oneself.

It is theoretically possible to simulate that individual consciousness by reconstructing its components.  Most likely, this would be done by applying the inputs of memory units or “engrams” (which vary according to how a person remembers incidents in their life) to an intelligent system like a general-purpose computer.  A person, under this theoretical framework for reconstructing a personality, is the sum total of everything that a person remembers, everything that has happened to them and everything they have done.  This is, so far, completely theoretical and would have to be tested using a sufficiently complex computer (not yet widely available) and custom memories laid down by a person who cooperates in the reconstruction of that person’s individual consciousness.  This is the stuff of science fiction.

To return to religious or philosophical concepts: “Soul or psyche (Ancient Greek: ψυχή psykhḗ, of ψύχειν psýkhein, “to breathe”) comprises the mental abilities of a living being: reason, character, feeling, consciousness, memory, perception, thinking, etc.  … The soul is the ‘driver’ in the body. It is the roohu or spirit or atma, the presence of which makes the physical body alive. Many religious and philosophical traditions support the view that the soul is the ethereal substance” (Wikipedia: “Soul”)

But the spirit is:  “The human spirit includes our intellect, emotions, fears, passions, and creativity. In the models of Daniel A. Helminiak and Bernard Lonergan, human spirit is considered to be the mental functions of awareness, insight, understanding, judgement and other reasoning powers.”  (Wikipedia: “Spirit”)– two overlapping concepts.  The Holy Spirit is: “For the majority of Christian denominations, the Holy Spirit, or Holy Ghost, is the third person of the Trinity: the Triune God manifested as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit; each entity itself being God.” (Wikipedia: Holy Spirit)  However, to Catholics, “Unlike the human body, the soul is an image of God. The body cannot be an image of God, otherwise God would look like a human being with a human body. Only the soul can see God, but it is caught between the flesh and spirit.”

By the way, the only unforgivable sin is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.  I’ll deal with that some other time, maybe in a discussion of sin in general.  I mention it because I just found it out while reading about life after death.

To the Abrahamic religions (descendants of Abraham: Judaism, Christianity, Islam– monotheists) the soul is eternal and unchanging.  One’s soul persists after death and is subject to rewards and/or punishments depending on one’s behavior in life; there’s only one go-around.  To Buddhists, there is no single eternal soul or spirit that is passed on; everything changes constantly.  However, one can suffer or find reward depending on what one has done during life– this is accumulating karma.

To Hindus, the soul is a fixed quantity and is treated according to what the person has done during one’s life and during one’s past lives as well.  The soul is reincarnated directly as an unchanging quality.  The soul discards its old body like an old suit of clothes and takes on a new body like putting on new clothes.  In between reincarnations, one receives punishments or rewards; after these are done, then one returns to Earth.

Both Buddhists and Hindus believe that a person is reincarnated over and over again, as lower and lower beings or as higher and higher beings– depending on one’s behavior in the previous life.  If one is particularly bad in a human life, one could be reborn as a cockroach or even a bacterium.  Actually, since these beliefs predate the use of lenses to magnify things, reincarnation is probably limited to macroscopic beings.  I don’t know if one could be reincarnated as a photosynthetic organism.  If you are really good, you will reach nirvana and stop being reincarnated.

The two types of religion, Abrahamic and, let’s say, Indian, also differ on what happens later.  To the Indians, there was a very long time-scale: millions or billions of years before things will come to an end.  To the Abrahamic religions, the “Second Coming” is coming fairly soon.  At the Second Coming, “the dead will be raised incorruptible” and everyone will receive their final judgement.  After that, the wicked will burn forever in Hell, and the virtuous will stay on in Paradise enjoying their presence with G-d.  Actually, there is considerable variation among different Abrahamic religions as to the details; for instance, Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe in afterlife at all for sinners, only for the virtuous.

This is called “eschatology”, which is a hard word to spell and which contains some very primitive attitudes.  According to Christian, especially Catholic, eschatologists, you are damned eternally if you don’t accept Christ and confess your sins before you die.  You only get one chance.  This seems like a narrow attitude.  During the Medieval period in Europe and well after, common people were constantly in fear of dying “unshriven” and going to Hell if they didn’t have a chance to confess their sins and be forgiven by a properly consecrated individual.  People were afraid of going to Hell for the slightest mistake.  The Church exploited this fear to keep people in line.

The Buddhists, on the other hand, preached tolerance.  They accepted the beliefs of other religions and accepted the idea that other traditions had wise things to say.  There was no preaching of fear if one did not stay on the narrow path.  There is a major difference here: the right way, to Christians, was narrow and hard to follow, and tolerance was absent.  To followers of the Tao (for example), it is said “My Way is broad and easy to follow.  But people delight in going off the beaten track and wandering along the byways.”

This is a little off the main topic of “afterlife”.  The general idea is that life after death is a very old human concept and it takes two general forms: one is reincarnation and the other is rebirth, or spiritual life after death.  Usually with reincarnation it will happen many times, and with the spiritual life it only happens once or twice.  In rebirth, one will exist in an intermediate place before the final judgement; if one existed before the time of Jesus Christ, one is stuck there forever in a place called Limbo.  Some Christian denominations say that one is “asleep” until the Second Coming.

All religions preach something like karma: one is rewarded for good deeds or punished for evil deeds.  The consequences, however, are not immediate unless one has done something particularly bad.  In Buddhism, there is anantarika-karma– any one of five terrible sins such that anyone who commits one will go to hell.  For your reference, these five are: intentionally killing your parents, killing an arhat (a fully enlightened being), shedding the blood of a Buddha, or creating a schism within a Buddhist community.  Or, if you are Catholic, blaspheming against the Holy Spirit.

That’s more than enough for today.


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