An Intellectual Look at the History of Death and Afterlife


April 18, 1991





††††††††††† The idea of death and the afterlife is a topic that everyone can relate to. Whether one has allegiance towards western religion, eastern religion, or no religion at all (atheism), the idea of life after death exists in the minds of many. The common presumption is that we will eventually enter an existence with an all mighty being into a world where it is much better than the one in which we live in now. Throughout history, there has always been criticism towards any ideology of the afterlife. However, it is appropriate for man to constantly question such topics that he himself is unsure of. The idea of an afterlife began as far back in history as primitive man. These ideas created what is now a traditional ideology of heaven and hell. It was from that point on that the topic of life after death becomes an impelling and diverse interest of man.



††††††††††† The idea of death and afterlife correlates directly with religion, and its concepts have been with religious notions since the very beginnings of man. It is obviously unclear to determine to what degree early man adopted the idea of the afterlife, but nevertheless, it has been kept within historical context anyway. Thus, this how the idea of death and the afterlife may have began during the times of primitive age.

††††††††††† Before it is possible to explain the history of death and the afterlife, one must make clear that there are many different religions that hold this idea. However, there seems to be a fundamental similarity towards afterlife, and this is how this paper will be structured.

††††††††††† As it turn outs, primitive ideas began with the concept know as animism (Barnes Vol.(1), 1965). This idea is basically defined as the belief in immortality of oneís spiritual self continuing on to exist after life. According to Barnes, the creation of the supernatural being was actually brought up by the basis of man himself as oppose to an all mighty being that created the existence of life as we know it (Barnes Vol.(1), 1965). In other words, it is possible to see the analogy that the idea of entering into another life came about from the ideas and needs of man. This aspect will be covered more thoroughly next. Heaven and Hell.

††††††††††† The idea of good and evil sprits controlling the afterworld set the roots for what later Christianity (Barnes Vol.(1), 1965). It is possible that this point of time in which certain images began to evolve in what eventually became traditional acceptance of life after death. That is, we have obtained the notion that it is nice and lovely in heaven and only the good go there, or it is ugly and lonesome in hell and only the evil dwell there. However, it is quite often that certain questions are asked as to why such a concept was originated in the first place. The next section will discuss this aspect.

††††††††††† It would appear that the idea of a future life with good and evil realms was created in order to bring out order within man material life. However, this an aspect that is often highly debatable- Cullman argues that these primitive ideas were brought up on basis of hope; it explains that man is actually afraid of death, and it was used as a way of repressing this aspect (Cahn and Shatz, 1982).



††††††††††† As Christianity grew, so grew the ideas of life after death. As far as an intellectual level of religion is concerned, this was right at the time of the development of rationalistic ideas. Of the many rationalists, John Locke more notable individuals of that time (Barnes Vol.(2), 1965). He accepted the idea of future life with it an enlightened form of Christianity (Barnes Vol.(2), 1965). The main advancement that this thinking idea of death was that it now laid the reasoning instead of mere dogmatic acceptance I was one of the being based on brought to the foundation of (Barnes Vol.(2) 1965). It seemed that now believing in Christianity and the afterlife, in particular, had some logical basis of acceptance.

††††††††††† However, as always there will be criticism towards any towards any new idea, and for this concept it was no different. These criticisms came mainly from a group of individuals known as deists (Nagee, 1987). There basic claims against individuals such as Locke was that they were in favor of an empiricist point of view (Magee, 1967). That is, it is not possible to establish grounds for a spiritual life simply because we have no sensory perception of it. Looking at it from this perspective, it is not hard to agree with these individuals. Since there is no way of truly verifying the existence of such a life, we still persist to have this negativism within ourselves. Until that day comes when we can study the afterlife through an objective way just as we do our own physical world, we can only accept this idea as a mere opinion.



††††††††††† At the turn of the 19th century certain religious trends began to reoccur. As previously stated, deistism was beginning to develop, and with it came the emphasis of objective reasoning towards religion. In respects to life after death, criticisms such as unverifiable proofs were becoming increasingly more expressed. In other words, how can we experience the spiritual world when in our own physical life, that which is so highly relied on sensory perception, can not be experienced with it?

††††††††††† However, as religion reached the 19th century, a revival by Methodism became evident (Barnes Vol.(3), 1965). During this time spiritual grounds returned, and the idea of empiricism became deemphasized. Why then, this revival for spiritual outlook of human life? Barnes argues that the reemphasis on making ideas pertaining to future life or Godly figures gives humans more moral freedom (Barnes Vol.(3), 1965). Arguments supplied by Kierkegaard may have given a better explanation of this aspect. Summarizing his approximation argument, Kierkegaard states, and the greatest attainable certainty with respect to anything historical is merely an approximation (Cahn and Shatz, 1982). In respects to death and afterlife, it would appear that mere faith is all we can accept with something that deals with the future, and that if it is the only means of an objective measure, then why not use it. An explanation such as this is plausible and convincing enough to make one accept that attitude.



††††††††††† Now that we have taken a brief look at how the history of afterlife, within the religious content, has evolved to modern times, we can take a look at the ideas of what it may be like with in the context of certain religions.


Western Ideas of the Afterlife

††††††††††† As far as contemporary Christianity is concerned the common belief in future life is that after death we will be given new and glorious bodies in heaven (Badham, 1976). However, this concept also brings along many varied arguments. First, there is the idea of resurrection into a terms as new body, and this concept is known in Christian physical continuity (Badham,1976). On a personal note towards this view, one can see that there might be some credence. The idea of entering into another totally new body may well explain the ever controversial devalue phenomena that many of us experience.

††††††††††† On the other end of this view is the view lies with the idea of becoming a spiritual organism equivalent to that of our own physical body (Badham, 1976).

This is the view that is probably the most widely accepted view especially since each of us holds our own unique personality and characteristics. In this respect, this

view seems much convincing at least from rationalism point of view.

††††††††††† Finally, there are Christian theologians who deny any existence of life after death (Badham, 1976). It is possible that these theologians felt that death is all a part of Gods process of creation, and that returning to nothingness is just something that is part of our own destiny. Bultman points out, n believing that in the hope for a future life is not merely unintelligible to modern man it is completely meaningless (Balham, 1976). Itís hard to see how these individual donít accept any existence of an afterlife, but maybe it is these individuals that might well be the most represented view of contemporary views from western thought.


Eastern Ideas of the Afterlife

††††††††††† The previous idea encompassed ideas from western culture (Christianity), but it should be also noted that eastern theology had their views about the after life as well. Since there are many eastern religions, this paper will only cover the idea of contemporary Buddhism, for it is the most widely used eastern religion today. Thus, although preceding aspects of death and the afterlife will encompass western societal views, this is an appropriate time to elaborate on the eastern ideology of death and the afterlife.

††††††††††† Concept of life after death with Buddhism encompasses the idea of Nirvana in which pending on how one has conducted his previous life, one may be elevated to a higher life (Lafleur, 1980). For Buddhism, it appears that death is more of a rebirth process. According to Dogen, it was the accumulated amount of Karma (Good deeds) that determined where one will end up in his nest life (Lafleur, 1980). This theology must have laid moral grounds for an individual especially since he believed that these good deeds would advance him in life. It is no wonder that Japan in particular continues to hold much these ideological views, and it possible that it allows them to prosper so well.



††††††††††† Before continuing on with further aspects of death and the afterlife, it is important to understand the attitudes that exist today in the 20th individual in the western society. As it was previously explained, traditional ideas brought up a concept of heaven and hell. It can be argued that this belief no longer exists. That is not say that the concept of heaven hell or any idea of an afterlife, for that matter, is not kept within the individual , but instead today it appears that it is only used as a frame of reference. Kelsy, questions ďwhere has the conviction of life after death gone.Ē It can be answered through the idea known as individualism (Kelsy, 1982). The term involves concentrating and centering oneís own involvement with himself. It now appears that our material and physical selves are the most important concerns for us all (Kelsy, 1982). It is not hard to accept this view especially if one were to look into contemporary manís thoughts, for the view that most of us have of the afterlife is usually one that is quiet vague or withdrawn. According to Pittenger, a parody exist within our society, and that is unlike before in which we accepted fear or joy of the contemplation of heaven and hell now this attitude no longer exists (Pittenger, 1980).



††††††††††† Now that an ideology on death an afterlife has been established, it is important to emphasis other aspects pertaining to the idea of future life. In particular, these aspects include the nature of afterlife and how it currently affects the living individual and his society, and various accounts of real life near death experiences since it is the closest thing we can accept as an idea of the afterlife.


Effects of Afterlife on the Individual

††††††††††† It is accepted as an obvious truth that the future expectations of death and a possible afterlife must have some bearing on an individual as he is living in his physical world. Although, as previously stated, contemporary man no longer adheres to the true faith of life after death, it is not say that he has totally abandoned it from the framework of his mind. It is no longer important to express what is existing in the afterlife, but instead lay grounds to explain in what degree it affects contemporary man. It has been argued by both Karl Marx and Max Weber that belief in life after death does in fact create social integration (Hynson, 1979). Whether it is true or not remains to be seen on the basis of further research, but it makes clear to some extent that beliefs do adhere to degrees of positive outcomes for the individual. With in the same lines of this topic lies the belief of the common individual, and his idea towards his own destiny of afterlife. In one study, it clearly showed that individuals believe that their own afterlife is a favorable one (Dixon and Kinlaw, 1983). What then is the point of all of this? It seems that no matter what ideology contemporary society has, whether western, eastern, or individualism, there is a degree of underlying faith. It may be something that man unconsciously wants to preserve within himself. Thus, if this fact is true then there is actually no need for any objective truth in understanding the afterlife, for if one wishes to accept a belief simply on the premise that it is something that he wants to believe, then that alone may be enough to hold together idea that is fundamentally impossible to ever really figure out.


Near Death Experiences

††††††††††† Recently studies of near death experiences have been of great interest in science. Although right now in our day and age, there is actually no real way of certifying one type claim towards another, but studying near death experiences does have precedence towards understanding the afterlife. It is possible, however, that mere death experiences are only mere unconscious dreams based on our biased acceptance, or it may actually be the real thing. Nevertheless, it is an important topic with in contemporary theories of life after death.

††††††††††† In a previously published article, the author Salladay emphasizes certain actual cases of near death experiences. From her report, it clearly shows that many of the experiences are varied (Salladay, 1983). Particularly interesting were reports of out of body experiences made by some these individuals. It appears to be quite analogous to the idea of spiritual being having been separated from the physical being, and this, of course, ties in directly with dualism. Clearly, there is a relationship between it and certain religious theologies. In another report noted Jung, be talks about an individual who was unlikely to lie and in no way could have had any psychic remembrance of what happen, yet he displayed similar unconscious observations (Kelsey, 1982). There are obvious explanations for these experiences, but for now we can only speculate on certain theories that researchers have. Nevertheless, these and other such experiences nay help to develop the idea of afterlife for future societies to come.



††††††††††† As previously discussed near death experiences seems as the only real method known to man for tapping into the spiritual unknown. However, there is still no real way of obtaining any actual evidence for the explanation of the individualís experiences. Even with an individualís elaboration on the experience, it is often too vague to actually make any advancements towards death studies.Recently, with technological advances, and through common physics, science may allow us to probe deeper into this aspect of life after death. This idea deals with the Electromagnetic Radiation means of permitting continuation of consciousness beyond the death of the body (Slawinski, 1987). In summarizing the main points of the paper, the method involves measuring death flashes through low intensity luminescent lights, the eventually reading it of the EEG brain waves. This method not only encompasses extreme complexity, but it is just a mere idea that is being experimented on. Still, it does seem to be steering the world towards a definite explanation for the seeming less never ending idea of death and the afterlife.



††††††††††† As one concludes the topic of death and the afterlife, it is quite clear that it is a topic so vast that is nearly impossible to break down. Since its very history, there have been many divergent ideas of death and afterlife that its only real path is that of having to understand a general scope of how it had evolved throughout the centuries. Death and the afterlife is a topic that even today is studied by religious theologians, philosophers, psychologist, sociologist, and even the everyday individual. Each of us has their own view as to what the afterlife might be like, and these discussion seem endless. I believe that these discussion will continue to exist even into the future- Whether or not we will be able to ever fully get a true explanation of the afterlife remains to be seen, but maybe it is an aspect that is not ours to find out.



Badham, Paul (1976). Christian Beliefs about Life After Death. Lampeter, Wales: St David Univ. College.

Barnes, H. E. (1965). An Intellectual and Cultural History of the Western World. 3rd revised ed. Vol. 1-3. New York: Dover Publications, Inc..

Cahn, S. M., & Shatz David. (Ed.). (1982). Contemporary Philosophy of Religion. Oxford, NY: Oxford Univ. Press.

Dixon, R D., & Kinlaw, Bonnie J. H. (1983). Belief in the Existence and Nature of Life After Death: A Research Note. Omega, 13 (3), 287-292.

Hynson, L. N Jr. (1979). Belief in Life Death and Societal Integration. Omega, 9(1), 13-18.

Kelsey, M. T. (1982). Afterlife. New York: Crossroad.

LaFleur, W.R. (1980). Death and Eastern Thought. Stanford Cal: Stanford Univ. Press.

Leming, N. R. (1980). Religion and Death: A Test of Homans Thesis. Omega, 10 (4), 347-360

Magee, John B. (1967). Religion and Modern Man A Study of the Religious Meaning of Being Human. Evanston, London, NY: Harper & Row.

Pittenger, N. (1980). After Death Life in God. New York: The Seabury Press.

Salladay, S. A. (1983). In the Event of Death. Omega, 13 (1), 1-11.

Slawinski, J. (1987). Electromagnetic Radiation and the Afterlife. Journal of Near-Death Studies, 6(2), 79-93. Human Sciences Press.




††††††††††† As it is with any large report, finding resources is the most time consuming part of actually doing a term paper. Since death and afterlife was a topic that was very broad, figuring out how to structure such a report was not an easy task. The topic death had so many subdivisions that for myself, I really did not know where to begin. I began with use of encyclopedia, and by reading about my topic, I was now a little more familiar with the topic. Now I was able to break it down into specific categories in which I felt was important to my report. The place where I began looking for resources was in the reference sections of either Hamilton or Sinclair libraries. Hamilton had much more resources, so I gathered the majority of it from there. The very first reference I looked was the SSCI indexes. At least for my topic, it was not very useful. However, it did give leads to some sources, and that alone was enough to allow me to gather the rest of it. Once I was able to fine some resources, I was able to use references from that source.

††††††††††† The two computers that helped me find my references were the UH Carl (Online Catalog), and the CD Rom system. By using these system, I was able to find my sources much quicker than if I didnít use them. Not only were they quicker, but it gave me a large number of topics that may be related to mines. Personally, at least for this topic, I felt that UN Carl was much more useful for me I know I will have a much easier time the next time, I have to find sources for any future term paper. There are many different and useful materials in the library, and one should try to make the best use of it. It is very important to know that the library is a place where all of us should not avoid, but instead utilize. It is also very important to get familiar with computer systems in the library because not only is it easier, but in this day an age it is nearly impossible to go about finding the materials the way I did.