A basic definition of heaven describes it as the home of God and other spiritual beings as well as the reward for those who have met its criteria. Hell is for those who are to be punished.
Through the centuries, many religions have developed elaborate explanations of these places. As mentioned in a story on this page, some Christian writers are challenging those views.
Here’s a quick look at how several religions view the afterlife.
Christians teach death is not the end of life. Choices made on Earth lead to the Judgment. People then face damnation (hell) or bliss (heaven). Some traditions teach a third option: purification (purgatory). Hell is seen as eternal separation from God. Purgatory is for those who need self-absorption removed from them.
Then they can enter the eternal presence of God or heaven. And some traditions teach there is a fourth category: limbo. This is for souls who can’t enter heaven, but it isn’t their fault.
The few references in Scripture are to Sheol, a dreary warehouse for souls.
Sheol was used mainly as a synonym for death. However, in the first century, a theology of afterlife began to develop.
Sheol became payment for an evil life. This idea was replaced by Gehenna or a punishment of fire.
On the opposite end, good is rewarded by a place near God.
In early Scripture usage, heavens are the place above Earth. As the idea of afterlife evolved, heaven became a place of multiple levels including Paradise for the just, which is linked to resurrection of the body, taught by the Pharisees and in rabbinical tradition.
Muslims also teach that death isn’t the end of life, that it leads to a different existence.
In Islam, people are accountable for decisions made freely, but not for bad things done under duress or without intent of evil.
The Quran talks of a Day of Judgment or Resurrection, much as Christianity teaches.
On that day, people cross a narrow passage to different places. The just head to the Garden (Paradise), which is an oasis. Heaven is the vision of God. Hell is known as Gehenna and is the refusal to acknowledge Allah’s sovereignty. Some Muslims teach hell isn’t permanent and functions similar to the Christian Purgatory.
Hindus believe life is infinite and at times takes on a body. The soul is reincarnated.
One can escape the cycle of becoming a body by freeing the self from attachments.
Hindus speak of three types of existence. One level is where individual souls live during sleep and the between bodies. There is a hell where souls can suffer because of karma. There is a heaven called the realm of bliss or light, where people who have died and are nearing liberation learn more to help them progress in their next life.
Some forms of Buddhism teach three levels of existence, each with many sublevels. The Realm of Desire includes levels of hell for specific offenses; the homes of animals, humans and lesser gods; and the paradises where good people enjoy the results of their life.
People are reborn into the next level, Realm of Form, where there is no taste, touch or smell. The remaining senses lead to more spiritual education. The third level is Non-Form. Sight and hearing disappear and through meditation, people arrive at nirvana.
Sources: The Handy Religion Answer Book, John Renard ; The HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion, Jonathan Z. Smith
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