History of Afterlife Beliefs
The afterlife, or life after death, is a generic term referring to a "continuation" of existence, typically spiritual, experiential, or ghost-like, beyond this world (eg. planes of existence), or after physical death (eg. near-death experience, reincarnation). The major views in this area derive from religion, esotericism, metaphysics, and science. Also there are those with opposite views, such as the materialist-reductionists, who state that the topic is supernatural, therefore does not really exist or is unknowable
The afterlife in different metaphysical models
In metaphysical models, theists generally believe some sort of afterlife awaits people when they die. Atheists generally believe that there is not a life after death. However, other atheists like Buddhists, tend to believe in an afterlife like reincarnation but without reference to God.
Agnostics generally hold the position that like the existence of God, the existence of supernatural phenomena, such as souls or life after death, is unverifiable and therefore unknowable. Some philosophies (i.e. posthumanism, Humanism, and often empiricism) generally hold that there is not an afterlife.
Afterlife in modern science
Modern science, in general, either describes the universe and human beings without reference to a soul or to an afterlife; or tends to remain mute on the issue. Scientific method offers few tools for investigating the concepts. One famous study, was conducted in 1901 by physician Duncan MacDougall, who sought to measure the weight purportedly lost by a human body when the soul departed the body upon death. MacDougall weighed dying patients in an attempt to prove that the soul was material, tangible and thus measurable. These experiments are widely considered to have had little if any scientific merit, and although MacDougall's results varied considerably from "21 grams," for some people this figure has become synonymous with the measure of a soul's mass. The 2003 movie 21 Grams was based on MacDougall's findings.
Others, such as Francis Crick in 1994, have attempted a ‘scientific search for the soul’. Lastly, we have the views of Frank Tipler, who argues that physics can explain immortality.
Some investigations have been conduced which failed to find evidence that out “out-of-body” experiences transcend the confines of the brain. One hospital, in order to validate claims of out-of-body experiences, for example, placed an LED marquee above its patients’ beds which displayed a hidden message that could only be read if one were looking down from above. As of 2001, no one who claimed near-death experience or out-of-body experience within that hospital had reported having seen the hidden message.
History of afterlife beliefs
ca 1500 BC: Egyptian
The afterlife played an important role in Ancient Egyptian religion. When the body died, a part of its soul known as ka (body double) would go to the Kingdom of the Dead. While the soul dwelt in the Fields of Yalu, Osiris demanded work as payback for the protection he provided. Statues were placed in the tombs to serve as substitutes for the deceased.
Arriving at one's reward in afterlife was a demanding ordeal, requiring a sin-free heart and the ability to recite the spells, passwords, and formulae of the Book of the Dead. In the Hall of Two Truths, the deceased's heart was weighed against the Shu feather of truth and justice taken from headdress of the goddess Ma'at. If the heart was lighter than the feather then they could pass on, but if it were heavier they would be devoured by the demon Ammit.
Egyptians also believed that being mummified was the only way to have an afterlife. Only if the corpse had been properly embalmed and entombed in a mastaba, could the dead live again in the Fields of Yalu and accompany the Sun on its daily ride. Due to the dangers the afterlife posed, the Book of the Dead was placed in the tomb with the body.
ca 1200 BC: Zoroastrian
Zoroaster teaches that the dead will be resurrected and purified to live in a perfected material world at the end of time.
ca 3000 BC: Hindu
The Upanishads describe reincarnation, or samsara. The Bhagavad Geeta, the holy book of Hinduism talks extensively about the afterlife. Here, the Lord Krishna says that just as a man discards his old clothes and wears new ones; similarly the soul discards the old body and takes on a new one. In Hinduism, the belief is that the body is but a shell, the soul inside is immutable and indestructible and takes on different lifes in a cycle of birth and death. The end of the this cycle is Mukti or salvation.
ca 800 BC: Jewish
Writing that will later be incorporated into the Hebrew Bible names sheol as the afterlife, a gloomy place where all are destined to go after death. The Book of Numbers identifies sheol as literally underground (Numbers 16:31-33), in the Biblical account of the destruction of the rebellious Korah, Dathan and Abiram and their 250 followers, although it is speculated that this passage should be read literally, signifying an earthquake or split in the earth.
ca 700 BC: Greek
In the Odyssey, Homer refers to the dead as "burnt-out wraiths." An afterlife of eternal bliss exists in Elysium, but is reserved for Zeus's mortal descendants.
ca 400 BC: Greek
In his Myth of Er, Plato describes souls being judged immediately after death and sent either to the heavens for a reward or underground for punishment. After their respective judgments have been enjoyed or suffered, the souls are reincarnated.
ca 200 BC: Jewish
The Book of Enoch describes sheol as divided into four compartments for four types of the dead: the faithful saints who await resurrection in Paradise, the merely virtuous who await their reward, the wicked who await punishment, and the wicked who have already been punished and will not be resurrected on Judgment Day. It should be noted that the Book of Enoch is considered apocryphal by most denominations of Christianity and all denominations of Judaism.
ca 100 BC: Jewish
The book of 2 Maccabees gives a clear account of the dead awaiting a future resurrection and judgment, plus prayers and offerings for the dead to remove the burden of sin.
ca 100 AD: Christian
Jesus and the New Testament writers of the Bible books mention notions of an afterlife and resurrection that involve ideas like heaven and hell. The author of Luke recounts the story of Lazarus and the rich man, which shows people in Hades awaiting the resurrection either in comfort or torment. The author of the Book of Revelation writes about God and the angels versus Satan and demons in an epic battle at the end of times when all souls are judged. There is mention of ghostly bodies of past prophets, and the transfiguration.
ca 150 AD: Christian
The Acts of Paul and Thecla speak of the efficacy of prayer for the dead, so that they might be "translated to a state of happiness."
ca 200 AD: Christian
Hippolytus of Rome pictures Hades as a place where the righteous dead, awaiting in the bosom of Abraham their resurrection, rejoice at their future prospect, while the unrighteous are tormented at the sight of the "lake of unquenchable fire" into which they are destined to be cast.
382 AD: Eastern Christianity
Gregory of Nyssa formulates belief in the possibility of purification of souls after death.
ca 400 AD: Western Christianity
Saint Augustine counters Pelagius, arguing that original sin means that the unbaptized go to hell, including infants, albeit with less suffering than is experienced by those guilty of actual sins.
ca 600 AD: Western Christianity
Pope Gregory I repeats the concept, articulated over a century earlier by Gregory of Nyssa that the saved suffer purification after death, in connection with which he wrote of "purgatorial flames".
ca 900 AD: Zoroastrian
The Pahlavi text Dadestan-i Denig ("Religious Decisions") describes the particular judgment of the soul three days after death, with each soul sent to heaven, hell, or a neutral place (hamistagan) to await Judgment Day..
ca 1100 AD: Western Christianity
The noun "purgatorium" (Latin: place of cleansing) is used for the first time to describe a state of painful purification of the saved after death. The same word in adjectival form (purgatorius -a -um, cleansing), which appears also in non-religious writing, was already used by Christians such as Augustine of Hippo and Pope Gregory I to refer to an after-death cleansing.
ca 1200 AD: Jewish
Maimonides describes the Olam Haba ("World to Come") in spiritual terms, relegating the prophesied physical resurrection to the status of a future miracle, unrelated to the afterlife or the Messianic era.
ca 1200 AD: Norse
The Prose Edda describes Hel as an unpleasant abode for those unworthy of Valhalla, which is reserved for chosen warriors who die in battle.
ca 1300 AD: Jewish
The Zohar describes Gehenna not as a place of punishment for the wicked but as a place of spiritual purification for the souls of almost all mortals.
ca 1500 AD: Protestant
Martin Luther denounces the doctrine of particular judgment as contrary to the Bible, professing instead the belief that the soul sleeps until Judgment Day. John Calvin denounces Luther's doctrine, writing instead that the souls of the elect rest in blessedness while awaiting the resurrection of the dead.
ca 1700 AD: Swedenborg and the Enlightenment
During the Age of Enlightenment, theologians and philosophers presented various philosophies and beliefs. A notable example is Emanuel Swedenborg who wrote some 18 theological works which describe in detail the nature of the afterlife according to his claimed spiritual experiences, the most famous of which is Heaven and Hell.
ca 1800 AD to present
Many New Age and Science Fiction beliefs become more popular. The variety of beliefs is greatly increased and continues to change, or becomes more eclectic by incorporating beliefs of the past.
1832 AD: Latter-Day Saints (Mormon)
Revelation to Joseph Smith, Jr. and Sidney Rigdon concerning the Three Degrees of glory: Celestial, Terrestrial, and Telestial. Doctrine and Covenants, Section 76.
1918 AD: Latter-Day Saints (Mormon)
President Joseph F. Smith of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints presents an elaborate vision of the Afterlife. It is revealed as the scene of an extensive missionary effort by righteous spirits to redeem those still in darkness - a spirit prison or "hell" where the spirits of the dead remain until judgement. It is divided into two parts: Spirit Prison and Paradise. Together these are also known as the Spirit World (also Abraham's Bosom; see Luke 16:19-25). They believe that Christ visited spirit prison (1 Peter 3:18-20) and opened the gate for those who repent to cross over to Paradise. This is similar to the Harrowing of Hell doctrine of some mainstream Christian faiths. Both Spirit Prison and Paradise are temporary according to Latter-day Saint beliefs. After the resurrection spirits are assigned "permanently" to three degrees of heavenly glory (1 Cor 15:44-42; Doctrine and Covenants, Section 76) or are cast with Satan into Outer Darkness. (See Doctrine and Covenants, Section 76.)
1945 AD: Christian fiction
C. S. Lewis writes The Great Divorce. In this work of fiction, people who are already in hell are given a "field trip" to heaven. They get to look around and decide whether they would like to leave Hell and stay in Heaven. Every one of the subjects finds reason to reject heaven. Lewis is not suggesting that this will actually happen ("It is appointed to man once to die, and then comes judgment," Hebrews 9:27). He is showing that the excuses people used to reject Christ when they were alive on earth would be retained even if they got a second chance, because their character hasn't changed, and God's ways are still abhorent to them.