My friend Jade and I were born on the same day, in the same year. We looked nothing alike, but we told everyone who would listen that we were twins. She lived at the bottom of the hill in our neighborhood, and I lived at the top of the hill. Jade had a pool in her backyard, seemingly limitless quantities of Little Debbie Star Crunches in her kitchen cupboards, and a playhouse outside. The playhouse was the best part—Jade’s dad had built it himself, using a scroll saw to cut butterfly shapes into shutters that really opened and closed. There was a striped carpet inside and a little table and two chairs that were just the right size for our seven-year-old selves.
One day, still in our swimsuits and dripping wet from the pool, we dashed into the playhouse to “make tea.” I had big news, and big news called for tea. Tea was always serious with Jade—it involved real drinkable water from the hose in a teapot, pink plastic teacups and saucers, and cookies.
Jade poured the “tea” into my cup, crooking her little finger as she did it. She wouldn’t let me tell my news until we were “both settled.” My teeth chattered as I sat in my wet swimsuit.
Finally we were ready. Jade picked up her teacup and slurped delicately. “Oh, this is excellent tea,” she said. She looked at me over the rim.
“Guess what, I’m getting baptized!” I pretty shouted. “I found out at church! It happens soon!”
Jade was silent for a second. Then she cracked up. “You’re already baptized, dummy! Everyone’s already been baptized!”
I was undeterred. “Not me. Not Mormons. Mormons get baptized when they turn eight.”
“That’s stupid. You get baptized when you’re a baby,” said Jade.
“No, only untrue churches do that,” I said. “How do you know if you want to be in your church when you’re a baby? You don’t. Mormons choose. You can’t go to heaven if you’re not baptized like that.”
“Catholics are the true church,” said Jade. “Everyone else goes to hell.”
My patience was wearing thin. “No, Mormons are the only true church. You just don’t know any better. You’re gonna go to hell. Everyone who’s not a Mormon does. ’Cause Satan tricks you.”
“You’re going to hell—you’re NOT EVEN BAPTIZED YET!!” Jade yelled.
I stormed out of the playhouse, shaking with rage. Jade was so stupid. She was one of my best friends, and now we could never be together forever in the Celestial Kingdom with our Heavenly Father because she didn’t know I went to the one true church and she wouldn’t listen.
I remember that day very well, because it was the first time I can remember feeling a hint of doubt. About anything. I lay awake that night, thinking it through. What if everyone thought their church was the one true church? What if someone other than the Mormons were right? What if Jade was right and I did go to hell?
The thought horrified me. I managed to push it away, though, and eventually I fell asleep. I tried not to think about it much after that, and it worked—my days passed uneventfully, filled with church every Sunday and Family Home Evenings on Mondays and church activities on Wednesday nights and service projects and scripture reading before bed and early-morning seminary and young women’s camp every summer. I grew up to be a serious practicing Mormon, active in the church.
At 19 years old, shaky as a leaf, I left the Mormon church for good (that’s a longer story than we want here), and I’ve been agnostic ever since. I believe in something; I just don’t know what it is. I have zero interest in going to any church; I feel like I’ve had enough organized religion to last me the rest of my life. In college, I avoided classes about religion like the plague, saying I “needed a break.” Post-college, that “break” continued. And, as such “breaks” are wont to do, it never ended.
And now, folks, here is a disgraceful truth: I am a grown-ass girl, and I know nothing about any organized religion other than the one I was raised in. Zilch. Zero.
This being the Paradise issue, we started to think about what various religions believe happens to you after you die. And I realized that I don’t know what any religion believes happens to you after you die!
It’s way overdue that I learn this stuff, so I thought we could learn together. I just looked up a bunch of stuff about 10 different religions I was interested in on the innnnternet! My main sources were Wikipedia, religionfacts.com, and straight-up googling. Here is what I found. Please correct me if I make a mistake, I’m learnin’, here! (This list is in no particular order, in no way reflects which religions I think are most “important,” and in no way intends to devalue the many, many religions I didn’t mention.) I give you:
What Is Believed to Happen When You Die If You’re a Faithful Adherent Of…
Buddhists believe in reincarnation—that you will be born again into a new body, without memories of your previous life or lives, according to your karma, or your moral behaviors in your previous life. Buddha taught that what keeps us attached to the cycle of death and rebirth is desire—wanting or craving anything (anything!) in the world. The ultimate goal of Buddhists is nirvana: extinction, or liberation. Meaning an extinction of all desire, and a liberation from the death/rebirth cycle. Just thinking of the number of lives I’d have to live before I no longer had the burning desire to nuzzle up on someone cute who smells awesome is making me tired.
Muslims believe in the Last Day; a day when the world will be destroyed and Allah will resurrect all people from the dead for judgment. Your physical body will be resurrected, and, according to your life’s deeds, you will either go to paradise, where there are seven heavens filled with beautiful mansions and wonderful food and drink and pleasure beyond belief or hell, where seven doors lead to levels of intense spiritual and physical torment. Hell is meant to purify souls until they are ready to enter paradise. I like that idea. Hell isn’t permanent—you only have to stay there till you’ve done your time. Like a giant in-school suspension. With, you know, torment.
There is no definitive answer to the question “What happens when we die?” in the Jewish faith. The most important Jewish text, the Torah, does not discuss the afterlife in any kind of detail. The Torah instead focuses on living a good, moral life while here on earth. Like a life-long experiment in mindfulness! Some Jews believe that the righteous dead will be resurrected after the Messiah comes to earth, and will live in a kind of peaceful, wonderful version of our world now, called Olam Ha Ba. Earth minus disease and war and pollution and crime and poverty and hatred? Sounds pretty great.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons)
This one is the only religion I have any kind of grasp on, as it’s the one I was raised in. Mormons believe that there are three kingdoms of glory after you die: the Celestial Kingdom, the Terrestrial Kingdom, and the Telestial Kingdom, with the Celestial being the highest kingdom and the Telestial being the lowest. (I could never remember the order when I was a kid.) The kingdoms are the final resting place of souls after God comes to earth and makes a final judgment, and almost everyone goes into one of the three kingdoms. The Celestial Kingdom is for those who have lived a stellar life, accepted the teachings of Jesus, and been faithful to the Mormon church and its doctrines. In the Celestial Kingdom, some souls become actual gods and goddesses, rulers of their own worlds. (I used to sit in church and try to think up what my goddess name would be. At 10, I settled on Ava, which was not only a palindrome and therefore had no beginning and no end, but was also stylish and would be easy for the children of my world to spell. It later became my burlesque stage name. Um.) The Terrestrial Kingdom is for the righteous who did not accept the Mormon faith in life. The Telestial Kingdom is for those who refused to accept Jesus as their savior, and lived an average life, sinning sometimes, good at other times. All of the kingdoms are supposed to be wonderful beyond measure. Those few who do not go to one of the kingdoms go to Outer Darkness, where there is no influence of God whatsoever. All children who die before the age of eight go straight to the Celestial Kingdom in the Mormon faith. (I don’t know where friendly feminist lesbians who now council queer Mormon youth and chose to leave the church go. I don’t believe anymore, so I’ve stopped worrying about it.)
Hindus believe in the rebirth and reincarnation of souls—it’s different from Buddhism because Hindus believe the soul is immortal and carries on into each successive life. Dude! Every life counts!! Your soul’s keeping a tally! Your next life is based on karma; what you did during your life and what you were doing when you died. Death is not a bad thing—it’s necessary to gain you another life, so you can learn more. That’s nice—I like religions that help you to not fear death. Souls need to be reborn over and over again to become whole, and you can be reincarnated in your next life as an animal, as well as a human. The goal is liberation from the cycle. (If I don’t, somehow, get liberated from the cycle after this life, in my next life I would like to nominate myself to please be a housecat. I’m not sure if that’s a promotion or a demotion…I just want to lie in sun patches while my owner goes to work.)
Scientologists believe that the thetan—everyone’s eternal self, spirit, or soul—will be reborn, through reincarnation, into a new human body over and over again. Your past deeds do not determine your next life—Scientologists do not believe in karma, and you cannot return as an animal; you will return as a human baby. (This worries me, as I seem to recall I hated pureed apricots SO MUCH the first time around.) Practicing Scientologists sign a contract called the billion-year covenant, which signifies commitment to Scientology in this life and promises that in future lives, you will work towards Scientology’s main goal, a work called “clearing the planet.” This means bringing Scientology’s message to all human beings so the world can achieve the condition of “clear”—a state of freedom from crime, drugs, war, and illiteracy. Which means you would never, ever have to lock up your bike—nice!
Sikhs believe that you will be born again into a human or animal body according to your past life’s deeds. They also believe it is extremely fortunate to be born again as a human, so that you must grab your chance to do good works in this life. (In other words, we all did something right in our last lifetime. Back pats all around.) When you die, if your soul is demonic, ego-centered, and occupied with one of the “five evils”—anger, lust, ego, greed, and attachment—you may be sent to suffer in Narak, the dark underworld. (Oh no—I think I engaged in all of these sins just this morning.) Any soul that has overcome ego and come to a state of grace may finally achieve their liberation from the birth/death cycle, and get sent on to Sachkhand, an everlasting place of truth. This soul then lives eternally in Sachkhand as a being of radiant light. A being of radiant light!
Bahá’í followers believe in one god who created the universe, but believe that he is too great for humans to fully understand, so the Bahá’í follow the teachings of the world’s divine messengers, who include Krishna, Buddha, Jesus, Moses, Abraham, Muhammad, and Bahá’u'lláh. Everybody’s got something important to say! Love this. Bahá’í believe that each of these divine messengers brought the world a religion that was necessary at their time, and that currently peace, unity, and justice are what the world needs most. After death, the Bahá’í believe that the soul departs from the body and begins a journey toward God on many different planes of existence, like an endless road trip where you learn lessons along the way. “Heaven” is making progress forwards towards God; “hell” is a place where souls who fail to develop go, where they are distant from God. This distance from God is hell for the soul. The spiritual world is eternal and mysterious, without description.
As with all other religions, you can’t just neatly box up Christianity, ’cause there are so many different types of Christianity. Mormons are Christian! Baptists are Christian! Seventh-Day Adventists are Christian! Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians…all Christian! But all Christian faiths (I think) are united in their belief that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came to the earth in a mortal body, lived a sinless life, gave the world his teachings in the form of the Bible’s New Testament, and was crucified to atone for the sins of the world. Christian faiths have differing ideas about the afterlife, but most believe that we get one life, and that we must use it to do good works and help and love others. Thus this life is incredibly important, as it decides our eternal destination. (You get one shot. Don’t screw it up.) Heaven is endless glory and happiness in the presence of God, and hell is a place of pain and misery, ruled by an evil deity called Satan. Some Christian faiths believe in purgatory, a kind of in-between place and resting spot for souls that is neither good nor bad.
Jains believe in reincarnation—but this time you can be reborn into any living form, not just human and animal bodies. Cool! They practice nonviolence toward all living things—all of them, including insects and plants—because they believe that all living things have a soul and karma. Some Jains wear masks over their mouths to avoid even breathing in insects and inadvertently killing them. Now that is gentleness. Jains believe in an eternal universe without beginning or end; they don’t believe in an Almighty God. The purpose of life to attain moksa—liberation from the death/birth cycle. After death, depending on how you lived this life, you will be reborn into another body, be liberated eternally in the highest level of heaven, or suffer in one of eight hells, which (unlike many other religious hells) get colder as they get progressively worse. (Auughhh not colder gahhh that would be terrible!) Should you end up in hell, you don’t stay there forever—once you’ve been punished enough, you are reborn into the death/birth cycle again. Hell-as-correctional-facility is a theme that keeps coming up!
Wicca is a pagan religion, encompassing many, many different belief systems, and followers choose what they individually believe in. It’s difficult to define Wicca, but beliefs important to its followers involve the practice of magic and a reverence of nature. Many Wiccans believe in reincarnation—some believe in only human reincarnation, while others believe you can take the form of any living species—but the focus in Wicca is on this life. Most Wiccans believe that when you concentrate on living this life, you will naturally benefit from it in your next life, or in the afterlife. Take care of the here and now, everybody, ’cause that’s what we’ve got to work with!
Whoa. You guys, I got LOST in a Google vortex when I started writing this article. Religion is fascinating, and just researching this stuff made me think about things I haven’t thought of in years. What’s the purpose of life? No lie: while I’m having a great time here in this life, I can’t wait to find out what happens next. ♦