Into the afterlife
If there is an afterlife, they'll believe it when they see it.
Atheists do not believe in the existence of life after death. When a person dies, that is simply the end of their life.
When one dies the soul enters the spiritual world, which is related neither to time nor to place. The more righteous one's deeds and life, the closer one's spirit will be to God; the fewer good deeds, the further from God. The Bahá'í believe that life on Earth is a preparation for the soul in the afterlife and good qualities must be developed and perfected for the soul.
The soul will be aware of its good deeds and its bad deeds, and will be able to recognise people who have done the same, except for those souls who are higher in righteous deeds than they are.
There are many variants of Buddhism. Some believe that after death the soul enters an intermediate state where it is still receptive to thoughts from its physical life for approximately 21 days. It is believed that it could take a further 30 days for the soul to reincarnate into another form.
Rebirth happens in a human or a non-human form, and the soul moves from one life to another in order to perfect itself; to do good deeds and to die with pure thoughts will stop the process of rebirth and eventually allow the soul to rest in peace for eternity.
In some Buddhist traditions, the Buddha is said to have refused to speak about the afterlife, so they do not speculate.
Most Protestants believe in the resurrection of the soul on judgment day, after which saints and good souls will enter heaven and the wrong-doers will enter hell. Some believe in a time of soul sleep, during which the soul waits for the day of resurrection. Others believe that, immediately upon death, good souls go to heaven and bad ones go to hell, and there are also those who believe that the soul will go immediately to be with Christ before resurrection.
Catholics also believe in the final judgment, which will determine whether a soul enters heaven or hell. Parish priest Father Russell Pollitt SJ explained the three states that a soul may enter upon death: heaven, hell or purgatory.
Purgatory is where the soul is cleansed and purified in order to meet God face to face. "There are varied views regarding the time of these stages.
Some believe that the stage of purgatory could last until the last judgment, while others believe it is shorter, where once a soul has completed its time in purgatory, it will then enter a purified state – in heaven. We just don't know."
After death, all souls will rest in an unconscious state until the coming of Christ, when all, both the saved and the unsaved, will be judged. Seventh-day Adventists also believe that everlasting hell in the Bible simply means that hell will burn for all eternity, but not that people will burn for eternity in this hell. Simply put, wrongdoers will be burnt and turned to ashes in a hell that will burn for eternity.
Hindus believe that the body is merely a shell and when one dies the soul travels through a long, dark tunnel in which the fate of one's next life is determined through a record of one's past life deeds. Hindus light a lamp beside the head of the dead to light their way in the tunnel.
In this time, the soul will experience punishment, such as being dipped in boiling oil for bad karma, and rewards such as peace and comfort for its good karma.
Rebirth will then take place in the form of a human or animal, depending on one's measure of good and bad deeds.
Hindus believe souls that performed only good deeds will eventually reach "nirvana", where the soul will rest peacefully for eternity.
Muslims believe that the soul continues to exist when one dies. Good souls will linger in peace, whereas bad souls will be tormented in their graves.
On judgment day, all human beings will be resurrected and the body and spirit will be reunited. Everyone will answer for their deeds before God and the holy prophets (Moses, Jesus and Muhammad) and they will enter either heaven – a paradise of gardens with rivers flowing beneath (Surah 4 Verse 57), where they will enjoy a life of peace and abundance without measure, or hell, where they will be encompassed by fire.
Unlike other variants of Christianity, Jehovah's Witnesses do not believe in the existence of a hell as a place of physical torment.
People who die are asleep and will be resurrected after Armageddon when all will be given the chance of eternal life on earth.
They preach about God's kingdom, which they believe will bring paradise to Earth, where the dead will be resurrected to everlasting life under God's rulership.
A number of Jews believe that the soul is part of God and thus infinite. Rabbi Yossy Goldman, president of the Rabbinical Society of South Africa, explained that in Judaism punishment and reward are not experienced in this world, but in the world to come.
Heaven and hell are spiritual states "rather than fiery infernos and paradise beaches. Hell, however, is seen as rehabilitative and allows the soul to get to heaven after the necessary purification process. It is not a final destination."
Jewish mystics also speak of reincarnation and it is said that souls come back to fix things that might have gone wrong.
Followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as Mormons, believe that the soul consists of both the body and the spirit and, upon death, the spirit leaves the body. It will either go to "spirit paradise" or "spirit prison" and will be given an opportunity to repent and accept the gospel of Christ.
The two states will last until the second coming of Christ, after which the spirit will be reunited with the body in its perfected, immortal state and will be judged.
The souls will go to one of four tiered states: the celestial kingdom, the terrestrial kingdom, the telestial kingdom and the fourth tier for those souls who show no remorse for their sins – an outer darkness where Satan exists.
Scientologists consider the belief in a higher entity, creator or God to be an individual choice. They believe in rebirth, and the idea that one returns in order to realise one's true potential as an immortal being that transcends energy and matter – known as a Thetan. Rebirth allows one to confront all past traumas and difficulties and eventually enables a person to become one with the universe and, of course, with God, if a person believes in a deity.
Traditional belief systems
Traditional South African cultures have different beliefs, but their beliefs in an afterlife are similar. The idea of heaven and hell is not clearly defined or applicable because this world is all-encompassing of good, evil, judgment and reward. Nontando Hadebe, a lecturer at St Augustine's School of Theology and Philosophy, explained it this way: "One of the shared beliefs is the continuum of community life that connects the dead with the living and the yet-to-be-born. "The dead are 'living' in the sense they are now spirits who live closer to God and function as intermediaries between their families and God. The 'living dead' are also part of the living and intimately involved in their lives through rituals and dreams.
They also return to the family through the yet-to-be-born. After some time the living dead move on to be with God."
Zion Christian Church
One of the key features of this church is the integration of African traditions with Christianity, by which the Christian belief in life after death is combined with the African traditional belief of the connection of the dead with the living and the yet-to-be-born. Two main things are needed: good standing with God and obeying instructions passed down from the ancestors through the mouths of the prophets. Life does not end at death, but the belief that a person returns as a spirit exists alongside the belief that only Christ can save one.
Aneesa Fazel is a Mail & Guardian staff reporter