Ever since humans became able to start pondering their own existence, it’s been nearly unthinkable for many to consider that once a person dies, they may cease to exist entirely.
Throughout ancient history, people came to recognize and understand that the spirit (or the soul) is a separate entity from the body, and therefore it must be something that’s released from its physical form when it can no longer withstand the adverse effects of sickness, injury, or old age.
All sorts of cultures across the world believe that the spirit lives on in the afterlife. Whether that is defined as heaven, hell, paradise, nirvana, the other side, the next world, hereafter, the great beyond, the netherworld, the next life, eternity, crossing over, or some other variation of wherever living things go after death, it all depends on how certain cultural experiences and values transpired into stories that spread across the people living in a particular region.
Zoroastrianism: Cross the Bridge to Heaven, or Fall Off Into Hell
You may have never heard of it, but once upon a time (between 600 BCE and 650 CE), Zoroastrianism was the largest religion in the world, with its roots in pre-Islamic Iran.
Today, there are only about 2.6 million Zoroastrians, who believe in the Chinvat Bridge or “bridge of judgment” that they must cross once they die.
Before the spirit can cross, it has to wait for three days and three nights while archangels named Vohuman and Mithra tally up all the good deeds and sins to decide whether the person may enter Paradise (heaven) or Zoroastrian hell to be punished.
On the third night, the angel Daena leads the spirit to the bridge, where angels may help it cross and pleasantly (if its goodness prevails). If evil motives are detected, the spirit is tormented and forcibly pushed toward hell as the bridge twists and turns on its side until the spirit falls off.
Paradise in the Zoroastrian religion is just what it sounds like: beautiful, comfortable, and godly. Hell, on the other hand, is full of suffering, where spirits unworthy of entry into Paradise are subjected to agonizing torture for their sins.
The suffering doesn’t last forever, though, and eventually the sinful spirits gain entry into Paradise once they’ve been punished enough.
Buddhism: For Every Life You Live, Karma Gets You Closer to Heaven
Most people who have some knowledge of Buddhism—the ancient non-theistic religion of East Asia—know that it’s largely affiliated with the idea of rebirth.
Unlike many other religions, Buddhists don’t believe in a singular or group of all-powerful beings controlling people’s fates and judging them at the end of their lives.
Instead, every individual’s destiny depends on how they control their own level of karma, which is any action done by intention that eventually leads to a consequence.
It is karma that Buddhists believe determines how each individual is reborn into one of the many hierarchical heavens (or alternatively, one of the eight hot and cold versions of hell).
A person who has good karma will be rewarded in the next life with a higher level of existence. Eventually, as they experience different dimensions of human consciousness, they may reach Nirvana—the Buddhist equivalent of the highest form of heaven, which requires complete understanding of the nature of reality for an individual to reach it.
The word Nirvana literally means to “blow out” a flame, referring to the ego that drives each individual to maintain the desire to have and the desire to be.
Bad karma sends individuals’ spirits into one of the many hell-like realms (referred to as Naraka) to suffer, with Avici being the absolute worst. To get to Avici, you’d have to murder your parents or someone very highly praised and respected.
Those who are reborn in Avici or any other realm of hell must work their way up through karma, which may take trillions of years, in order to reach Nirvana.
Rastafarianism: Ethiopia is Heaven and Jamaica is Hell
Unlike Zoroastrianism and Buddhism, which have been around for thousands of years, Rastafarianism is a modern African-focused religion that developed in the 1930s in Jamaica.
They believe that Haile Selassie, who was the emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, is their God, and he will bring those of the black community who are worthy of salvation from living in exile all the way to Zion (Ethiopia)—the original birthplace of humankind.
To Rastafarians, Zion is heaven on Earth. It’s a place of unity, peace, and freedom. Along with holding the belief that blacks are the true chosen people of God, they also believe that colonization and slavery moved them to their version of hell on Earth—Jamaica and other parts of the Caribbean. And as you might’ve already guessed, the influential music of reggae singer and songwriter Bob Marley had a lot to do with the spread of Rastafarianism, particularly throughout the 1970s.
The Same Ideas with Different Perspectives
Rastas believe heaven and hell are physical places on Earth. Buddhists say that heaven and hell exist in different realms of life through rebirth. Zoroastrians think you have to cross a bridge before you get to go anywhere.
Thoughts on the afterlife, it seems, are more complicated than you might expect. Your idea of heaven and hell may be interpreted as the complete opposite by someone in another part of the world depending on how they were raised, what stories or beliefs they were exposed to, and even how their own unique psychology works.
The afterlife may just as well be as inconceivable to the human mind as arithmetic is to an armadillo. For many, though, it’s still nice to think about how amazing the idea of “heaven” might actually turn out to be, even if we don’t fully understand its existence (or possible non-existence) just yet.