In 2018, I delivered a lecture entitled Being Dead – and being alive to the Philosophy Forum in Melbourne. I discussed the actions taken by people in response to other people’s deaths. This regarded death from the viewpoint of those who are still alive.

I will now discuss what people of different religions and cultures think about what it will be like for people after they have died, and particularly for themselves.

Many people expect to continue to exist in some kind of afterlife. There is a wide range of versions of what this afterlife will be like. Most religions have their own distinctive version, and their various sects and individual members are likely to have their own interpretations.

The sorts of issue relevant to the afterlife are:

How could an afterlife occur;

Who or what can have afterlife;

What determines what the afterlife will be like;

What happens during an afterlife;

When does it start;

How do we know.

How could an afterlife occur?

The possibility of an afterlife depends on there being such a thing as the soul. The concept is that the soul is the essence of the living person, and it does not die when the person’s body dies. The soul is not a material entity; it is supernatural, or a kind of spirit. The continuation of the soul after death of the body is the explanation of how there can there be an afterlife. The validity of this explanation is questioned by people who do not believe in the existence of a supernatural entity. I will discuss this after describing the various kinds of afterlife.

Other similar kinds of spirit that are not afterlives are associated with rivers, trees, and many other environmental entities. Others are good and bad “freelance” spirits. One kind of bad spirit that was in the news a few decades ago was the poltergeist, that messed up the furniture of peoples’ houses when the owners were absent. But it is a long time since any of their actions have been reported.

All kinds of spirits seem to be conscious.

Who or what has an afterlife?

Neither the Bible nor the Koran mentions whether other species have souls, but most people who believe in an Abrahamic religion assume that an afterlife is available only to humans, and presumably, to all humans. So that would include people with mental and physical disability at every degree of severity, and probably fetuses and even embryos. But some other species are more intelligent and sentient than some humans. Some religions do believe that other species can have afterlives.

This issue raises the question of what species have afterlives, and what determines it. I will discuss this later.

What happens during an afterlife

There is a range of beliefs about what the afterlife is like. These relate to:

the kind of living entity that will exist after death;
how this entity is similar to and different from when it was when alive;
what the entity does during the afterlife:
what faculties, such as memories and feelings it retains;
how long the afterlife lasts.

A different kind of afterlife is reincarnation, where the soul enters, and gives life to, another body. I will discuss this later.

Many people believe that the souls of deceased people, and particularly of themselves and their deceased relatives, are, or will be, still active in their afterlife. They are usually expected to have all the faculties and abilities that they had during life. They are often thought to be able to associate with other deceased people, and to do what they did during their life.

If they are visible to each other, what will they look like:
as they did at their death, or at their prime?
And will they continue to age?
Will their bodily impairments be repaired?

Spirits in afterlives are:

waiting for their day of judgment when they will be sent to Heaven or Hell;
already in Heaven or in Hell;
awaiting resurrection; not to be confused or conflated with reincarnation;
watching over their descendants, over sacred places, and over sacred objects; and

These kinds of afterlife do not seem to be affected by the kind of treatment the body underwent after death, such as cremation, mummification, etc., but most living people like to decide how their body will be disposed of after their death. Some don’t want to be cremated, because they think there would be no body to resurrect or restore when the time came. Are they underestimating the powers of the Creator?

I will now describe each of these as they are depicted by those who believe in their existence.

Spirits awaiting judgment.

How long is the waiting time between death and being judged for what you did in your worldly life? Opinions vary from there being a judgment day in the far future, to very soon after death. In other cases, judgment is being made continually throughout life.

An example of one English Christian opinion from a few centuries ago is the “Lyle-Wake Dirge” (A wake is a celebration of the life of a recently deceased person, and a dirge is a funeral song.)

This one was meant to be celebrated before the burial of the body.

This ae nights, this ae nighte,            (which means this one night)
Every nighte and alle,
Fire and fleet and candle-lighte,  (fleet means board and lodging)
And Christe receive thy saule.

When thou from hence away art past,
Every nighte and alle,
To Whinny-muir thou com’st at last;        (Whinnies are very prickly bushes, a muir is a paddock)
And Christe receive thy saule.

If ever thou gavest hosen and shoon,  (stockings and shoes)
Every nighte and alle,
Sit thee down and put them on;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If hosen and shoon thou ne’er gav’st nane
Every nighte and alle,
The whinnes sall prick thee to the bare bane;       (bone)
And Christe receive thy saule.

From Whinny-muir whence thou may’st pass,
Every nighte and alle,
To Brig o’ Dread thou com’st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If ever thou gav’st silver and gold,
Every nighte and alle,
At t’ Brig o’ Dread thou’lt find foothold,
And Christe receive thy saule.

But if silver and gold thou never gav’st nane,
Every nighte and alle,
Down thou tumblest to Hell flame,
And Christe receive thy saule.

From Brig o’ Dread whence thou may’st pass,
Every nighte and alle,
To Purgatory fire thou com’st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If ever thou gav’st meat or drink,
Every nighte and alle,
The fire sall never make thee shrink;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If meat or drink thou ne’er gav’st nane,
Every nighte and alle,
The fire will burn thee to the bare bane;
And Christe receive thy saule.

This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
Every nighte and alle,
Fire and fleet and candle-lighte,
And Christe receive thy saule.   

This doesn’t say what happens after the prickles, the fires and purgatory. It is not the sort of afterlife that anyone would like to have. And it is, of course, a message to the living as well as to the dead.

Most people expect a much better afterlife, and a longer time awaiting judgment.

Many Christians believe that judgement day will occur when Jesus returns to Earth, bringing Armageddon, or the apocalypse, which destroys the inhabitants of the earth, with the good people going to Heaven and the bad people going to Hell. Many fundamentalist Christians expected this to happen at some undisclosed date before the year 2000. There have been previous expected dates.

But, in the meantime, there are said to be many people already in Heaven or Hell. In the earlier days of Christianity, these places were regarded to be similar to conditions on Earth, but with Heaven being more enjoyable and Hell being more uncomfortable. Nowadays, they are more likely to be thought of as supernatural places, whatever that may mean. But that does not suggest that they must no longer be happy or agonising.

Islam also believes that people are already in Heaven or Hell in accordance with their actions while they were alive. It is more explicit about the pleasures, but koranic scholars differ on the details. One pleasure that gets occasional notice is that, after death, male Islamic martyrs will be given access to 72 virgins for pristine sex. But Moslems who commit suicide go straight to Hell, which means that suicide bombers might not get the enjoyable afterlife that they are expecting. And on the subject of the virgins, some Islamic scholars argue that in the original text, the reward was in raisins and not virgins. The error is said to be a mistranslation. From the point of view of Islamic potential martyrs, raisins would not be as much an enticement as virgins.

All of the Abrahamic religions have sects that believe a range of different ideas of what happens and when it happens. A few of them, mainly Judaic, do not believe in any afterlife, just oblivion. The Judaic afterlives tend to give more punishments than rewards.

For most Hindu and Buddhist sects, there is no act of judgment and no waiting time. Continuous assessment is being made throughout life. In most sects, the dead body must be cleaned, wrapped up and then destroyed as soon as possible. However, in Bali, the bodies of some prominent Hindus must wait months or years for a propitious time for the procedure, which then can be extremely lavish.

Spirits watching over their descendants,

The spirits that are watching over their descendants and sacred places are presumably not in either Heaven or Hell, but in nearby locations. In some religions they are revered or worshipped. They may suffer or decline if not properly treated by their descendants and other people. Improper treatment or neglect may cause bad luck to their relevant descendants, and sometimes to other people.

Common treatments for the ancestors and other spirits are putting money, lighting candles, and burning incense, in special places, such as in temples.

In Bali, there are little parcels of food placed on the ground for these spirits every morning. There is no evidence that the spirits have eaten the food, but then, without bodies, they need only the spirit of the food. The birds and dogs usually help to dispose of the food, and also benefit.

A more participatory custodian afterlife is that of the Australian Aborigines. People who are not of Aboriginal descent usually refer to it as The Dreamtime.

The Dreamtime is the continuous reality of all that has happened in the past, going back to the acts of creation of the landscape. The meeting of the present time and present people with the past is celebrated in formal ritual practices. In between the ceremonies, the spirits of the dead are alive and watching, and their graves and significant locations are sacred. For outsiders, much of the Aboriginal lore is inaccessible to all but a few.

Other watching spirits may be talking to their living relatives and friends. Some deceased relatives and friends may frequently keep in contact. This may occur in dreams. Sometimes the living person may openly talk about such conversations.

Other spirits that are hanging about can be reached by using Ouija boards in seances. Most people regard this process to be pure deception and fraud.

Awaiting resurrection

For many deceased Christians, the resurrection means that, on some special occasion, they will be able to walk around the earth in their restored resurrected bodies. This is believed to occur when Jesus returns to Earth. But the time of the apocalypse, when all is destroyed, begins when Jesus returns to Earth. This contradiction is probably the result of different interpretations or unwise selection of the earlier texts.

In the meantime, these souls who are worthy of being resurrected, would presumably be having a fairly pleasant time. Perhaps some who had had miserable lives might prefer to stay in Heaven, that is, if they knew that there was going to be a resurrection, and had the choice.

There are buildings containing large vats where the bodies of deceased people are being kept at a low temperature to prevent decay of their bodily tissues. These bodies are awaiting a time when science is able to cure them from the disease that caused their death. Then they could resume their life. So, are they really dead? Would the souls of these bodies be waiting for their “resurrection”, or would they be still in the body?


Ghosts are purportedly visible and/or audible spirits of deceased people. They are said to hang about in places where they spent their lives or died, and many of them are said to have been viciously killed. They seem to be found mainly in ancient places and buildings.

Ghosts prefer quiet solitude, but sometimes have to play hide and seek and make eerie noises. There are businesses that make a living by taking tourists and other visitors to find them. They are allegedly visible, but mostly all that the visitors get to see are diaphanous wisps of disappearing light.

Spirits awaiting reincarnation

Reincarnation usually begins very quickly after death, so usually there is not much time to do anything before it happens, other than flitting from the dead body to its successor. The dead body is quickly destroyed.

Reincarnation is not the same as resurrection. In resurrection, the deceased body is reconstructed, and the same soul inhabits it. In reincarnation, an entirely different body awaits the soul.

Reincarnation is taken seriously in some sects of most Abrahamic religions, but mostly not in the mainstream sects. It is basic to many other religions, notably Hinduism and Buddhism.

The Druze religion, which is a small offshoot of the Abrahamic religions, has adopted teachings of a diverse range of religions, and believes that the soul cannot exist without having a living physical body. There can be no time between the death and the reincarnation, otherwise the soul will die.

Many indigenous populations in Eurasia and the Americas and Africa have also believed in reincarnation.

In the Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and some other religions, the afterlife is mostly in a human body, in which it becomes a different person, but it may sometimes enter the body of some kind of animal and become that animal. What a person (or animal) is incarnated as, depends on what they did during their recent life.

This is part of the concept of karma in conjunction with the soul (or the atman in Hindu terms) going through a series of lives that continue to enlighten the atman until it reaches total enlightenment and bliss. Each successive incarnation allows some addition to the quality of that particular atman. Reaching bliss is the release from the onerous process of incarnations. However, in some Hindu sects, the successive reincarnations might lead to Hell.

The texts do not say what kinds of specific acts, good or bad, during a life, produce what consequences for the next incarnation.

As mentioned earlier, in most Hindu and Buddhist sects, reincarnation occurs as soon as possible after death.

The idea of reincarnation raises a lot of questions:

Do animals that were once people know they were, or are, people?
Do people who have been reincarnated as animals want to come back as people again?
Do people who had been some other species in a former life know they had been another species?
Who or what remember anything about their. previous lives?
Are animal incarnations different from naturally born animals of the same species?

If reincarnation is a path to enlightenment and bliss, one might expect the answer to all of these questions to be “Yes”. But I have never heard or read about anyone who has claimed to have once been a non-human animal.

That is all I know about any answers to these questions, except that some people who regard themselves to be reincarnations of previous people, sometimes claim to remember their previous lives, and the baby Dalai Lamas purportedly remember some the items from their previous incarnation.

The Dali Lama is the supreme leader of Tibetan Buddhism. When a Dalai Lama dies, there will be a young male child who becomes his reincarnation by the receiving his atman. But it is necessary to discover which young child it is. This is tested by examining the selected possibilities, concerning their knowledge of and their similarity to their predecessor. The candidates are very young boys, and they are tested by monks who were close to the previous Dali Lama.

This does not mean that the chosen child then becomes the next Dalai Lama. He was already the next Dalai Lama as soon as his predecessor died. But he had to be identified. In the reincarnations of the Dali Lamas, there would always be a male baby ready for that same atman of all the Dali Lamas.

This is a human to human kind of reincarnation, and it happens immediately after the death. But there is a much less common reincarnation that can occur hundreds of years after the death. I will now discuss the usual kind.

Recent reincarnations of previous people

Many living people are certain that they are reincarnations of previous people, usually very notable ancient people, such as Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte.

They usually mention their previous life to someone, and in some cases, talk to their previous lives.

Other than having the pleasure of their historical identity, they will have no advantage of their status, and they will have scant success in convincing other people of it. At any one time there can be, several reincarnations of the same person. If the multiple Caesars or Napoleans ever gathered together, would they all agree on everything? How would the authentic one be identified? The onus would always be on the person.

The only ones that anyone actually seems to believe are all reincarnations of Jesus Christ. The bible refers to the return of Jesus to Earth.

There have been, and still are, quite a few people who believed that they were incarnations of Jesus. Some people have been convinced that these were indeed the incarnated Jesus Christ, and then became followers of His teachings. While multiple concurrent Napoleons might be problematic, it should be no problem for Jesus. But very few of these sects continued after the deaths of the incarnated Jesus’s, none of whom died by being crucified. Most of these “Jesuses” seem to discredit themselves by their unholy behaviour.

Jesus is not the only god who comes to Earth as an incarnation. The Hindu god Vishnu came several times, the most quoted occasions being as Rama and as Krishna, but as far as I know, He has had no subsequent incarnations.

There is not much point in describing any more kinds of afterlife.
New religions have been arising for many centuries. For the most part, they are mixtures of pre-existing religions, with touches of new scientific and technical developments and science fiction, and with a lot of new words created to sound like new concepts. But their afterlives are just variations of the previous ones.

How long does the afterlife last?

What with judgement days, and resurrections and reincarnations, there is a variety of possibilities. And it is commonly assumed that those in Heaven and in Hell are there for eternity. Eternity means infinity, which is difficult to envisage in terms of pleasure and pain. It is hard enough to predict our futures when we have evidence to go on. We have no evidence for this.

There is also the issue of when an afterlife begins. This would depend on what signifies that the body has become dead, and on what processes, if any, need to occur between the death and the afterlife. Our criteria for determining that a person is dead have changed from time to time. There are no criteria that determine when an afterlife begins.

Which is the true afterlife?

I have now described a lot of different and incompatible beliefs about what happens to the persons, as opposed to their physical bodies, after they have died.

Can it be that each person will have an afterlife that complies with their particular religious beliefs? This could prompt people to change their religion to have an afterlife of their choice. Or does everyone have the same kind of afterlife irrespective of their religion?
Or does it mean that no purported or any other afterlife is true, and there is no afterlife?

The alternative to afterlife is oblivion, that is, as soon as the body is dead, there is no conscious entity left over from that previous individual living entity. Some people would like this as a pleasant relief from a painful life. Others would regard it to be a terrible loss.

Could there be any demonstrable evidence and supportable explanations to show whether or not that there exists some supernatural entity comprising souls and other characteristics of the various versions of afterlife?

Since the supernatural is not subject to physical detection, there is no way of directly affirming its existence. But there might be indicators of consistent occurrences that cannot be rigorously explained in physical terms.

One example would be miraculous events. These are good outcomes that appear to have been physically impossible. Most of these have subsequently been shown to be improbable but physically possible. The inexplicable ones might have an unknown physical cause. There would need to be more than coincidence to prove that the cause was supernatural. Even so, the mere existence of a supernatural entity does not necessarily indicate any kind of afterlife. (Bad outcomes that that appear to be physically impossible would not be miracles.)

Some scientific mysteries of a universal scale seem beyond physical possibilities. These may or may not be resolved in future years, but their scope does not include issues relating to the spiritual.

The most consistent example of a non-physical event is consciousness, which continually occurs in living people and probably in many other species of organisms.

All of what we are conscious of seems to be determined by and dependent on specific parts of our bodies and their interactions with the environment. We know that what we are conscious of can be distorted and switched off by the use of drugs. We know that damage to certain parts of the brain can distort or remove specific kinds of consciousness. We know which parts of our brains correspond with each kind of our conscious experiences.

So it would seem that our consciousness can occur only in terms of the condition and operation of our brain.

Since it is our consciousness that is the essence of our being, this makes it difficult to see how our essence could continue without a functioning brain. There would not be anything that a soul could become conscious of.

We have no evidence that a soul could continue as our essential conscious existence. I cannot envisage any way that such evidence could be discovered. (If it were ever to be conclusively shown that consciousness is an entirely physical process, which I think is most unlikely, that would rule out non-physical afterlife.)

This does not absolutely disprove the concept of the afterlife, but it goes very close.

It is also important to consider the evidence that the beliefs about the afterlife are based on. Most are based on teachings from parents and clergy, at an early age, and are “automatically believed”. Some have read the sacred texts and liked what they read. In both cases, they would often then believe all that was written in the texts and spoken by the clergy.

All the ancient texts are based ultimately on “divine revelation”, and they have been copied and mis-translated over the centuries. The recent ones seem to be inventions and variations of other texts.

The contradictions between the revelations undermine their credibility.

With living reincarnated people, the only way to examine their authenticity would be to ask them about their purported previous lives, and how they knew. They could have refreshed their memories by reading history books. But, whatever they said, only a few people would believe them.

The current Dali Lama says that it would be difficult for science to disprove reincarnation. But it would be more difficult to prove that it exists.

There is a continuous world-wide change, in both directions, between people believing and disbelieving in the supernatural. But more people believe than disbelieve.

There are many reasons that make people believe in an afterlife.

Most people are biased to believe some of the things they want to happen. Many would like to feel that they, and their loved ones, will continue after death, and will meet each other. For belief, emotion is a stronger force than reason.

Most people live in communities that believe in their kind of afterlife. Religion is highly organised, and has traditions and rituals, which people like. Belief in a religion gives many people a sense of comfort and security. Disbelievers have fewer organisations, traditions or rituals, and are more individualised.

Whatever we believe, I don’t think anyone will ever know during their present life whether there is any such thing as an afterlife. And true or not, afterlife is much more benign than many other beliefs.