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Chapter 12: Death and the Self



Attitudes toward Death

The text notes that in the United states there has been an attitude of denial or at least a disguising of death.  In the past few decades some of these attitudes of denial have begun to change.  Elizabeth Kubler-Ross is credited with helping bring about this change through her study of how people cope with death.  In particular, she described several stages that the terminally ill experience:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance


These stages do not necessarily follow the same sequence for all individuals.  It is noteworthy, that these same stages are essentially followed by persons who are grieving.


Another factor in recent years that has caused changed attitudes toward death and dying is an interest in near death experiences.  Although serious researchers acknowledge that these experiences cannot prove the existence of life after death, they seem to have had the effect of raising popular interest in the subject.


Death and the Afterlife


One of the ways in which most religious traditions help to order and make sense of the world is through their perspectives on death and the afterlife.


In Hinduism death is merely separation of the physical body from the soul.  The soul continues its journey and based upon what the individual has done, the soul will be born into another body.  Moreover, the soul may be born into one of a number of heavens and hells. In Hinduism, heaven and hell are not considered to be eternal states of being. After the appropriate length of time in one of these states, the soul departs to be reborn again into another realm.



For Theravada Buddhism, death is simply a manifestation of ultimate reality.  Remember that a major concept in the Buddha’s teaching is the idea that nothing is permanent.  Even the soul itself cannot be permanent (this teaching is called anatta).  Rather, what we think of as the self is a construct of the

·        Body

·        Perception

·        Feelings

·        Predisposition/subconscious

·        Reasoning

Death demonstrates the impermanence (anicca) of the self. The only thing that transmigrates from one life to another is a karma laden structure around which these five elements will aggregate (according to the karma).

Some Buddhist meditation may focus on a contemplation of death. For example, one may be guided to meditate on the decay that will occur to one’s body after death.  Meditation on death helps to underscore the concept of impermanence as well as the notion that one’s ultimate goal is the extinguishing of this re-assembling of the “self” in one life after another.

Mahayana: While Theravada Buddhism discourages metaphysical speculation, Mahayana has developed an elaborate metaphysical cosmos.  Most Mahayana Buddhists believe  that one can be reborn into any number of spheres of existence. The person can be reborn as a human, a hell being, and animal or a ghost (wandering spirits).  In addition, there is a complex of hells. 8 hot, 8 cold, 4 neighboring hells. In addition, there are pleasant worlds (heavens) where one might be reborn. In some Buddhist traditions, birth into one of these heavens (Buddha fields) is actually the immediate goal.  The idea is that being born into a place with ideal conditions will allow one to achieve Nirvana.  Thus, as in Hinduism, one is not permanently assigned to a hell, earth or heaven.  One’s karma will determine where one is reborn and how long one must live in that particular sphere.

            It should also be noted that in some Buddhist traditions, one is able to control one’s next birth.  In other words, by strict meditative practices, one can recognize what is happening in the death process and use by working with those processes use them to rise as a Buddha who in another realm (Buddha field) with the ability to control his rebirth.  This is especially the case with Tibetan Buddhism where the current Dalai Lama is thought to reincarnate himself;  that is, he chooses the circumstances of his next birth.  In any case, death in Buddhism is seen as simply a part of the ultimate reality of impermanence.


            Taoism’s attitude toward death is simply to accept it as part of the Tao (the way things are). The cosmos itself is constantly changing, moving between life and death, light and darkness, etc.  Death is simply a part of it.  No thought of afterlife or eternity of the soul.



 In Judaism death is seen as just a natural occurrence – a part of life.  Generally, Judaism is not focused on the afterlife; rather it focuses on life here and now.   This is not to say that belief in an afterlife or a resurrection is not a part of Judaism.  Judaism does not have much dogma about the afterlife, and leaves a great deal of room for personal opinion. “It is possible for an Orthodox  Jew to believe that the souls of the righteous dead go to a place similar to the Christian heaven, or that they are reincarnated through many lifetimes, or that they simply wait until the coming of the messiah, when they will be resurrected. Likewise, Orthodox Jews can believe that the souls of the wicked are tormented by demons of their own creation, or that wicked souls are simply destroyed at death, ceasing to exist.”

 Traditional Judaism believes in a spiritual afterlife, usually referred to as the Olam Ha-Ba (the world to come).  No “official’ doctrine of the world to come characterizes all of Judaism.  Many who accept belief in a life after death, believe that one’s place in the Olam Ha-Ba is determined by a merit system based on your actions, not by who you are or what religion you profess.  The righteous of all nations will have a place in the world to come. It should also be noted that a number of Reform and some Conservative Jews do not believe in an afterlife. The diversity of beliefs about what may/may not happen after death emphasizes that Judaism focuses far more on the here and now than on metaphysical speculation.



            Unlike Judaism and Islam, Christianity believes that death was not a part of God’s plan.  Rather, death is the penalty for the disobedience/sin of humanity. However, according to Christianity, this penalty has been transformed into a means of deliverance through the death of Christ who “tasted death for everyone.”  Consequently, the death and resurrection of Christ was understood to indicate that through his death, Jesus paid the penalty (death) for all humanity and through his resurrection he has demonstrated that the penalty has been paid and that death has no power over the faithful. 

Christianity thus looks at death in both a literal and metaphorical sense. Life becomes a process of “dying to the old self” and being raised to new life. Even in life, death is the necessary doorway to new life.

Christian beliefs regarding the afterlife have varied widely over time. Some believe that death is a sleep-like state in which people remain until the resurrection; others believe that at death the individual immediately enters in Heaven. In spite of these differences, most Christian traditions have believed in death as both a penalty and a gateway to a greater life.




Like Judaism, Islam does not view death as a punishment for sin; rather death is simply an accepted part of life.  Islam believes in a dichotomy of soul and body. At death, the soul separates from the body and begins to experience God’s rewards or punishments.  It is believed that the soul is kept in a “transitional state” until the Day of Resurrection and the Day of Judgment.



Earliest beliefs in ancient Israel about an afterlife seem to be that the dead live on in a sort of nebulous, shade-like existence. The place of the dead was known as “sheol.”  This was a place that was neither particularly good or particularly bad. In any case, earliest Israelite religion contained no clearly articulated doctrine of life after death or a resurrection.

The concept of the resurrection may (or may not) have originated in the ancient Persian religion known as Zoroastrianism which believed that at death people are judged by their deeds.  Judgment could result in entry into Paradise or condemnation to Hell. At the end of history there will be a resurrection and final judgment.

In Ancient Israel, the concept of resurrection was originally related to the community’s restoration.  Only late in its history did a doctrine of resurrection begin to be formulated.  In particular, the notion of both an individual and communal resurrection came to fruition  in a type of literature called apocalyptic literature.

Apocalypse literally means “unveiling.”  Apocalyptic literature usually surfaces during periods of intense persecution when the survival of the community itself is in doubt. This literature depicts the persecution as part of battle between good and evil.

·        Uses highly symbolic language (cosmic in scope/ veil message from outsiders).

·        Meant to bolster the faithful with assurances that the persecution will end. 

·        Encourage people to remain faithful even if it costs them their lives.  Those who die as martyrs will be raised to a life of righteousness.  Possible eternal.

·        Community itself will be restored and renewed

·        Two clearest examples are Daniel and Revelation

Thus, the concept of the resurrection is first encountered in Judaism in the apocalyptic movement.  Began late in Judaism and continued through the end of the second temple period (actually through 130 AD).  By the 1st century AD it was widespread in Judaism, though not universal.  In fact, there were three groups, each of which could be defined to some extent by its attitude toward the concept of resurrection and apocalypse:

·        Essenes – withdrew from society.  Expected culminating battle to take place soon.   Believed that this would be time of resurrection.

·        Pharisees – basic purpose was to lead a righteous life apart from the temple and its sacrifices.  Popular among the people.  Believed in a coming resurrection, along with a judgment.

·        Sadducees – mostly associated with the Temple (priests). Only accepted the first five books as scripture.  Rejected concept of resurrection.

For Judaism, the concept of humanity was not dualistic; that is, the person is not a soul trapped in body.  Rather both soul (inner life) and physical body make up the person.  Consequently, resurrection could never be a resurrection of just the spirit.  It had to preserve the identity and personality of the individual.  Thus it included an infusion of new life that transforms both spirit and body

Christianity grew out of first century Judaism.  In particular, Christianity’s roots are among the Pharisees.  Thus, early Christianity accepted the concept of personal/communal resurrection. Moreover, it believed in a resurrection of both soul (spiritual body) and the physical body.  The distinct belief of Christianity, however, was that the new age in which God would transform and resurrection society itself had already begun with the resurrection of Jesus.  Thus, a major focus of Christianity, was the notion that both individual and communal resurrection was at hand; in fact, both were already underway.