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Heaven and Hell

Egypt, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Ancient Greek Religion, Etruscans And Romans, Judaism

Aspects of heaven and hell cross religious traditions. Paradise can be a city, a palace, a court, a garden, a vision of God, a mystical diagram, or an ineffable concept. Physical, indeed sexual, terms and images express the soul's union with God. In Hell, fires, dragons, serpents, stench, cacophony, torturers, and their paraphernalia abound. Christian, Islamic, Zoroastrian, and Japanese sources test souls on a sword-edged bridge to paradise over a fiery stream or feculent abyss, the voracious hell. Unbelievers fall to torment below. Many voyagers observe these worlds: Enoch, Wiraz, Muhammad, Paul, Dante, and various bodhisattvas throughout time. Overlapping with religious images are the secular hells of war, poverty, and disease and their inverted counterparts in bliss, the paradises of resorts, wealth, luxury, and sexual pleasure. Transcending these, most religions insist that heaven and hell—or their approximate counterparts—are out of all proportion to our experience of time, joy, distress, or understanding. Analysis can only approximate their positions. Furthermore, each religion produced many schools of thought, and no one position stands for all.

No postmortem fate is possible without the notion that some aspect of the person survives death. That inner core, the heart, soul, spirit, or atman, is sometimes perceived first as one's self-knowledge; sometimes in the experience of ghosts, the personalities of the dead. The term "porous death" refers to an idea of death in which the dead return to haunt the living and the living may visit the dead, for example, in dreams or visions. By contrast, "neutral death" refers to an idea in which the living banish all the dead, whether good or evil, to a distant enclosure that is neither heaven nor hell. The ancient Babylonian land of the dead (Arallu), the Jewish Sheol (the Grave), and the Greek Hades (particularly in Homer) are morally neutral.

In "moral death," reward follows a good life; punishment, an evil one. Moral death has two main varieties, cyclical and linear. In some linear systems, retribution is eternal; in others, destruction awaits the wicked. In the cyclical concept, postmortem pleasure and pain vary over eons as the person awaits promotion or demotion in eventual rebirths. (Cultures that oppose spirit to flesh call this process reincarnation.) Both linear and cyclical concepts of moral death are of great antiquity and emerge first in Egypt and India, respectively.

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