It’s easy to envision a day eons ago when one Cro-Magnon slapped the head of another all the while grunting and gesturing at some oddly shaped rock or cloud. It’s easy to imagine such an even as a pivotal moment, an historic moment, for all mankind. With a point and a slap mankind’s burgeoning capacity to communicate may well have ignited his quest for understanding.
Naturally, some quests have proved far easier than others. The idea, for example, that things come in amounts, thereby leading to a system of counting was not easy. Nonetheless, it did tend to involve visual aides. Other quests for knowledge proved far more difficult than mathematics to (if one will excuse the pun) quantify.
Is this life all there is?
Where do we go when we die?
Does what I do here, in this life, affect what happens to me when I die?
Will I be rewarded?
Will I be punished?
It is these sorts of questions that no man has been able with absolute surety and verifiable proof to answer. Yet, humans continue to try.
Almost every major system of belief addresses these questions. While there are many differences to be found amidst these belief systems, many do agree on one particular concept.
Those that have lived a life in accordance with the precepts of their belief system will be rewarded in the afterlife. Those who have not will be punished.
As to what form these rewards and torments will take, these have been colorfully described in myths, in books, and from pulpits for centuries.
The Blessed Afterlife
Rest And Repose
After a long life of obedience one might, at the least, expect a bit of rest. Most versions of a blessed afterlife are in accordance with this.
Amongst the ancient Jews the abode of the dead was called Sheol. This generally translates to grave. While all the dead were consigned to this dark and quiet place to await the resurrection, there were nonetheless differences.
The blessed dead had the benefit of reposing cozily in the bosom of the patriarch, Abraham. Meanwhile, the cursed dead existed in torment, longing like the rich man in the story of the rich man and Lazarus, for even a sip of water to quench their undying thirst.
The ancient Greeks believed in an underworld too. In this place, often referred to in Greek myths as Hades, there existed both places of reward and torment for those passed. The reward sector was known as The Island Of The Blessed, also referred to as The Elysian Fields. Once arrived, the blessed were promised ease without toils.
The Quran, which many in the Muslim faith take as the literal directive of their faith, just as many Christians interpret the Bible verbatim, describes the rewarded dead as able to “recline on jewelled couches face to face.” Obviously, such an event would infer a respite from one’s earthly labors.
Revelations 14:13: (New International Version@1984) states, “Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.”
Clearly, it would seem that in a Christian Heaven, those blessed to enter are called to enjoy the fruit of their good deeds by resting.
Sensory Delights And A Place To Hang One’s Hat
The Bible offers many admonishments for those placing too high a value on riches, including the oft-quoted Matthew 19: 24. Yet, Revelation 21:21 (NIV) describes the entry to the New Jerusalem in this manner, “The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl. The great street of the city was of pure gold, like transparent glass.”
Generally, The New Jerusalem is interpreted among Christians as the home of the “saints,” or the blessed dead. It would seem then that in Heaven it is okay to enjoy and appreciate luxury.
It would seem so in the case of those blessed Islamic dead as well.
The Quran, Sura, verses 12-13, ( taken from the Penguin translation by NJ Dawood) states, in reference to the rewarded dead, “They shall recline on jewelled couches face to face, and there shall wait on them immortal youths with bowls and ewers and a cup of purest wine (that will neither pain their heads nor take away their reason); with fruits of their own choice and flesh of fowls that they relish. And theirs shall be the dark-eyed houris, (one of many beautiful virgins) chaste as hidden pearls: a guerdon (reward) for their deeds.”
The Bible also mentions instruments, including violins, harps and pipes, as well as fruit trees, when speaking of the un-earthly realm. So, it might be assumed music, picnics and other sorts of gatherings will be encouraged in Heaven.
One thing’s for sure. Christians are encouraged to believe that in Heaven each will have a space of their own, as per John 14:2 (NIV.) “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you.”
The Cursed Afterlife
While the blessed dead are busy resting and luxuriating, the cursed dead are also busy. Unfortunately for them, their activities consist of wailing, burning and experiencing, in some cases, some rather exotic torments.
Suiting The Punishment To Fit The Crime
Dante’s famous Inferno envisioned Hell as divided into sectors. In his version the glutinous slothful, for example, were doomed to lie blindly in a bed of cold, wet muck. Their punishment was meant to custom-fit a self-centered lifestyle.
This sort of personally designed punishment, however, was less in accord with Christian writ than it was reminiscent of Greek mythology’s Tartarus. Tartarus was where Zeus flung the Titans after claiming Mount Olympus. It was also known as the “Pit.” As a place of pitch darkness, it was not unlike the Christian Hell.
Tantalus and Sisyphus, were each two famous denizens of Tartarus, doomed each to their own one-of-a-kind torment. Tantalos was doomed to everlasting thirst and hunger. With fresh-flowing water and fruit trees forever just beyond his reach, his name become synonymous with tantalize. Sisyphus was sentenced to push a boulder uphill, always failing to reach the top, for all eternity.
One Size Burns All, The Lake Of Fire
The Christian Bible speaks of “raging fire, eternal fire, and blackest darkness” when referring to the last resting stop of the cursed dead. Most interpret this ultimate abode for those disobedient to the will of the Christian God as a lake of fire.
Matthew 13:47-50(NIV) sums it up thusly: “Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Compare this to the following verses lifted from Sura 78, in the Quran. The speaker is Allah.
“Verily the day of sorting out is a thing appointed, the day that the trumpet shall be sounded, and ye shall come forth in crowds; and the heavens shall be opened as if there were doors, and the mountains shall vanish, as if they were a mirage. Truly hell is as a place of ambush, for the transgressors a place of destination: They will dwell therein for ages. Nothing cool shall they taste therein, nor any drink, save a boiling fluid and a fluid, dark, murky, intensely cold, a fitting recompense.”
The Quran also describes the companions of the left hand (those who reject our signs) as being “in the midst of a fierce blast of fire and in boiling water, and in the shades of black smoke: nothing (will there be) to refresh, nor to please.”
Clearly, the Muslim version of Hell bears many of the hallmarks of its Christian counterpart.
Lost To God Forever
Not discounting the punitive power of writhing in flames, there may be a yet greater torment for those lost souls. It may be that the greatest torment awaiting the cursed dead, whether one refers to the Greek Tartarus, the Christian Hell, or the Muslim, is the soul’s removal from God. In the Christian Bible, particularly, God is described as no less an entity than love itself, Jo hn 4:16 . An eternity without love would indeed be an everlasting torment.