Most people think afterlife belief is all about the human desire for immortality. Not so.
Afterlife belief is really about the desire for justice—for just deserts that did not arrive during a person’s earthly existence. Some people perform good deeds in life and never receive a fragment of reward for those good deeds. Other people get away with murder and wallow in earthly rewards. And so the afterlife offers the promise of a more perfect justice.
If you survey afterlife beliefs in distinct cultures and religions from remote antiquity to late antiquity to medieval times and to modern times, you will see familiar postmortem reward and postmortem punishment in all cultures.
There are commonly two afterlife destinations rendering justice.
We in the West are most familiar with the terms heaven and hell (‘heaven’ entering the English language 1000 years ago as heofun, meaning ceiling, and ‘hell’ also entering English 1000 years ago from a Norse goddess of the underworld named Hel, meaning concealed.) But other cultures had other terms for similar afterlife destinations, as, for instance, ‘the place of best purpose’ and ‘the place of worst purpose.’ And the Greek New Testament of Christianity borrowed from Greek religion to use the word Tartarus, the lowest level of the Greek underworld, Hades.
Certain features of the afterlife can be traced to particular ancient cultures. The geography of the afterlife—up for reward and down for punishment—appears from the earliest cultures of the ancient Middle East: Sumeria, Akkadia.
Ancient Egypt added an underworld river of fire and the punishment of fire and the weighing of souls in scales of justice.
Several ancient religions introduced levels of reward and punishment—seven levels of heaven, seven levels of hell, for instance. Levels of reward and punishment offer a more refined justice. Not all good acts are equally good and not all bad acts are equally bad. It’s one thing to steal a car and it’s another to murder a child. Such distinctions require levels of punishment. The introduction of levels is in the interest of justice.
In another act to refine justice, a few religions added a third afterlife destination, a middle dimension, avoiding the stark dichotomy of heaven and hell. It’s conceivable that a person is not good enough for heaven and not bad enough for hell. And so the Greeks proffered the Asphodel Fields for the morally mediocre, a spot between the Elysian Fields and Tartarus; the Catholics added purgatory, and the Mormons the spirit prison.
Postmortem judgment criteria are remarkably similar over time in most religions. Three criteria appear again and again: (1) the performance of religious and ritual duties, (2) the performance of moral duties, (3) the performance of ideational duties in mental assent to required beliefs. Did the recently deceased perform religious and ritual obligations? Did the recently deceased act morally to others? Did the recently deceased believe correct religious ideas? These considerations allowed for perfect judgment in the afterlife.
We in the West know these three criteria intimately from Christianity. As to the performance of obligatory rituals and religious duties, Jesus said those who are baptized and those who eat his body and drink his blood will be saved. As to the necessity of being moral, Jesus told a man that to win eternal life the man must perform the ten commandments, and then Jesus enumerated the commands. Regarding the need to assent to proper religious ideas, Jesus said those who believe he is the savior will be saved. (Protestant Christians seem to stress this last criterion over the other two, though all three were enunciated by Jesus himself.)
As religions became more and more morally refined over time, religions’ sense of justice became more sophisticated and there was a tendency to minimize the criteria of ritual duty and ideational duty and reduce postmortem judgment to morality alone. It would be unjust to punish someone everlastingly because they never got baptized or never managed to believe in Jesus (especially if they never even heard of Jesus). It’s more just to base judgment on morality.
The important point to remember about afterlife belief is that afterlife belief is not principally about the desire for immortality but about the desire for a more perfect justice.
The fact that a more perfect justice is removed to the other world indicts the justice of this world. Any type of afterlife justice is an obvious admission that our world is not judiciously arranged either by humans or by God and can only be set aright with postmortem corrections.
And what if there is no afterlife? Then no one gets their just deserts: no one is rewarded, no one is punished, properly. And that would mean, in this world, the only world there is, injustice is incorrigible.