What does universalism mean in a Pagan setting? This is important to me because intuiting universalist beliefs was the first step I took away from the fundamentalist church of my childhood, and because more than a few people who are new to Paganism are coming from a similar background.
In my May 2 blog post, I said “Universalism means everything is going to work out OK in the end, for everyone.” But how?
The only thing we can say for sure about what happens after this life is “we don’t know.” Our ancient ancestors believed a wide variety of things: many involving an Otherworld, some involving reincarnation, others with a combination of the two. A few did describe places of punishment for evildoers, most famously the Greek Tartarus.
I’ve done no formal studies (nor have I read any), but it seems that the more structured a society, the more structured their beliefs about the afterlife. From our Neolithic ancestors we find burials with grave goods and we hear about Otherworlds, but not much more. By the time we reach the Egyptians (a extremely ordered society), we find elaborate funeral rituals and tombs, stories of judgment and resurrection, and an afterlife so complex it required a Book of the Dead. Many of the Egyptian concepts carried over into other religions of the region and eventually to the three major monotheistic religions of today.
Where there is punishment in an afterlife, it’s always for evildoing. There is no concept of original sin, no idea that everyone is bound for damnation and is in need of “salvation.” There is no concept that “our tribe” will enjoy paradise while other tribes (even enemy tribes) will suffer torment. That is strictly a feature of orthodox Christianity and Islam. Ancient pagans understood that different people worshipped different gods in different ways. From there it wasn’t far to understanding that different people will experience different afterlives.
A couple years back I watched a Discovery/TLC/NatGeo/etc program on Egyptian mummies. Part of the program consisted of taking a human body donated to science and mummifying it. “Just to be completely authentic” they included the proper hieroglyphs on the body. A Kemetic friend said “that guy’s going to be in for a shock when he wakes up expecting Jesus and sees Anubis instead!”
Modern Pagans have borrowed the concept of karma from the Eastern religions. We may not believe in hell, but we still want to believe there will be justice for evildoers – particularly those who’ve done evil to us. Yet what we envision as “justice” is often little more than vengeance; no more appropriate for us to wish on our enemies than to fear for ourselves. If we believe in Divine Love, karma exists to help us learn lessons we won’t learn otherwise, not to mete out scheduled punishments for violations of arbitrary rules.
So, what are Pagans to say to the honest but ignorant seeker who asks what we believe about heaven and hell? We say that heaven and hell are Christian concepts we don’t accept. We quote the Charge of the Goddess and speak of “peace and freedom and reunion with those who have gone before.”
We all come from the Goddess
And to her we shall return;
Like a drop of rain
Flowing to the ocean.