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Did Other Ancient Peoples Believe in the Resurrection and the Afterlife?


Eschatalogy is the branch of systematic theology that deals with the doctrines of the last things (ta eschata). Although the Greek title is a comparatively recent introduction, it has largely supplanted its Latin equivalent De Novissimis in modern usage.

As a first step, a distinction may be made between the eschatology of the individual and that of the race and the universe at large. The former, setting out from the doctrine of personal immortality, or at least of survival in some form after death, seeks to ascertain the temporary or eternal fate or condition of individual souls, and the extent of the present life’s influence on the future life. The latter deals with events like the Resurrection and final judgment, and with the signs and portents in the moral and physical orders that are to precede and accompany those events. Both aspects belong to the usual concept of eschatology.


Belief in afterlife in non-Islamic societies

The universality of religious beliefs, including some kind of existence after death, is generally admitted by modern anthropologists. Some exceptions have been claimed to exist; but on closer scrutiny the provided evidence breaks down in so many cases that we can say that there are no exceptions. Among ancient peoples, the truth and purity of eschatological beliefs vary with the purity of the idea of God and prevailing moral standards. Some early peoples seem to limit existence after death to the good (with extinction for the wicked), as the Nicaraguas, or to men of rank, as the Tongas; while the various peoples of Greenland, New Guinea, and others seem to hold the possibility of a second death in the other world or on the way to it.

For the Aztecs, Determining factors for a person’s destiny in the next existence were social position and the circumstances of death. We do not hear of any retribution after death based on one’s conduct during this life. This might have been expected, since the confession of sins and penance, for example in the form of asceticism or temple service, were common. Perhaps they were important only for happiness and success in this world.

According to Landa’s research, the Mayans had a paradise with its delights, including an abundance of food and drink in the shadow of the holy tree. They also had Mitnal, a subterranean hell for the wicked and evil where hunger, cold, and sorrow torment the unfortunate inhabitants. The “death god” Hunhau presides over this gloomy world. Little is known about the ruler of the paradise.

The Incas believed that if sinners did not make a full confession, they fared badly. Not only would they be stricken with the wrath of the powers in this life but after death, they also would starve and freeze in a place deep in the Earth’s interior where their only food would be stories. Those who led virtuous lives and confessed their sins, if any, would lead a happy existence with an abundance of food and drink in the sun god’s heaven. Members of the aristocracy, intended for a higher world, ended up there regardless of how they lived.

Now, coming to the more advanced societies, we shall glance briefly at the eschatologies of Babylonia and Assyria, Egypt, India, Persia, Greece, and of Judaism and Christianity.

Babylonia and Assyria. In the ancient Babylonian religion, with which the Assyrian is substantially identical, retribution seems to be mostly confined to the present life. Virtue is rewarded by the Divine bestowal of strength, prosperity, long life, numerous offspring, and the like, and wickedness is punished by temporal calamities. As for the afterlife, it was believed that a kind of semi-material ghost, shade, or double survived physical death. When the body was buried (or, less commonly, cremated), the ghost descended to the underworld to join the departed.

This ancient religion suggests a brighter hope in the form of a resurrection, which some infer from the belief in the “waters of life” and from references to Marduk (or Merodach) as “one who brings the dead to life.”

Egypt. Ancient Egyptian religion has a highly developed and comparatively elevated eschatology. Leaving aside some conflicting elements, we will refer to what is most prominent in its eschatology taken at its highest and best. Pious Egyptians looked forward to life in its fullness, unending life with the sun god Osiris (who journeys daily through the underworld), and even identification with him and the subsequent right to be called by his name, as the ultimate goal after death. The departed are habitually called the “living,” the coffin is the “chest of the living,” and the tomb is the “lord of life.”

It is not merely the disembodied spirit that continues to live, but the soul with certain bodily organs and functions suited to the new life’s conditions. In the elaborate anthropology underlying Egyptian eschatology, several constituents of the individual are distinguished. The most important is the ka, a kind of semi-material double. Those who pass the judgment after death have the use of these several constituents, separated by death, restored.

Egyptians believed that every person was composed of three essential elements: body, ba (the sum total of all non-physical things that make a person unique) and ka (life-force).

At death, the ba and ka became separated from the body, although they did not die. In the New Kingdom (post-1570 B.C.) period and after, this separation was effected through the Opening of the Mouth ritual, in which the ba and ka are released to go to the next world.

Egyptians believed that death was the end of physical life in this world. But, it also was through death that one could be renewed and live an eternal life free of such physical limitations as age or poverty, just as the once-mortal god Osiris had. One’s renewal didn’t come about here, though, but in “Nun,” the mysterious underworld of primeval waters that was separate from this world. One could not see it or get to it by normal means; the only ways were through imagination and knowledge of the sun’s path.

India. In the Vedas, the earliest historical form of Indian religion, eschatological belief is simpler and purer than in the Brahministic and Buddhist forms that succeeded it. Individual immortality is clearly taught. There is a kingdom of the dead ruled by Yama, with distinct realms for the good and the wicked. The good dwell in a realm of light and share in the gods’ feasts; the wicked are banished to a place of “nethermost darkness.”

In Brahminism, retribution gains in prominence and severity. However, it becomes hopelessly involved in transmigration, and is made more dependent either on sacrificial observances or theosophical knowledge. Though there are numerous heavens and hells for the reward and punishment of every degree of merit and demerit, these are not final states, but only preludes to further rebirths in higher or lower forms.

Buddhism Buddhism (Sanskrit: “enlightened one”) was founded in India by Siddharta Gautama Buddha (ca. 563–ca. 483 B.C.) Under the Bodhi tree (the tree of enlightenment), Prince Gautama became enlightened about the four basic truths:

  •                                        Human existence is pain
  •                                        The cause of pain is desire
  •                                        Pain ceases with the emancipation from desire
  •                                        The cessation of pain may be attained through the eightfold way of deliverance.

This way involves right knowledge of these four truths, right intention, right speech, right action, right occupation, right effort, right control of sensations and ideas, and right concentration. This way promises to end suffering (which feeds on desire) and lead to Nirvana (Sanskrit: “being extinguished”) or a complete state of peace. The Buddhist scriptures exist in Pali (Sri Lanka) and Sanskrit (India).

Two basic doctrines are karma (Sanskrit: “action, faith”), the belief that old deeds are rewarded or punished in this or subsequent lives, and rebirth or the transmigration of souls. Mahayana Buddhism, which arose around the time of Christ, teaches that individuals can attain Nirvana and also can become Buddhas in order to save others. Buddhism, which includes the worship of gods and various syncretistic features, has two forms: Hinayana (Sanskrit: “little vehicle”) or Theravada (Pali: “old doctrine”) Buddhism (found in Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and elsewhere), and Mahayana (Sanskrit: “great vehicle”) Buddhism (found in China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, Tibet, and elsewhere). Mahayana Buddhists believe that the right path of a follower will lead to the redemption of all human beings. Hinayana Buddhists believe that each person is responsible for his or her own fate. Along with these doctrines, there are other Buddhist beliefs like Zen Buddhism (Japan) and the Hindu Tantric Buddhism (Tibet). Zen Buddhism is a mixture of Buddhism as it arrived from India and original Japanese beliefs. Hindu Tantric Buddhism is a mixture of Indian Buddhism and original pre-Buddhist Tibetan beliefs such as magic, ghosts and tantras (mystical sentences).

Hinduism. Dr. Arnold J. Toynbee points out in A Study of History that the principal civilizations placed different degrees of emphasis on specific lines of activity. Greek civilization, for instance, displays a manifest tendency toward a prominently aesthetic outlook on life as a whole. Indian civilization, on the other hand, shows an equally manifest tendency toward a predominantly religious outlook. Toynbee’s remark sums up what has been observed by many other scholars. Indeed, the study of Hinduism has to be, in large measure, a study of the general Hindu outlook on life.

With respect to life, death, and life after death, the inseparable unity of the material and spiritual worlds forms the foundation of Indian culture and determines the whole character of Indian social ideals. Every individual life, whether mineral, vegetable, animal, or human, has a beginning and an end. This creation and destruction, appearance and disappearance, are of the essence of the world process and equally originate in the past, present, and future. According to this view, then, every individual ego (jivatman) or separate expression of the general will to life (icchatrsna) must be regarded as having reached a certain stage of its own cycle.

The Upanisads, the most famous and widely accepted Hindu texts, recognize intuition rather than reason as a path to ultimate truth. They are supposed to be 108 or more in number. Twelve are generally recognized as the principal units. The Isa Upanisad begins with the statement that whatever exists in this world is enveloped by the Supreme. The soul is saved by renunciation and the absence of possessiveness.

The Bhagavad Gita, a main source of Hindu belief and philosophy, contains the essence of Hindu teaching about the duties of life as well as of spiritual obligations. Everyone has their allotted duties. Sin arises not from the nature of the work itself, but from the disposition with which the work is performed. When it is performed without attachment to the result, it cannot tarnish the soul and impede its quest. True Yoga consists in acquiring experience and passing through life in harmony with the ultimate laws of equanimity, non-attachment to the fruits of action, and faith in the Supreme Spirit’s pervasiveness. As absorption in that Spirit can be attained along several paths, no path is to be exclusively preferred or disdained. These doctrines have been interpreted as marking a Protestant movement that stresses the personality of God and His accessibility to devotion. While following the Hindu ideal of the Asramas the Gita emphasizes the importance of knowledge, charity, penance, and worship, and does not decry life as evil.

Persia. Zoroastrianism the indigenous religion of pre-Islamic Persia, was founded by Prophet Zarathushtra (d. 551 BC), known to the Greeks as Zoroaster. Zoroastrianism was the dominant regional religion during the Persian empires (559 BC to 651 CE), and was thus the most powerful religion at the time of Jesus. It had a major influence on other religions, and is still practiced today, especially in Iran and India.

According to Mary Boyce, Zoroaster believed that God had entrusted him with a message for humanity. He preached in plain words to ordinary people. His teachings were handed down orally from generation to generation, and were committed to writing under the Sassanids, rulers of the third Iranian empire (c.224 CE–c.640 CE). The language of that time was Middle Persian, also called Pahlavi. The Pahlavi books provide valuable keys for interpreting the obscurities of the Gathas or the hymns of Zarathustra themselves.

A journeying to Heaven and Hell. Arda Virafwas an important scholar of Zoroastrianism. His book, contained in The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East, Volume VII: Ancient Persia, narrates a vision of Heaven and Hell that he claimed to have seen in an inspired dream or vision. The entire vision is truly Dantesque. We do not know its age, but we can say confidently that it is several centuries older than the work of Dante.

Greece. Greek eschatology, as reflected in the Homeric poems, remains at a low level. Life on Earth, for all its shortcomings, is the highest good for people, and death the worst evil. Yet death is not extinction. The psyche survives, not the purely spiritual soul of later Greek and Christian thought, but an attenuated, semi-material ghost, shade, or image, of the earthly person. The life of this shade in the underworld is a dull, impoverished, almost functionless existence.

In later Greek thought on the future life, there are notable advances beyond the Homeric state, but it is doubtful whether the average popular faith ever reached a much higher level. Among early philosophers Anaxagoras (d. c.428 BC) contributes to the notion of a purely spiritual soul. A more directly religious contribution is made by the Eleusinian and Orphic mysteries, to the influence of which in brightening and moralizing the hope of a future life we have the concurrent witness of philosophers, poets, and historians. With the Orphic, the divine origin and pre-existence of the soul, for which the body is but a temporary prison, and the doctrine of a retributive transmigration are more or less closely associated. It is hard to see how far the common belief of the people was influenced by these mysteries, but in poetical and philosophical literature their influence is unmistakable. This is seen especially in Pindar (d. c.438 BC) among the poets, and in Plato (d. 348 or 347 BC) among the philosophers.

Pindar has a definite promise of a future life of bliss for the good or the initiated—not merely for a few, but for all. Even the wicked who descend to Hades have hope. Having purged their wickedness they obtain rebirth on earth, and if, during three successive lives they prove themselves worthy of the boon, they will finally attain happiness in the Isles of the Blest. In Plato’s teaching, the divine dignity, spirituality, and essential immortality of the soul being established, issues of the future for every soul are made clearly dependent on its moral conduct in the present life. There is a divine judgment after death, a heaven, a hell, and an intermediate state for penance and purification. Rewards and punishments are graduated according to the merits and demerits of each. The incurably wicked are condemned to everlasting punishment in Tartarus the less wicked or indifferent also go to Tartarus or to the Acherusian Lake, but only for a time. Those eminent for goodness go to a happy home, the highest reward of all being for those who have purified themselves by philosophy.