“Not only at Easter: all religions are concerned with life after death”

Religious scholar Schmidt-Leukel examines ideas of the afterlife in the world’s religions – “All traditions seek an answer to the human question: What comes after death?” – Ideas of heaven and hell also in Buddhism and Hinduism – Episode 3 of the Cluster of Excellence’s research podcast “Religion and Politics”

Press release 29 March 2021

According to scholars, ideas of life after death, as Christians celebrate at Easter in their belief in the resurrection, shape many religions. “Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists have also developed diverse concepts of the afterlife – as an answer to the great human question: Is there something after death? And, if so, what?”, says the religious studies scholar and theologian Perry Schmidt-Leukel from the University of Münster’s Cluster of Excellence “Religion and Politics”. Today theology, he argues, has to deal with such questions by considering the faith of all religions, i.e. in an “interreligious theology”. “Religions have usually linked belief in life after death to belief in an imperishable, absolute reality”, says Schmidt-Leukel, who is examining ideas of the afterlife as part of his concept of an interreligious theology.

Prof. Dr. Achim Lichtenberger
Prof. Dr. Perry Schmidt-Leukel
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As Schmidt-Leukel explains, early Judaism did not yet have a pronounced belief in the afterlife, but only vague ideas of a kind of shadow world to which the deceased go. The idea of an immortal soul originated in Greek antiquity. The concept of the immortality of the soul was mixed in later Judaism, but also in Christianity and Islam, with that of the resurrection of the dead, the assumption being that the soul was in some intermediate state after death, but would be resurrected with a new body at the end of time. “At Easter, Christians of all denominations celebrate the resurrection of Jesus as testified to in the New Testament. According to early ideas, God raised the man Jesus from death to confirm that he had been unjustly executed. It was only later that the resurrection was attributed to Jesus’ own divine power”, says Schmidt-Leukel.

“Supreme bliss in the eternal contemplation of God”

The Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions link life after death to ideas of supreme bliss in the eternal contemplation of God, says Schmidt-Leukel. “Death and suffering no longer exist here”. The Bible and the Quran speak of the afterlife as an “eternal banquet”. They choose images such as that of a refreshing garden in the Qurʽan or a “golden city” in the New Testament. “The people of antiquity and the Middle Ages were partly aware”, says Schmidt-Leukel, “that these were images. People mostly saw as realistic drastic descriptions of hell as a place of endless punishment”. At this point, it becomes clear how strongly beliefs are subject to historical change: that the idea of eternal torture is incompatible with God’s mercy was a minority opinion in Christianity until the 20th century, and many mainline churches now also officially agree with this opinion. “The idea of bodily punishments in hell still plays a central role today in evangelical and Pentecostal groups, however”, says Schmidt-Leukel. “In many cases, the fear of hell has also served to demarcate people from other religions, because it was not uncommon to claim that all people with a ‘false’ faith would go to hell”. Schmidt-Leukel also reports on ideas of the afterlife and the concept of interreligious theology in Episode 3 of the research podcast “Religion and Politics” on the current annual theme, “Belonging and demarcation”.

“Religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, which do not believe in a personal creator God, also expect life to continue after death – in the form of rebirth”, Schmidt-Leukel explains. There are, however, overlaps. Certain forms of belief in rebirth can also be found in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And Buddhism and Hinduism also have the idea of rebirth in heavenly worlds and numerous hells. But a person does not stay there forever. “Reincarnation involves being reborn as an animal or a ghost, but also as a dweller in hell or heaven. These forms of existence are not final: the ultimate goal is to overcome the cycle of reincarnation and enter timeless nirvana”.

Patchwork religiosity and interreligious theology

“Large religious traditions have always absorbed numerous influences from other religions”, says Schmidt-Leukel, and this process of mixing religions is intensifying in the present day. “Quite a few people today are cultivating a patchwork religiosity”, combining elements of different religious traditions in their personal faith. “Various studies have shown that today about one fifth of Christians believe in reincarnation. But that is only one example. Individual religiosity draws on a wide variety of religious sources – through reading, travel, and personal acquaintances”. While believers have always known only parts of their religious tradition and have themselves bestowed meaning on individual aspects, thereby making religiosity always a “patchwork” for the individual, these patches have often, though by no means always, tended in Western countries to come from a single tradition. “People have access today to so many different worlds of imagination as never before in human history. Thomas Aquinas might not even have read the Qurʽan; but we can go to any bookshop and buy literature from very many religious traditions”.

“The theme ‘life after death’ is one of the traditional themes of theology; today, it must be looked at interreligiously and no longer only on the basis of each individual religious tradition”. Today it is no longer adequate “if theologies only study the holy scriptures of their own religion and do not include the broad religious tradition of humanity in central religious questions”. No other academic discipline could afford to ignore relevant data. An interreligious theology that shows inner relations between the religions is indispensable. It should draw not only on Christian sources, but also on the texts and traditions of other religions. This is also true in view of growing global entanglement. “However, interreligious theology must not be misunderstood as the theology of a worldwide ‘unified religion’. It is just a newer form of doing theology: learning through constant exchange between different confessional and religious perspectives”. (sca/vvm)