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The afterlife:

Beliefs about the nature of life after death
by two groups: Roman Catholics and skeptics

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Beliefs of Roman Catholics:

The teaching of the Roman Catholic church prior to 1999-JUL was consistent:

bullet Hell is a location where its inmates will be severely punished without any hope of relief, for eternity.
 
bullet Among those punished will be Satan, the angels that supported him, and persons who have died "with grave and unrepentant sins" which have not been wiped clean -- normally by church rituals. 1

bullet The level of torture in Hell will be meted out in accordance with the seriousness of the individual's sin. It will last forever. There is no prospect of relief or mercy. The Roman Catholic church taught that punishment will be in the form of isolation from God, and some supernatural form of fire which causes endless, unbearable pain, but does not consume the body. Eastern Orthodox churches teach that the precise form of punishment is not known to us.

bullet The Church taught that most individuals who are not destined to Hell first suffer punishment in Purgatory. This is a type of time-limited Hell during which they become fully cleansed and acceptable for admission to heaven.

bullet In the special case of newborns who die before being baptized, the church was ambivalent. It has no official stance. However, many Roman Catholics believe that newborns go to a place or state called "Limbo" which is separate from heaven, but where the infants are happy and remain as infants. This belief is not taught by the Church today.

On 1999-JUL-28, at his Wednesday general audience, Pope John Paul II made some statement that changed how Hell is perceived by the Church. The news made the front pages of some North American newspapers. He said that:

"Hell is not a punishment imposed externally by God, but the condition resulting from attitudes and actions which people adopt in this life...So eternal damnation is not God's work but is actually our own doing."

"More than a physical place, hell is the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy."

Hell is "the pain, frustration and emptiness of life without God." 2,3

Some Christian Fundamentalists in the U.S. object to a non-physical hell. They consider any concept involving an abstract hell to be a dangerous, even blasphemous notion.

R.A. Mohler, Jr., president of the Southern Baptist's Theological Seminary in Louisville KY commented:

"My concern here is the temptation to make hell a state of mind, to psychologize hell. As attractive as that may be to the modern mind, that is not the hell of the Bible. Jesus himself spoke of hell as a lake of fire where the worms would not die and the fires would not be quenched. It's all very graphic." 

One indication of what the Roman Catholic Church does not teach is seen in a comment by Professor Luigi Lombardi Vallauri. He was professor of philosophy of law at the Catholic University at Milan, and was regarded as one of the church's more original theologians. He stated:

"Even God does not come out well from his creation [Hell]. He appears as a father who locks up his miscreant sons in a horrible hovel and throws away the key, forever! Hell decrees the total failure of the pedagogy of God...[Hell is a] colossal injustice, contrary to all the principles of modern law and...the Italian constitution."

The Vatican ordered him fired.

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Beliefs of skeptics:

Many Atheists, Humanists, Agnostics, freethinkers, etc. are very skeptical about the existence of any form of life after death.

As author David Staume explains:

"The dividing line between belief and non-belief in an afterlife is very close to the dividing line between belief and non-belief in God. Religious people generally accept the concept of an afterlife on faith, as a promise made by God, with Heaven a reward for obedience and Hell a punishment for sin. Atheists, on the other hand, in their rejection of faith, generally reject the concept of an afterlife as a fiction -– a fiction bestowed by a fictitious God." 4

One very well known and respected Atheist is the British theoretical physicist and cosmologist: Stephen Hawking. His latest book is "The Grand Design," which he co-authored with Leonard Mlodinow. 5 They describe the three central answers sought by both philosophy and science:

  • Why is there something rather than nothing?
  • Why do we exist?
  • Why does the universe follow one particular set of physical laws and not another?

The authors acknowledge that no single "theory of everything" currently exists that will explain these and other foundational questions. However, they believe that scientists are approaching that goal with "M-theory," a group of theories that fill in many of the unknown factors in quantum physics. They suggest that when scientists eventually succeed in producing an all-encompasing theory, it will explain how the universe came into being. It will turn out to be a natural process that did not involve a divine creator.

In an interview during 2010-SEP, just before"The Grand Design" was published, Hawking wrote:

"Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going." 6

In an exclusive interview with the Guardian, a British newspaper, during 2011-MAY, he claimed that:

"There is no God, and heaven is a fairy tale for those afraid of death. ... I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I'm not afraid of death, but I'm in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first. I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark." 7

Most afterlife skeptics view the continuation of consciousness after death to be either highly improbable or impossible. Many see a person's memories, talents, abilities, character, personality, sight, hearing, other abilities to sense the environment, etc. as being intimately linked to chemical and electrical activity in their brain. Physicians can use an electroencephalogram (EEG) to monitor the decline and eventual extinction of the brain's electrical activity as death approaches and occurs. In time, the brain itself rots so that the chemical components disintegrate. Researchers study the effects that drugs, electrical shock, injuries, etc. have to the brain, and thus the person's personality and brain function. A near consensus is that no such entity as a soul exists, that the afterlife is non-existent, and that oblivion follows death. Many skeptics agree that the only factors to survive death are the effects that a person's life has had on others; they live on only in the impact that they have had on the lives of others.

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Site navigation:

 Home > Christianity > History, beliefs... > Specific beliefs > Afterlife > Christian groups > here

or Home > Christianity > Bible > Contents > Afterlife > Christian groups > here

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. R.C. Broderick, Ed. "The Catholic Encyclopedia," Thomas Nelson Publ., Nashville TN (1987)
  2. Catholic World News Briefs, 1999-JUL-28. 
  3. John Paul II, "Hell is the state of those who reject God," Osservatore Romano, 1999-AUG-4. Online at: http://www.petersnet.net/research/
  4. Book cover image David Staume, "The Atheist Afterlife: The odds of an afterlife - reasonable. The odds of meeting God there - nil," Agio Publishing House, (2009). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  5. Stephen Hawking, & Leonard Mlodinow, "The Grand Design," Bantam, (2010). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  6. Michael Holderm "God did not create the universe, says Hawking," Reuters, 2010-SEP-02, at: http://www.reuters.com/
  7. Ian Sample, "Stephen Hawking: 'There is no heaven; it's a fairy story'," The Guardian, 2011-MAY-15, at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/
  8. Michael Stone, "Stephen Hawking says 'No God; heaven is a fairy tale' - Twitter lights up," The Examiner, 2011-MAY-16, at: http://www.examiner.com/

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Copyright © 1998 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Author: B.A. Robinson
Latest update: 2011-JUN-04

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