Perhaps it’s because I find the post-election news depressing beyond words or maybe it’s a product of my advancing years, but lately I’ve been thinking about the concept of an afterlife. I, like most of you, was born into a religious tradition (Roman Catholic), which promotes the notion of eternal reward or damnation after death. Other belief systems, however, present a wide variety of proposed post-life resting places.
Imagine for a moment that you woke up tomorrow with amnesia that deprived you of any emotional or historical attachment to any particular religious tradition. You are now free to accept or reject any particular concept of the hereafter. What are your options? To explore this topic in some depth, I sought out an esteemed author who has written a fascinating book on this very topic.
Cliff Pickover, who received his Ph.D. from Yale, is fascinated by creativity, innovation, education, editing, and publishing. He has been granted more than 300 U.S. patents, has more than 25,000 Twitter followers, and is author of more than 50 books, which have been translated into dozens of languages. The book that drew my attention for this column was his latest one: “Death and the Afterlife: A Chronological Journey, from Cremation to Quantum Resurrection.”
When I was able to catch up with this busy author, scientist, educator and innovator, he was nice enough to allow me to ask him the following questions:
The thought of an afterlife has existed for as long as humans have roamed the earth. What are some of the more interesting configurations of the afterlife that your research uncovered?
Through history, the nature and mystery of death has captivated artists, scientists, philosophers, physicians, and theologians. Heaven has sometimes been considered as both the realm in which God or heavenly beings reside and the place to which the righteous go after death. American Christian evangelist Anne Lotz suggests that heaven is a physical location—a cubical region that is 1,500 miles on a side, with a base that is “as large as the area from Canada to Mexico, and from the Atlantic Ocean to Rockies,” easily able to accommodate 20 billion residents, each one having a private cube with a 75-acre floor.
In ancient Egypt (for example, around the time of the “Pyramid Texts,” c. 2400 BC), Aaru, or the “Field of Reeds,” was an eternal heavenly realm for the dead. The early Hebrews did not emphasize life after death, but during later difficult times of the Babylonian exile, the concept of an afterlife began to increasingly make sense to the Jews—if justice was not apparent on Earth, maybe it would be in an afterlife. Several heavens exist for Buddhists, but an individual’s stay in heaven is considered temporary, with the eventual goal to reach a state of enlightenment (Nirvana). Similarly, for Hindus, heaven is not a final goal, but rather is temporary and related to the physical body. The Christian biblical tradition relates heaven to the Throne of God, and grace enables believers to ascend to heaven. Islamic descriptions of heaven sometimes include physical wish fulfillment, including the wearing of costly clothes and the enjoyment of wine and fancy banquets—and Islamic texts also refer to several levels of heaven. Various Mesoamerican and Polynesian religions have also posited various levels of heaven.
For me, I always found Thomas Aquinas’ invention of Limbo fascinating. The Catholic Church had a dilemma in that an unbaptized soul could not enter the kingdom of heaven. Yet, it appeared cruel to send unbaptized babies to eternal damnation so Aquinas created the concept of Limbo, which was neither heaven nor hell. His invention, which the church quickly adopted, instructed the faithful that these unfortunate innocents were spared an unjust punishment. Recently, however, the Catholic Church has abandoned this concept. What are some other interesting concepts of an afterlife that your research uncovered?
Xibalba (pronounced she-bal-ba) is the name of the mysterious underworld in the mythology of the K’iche’ Maya people, Native Americans mostly from the highlands of present-day Guatemala. The ancient K’iche’ was conquered by the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado in 1524.
The subterranean Xibalba (“the place of fright”) was accessible by a cave and inhabited by various horrifying death gods described in the Popol Vuh, a set of texts detailing the mythology and history of K’iche’ kingdom. Twelve powerful godlike rulers inhabit Xibalba and cause various forms of human suffering in our world, such as fear, sickness, and pain.
The realm of Xibalba is replete with various tests for humans, and even the path to Xibalba has challenges such as separate rivers filled with scorpions, blood, and pus. In one famous legend, twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque enter Xibalba, seeking revenge for the gods’ killing of their father and uncle. Although the death-gods subject the twins to a series of daily ballgames and trials, the heroes finally decapitate the gods of death and are reborn as heavenly objects in the sky. Depictions that allude to the myth of the hero twins have been found on murals dating to approximately 100 BCE.
Although the spatial cosmology of the Maya included a universe with many layers, with a flat Earth surrounded by multiple “heavens” and multiple “underworlds,” most Mayans expected their spirits to journey to the underworld where the Xibalbans lived. Often depicted as diseased creatures, some Xibalbans wear necklaces of eyeballs. Within Xibalba, existed several houses associated with different trials and traps, including rooms with sharp knives, jaguars, bats, heat, cold, and more.
According to author Stanislav Chládek, Mayan religious thoughts were “permeated with belief in an afterlife, which could take place only after the dead passed through the trials of Xibalba, ruled by the Lords of the Underworld, Xibalbans. Ever-present death led the Mayan to dedicate much of their rituals to this final confrontation with the underworld’s lords and their own eventual rebirth.”
Join me next week as I continue this conversation with one of the most fascinating thinkers of our generation.