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Death and Eternity

Death and Eternity


This lesson presents death and eternity as two apparently polar opposites that in fact function symbiotically in drawing the individual to religion.

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Welcome to this tutorial on death and eternity. Here I've drawn two symbols for eternal life, the peacock feather which is a symbol for eternity in ancient Christianity and is also associated with various Hindu gods, and the honeycomb which was a symbol for eternal life in ancient Egypt, because it was used as a preservative. It is also a symbol for eternity in various gnostic sects. The encounter with death is also the individual's first encounter with eternity.

When someone dies, we inevitably think about where that person went. We just get used to knowing them in everyday life, and it's very odd for us to think about a sudden and dramatic end. So the question always comes up, well where did that person go?

And it also seems to bring with it questions about divinity. Is there a God? Is there an afterlife, and so forth? So as soon as we're faced with death, we also end up thinking about divinity and about the afterlife.

So this is a sort of basic thought process that lies underneath death and the question of eternal life. So we can say that the afterlife comes from a sort of habitual train of thought, when someone's presence abruptly comes to an end. And we end up asking, where did he or she go?

So it's very difficult for us to think about absolute endings. And we naturally end up thinking about the afterlife. And this is true in various different cultures around the world. So let's take a look at a couple different conceptions of the afterlife.

In Buddhism, there is the concept of nirvana which just means extinction. It is the end of some sorrow, or this cycle of death and rebirth. The Hindu term for the same thing is moksha, liberation. So in the Eastern traditions there's generally the idea of a cyclic existence, where rebirth happens again, and again, and again, until the final absorption into God or absorption into nothingness. But it's the end of craving, it's the end of suffering, it's the end of desire.

In the Western religions there's often an idea of heaven, which stems from the Old English as is a translation of the Greek word ouranos, which means sky. So most cultures around the world think of heaven as up and underworlds as being down. Up is generally thought of as good and down is thought of as being bad.

So even though now we know we can go up in the clouds and there's no heaven up there, we still think about heaven as being up. And the idea of heaven is also associated with the concept of justice, that the righteous people will be rewarded and bad people will be punished. So hell is a place where justice can be dealt out to those who were evil in their regular life.

So hell is often described as a place of fire, or a place of darkness. And it's a place where there will be punishment or purification for the wicked. I should say that even in the Eastern religions, there often concepts of hell but the hellish worlds are temporary places where the evil people will be purified and they will go on to live another life. In the Western religions, oftentimes these are thought of as places where one goes permanently.

We said that death often gets us thinking about eternity and the concept of the afterlife. We get so used to having a person around that we start asking, well where did that person go? And this naturally leads to questions about the beyond. This thought process is behind many different conceptions of the afterlife and eternity.

We gave examples of Eastern and Western ideas of the afterlife. We talked about the concepts of nirvana and moksha in Buddhism and Hinduism as a kind of extinction or kind of end of craving and suffering. We said that in Christian religions there's an idea of an afterlife in heaven and an afterlife in hell, two eternal realms. And that whether or not one goes to one of these places depends on one's actions in life, and whether or not one accepts divine salvation. So we just have two vocabulary terms, eternity-- which is a state in which time is either never ending or does not exist-- and afterlife-- the place or the experience of life after death.

Terms to Know

In many religions, either the place or the experience of life after death.


A state in which time is either never-ending or does not exist.