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The Afterlife – A/Greek Vs. Christian Beliefs Essay, Research Paper
Any concept as vital and complex as the afterlife is sure to have been the basis of the beliefs of countless people through the ages. Regardless of race or nationality, religion or moral standing, the afterlife has remained a predominant issue in the beliefs of people around the world since the dawn of time. As religions become more intricate and involved, different myths emerged and events occurred that shaped the specifics of the afterlife for each different religion. Ancient Greek religion and modern day Christianity are extremely different many respects, however the afterlife and the basic concepts that are associated with it remain the same for both of these religions.
Good morning Ms. Griffiths and class. The basic beliefs and principles surrounding both Ancient Greek and modern Christian religions entail similar concepts, and are formulated around the same ideas. However, there are some very clear distinctions that separate the two. In some ways, concepts originating from Ancient Greece are more prevalent then those derived from actual Christian texts, are incorporated into a general idea of the afterlife as held by many Christians.
There are some major variations in the religious beliefs of the ancient Greeks and modern Christians, and indeed there are a large number of inconsistencies within both religions themselves. The similarities of both religions concerning the afterlife, particularly the immortality of the soul, indicates that the foundations of both religions are essentially the same.
Greek religion is polytheistic, that is, there is a belief in more then one God. In Christianity there is a belief in one God. The Ancient Greeks used mythology to precisely describe the afterlife. Later, Greek philosophers such as Socrates, disagreed with the mythological image of the Gods, and attempted to use philosophy to describe life, death and all that may lie beyond. Christianity is a lot less specific, and views on the afterlife have been vaguely interpreted from the Bible, as visions experienced by people throughout the ages, and also from the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and saviour of mankind in Christian religions. The Bibles description of life after death has been interpreted in countless different ways, and there are many different denominations of the Christian religion that have emerged due to this.
Within Christian religions and ancient Greek religion, there is a definite belief in the existence of the soul and its immortality. It has thus far been proven impossible in either religion to clearly define what the ?soul? actually is. The Ancient Greek philosophers referred to the soul as the ?psyche?, a word that means ?life force?, ?mind? and ?breathe?. The soul, essentially, is the essence of man. The invisible substance that exists with the body but can be conceived to be separate. In both religions, the immortality of the soul is the basis of belief in the afterlife. Both religions have varying ideas of the nature of the soul and its purpose. In Ancient Greek religion, mythological views of the afterlife existed, and also the ?doctrine of metempsychosis ? or transmigration of the soul?. Basically, the mythological view of the soul involved what was described as a ?shade? by Homer, being released from the body upon death, and entering the afterlife. This ?shade? was the soul of the person, and the afterlife was described as an actual place beneath the earth, where the soul lived eternally. The theory put forward by later philosophers, such as Plato and Socrates, involved concepts such as reincarnation and a cyclical approach to the soul?s immortality. In ?The Phaedrus?, a book describing the philosophies of Plato, it is written:
? All souls are immortal, for that which is ever in motion is immortal?it is only that which moves itself that never intermits its motion, inasmuch as it cannot abandon its own nature.? (Plato, 1987:112).
In other words, Plato is expressing the belief that the soul must be immortal, as it is a ?motion that can set itself moving?, and hence cannot cease to be what it is. The idea that the soul is reincarnated, and ?transmigrates? across bodies, is expressed by the ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles when he stated
?I have already been a boy, a girl, and a bush, and a silent fish in the sea.? (Barnham, 1982:34)
Pythagoras, another influential figure in Greek philosophy, also believed in ?reincarnation?. It is written that he cried at seeing a shield from the Trojan War and claimed that it was his shield when he was a soldier in a past life. (Barham, 1982:35)
Modern Christian beliefs, although reincarnation has been widely rejected, still focus mainly on the immortality of the soul when explaining concepts regarding the afterlife. Christianity is similar to the mythological beliefs in Ancient Greek religion when it describes the soul. The Bible describes the soul as a ?shadow?, and also describes its immortality. The Bible does not offer a definition of the soul. Rather, it assumes that the soul and the person are one, that is, the concept of dualism is less predominant then in Ancient Greek religion. That is why the soul is rarely mentioned specifically in the Bible, however personal pronouns that refer to the reader or specific people are used with the assumption made that the soul and the person are considered to be one and the same. The concept of eternal life is a major focus, though not the most prevalent concept in Christianity.
? We know that we have left death and come over into life; we know it because we love others. Those who do not love are still under the power of death. Those who hate others are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life in them.? (John 3.14,15.)
This passage makes reference to eternal life, and also to the passing over of the soul, though the word ?we? is used in reference to the writer?s and the reader?s souls. The soul is alluded to in the words ?murderers do not have eternal life in them?. This is defining the soul as eternal life and therefore stating that the soul is eternal. It also states that murderers do not have eternal life in them. This implies that the soul will cease to exist after death, or eventually ceases to exist after death. Therefore the soul is not necessarily always immortal in Christian religion, however, the soul has the potential to be immortal.
The different views portrayed in ancient Greek and modern Christian religions are similar as far as the concept that the soul is the essence of the human being, and the soul is immortal. The Ancient Greeks however, tended to believe that the soul was indestructible. In modern Christian religion, the soul can be destroyed by God.
The judgment of the soul, or the person, is a major aspect of both ancient Greek and modern Christian religions, despite the fact that later Greek philosophy tended not to focus on this. In Christian religion, the soul is judged by the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who is believed to have been crucified to save the souls of man from their sins. This belief is demonstrated in the Bible verse:
? For just as the father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself; and He gave Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man.? (John 5.26,27).
The Christian faith revolves around the idea of the judgment of the soul. The concept of judgment is clearly explained in the Bible passage:
? For all of us must appear before Christ, to be judged by him. We will each receive what we deserve, according to everything we have done, good or bad, in our bodily life.? (Bible, page unknown).
This passage states that Christ will judge each person on what they have done while they were alive. Whether an action is deemed ?good? or ?bad? depends also upon the teaching of the Bible. From the Ten Commandments of Moses to the Psalms and Proverbs, the Bible instructs its Christian followers how to obey God and do what is good. The Bible is vague as to the process of judgment, and the best indication of what it involves may be found in the Book of Revolation. This foretells the final judgment, and is the source of much horrible imagery.
Ancient Greek religion also focuses on judgment. The Greeks believed that the soul leaves the body at death, journeys to the Underworld, and is judged by three judges, Rhadamanthus, Minos and Aeacus. The soul, as in Christian religions, is judged to be either ?good? or ?evil?, and the fate of the soul depends upon the judgment it receives. The God Er, Messenger from the Afterlife, in Greek mythology, gives an account of judgment in an Homeric verse.
?No divinity shall cast lots for you, but you shall choose your own destiny. There were lives of illustrious men?in the same way as there were lives of unknown men. But the disposition of the soul was not included. Because most were dazzled by riches?(they) were not able to observe what other things were involved in the fate they had chosen, and they were led to all kind of iniquities.? (Homer:1990:125)
This is giving an overview of the Greek belief in how the soul is judged. According to Homer, the Gods did not pass judgment on the soul after death, but rather the person chooses their fate in life and this fate is determined by the judges after death.
This is similar to the Christian view of judgment in that it states that judgment depends upon the virtue of the soul rather then the wrath of God. However, this is one area in which Christianity is more specific than Ancient Greek religion. The principles upon which Christians believe the soul is judged, despite being highly debatable, are defined somewhat in the Bible. The principles that the Ancient Greeks believed they were judged upon vary wildly depending upon the source. Different ideals and morals were identified in several different texts, such as Homer?s verses, and these are often very unreliable and put down to fiction. What the Ancient Greeks actually believed in regards to how the soul was judged cannot be determined specifically, besides the basic principle of ?good? and ?evil?.
The actual afterlife is portrayed as somewhat of a journey in both Christian and Ancient Greek religions. In Ancient Greek religion, the journey was specifically described in mythology. The soul must cross the river Styx, one of the five rivers of The Underworld. Souls are taken across the river by Charon, The Boatman, who demands a gold coin for this service. When a person in ancient Greece died, they were buried with a coin in their mouth. If they were not, the Greeks believed that they would not be able to pay the fare and would be destined to wander the deserted shore of the river Styx for eternity. After crossing the river, the soul is handed over to a tribunal to be judged. The tribunal consists of Hades, God of the Underworld, and The Three Judges, Rhadamanthus, Minos and Aeacus. The tribunal examines the soul and assigns it to the type of afterlife it deserves. If the soul was neither extraordinarily virtuous nor evil, it remains in a neutral region of The Underworld reserved for people who deserve neither reward nor punishment. Here the Greeks believed the soul wandered joylessly and aimlessly. There is a chance of redemption for these souls, however. By bathing in the Acherusian Lake they can be redeemed according to the virtue of their former existence. If the dead person had committed a great crime, their soul will be cast into Tartarus, a place where the soul is tortured. Once again, a soul can be redeemed if the crime was not extremely terrible. By spending a year in Tartarus, the soul redeems itself. It must then bathe in the Acherusian Lake to seek forgiveness before it will be allowed to leave Tartarus. If the soul is among the few who have led pure lives, it is taken to the Elysian Fields, which is described as bliss, harmony and a place of eternal happiness.
This description of The Underworld, and the journey that the soul must undergo at a glance appears like a fictional story, however, the myth is extremely complex in its full form and the story describing the journey is highly metaphorical. The concepts explored in the Ancient Greeks belief of what happens after death are therefore relatively similar to those explored in the modern Christian belief of the afterlife. There is no specific journey that is described, or a specific process that is undertaken in order for a person to enter eternal life in the Christian religion. However, the order of events, even though they aren?t put in the medium of time, are similar. In ancient Greek religion the soul is judged and its fate determined. In Christianity, the soul is also judged and its fate determined. The soul is judged by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and those who have led there lives according the word of God, the Bible, enter Heaven, which is the Kingdom of God, and is comparable to the Elysium Fields in ancient Greek religion in the fact that it is the destination of those who have led virtuous lives and is a place of bliss and harmony. Those who have sinned against God are believed to be sent to purgatory, or Hell, dependent upon the denomination of the Christian. Catholics believe that all people, excepting saints, enter purgatory to be punished for their sins before entering Heaven. Saints, having led their lives by God, are not required to receive punishment for sins. Purgatory, in this respect, may be compared to Tartarus, as a place of torture and punishment. Souls may spend a certain amount of time in Tartarus before being redeemed, and the same basic concept applies for purgatory. Hell, in all Christian denominations is a place of damnation for the rest of time. There is no redemption from Hell. Souls judged and sent to Hell must remain there until the final Day of Judgment, where, as is described in the Book of Revelation, if there names are not written on the book of the living, they will be destroyed. In this respect, Christian and Ancient Greek beliefs concerning the afterlife vary. In Ancient Greek religion, The Underworld is given no time constraints. The ancient Greeks believed that it would exist forever. The world of the dead, as described in the Bible, is destroyed in the final judgment. This is the basic belief held by modern Christians.
Another aspect that is similar is that the souls of the dead beg for forgiveness the Acherusian Lake. This aspect of forgiveness and redemption is similar to that of the belief the Jesus Christ will forgive the sins of man if they ask for His forgiveness. Although extremely different in context and origin, the two concepts are based around the same idea that those who have led less then virtuous lives may be forgiven for their sins.
The afterlife in modern Christian and Ancient Greek religion is different in many respects. However, basic concepts associated with it including the immortality of the soul, the judgment of the soul, the concepts of eternal punishment or reward, and the existence of a God, or Gods that control these aspects are very similar. The differences evident in these religions stem from the differences in their origins. Both are extremely, or may I say, infinitely, complex, and neither will ever be completely understood. However, after analysing the basic points associated with the belief in the after in both religions, the core of both beliefs are similar, though not the same. They express the same idea, yet the meaning of the idea is extremely different in both cases. It is this difference that divides the two religions and the two beliefs in the afterlife, which, although may encompass similar theories, are as distinct as the body and soul.
1. Barnham, Allan (1982). Life Unlimited. Hythe: Volturna Press.
2. Graves, Robert (1970). The Greek Myths. New York: Penguin.
3. Grey, Margot (1985). Return From Death. London: Arkana.
4. McLeod, Owen. ? On Phaedo?, http://www.faculty.washington.edu/smcohen/McLeod (10th May, 2000)
5. Plato. (1987) The Phaedrus. London: Penguin.
6. Price, H (1972). Essays in the Philosophy of Religion. London: Psychic Book Club.
7. Sutton, John. ?Time and Mind?, http://www.phil.mq.edu.au/staff/jsutton/PHIL131Lecture3 (24th July, 2000)
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