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Heaven, Hell, and the Religions

We’ve looked at universalism in the Abrahamic and Dharmic religions, and in a summary way in the other major (and minor) religions of the world.  In this post I’d like to see what, if any, broad patterns we can find, and what their relevance is in general and in particular, specifically in regard to universalism as a concept.

In the case of traditional and folk religions, the very concept of an afterlife often seems murky–the dead inhabit a shady, insubstantial realm such as the Greek Hades or the Hebrew She’ol.  Alternately, they may inhabit the realm of the deified or semi-deified ancestors.  These two possibilities are not exclusive, it should be noted.  Some such religions, such as that of the ancient Celts and some strands of the ancient Greek religion, had some sort of belief in reincarnation (or “metempsychosis”, as the Greeks referred to it).  By and large, there is no consistent idea of reward and punishment–Heaven and Hell–in most of these faiths.  To the extent that there is, it is either ambiguous or applicable only to a few (such as the Greek Elysian Fields and Tartarus) or it seems to have been imported from other religions (any notions of heavens and hells in Chinese and Japanese religion, for example, come from Buddhism).

In general, I think it fair to say that there is no clear evidence for reward and punishment in the afterlife in any of the religions that precede the Axial Age, with the probable exception of the religion of Ancient Egypt and the possible exception of Zoroastrianism (so many Zoroastrian writings have been lost and there are so many issues with dating the ones we have, that there is some ambiguity as to how old certain doctrines actually are).  I think it is also safe to say that there is also no clear evidence of reward and punishment in the afterlife in the traditional and folk religions that have survived to modern times, except insofar as they’ve been influenced by so-called great or world religions.

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The Abrahamic Faiths

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Having talked about ways to understand and categorize religions, let’s now do so.  There are various ways to do so:  by geographic region (Asian religions, African religions, European religions, etc.); by founding (revealed religions vs. folk religions, etc.); and so on.  I want to look at what might be called “genetic” or “family” relationships.  That is, members of a particular faith might modify, develop, or alter doctrines, worldviews, and such, until what initially is a sort of heresy of the original religion becomes a brand new religion in its own right.  That process is a topic for the future.  Right now, I want to look at the “family” of religions that claims the most adherents worldwide, the Abrahamic family of religions.

In the early days of the United States, though the Founders strongly emphasized freedom of religion and did not, themselves, think of America as founded on Christianity or any other religion, the general feeling was that the U. S. was, in a sense a “Christian” nation.  In the 20th Century, as the nation became more diverse, there was some effort to expand the definitions of U. S. religious culture.  Particularly after World War II, in light of the Holocaust, and in an attempt at reparation for the Antisemitism that had been all too common previously, it became common, and later expected, to use the term “Judeo-Christian”.  The idea was to emphasize commonalities–ethics, the Ten Commandments, etc.–as an attempt at a more irenic way of speaking about religions.  It has been objected–and in my mind, rightly so, to some extent–that the term “Judeo-Christian” is a bit of a weasel word that improperly conflates vastly different faiths.  Nevertheless, it has been thought of as a better-than-nothing term.  However, as Islam has become more noticeable in our society, there has been a casting about for a new term.  “Judeo-Christian-Islamic” and similar locutions have been tried, but are cumbersome.  Finally, the term “Abrahamic” has been coined as a way of embracing the commonalities of all three religions.  In this case, I think the term is good and useful.  It is this which I wish to discuss.

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