We are all aware that, at least in a physical sense, we will one day inevitably cease to exist, yet this universally known fact has produced many different conclusions about what may happen after and Buddhist thought differs extremely from that of Christianity. The issue is inexorably linked to eastern and western views of causation and what constitutes personal identity as these play a major role in influencing beliefs about the afterlife. Indeed to even talk of ‘life after death’ seems linguistically problematic; we are trying to approach two contradictory phrases ‘life’ and ‘death’ and to reconcile them. The way in which to do this largely depends on whether one’s personal view is that of a cyclical universe or a linear one, for example it may seem easier from a Buddhist viewpoint to literally talk of ‘life after death’ as the belief in rebirth means that to a Buddhist there is literally a life, another living existence, after one’s earthly body has died. From a Christian perspective however the phrase has an entirely different meaning, through resurrection and the intervention of God one continues to the afterlife although in a very different way than reincarnation.
The most obvious point that should be made in reference to Buddhist understanding of life after death are the doctrines of karma, anatta, nirvana and rebirth. When your body reaches the end of its natural cycle you die in a physical sense, from a Theravadin perspective if you have reached enlightenment, ‘nirvana’ during that lifetime then you are released from Samsara. Nirvana is not a place as in Christian thinking of heaven; if attained whilst living it is more a state of mind, it means literally to be ‘extinguished’ and is largely indescribable in modern parlance. Those who have attained nirvana fully understand the way things really are (yartabutudarshana) and upon their physical deaths are released from Samsara.
However those who have not reached enlightenment have produced karma throughout their lives, and the results of their karma, or actions, must come to fruition, vipaka and so they continue to be trapped in Samsara and are reborn. This is also true for Bodhisattvas in the Mahayana school; although they have reached nirvana they remain in Samsara in order to help more sentient beings, for example Amitabha in the Pure Land. It must be stressed however that rebirth is not transmigration of any eternal soul, for example in Hinduism, as the doctrine of anatta states that there is no self. Rather through dependent origination, a series of unconnected successive dharmas, rebirth happens. Although somebody is not reborn as the same person they have a moral responsibility to act in a positive way so as not to produce negative karma and dukkha for other sentient beings in other life times.
From a Christian perspective however the afterlife is personal, Biblical teachings and the belief in an eternal soul means that the majority of Christians believe in Heaven and Hell of some sort. In a basic sense righteous souls who have accepted Jesus and followed God will go to heaven after they die, and those are sinners and denied God go to Hell. However there are vast varying beliefs in how this will happen and what the nature of Heaven and Hell are. Many Catholics also believe in the existence of purgatory, a place where the soul is cleansed of sins so it is able to go to heaven in the presence of God. Some Christians believe that when people die their souls rest or ‘sleep’ and are unaware of time passing, until Judgement day in which God raises all beings, who are then Judged and will enter either Heaven or Hell, others believe that after death those who followed Jesus are immediately resurrected and enter ‘the kingdom of God’ (1 Corinthians 15). Other Christians have rejected the idea of a literal Heaven and Hell believing instead the concepts are in fact states of mind, or that Heaven does exist and it is being in the presence of God, whereas Hell is not a place of eternal torture but rather self exclusion from God.
Despite the large contrasts between these two forms of belief there are some similarities and parallels albeit rather tenuous. Many people have often compared the Pure Land in some forms of Mahayanism to that of Heaven, the idea of a place of ‘eternal light’ and ‘goodness’ and to get there you must have faith in the grace of another being, God or Amitabha respectively. However for Pure Land Buddhists the Pure Land realm is not the ultimate destination or aim as in Christianity, it is still in Samsara and thus viewed as a favourable place to cultivate the necessary qualities to reach nirvana but is not Heaven as in Christian belief.
Parallels could also be seen between the intermediate state between death and rebirth in Buddhism, bardo, in which no physical body exists although senses do, and the idea of purgatory in Catholicism. Both are intermediate however the extreme contrasting views of what these two concepts are mean they are inevitably vastly different; one is a place where you wait to take the form of your new birth and the other is a place in which your soul is cleansed for God. The idea of different realms of existence, the realm of humans, animals, hungry ghost and asuras for example could be seen to parallel that of the idea amongst some Christians that there are different levels of Heaven and Hell. However the idea of rebirth is obviously not present in this Christian view of the afterlife and the souls are still human souls in some form, not for example an animal or demi-god.
Another similarity which may appear is that positive and good actions lead to a favourable afterlife; for Christians believing in Jesus, following The Bible and acting compassionately, selflessly and without pride will mean that after you die your soul will join Jesus and God in heaven, (depending of course on your personal belief of what constitutes heaven) similarly for Buddhists acting in a right way, following the eight fold path, taking refuge in the Buddha and realising the Dharma will produce positive Karma and thus a favourable rebirth. However this interpretations of those views are basic and superficial, we are only looking at the surface. To be more precise the majority of Christian thought teaches that although you must accept Jesus, act morally and refrain from sinning, this does not in a sense mean you ‘earn’ a place in heaven, it is instead through the infinite unmerited grace of God that you attain salvation. St Paul states that “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God”. Therefore although good action is desirable it is not directly parallel to the karmic idea of cause and effect, Buddhist understanding in most schools, particularly Zen, is that in order to reach Nirvana you must rely on Jiriki, or self effort, whereas Christianity in comparison is ultimately reliant on the grace of God and so tariki, or other/external effort.
There are also other more obvious contrasts. The Christian view of life after death is linear, you are born, you live, you die, you go to Heaven or Hell. Your existence was created purposefully by God and you only have one unchanging eternal soul and thus you are only ever one person. On the other hand however the Buddhist understanding is of a cyclical universe in which sentient beings are trapped and the ultimate aim is to attain nirvana and escape. Therefore the beliefs on what it means to live after one has physically died are extremely different. Parapsychology could be used as evidence by either belief, those who recall past lives under hypnosis may add weight to the belief in rebirth. Equally however those who have near death experiences or other religious experiences may support the Christian view.
Ultimately however neither understanding of life after death is more valid than the other. Both religions are approaching the topic from different stand points and although there are parallels the presence of a personal God in monotheism means that Christian view points are evidently going to differ hugely from the cyclical non theistic view of Eastern thought. We have no way of knowing or testing either belief and as we are all yet to experience our own deaths perhaps the only way we will know is eschatologically.