Religion shows us a purpose in life and a meaning in all of Creation.
It's also a way of dealing with death.
More than any other creature, humans have intellect. We form abstract ideas, empathize with other beings, and can anticipate the future.
But alas, our future includes the likelihood of our own death. Our self-aware ego, our identity, gives us a feeling of continuity from day to day. But what if it ends?
When we witness or hear about a death, the loss of a fellow being can be painful, especially a loved one who's part of our life. And worse, it could happen to us... unless we believe that we'll join the beloved at their uncertain destination. The evident end of life and awareness is frightening, because it's unknown and unimaginable.
A child will ask, "Where did they go?"
Our consciousness cannot contemplate its own extinction. If we compare it to sleep, then, like Hamlet, we may still be frightened "perchance to dream." How bad could the dreams be?
It's somehow natural to assume that the spirit, the intangible expression of ourselves or our companion, goes on after death. It’s certainly not unusual for us to sense, or even visualize, the presence of a departed loved one.
Oddly enough, it’s less common to hallucinate the ghost of a hated enemy. For the source of a dreaded haunting, we usually look to the forgotten past.
In Western tradition at least, there aren't many accounts of ghostly persecution by dead rivals. This suggests that our notions of life after death are aimed at comfort and reassurance. It can be wishful thinking, vis a vis our concern for the deceased and for our own survival.
Survival is a powerful instinct
Most of us love life intensely, even in the midst of discomfort and hardship. For an intellect to yearn or act for its own demise requires a lot of suffering, whether mental or physical. It also implies the hopelessness of any relief in this life. Oblivion is just too frightening, unless it's seen as a cessation of unbearable pain.
Yet the acceptance or even embrace of death can be aided by the intellect. This may come from a cognitive belief in afterlife, or duty, or eternal reward. Faith—belief without evidence—can be strong enough to overpower instinct and fear. That is why most religions promise to punish suicide, unless they expect or plan for their congregations to self-destruct. Martyrdom, too, is an exception. For martyrs, faith can trump the fear of death and pain.
As a result of this urge for continuance of the human spirit, most cultures envision an afterlife. We use these beliefs to comfort children, and then later, in extremity, ourselves. As the large Baby Boomer generation ages and has to plan for death, we're seeing bestsellers and films with titles such as Heaven is Real, God Isn't Dead, etc.
Denial of death is the first and original mental defense.
Denial allows us to ignore other inconvenient truths and ultimately, to live out whole lifetimes in denial. It can be argued that some degree of denial or willful ignorance is necessary for smooth functioning in life. In the fictive words of H.P. Lovecraft, “The most merciful thing in the world... is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” Even those of us who think we can live forever may be in denial.
Denial, of course, can have disastrous consequences in the real world. This is especially true where citizens and leaders must form a consensus to take action against a political or scientific threat.
To allay the fear of death, tribal nomads envision happy hunting grounds for departed spirits. Viking warriors fight more fiercely in anticipation of drinking in Valhalla. Paradise, Purgatory, Nirvana and the Elysian Fields may be located underground, across the River Styx, atop Mount Olympus or above the clouds, but always out of mortal view.
These afterworlds may be open to all souls, to heroes only, or to the virtuous. They may be joyous, gloomy or terrifying. In Bible teaching and preaching, Hades, Shayol and Gehenna have been mentioned as hells where sin and disbelief are infinitely punished.
Hellfire and Brimstone
To regulate human behavior and excoriate sin, Christianity parlays our natural fear of death, extinction and the unknown into a more vivid promise of eternal torture. In some versions at least, it offers endless agonizing torments to disbelievers and/or sinners who haven't sought forgiveness. Monstrous beings, a Satanic demigod and fallen, wingless angels are said to rule over a subterranean chasm of volcanic heat, lakes of burning pitch, barren devastation and diabolical torture. Demons variously depicted as red savages, Roman gladiators, horned Vikings or Spanish inquisitors rule this underworld. Such horrors abound in ecclesiastic art and literature from Milton to Dante to Bosch. But note that none of this is specified in the Bible, not even in the visionary Book of Revelation.
Christ’s quoted teachings do mention Gehenna as a destination for the souls of those who deny God. In New Testament days, this was a real place. The valley or wadi of Gehenna, outside the walls of Jerusalem, was known as a cursed place that had been used for burning children in sacrifice to defunct ancient gods. It was then a refuse dump, with fires continuously burning for garbage, dead animals and the dead bodies of criminals.
This raises a metaphysical point. Jesus offers eternal life or resurrection to his followers, but he doesn’t promise infinite torture to others. By referring to the fires of Gehenna, he is likely only warning of extinction, consumption by flame, and consequent oblivion, rather than a burning Hell of torture. As Paul later says, "The wages of sin is death." Since Jesus himself didn't directly record or dictate any scrolls, there's much room for misinterpretation.
Hell on Earth
If there is a Hell in the Goddess Geo-Gaia's teaching, it is only the one we are creating here on Earth by ignoring Her divine warnings. Many will attest that recent weather has been hotter than Hell. In addition we have bigger and better floods, freezes, hurricanes, blizzards, cyclones, droughts, famines (and resultant wars, such as the Syrian Civil War) dying oceans, tropical diseases, extinctions and oxygen depletion. Also there are some new hazards, such as fire tornadoes in our drying and burning forests.
To perform this key religious function of comforting the old, sick and grieving, some other faiths around the world promise reincarnation -- rebirth on this mortal plane in a new, subsequent life, as a human or other living thing. Reincarnation begs the question of continuing our identity from day to day. Since newborn humans and less-cognitive creatures alike begin without self-awareness, one can expect to lose the sense of ego continuity in death, as if going to sleep and hoping to wake up. After rebirth, intimations of past lifetimes may come only rarely , in child and adult human thought, or in dream.
The idea of being reborn as another human, animal, or even as plant life, with a chance of success and happiness in that existence, is a hopeful one. It may palliate the fear of death, if taken as an article of pure faith. Reincarnation may presume that other species have a mute self-awareness similar to human identity. But beware; this fate can also be divine punishment by the will of gods who decide whether the next life will be eagle , slug or slime mold. So it can still be used to mandate good behavior in this life.
In Earth Goddess worship, a somewhat similar inference may be drawn. With or without “ancestral memory,” or consciousness of past or future lives, Geo-Gaians can derive comfort from the faith and hope that Earth’s biosphere will continue indefinitely, and that believers will be a part of it in spirit, if not substance.
The Life Eternal
Meanwhile, to those of us with the necessary age, genetics, awareness and techno-medical opportunity, Geo-Gaia offers true literal immortality, the chance of eternal physical continuation in this world, in one's ageless and self-renewing body.
With this comes the hope of heaven—not a fanciful realm or "Pie in the Sky when you Die," but a real paradise here on earth, recoverable and sustainable with technology, human enlightenment, and consensus.
Immortality and the bio-engineering of Heaven on Earth will remove any need for the irrational and increasingly pathological aspects of contemporary religious belief. With no more denial or delusion, and with the goal of real immortality right here, humans will begin to care about preserving our BIOS. The whole paradigm will shift away from “Sinful Earth is damned,” or “Whoever dies with the most toys wins,” to "Let's make the miracles that we already have more sustainable."
The new byword should be, “How can we best help our planet survive?”