Ancient Iranian Beliefs in Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell

September 27, 2017 by  

Mitra Ara, Ph.D.

The historical process through which all the known religious belief systems of the world have evolved provides evidence that a gradual amalgamation and hybridization of ideologies is the result of cultural collisions.

What people believe to be divine revelation about the end of the world, with its accompanying rewards and punishments, includes an imminent end of existence involving God’s final judgment on evil, and promises of a coming reward for the faithful, both in heaven and on earth. Traditionally, perceptions about the afterlife, and of expectations concerning some form of survival after death, involve creation, human nature, and reality. 

In most of the world’s known religions, death is not the absolute end to existence, and there are justifications for death, resurrection, and a form of life after death. Similarly, views about the presence of duality, and oppositions such as material and non-material existence, chaos and order, good and evil, along with light and dark forces, have been expressed.

As the opposition of chaos and order brings about the genesis of life, so the antagonism of death brings about an afterlife. Likewise, among the earliest components of the Iranian Zoroastrian religious tradition is an eschatological (end of the world) hope and faith in a future savior, which heavily influenced other religions outside of the Iranian world. These characteristics suggest earlier religions contribute to a better understanding of the development of such beliefs in later religions.

In the Iranian and Indian religious traditions, life after death beliefs are expressed as regeneration, resurrection, reincarnation, or transmigration, or life on another plane of existence, such an in heaven or in hell.

The earliest known Indian Vedic texts speak of a life after death similar to the beliefs of Judeo-Christianity and Islam, wherein the soul of an individual, according to his or her actions, either walks on the path to perdition in a hellish place, or to the blessed kingdom of heaven as immortals.

These texts describe heaven as a place of perpetual light where wishes and desires come true, where food and delight are found, where there is happiness, pleasure, joy and enjoyment, where one becomes eternal.

In the same texts, demons and the wicked are forewarned about the torments of the various hells, and the appalling and dreadful punishments both on earth and beneath the earth, in the bottomless dark abysses, in places where the evil spirit is sent by the wrathful mighty gods. Some of the more frequently mentioned torments wished upon enemies and evil doers are burning by fire, torture or death with weapons heated by fire, torture or death by boiling heat, piercing, and total annihilation.

Although death, judgment, heaven, and hell are explained differently in the various Indian religious traditions, the same beliefs about what happens with the immediate fate of righteous and unrighteous souls following death in the afterlife, such as karma (one reaps what one sows), is common to all.

In Hinduism, heaven and hell are understood as another existence, either pleasant or unpleasant, and the afterlife is seen as an intricate scheme where the soul, trapped in the cycles of birth, death, and rebirth, receives retribution between death and future rebirth. However, the mortal concern is to free oneself from the cycle of birth and rebirth, and this occurs by remembering that only one’s deeds determine one’s destiny.

Buddhism, as an extension of Hinduism, also shares similar afterlife doctrines, with its belief in countless transmigrations as part of the retribution for one’s actions, sinful or virtuous. Among the many fiery hells described in Buddhism, there are eight great hells, portrayed with vivid and clear imagery. In Buddhism, the best existence, the final heavenly state, is referred to as nirvana, described as the ultimate state of absolute bliss.

Iranian Zoroastrian texts explain the fate of the individual after death, the universal fate of the world as a whole, an apocalyptic ending, and the final reconstitution of the heavenly world.

The eschatology, following the dual opposite forces of good and evil, and the ethical creed of one’s ‘orderly existence’ (the chief formative factor of immediate afterlife existence) warns of individual judgment as well as the ‘final renovation,’ the last universal resurrection and judgment day, with the promise of the coming savior and an immortal life in the heavenly kingdom of God.

The tradition describes the present world as the corporeal world, astavat, and the after death as the spiritual world, manahya. In the Zoroastrian tradition, death is described as the cessation of physical life caused by the separation of the soul, urvan, from the body. In death, the body, a temporary abode, is terminated, and the immortal soul journeys to another world of existence.

Death is seen as the completion and perfection of life, where individuality is not extinguished, but transfers from one state to another. The principal of evil who created darkness, destruction, death, and suffering, is the arch-demon Angra Mainyu. He is eager to harm good, created in accordance with the principle of truth and order, asha, by bringing it into falsehood, lies, and chaos, druj, and is against all that is in accordance with good, asha. His army–the great demons, daevas, as the supreme embodiment of the forces of chaos, druj–live and flourish in the darkness.

Hell is also referred to as endless darkness–the worst kind of existence–sharing comparable depictions as those described in the Indian Vedic texts.

At the core of Zoroastrian religion is the belief in the continuance of existence, the future state of the soul after death in a spiritual world, and judgment and retribution in the afterlife. The descriptions of the afterlife found in the Zoroastrian tradition are very similar to the Vedic heaven, which promises an everlasting life filled with brightness, happiness, health, pleasure, and delight.

Life in this world ends in death, and is necessary to awake in the afterworld. Besides heaven and hell, the final destinations of the soul, the Zoroastrians identify a third place, an intermediate area akin to the notion of Christianity’s purgatory for those who deserve neither heaven nor hell because the total weight of their good thoughts, good words, and good deeds is equal to that of their bad thoughts, bad words, and bad deeds.

The Zoroastrian tradition describes the state of the soul after death as it separates from the physical body. During this state, the soul leaving the body remains on earth for three days, sitting at the head of the body before ascension, during which time the body is prepared for removal.

The soul is protected from the harassments inflicted by evil forces and guided by the divinities Sraosha and Atar. The body is also guided by daena, as its own self-image, one’s conscience, in the form of a female. Whether the individual lived according to asha and was good, an ashavan, or lived according to druj and was bad, a drujvan, this woman leads the soul into heaven as a divine beauty, or into hell as an obnoxious wretch.

The soul stands in individual judgment, where the individual’s thoughts, humata, words, hukhta, and deeds, hvareshta, during their existence are weighed against one another on the scales. The final decision is made by three divine judges, Mithra, Sraosha, and Rashnu, based on the turn of the scales. One’s deeds are weighed on two sides of the scale. If the good deeds weigh more, the soul is guided to heaven; if the evil deeds weigh more, the soul is taken to hell.

The judgment and balancing take place at the Bridge of Separation, Chinvat Bridge, connecting the two worlds, heaven and earth, separated by a deep chasm with a fiery hell at the bottom. Depending on the past thoughts, words, and deeds, the soul envisions the bridge as wide and easy to cross, or as narrow and impossible to walk upon.

The righteous soul is confident of attaining the ‘best existence,’ vahishta, in the ‘house of the song,’ the heaven attainable by ashavan, a righteousness that is the result of the merits it has accumulated while in the body. The unrighteous, drujvan, who has followed the path of deceit and lies, receives the ‘worst existence’ in the ‘house of the deceit.’

As for universal judgment, the Zoroastrian tradition provides a distinctive afterlife scenario that includes the state of individuals after death as well as the state of the world after the end of time based on the individual’s morality during life.

‘As you sow, so shall you reap.’ An apocalyptic collapse follows the resurrection and recreation of a new, pure, and regenerated world. The struggle between the forces of good and evil, light and dark, ends with the coming of the savior, saushyant, the victory of good, the resurrection of the dead, a general judgment, and the ultimate annihilation of evil forces, after which the world is renewed for the last time with the coming of the final savior, saoshyant, in the victory of good over evil.

The end of the progression of the life of the soul is the making of excellence, the freshokereti, the final renovation, and the inevitable end of the world. Once the blissful souls are endowed with physical bodies, they can experience the joys of the senses as well as those of the spirit. In this perfect environment, the surviving humans will live in ideal harmony with one another on heavenly earth, the ‘best existence.’

According to Zoroastrian teaching, whether in the physical or in the spiritual world, humans exist in and with both forces in the universe, good and evil. Humans are also endowed with the power of free will, and, in life, choose to work for one or the other of these opposing forces, establishing his or her own reward or punishment, his or her own happiness or misery, in heaven or in hell. Accordingly, in these paramount ethical teachings, reward and punishment for one’s own actions in this world and the next permeate the entire religious corpus. This system provides hope of future reward for the performance of righteous acts and the rejection of wickedness in the face of retribution.

As in the Vedic tradition, people ask for the boons of long life, wealth, health, happiness, and immortality in the next world. The Zoroastrian expectation of the end of the world continues down through ages, first influencing the Jews, as seen in some of the past century’s discoveries of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The discovery of these texts has shed more light on the Iranian influence on the Jewish communities in the territory of ancient Iran, reaching from India to Africa. Jews and Iranians built strong relations during the period of Babylonian captivity in the sixth century, BCE as the result of the liberation of the Jews by King Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Achaemenid Empire (6th century B.C.E.).

Among Jews, as among the Zoroastrians, we see the concept of ‘law’ and keeping the ‘covenant’ with God is imperative. Therefore, transgressors were marked as those who broke the law and the covenant, and were subsequently subjected to God’s wrath.

The Iranian religion not only influenced the Greeks and Jews, as especially demonstrated in the Jewish Book of Enoch. We also see the influence in the subsequent Millenarianism in the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions. The concept of resurrection in the Zoroastrian tradition, as described by Ezekiel in the Old Testament, not only influenced afterlife beliefs, but also views on earthly life, which in turn were influenced by deep belief in the opposition of good and evil, and the personification of the latter.

Other influential Iranian beliefs have impacted the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). These beliefs espouse God created an ethical world as a stage upon which the constant battle between good and evil takes place, wherein the afterlife reckons time and the weighing of one’s deeds, rewards and retributions, specific paths to heaven and to hell, the coming of the savior, and an expected end of the world as we know it, followed by a new world for the chosen who will live an immortal, heavenly life.

The described afterlife journey, similar to those found in the Zoroastrian tradition, is further alluded to in both the Old and New Testaments, in the Book of Psalms, Job, Daniel, Isaiah, Luke, John, and, most notably, the Book of Revelation. In the Islamic tradition, the same descriptions of the ethical world, the opposite forces of good and evil, the bridge of judgment, the weighing of good and evil actions, the fiery tormenting hells for the unrighteous, and a heavenly existence for the righteous are also present.

The emergence of religious concerns with death, judgment, destiny of the soul, and the final state of existence among the major monotheistic religions, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, was most likely propelled by a fruitful encounter with Iranian religions, deeply concerned as these were with the struggle between good and evil, and the moral and ethical issues of right and wrong, sin and virtue, judgment, punishment, and divine promise.

Combining the prevalent Zoroastrian understanding of the afterlife with Judeo-Christian and pre-Islamic Arab beliefs, seventh century Islam describes a similar schema of individual eschatology, with the reckoning of deeds, the judgment of the soul, and subsequent retribution in heaven or hell. Similar to the Zoroastrian tradition, reckoning day in Islam is a combination of depictions found in the Zoroastrian texts, which refer to the weighing of the soul’s deeds on a scale, and its subsequent retributions and rewards.

There are genetic and historical links in the afterlife beliefs about final judgment, reward, and retribution pointing to the essential roles played by the earliest Indian Vedic and Iranian Zoroastrian religious traditions, in the formation and development of major doctrines in Hinduism, Buddhism, Manichaeism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Acknowledging and incorporating the earliest religious elements into the studies of other related traditions would not only further clarify some of the persisting ambiguities, but would expand our knowledge about how some of these more recent ideologies were produced. The imagery of afterlife events as recorded in the religious texts perhaps express human concerns that arise from fear and hope. However different the expectations of the afterlife in the various traditions, they all convey the same uncertainties and expectations, and evoke the same kinds of response.



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