Last week we reported that 74 percent of Americans believe in an afterlife. Of those, 74 percent also believe in heaven and 60 percent believe in hell.

Prabu David, who authored the article, asked, “Don’t heaven and hell come as a package deal? Is there room for belief in heaven without a belief in hell?”

It got us wondering — what happens to us after we die? Do we go to heaven or hell? Are we reincarnated? Do we simply cease existing?

We asked our panelists.

Where do we go when we die? If Heaven, how do you picture it?


Responses to this Viewpoint

Further up and further in

Amy Rice |

I have been in more than one church service in which someone (usually the music minister) enthusiastically states, “And when we get to heaven, we can do this all the time!”


  1. There really is a scientifically valid, un-impeachable, factual answer to this question.

    But you are not going to like it.


    Here it is:

    “I don’t know.”

    Ok, I know that was a big let-down, but let me explain. I don’t know IS the answer, and here is why:

    When you start throwing around beliefs and whatnot about what happens after you die, you have to make a bunch of assumptions. You have to assume that there is a “you” after you die, that there is a “place” that you “go” and that somehow or another you will have a sense perception of that existence.

    All of this is raw assumption and there is simply no evidence to support any of it.

    My own thinking around this question is as follows:

    When I think about “me” what I really am thinking about is the person who I experience as existing when I am conscious of my own existence. I am not always in this state of mind. For example every night when I sleep my consciousness either ceases to exist or it stops creating memories of its existence (I can’t really tell which).

    It follows then that in order to answer the question where do I go, I first have to answer the question, “What is consciousness, and where does it come from?”

    The assumption of most religions (certainly Christianity) is that consciousness comes from the soul. The soul is some extra magical substance that exists separately from the body and that somehow interacts with the body in a way that causes the body to function and to live. Meanwhile the body is a separate substance that quickly decays without the soul keeping it alive. While this idea is intuitively appealing, I don’t think it holds up under scrutiny.

    First, let’s look at the body. The body is NOT a substance. Right now, as you are reading this, billions of atoms are being exchanged between your body and the environment. Your lungs and skin are passing gasses, your digestive system is processing the your food and fluid intake etc. My 9th grade science teacher told me that every 7 years or so, every molecule of my body was exchanged with some other molecule from my environment. These molecules themselves are not even substances, they are wiggling, jiggling processes of sub-atomic particles which themselves are wave-forms of condensed energy.
    So when I think about it, my body is not a thing so much as a nesting hierarchy of processes that form a more-or-less stable pattern in the universe in which I live.
    Pretty cool huh?

    Still none of this answers where consciousness comes from. And the answer to this question is still:
    “I don’t know”

    But having stated that there are some things that I DO know about consciousness, because I work with brains for a living (I’m a psychotherapist). Here are several things that I know about brains: First, structures and processes in the brain roughly correspond with processes associated with consciousness. We know this because changes in these structures and processes result in changes in consciousness. For example, damage to the occipital lobe often results in blindness, stimulation of the central nervous system can result in experiences of anxiety, and seizures in the right temporal lobe can cause intense religious experiences.
    Yes you read that right – we have isolated the part of the brain that causes religious experiences. I’m just sayin’.
    Ok so here are some fun experiment to show how your subjective experience can be altered by altering your brain:
    Drink several alcoholic beverages. Notice how your thinking and behavior changes.
    Have hot sex with someone you love. Notice how your perception of reality gets REALLY GROOVY!
    Rid a roller coaster and get a rush off the adrenaline.
    Go hungry for 3 days – Ok this one isn’t much fun
    Well the list goes on and on. You get the picture – changes in your body result in changes in your mind. This is why we do these behaviors. It is also why there are legal and religious prohibitions against doing these behaviors. Stimulating your brain can be a dangerous business!

    Now notice that while all of this shows the strength of the correlation between the brain and consciousness, it does NOT explain the existence of consciousness in the first place. Correlation does not imply causation. So the answer to the big question is still “I don’t know.”

    But that said, I want to offer two competing theories:

    1) The body is a set of processes that GIVE RISE to subjective awareness and experience. In other words consciousness is a product of biology. This is called MONISM – body is all there is, and consciousness emerges from it.
    2) The body is a set of processes that the soul somehow inhabits and uses to access experiences that emerge from the functioning of the body. This is called DUALISM – body & soul are two things.

  2. These two views are both defensible given the evidence available to us. But here’s the thing. MONISM IS SIMPLER THAN DUALISM. Saying that we have a soul adds complexity to our understanding of the universe WITHOUT actually explaining anything more than monism does.

    If you decide to believe we have a soul, then all kinds of questions emerge – where does the soul come from. Where does it go after you die (our original question), how does it interact with the body (science has looked and found NO mechanism by which the soul could control the body).

    Monism is simpler because is simply states that consciousness is an emergent property of the body, and that the body gives rise to it in the same sort of way that iron atoms give rise to the hardness of an iron bar or that groups of people give rise to a community – the universe is full of emergent phenomena.

  3. There are a couple of really cool observations about the universe that monism offers us. Personally I find them quite spiritually satisfying. They also go hand-in hand with the theory of evolution:
    1) One of the properties of matter and energy is that they get up, walk around, and think about the properties of matter and energy.
    2) Given that I evolved out of the universe, I am the universe’s ability to know that it exists. I am the universe’s capacity for love, for hate, for morality and for depravity. I am the consciousness of the universe.
    And so are you.

    So you can probably tell that I favor monism. I find it simple (i.e. parsimonious), elegant and spiritually fulfilling. But I fully admit that I have no grounds for certainty about this stance. It’s just the best idea that I have given the evidence so far. If I’m right, when I die I cease to exist. This seems OK with me.

    I’m terribly fortunate to have had the privilege of existing in the first place.

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