Christianity is the world's largest religion in terms of the number of adherents. From its inception as a sect of Judaism in the first century, much of the teaching of Christianity has focused on the afterlife and how a person's life here impacts the afterlife. Christianity has three major branches -- Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant -- which have distinct views of the afterlife.
Confucianism, which began in China in the fifth century B.C., can be viewed either as a religion, a philosophical movement or both. Confucianism does not emphasize the afterlife to the degree Christianity does, focusing most of its teaching on how its adherents can live a moral life in the here and now.
Confucius didn't seek to start a new religion. Rather, he called on those he taught to seek truth in the past religious practices, particularly the reverence of ancestors. Within Confucianism, the afterlife is not as important as what a person does in this life. The most significant way in which the afterlife affects Confucian thinking and practices comes in followers' responsibilities to their ancestors. Confucians hold differing beliefs on whether their ancestors have literal existence in the afterlife, but they agree that ancestors are to be venerated. Much of Confucianism focuses on living life in such a way as to be worthy of being honored by one's descendants.
Orthodox Christians believe that the soul and body are temporarily separated at death, and that the souls of the righteous go to heaven and the souls of the lost go to hell. In orthodox belief, each soul, both righteous and wicked, awaits the final judgment, after which all will receive spiritual bodies and spend eternity in God's presence. Orthodox Christians believe that being in God's presence will be at the same time completely blissful for those who love God and completely torturous for those who do not.
The Roman Catholic Church believes in an eternal afterlife. According to Catholic teaching, the souls of believers who have received grace through the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist but who are not yet perfected spend time in purgatory, a painful but temporary state of existence in which a person is prepared for eternity in heaven. According to Pope John Paul II, head of the Catholic Church from 1978 until his death in 2005, heaven, hell and purgatory are not actual places but states of being of the soul. Those souls that have received grace eventually spend eternity in God's presence, while those that have not spend eternity separated from God.
Protestant Christians hold a wide variety of beliefs about the afterlife. Traditionally, Protestants have held to the belief that all teaching must come from the Bible and that the Bible should be interpreted literally except in cases when obvious metaphors are used. Most Protestants believe that heaven and hell are actual places, though some interpret the Bible's vivid descriptions of heaven and hell literally and others interpret them metaphorically.
According to orthodox Protestant belief, heaven, a place of eternal bliss, is the destination of believers who have received God's grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Hell is a place of eternal torment and flame where unbelievers are separated from God's presence permanently.
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