Our first decision on the afterlife is whether it’s real or imagined. If it’s real, then likely a god created it and the rules are incontrovertible. In this case, our religion is probably right about anything going on there or how to arrive, though having them be wrong is one way to make someone lose faith. Being right can add considerable weight to pronouncements about what one’s behavior may cause. That, in turn, could inspire devotion. The question is how people learn that the priests are right and then tell people, given that they’re dead?
But if the afterlife isn’t real, this means that a species invented it, if the concept exists. This means they’re wrong, and if they’re wrong about this, they probably are about many other things. One aspect to consider is that, if wrong, the followers have likely tailored the concept to fit the religion and its teachings. But whether they’re wrong or not, we’ll craft those lessons and world view to create an afterlife that fits. If the good are rewarded and the evil punished, we only need to invent those environments to our muse.
There may be more than one afterlife, depending on how we count it. Heaven and hell can be considered two, each distinct but both arrived at by the same means: your conduct and/or faith. If each religion has more than one and we’re creating a number of religions, this could become overwhelming. It might be better to have a few afterlifes that are universal (because the gods created them and they’re real) and which are less tied to a religion. Either that, or a religion has a special area in an afterlife, such as Catholics and Protestants both going to heaven but having their own version or area, whether they ever meet or not.
Can people visit the afterlife while still alive? Fantasy tales are full of this trope. This is one way for the truth of it to be confirmed or compromised. Communing with the dead is another way. If an afterlife can be reached by the living, we must decide how, such as a physical or spiritual journey, one often fraught with peril. The challenges faced can have no meaning or be based upon gods or just the story we’re telling and its needs for character development or plot coupons. Some of the perils can be real while the species might have invented others that either don’t exist or are quite different than imagined. This can cause problems for those journeying there if they’ve mis-prepared based on a lie. Besides, there’s less tension in a journey that goes as expected.
In Earth’s history, there have been various overarching ideas on the afterlife over the centuries, the details tweaked for the times, and we can leverage any or all of them. The first three here are considered good while the others are bad:
- Paradise (heaven) – a wonderful place without needs or wants
- Ascension – becoming a higher being, such as a demi-god of a trait you exemplified
- Rebirth – another life with or without memory of the previous one(s)
- Oblivion – the soul simply ends upon bodily death and that’s it
- Torture (hell) – perpetual horror and pain
- Boredom – monotony unending
Finally, remember to name the afterlife(s) with a word that suggests whether they’re menacing or hopeful. A great name can elevate these to being memorable, though what we decide exists in them helps, too.