Ah, the afterlife. The permanent vacation, lasting through all eternity, after going through the short work of life. Unless you belong to a group that believes in rebirth or reincarnation. Then it’s just a temporary stop in the endless cycle of birth and death. And the vacation can be hell if, well, you believe in Hell. For some people the afterlife seems to be a great motivation to act right in life. For others not so much. It has always amazed me how many believers have acted like total scum through the ages, even when they knew what their reward would be. They always seemed to think that they would be given time to repent. Then they get the long sharp object pushed through their bodies and they wake up in a pit of fire or a lake of ice (two of the extremes of the eternal punishment motif). And if you notice, like I did as a child being raised in the Catholic Church, people’s motivation to ensure their place in the place they want to end in increases with age. Old people frequent churches, trying to make up for the years where they didn’t toe the line established by their deity for good behavior.
In ancient times the afterlife was not always a great place to go. In ancient Greece Hades was described as a dreary land of misery. Maybe not the burning in the lake of fire misery, but misery enough where this guy was sure he wouldn’t have picked the soldiering life. Life should have been precious, since afterwards everything was crap. The Elysium fields, not sure when they cropped up, gave people some hope that just maybe there was a good time to be had after death. In the Buddhist faith one became one with the Universe while losing oneself. Kind of like you bind with the energy of the Cosmos, but don’t really have your own individual existence. Not appealing to this boy raised on Western tradition and used to thinking for himself. The Norse afterlife always seemed cool, at least if you were a warrior who happened to die with sword in hand. Endless days of drinking, feasting and fighting. Unless, and here is the catch here, the sword was not at hand at the time of death. I always hated that catch to the afterlife. Like if you live an exemplary life, then commit one mortal sin and get hit by a bus. Catches always seemed the cheap shot. Of course some things should be avoided at all costs, like trying to make a deal with a Satanic being that you know is going to have a whole bunch of catches. But cussing or dropping the sword just didn’t seem right. As did living good life but not worshiping the correct god, even though worshiping in the style you were raised in. That was one thing I always hated about Christianity, the whole if you hear the word and don’t respond you are doomed thing. After all, if raised around hundreds of millions of Hindus, and indoctrinated at an early age, why would one jump on the Christian bandwagon just because some people who look and smell different say you should.
In fantasy we are open to have all kinds of religions, all kinds of afterlives, all kinds of rewards and punishments for the good and wicked. I recently saw a TV series, which was good fantasy series all in all, but lost me on the matter of afterlife. In the series when one died they went to an afterlife of eternal punishment, no matter how they lived. The hell was run by one of the deities the good were fighting against. The hero was killed and ended up in the underworld. He was offered a chance to go back to the world of the living, but as a being that had to kill daily to stay among the living. He accepted, and my love for the show was dealt a serious blow. There was no motivation to be good or to battle for good. Exactly the opposite. To fight was to risk death, and end up tormented by the very power that one was fighting, through eternity. And if one lived a good life and died of old age they still ended up in the same place as someone who spent their days killing women and children and taking the food from the poor. What a hopeless existence they made that world. Not much incentive to follow the straight and narrow. I decided at that point to never write fiction that portrayed the afterlife and the rewards of the good Gods as such.
I believe that if the Gods are just in the story they will have a just reward and just punishment for the actions of mortals, especially when they die. Eternal fire for stealing when in need does not strike me as justice. Eternal fire for killing the peasants under ones protection does. And even if someone who is evil is rewarded by an evil deity for his or her service, this should only last until that person makes a mistake. Then the torment of the ages should drop on them from an angry sponsor. That is justice, and that is what should be portrayed in literature, if not part of the real world.