First, let me explain my frame of reference. While many people in the real world believe in the divine,* it’s important to draw a line between what we experience in real life and what happens in fantasy settings. In many fantasy settings, the divine is easily provable and an undeniable part of everyone’s life. This provable divine often takes the form of spectral communication, godly manifestation, and resurrection, just to name a few. It occurs in RPG settings like D&D and Legend of the Five Rings, novels like The Craft Sequence, and TV shows like Supernatural. In those settings, there’s no question about gods or what happens when a person dies: it’s right there for anyone who cares to check.
1. Death Is Optional
Resurrection doesn’t always come bundled with gods and the afterlife, but it’s a common enough trope to be worth addressing. If resurrections in your settings are cheap and widely accessible, they would lead to an effectively deathless society. However, most settings limit resurrections to deaths by injury or disease and then slap a high material cost on them for good measure, be that a valuable gemstone or a requirement that you journey into the underworld to reclaim the deceased’s soul.
In this scenario, only the rich and powerful can routinely afford resurrections, and resurrections can’t be used to escape the reaper forever.* This has obvious benefits for the rich and powerful; namely that they aren’t at risk of premature death. But how does it affect the rest of us?
First, the upside: we’re unlikely to lose celebrities before their time. That can mean a real benefit for the arts, as many talented creators die young. Resurrections also reduce the viability of assassination as a political tool. That means we don’t have to deal with the political instability that often accompanies a murdered leader. Perhaps more importantly, resurrections would be a major boon to advocacy movements. One need only look at the American Civil Rights Movement to see how often prominent advocates are the victims of brutal violence. In a world of resurrections, Dr. King and Malcolm X could have been brought back to continue their fight for justice.
Unfortunately, there are downsides to these expensive resurrections: namely that they increase the gap between rich and poor. Even in the real world, the rich live longer because they have better access to medical care, giving them more time to amass knowledge and influence. In a world where the rich literally cannot die before their time, this difference in life expectancy will be far more pronounced. If the resurrection was based on technology, it might eventually get cheap enough to filter down, but it’s not likely that the underworld will lower its requirements anytime soon.
This affects everyone’s day-to-day life because as a group, rich people tend to want things that are good for rich people, regardless of how it affects everyone else. The wealthy often advocate for tax cuts for themselves, reductions of public services, the erosion of democracy,* and even waging wars where soldiers are recruited mostly from the lower classes.
2. Death Is Another Country
Resurrections might be too expensive for regular folk, but I’ve never seen a setting where only rich people go to heaven.* That means in a world with a proven afterlife, everyone has to grapple with the same weird paradigm: dying doesn’t really kill you. We generally consider death to mean a permanent loss of consciousness, and if the setting has an afterlife, consciousness isn’t ever lost. A person closes their eyes in the living world and wakes up in the world of the dead, usually with a functioning copy of their own body.
That means dying is akin to making a permanent move. Saying a person is “dead” is the equivalent of saying they’ve moved to France. Would people even still be sad when a loved one passes? Probably, but not to the same degree. I’ve certainly been sad when someone dear to me moved away forever,* but I wasn’t heartbroken the way I’d have been if they died. This is assuming the afterlife is mostly the same as the living world, but that’s not the only option.
If the afterlife is notably worse than the living world, it puts a real pall over the setting. It’s like knowing no matter how good a person you are, one day you’ll have to move to a place where everything is on fire. Including you. Forever. In this scenario, the measures taken to avoid death would be even more extreme than in real life. Entire organizations would likely spring up with the goal of keeping people from entering the afterlife, even if it meant the permanent destruction of consciousness. I know I’d prefer oblivion to an eternity in most mythological bad places.
If the afterlife is notably better than the living world, that creates its own weirdness. For one thing, it means people are far less likely to be sad when a loved one dies. Instead of moving to another country, the loved one is now moving to Disneyland, and everyone else will get to join them someday! A positive afterlife would also change the way people live since planning for the future is no longer a big priority. Might as well party it up here in the mortal world, and when your liver fails at 40, the party can continue forever.*
3. Knowledge Accumulates
Most settings with a proven afterlife allow for communication with the deceased. Not only can messages across the veil take the sting out of your loved ones moving to the world of the dead, but they can also be invaluable for the pursuit of knowledge. History is the most obvious benefactor. No longer would historians have to depend on a handful of fragmentary accounts; they could call up witnesses from the appropriate time and ask them what happened. This is particularly useful for learning the history of people whose records were destroyed by their enemies.
But historians aren’t the only ones who would kill for the ability to communicate with the dead. Just about every scientific field would benefit from such a system. The accumulation of knowledge is vital for scientific advancement, since you can’t study influenza antibodies if you don’t know what a virus is. Unfortunately, knowledge often suffers setbacks as records are destroyed in disasters both natural and artificial. If you can talk to the dead, that’s no problem. Just ask ghostly librarians what was in that scroll collection the invading horde burned down.
Even more importantly, scientists could continue their work after they die, sending their results back to the living world. Not all of them would want to, but it only takes a small faction of ghostly researchers to build up over time. Imagine if the likes of Archimedes, Marie Curie, and Ernest Everett Just had been able to continue their work indefinitely. Humanity’s pool of knowledge would increase far faster than it did in real life, likely heralding more rapid technological advancement as well.
There is a potential downside to all this ghostly information exchange: literary stagnation. Even in the real world, it’s extremely difficult for new authors to make a name for themselves in the face of established favorites. Name recognition is so important that even when a well-known author starts putting out inferior work, their popularity rarely suffers. Now imagine those authors stick around forever, putting out work that will always have an edge over their younger competition. Some of the old masters will adapt with the times, but others will keep on doing what they’ve always done. It would certainly be cool to have Shakespeare’s lost play, but I’m less excited about every young writer having to compete with the Bard for the rest of time.*
4. Behavior Is Divinely Enforced
Human behavior is a complex thing, influenced by countless factors we are only starting to understand. Why do people generally follow societal codes of behavior? Is it because we fear the consequences of breaking the rules, or is it because we’ve been socialized on how to act in our society?* I don’t know the answer, but I do know that in a world where gods are proven to exist, divine judgement would be a whole new factor in motivating human behavior.
Of course there are plenty of real people who believe in divine judgment, but as a rule, they don’t behave much differently than atheists. I think we can all agree that it’s one thing to be taught about gods, and quite another to have one of those gods physically manifest in a pillar of golden light, expounding that any who wish to avoid damnation must follow a specific set of rules. There would be no guesswork or uncertainty: everyone would know the consequences of straying from their god’s path.
There’s no parallel for this in real life, but I’m confident it would get most people to follow the divine commandments most of the time, since the severity and certainty of consequences are both high. If the setting has multiple gods, each with their own codes, then there would still be a wealth of behaviors, and extremes of both good and evil would be common. In real life, murder is generally committed out of desperation, hatred, or for economic gain. In a fantasy world with Baal, the Lord of Murder, killing your best friend is literally the way to heaven. At the same time, gods with more reasonable codes of conduct would still likely have the largest followings, since it’s hard to have a society where everyone is constantly murdering each other. Wars between these more reasonable gods would be terrible indeed. No one would ever stop to ask, “Wait, why are we fighting?” Everyone would know it was a matter of eternal salvation.
If a setting has just one divine code of behavior, which might or might not mean just one god, then things are even weirder, and possibly very bleak. Every society in real life has people that violate its code of behavior, both in harmful ways like murder and in harmless ways like nontraditional gender expression. Unless the divine code is extremely open-minded or mutable, it’s likely to punish people who aren’t doing anything wrong. At the same time, harmful deviations would also be extremely rare, since there’s no god of murder to beseech, which makes conflict harder to generate. This is one reason most fantasy settings go for the polytheistic approach with proven gods. A world with just one divine presence is typically only useful for creepy surrealism, as characters puppet the movements of good behavior to avoid divine wrath.
5. Faith Is Entirely Political
Religion is often highly political in the real world, for both good and ill, but there’s an element of spiritual uncertainty as well. Faith in a god requires the belief that said god exists, despite the absence of proof. In the fantasy settings we’re discussing, proof is available in spades. However, I don’t believe that proof of the divine would eliminate faith. Rather, it would shift faith from spiritual to political, in the same way people in real life often have faith in their leaders.*
If the gods are involved in human affairs, even indirectly, then they aren’t that different from a president or a prime minister. They’re just far more powerful and far more pervasive. Putting your faith in a god would be an act of political allegiance, proclaiming that you believe the god’s code is the best way to run a society, along with any divine goals the god might have. If the gods derive strength directly from their followers’ faith, another common fantasy trope, this political act is also a literal transfer of power.
Just like in real life, there would be debate and argument over each god’s merits, and it’s likely those discussions would be even more lively than they are for us. The tangible is always easier to criticize than the theoretical, just like it’s easier to criticize a politician after they’ve taken up their post than it is on the campaign trail. People would happily vent about their chosen gods, even as they went on worshiping, unless the god in question had “no critiquing” as part of their divine code, and I doubt such a god would attract many followers.
In this kind of world, states and other forms of human authority would have little meaning, except as an extension of divine will. It might be convenient for a god to have structures in place to carry out their will, but there’d be no need for humans to hold any power independently. Unless gods are limited by distance, borders as we think of them would be meaningless. Instead, the setting would be a patchwork of areas where different gods hold sway. Multiple gods might even hold sway within the same area, depending on what aspects of society they were interested in. Faith in gods would not be static, and people would likely find themselves changing the object of their worship to better match what they personally believe.
As with any political system, there would be those who reject the status quo. These anti-theists would have a difficult time of it, but they would persist. They might be noble freedom fighters who face the gods and walk backward into hell, or they might be power-hungry villains looking to become gods themselves. They might be both at the same time!
The entries on this list are just a few of the ways gods and the afterlife could change a fantasy setting. The divine presents an existential question to worldbuilders, one that is very difficult to conclusively answer. It’s perfectly acceptable for your setting to present gods the way they are in real life, with plenty of devoted believers despite no proof of divine existence. This is certainly the easier path and leaves you more energy to work on the rest of the story. But if you want to get really deep into the cosmological workings of your setting, then this is a path worth exploring.
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