Confucianism, the Literati, and Chinese Imperial Traditions

Religious Beliefs

Do Confucians believe in an afterlife?

Confucius did not focus on life after death as though it were the ultimate standard against which to measure the success of a life on Earth. With the majority of his fellow Chinese, the Teacher shared the conviction that biological death did not signal a definitive end to life. Death did not mean annihilation and loss in some great void beyond the grave. Confucius clearly believed in some form of spiritual survival, and in the ongoing presence of those who have departed this life. Hence the importance of ancestor veneration. But like the Buddha, Confucius and his disciples chose not to speculate about possible celestial or infernal postmortem scenarios. Daoism and CCT would offer ample options in that regard. He neither denied nor affirmed any particular views. Confucius was convinced that human beings understood far too little of life here and now to waste it planning for a hereafter they understood even less. When classical Confucian sources talk about Heaven, therefore, they do not have in mind anything like a realm of eternal reward for those who die in a state of righteousness. Heaven is merely a name for the highest spiritual presence of which human beings are aware.


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