African tradition does not believe in the notion of the judgment day as brought by Christianity. The idea of the judgment day is an essential aspect of Christianity; for centuries, it has been the center of theological teaching.
Traditional Africans believe in a life after death but are not aware of punishment in the afterlife. First, Africa is characterized by tremendous ethnic and cultural diversity. There are about three thousand African ethnic groups, each boasting a unique shared history, culture, language, and recognizable belief system. Thus, it is possible to speak of the Yoruba notions of the afterlife and compare these, say, to the Igbo or Zulu concepts, noting distinctions and similarities.
However, the Koko and the basa people of Cameroon believe that evil people are destined to a cold place, and good people are destined to a place full of light. The Akan traditionalists of Ghana believe that there is a reward and punishments afterlife. These two traditions are the two exceptions.
The rest of Africa believe that God punishes and rewards the evildoers on earth here, not after death. Africans believe that all people who died had a special place next to God; Africans felt that the communication to God, could only be through these ancestors. African tradition does not know hell. Initially, Africa does not believe that God can create people to live for a short period of rime and punish them eternally.
It was the missionaries that brought the theory of hell and final judgment to our forefathers, who bought the idea out of fear.
It’s not like “punishment” and “judgment” were unexistent in African society. It’s an essential element in African traditional religion.
The African worldview is decidedly theistic. God (named differently by various ethnic groups) is the creative force behind the origins of the universe and human beings. It is a belief that appears in many African cosmogonic myths. These myths also indicate that in God’s original intentions, the world was orderly, and human beings led a happy life in a state of immortality as long as they were close to God, their creator. Somehow, this state was interrupted, and death entered the world.
Generally, within the African context, such a rigid dualism between body and soul is not found. Instead of conceiving the person as a soul that is contained in a body, Africans define the person as an integral whole constituting the “outer person” (the body) and the “inner self.” The Yoruba in western Nigeria calls this inner person ori-inu. Symbolized by the physical head, ori is also connected with God, Olódùmarè, who is the source of all being. Before whom one’s ori kneels to receive one’s destiny before being born into this world.
Therefore, one’s ori is the essence of one’s personality as it controls and guides one’s life according to the destiny received before birth. At the end of one’s physical life, one will give an account of one’s earthly conduct before Olódùmarè (God) who will determine one’s postmortem existence either in the “Orun rere ” (Paradise or good orun) or “Orun apadi ” (hell or Orun of the Potsherds), where one suffers a wretched afterlife.
According to Bolaji Idowu, life in the “good Orun ” is but a larger and freer copy of this worldly life, minus earthly pains and tribulations. The best postmortem reward is a reunion with one’s relatives who have died before, particularly ancestors, the Ara Orun. Although Idowu presented this idea of the afterlife in the context of traditional Yoruba society, it is important to note that some scholars have questioned this theological explication of the Yoruba notion of the afterlife. The notion may be due to the strong influence of Islam and Christianity on Yoruba culture at the time this was accounted for.
That a person is considered a composite and integral whole is also evident in that often, when people claim to encounter the dead through visions and dreams or when they communicate with them through ritual, they claim to have met or spoken with “so and so,” a person identifiable by name, rather than the “ghost” of so and so. Given this integral relationship between the outer and inner person, it would seem that it is the person that dies rather than “the soul” leaving the body and flying away, as some Christian popular hymns indicate.
The installation of the deceased back into family simultaneously marks the induction of the deceased into the world of ancestors. Henceforth, the deceased person can be honored in family rituals alongside other ancestors and enjoy a privileged position both among the living and the dead. This status, however, is not automatic. Rather, it depends on how well one conducted oneself in this life as a member of the corporate group. Those who have fulfilled their corporate duties and obligations as the community defines them are honored as “ancestors,” a status analogous to but not identical to that of sainthood in Christianity. Being moral exemplars, the ancestors are also considered custodians and enforcers of justice and morality among the living. Because they are considered ontologically closer to God, they function as intermediaries between God and the people. Thus, petitionary prayer is often said through them.
Ancestorhood is, therefore, status of honor reserved for the exemplary dead. The Gikuyu refer to such a person as mwendwo ni iri (the people’s beloved). Conversely, those who fail in their worldly obligations, or those whose actions are subversive to rather than nurturing life are quickly forgotten and “excommunicated” after death—the Gikuyu call such persons muimwo ni iri (rejected by the people). To be thus dismissed, excommunicated and forgotten, is truly to die in the African understanding.