What happens to the soul in 40 days?

The concept of what happens to the soul after death has fascinated humankind since the dawn of civilization. Most major religions and spiritual traditions have their own beliefs and perspectives on the journey of the soul once it leaves the physical body. One common thread across many faiths and cultures is the idea that the soul goes through a transitional period shortly after death before moving on to an eternal afterlife destination. This transitional phase is often associated with the number 40, leading to the question: what happens to the soul in the first 40 days after death?

Why 40 Days?

The number 40 frequently appears in sacred texts and mythologies as a period of testing, preparation, or transition. For example:

  • In the Bible, Jesus fasted for 40 days in the desert after his baptism and before starting his public ministry.
  • In Islam, it is believed the soul remains near the body for 40 days after death before departing to the afterlife realm.
  • In Hinduism, the soul is thought to linger on Earth for 40 days before moving on from the cycle of rebirth.
  • In Buddhism, it is said to take 49 days for the soul to transition through the bardo (intermediate state) before reincarnation.

Across faiths, 40 is seen as an important transitional milestone for the soul. While the exact significance varies, this common theme shows how we have long pondered the soul’s journey after death.

The Soul’s Journey in Abrahamic Faiths

The Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share some common beliefs around the soul’s journey after death. Let’s explore their perspectives on what happens in those pivotal first 40 days.


Jewish mystical tradition describes a 40-day period where the soul hovers between this world and the afterlife. It is believed it takes 40 days for the soul to fully transition into olam ha-ba (the World to Come). During this time, the soul undergoes a purging process to cleanse it before entering the eternal realm.

Prayers and good deeds by the living are thought to help the soul elevate during this transition. At the end of 40 days, the soul recognizes and accepts the death of the body and can move forward in its journey to the true spiritual world.


In Christianity, there are a few key milestones associated with the 40 days after Christ’s death and resurrection:

  • It is believed Christ ascended into Heaven 40 days after resurrecting from the dead.
  • The 40 days after Easter are known as the Ascension period, culminating in Ascension Thursday.
  • It is traditionally the time new Christian converts are instructed before baptism at Pentecost.

So while not specifically focused on the soul, the 40-day theme is significant as a transitional and preparatory period for important events in the Christian faith. Some scholars also draw parallels between Christ’s 40-day teachings on earth after resurrection and the 40-day journey of the soul after death.


As mentioned, Islam has a strong belief around the soul’s continued attachment to the body for 40 days after death before the final separation. During this time, the soul is said to visit loved ones, hear their lamentations, and reflect on its deeds in the life just ended.

The soul also gets glimpses of where it is headed in the afterlife based on its virtue and religious devotion. Muslims often hold special prayers for the deceased on the 40th day after death to commemorate this milestone when the soul detaches fully from the worldly realm.

The Soul in Eastern Religions

Eastern faiths like Hinduism and Buddhism have their own perspective on the soul’s transition after death. Here are some key beliefs around the 40-day theme:


Hindu scriptures describe various stages the soul goes through after leaving the body. The time spans mentioned vary across texts, but 40 days is a commonly cited transitional phase.

During this time, the soul remains close to our world and observes the rituals done for it by loved ones. It is a period of adjustment as the soul prepares to leave its last life behind and move forward on its karmic path. Prayers and ceremonies done for the deceased during this time are considered important to help the soul elevate spiritually.


Buddhists believe that upon death, the soul enters an intermediate state known as bardo in the Tibetan tradition. Here, it undergoes a 49-day long transition where it experiences spiritual visions, battles dark forces, and prepares to enter the next realm of rebirth.

40 days into this bardo journey, it is thought the soul finally lets go of its previous identity and attachments. Only then is it ready to move on from the cycle of existence and potentially enter nirvana, if enlightened. Buddhists thus see the first 40 days as a vital transition for the soul to prepare for its next reincarnation.

Ancient Views on the 40-Day Soul Journey

The concept of a 40-day limbo period for the soul appears well before modern religion, dating back to ancient civilizations. Here are some examples:

  • In Egyptian mythology, the soul was believed to journey through the afterlife for 40 days before entering the Hall of Judgment.
  • Zoroastrianism described a three-day transition followed by a 40-day judgment period before the soul could advance to the eternal realm.
  • In Greek and Roman myths, the soul leaves offerings for the gods for 40 days after death as it transitions to the great beyond.
  • Celtic pagan traditions describe 40-day funerary rites and memorial feasts to help the soul’s journey after death.

Across these ancient cultures, we see the emergence of 40 days as a transitional period for the newly deceased soul to prepare for its entrance into the next world. This reflects a universal human instinct to make sense of what happens after death.

Modern Interpretations

While 40 days carries traditional symbolic meaning, more modern interpretations also exist:

  • Some connect it to the 40 weeks of human gestation – a full cycle of life on earth.
  • Modern bereavement research finds acute grief and mourning subsides around 40 days, allowing healthier remembrance and adjustment.
  • Physically, the body’s cells decompose rapidly in the first 40 days, superstitions attribute paranormal activity during this time to the departing soul.
  • Secularly, 40 days allows reconciliation of the soul’s passing without needing detailed knowledge of any speculated afterlife.

So even without religious belief, the 40-day milestone still marks a psychologically meaningful transition in grieving and memory.

Common Themes and Meanings

While beliefs around the 40-day soul journey differ, we can identify some shared themes across faiths and cultures:

  • It demarcates a transitional period after bodily death when the soul adjusts to its new disembodied state.
  • The time allows the soul to reflect, make peace with its past life, and prepare for entrance into the next realm.
  • Rituals and support from the living are believed to help guide the soul at this vulnerable time.
  • The 40 days allow both the soul and living to reconcile their connection as they transition to a new relationship.
  • The milestone marks the soul detaching fully from earthly concerns as it readies for its ultimate fate.

Regardless of the exact spiritual beliefs, the shared view is that this transitional period holds deep significance in the soul’s destiny.

Questions That Remain

For all that the various faith traditions tell us about the 40 days, there is much we still do not understand:

  • Does our consciousness survive death at all, and if so, what form does the soul take?
  • Is the soul bound by time as we know it in the departed realm?
  • What exactly does the soul experience during its transition?
  • Can our prayers and actions really impact the soul as traditions believe?
  • Why 40 days across so many cultures and eras? Is there meaning in this number?

With such limited ability to investigate scientifically, we can only speculate based on spiritual intuitions and ancient ritual. Much mystery remains around those pivotal 40 days of the soul after death.


The idea of a 40-day transition period for the newly deceased soul is a remarkably common theme across cultures and faith traditions. While specifics vary, the shared view is that this is a meaningful period of reflection, letting go, and preparation before the soul moves on to its ultimate fate.

For many grieving those left behind, marking this 40-day milestone takes on Psychologically important meaning. While the exact spiritual truths remain unknown, giving the departed soul 40 days resonates with an ancient human instinct for ritual and reconciliation. We may never fully comprehend the soul’s experience after death, but pausing to reflect at 40 days honors its profound journey.

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