A choice is offered: An afterlife of unending bliss, or a chance to return to mortal life. The offer could come from a god, an angel, or the spirit of a deceased love one. Often, it comes at the end of the hero's journey, or during a Near-Death Experience towards the climax.
There are many reasons why this offer might be refused. Perhaps the character has Unfinished Business. Perhaps he feels it's his duty to return. The offer may have come at a time when the life of a loved one hangs in balance, or when the fight against the Big Bad has reached a pivotal point. Maybe the character simply feels that life is worth living.
In most cases, refusing the offer is portrayed as a heroic action. After all, the hero is sacrificing infinite happiness so that he can do what is needed. The sacrifice might be mitigated if the character knows he can eventually enter the afterlife he has refused anyway.
This might be an element of some stories involving Lotus Eater Machines, but there's a slightly different dynamic at play with a true afterlife. A character who figures out he's in a deceptive Lotus Eater Machine might reject it on the basis that it's "not real", while a character rejecting a genuine Big Good certified Heaven knows that no truer happiness exists.
- After Goku's first death in Dragonball Z, he chooses to head to be trained under King Kai and eventually return to Earth to fight the Saiyans, despite being all but guaranteed to go to Heaven.
- Played for Laughs in Magical Pokaan. After making a lot of trouble, Yuuma is put into a stereotypical Fluffy Cloud Heaven. However, she begins to feel lonely, and begs to be returned to her friends on Earth. The Powers That Be complies.
- Done as a bit of a Sadistic Choice early on to The Spectre; the Voice (implied to be God) says he's now earned the ability to pass on to Heaven, one time only offer...just as his love interest has a bullet speeding at her head.
- One of the several deliberately-incompatible origin stories of The Phantom Stranger says that he's the original Wandering Jew, who was doomed to walk the earth until Judgement Day after he was mean to Jesus at the crucifixion, and all his other powers were gained as he learned various kinds of magic in unsuccessful attempts to escape his doom. This origin story ends in the present day, where God tells him he's earned time off for good behavior and can go to heaven now, and he asks to stick around on Earth and keep helping people.
- A forced—and thereby perhaps subverted—version of this happened in X-Men—Gambit had been speared through with a sword and was lying on the ground slowly bleeding to death, literally walking towards a 'beautiful' white light and reassuring Rogue that he was in a state of grace and could finally go to Heaven—she grabbed him and yanked him back into his body, refusing to let him leave her behind. Needless to say, he was not happy about this.
- Happened in the comic Grimjack—the title character died, but chose to leave Heaven and move into a cloned body to save a friend.
- There was a brief period in the comics where The Punisher was killed and then resurrected as an agent of heaven killing demons. Frank ultimately opted to return to life as a human because he preferred killing human criminals to slaying demons.
- In Who Will Read The Sutras? by Allyn Yonge, a Sailor Moon fanfic written and released two days after 9/11, Usagi is one of the victims at the World Trade Center. The end of the story shows her in Hell, reading The Qur'an to the hijackers to alleviate their suffering while refusing the Archangel Michael's suggestion that she return to the wheel of life or move on to Nirvana.
- In Star Trek Generations Kirk is reluctant to leave the Nexus at first, but soon realized that the ability to make a difference in the real world was more important to him than anything the Nexus could offer.
- A non-heroic example happens at the beginning of All Dogs Go to Heaven, with the main character sneaking out of heaven despite the fact that he's warned that he can never return.
- In the Disney version of |Hercules, the titular Hercules chooses to remain on earth with Meg instead of returning to Olympus.
- In Big Fish Edward Bloom follows an overgrown path through a dark and scary forest. He comes to Spectre, a beautiful, peaceful town full of friendly and happy people who cryptically inform him that he's 'early'. He hangs around for a little bit, but then decides to leave. He states that he'd be happy if he ended up there eventually, but he has to live his life first.
- In What Dreams May Come, after escaping Hell, Chris and Annie have an opportunity to spend eternity in a literal house of their dreams in Heaven, but choose to be reincarnated in order to get a second chance at a successful Childhood Friend Romance.
- Another forced-and-thereby-possibly-subverted example: At the end of Constantine, the dying main character is about to enter heaven, when the devil deliberately heals him to make sure he has another chance at messing up his salvation on earth.
- Stargate SG-1 has some examples with ascension. Daniel Jackson ascends and descends a couple of times for various reasons. It's not really heaven, but is an afterlife.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer
- At the end of Season Eight's "Twilight" story arc, both Buffy and Angel choose to remain on Earth rather than live in the paradise dimension. After she realizes that her friends and family are fighting a unwinnable battle against demons, Buffy refuses to stay in the the Twilight realm and she returns to Earth and saves them. Angel follows.
- In Terry Pratchett's Nation Locaha, the god of death, offers Mau the chance to ascend to the "Perfect World". Mau refuses, preferring to make his own world a little more perfect. Locaha notes with pride that everyone he's chosen has made the same choice.
- At the end of The Chronicles of Prydain, Taran is offered the chance to sail to the Summer Country. He stays to help rebuild after the war, and becomes the new High King. Eilonwy also decides to stay with him.
- In Harry Potter Harry has a near death experience in which Dumbledore gives him the option to pass on to the next world. He returns to continue the fight against Voldemort.
- In L. Jagi Lamplighter's Prospero Regained, Cornelius dies in the final battle, and is found standing over his own corpse. Not only are angels ready to escort him to Heaven, he can now see. His brothers are unable to persuade him to stay, but Miranda comments on how he can retire as he wished, and he puts off the angels and has his father resurrect him.
- In an oddly similar case to the Hercules example, Percy Jackson of Percy Jackson and The Olympians refuses the offer to become lieutenant to his father, Poseidon, and gain eternal immortality. He refuses it on the grounds that he's about to enter high school and he doesn't want to lose the possibilities his mortal life gives him, but it's heavily implied it's so he can stay with Annabeth. Hardly surprising, since the series is published by Disney...
- There was also the fact that he was basically being given a chance to get anything from the gods, and he wanted to do something to improve the general lives of most demigods.
- There are a couple of other examples of this in the series. In the fourth book, Percy is given the choice to either stay on Calypso's island or return to his quest. In the seventh book/second book in the Sequel Series, He is given another choice to either live a long, peaceful life under the sea, or to jump into a new conflict, experience pain and suffering, and possibly die. While neither Calypso's island or the ocean were exactly paradise, they were both places Percy would have been very happy to live. It never takes him long to make the choice.
- In the Gemma Doyle books, Gemma is gravely injured. She has to chose between dying and passing into the afterlife, honored as a hero, or being restored to life, granted one wish, and forgotten by time. She choses life, and wishes that her mentor/enemy be allowed into Heaven.
- In The Silmarillion, Luthien is given the choice between staying in the Undying Lands but being seperated from Beren forever, or returning to Middle Earth with him as a mortal, and eventually dying a mortal death.
- Mentioned in the song "Luciforms" by The Mars Volta.
"if heaven breathes, then someone trade places with me /
'cause I don't wanna tear feathers instead of rags"
- Also in "Sixteen Tons" first recorded by Merle Travis
Saint Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go, I owe my soul to the company store.
- In Buddhism, Bodhisattvas are enlightened souls who decide to reincarnate again to help others reach enlightenment.
- Often a story element in a Near-Death Experience tale.
- Seen in the Saints of In Nomine, humans who have died and gone to Heaven but volunteer to return to Earth to continue the fight against Hell. Likewise, every human soul has the opportunity to climb Jacob's Ladder to reach the Higher Heavens and their ultimate reward but many linger on the lowest level ... in some cases, to help plan and organize the War.
- In The Order of the Stick Roy enjoys a peaceful afterlife with his family in Celestia following his untimely demise in battle. However, upon realizing that his allies have failed to resurrect him on schedule, he rushes off to search for answers rather than keep waiting in paradise.
- In Narbonic a party consisting of civilians, one Blood Knight, and one Mad Scientist is attacked by cherubim - mindless hungry feathery insect-things - and in apology Heaven sends them an ambassador to escort one of them directly to eternal bliss. Everyone has better things to do, apparently.
Eternity. Another concept mortals can't seem to wrap their minds around.
- Voltron has an angelic being offer eternal paradise to our heroes, who all-but immediately refuse. Internal monologues then confirm their unending devotion to the people of Arus.
- In Futurama Bender dies and spends most of the episode as a Virtual Ghost. At the end he's offered the opportunity to go to Robot Heaven, but says "screw this!" and comes back to "life".
- At the end of the Star Wars ripoff 80s cartoon Starchaser: The Legend of Orin the hero is offered the chance to Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence but turns it down out of love or friendship or ... something.