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 loved 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 Dragon Ball 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 comply.
- In episode 21 of Space Dandy, Dandy refuses to accept death to enter a world where sadness doesn't exist, believing that happiness is impossible without sadness.
- Also, at the very end of the show, when the narrator reveals Dandy's destiny of taking his place as God, Dandy nonchalantly blows him off so he can go to Boobie's.
- 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.
- Happened in the comic Grimjack — the title character died, but chose to leave Heaven and move into a cloned body to save a friend. And hunt down an old enemy. Consequences happen.
- 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.
- There was a brief period for The Punisher, starting with the Purgatory miniseries, where he 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. Or re-uniting with his family.
- 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 right to pass on to Heaven, a one time only offer... just as his love interest has a bullet speeding at her head.
- 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.
- In the Green Arrow story "Quiver", Ollie was already in heaven when his body was resurrected without a soul. The villain of the story wanted to possess the body as part of his evil plan to eventually claim the power of a demon. Ollie's body (which had a mind of his own based on Ollie's memories prior to the downward spiral leading to his death) tried to convince Ollie to merge with him again to fight the villain. Ollie refused at first, believing he had earned the right to rest. At the same time, Ollie's son Connor was desperately fighting the villain's summoned demons in an attempt to save Ollie. Ollie was convinced to merge with his body again. Not for himself, not even for the world, but for his son.
- In the Doctor Who Magazine comics, the Eighth Doctor has the opportunity to unite with the space-time vortex, becoming one with everything, but renounces it to save his companion's life.
- All-Star Superman: At the climax, Superman dies, and has a vision of Jor-El, who tells him he can either ascend to where all the other Kryptonians have gone and "dance through the fields of consciousness", or go back and save his friends from Lex Luthor. Naturally, Clark chooses to go back.
- 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 a paradise dimension together for eternity. She realizes that her friends and family are fighting a unwinnable battle against demons, and despite Angel's pleas, Buffy returns to Earth to save them. Angel follows her.
- Spawn plays with this one. Spawn, after saving all of existence from the Dark God Urizen, is offered a place in Heaven complete with a halo. However, after having fought Heaven's corrupt forces for over a hundred issues he wants nothing to do with them.
- Rosario Vampire: Brightest Darkness:
- Upon her definitive death in Act VI, Felucia Sonsta is offered a place in Heaven, but instead explicitly requests to go to Hell so she can follow up on her earlier See You in Hell threat to Hokuto and the Kikion sisters and spend eternity making them suffer for torturing and molesting her. After the destruction of the Kikions' souls in the next arcs, Felucia accepts an offer of a Redemption Quest from the Lord of Hell to get into Heaven because, without them to torture, she sees no point in staying in Hell anymore.
- In Act VI chapter 39, Akasha reveals to Moka that she has been Dead All Along; she was offered a place in Heaven by the Almighty, but refused to accept it because, having been indirectly responsible for Alucard's initial rise to power, she feels she needs to actually earn it.
- Blood and Spirit: In chapter 37, upon being killed, Link unhesitatingly agrees to return to life without Zelda to stop Veress, willing to live without his true love for the sake of fulfilling his duty while knowing he'll eventually come back anyway. Having passed their test, the goddesses allow them both to return to life.
- There's a moment of this in the Danny Phantom/Beetlejuice crossover story, Say It Thrice. When offered the chance to move on rather than suffer oblivion due to the damage from holding the Gem of Osiris, Betelgeuse decides to risk staying anyway.
- Referenced in a sense in Lost in Camelot, a crossover between Lost Girl and Merlin (2008); despite Kenzi's complaints about some aspects of life in Camelot, such as the lack of proper toilet facilities or good music, when given the chance to return to her home time, Kenzi declines in favour of staying with Bo, who cant go back to 2012 for various reasons.
- Invoked in the Futurama fanfic Blame It on the Brain; after defeating Onespawn, Fry uses his temporary connection to the fabric of reality to create a world where he and Leela are living happy lives in the twentieth century, with Bender and Scruffy operating a mechanic's shop, Fry's dog Seymour living happily with him and Leela, and Fry now actually smart after he restores his Delta Brainwave, but Leela convinces Fry that they have to accept reality, prompting him to rebuild history the way it was.
- A non-heroic example happens at the beginning of All Dogs Go to Heaven, with the main character sneaking out of heaven despite being 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 after achieving godhood.
- A non-dead version happens in Animalympics; While doing some mountain climbing in the frosty peaks of Animalympics Island, Kurt Wuffner finds a secluded utopia called Dogri-La. However, he leaves it so he can compete in the downhill skiing event. After takes the gold, he declares his intent to find The Shangri-La again.
Wuffner: I left a strange, wonderful mountain paradise because I had to win this race. I know I'll never stop climbing until I find Dogri-La.
- 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.
- 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.
- In Idle Hands, after getting killed, Mick and Pnub refused to "come to the light" because it was too far. Anton blew off Heaven after accidentally getting crushed by a car in a hydraulic lift, because Molly taking care of him in bed "beats the shit out of Heaven."
- In Star Trek: Generations Kirk is reluctant to leave the Nexus at first, but soon realizes that the ability to make a difference in the real world is more important to him than anything the Nexus could offer. The tipping point is when he jumps a ravine with his horse, one he jumped numerous times in the real world, only to realize here that the element of danger which made it feel exciting when it was real is absent since he knows he's in the Nexus.
- Picard's own experience with the Nexus is similar.
- 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.
- Purgatory: The single good-aligned bandit is dead and gets the chance to skip waiting in purgatory for ten years and go straight to heaven, but he decides to stay because the town needs a good sheriff.
- Wishmaster 4: The Prophecy Fulfilled: In the climax the evil genie offers the heroine a perfect fantasy world where all her wishes can come true in an effort to win her to his side. She refuses his offer so she can save her boyfriend.
- 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.
- The book version of The Spiderwick Chronicles plays it straight with Arthur Spiderwick now 120 years old due to living with the sylph for 80 years and after seeing his daughter (now 86 years old) one last time, he steps onto Earth and turns to dust.
- Subverted in the film where Lucinda asks to go with Arthur and the sylph transform her back into her 6-year-old self so she can live with her father forever.
- In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 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.
- 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 chooses life, and wishes that her mentor/enemy be allowed into Heaven.
- In The Silmarillion, Lúthien is given the choice between staying in the Undying Lands but being separated from Beren forever, or returning to Middle-Earth with him as a mortal, and eventually dying a mortal death. Anyone who's familiar with Tolkien's Legendarium knows which choice she went with.
- Later, the half-Elven Elros chooses to live as a human and forfeit his trip to the Undying Lands whereas his brother Elrond chooses to live as an Elf and eventually makes the trip in The Lord of the Rings. Unfortunately for him, his daughter Arwen decides to live as a mortal.
- In Tamora Pierce's The Immortals - a part of her Tortall universe - Daine makes this choice at the end of The Realms of The Gods, deciding to remain in the mortal realms rather than become a minor goddess and live with her parents, the God of the Hunt and the northern Goddess of childbirth. It's not an easy choice; she did promise her mother she would stay - but in the end her parents understand that she has a life in Tortall and that was where she belonged.
- Jonathan Livingston Seagull: After Jonathan Ascends to a Higher Plane of Existence, he refuses to remain in the transcendent world because he laments the plight of his fellow seagulls and wants to help them realize the truth. The more advanced spirits tell him that he's wasting his time, but they understand that he has to make the attempt in order to advance in his own journey towards enlightenment.
- In the Last Herald-Mage Trilogy, Vanyel Ashkevron is given the offer by the Shadowlover after he is badly wounded in a fight. He refuses because he knows that his country needs him.
- In Timewyrm: Revelation, following the Seventh Doctor's final confrontation with the Timewyrm, he has the opportunity to be one with the universe or return to the physical world. He opts to return.
- In The Bands of Mourning, Wax is killed and has a talk with Harmony, who offers him the chance to go on to the great adventure that is the cosmere's afterlife or to accept his allies' attempts to heal him and return to the mortal plane. Wax, naturally, chooses to return to life.
- At the end of Ashes to Ashes (2008), Alex believes herself to still be alive and happily exclaims to Gene that she can now leave his purgatory to go back to her daughter. Devastatingly, Alex reads from Gene's expression and through a hallucination that she is in fact dead and cannot go back.
- Even after this, Alex still refuses to go to heaven as she wants to stay and help Gene. Gene convinces Alex that she has to go, but that he cannot.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The episode "Normal Again" offers up a suggestion that Buffy's life in Sunnydale is all a hallucination and she's actually a normal girl in a mental hospital. The episode ends with her choosing her life in Sunnydale and giving up the possibility of a normal life.
- 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.
- As a result, SG-1 has even parodied Daniel's multiple deaths.
- Dean in the Supernatural Season 4 finale (as well as generally throughout season 5). It's more of a practical than a heroic decision, as paradise would require letting Dean's brother, Sam, drink gallons of demon blood to release Lucifer, starting the apocalypse and becoming inhuman in the process, and offering possession to Michael (which would essentially lobotomize him) to kill Lucifer in Sam's body, while wiping out half the earth's population in the process. It's also unclear exactly what would be so good about the paradise that would follow, as the angels only wanted it because they were dicks who were tired of ruling the world in God's absence.
- By the end of Lost Girl's Season 5 pilot episodes, Kenzi allows Bo to "rescue" her from Valhalla although she was really happy there, wanted for nothing and was hours away from marrying the man she loved and who was killed on Earth before they could tie the knot. Unsurprisingly, she comes to regret the decision in the very same episode and effectively leaves the cast for the rest of the series except for a brief appearance in the finale.
- 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"
- "Sixteen Tons", first recorded by Merle Travis, has a twist to it:
Saint Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go, I owe my soul to the company store.
- Subverted in "The Third Heaven" by Carman. The narrator has a fatal accident and Jesus offers him a chance to return to life, but he decides to stay in Heaven.
- Played with in Dream Theater's song "The Ministry of Lost Souls". The lyrics sound like they fit this trope, but the song is actually about a woman with Survivor Guilt.
- In Arms Tonite by Mother Mother, the singer, having just died in the arms of their lover, decides the romantic nature of the incident isn't worth being separated from their lover and fights to escape the afterlife and be reunited with them.
- 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.
- The story of Castor and Pollux in Greek mythology. Castor was the mortal son of Leda and her husband; Pollux was the demigod son of Leda and Zeus, who had seduced her (though Zeus had a reputation for this sort of thing). It really didn't matter to them; the brothers were inseparable heroes. When they fell in battle, Pollux the demigod was whisked up to Olympus, and Castor was sent down to the Underworld with Hades. Cue Pollux getting infuriated and marching down to where Hades was keeping his brother, and refusing to leave. This forced the Olympians into a bit of a Logic Bomb, as Pollux couldn't stay there and there was no way he was leaving without Castor. A compromise was reached, and they became the constellation Gemini.
- According to The War of the Irish with the Foreigners, the warrior Dunlang O'Hartigan (Dúnlaing Ó hArtagáin) was loved by a lady of the aes sídhe (a.k.a. fairies) who offered him immortality and eternal youth and bliss until the Day of Judgment and (this is explicitly included) entrance into Heaven after the Judgment, if he would stay with her. Dunlang however leaves her to aid his friend Murchadh, the son of Brian Boru, in the Battle of Clontarf, if only because he has promised Murchadh to fight by his side, and even though he knows by way of a prophecy that he will die in the battle. When Dunlang arrives just in time to join the battle, Murchadh, hearing his story, in turn mentions that he, too, has been hosted in "hills and fairy mansions" where similar offers were made to him, but he always refused because he would never abandon his country or relatives. True to the prophecy, both Dunlang and Murchadh die in the battle.
- 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 Thornton Wilder's "Pullman Car Hiawatha", a one-act existential comedy, a woman named Harriet dies on the titular train and is visited by the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, but initially refuses to go to heaven, saying that she would rather remain on Earth and watch over her husband.
- In God of War: Chains of Olympus, Kratos, of all people, gives up spending eternity in Elysium with his daughter to save the world from Persephone.
- In Heroes of Might and Magic IV, Tarnum from the Chronicles series finally redeems himself for the crimes of his first life and earns a place in the barbarian afterlife. He did this by guiding his foster son Waerjak (the player character in the Might campaign of IV) into reuniting the scattered barbarian tribes and making a new home for them on Axeoth while avoiding the mistakes Tarnum himself made in the past. Tarnum ultimately chooses to stay with his people and his son, having found a new reason to live.
- There's a version of this trope in Dragon Age: Origins, when the Warden is fighting through the mage tower and confronts a Sloth demon. The demon sends the Warden and their companions into a deep, deathlike sleep, and the Warden finds him/herself in a very altered reality where certain impossible things are taking place. Rather than accept the happiness offered in this altered state, the Warden insists that things are wrong, and proceeds to spend the next portion of the game fighting not only to escape their own dreams, but also to rescue their companions, who are trapped in similar situations.
- In Beyond: Two Souls, the final chapter ends with Jodie hovering in a limbo between life and death where she is presented with a choice: join all the friends and family she lost in the Infraworld, or return to the world of the living. Opting for the latter embodies this trope to a T.
- In Asura's Wrath, Chakravartin, The Creator declares Asura perfect and worthy of being his successor, effectively making Asura God, and returns his daughter to him. The offer is made with an extended hand, and Asura responds by extending his... except his is closed.
- In South Park: The Fractured but Whole, if Mysterion (Kenny) is killed in battle, he becomes a ghost with a completely different moveset. His new Limit Break has him ascend to Heaven, where many attractive naked women await him. As much as he might want to go, he ultimately can't bring himself to abandon his allies in mid-battle, and returns to Earth, bringing himself back to life and healing allies near him.
- 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.
- 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.
- Similarly, Durkon tells Thor under no uncertain terms that he will return to the mortal plane to attend his own unfinished business (i.e. ensuring that his son won't grow up without even knowing him), despite holding a rare ticket to the "good" afterlife. His resurrection is more prompt; his only regret is that he couldn't stay longer to ask more questions before returning.
- Parodied in Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, where the offeree waxes philosophical about why he would refuse paradise, then, upon being told that it's a real offer and not hypothetical, accepts instantly.
- 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.
- A possible interpretation of Chapter 8 of Over the Garden Wall. In a dream, Greg enters a magical sphere reminiscent of Fluffy Cloud Heaven and is offered the opportunity to return home. Given that Wirt is too far gone in his despair to go too, Greg refuses the offer.