What do Jews believe about life after death?

What do Jews believe about life after death? January 7, 2017


The Hebrew Bible makes no mention of an afterlife. When did this belief come into being among the Israelites, and why?


This is an appropriate follow-up to our December 1 answer to Paula concerning “what does Christianity say happens to believers after death?”

True, the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh (= Christians’ Old Testament) has no explicit and detailed concept of the afterlife such as we have in the New Testament. This whole topic has been considerably more central and developed in Christianity than in Judaism. However, Jewish authors offer a more complex scenario than that Jewish Scripture “makes no mention of an afterlife.” They observe that while most biblical references are vague, we see an evolution in belief. Some particulars:

Frequent references in Genesis, followed by the Psalms and the prophets, say that the dead abide in a shadowy state called sheol. Such passages as Ecclesiastes 9:5, Job 14:21, and Psalm 88:11-12 indicate that this involves no conscious existence.

On the other hand, the Bible depicts forms of life beyond death in Genesis 5:24 (Enoch taken directly to God), 2 Kings 2:11 (the same with Elijah), 1 Samuel 2:6 (God “brings down to sheol and raises up”), Psalm 49:15 (“God will ransom my soul from the power of sheol, for he will receive me”), and Saul’s notable conversation with the deceased Samuel in 1 Samuel 28.

Also, sages interpreted the prophet Ezekiel’s “dry bones” vision in chapter 37 as depicting a communal afterlife for Israel, and the Talmud saw Isaiah 60:21 (“they shall possess the land forever”) in terms of bodily resurrection. Then the prophet Daniel describes the end times in individual terms, with the clearest conception of resurrection up to that time:

“Your people shall be delivered, every one whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (12:1-2)

Also note passages in books that Judaism deems non-canonical but were included in the Jewish Tanakh translation into Greek and thence the Catholic Bible: 2 Maccabees 12:44 (“if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead”), Wisdom 3:1-10 (“the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God and no torment will ever touch them”), and Wisdom 5:15-16 (“the righteous live forever, and their reward is with the Lord; the Most High takes care of them.”

Prior to the rise of Christianity, a growing Jewish movement led by the Pharisees affirmed the afterlife for believers, including resurrection of the physical body. Part of such thinking, we’re told, was a logical conclusion that a just God needs the “world to come” (olam ha-bah) to balance out the good and evil that occurs in this life.

Those beliefs became vital for Christianity which, of course, originated as a faction among Jews. The same with the rabbinic form of Judaism reflected in the Talmud, which consolidated after the Jerusalem Temple’s destruction in 70 C.E. That movement edged aside the competing Jewish party of the Sadducees, who rejected these innovative beliefs because they were not explicit in the Torah, the Bible’s first five books.

Joseph Telushkin proposed the interesting theory that this was because the Torah, written after the Exodus from Egypt, shunned that country’s “death-obsessed” religion epitomized by burials in those huge pyramids. Telushkin also recounted the ancient Jewish story that those in the afterlife spend day after day studying Torah, which is simultaneously heaven for the righteous and hell for unbelievers.

In the “Articles of Faith” codified by the revered 12th Century sage Moses ben Maimon (a.k.a. Maimonides or Rambam), belief in the resurrection of the dead is the last of the 13 tenets a Jew must believe in order to have a place in the world to come. However, unlike other medieval teachers, Maimonides believed that eventually the resurrected and glorified body would cease to exist physically while the soul would continue on in eternal spiritual bliss.

In the Pittsburgh Platform (1885), U.S. progressives in Judaism’s Reform branch proclaimed: “We assert the doctrine of Judaism that the soul is immortal, grounding the belief on the divine nature of the human spirit, which forever finds bliss in righteousness and misery in wickedness. We reject as ideas not rooted in Judaism the beliefs both in bodily resurrection and in Gehenna and Eden (Hell and Paradise) as abodes for everlasting punishment and reward.”

Against that, today’s liberal and secular Jews typically have little to no interest in eternity or reinterpret the future in terms of a dead person’s ongoing influence and memory, not immortality of the soul. However, the individual’s physical resurrection and eternal life remain teachings of Orthodox Judaism.

For further background, see “Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion” (2004) by the late Alan Segal of Barnard College (a neighbor and source of the Religion Guy). The above material is drawn from Jewish sources, but note that there’s extensive material about ancient Jewish tradition in a Christian magnum opus, “The Resurrection of the Son of God”  (2003) by N.T. Wright of Scotland’s venerable University of St Andrews.

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