The Eclectic Jewish Afterlife

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As I was preparing recently for an outreach at our local university campus, I began my search for gospel tracts. Most of their titles focused on heaven and how to get there:

Heaven: Who Is Good Enough
Missing Heaven by 18 Inches
How to Know You Are Going to Heaven
Heaven or Hell?
The Steps to Heaven
Your Ticket to Heaven
Do Good People Go to Heaven?

For Christians, the expectation of our salvation is the promise of life after death in heaven. When we talk with people about our faith in Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross, the forgiveness of sins, and a right relationship with God, we talk about a salvation that is past, present, and future. Our salvation is past in that the work of redemption is complete. Our salvation is present in that “the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). Those are real and precious truths. 

But the future, the endgame, is always knowing where we will spend eternity. We base our faith in life after death on the immortality of the soul and the resurrected Christ.

What Do Jewish People Believe About Life After Death?

When my husband and I became field representatives with The Friends of Israel in the Las Vegas Valley, we were freshly graduated from the Institute of Jewish Studies with what we thought was a good working knowledge of Jewish customs and culture. But in reality, it was only Jewish customs and culture 101. We got a crash course in 102 as we started getting acquainted with the Jewish community.

We quickly learned that a belief in the afterlife is not a given among the Jewish people. If we’ve heard it once, we’ve heard it a dozen times: “When you’re dead, you’re dead,” and “There is no more; you simply cease to exist.” 

Jewish beliefs on the afterlife are as diverse as Judaism itself.

Is this the belief of every branch of Judaism? No. Jewish beliefs on the afterlife are as diverse as Judaism itself—from the traditional view expecting the unity of flesh and spirit in a resurrected body to the idea that one only lives on in one’s children and grandchildren to an ethereal sense of a vague, heaven-type feeling for all eternity. 

The Talmud (Jewish law) teaches that people’s souls con­tinue to dwell in their graves for a time after death. So today, Jewish people often place stones on graves to keep the souls down in this world; and others do so to keep demons from entering these graves.

For the most part, Jewish people who believe in heaven believe it’s open to anyone from any faith. Adolf Hitler has a chance to make it (yes, we’ve heard that!). Actions determine who gets in; what you believe in doesn’t matter. And even for those who don’t get in, there is no solid concept of a place of eternal punishment. 

I recently heard a teacher state that one proof of the Bible’s divine inspiration is its teaching on everlasting punishment in hell. He pointed out that no other religion shares a belief in eternal damnation, since man-conceived ideas would never teach that at the end there is no way out. 

For example, Chabad, an Orthodox-Hasidic branch of Judaism, believes in a type of hell, a spiritual place called “Gehinnom.” But this place is not meant for punishment; rather, it is meant for cleansing similar to the way we wash clothes in a washing machine. They are tossed and tumbled around, so it’s tough for a while; but in the end, the soul, like the clothes, is cleansed and fit to reach its rest in a loosely defined heaven. Hell, then, is not a punishment but a way to be purified.

Judaism, in general, is primarily focused on this present life here on Earth rather than what happens after we die.

Judaism, in general, is primarily focused on this present life here on Earth rather than what happens after we die. It typically embraces mitzvot (good works) to gain present physical and material rewards, rather than delayed, eternal ones that only happen in the afterlife. 

The Christian Joy of the Afterlife

Christians, on the other hand, who find comfort and hope in knowing we will go to heaven when we die, are admonished in the Scriptures to lay up for ourselves treasure in heaven where “neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:20). 

If our faith in Jesus was for our time on this earth but not for life with Him after death, our faith would be incomplete. This life is just a vapor (James 4:14). The apostle Paul said, “If Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable” (1 Corinthians 15:17–19). But our hope is in Christ, and He promised that we will always be with Him when He returns for us (1 Thessalonians 4:17).

The Jewish sacred texts don’t talk much about death and the afterlife, but some would say they contain metaphors and imagery that indicate the immortality of the soul. Even different branches of Judaism agree the soul is likely immortal in some capacity. Many believe the soul consciously continues to an afterlife to be judged. Others, however, believe the soul survives after death but is not conscious of it. Some believe that consciousness will be restored in the Messianic Age—a time known as the “world to come.” 

How different are the beliefs about the afterlife among the Jewish people? Very! Even a Jewish friend of ours who has professed faith in Christ and believes He is indeed the promised Messiah told me she is afraid of dying. I said, “Yes, the thought of dying can be difficult; but you are a believer now. You have eternal life with God in heaven after you die. We talked about it, remember? I showed you the Scripture verses.” 

“Oh, I know you did,” she said, “but I don’t believe it. I believe when you’re dead, you’re dead.”

About the Author
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Linda Craft

Linda Craft is the volunteer coordinator for North American Ministries for The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry.

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