Heaven and Hell

Question:  I have a simple question which I realize may have a very complex answer.  Does the Jewish Faith believe in an afterlife?

Answer:  Actually, there is a simple answer to your question — yes.  If you want to know more, read on.

Question: How does Jews think of death? Is there life after death? Do I meet God after my death?

Answer:  The traditional branches of Judaism believe that there is a “world to come” after we die, in which our souls might be joined with God in some way.

Question:  What happens to the Jewish soul after we die?  What are the Jewish beliefs about afterlife?

Answer:  Classical Judaism believes in a place called “olam haba,” “the world to come.”  The souls of the righteous will live in “Gan Eden,” the garden of Eden; and the souls of the wicked will go to “Gehinnom,” for a period not exceeding 12 months.  Gehinnom in concept is close to the Catholic notion of purgatory than an everlasting hell (Catholics got it from us!).  It is a place for persons who are not quite ready for heaven, and need to go to an intermediary place for a period of judgment and waiting.

The notions of what heaven will be like vary significantly from person to person.  Some believe that it will be a place of eternal Torah study, and some believe that it will be a complete union with the Divine presence.  According to the Talmud (Berachot 57b), Shabbat, sexual intercourse, and a sunny day are all known as, “me’ein olam haba,” a taste of the world to come!

The notions of hell are as varied.  The philosopher Sa’adia Gaon (10th century) believed that hell consisted of punishments and torments, while Maimonides seems to equate hell with the destruction of the soul.

Today, many people maintain a traditional belief in heaven as a place we go after we die, where we are reunited with all of our ancestors.  Hell might be when the soul is denied the opportunity to enter heaven, either temporarily or permanently.  Some believe that there is no true place called heaven, but rather we live on in the memories of those who survive us.

I have always felt it significant that there is no universal Jewish belief in what will happen after we die.  It points to the fact that Judaism is a mitzvah oriented religion, which focuses on our behavior during our lifetimes.  We gain heaven when the balance of mitzvot outweighs the balance of our sins.  But we should live our lives as if the divine scales of justice were precisely balanced, and each act that we perform will move the scale towards the positive or the negative.

Question:   I am in an Old Testament Bible study class.  I would like to know what the ancient Jewish people believed about heaven.  Is there a difference in what they believe today?

Answer:  There is no evidence from the Hebrew Bible that ancient Israelites had a conception of heaven.  It was a doctrine introduced to Judaism at a later period of time, either during the Babylonian exile or later, in the second century B.C.E. or so.  Jews today do believe in heaven.

Question:   Is it true that if we are basically good we will go to heaven as is promised by the covenant?

Answer:  Judaism does believe in heaven, and that we will go to heaven if we obey mitzvot.  In a sense, one could say that if we have more good deeds than bad deeds, more mitzvot than sins, if the balance of the scale of the actions in our lives weighs towards the good (“basically good”), then we will go to heaven.

Question:  Was Jacob the only person to go up in see heaven (in his dream)  Where there others?  Also, do you know of any talmudic passages that tell how heaven was created by fire and water?

Answer:  Jacob was not the only person to “see heaven” (by the way, he did not see heaven — he saw angels climbing up and down a ladder). In the Bible, Ezekiel saw heaven; and Abraham, Moses, and most other prophets had close encounters with God.

In Midrash, there are stories about Moses, Enoch, and Abraham, among other Biblical characters, visiting heaven; and numerous stories about rabbinic figures visiting heaven.

I could not locate a midrash concerning the creation of heaven by fire and water; however, I found a reference to a midrash about heaven being divided from the earth by fire.

Question:  Thank you for your response, I have one other question, if you don’t mind.  How were Jewish people buried (after they die) in the year 100 CE?

Answer:  Basically, my understanding is that their burial practices were essentially the same as they way they are practiced today in modern Israel.  Bodies are placed directly into the ground, with no casket.  Alternatively, some may have been placed on shelves in caves, and later on, when only the bones were left, the bones were gathered together and placed in an ossuary and buried in the ground or in a family tomb.

Question:  Dear Rabbi, since Judaism has no mention of hell how can things be evil? The closest definition that I can come to is that being evil is being ignorant. Ignorance closes off the mind to the true happenings of the world. For instance, I don’t believe that Hitler was evil, I believe that he was just ignorant. If he would have known the true plight of the Jews and seen that they were really not that bad, he wouldn’t have had a desire to massacre them! So is ignorance the only form of evil that exists?

Answer:  First of all, although the Tanakh does not mention either heaven or hell, Judaism does believe in and mention hell – see above for questions and answers on this topic.

Second, there is a vast gulf between ignorance and evil.  If I don’t know the Capitol of the United States, I am ignorant.  If I carefully plan out the murder every European Jew, I am evil.

You are sadly ignorant of history if you believe that Hitler would not have killed Jews if only he had understood us.  Ignorance is not a form of evil, but people who are ignorant of the nature of evil may allow evil to continue unchecked.

Question:  Is there a Jewish devil?  If so what does it look like?

Answer:  Judaism does not believe in the popular concept of the devil, which the dualistic notion that there is another power in the world rivaling that of God.  Judaism does believe, however, that each person was created with both an urge towards goodness (yetzer hatov) and an urge towards evil (yetzer hara).  But note that this is an internal urge rather than an external force.

Question:  I have been having an on-going debate with an atheist online and am really trying to win this guy over.  I need to make sure my facts are straight on something — can you help?

This is the way I was told the story of Satan’s banishment from Heaven started:Satan did not want the people of Earth to have the freedom of choice regarding religious beliefs and God insisted on it.  They came to an impasse and Satan was banished.  I could not find any account of the story in the Bible.  Is it in the Koran or some other book I could access?  Can you tell me how the story really goes?

Answer:  The story you tell about Satan’s banishment is not in the Hebrew Bible or in any Jewish source.  It is not a Jewish story at all.  Rather, it belongs to the Christian tradition.  Because of this, I don’t know any more details of the story than you have related.  I’m sorry I can’t help.

By the way, enjoy the debate but I highly doubt if either of you have any chance of “winning over” the other!

Question:  Do you believe that if a man is saved, is he always saved, or is it possible that he can lose his salvation?

Answer:  Jews do not believe in “salvation” in the Christian sense; thus, it is hard for me to give a short answer to your question.  Basically, however, Jews believe in “works salvation” (I believe that this is the proper Christian term, although Jews don’t refer to it this way).  At the end of our lives God will judge us based on our behavior, and this will determine our future in the world to come.

Question:  What is sin, and how do you get to heaven?  I was also wondering why God gave us the ten commandments – what is their purpose and what was His motivation?

Answer:  This is not really the best forum to answer such broad questions like yours.  I’ll give you short answers, and suggest that you might want to take a look at a book like Jewish Literacy, by Joseph Telushkin, for more basic information on Judaism. Sin is a distancing of ourselves from God, the result of a violation of a command that we understand to come from God.  Judaism believes that anyone who has lived a reasonable good life goes to heaven.  For a Jew, this would include adherence to a Jewish set of mitzvot (commandments).  For a non-Jew, this would include following basic laws of morality, known as the laws of the descendants of Noah.  The mitzvot (10 commandments, as well as the rest of the Torah) were given to us from God as a set of moral, ritual, and other religious and behavioral expectations.