Did the ancient Jews believe in an afterlife?

Monday Musings for May 24, 2021

Good morning, Musers,

Compared to the ancient Jews, we Christians have a highly-developed doctrine of the afterlife. Even if we disagree on the details, we tend to agree that individual persons do not stop existing when their mortal bodies die… that the “soul” — the metaphysical essence that is the real us — will persist into eternity… and that soul will ultimately be rejoined to our resurrected bodies… which — in the case of believers — will be glorified and fit for eternity.

That’s good news for believers! But it’s not such good news for nonbelievers. You see, according to the Bible, living forever after you die is not an option; it’s what happens. And — just as we believers will experience good things for all eternity — those who have never taken steps to reconcile to God will experience bad things.

I’d love to believe in annihilation… where the souls of the unrepentant departed simply cease to exist. But Jesus himself taught that people’s souls persist. So, hell isn’t a doctrine that scholars labored over for decades to arrive at… like the perichoresis. The doctrine of hell is a restatement of the things Jesus taught — and direct teachings are epistemological gold in the Bible!

But Jesus didn’t merely mention hell on his way to more pleasant topics. He described it in detail. He said it is a place of eternal torment (Luke 16:23). He said it’s a place of unquenchable fire (Mark 9:43) — where the worm does not die (Mark 9:48). It’s the place where people will gnash their teeth in anguish and regret! (Matthew 13:42). Furthermore, it is a place of no return… a place from which you cannot go back to warn your loved ones! (Luke 16:19–31).

Jesus called hell a place of “outer darkness” (Matthew 25:30). He compared it to “Gehenna” (Matthew. 10:28) — the trash dump outside the walls of Jerusalem where rubbish was burned and maggots abounded. Jesus talked about hell more than he talked about heaven, and he described it more vividly. Jesus knew, believed in and warned about an actual hell. It was a place of punishment, not a metaphor… although the details (like “fire”) can still be metaphorical.

I bring all this unpleasantness up for two reasons. First, it is the topic of today’s question. Second, I want to warn you that hell is real — Purgatory is not… and that no amount of prayers for the dead will affect what happens after a person dies. Our eternal destiny is determined here… here on earth… and during our lifetimes… so be warned: lay all your sins at Jesus’ feet — and do it today (2 Corinthians 6:2) — or you risk spending a conscious eternity regretting it.

(To learn more about how you can avoid spending eternity in hell, click here and here.)

The ancient Jews saw death as a “lesser” life. Souls were shadows of their former selves (shades, death-shadows), and Sheol was mere a generic term meaning “the abode of the dead.” When it came to the afterlife, the Jews were more aligned with the pagans than with us.

Now, the Jews are expecting a Messianic kingdom — which is an earthly kingdom. To them, heaven is a “Christian” idea… and believing in it would be seen as a betrayal by many Jews.


(Click here to read the article referenced above. For comments, or to join the Monday Musings mailing list, contact us at mainsailep@gmail.com. To submit a question about God, the Bible or the Christian culture, click here.)