Did the ancient Jews believe in an afterlife?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

(Click here to read Monday Musings ... the place where I discuss the thinking that went into this article.)

Question: I heard that the ancient Jews didn't believe in an afterlife… that there is no Heaven or Hell. Is that true?

Answer: Greetings friend. Thank you for asking such an interesting question. I too have always been curious whether or not the Jews had an “official” stand on the afterlife. Your question gave me an excuse to investigate. I had some ideas, though... and I got the answer I expected.

One problem with addressing this question is, very much like us Christians, the Jews are not monolithic in what they believe. Another is that many of them are nominal Jews — cultural Jews, this is — which are the Jewish equivalents of us being nominal Christians.

Nominal Christians are people who identify with Christ by name — but not to the point of salvation, inconvenience or Bible study — and many Jews identify with their culture in the same way. They range from Jews who are pagans-by-another-name to those who faithfully serve God.

That being said, I think that the ancient Jews were more monolithic — having fewer “options” for belief than they have today. But the Old Testament is a chronicle of their failures… of their returning to pagan practices. So, in essence, I don’t see the ancient Jews as significantly different from the modern ones.

Conservative Jews revere and study the Old Testament along with ancillary works like the Talmud and works of other Jewish scholars. The thing they do not do is accept — unless they are ethnic Jews who have accepted Christ as Messiah — that the New Testament is God’s continuing revelation. And it is the New Testament that speaks volumes about the afterlife.

The ancient Jews knew about Hades and Sheol, but their ideas about the afterlife were not much different from that of the pagans that surrounded them. Jesus taught about the hell we know today (Matthew 13:40-42). Furthermore, the New Testament teaches that believers have eternal life (1 John 5:11-13)… and the notion of a never-ceasing existence makes heaven and hell more personally potent.

Some Jews believed that their bodies would be resurrected (Acts 23:6) and that there would be a future glorious (messianic) kingdom, but these were visions of what would happen on earth — and some Christians see our future as (sort of) a return to Eden too. But whether or not that is true, the New Testament shifts our eternal gaze upwards, outwards and into eternity — to a New Heaven and a New Earth (Revelation 21:1)… which the ancient Jews could not see through their windshield.

As it happens, our sister ministry, Got Questions Ministries, has some articles that address what the Jews believe about the afterlife. To read these articles, click here and here. But I’m going to end with an article written by a reformed Jewish rabbi that answers that question from a Reformed Jewish perspective. Here is that article.

Do Jews Believe in an Afterlife? (By Rabbi Evan Moffic.)

https://reformjudaism.org/beliefs-practices/lifecycle-rituals/death-mourning/do-jews-believe-afterlife

Faith begins in mystery. Among the greatest mysteries we face is the afterlife. What happens when we die? Do we see our loved ones? Do we know them? Do they know us? The questions are endless. Jewish wisdom offers no definitive answer. We can identify, however, several core teachings.

There is an afterlife: Texts from every era in Jewish life identify a world where people go when they die. In the Bible it’s an underworld called Sheol. In the rabbinic tradition it’s known by a number of names, including the yeshiva shel mallah, the school on high. The Hebrew word for skies, shamayim, also came to refer to heaven.

Heaven has open door policy: Heaven is not a gated community. The righteous of any people and any faith have a place in it. Our actions, not our specific beliefs, determine our fate. No concept of Hell exists in Judaism. The closest we get is the fate of apostate (a person who renounces God, faith and morality in this world), who is said to be “cut off from his kin.”

The afterlife can take many forms: Professor A.J. Levine expresses this truth most eloquently: “Jewish beliefs in 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 we live on in our children and grandchildren, to a sense of heaven (perhaps with lox and bagels rather than harps and haloes).”

The afterlife is here on earth: One strand of Jewish thought sees heaven as a transitory place where souls reside after death. They reside there until they reunite with their physical bodies at the time when the Messiah comes. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach articulates this view in his early book, The Wolf Shall Lie with the Lamb: The Messiah in Hassidic Thought. This approach differs from reincarnation since the return to life happens only in the messianic era, not as a regular occurrence, as in Hinduism.

We live on through others: The Reform Jewish prayerbook expresses this idea through the metaphor of a leaf and a tree. A leaf drops to the ground, but it nourishes the soil so more plants and trees spring up. The same is true in our lives. We nourish the future through the influence we have on those who follow us. It can happen in unimaginable ways.

(Rabbi Evan Moffic serves as rabbi of Congregation Solel in Highland Park, IL. His newest book, Wisdom for People of All Faiths: Ten Ways To Connect With God, has garnered tremendous praise.)

Below you will find two articles by Got Questions Ministries about this topic. I didn’t want to just regurgitate the material, so I’ve pasted in both articles in their entirety. This is also the end of my answer. I hope this helped.

I pray this helped. This was a great question. Thanks for asking it!

 

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article — consider doing so at the following link: 20210524 Did the ancient Jews believe in an afterlife).

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