Religious Studies

Judaism: beliefs about life after death

Death is the one thing in life we can be sure about and that is why religions have beliefs about what it means! Everything else ‘might’ happen to us: we might get married, be rich, be happy, have children, open our own business or travel the world, but the only real certainty is that we will die.

Faith and death

It is not surprising that people have always asked questions about what, if anything, happens after they die.

Although some people claim to have had ‘near-death experiences’ (NDEs), and others claim to be able to talk to the dead, or to have seen ghosts, there is no scientific proof that such experiences actually provide a glimpse into a possible afterlife. It is possible, therefore, that when people die, they simply stop living and that there is nothing beyond this life.

Ideas about what happens after death, and its connection with how life is lived on earth, is a fundamental part of all religions. The details may differ between religions, but belief in an afterlife almost always:

  • helps people to make sense of life, particularly when life seems unfair or at times of suffering (their own, and others people’s)
  • gives support and comfort at times of loss and bereavement
  • provides a purpose to life

Judaism and death

Jews do not have any clear teaching about the relationship between the body and soul. It is not considered to be important. Judaism teaches that G-d (Jews do not spell out this sacred name) breathed the soul into Adam’s body:

…and He blew into his nostrils the soul of life…

(Genesis 2:7)

The rabbis teach that the soul leaves the body while a person is asleep and visits heaven for refreshment. During the Sabbath (a weekly day of rest and worship), G-d gives everyone an extra soul.

At the time of the Jewish scriptures people believed that after death everyone went to Sheol, described as a dark place where people went after death and stayed for eternity. Many Jews believed that Adam and Eve would have lived forever in the Garden of Eden but, because they disobeyed G-d, they became mortal.

The first mention of the idea of a life after death comes in the book of Daniel:

Many of those who sleep in the dusty earth will awaken: these for everlasting life and these for shame, for everlasting abhorrence.

Daniel 12:2

Although this seems to be a physical life many Jews believe that it will be spiritual.

There are later teachings about heaven and hell. One view is that good people will enter Gan Eden (paradise) and wicked people will go to Gehenna (or Gehinnom) after the last judgment. (Gehenna is different from Sheol: Sheol is a place of waiting while Gehenna is hell.)

When people are judged by G-d their body and soul are reunited. The soul will blame the body for its actions. Judgement will take place after the coming of the Mashiach (Messiah). Although many Jews believe that they will be punished or rewarded after death for the way in which they have lived their lives, there is no clear teaching about heaven.

Jews believe that the importance of life is the way in which it is lived on earth. Whatever happens after death is in G-d’s hands and should be left to G-d to arrange.

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