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Like other spiritual traditions, Judaism offers a range of views on the afterlife, including some parallels to the concepts of heaven and hell familiar to us from popular Western (i.e., Christian) teachings.
Sheol: An Underground Abyss
The subject of death is treated inconsistently in the Bible, though most often it suggests that physical death is the end of life. This is the case with such central figures as Abraham, Moses, and Miriam.
There are, however, several biblical references to a place called Sheol (cf. Numbers 30, 33). It is described as a region “dark and deep,” “the Pit,” and “the Land of Forgetfulness,” where human beings descend after death. The suggestion is that in the netherworld of Sheol, the deceased, although cut off from God and humankind, live on in some shadowy state of existence.
While this vision of Sheol is rather bleak (setting precedents for later Jewish and Christian ideas of an underground hell) there is generally no concept of judgment or reward and punishment attached to it. In fact, the more pessimistic books of the Bible, such as Ecclesiastes and Job, insist that all of the dead go down to Sheol, whether good or evil, rich or poor, slave or free man (Job 3:11-19).
Afterlife and the World to Come
The development of the concept of life after death is related to the development of eschatology (speculation about the “end of days”) in Judaism. Beginning in the period following the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem (586 BCE), several of the classical Israelite prophets (Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah) began forecasting a better future for their people.
However, with repeated military defeats and episodes of exile and dislocation culminating in the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, Jewish thinkers began to lose hope in any immediate change, instead investing greater expectations in a messianic future and in life after death. This was coupled with the introduction into Judaism of Hellenistic notions of the division of the material, perishable body and the spiritual, eternal soul.
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