Life After Death

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What happens after we die?

Judaism is famously ambiguous about this matter. The immortality of the soul, the World to Come, and the resurrection of the dead all feature prominently in Jewish tradition, but the logistics of what these things are and how they relate to each other has always been ambiguous.

Jewish conceptions of heaven and hellGan Eden and Gehinnom–are associated with the belief in immortality and/or the World to Come, and were also developed independent of these concepts.

Most Jewish ideas about the afterlife developed in post-biblical times.

The Bible itself has very few references to life after death. Sheol, the bowels of the earth, is portrayed as the place of the dead, but in most instances Sheol seems to be more a metaphor for oblivion than an actual place where the dead “live” and retain consciousness.

The notion of resurrection appears in two late biblical sources, Daniel 12 and Isaiah 25-26.

Daniel 12:2–“Many of those that sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to eternal life, others to reproaches, to everlasting abhorrence”–implies that resurrection will be followed by a day of judgment. Those judged favorably will live forever and those afterlife quizjudged to be wicked will be punished.

Later Jewish tradition, however, is not clear about exactly who will be resurrected, when it will happen, and what will take place.

Some sources imply that the resurrection of the dead will occur during the messianic era. Others indicate that resurrection will follow the messianic era. Similarly, according to some, only the righteous will be resurrected, while according to others, everyone will be resurrected and–as implied in Daniel–a day of judgment will follow.

The Daniel text probably dates to the second century BCE, and at some point during the two centuries that followed, another afterlife idea entered Judaism: the immortality of the soul, the notion that the human soul lives on even after the death of the body. In the Middle Ages, Jewish mystics expanded this idea, developing theories about reincarnation–the transmigration of the soul.

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