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Excerpted and reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.
The World to Come usually refers to one of three things: the way the world will be in the End of Days when the righteous are resurrected; a world of immortal souls that will follow the age of resurrection; or a heavenly world enjoyed by righteous souls immediately after death (i.e. prior to the End of Days). However, believing that the World to Come refers to one of these does not necessarily entail a negative belief in the others.
There is considerable ambiguity regarding the meaning of the rabbinic doctrine of the World to Come (Heb. Olam Ha‑Ba) and its relation to the resurrection of the dead. In the Middle Ages, Maimonides is alone in identifying the World to Come with the immortality of the soul [a “period” that follows the age of resurrection], while Nahmanides is emphatic that it refers to this world, which will be renewed, after the resurrection.
For instance, the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 10:1) states that one who denies the resurrection will have no share in the World to Come, upon which the Talmud (Sanhedrin 90a) comments that this severe punishment is meted out to him on the principle of measure for measure; since he denies the resurrection it is only just that he does not rise at the resurrection. In this passage, at least, the World to Come is identified with the resurrection, though it is not absolutely certain that the Mishnah itself identifies the two so closely.
In later Jewish thought the World to Come becomes a generic term for the Hereafter.
The Mishnah quoted begins with the words: “All Israel has a share in the World to Come” but then continues that some Israelites, for example, those who deny the resurrection or that the Torah is from Heaven, do not have a share in the World to Come.
In the Tosefta (Sanhedrin 13:2) there is a debate between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua on whether the World to Come is reserved for Jews or whether this blissful state is the reward of Gentiles as well. Rabbi Joshua holds that “the righteous of all peoples have a share in the World to Come” and this became the official view of Judaism.
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