Afterlife and the Messiah 101

Judaism isn't entirely clear on what happens after we die.

After death, the soul separates from the body and either goes straight to heaven (Gan Eden) or makes a stop in hell (Gehinnom) to purge itself of sins. In the End of Days, the Messiah will gather the Jewish exiles to Israel and the Temple will be rebuilt. Some time later, the dead will be resurrected and reunited with their souls. This new, perfected universe is known as the World to Come.

This is a common–yet too simplistic–presentation of Jewish eschatology (literally, the study or theory of the End). In Jewish tradition, there is little consensus on how, what, and when things happen in the Great Beyond.


Broadly speaking, the Messiah will be a descendant of King David who, in the future, will reign over a peaceful and prosperous Israel.

According to some–most prominently, Maimonides–this is all he is. The Messiah is not a wonderworker, nor is the messianic era a miraculous age. In fact, according to Maimonides, the Messiah will die and be succeeded by his sons. This tradition of a political (and possibly military) redeemer dates to the age of the latter prophets, who living after the peak years of the Israelite monarchy, looked forward to a time when Jewish self-rule would be restored.

Other thinkers and texts stress the utopian–not the restorative–nature of the messianic era and suggest that the age of the Messiah will be a super-natural time. According to one talmudic source, for example, humans will have only good inclinations in the messianic era (Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 52a).

For many–but by no means all–contemporary Jews, the messianic idea is as important now as it has been in the past. However, some moderns have rejected the idea that the messianic age will be defined by the arrival of an individual Messiah, and instead look to the messianic dream as a source of hope for a perfected and peaceful world.

Life After Death

The resurrection of the dead is briefly mentioned in the biblical books of Daniel and Isaiah. While the rabbis of the Talmud creatively interpreted references to resurrection in the Torah itself, these two are the only direct biblical references to life after death, and they date from late in the biblical period. Some scholars identify some notion of individual survival beyond death in the Bible, but the specific idea that the soul lives on after the death of the body entered Judaism later.

The World to Come, a concept often discussed in talmudic literature, can refer either to the world of the resurrected in the End of Days, or to the abode of the righteous souls following death, i.e. Gan Eden. (In response to the accusation that he denied physical resurrection, Maimonides uniquely depicted this heavenly abode as a spiritual world that will exist after the resurrected dead die for a second time.) More often than not, the precise referent of the World to Come is ambiguous

Judaism is often thought of as a this-worldly religion, one unconcerned with the afterlife, particularly heaven and hell. Though this would be an overstatement, it is noteworthy that despite the multitude of sources about the afterlife, remarkably few Jewish thinkers have been concerned with elaborating precise eschatological schemes.

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