What Do Jewish People Believe About the Afterlife?

Recently I was watching the movie Silence by director Martin Scorsese. It is a movie about Jesuit missionaries in Japan during a period when the Japanese rulers wanted to eradicate Christianity. It is a disturbing movie as you might guess. The rulers wanted Japan to be Buddhist. They were afraid of losing their culture primarily, so they did some very un-Buddhist things to Christians. In the course of history so called Christians have also done some very un-Christian things to pagans and also to Jews. Early on Jews did the same to Christians.

The covenant that God made through Moses is the centerpiece of Judaism. It is completely focused on prosperity in this life. I have often wondered what Jewish people believed about life after death beyond an expectation of a bodily resurrection, which is clearly promised in the Old Testament.

I came across a recent article in the Jerusalem post by Rabbi Stewart Weiss https://www.msn.com/en-us/lifestyle/mind-and-soul/what-do-jews-believe-about-the-afterlife/ar-AARVwFc?ocid=entnewsntp&pc=U531 It is an interesting explanation of Jewish belief. One thing that sadly didn’t surprise me is that most Jews don’t believe in life after death at all. They don’t believe the Old Testament. They may still cling to the culture and their Jewish identity, but theologically they are less Jewish than I am. Many, I am sure, are agnostic and a fair percentage are oddly Buddhist.

Let me rant for a moment about the value of culture. Many people strongly identify with a religion when they in fact only identify with a culture. Culture is important, but when weighed against whether we have an eternity with God or an eternity exiled from God culture is an insignificant thing. Culture changes all the time. You can have a distinct culture and cultural identity but share the same knowledge of God with people outside your culture. If the rulers of Japan in the movie were interested in being Buddhist, they would not have tortured anyone. The same can be said for the current government of Myanmar. Truth about God is far more critical than anything else. The truth about the God who created us all is that He does not tolerate sin let alone torture. Doing it in His name makes the offense many times worse.

Now back to the question of the Jewish understanding of the afterlife. I found that there are more parallels to my Christian belief than I expected. The article spoke of four phases of existence. The first we are experiencing now. The next is known as Gan Eden (Heaven or Paradise).

The second phase is Olam Haba, or Gad Eden (heaven or paradise). This may be a spiritual paradise where we experience an overwhelming closeness to God, or, in some opinions, a kind of “holding zone” for our souls, awaiting an eventual reordering of the universe.

The Jerusalem Post, Stewart Weiss

This is much like Heaven as I have described it. We enter a paradise in the presence of God. It is “spiritual” in the sense that it is not of this dimensional space. It is also experienced during the Intermediate Period between our death and Judgment Day. I would add that it might also be part of our experience after Judgment Day.

Weiss has a third phase that would equate with the Millennium in some Christian theologies. This is something that occurs on Earth, pre-Judgment Day. It is where the Messiah radically changes humanity for the better. Weiss does not say if this is experienced only by the living. Some Christian theologies sneak an extra resurrection of the righteous in at this point. Others leave it as a primarily Jewish affair. Amillennialists, of which I would count myself, don’t expect a future worldly rule of the Messiah until after Judgment Day. References to a “1000 years”, and to knowledge of God spreading over the world are seen as happening now as the Gospel is spread.

Finally, there is the resurrection of the dead. He does not share details, but I would agree that the Bible both Old and New Testaments speak of this as the final, eternal phase.

The big difference, not mentioned in the article, is how one gets to take part in all of this. Jesus is not recognized as the Messiah or as the necessary atoning sacrifice for sin. Entry into the bliss of Heaven and the Resurrection is based on being good enough and that God will “balance the scales”.

The description of what is to come matters little if we are not a part of it. Redemption has come. The Messiah came to win redemption. Jewish or not, don’t miss out on what Jesus has won for us. Especially, don’t ignore this salvation for the sake of culture.

Why Not Reincarnation?

A large chunk of the population of the world expects to be reincarnated. This includes Hindus, Buddhists and many other who have incorporated this idea into their “spirituality”. Reincarnation gives the promise of continued life. While judgment or karma is expected and is meant to motivate an unselfish life, reincarnation gives hope for self-progress and self-redemption in the end. It also gives reason to judge people for their current condition and creates a fatalistic attitude with not much motivation to change the world. It is an interesting idea, but is real?

Experience doesn’t settle the question. All of the Near Death Experiences (NDE) that I am aware of have given the individuals who had them an experience of Heaven or Sheol. None have said, I was a dog, worm or even another person. There are some who claim other “memories” experienced in dreams, flashback type of experiences that do give the impression that the person had a previous life. How can this be explained? Perhaps one experiences what they expect in certain neural states. Either type of experience may possibly be introduced by outside spiritual forces (i.e. God, Satan, angel, demons, etc.) to inform or deceive. Whatever the answer, experience is not conclusive.

The Bible rules out reincarnation by giving us a picture of Heaven or Sheol immediately upon death and by these words:

And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who eagerly wait for him.

Hebrews 9:28

Many people are choosing a mixed, and consequently inconsistent, system of beliefs that merge Jesus and reincarnation. Granted these people are hardly what you would call theologians. It is clear for those who know the Bible, that reincarnation is not a part of the human experience if the Bible is truth. Here you have to look at the weight of evidence and have the help of God to understand why the Bible is to be trusted versus any of the writings of Eastern religion.

Jesus comes from a determined place and time, not some vague story. He backed his teachings with miracles before eye-witnesses. He rose from the dead and was seen by both friends, skeptics, and enemies. His coming was accurately foretold by prophets who lived long before him. I don’t think any other self-proclaimed revelation from God can claim such support.

The biggest difference between what the Bible presents as our eternal destiny versus Eastern religions is not the one life versus many. It is that God saves us out of love and does the work Himself versus a system where you raise yourself through lifestyle and knowledge. Wisdom, knowledge, kindness and good works have their place in Christianity, but not as the cause of being saved. They are the result of being saved. We are motivated by love and a sense of God-given mission.

Ironically, Eastern religions are very do-it-yourself compared to Christianity, but the goal is to cease to exist as an individual. One ultimately merges with an impersonal God. In Christianity, Jesus merges you to Himself for the sake of making you righteous and worthy of eternity. He does so without eliminating you as a person. Rather he emphasizes just how valuable you are.

Do not count on having another life and another chance. Definitely don’t count on your own abilities to merit eternal life. Count on Christ.

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