In Judaism, views of the afterlife vary. They are based on the three main views of death that have developed over time within the Israelite tradition: She’ol, which was a shadow-world of unknowingness, to which people went to after death; in time, after contact with Babylonian and Persian religion, Israelite sages began to feel that She’ol was not enough, hence evolved a belief in the Resurrection of the body in the last days. Finally, the belief in a soul evolved, alongside a belief in the existence of heaven. If one follows through the logic of each, the three views are mutually exclusive, but various Jewish sects in the past and present have tried to reconcile them to include them all.
Talmidaism, unlike Orthodox Rabbinical Judaism, does not make any definitive statement on the nature of the afterlife; it is considered a matter of personal faith.
What follows is a basic description of the three views of the afterlife, and the various attempts to reconcile them.
She’ol (The Shadow-world)
This should not be confused with the Gentile Christian idea of Hell, or the Greek Hellenist idea of Hades; Judaism does not have any belief in Hell. Earliest Yahwism had no concept of the soul; in contrast to the Egyptians, who believed that human beings had a soul which survived them after death, the early Hebrews had no such concept. When a person died, they went to a shadowy under-world, and that was it.
It was believed that this shadow-world existed beneath the earth (Isa. 7:11, 57:9; Ezek. 31:14; Ps. 86:13) simply because that is where bodies were buried. The dead existed there without knowledge or feeling (Job 14:13; Eccl. 9:5). Silence reigned supreme; and oblivion was the fate of those who entered (Ps. 88:13, 94:17; Eccl. 9:10). Hence it was known also as “Dumah” or ‘the abode of silence’ (Ps. 6:6, 30:10, 94:17, 115:17); and there God is not praised (Ps 115. 17; Isa. 38:15). It was an unpleasant, dark, bleak and disorderly land (Job 10:21-22).
The dead existed there as mere shadows or wraiths (= rephaim; Isa 14:9, 26:14; Ps. 88:5), where human beings have no strength to do anything. Sleep was their usual state (Jer. 51:39; Isa. 26:14; Job 14:12), and return from She’ol was not expected or anticipated (2Sam 12:23; Job 7:9-10; 10:21; 14:7).
Hebrew folk mythology held that the gates of She’ol were in the west, where the sun set. Seven gates guarded the approach to the place, at the first of which was a watchman. A stream of water flowed through She’ol (Ps. 18:5; II Sam. 22:5; Bk of Enoch 17:6, 22:9;). Graves were protected by gates and bolts; therefore She’ol was likewise similarly guarded. It was believed to have different compartments for separate clans and families, just like tombs.
The origins of She’ol go back into earliest antiquity, probably the folk beliefs of the earliest Hebrews. Primitive peoples had similar beliefs, believing that caves and hidden entrances led down into the abode of the dead.
What this view of the afterlife did, was to concentrate one’s efforts on what one did in this life. Salvation was very much what God did in this life; and the fact that both the good and the wicked returned to the same dust was a source of consolation to those who saw the wicked prosper and the good remain destitute.
Once the early Hebrews made contact with the Babylonian, Persian and Assyrian religions, with their views in a life after death, it was not enough that a person should exist in a dark shadow-world of unknowingness. It was felt that there had to be something more, so the idea of the resurrection of the body developed. However, Resurrection still assumes no belief in a soul.
The main difficulty was to figure out what the resurrection actually meant. Questions began to arise: In what state was the resurrected body – whole and healthy, or as it was when it died? If a woman was wife to several men during her lifetime, whose wife would she be upon resurrection? Was resurrection universal, or only of the Jewish people, or only of the righteous. And when did this resurrection happen? Was it to form part of the Messianic redemption of Israel, or was it to usher in the final judgment.
It was eventually believed that in the last days, before the Messianic Age (Isa. 24:19; Dan. 12:2), all the dead would be resurrected, all the human race would be judged, the wicked would be sent back to She’ol to dwell in eternal unknowingness, while the righteous would be allowed to dwell on earth and live forever in eternal peace.
The first discontentment with an eternity in She’ol is expressed in Job 14:13-15. In Dan. 12:1-4 (about 165 B.C.) a resurrection of "many . . . that sleep in the dust" is looked forward to. This resurrection included both righteous and wicked, because some would awake to everlasting life, others to “shame and everlasting contempt.”
The Prophet Isaiah said that God says, “Your dead men shall live, my slain shall rise again. . . the earth shall disclose her blood, and shall cover her slain no more" (Isa 26:19-21).
The belief in resurrection gave greater comfort to those who sought justice in the afterlife when it didn’t seem to happen in this life.
Heaven and the Soul
Originally, the Hebrew word shamayim only meant sky; the earliest Hebrews had no belief in heaven, and therefore saw no need for a separate word for it. As the belief in an abode of God and His angels developed – and therefore a separate place for the pious dead - a distinction was made between sky (shamayim) and what we now understand as heaven (shmey ha-shamayim – ‘sky of skies’, or ‘heaven of heavens’, or even ‘highest heaven’; see Deut 10:14, 1Kgs 8:27, 2Chr 2:6, 6:18, Neh 9:6, Ps 115:16). However, in the late Second Temple Period, shamayim was used to mean both sky and heaven.
Many scholars contend that a belief in heaven arose only after contact with other religions, but the embryonic potential for a more developed theology about heaven was already there – for example, where did people like Elijah, Enoch and the other pious dead go? Where did the angels that Jacob saw abide?
Once a theology with regard to the soul being distinct from the body developed, it was inevitable that a belief in heaven should also evolve. Some ancient theologians (eg Philo) thought that the three separate words sometimes used for soul, refer to different aspects of the soul. However, it is more likely that each word marks three different stages in the evolution of the belief in the soul, each generation searching for an existing word to describe the nascent belief: ruach, which normally means ‘spirit’ or ‘breath’; nefesh, which normally means ‘living being’ or ‘life-blood’; and finally neshamah, a word which contains all the ideas of the previous two, and the word used for soul in modern Hebrew. This last word marked the development of a belief that the soul was something distinct from the body, something that survived the body after death.
Once a belief in the soul developed, spurred on by the teaching that holy people avoided She’ol and resurrection altogether to go and dwell with God, curiosity evolved on where the pious actually went. There was a common belief in the pre-existence of the souls of all human beings; therefore there had to be somewhere where the souls existed before life, and after death.
At the time when a belief in heaven came to be more fully developed, it was too late to include the teaching in the Hebrew Scriptures. The later psalmists had already recorded their disagreements with resurrection, declaring that a resurrection was impossible (cf Ps. 88:10, 115:17). A similar view, which made a resurrection unnecessary, was held by the authors of Pss. 49 and 73, who believed that at death only the wicked went to She’ol and that the souls of the righteous went directly to God.
A belief in heaven (where the soul lived eternally, free of the body), gained new impetus with the advent of Platonic thought and Hellenism. Although a belief in the eternity of the soul and heaven did not originate with Hellenism, it gained greater currency amongst Jewish people at that time.
In the late Second Temple Period, around Yeshua`’s time, teachings on heaven became extremely complicated. Some sects believed that Heaven contained seven levels, some ten, some believed there were even more. All the sects had three basic levels of heaven: first, a place where souls were purified of their sins (the lowest heaven); secondly, a place where souls dwelt throughout eternity once purified (the middle heaven); and thirdly, a place which was the exclusive abode of God and his archangels (the highest heaven).
Belief in heaven gave people a sense that there was something more than this life, a purpose greater than what we could see and understand. More than the other two views, it accorded better with what ordinary people experienced in their personal spiritual lives.
Reconciling the various beliefs
It should be noted that the Hebrew bible contains belief in She’ol and resurrection, alongside an embryonic belief in heaven and the soul; yet all three are mutually exclusive. One cannot therefore use scripture to prove or disprove what happens in the afterlife, since different parts of the Miqra contain evidence for and against all three. However, this is what Second Temple Period Judaism tried to do.
The first theological reconciliation came with the development of a belief in a soul; it was considered that the soul was reunited with the body at resurrection. Still, the difficulty remained of where this reanimated body would be – in an earthly paradise, or a heavenly abode. Beliefs in heaven held that the dead were judged at death; this clashed with the resurrection belief that souls were judged at the end of the world upon resurrection. Some sects taught that the soul was judged twice, but it seemed illogical why a soul should be judged, purified, go to heaven, be reunited with their body, be judged again, with the possibility of going back to She’ol.
There are few if any who still believe in all the theology surrounding She’ol; if it is retained, it is a merely a place apart from God where the soul goes before going to heaven. Only the Orthodox still believe unwaveringly in the Final Resurrection; the Conservative/Masorti Jews do not lay any great emphasis on it; and the Reform and Liberal Jews have for the most part abandoned belief in the Final Resurrection altogether. The vast majority of Jews believe in a soul and in heaven.
Most Talmidis believe in heaven and a soul, most do not believe in the final resurrection of the dead; a small minority do.
From the above, one can see how beliefs concerning the afterlife have evolved over time; also how complex they have become. We cannot know for certain what life after death will be like, and we cannot force views and beliefs on the afterlife upon one another. Therefore we can only return to the original Yahwist Israelite mindset – that how we live this life is what ultimately matters, and that YHVH saves us and forgives us in this life.
For a personal view of the Afterlife, see the following article: The Meaning of Life.