Heaven in Judaism

By Lesley Mitchell

Before Jesus came, did the Jews earn eternal life by keeping Torah? That's an interesting question. We know that God has set eternity in the hearts of men (Ecclesiastes 3:11). From the time of Moses, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had entered into a covenant relationship with their God and they knew that it was binding on them to keep God's Law, but there was no promise of a reward other than to have God's blessing and protection on earth. The Jews knew they had to keep their side of the agreement if God was to keep His. They knew there would be rewards for keeping the Law and punishments for breaking the Law, but no suggestion they could earn eternal life by following the Law perfectly. For one thing, they knew that was impossible. Throughout the Old Testament we read of how Israel abandoned true worship, were unfaithful to God, and fell into sin time and time again. Because it was impossible for any person to keep God's Law perfectly, the Aaronic priesthood was created and a system of animal sacrifices introduced to atone for the sins of the people. These animal sacrifices were a symbol for the forgiveness of sins, but they could not atone for sins permanently (Hebrews 10:1-18). They pointed to the coming Messiah who would take upon himself the sins of the world so that God's perfect justice would be satisfied.

But the Jews did believe in a future day of resurrection. Many thought that the invisible part of a person would go into Sheol after they died, then at the resurrection they would be called forth for God's judgment. These verses speak of a coming day of judgment and of the prospect of eternal bliss in God's presence:
Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake; some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Daniel 12:2

Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Psalm 23:6

Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil. Ecclesiastes 12:14

"Yes, Lord, walking in the ways of your laws, we wait for you...But your dead will live; their bodies will rise. You who dwell in the dust wake up and shout for joy." Isaiah 26:8, 19
There is evidence from the New Testament, as well, that Jews believed in the afterlife in Jesus' time. Hebrew 11:19 says, "Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead." And in Luke 16:19-31, Jesus tells the story of Lazarus, who is in paradise, and the rich man, who is not. Jesus' audience accepted the premise of the story without question.

Rabbi Mordechai Blumenfeld, writing from the notes of lectures by Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, explains the idea of the afterlife in Judaism here. He starts by saying, "The resurrection of the dead is a basic principle of the Torah of Moses. Anyone who does not believe it has no connection with the Jewish Nation." He goes on to say that resurrection is only for the righteous. The World to Come is essential for justice because there is no true justice in this life. He explains that after death, souls await the resurrection in the Garden of Eden or in Gehinnom, a sort of Purgatory. The soul is immortal, but the body dies. When the body is resurrected and joined to the soul, they are judged together. The relationship of the soul, body, and sin is explained by the story of the lame man and the blind man in Sanhedrin 91b. Only by working together can the blind man (who can stand but not see) and the lame man (who can see but not stand) find and steal the apples from a farmer's tree. So it is that sin is committed by the soul and body together, and the body must resurrect in order for the one person to be judged. Likewise, neither the soul nor the body alone can receive rewards in the World to Come.

The state of the body, Blumenfeld says, is up for debate. Some teachers believe the physical body will "become so holy that it will become spiritual, transcending the physical limitations imposed upon it in this earthly world." Others insist that it can't become too transcendent, or it won't be aware of itself. At any rate, Heaven means a state of bliss we can't imagine and explains why we can come to be disgusted with earthly pleasures. And to reach this bliss and be connected with God, we must have both our souls and our bodies. If we don't, we won't be ourselves.

Next: The Mosaic Law and the Jewish Messiah

Next Week: Why we need the Messiah to get to heaven.

Image Credit: hurk; untitled; Creative Commons

TagsEternity-Forever  | Other-Religions

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Published 4-4-17