Do Jewish People Believe in Heaven?
- Joel Weiskopf Contributing Writer
- 2021 29 Mar
Heaven is one of the most important doctrines of Scripture and is described most clearly in the New Testament. Jesus spoke of it often and promised those who have been born again that one day they would be with him in his "Father's House" (Heaven) (John 14). For the Christian, this is a great comfort, being that we live in a fallen world, with many trials. Notwithstanding, what does the Old Testament have to say about the afterlife, (Heaven and Hell)? Considering that the Old Testament Scriptures were entrusted to the Jewish people, wouldn't it be safe to assume that most or all Jewish people believe in Heaven? If not, then what do they believe? These are great questions that I will address.
What Does the Old Testament Say about the Afterlife?
The Hebrew word for Heaven is "Shamayim" and occurs 327 times in the Old Testament of the King James Bible. Whereas the New Testament speaks of Heaven as a wonderful place where believers in Jesus will go to be with and worship God after we leave our earthly bodies, (Rev. 7:15-17, 2 Cor. 5:1, Matt. 7:21, John 14:1-3), the Old Testament describes Heaven somewhat differently. It indeed is the place where God dwells. However, Heaven in the Old Testament is not a place where the Old Testament saints would be yet - not before Christ. Rather, the Old Testament speaks of deceased saints "resting with their fathers" (1 Kings 11:21,43; 15:24). This will be addressed in more detail when we discuss the Hebrew word "Sheol".
Sheol is the Old Testament word for the abode of the dead and has been translated "Hell" by the King James Bible. However, a more accurate definition of Sheol would include the righteous dead as well as the unrighteous. We also know from scripture that the righteous dead from the Old Testament would never be abandoned to Hell (Psalm 16:10). Just how these Old Testament saints got (or will get) from Sheol to Heaven is a topic for another article. That being said, many Christians believe Jesus "liberated" them after He died and brought them to Heaven when He ascended there (Eph. 4:8).
What Do Jewish People Believe about Heaven?
The answer to this question is somewhat complex and depends on several factors. Before we broach this topic, a foundation needs to be laid which will hopefully help the reader to understand more fully. Ever since the dispersion of the Jews from the land of Israel, Jewish people have been scattered throughout the world and have identified themselves with various non-biblical, false belief systems. Simcha Paull Raphael, the author of the book "Jewish Views of the Afterlife" says,
"Judaism, over four millennia, has evolved through contact with other world civilizations and religions... 4000 years of Jewish thought about post-mortem survival can be confusing". "Jews believe many things".
To make matters even more tricky, many Jewish people today consider themselves atheist or agnostic. According to a Chicago Reuters news article dated 2013, "One out of five Americans who consider themselves culturally or ethnically Jewish say they do not believe in God or they do not follow any particular faith". Statistics say that 42% of Jewish people in Israel are secular; in the United States, the figure is about 30%. This being the case, for the purpose of this article, I will focus only on Jews who consider themselves religious in some way, shape, or form.
Let's start with the most liberal branch of Judaism in the United States, Reform Jews, which comprises about 35% of American Jews. Reform Jews believe in an afterlife, but not strictly according to the Bible. Rabbi Adrian M. Schell says Reform Jews "affirm belief in the afterlife, though they downplay the theological implications in favor of emphasizing the importance of the 'here and now,' as opposed to reward and punishment." Rabbi Evan Moffic, a well-known author who serves as a Reform Rabbi of Congregation Solel in Highland Park, IL. says: "Faith begins in mystery. Among the greatest mysteries we face is the afterlife. What happens when we die? Do we see our loved ones? Do we know them? Do they know us? The questions are endless. Jewish wisdom offers no definitive answer."
Up to this point, it seems like we have more questions than answers! Let's read on to find out some more of the Jewish beliefs about Heaven and Hell, and subsequently how that compares with what Messianic Jewish Believers (Jewish Believers in Jesus) believe. On Heaven and "good works," Rabbi Moffic continues: "The Hebrew word for skies, Shamayim, also came to refer to Heaven." "Heaven has [an] open door policy: Heaven is not a gated community. The righteous of any people and any faith have a place in it. Our actions, not our specific beliefs, determine our fate." "The afterlife can take many forms: Professor A.J. Levine expresses this truth most eloquently: 'Jewish beliefs in the afterlife are as diverse as Judaism itself, from the traditional view expecting the unity of flesh and spirit in a resurrected body, to the idea that we live on in our children and grandchildren, to a sense of heaven (perhaps with lox and bagels rather than harps and haloes.'”
According to the Talmud (the most comprehensive written version of the Jewish oral law), any non-Jew who lives according to the Seven Laws of Noah is regarded as a Ger Toshav (righteous gentile), and is assured of a place in the world to come, the final reward of the righteous (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot M'lakhim 8:11). The Seven Laws of Noah include prohibitions against worshipping idols, cursing God, murder, adultery, and sexual immorality, theft, eating flesh torn from a living animal, as well as the obligation to establish courts of justice. It is clear that religious Jewish beliefs have become quite different than what the Bible actually teaches! We will discuss this in more depth at the conclusion of this article.
What Do Jewish People Believe about Hell?
It is common, for Jewish people of varying denominations to believe in something, (similar to the Catholic version of purgatory), called "Yeshiva Shel Mallah," which is translated "the school on high" that is said to exist to purify and prepare a soul for heaven. Another name for this is the Hebrew word "Gehinnom" (or Gehenna), which has come to mean a type of purgatory. According to Chabad.org, an orthodox Jewish denomination: Gehinnom is defined as: "purgatory, the spiritual realm in which the souls are cleansed from the blemishes brought about by their conduct while on Earth."
The Zohar, the foundational work in the literature of Jewish mystical thought known as Kabbalah describes Gehenna not as a place of punishment for the wicked but as a place of spiritual purification for souls. ("soc.culture.jewish FAQ: Jewish Thought (6/12) Section - Question 12.8: What do Jews say happens when a person dies? Do Jews believe in reincarnation? In hell or heaven? Purgatory")
"If, at the end of our life, we leave this world without fixing the wrongs we have done, our soul is unable to reach its place of rest on high. We must go through a cycle of deep cleansing. Our soul is flung around at an intense spiritual heat to rid it of any residue it may have gathered, and to prepare it for entry into Heaven"⁴.
How Do Messianic Jewish Believers Differ on This?
Messianic Jewish Believers are people from a Jewish background who believe in Jesus. Messianic Jewish Believers differ from non-believing Jews in that they believe that:
-There is no need to consult extra-biblical books for issues such as the afterlife (or any other life issue). The Bible, composed of the Old and New Testament is the only infallible and authoritative Word of God (2 Timothy 3:15-17, Romans 15:4; 2 Peter 1:19-21, Hebrews 4:2).
-Yeshua (Jesus) is the Messiah, God in the form of man; he alone has the keys to the kingdom of Heaven (Matt. 16:19).
-Jews and gentiles who have been born again by believing in Jesus have been forgiven our sins by God’s Grace; Yeshua’s sacrificial death is our atonement; Individual salvation comes solely by faith in the shed blood of Jesus, the Lamb of God who paid the price for our sins through His perfect life and sacrificial death (Leviticus 17:11, Ephesians 2:8, Romans 1:17, John 3:3, Hebrews 11:6).
-If a person has been regenerated by believing in Jesus Christ by faith, then they are saved - saved from the wrath of God. Immediately upon death, their soul/spirit will be with the Lord in Heaven, awaiting the resurrection (2 Cor. 5:8, Phil. 1:23-24, John 14:1-31, John 3:16, Luke 23:43).
-Those who reject the free gift of salvation provided by the sacrificial atonement of Jesus Christ, will experience eternal separation from God. This means that their soul/spirit will immediately be in Hell, awaiting the resurrection (Rom. 6:23, Matt. 25:46, 2 Thes. 1:9, John 3:16, Matt. 10:28).
-The saved and the lost will both be resurrected - the saved to everlasting life and fellowship with God and the lost to eternal separation from God and a state of everlasting punishment (Daniel 12:2, Matthew 25:46, Psalm 69:28, Revelation 20:12-15).
It is clear that most Jewish people have adopted many unbiblical beliefs regarding the afterlife. The first factor which we discussed was the dispersion from the land of Israel. Before I close, another important factor I would like to mention is the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD/CE.
From the Bible to the Rabbis
Since it became impossible to do blood sacrifices in the prescribed manner at the temple, Jewish people were left without a biblical way to be forgiven for their sins . . . or were they? In truth, Jesus had already lived out his ministry on earth, been crucified, and rose from the grave about 40 years earlier, making forgiveness of their sins entirely possible (and biblical)! It was at this critical juncture that "Rabbinic Judaism" was born. The rabbis stepped in with their own theology. Rather than trusting in the Bible, which would have pointed them to Jesus as the Messiah (Isa. 7:14, 9:6, Isa. 53, Psalm 22, Gen. 3:15), Jews started to trust in the teachings of the rabbis, which were clearly unbiblical. "Prayer and good works" were substituted for the concept of a blood sacrifice.
Without the bedrock of God's Word (the Bible), it is easy to see how Jewish people have strayed and why they have so many questions and false beliefs about the afterlife. The teachings of Christ are clear. It is unnecessary to look elsewhere - the Bible is all we need to answer life's greatest questions. Jesus said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6); and the woman at the well in John 4:25 spoke well when she said: “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things”. He (Jesus/Yeshua the Messiah) has come, and indeed, he has granted to us all things pertaining to life and godliness and has “told us all things” (2 Pet. 1:3, John 4:25)!
Please pray for the Jewish people, that they would come back to the teachings of the Scriptures, and that God would open their eyes to the truth of who the Messiah is – Jesus of Nazareth.
- Jewish Views of the Afterlife by Simcha Paull Raphael. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019.
- JewsforJesus.org, 'Whatever Happened to the Substitute Atonement of the Torah'
- ReformJudaism.org, 'Do Jews Believe in an Afterlife?'
- Wikipedia.org, 'Origins of Rabbinic Judaism'
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Marie Docher
Joel Weiskopf was born and raised in a Reform Jewish home and enjoyed celebrating many of the Jewish holidays with his family each year. An honors graduate from the New England Conservatory of Music, he moved to New York City to pursue a career in jazz and was blessed to have played piano with some of the greatest jazz musicians of all time including: Stan Getz, Quincy Jones, Gerry Mulligan, Woody Herman, Jimmy Cobb and many others. In 1996, after a five-year struggle with a food addiction, multiple food allergies and severe digestive disturbances, Joel read the Bible and put his faith in Jesus. Upon doing so, he was immediately healed from all the above illnesses. After his life-changing experience, Joel went on to release six critically acclaimed jazz recordings, which include several of his gospel-jazz compositions. He served for 20 years as a university professor, and a professional Christian & gospel musician. Joel has spent countless hours studying the Bible, as well as preached and taught Bible studies at Messianic congregation Sha’ar Adonai in New York City, where he met his wife Karla. Joel loves studying scripture, the outdoors, and spending time with his family. He, Karla, and their son Samuel now reside in Syracuse, New York and attend a local church in their area.
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