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Why Jewish Views Of Heaven And Hell Are So Different – OpEd


Most Christians believe that God created a place of eternal punishment and reward: 72% of Christian Americans say they believe in heaven — defined as a place “where people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded,” according to the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study. And 58% of U.S. adults also believe in hell — a place “where people who have led bad lives and die without being sorry, are eternally punished”.


American Muslims are much stronger believers in an afterlife of Heaven and Hell: 76% believe in Hell and 89% believe in Heaven. Non-Christians and Muslims do not have a majority who believe in eternal reward and punishment after death. About half or less of Hindus, Buddhists and Jews believe in heaven. And roughly a third or less of Buddhists, Hindus, and Jews believe in hell. Of the three Abrahamic religions American Jews have the least belief in Heaven and Hell: only 22% of Jews believe in Hell and only 40% believe in Heaven.

The after-life, or as Rabbinic Judaism calls it, the World-to-Come, is mentioned many times in the Oral Torah, but there very little direct reference to it in the Written Torah because the Written Torah is a direct revelation from God to Moses and thus could only include that about which Moses could have a prophecy. However, with respect to the World-to-Come, the Talmud states: All the prophets foretold only about the Messianic Age on Earth. However, regarding the World-to-Come, “No eye has seen, God, except for Yours” (Isaiah 64:3). (Talmud Brachot 34b)

More important, Judaism teaches that people should live by God’s commandments not because they fear God’s punishments and seek God’s rewards; but because they love God and His commandments. As Rabbi Jacob taught: “A single moment of repentance and good deeds in this world is better than all of the World to Come.” (Avot 4:17)

Jewish teaching about life after death has varied from historical age to age. The Hebrew Bible refers to an after-life but only very briefly and vaguely. The Rabbinic sages did teach that there is a reward and punishment in store for each individual according to his or her manner of living on earth. The Jewish mystical tradition of the Kabbalah teaches that souls undergo reincarnation. This teaching became wide spread during the 16-18th centuries, especially among the Hassidim. The majority of modern Jews are closer to the Biblical teachings. but all the various views can be found among Rabbis today.

Christians frequently wonder why Jews try to do good if they do not expect a reward or punishment in their after-life. Jews. in turn. find it hard to understand why that is so important to Christians. Judaism teaches that the reason for doing a Mitzvah, is the Mitzvah itself. Judaism places the primary emphasis upon life in this world. Although there have been times when belief in an after-life was an important part of the Jewish consciousness, it never assumed the significance (either in the folk or in the philosophical mind) that it did in Christianity or Islam.


A Gallup poll shows this clearly. People were asked, “Which do you think you should be most serious about – trying to live comfortably, or preparing for a life after death?” 46% of Catholics, 62% of Baptists, 50% of Methodists, 47% of ‘ Lutherans and only 5% of Jews said. “Prepare for life after death”. Whether they were conscious of it or not, these Jews were simply articulating the teaching of the Talmud referred to above, “Better one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world, than the whole of the life in the world to come”.

The Hebrew Bible speaks neither of heaven nor of hell. It does on a few occasions refer to the existence that follows death as Sheol. The root meaning of the Hebrew word Sheol, comes from the verb Sha’al which means to question, ask or request. It is possible that the use of this word is due to the fact that while everyone asks about what happens after death, nobody really knows, so the after-life remains an open question. In the Hebrew Bible, Sheol seems to be a place, or dimension of existence, where the spirits of the departed continue their existence. Occasionally Sheol seems to refer to the actual grave itself.

In Biblical times Jewish thought placed primary emphasis on this world, and upon mankind’s obligations to God and to our fellow humans in this life. The number of references to Sheol or to any of its synonyms, and the number of passages devoted to the question of life after death or the soul’s reward or punishment, does not take up even one half of one percent of all the pages in the Hebrew Bible; although in the Qur’an these kind of verses take up 10-15% of its pages.

Interest in life after death and the development of theories concerning life after death occurred primarily at the very end of the Biblical period, and during the early Rabbinic period. During most of the Biblical age, Jews had found justification and purpose for their lives in improving life this world, and in their commitment to solidarity with the Jewish people.

But, Greek thought seeping into their imagination toward the close of the Biblical period, stimulated the development of individualism. As the central focus of personal concern shifted away from the community, the importance of one’s own personality, there arose an anxiety about personal destiny. Then ideas about individual resurrection, life after death, reward and punishment became popular.

By the first century these were the dominant ideas of the (Rabbis/ Sages) Pharisees. The more traditional priest oriented groups did not accept the teaching of personal reward or punishment after death. Jesus believed in the concept of heaven and hell. Because of his beliefs, and the fact that the New Testament was written during the period when this concept was dominant among the Rabbis, there is much more stress placed on heaven and hell in the New Testament than in the Hebrew Bible. So, beliefs and anxieties about heaven and hell have a prominent place in the Christian imagination even today, whereas they scarcely prickle the surface of modern non-Orthodox Jewish awareness.

When the Rabbis and the sages who followed the Pharisees looked for names for the realms of reward and punishment, of course, they used names from the Bible to legitimatize their ideas. For heaven or paradise they used the term Gan Eden, naming it after the Garden of Eden in chapters II and III of Genesis. The name they selected for hell was taken from a valley not far from the City of Jerusalem, which is mentioned several times in the Hebrew Bible. It is called Gay Hinnom (the Valley of Hinnom) or Gay ben Hinnom (The Valley of the Son of Hinnom). This valley was used as a garbage dump. Fires burned there for days on end. More significantly, it had previously been used by the non-Jewish Canaanites as a place where they sacrificed a first born child to their god Molech (Jeremiah 9:31-2 or 19:1-5).

According to the Book of Kings, when King Josiah attempted to reform Jewish society, he destroyed and defiled this place in an attempt to end the fiery sacrifice of children practiced there (2 Kings 23 :IO). In light of the vividness and horror of this derivation, it is not surprising to find the term Gehinnom became the most popular term for the realm of punishment used in Rabbinic literature, including the Kabbalah.

Speculations about Gehinnom, like those about Gan Eden, were always regarded as no more than speculations. The sages never accorded them the honor or emphasis reserved for discussion of our obligations toward our fellow humans. Speculations about heaven and hell were merely exercises of the imagination. And, as long as one isn’t disturbed by their variety and frequent contradictions, one can find insights in the dicta of the sages, and in passages in the Zohar concerning heaven and hell.

The Zohar Hadash speaks of Gehenna (a westernized spelling of Gehinnom) as being divided into seventy-two compartments. Moses de Leon, the editor and part author of the Zohar, in a book under his own name, speaks of Gehenna as being divided into seven compartments in the upper Gehenna, and seven compartments in the lower Gehenna. However, the most important question about Gehenna is not the size or structure of Gehenna, but who goes there. According to some Rabbis, everybody goes to hell. But while everybody goes, hardly anyone stays in hell, at least not forever.

The Zohar and other Kabbalistic sources theorize that even the righteous go to Gehenna. The righteous and the wicked differ in the purpose of their going, and the length of their stay. There is a lot to be said for the Zohar’s conclusions. After all, no one is perfectly righteous. Even the best among us have shared with the worst among us at one time or another some common act, or error, or omission.

Further, an essential part of being good is the desire to help those who are less well off. It is only natural, therefore, that the righteous would want to enter Gehenna to attempt to rescue those who are there. The righteous do not stay long in Gehenna, however. When they leave, they may take with them some of those whom they have redeemed by their influence, or their example.

It is interesting to note that such popularizers of the torments of Christian hell as Dante, Milton, and contemporary revivalists, for all their imagination, have not added significantly to the horrors of the punishments of Gehenna’s inmates listed in the Zohar. Tortured by thirst, they are burned by fire, scalding water, brimstone, heaping coals, boiling semen, fiery stones, and molten lead. Worms crawl up and down their bodies. Their flesh in pounded by hail, chewed by dogs and lions, stung by scorpions and snakes. And they are starved throughout this torment until finally in despair and frenzy, they eat their own flesh.

These descriptions sound so Christian that most Jews are astonished to discover that they come from medieval Jewish literature. The concepts of an after-life taught in Christianity and Islam were expanded and extended by medieval Christians and Moslems. and then influenced medieval Jews in return.

If Pharisaic and medieval Orthodox Rabbis went for the idea of hell condemning in their imagination those who died to a stay there, they were successful in resisting the concept of eternal damnation. Gehenna actually resembles the Catholic notion of purgatory than the Christian concept of hell. Most of the Rabbis who speculated about Gehenna agreed that the average person spends no more than twelve months there.

Talmudic statements indicated some are punished for thirty days, some for sixty days, some for ninety days, and some stay in Gehenna for as long as six months. Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri felt that the general period of punishment is only seven weeks. Another opinion quoted in the Talmud states that especially kind sinners are punished no more than an hour.

One interesting view in the Zohar indicates that a sinner’s punishment lasts only as long as it takes the body to deteriorate. The passage says, “All sinners as long as their bodies are in the grave intact, are judged body and soul together, each in their own way. But as soon as the body is decayed, the punishment of the soul ceases”.

This interpretation reflects the Jewish view that the body should return to the earth and decay as quickly as possible. Judaism teaches that of all approaches to interring the dead, the best is a simple funeral using a plain wooden casket, which does not impede the natural processes of the body’s decay. It would be ironic if those people who had wasted thousands of dollars on caskets made out of metal, and used elaborate chemical procedures to preserve the body, were merely prolonging the sufferings of the dead.

Several verses in the Quran mention the eternal nature of hell or both heaven and hell. Quran 7:23 states that the damned will linger in hell for ages. But two verses in the Quran (6:128 and 11:107) emphasize that while going to hell is horrible and eternal it is always “except as God (or your Lord) wills it” which means that it is not human judgements that count but God’s because God can always be merciful.

In summation there are seven different Jewish views or options for the afterlife.

1- Humans no different from animals. All end up in the same place. Hebrew Bible, Ecclesiastes 3:19-21

2- Sheol; the big question. There is something, but no one knows what it is: it is not heaven or hell. Psalms 6:5, 88:10 115:17.

3- Resurrection during the Messianic Age as part of God’s final Judgement. Good people live again on earth for a long time, evil people die quickly. Hebrew Bible, Daniel 12:1-4 and Isaiah 26:19-21, 17:15.

4- Postmortem reward and punishment for individuals: between death and resurrection everyone, except saints, goes to Gehenom purgatory for 1-12 months to atone for their sins. Most people, including non Jewish good people, then go to Gan Eden, a good place since it is populated by good people. Evil people who are still unrepentant after 12 months of painful confrontation with their sins are extinguished (avadon).

The great majority of people are basically good (that is why Jewish custom is to say the Kaddish prayer for the dead for only 11 months) and only really evil people do not enter the spiritual world to come. Ideas #4-7 are post Biblical rabbinic ideas.

5- Immortality: Based on the laws of Physics that matter and energy are never destroyed but only transformed. Thus just as the body disorganizes into its basic molecules and is recycled in the ground; so does the soul lose it’s personal memories and yet its basic energy becomes part of the cosmic energy of the universe. This view was popular among Jews in the Greek/Roman Empire and was revived by many Reform Progressive Jews in the 19th century.

6- Gilgul- Recycling: Reincarnation is a Kabbalistic concept that arose in Spain in the 12th century and became popular in 18-19th century Eastern Europe through Hassidism. Unlike Indian concepts, gilgul is limited to humans and does not occur to everyone. There are new souls born all the time. Most current living souls do not return. Some of those who return, do so as a punishment but for most souls it is a second chance to improve themselves.

Female souls return to help their husbands live a better life next time. Souls of Jews who were cut off from the Jewish people violently or voluntarily are reborn in a descendent and return to the Jewish people through conversion/reversion to Judaism.

7- Some of these concepts are not mutually exclusive. Most Kabbalists and Hassidim believed in #3 and #4 and #6 Many Jews today believe in #5 and #6. For most of the 20th century most non-Orthodox Jews believed in #1 and #2.

I think what happens to you depends partly on what you believe will happen to you #7. If you believe in Gilgul you become a gilgul. If not, you don’t. So what you believe is important. However, if you do not believe in a reward and you deserve it you will still receive it; and it does not matter what Hitler or Stalin believed: there is a judge and there is judgement. Genesis 18:25.

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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