Belief in Heaven is Fundamental to Judaism

Does Judaism Believe in Heaven and Hell?

I am often asked by Jews and non-Jews to explain the Jewish view of heaven and hell.  A few prefatory remarks will help guide us on our exploration and understanding of this seemingly obscure concept. In this post we try to answer the question – Does Judaism Believe in Heaven and Hell?

Biblical Sources

The Torah says, “and the Almighty formed man of dust from the earth, and He blew into his nostrils the SOUL of life” (Genesis 2:7). Human beings are composed of two aspects: The physical body which is formed from the dust of the earth and the spiritual soul (our real essence) which is directly from God. This is why the soul is described by King Solomon as, “The candle of God is the soul of man” (Proverbs 20:27). The soul is a part of God, pure and unblemished.

The body does serve an important purpose. It enables us (our souls) to live a life in this physical world. This presents us with the unique opportunity to serve God by following His divine game plan as outlined in the Torah. Following God’s will by fulfilling His commandments in this physical world connects us to God spiritually (the root of the Hebrew word “mitzvah” is “tzavta” which literally means “to connect”), refines the physical world, and proclaims the glory of God — that He exists everywhere. This is our mission while on earth.

Quotes of King Solomon

At death the soul and body separate. King Solomon said, “The dust will return to the ground as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:17).  This means the soul returns to heaven, back to God, where it is enveloped in the Oneness of the Divine.

Solomon also said there is an “advantage of light over darkness” (Ecclesiastes 2:13). This means that when a person perseveres and serves God in a world full of darkness, the soul is rewarded with an enhanced sensitivity to appreciate Godliness.  In heaven the soul experiences the greatest possible pleasure—a greater perception and feeling of closeness to God than it had previously.

Although Judaism believes in heaven, the Torah speaks very little about it. The Torah focuses less on how we get to heaven and considerably more on how to live our lives. We perform the mitzvot because it is our privilege and our sacred obligation to do so. We perform them out of a sense of love and duty, not out of a desire to get something in return. There is a practical reason for this. If we lived a righteous life for the sake of a monetary or heavenly reward it would be serving God for an ulterior motive.

A story is told of a Jew who gave away his portion in the World to Come in order to rescue a kidnapped family being held for ransom. When asked why he was not sad over losing his place in heaven, he responded, “I was always concerned that I was serving God for the wrong reasons. Now that I don’t have a portion in the World to Come I can serve Him reassured that I am doing it purely out of love and devotion.” This is true service of God.

After we die we are judged by God, since He is the only true judge who knows our actions as well as our motives. Our place in heaven is determined by a merit system based on God’s accounting of all our actions and motives. God also knows if we have repented for transgressions committed during our lifetime and takes this into account.

Obtaining Forgiveness

Repentance has always been God’s preferred and primary means for obtaining forgiveness. Even in the time of the Temple, sacrifices were only offered for certain “unintentional” sins (Leviticus 4:2).   Obviously, if a sacrifice was presented without remorse and repentance the sin was not atoned for. The sacrifice served as a tool to motivate the sinner to repent. This was necessary because a person might rationalize that he didn’t need to repent because it was only an accident. Sins performed intentionally never require a sacrifice, only repentance. After the Temple was destroyed the repentance aspect of atonement remained intact and sacrifices were replaced by sincere prayer. This is clearly stated in the following two correctly translated passages:

Take with you words, and return unto the LORD; say unto Him: ‘Forgive all iniquity, and accept that which is good; so will we render for bullocks (sacrifices) the offering of our lips.” (Hosea 14:3)

I will sacrifice to you with the voice of thanksgiving.” (Jonah 2:10)

Sins that were not cleansed prior to death are removed by a process described as Sheol or Gehinom. Contrary to the Greek and Christian view of eternal damnation in Hades or Hell, the “punishment” of Sheol, as described in the Jewish Scriptures, is temporary. This is why King David said, “You will not abandon my soul to Sheol; nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay” (Psalm 16:10).

Additionally, the prophet Samuel says, “He [the Lord] brings down to Sheol and brings up again” (I Samuel 2: 6), and the prophet Jonah described it in the following way, “I called out of my affliction to the LORD, and He answered me; out of the depth of Sheol cried I, and you heard my voice” (Jonah 2:3).

How is the Jewish View of Hell Different?

Judaism’s view of hell more closely resembles purgatory. However, the pain the soul experiences is not physical.  It has been compared to psychological anguish, shame and healing upon reviewing the history of one’s life in a body, and how it wasted opportunities to serve God. This may explain why people who have near death experience often claim their entire life flashed in front of them.

This self-inflicted chastisement cleanses and refines the soul of blemishes that interfered with the soul’s perception of God. The concept of refinement is found in the prophets, “I (God) will refine them as silver is refined” (Zechariah 13:9).

Everyone can merit a portion in the World to Come. However, the completely evil (like Hitler) cannot merit this. As it says, “multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2).

It is essential to our understanding to appreciate that the Hebrew word for repentance is Teshuvah, which literally means “to return to God.” Most people are not completely evil or completely good. God does not expect perfection or He wouldn’t have provided repentance as a way of returning to Him. God’s message of love and compassion is: Return to Me, says the LORD of hosts, and I will return to you,” (Zechariah 1:3). This is an invitation from God to return directly to Him without the need for an intermediary to help us.

This personal and direct relationship with God is within everyone’s grasp as it says:

For this commandment which I command you this day, it is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say: ‘Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea that you should say: ‘Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, and make us hear it, that we may do it?’ It is within your close reach to serve God in your mouth and heart, to do” (Deuteronomy 30:10-14).

In very clear and distinct language King Solomon summarizes how we should live our life in service of God saying, “The end of the matter, all having been heard: be in awe of God, and keep His commandments; for this is the whole man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).

The Torah says, “and the Almighty formed man of dust from the earth, and He blew into his nostrils the SOUL of life” (Genesis 2:7). Human beings are composed of two aspects: The physical body which is formed from the dust of the earth and the spiritual soul (our real essence) which is directly from God.

This is why the soul is described by King Solomon as, “The candle of God is the soul of man” (Proverbs 20:27). The soul is a part of God, pure and unblemished.

The Physical World

The body does serve an important purpose. It enables us (our souls) to live a life in this physical world. This presents us with the unique opportunity to serve God by following His divine game plan as outlined in the Torah. Following God’s will by fulfilling His commandments in this physical world connects us to God spiritually (the root of the Hebrew word “mitzvah” is “tzavta” which literally means “to connect”), refines the physical world, and proclaims the glory of God — that He exists everywhere. This is our mission while on earth.

At death the soul and body separate. King Solomon said, “The dust will return to the ground as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:17).  This means the soul returns to heaven, back to God, where it is enveloped in the Oneness of the Divine.

Solomon also said there is an “advantage of light over darkness” (Ecclesiastes 2:13). This means that when a person perseveres and serves God in a world full of darkness, the soul is rewarded with an enhanced sensitivity to appreciate Godliness.  In heaven the soul experiences the greatest possible pleasure—a greater perception and feeling of closeness to God than it had previously.

Although Judaism believes in heaven, the Torah speaks very little about it. The Torah focuses less on how we get to heaven and considerably more on how to live our lives. We perform the mitzvot because it is our privilege and our sacred obligation to do so. We perform them out of a sense of love and duty, not out of a desire to get something in return.

There is a practical reason for this. If we lived a righteous life for the sake of a monetary or heavenly reward it would be serving God for an ulterior motive.

A story is told of a Jew who gave away his portion in the World to Come in order to rescue a kidnapped family being held for ransom. When asked why he was not sad over losing his place in heaven, he responded, “I was always concerned that I was serving God for the wrong reasons. Now that I don’t have a portion in the World to Come I can serve Him reassured that I am doing it purely out of love and devotion.”

This is true service of God.

After we die we are judged by God, since He is the only true judge who knows our actions as well as our motives. Our place in heaven is determined by a merit system based on God’s accounting of all our actions and motives. God also knows if we have repented for transgressions committed during our lifetime and takes this into account.

Repentance has always been God’s preferred and primary means for obtaining forgiveness. Even in the time of the Temple, sacrifices were only offered for certain “unintentional” sins (Leviticus 4:2).   Obviously, if a sacrifice was presented without remorse and repentance the sin was not atoned for. The sacrifice served as a tool to motivate the sinner to repent. This was necessary because a person might rationalize that he didn’t need to repent because it was only an accident. Sins performed intentionally never require a sacrifice, only repentance.

After the Temple was destroyed the repentance aspect of atonement remained intact and sacrifices were replaced by sincere prayer. This is clearly stated in the following two correctly translated passages:

Take with you words, and return unto the LORD; say unto Him: ‘Forgive all iniquity, and accept that which is good; so will we render for bullocks (sacrifices) the offering of our lips.” (Hosea 14:3)

I will sacrifice to you with the voice of thanksgiving.” (Jonah 2:10)

Sins that were not cleansed prior to death are removed by a process described as Sheol or Gehinom. Contrary to the Greek and Christian view of eternal damnation in Hades or Hell, the “punishment” of Sheol, as described in the Jewish Scriptures, is temporary.

This is why King David said, “You will not abandon my soul to Sheol; nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay” (Psalm 16:10).

Additionally, the prophet Samuel says, “He [the Lord] brings down to Sheol and brings up again” (I Samuel 2: 6), and the prophet Jonah described it in the following way, “I called out of my affliction to the LORD, and He answered me; out of the depth of Sheol cried I, and you heard my voice” (Jonah 2:3).

Hell or Purgatory

Judaism’s view of hell more closely resembles purgatory. However, the pain the soul experiences is not physical.  It has been compared to psychological anguish, shame and healing upon reviewing the history of one’s life in a body, and how it wasted opportunities to serve God. This may explain why people who have near death experience often claim their entire life flashed in front of them.

This self-inflicted chastisement cleanses and refines the soul of blemishes that interfered with the soul’s perception of God. The concept of refinement is found in the prophets, “I (God) will refine them as silver is refined” (Zechariah 13:9).

Everyone can merit a portion in the World to Come. However, the completely evil (like Hitler) cannot merit this. As it says, “multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2).

Teshuvah: Coming close

It is essential to our understanding to appreciate that the Hebrew word for repentance is Teshuvah, which literally means “to return to God.” Most people are not completely evil or completely good. God does not expect perfection or He wouldn’t have provided repentance as a way of returning to Him. God’s message of love and compassion is: Return to Me, says the LORD of hosts, and I will return to you,” (Zechariah 1:3). This is an invitation from God to return directly to Him without the need for an intermediary to help us.

This personal and direct relationship with God is within everyone’s grasp as it says: “For this commandment which I command you this day, it is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say:Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?‘ Neither is it beyond the sea that you should say: ‘Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, and make us hear it, that we may do it?’ It is within your close reach to serve God in your mouth and heart, to do” (Deuteronomy 30:10-14).

In very clear and distinct language King Solomon summarizes how we should live our life in service of God saying, “The end of the matter, all having been heard: be in awe of God, and keep His commandments; for this is the whole man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).