Most religious people assume that there is more to life than just this world and that there is some form of existence beyond. Where does this idea come from? Maimonides in his Thirteen Principles does not specifically mention Life After Death but he does talk about Resurrection. Is Resurrection a synonym for Afterlife or are there two very different ideas?
Death itself is a fascinating and sometimes a frightening issue. But the Torah treats it in a very relaxed way as though there is nothing remarkable in a natural process. The Torah implies that originally Adam and Eve were created to live for ever and it was only by making the mistake of disobeying God that they were "sentenced" to die. "On the day you eat from the tree, you will die." Of course, this is ambiguous. It could mean that Adam and Eve would die specifically as a punishment for disobeying God as would later humans who transgressed specific moral instructions (like Cain) or Biblical laws. It could also mean that as a punishment for the first primeval disobedience, all of humanity would suffer death just as women would suffer the pains of childbirth. Either way the fate of mankind is expressed, "You are dust and you will return to the dust." It sounds very final.
"And Chanoch (Enoch) walked with God, and he was not because God took him." This, too, is ambiguous. What is the difference between dying and being taken away by God? Could it be that when God takes someone at the end of this life it is on to another world, whereas when someone dies without God he or she simply "gives up the ghost" and decomposes? The Midrash Rabba explains that Enoch was indeed a good man but that he was taken away before he could do wrong. This implies that his good behavior was in some way unstable or only skin deep. There is a tradition that Enoch thought that a monastic expression of faith was the ideal. He withdrew to a hermit's life away from humanity. God removed him, supposedly, to teach us the lesson that one has to integrate into the society of other human beings and try to influence them. His fate could simply have been death. But the text allows for the possibility that God took Enoch to Him. He was elevated to a higher realm. If this is the case then here we have the first hint at something beyond the grave.
The word for grave is either "Kever" or "Sheol". These are the two most frequent words used in the Torah for what happens to the body. Sheol in particular has Canaanite connotations of a frightening underworld where the King Mot (Mavet, death) rules and cannibalizes the bodies that are sent down to him. It is possible that "to bury" as in Kever, is simply to put in the ground; whereas Sheol implies an underworld from which it is possible to emerge as the Greco Roman myths of Orpheus and Eurydice and Persephone recount. This would be supported by the phrase "God takes down to the grave (Sheol) and brings up." But none of this emerges necessarily from the way the words are used in the Torah. We are simply theorizing. Another Biblical word that Psalms uses is "Dumah", silence. A very final end that fits in well with David's views that only the living can praise God. But this too tells us nothing about anything beyond the grave.
Abraham's death is described this way: "And Abraham (expired) (he became body) and died in good old age and he was gathered to his people." Similarly, Isaac's "And Isaac (expired) (became body) and he was gathered to his people in good old age." And finally Jacob, "And Jacob (expired) (became body) and he was gathered to his people." This same expression that is used exclusively of the Patriarchs just might signify something beyond the grave. The idea seems to be that one expires first; perhaps one loses consciousness or stops breathing. Then in the second stage, one becomes simply a physical carcass. After these two phases the dead person then goes on to the final state of death which might allude to the escape of the soul and its return to God. But again this is not necessarily implicit in the text. But what of the idea of "joining one's people"? Again, this could simply mean that one goes where all of one's ancestors have gone, into the earth. Of course, the Egyptians and other contemporaneous civilizations believed in life after death and prepared their elite for the future. In a way, it would have been strange had the Children of Israel not shared some of these ideas. Nevertheless, we are in the realms of speculation; for there is no explicit statement.
Apart from the reference in Samuel, the first explicit statement that shows that the concept of Afterlife is a well known idea, comes in Ecclesiastes. "For what happens to humans and what happens to animals, is the same thing, as this one dies so does the other and there is one spirit for all and there is no way in which man is better than animals, everything is meaningless. Everything goes to the same place; everything came from dust and returns to dust. And who knows if the spirit of man rises upwards and the spirit of the animal goes down into the dust." From this it is clear that the subject was one of debate at the time and indeed, from the fact that the author challenges it, we can deduce that it was the common assumption. Of course there are different opinions as to exactly when "that time" was and who wrote the book, itself. There is a clear division between the traditionalists and the academics.
The clearest source in the Bible that a person continues in some form or another after death comes from Daniel. "And you will go to your end, and rise again to meet your destiny in the end of days." Despite the obscurity of its meaning, here you have an unambiguous statement that death is not the end of the story.
Daniel's talk about dying and then rising indicates, as does that of Ecclesiastes, that there was a well accepted idea that his audience would have instantly recognized about living on or surviving after death. But what exactly was this concept? Egypt, of course, had a very sophisticated idea of what happens after death, even though this afterlife was reserved for a select few. But Jewish ideology appears to have intentionally distanced itself from Egyptian thought in its early years. The early books of the Bible were written against a background of reaction against Egypt and so it is likely that we must look to Babylonian culture which gave much more expression to eschatological ideas than did the early Biblical. Just as Babylon introduced the synagogue to Jewish life, so it seems that ideas of what heaven was like, what functions angels and other spirits had, was dwelt on much more in Babylon and this inevitably influenced Rabbinic thinking. But what emerges is a complicated mélange of different concepts that were then molded to fit the rabbinic agenda without there being a rigid philosophical system. As the rabbis say in the context of Messianism, "Rabbi Chiyya the son of Abba said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan, 'Whatever all the prophets prophesied concerned the Days of the Messiah but as far the World to Come is concerned, 'No eye has seen it, God, apart from You who have made it for those who wait.''" The crucial issue for them was that "there is more to life" than that which we see and experience now.
So what does the Talmud tell us about this next phase? The most common term used to describe it is Olam HaBaah, the World To Come. The earliest reference in Rabbinic literature comes in Avot. "Rabbi Yaacov said, 'This world is like a corridor; prepare yourself in the corridor so that you can enter the palace.'" This clearly posits the existence of two states of existence. It also indicates that this world must be seen positively, not as a "Vale of Tears" to be suffered, but as a testing ground to be used correctly, and as a positive means of meriting a next stage. However there is no attempt to explain what "The Palace" is. Rabbi Yaacov goes on to say, "One hour of good deeds and repentance in this world is better than all the World to Come, and one hour of peace of mind in the Next World is better than all this world." The use of paradox is a common Rabbinic tool. It seems as though Rabbi Yaacov is saying that this world is better than the next. But what Rabbi Yaacov is suggesting is that it will take an act of repentance in this world to merit the next. Therefore in pure value terms, the act that earns eternal bliss must be considered of greater objective value. On the other hand when it comes to evaluating the actual pleasure, Rabbi Yaacov uses the pleasure analogy to suggest that whatever degree of pleasure we have in this material world, it is exceeded by far in a non-material world. This is not just a re-statement of the Greek assertion of the superiority of spirit over matter. Neither is it a simple comment on physical pleasure that is often satisfied, and however overpowering the desire may be at one moment, it can pass completely in another. It is a statement of priorities. The rabbis certainly regarded moral values and the pursuit of study and prayer as superior goals to physical pleasure, and yet they regarded physical pleasure both as a handmaiden of the abstract and as a legitimate way of worshipping God and celebrating His creation. This is already rooted in Biblical attitudes. The emphasis on sacrifice as a means of celebration involves eating and "rejoicing in all the good that God has given". Most of the sacrifices commanded or offered, in practice, were sacrifices in which the donor participated and, after giving dues to the Temple and the priests, will have eaten himself. The repeated emphasis in the Biblical text on rejoicing on festivals was linked to eating and drinking. There is a remarkable incident in which some of the important Children of Israel, at Sinai, "saw" God. Immediately they responded with a very physical celebration: "And they saw God and they ate and they drank."
Yet this same incident is used by the rabbis to show that true proximity to God is beyond this world. "The World to Come is not like this world. In the next world there is no eating, no drinking, no reproduction, no business, no envy, no hatred and no competition, just the righteous sitting with crowns on their heads, enjoying the brightness of the Presence (of God). As it says, 'And they saw God and they ate and they drank (Exodus 24).'" This emphasizes also the rabbinic reluctance to go into too much detail. "Yosef the son of Rabbi Yehoshua became ill and he passed out (died and returned to life). His father asked him, 'What did you see there?' He said, 'A world that was upside down. Those on high (here) were low there and those low (here) were high there.' (Rashi says that this refers only to material wealth whereas Rabbeynu Channanel in the Tosafot suggests it has more to do with authority). He replied, 'You saw a very clear (true) world. But how are we perceived there?' He replied, 'As we are here.'" There is no physical description of "the place", just of the standards of judgment being different to most of those applied by humans on earth.
Most people who have an interest in other religions will be familiar with the fact that in Islam, the Next World is indeed described in very physical terms, as a wonderful garden, a place of water and maidens and music. But the analytical Muslim theologian will argue nevertheless that such expressions should be understood as analogies, given that material beings cannot really grasp the reality of something non-material. And in effect, apart from talking about the pleasure of the proximity to God, the rabbis avoid going into any greater detail. They do not like too many analogies. The Garden of Eden is one and "the palace" is another, but without specifying details this is as far as one gets. The rabbis are eager to assert the promise of something better but they feel no obligation to specify what it is like. "These are the things for which a person eats the fruit (interest) in this world but the capital remains for the World to Come: honoring one's father and mother, being kind (to others), bringing (making) peace between a person and his friend, and studying Torah more than all the others." So, amongst the duties and pleasures, Torah is the greatest, and the reward in the Next World is greater than in this. But, again, this is an assertion rather than a clarification.
There is of course a very close connection between the notion of another world and the issue of whether humans are rewarded and punished for there actions. Since there does not appear to be a clear and direct connection on earth between being good and being rewarded, the rabbis looked for some explanation or some other criterion for what reward might be. It seems to be the majority view that "The reward for the righteous is in the future to come," and, furthermore, that "There is no reward altogether for (performing) mitzvoth in this world." Nevertheless, the majority opinion as reflected in the text of the prayer book seems to be that we have a combination of some reward in this world but, of course, the far greater payback will come later. Based on the statement quoted above from the Mishna, the morning service has this extract: "These are the things for which a person eats the fruit (interest) in this world but the capital remains for the World to Come: honoring ones father and mother, being kind (to others), bringing (making) peace between a person and his friend, and studying Torah more than all the others." And added is the following Talmudic extract, "These are the things that a person enjoys the fruits of in this world and the principle remains for the World to Come. (This is based on commercial terminology, the usufruct is the benefit one derives from property while the property rights themselves may well belong elsewhere.) These are: honoring parents, acts of kindness, getting early to the House of Study, morning and evening, hospitality, visiting the sick, helping brides get married, escorting the dead, concentrating on prayer, bringing peace between a man and his friend, and the study of Torah is worth them all."
Another way of trying to explain another world without going into physical details is to make comparisons with spiritual experiences in the present. Thus the assertion that "This world is like the Eve of Shabbat and the next world is like Shabbat," is an attempt to describe the difference by referring to the spiritual pleasure of Shabbat. Experiencing the anticipation is pleasurable but not as good as Shabbat, itself. By breaking away from a purely physical yardstick, the rabbis are trying to give analogies that are immediate and recognizable, yet not just physical.
Once again the rabbis are eager to emphasize that this world also has its values and pleasures. The pursuit of these is an obligation and a preparation. Still, the reality is that the rabbis are promising something that has no real meaning other than as an abstract promise. It is an assertion of hope rather than of reality. Yet it is also predicated on the belief in a spiritual content to humanity that would not necessarily disappear with physical death. Within the context of rabbinic understanding both of God and of Soul, there is a consistency and a logic in their position despite the difficulty in articulating anything substantial. In effect, human existence, as opposed to animal existence, is dependent on the spiritual dimension and the extent to which both are allowed to play a part in a person's life.
What I find particularly noteworthy is the idea that the "World To Come" has both National and Universal references. On the one hand the rabbis emphasize that every Jew has a place in the World To Come--"All Israel has a place in the World To Come."--which seems to be saying that the next world is an almost automatic state. On the other hand, the rabbis add on so many extra promises to the effect that if one does this or does not do that, then a person is guaranteed a place in the next world. A typical example is, "Whoever responds, 'Amen, let His great Name be blessed,' is guaranteed to be a son of the World To Come." This is, if you like, a relatively minor issue but there are tens of similar assertions applicable to a range of major ethical and ritual deeds. So that the rabbis are reinforcing the idea that it is a person's behavior that is crucial. Being Jewish provides a framework and a pattern of living, which, if followed, is likely to enhance the spiritual life of a person and thus offer entry to a higher level of spiritual existence.
Yet this promise is not restricted to Jews alone. "Even a Canaanite servant who lives in Israel is guaranteed to be a daughter of the World to Come." This is, indeed, in the context of asserting the importance of the Land Of Israel, but it is symptomatic of an attitude of universalism which found its most notable expression in the assertion that "The pious of the nations of the world have a place in the World To Come." And Maimonides quotes this as an important principle.
This debate about who has or has not a part in the World To Come also highlights an interesting anomaly. The rabbis seem to use the idea of The World To Come and Resurrection interchangeably. Do they think that they are one and the same? The Mishna says, "All Israel has a place in the World To Come…and these do not, the person who says that Resurrection is not from the Torah." Then the Gemara goes on to ask, "Why so much (such an extreme punishment)? It is taught that since he rejects resurrection therefore he has no part in resurrection because God always deals measure for measure." But the Mishna was not talking about Resurrection. The Mishna was talking about the World To Come! Which one do they mean? Or are they synonymous? Of course one could argue that one cannot merit resurrection unless one's soul continues on the next world and survives death. Yet the ambiguity is interesting. One is also bound to ask why Maimonides, in his Thirteen Principles, does not include an "I believe in the World To Come," but does include as essential, a belief in Resurrection. The possibility that these two terms are interchangeable is very important for creative thinking. It means that neither should be taken at simple face value, but need to be understood on an altogether more esoteric level. It means, in effect, that if one wants to remain committed to a traditional position and at the same time be intellectually open, these ideas are to be dealt with on a mystical rather than a rational level.
The other issue that is relevant is exactly what the rabbis meant by Gan Eden and Gey Hinnom, The Garden Of Eden and the Valley of Hinnom, or as we would say in a Christian World, Heaven and Hell. Both terms are used eleven times (perhaps coincidentally) in both the Babylonian and the Palestinian Talmud (and 82 times in the Midrash Rabba and commonly throughout the allied texts) to indicate a state of heavenly bliss for the righteous and a state of heavenly punishment for the wicked. Of course in origin the Garden of Eden, as the place God planted to put His new human creatures in, was an earthly place of bliss and, one supposes, the paradigm for a trouble free existence. It was chosen as a symbolic and evocative name, holding out the promise for the future in terms that would make sense or at least create a mental picture of relevance to the average Jew.
Similarly the term Valley of Hinnom has Biblical origins--first mentioned in the Book of Joshua, as a place where children were passed through fire to the idol Moloch. So in wanting to conjure up an awful fate that would befall the sinner, this was equally an evocative word picture. But unlike other traditions, the Talmud did not go into great detail to describe either one or the other. Not only this, but Maimonides, in his Hilchot Teshuva describing the next world, does not use either of these expressions at all. Once, in Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah he describes the idol worshippers as descending to the "lowest level of Geyhinom", but does not use the expression "Gan Eden" at all (and it almost goes without saying that neither expression is found in his "Guide"). This underlines their relative unimportance other than as figurative symbols. But describing what happens to the good and the wicked he is quite explicit. "The good that is kept for the righteous is the Life of The World To Come which is a life without death and good without bad…the reward of the righteous is that they will benefit from this delight and be in this good and the punishment for the wicked is that will not get this life and they will be cut off and die. Anyone whoever does not achieve this life dies with no eternal life and is cut off for his wickedness and dies like an animal."
There is another term that is much used by the rabbis that is similar but to exactly equivalent to The World To Come and this is the expression "The Future To Come". The following are a selection of how this phrase is used.
Some of the ways in which "The Future" is used seem to be referring to a radically different physical world in which the world order changes and is very different from the present. "In The Future To Come produce will grow every month and fruit every two months." Or, "In the Future To Come there will be no death." Other ways "The Future" is used refer to the Messianic Era. For example, "In the Future To Come, all idol worshippers will bring gifts to King Messiah." Others imply that "The Future" will be after a general resurrection has already taken place. "In The Future To Come, Abraham our father will sit at the entrance to Gey Hinnom and he does not let any one who is circumcised go down." Or, "In The Future To Come, the Son of David will be in the middle, Adam, Seth and Methuselah on his right hand, Abraham, Moses and Jacob on his left."
Yet others imply a certain evolution in the human condition that will modify the sort of requirements that the Torah makes on people. "In The Future To Come, God will permit everything He has forbidden." "In The Future, the books of prophets and writings will be canceled, but the five books of the Torah will not be canceled."
It seems that the rabbis looked to the future in many different ways. Both in the way they saw this world, and in the way they looked forward to another, they were animated by several ideas. Firstly, they believed in a God who had control over the universe and they also believed that this God approved of certain behavior and disapproved of others. Given this, they recognized that this world was a strange place in which, on the surface, God's justice did not seem to make sense. The only way they could reconcile this was by suggesting that true reward and punishment came at a later stage either when this world changes or in another one altogether. This important assertion was for them more a matter of asserting their faith in Divine Justice and Providence than in a particular process. This is why they were so adamantly opposed to those who absolutely denied the possibility of Divine Intervention or the limitless capacity of the Divine. This is why their statements were directed towards those who denied, rather than towards insisting on what exactly should be believed. This gives us a great deal of freedom to formulate our own concepts of exactly what a life after death is like and what our own attitudes to death should be.
It is not directly relevant here but worth mentioning that in general the attitude to death as found in the Bible was not one of dread and fear. If anything Rabbinic opinion tended to see death as a natural process to be welcomed. "And God saw everything that God had made and behold it was very good (Genesis 1.31)." "Very good" is death. If we believe that death leads to a world in which there is no pain or suffering, then logically it must be a preferable existence. Particularly if old age brings debility and loneliness. The Jewish version of Rip Van Winkle, Choni the Circle Maker, slept for seventy years. When he returned he found no one who recognized him and he requested permission to die; so long life is not always a blessing. King David adds the remarkable phrase, "The dead cannot praise God, neither those who go down to silence. But we will praise God from now and for ever, Halleluyah." It seems that King David thought that this world was the one worth emphasizing.