Do Jews believe in the hereafter such as life after death?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
The afterlife is a fundamental of Jewish belief.
The creation of man testifies to the eternal life of the soul. The Torah says, "And the Almighty formed the man of dust from the ground, and He blew into his nostrils the SOUL of life" (Genesis 2:7). On this verse, the Zohar states that "one who blows, blows from within himself," indicating that the soul is actually part of God's essence. Since God's essence is completely spiritual and non-physical, it is impossible that the soul should die. (The commentator Chizkuni says this why the verse calls it "soul of LIFE.")
That's what King Solomon meant when he wrote, "The dust will return to the ground as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it." (Ecclesiastes 12:17)
For anyone who believes in a just and caring God, the existence of an afterlife makes logical sense. Could it be this world is just a playground without consequences? Did Hitler get away with killing 6 million Jews? Could he really "end it all" by just swallowing some poison?
No. Ultimate justice is found in another dimension. There is obviously a place where good people receive reward and bad people get punished. (see Maimonides' 13 Principles of Faith: www.aish.com/jl/p/mp/)
The question of "why do bad things happen to good people" has a lot to do with how we look at existence. The way we usually perceive things is like this: A "good life" means that I make a comfortable living, I enjoy good health, and then I die peacefully at age 80. That's a good life. Anything else is "bad."
In a limited sense, that's true. But if we have a soul and there is such a thing as eternity, then that changes the picture entirely. Eighty years in the face of eternity is not such a big deal.
But the concept goes much deeper. From an eternal view, if the ultimate pleasure we're going after is transcendence - the eternal relationship with the Almighty Himself, then who would be luckier: Someone who lives an easy life with little connection to God, or someone who is born handicapped, and despite the challenges, develops a connection with God. Who would be "luckier" in terms of eternal existence? All I'm trying to point out is that the rules of life start to look different from the point of view of eternity, as opposed to just the 70 or 80 years we have on earth.
So what is the afterlife exactly?
From Judaism's perspective, this is the world of doing, and the "world to come" is where we experience the eternal reality of whatever we've become. When a person dies and goes to heaven, the judgment is not arbitrary and externally imposed. Rather, the soul is shown two videotapes. The first video is called "This is Your Life!" Every decision and every thought, all the good deeds, and the embarrassing things a person did in private is all replayed without any embellishments. It's fully bared for all to see. That's why the next world is called Olam HaEmet - "the World of Truth," because there we clearly recognize our personal strengths and shortcomings, and the true purpose of life. In short, Hell is not the Devil with a pitchfork stoking the fires.
The second video depicts how a person's life "could have been..." if the right choices had been made, if the opportunities were seized, if the potential was actualized. This video - the pain of squandered potential - is much more difficult to bear. But at the same time it purifies the soul as well. The pain creates regret which removes the barriers and enables the soul to completely connect to God.
Not all souls merit Gehenom. It is for people who have done good but need to be purified. A handful of people are too evil for Gehenom, and they are punished eternally. Pharaoh is one example.
So what about "heaven?"
Heaven is where the soul experiences the greatest possible pleasure - the feeling of closeness to God. Of course not all souls experience that to the same degree. It's like going to a symphony concert. Some tickets are front-row center; others are back in the bleachers. Where your seat is located is based on the merit of your good deeds - e.g. giving charity, caring for others, prayer.
A second factor in heaven is your understanding of the environment. Just like at the concert, a person can have great seats but no appreciation of what's going on. If a person spends their lifetime elevating the soul and becoming sensitive to spiritual realities (through Torah study), then that will translate into unimaginable pleasure in heaven. On the other hand, if life was all about pizza and football, well, that can get pretty boring for eternity.
The existence of the afterlife is not stated explicitly in the Torah itself, because as human beings we have to focus on our task in this world. Though awareness of an eternal reward can also be an effective motivator.
May the Almighty grant you blessings, success - and eternal life!
(sources: Maimonides - Foundations of Torah; The Way of God by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto; commentary of Nachmanides to Leviticus 18:29; Zohar, Mishpatim, Exodus 1:1; Arizal - Sha'ar Hagilgulim)