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The Long Road to Heaven

The Long Road to Heaven

If God loves us, why did He place us in such a dark and evil world?


As one of the rabbis on’s Ask the Rabbi service, I find that many people are bothered by the following theological question. If God really loves us and wants what’s best for us, why didn’t He just put us straight in Heaven? Let us enjoy a relationship with Him right away! Why did God create such a dark and distant physical world, insisting that we first observe His mitzvot and overcome challenges, only afterwards rewarding us with the World to Come – if we pass our tests? Why expose us to so much evil, pain and temptation beforehand?

Perhaps one would answer that we are not ready for a relationship with God in our current state. We are too coarse and physical today to connect with the infinite. We must first improve and develop ourselves, making us more spiritual and able to enjoy a relationship with the Divine. But if so, why did God have to make us so physical in the first place? Why couldn’t He have created us as angel-like beings, ready to enjoy the ultimate pleasure of closeness to God from the start? Can’t God do anything?

I would like to discuss three approaches to this issue. But in truth they are all the same answer – three angles to the same fundamental truth. Each point of response will introduce us to yet a deeper and more profound understanding. Let us get started.

Reward or Humiliation?

On the simplest level, if a person receives reward for that which he did not do, it would not be reward. It would be embarrassment. If God would “reward” us by giving us the World to Come for free, we would not enjoy it. We would feel the same shame and humiliation a person experiences in this world living off of charity and handouts. It shames a person to admit his dependence on others – that he could not support himself through his own efforts but must subsist through the beneficence of others. In the spiritual world that feeling is no less – in fact it is infinitely more intense.

The Kabbalists refer to such unearned reward as “nahama d’kisufa” – the bread of shame. Whenever we receive something we did not earn, we feel just a little bit compromised. We are a little less “real,” a little less fulfilled.

We would never feel close to someone who gave us that which we did not deserve.

The Sages likewise state: If one eats at another's table his mind is never truly at ease (Avot d'Rav Natan 31:1). It is uncomfortable at best to live off of others, to take that which we did not earn. If another person supports us and we give nothing in return, we would never feel close to that person. We would not so much as want to look him in the face.

The same is true of the World to Come. If God would place us there and begin “rewarding” us for nothing, we would never enjoy it or feel close to the God who granted it. It would only create in us a crushing sense of worthlessness and dependence. Our reward would not be deserved – and we would know it – eternally.

Creating Something from Nothing

But it is even deeper than this. In the physical realm we are familiar with such concepts as the Law of Conservation of Energy. Energy cannot be created from nothing (ever since God's initial act of creation). It can be concentrated, diffused, directed, and converted (even into matter if you have enough of it and you know what you're doing), but it can never be created or destroyed.

The same is true in the realm of the spiritual. Reward which is unearned is not only too embarrassing to accept. It by definition cannot exist. God cannot, so to speak, “reward” us for nothing. If our reward is earned, it is the natural outcome and extension of our efforts. It is our own independent creation. If we have done nothing, reward does not and cannot follow.

Thus, to truly reward us, God had to give us the opportunity to earn our reward. To allow for this, He created a physical world – one of darkness and distance from Him (or at least apparent distance from Him). Serving God would be a challenge. We would have to discover God through physical layers of separation and indifference. We would have free will – the possibility for evil and destruction would exist – and we would have to exercise that freedom with care to come closer to God. In this way our lives and actions would be meaningful, and our ultimate reward would be ours. We will have a true and eternal existence – knowing that we have earned it through our own everlasting accomplishments.

Creating Ourselves

There is an even more fundamental dilemma contained within this – one which goes to the core of man’s very existence. Man as a created being is not truly “real.” If a person is created by God and never achieves on his own, he is no more than an extension of God. He is no more independent of God than a painting is of its painter. And such a person will live with a crushing sense of inexistence. I do not truly have reality; all I am is a projection of a bit of God's wisdom and might. But I am not real. And having a functioning heart and operating brain does not really alter that basic, debilitating sensation.

If I have never done anything to justify my existence, I am not even real.

We now arrive at the crux of the issue. We began by stating that unearned reward embarrasses its recipient. We then stated that in a logical sense, there is not even such a thing as unearned reward: it cannot come to be from nothing. On the deepest level, however, if I have never done anything to justify my existence, I am not even real. I am a passive, created being, nothing more than an extension of the God who created me – almost a figment of His imagination. And this is the crushing and debilitating sense of inexistence which plagues and hounds the truly thinking human being to no end – and drives him to the ends of the earth to achieve immortality. (This was even the sense that drove Adam and Eve to eat of the Tree of Knowledge – but for a separate discussion.)

I am – and there can be no greater joy.

How does a human being make himself “real”? Through accomplishment, by exercising his free will and choosing good. When from my own volition I choose good when I could have chosen evil, I have made something of myself: I have struggled and won. And this not only earns me reward; it grants me existence. I am not merely a being fashioned by God, functioning as my Creator programmed me. I have accomplished! My deeds are my own! God didn't do them for me! They are my own creation, brought about by my own free will. And this grants me reality and eternal life. I live forever because I have performed deeds of immortality. I am – and there can be no greater joy.

We can now begin to appreciate what the World to Come truly is. It is not merely a place of reward. It is a place of existence. Until I have achieved and justified myself, I am not truly real. I am a mere extension of God, no more capable of a relationship with Him than a sculpture can have with its sculptor. But when I create my portion in the hereafter I earn my existence. I become my own being, independent of God – and one who can both love and be loved by Him. The World to Come is the place of such closeness. We exist and are eternal – and as a result, we can bask eternally in the ecstatic glow of the Divine Presence.

Published: August 30, 2014

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Visitor Comments: 13

(9) Faith W., September 18, 2014 8:10 PM


Your article wad quite interesting - but would U please try to explain to me & the Jewish people: Why were 6 million Jewish people murdered? Why throughout the ages were/are being persecuted? If we are "The Chosen People". why does it seem that we were "chosen" to be slave, humilitated & murdered? (I understand that it's not only our people) but.......

JG, October 6, 2015 6:56 AM

I've fervently read and researched about Hitler and his third reich to try and understand why all of that happened. What was Hitler's purpose for murdering millions of innocent jews? Obviously, it was hate and envy. He blamed the Jewish people for Germany's failing economy caused by the treaty of versailles. Jews were blamed because they were strangers in Germany and were prospering. The Jewish people have always been strangers in foreign lands. It is how God set it.

It's difficult. I've tried to imagine myself in Hitler's shoes and in the shoes of the Jews who died in the holocaust. On one side of the coin, you have Hitler basking in the rallies, the people cheering for him, the glory and grandeur. On the other, you have a malnourished, Jewish child. Separated from his parents, put in a grey, cold chamber with other naked strangers to be suffocated by Zyklon B. His last experience is of pure horror. Being afraid, alone, cold; locked in a concrete room with people screaming and gasping for air. It's hell. It angers me and makes me feel guilty of living, knowing that people died that way while others were rejoicing in their deaths.

This evil isn't from God. It is from people; and God definitely knows people. Hitler, and others like him were only focused on the physical. They didn't want to enrich themselves spiritually through God. That is why so many Germans followed Hitler. It is the easy path. Being chosen by God is not the easy path.

What I got from this article is that life and people can treat you badly, but that can't stop you from being a good person and doing good deeds for the sake of doing them.

(8) Jonathan, September 3, 2014 1:52 PM

What about unconditional Love?

I am a bit confused. While I agree that DOING good deeds, giving Tzedakah and following G-d's mitzvoth are paths to improving the world and forging a stronger relationship with the Almighty, what about G-d's unconditional love for us? I get the sense from the article that existence cannot be real by just being. We need not be doing anything either for or against the betterment of the World, yet still marvel at the beauty of the clouds in the sky or the flowers in the garden. Can we not have a relationship with G-d by simply who we ARE? If not, don't we run the risk of becoming human-doings, instead of human beings? Just as a mother loves her child purely for the fact of her reflection in the child, doesn't G-d love us for the POTENTIAL for a relationship?

Rebecca, September 4, 2014 3:03 AM

Answer to 'What about Unconditional Love'

Jonathan, you ask a very good question - one which many people ask. One thing that is often forgotten in trying to answer this question is that Love is a relationship, not just a one-sided thing. Of course God loves us unconditionally - but He lets us choose whether or not to accept His love and enter into that relationship with Him.

I like your analogy about a mother, but to that point, a mother who truly unconditionally loves her child, is not satisfied with her child just 'being' as it is - that would not be loving him or her. She puts enormous love and sacrifice into helping him/her learn to do many things - to grow, to walk, to talk, to mature, to work hard, to become educated, to love, etc.. And she does everything she can to make sure her child learns and grows to his/her fullest potential. Still her child has to do his or her part, more as he/she grows older. If the child refuses to mature then it greatly saddens and distresses the mother, and damages their relationship.

In creating us in His image and likeness, God created us to be like Him, in as much as a human being can - to know and to use our free will to do good. He gives us guidance (and commandments) on what that means and how to do it. And if we do not strive to reach that potential, which involves doing as well as being, then we are not in true relationship with God. We can't have a relationship with God by simply who we ARE, because God created us with potential to BECOME, not just statically BE, and to do so, in part, through what we DO. Sure marveling at the beauty of creation is part of this, but we are made for more than that, and we will not become who God wants us to be if we just gaze up at the sky, etc.

Dovid Rosenfeld, September 4, 2014 1:28 PM

thanks for answering

Rebecca, thank you for posting your excellent response. I was going to write along the same lines, but you beat me to it!

In terms of the parent-child analogy, there is a general notion within Judaism that to give is to love - that by giving to another we come to love him. There is a great deal of truth to this, but it is really not the entire story. We feel emotionally attached to and invested in anyone we have given much to. But ultimately relationships must be two-way. If a mother invests so much in her child and never receives anything in return (when the child is old enough to contribute himself), the resentment of unrequited love will steadily build. One day that same mother who gave so much may turn into a bitter, resentful, nagging parent.

Of course it's possible to "love" your pet goldfish which gives you very little in return, but a truly meaningful relationship must be reciprocal.

If anyone is interested, I have an interesting write-up on this topic here:

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