click here to jump to start of article
Join Our Newsletter

Get latest articles and videos with Jewish inspiration and insights​

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

Give Tzedakah! Help create inspiring
articles, videos and blogs featuring timeless Jewish wisdom.
The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 12

(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.......

(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:

(7) Mozes Wolf Hoch, September 2, 2014 1:23 PM

What does God want of us?

Does God really love us Jews and human beings, then why did God make a world of evil and constant conflict? What's God up to? Or put in another way, what does God want of us?

Yes, we are exposed to evil, pain, and temptation beforehand, before our neshama returns to its source and home; yet, that is not to say that we all experience and suffer evil, pain and temptation to the same extent or that there is no meaning and guidance obtained through our sufferings? Why is that? Morever, if we are going to bring in the wisdom of Kabbalah, why not pull out all the stops and reveal that 'mazal and gilgul; astrology and reincarnation as teachings that our sages presented, albeit, within the context of a dialectical, give and take, yes and no, dynamic dialog. Yes, as Rabbi Rosenberg writes, "if I have never done anything to justify my existence, I am not even real". To except and work within our destiny, our mazal, is to begin to be real.

Or as our sages say, "Kol bedei Shamayim, hutz m'yiret Shamayim" - everything is the Hands of Heaven - except Fear of Heaven. Our mazal, our destiny brings us pain and pleasure to help us find direction to fulfill our reason for being born - to remedy something in the world that we are sensitive to and resonate with - our assignment to make a tikun olam and correct the defect of a previous life that only we can fix - and that is our entrance into true existence - to take seriously our mission and find significance and meaning in our life - and that is 'Fear of Heaven' - not the fear of punishment and pain - that too is in the Hands of Heaven, but fear of doing nothing, the dread of having no existence, a life empty of meaning - that is the fear that is not in the Hands of Heaven.

See All Comments

Submit Your Comment:

  • Display my name?

  • Your email address is kept private. Our editor needs it in case we have a question about your comment.

  • * required field 2000
Submit Comment