Last Shabbos, I partook in an adult education course on Jewish thought and the afterlife at my synagogue. It initially made me think of how Christianity, specifically the Catholic Church, approaches the afterlife: if you were absolved of all your sins via confession, you would get a straight trip to Heaven, and St. Peter would meet you at the Pearly Gates. All this “heavenly bliss that would await you” if you accept Jesus as your savior, and of course, if you “behaved like a good Catholic should.” The certitude presented by the Catholic Church can be as comforting as it can be daunting.
This, of course, can easily be contrasted with the Jewish tradition on the afterlife. When it comes to Judaism and the afterlife, we’ve come up with just about every theory regarding the afterlife.
1) There is no afterlife. The Torah does not make any explicit statements about the existence of an afterlife. Furthermore, there are a couple of Psalms that allude to the fact that there simply isn’t an afterlife: “What profit is there if I go down to the pit? Can the dust give thanks to You? Can it declare Your truth (30:10)?” and “The dead do not praise G-d; neither any that go down into silence (115:17).” Even King Solomon states that we return to the dust from which we came (Ecclesiastes 3:19-20). 2 Samuel 14:14 likens the human's inevitability to die to water spilt on the ground [that can never be re-gathered].
2) There is a Heaven and Hell. Jewish sources talk about the Gan Eden (Heaven) and Gehenna (Hell). Some Jewish sages portrayed Gehenna (Mishnah, Eduyot, 2:10) more like a Jewish version of purgatory where one temporarily, usually no more than twelve months, and afterwards, their souls come out “squeaky clean.” [The obvious issue with that viewpoint is that there would be no reason to behave properly] Others have viewed Gehenna as a a state of consciousness in which the soul wrestles with its unresolved guilt. Either way, these purely spiritual realms are comparable to the Christian version of the afterlife.
3) Olam Ha-Ba. Olam Ha-Ba, or the World to Come, is an eschatological concept in which the righteous of all nations are resurrected (i.e., reunification of body and soul) after the coming of the Messiah. As for the wicked, they supposedly perish. This would certainly line up with a majority of traditionalist Jewish teachings, and is in Jewish liturgy, most notably the thirteenth principle of Maimonidean Principles of Faith and the end of the second blessing of the Amidah. The Biblical verse most commonly associated with this viewpoint is Daniel 12:2, “And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to reproaches and everlasting abhorrence."
4) Sheol. This gloomy view of the afterlife, mostly developed from earlier Biblical thought, is a place that is a place of darkness (Psalm 88:13, Job 10:21, 22) and silence (Psalm 115:17), located in low places (Numbers 16:30, Ezekiel 31:14, Psalm 88:7, Lamentations 3:55; Jonah 2:7, Job 26:5). Jewish tradition teaches that the soul reaches this place, but that the soul is not conscious in Sheol.
5) Reincarnation. Although this sounds very much like a concept stemming from Eastern religions, this viewpoint managed to sneak its way into Jewish thought, most notably through the Zohar and other Kabalistic works. I remember reading a kabalistic text that said that Moses and Aaron were reincarnations of Cain and Abel, and their purpose was to undo the wrongs of the Cain and Abel story. The concept of reincarnation is not necessarily mutually exclusive with the other options; it’s merely a spiritual means to an ends.
My thoughts on the afterlife: Asserting anything regarding the afterlife in Jewish thought comes with two major issues. First, as I have previously illustrated, there are multiple viewpoints about Jewish thought on the afterlife. The fact that multiple viewpoints, all of which have textual backing, exist creates this ambiguity that we like to call reasonable doubt. The second issue, the one that I find to have more gravitas, is how one would prove that such a place exists. How do Jews know that the righteous are resurrected after the coming of the Messiah? How do Catholics know that St. Peter is waiting at the gates of heaven? How do Hindus know that we are reincarnated after we die?
The fact of the matter is that no positive, empirical evidence whatsoever proving the existence of an afterlife. I have just as much evidence to prove its existence as I do counter-evidence, which, by the way, is nil. I have always found it amazing that people can focus on and expound upon an alleged destination that we truly know nothing about.
Out of humility, my opinion as to whether there is an afterlife is "I don't know." It's a valid opinion. How could I objectively know the answer to such a question?
However, if push came to shove where I had to postulate about the afterlife, I would use a proof that can potentially be used to assert a Jewish belief in the afterlife. The catch, though, is that the following proof has a conditional clause in it: “If G-d is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-just, there has to be another realm, whether it would be spiritual or otherwise, because simply put, too many bad things happen to good people in this world, and vice versa.” This belief is not an emotional crutch to deal with the inevitability of death. It's a way to explain and cope with clear-cut examples of suffering and anguish in this world. It is also a valid, Jewish way of explaining an ultimate sense of justice from HaShem.
[Side note: I’m sure that agnostics or atheists reading this are wondering why I haven’t made G-d’s existence part of the conditional nature of the proof. The reason is that the author already has presupposed the existence of G-d simply because it is the most logical explanation to the creation of the universe. If you don’t believe me, read this.]
It’s ironic that the same R. Yaakov who stated that this life is but a corridor to Olam-Haba (Pirke Avot 4:16) is also the same man who stated that an hour of repentance is better than an eternity in Olam Haba (ibid 4:22). Although he believed in an afterlife, he showed us what Judaism truly emphasizes—Olam Ha-Zeh (i.e., the “here-and-now”). Prior to this adult education course, I didn’t really give any thought to the afterlife. After all, Judaism is so focused on doing good deeds and how to live life that I was not even aware that such a diverse opinion on the afterlife would be in Jewish thought.
Judaism doesn’t ask us to obsess over death like the ancient Egyptians. G-d asked us to walk in His ways [via imitatio Dei], choose life, and focus on the here and now. As long as I perform as many mitzvahs as possible and live my life to the fullest, I put my trust in G-d’s hands that He will take care of the rest.