Religious Beliefs

What are the main Jewish notions of afterlife?

Surprisingly little detailed information on the afterlife is given in the Hebrew scriptures, and mostly in the very latest material at that. We find a few vague references to a nondescript region called Sheol, a gray, dreary warehouse of souls. Not a place of absolute suffering, Sheol is little more than a synonym for death itself. Toward the latter centuries of the first millennium B.C.E. more concrete notions of afterlife begin to emerge. Propelling the development were questions of justice such as those that the Book of Job raised. If a just man like Job suffers so much in this life, and so many wicked people seem to flourish, perhaps retribution for one’s deeds will be deferred until after death. If not, how can one say that God is just?

Sheol becomes identified more as recompense for an evil life, but is gradually replaced by the concept of Gehenna. Just south of Jerusalem lies a small valley that may at one time have belonged to a man named Hinnom, hence ge-hinnom, the valley of Hinnom. It must have been a most unpleasant place. Long-standing tradition associates it with fiery punishment, possibly because it had been a place for incinerating refuse in ancient times. As a parallel to this abode of deserved misery there must surely be a place where the good are rewarded, perhaps near the dwelling of God himself. Generic notions of “the heavens” as a place above Earth appear very early in biblical thought. Gradual spiritualization of the idea of “Heaven” went along with the notion that there are multiple levels, a third of which is a paradise for the just. All of this is linked to the idea of resurrection of the body, taught by the Pharisees and accepted as a rule in post-biblical rabbinical tradition.

Gehenna Valley near Jerusalem.


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