The Afterlife in Judaism

Friday, April 24, 2009

By the Middle Ages, Jewish philosophers, such as Maimonides, claimed that there is reward and punishment after death. They considered belief in reward and punishment to be a major article of faith. They, too, had no doubts that these rewards are primarily connected to a future existence. The great advantage of this is, of course, that you cannot judge God simply by seeing how people thrive in this world. There is no way of denying God’s ultimate truthful dealing with mankind just by looking at this world.

Some medieval thinkers, nevertheless, had problems with this doctrine of reward and punishment, whether in this world or in the next. Claiming that God would reward and punish is not that simple. First of all, God appears to be vindictive. Does a real God take offence if someone does not pray to him eight times during the day or something like that? Maybe even more critical, how can the suffering of children be justified by the sins of their parents?

Some modern writers attempted to solve these issues by quoting Rabbinic statements that also seemed to suggest that good deeds are their own reward. That is to say, if one behaves properly, the reward is in the good deeds themselves. That sounds suspiciously close to what the Sadducees claimed.

Resurrection of the Dead

One of the rewards that became a staple in Jewish belief was a belief in resurrection. It could be that this is one of the ultimate rewards. While this was one of the main points of Jewish belief, the nature of resurrection is far from clear throughout Jewish history. I would venture to say that this continues to this very day.

First of all, there are very few biblical proof texts for the whole idea of resurrection of the death. There are a few. For instance, in the book of Isaiah, chapter 26 verse 19, we find “your dead will live; their bodies will rise. You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy. Your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead.”

A scripture like this is so difficult. From this, to a personal resurrection of the dead is a major leap of faith.

Post-biblical literature was not clear about how all of this would occur. One thing seems to be fairly obvious. This resurrection of the death does not appear to be an individual phenomenon, something to happen to each and every person separately. Rather, they slowly began to envision a sort of a general resurrection of the death. In some future time, this would be a national event.

On the other hand, another staple of Jewish belief which was just as crucial was the belief in the ongoing existence of the soul. That is to say, the soul does not perish with death. This, as opposed to resurrection, appears to be understood on an individual basis. Each and every person has a soul, and upon that person’s dead, that soul is removed or moved to some sort of celestial courthouse, where it will be judged to either perdition or reward.

By medieval times, there were already disputes not only about what happens to the soul, but also how that relates to resurrection. If the soul continues to exist, what would happen in the end? Would that soul then later be returned to the original body? Will the body rise up with another soul?

Indeed, some people accused philosophers such as Maimonides of denying the resurrection of the actual body. Maybe this resurrection of the death is a bit more spiritual that what we originally imagined. The dead souls should be resurrected, not the body. There is a book that was attributed to Maimonides where he claims “I do believe that the body will actually rise up, but I believe that even the resurrected body will ultimately die as well”. Then, again, he was attacked for not having total faith on the resurrection of the dead.

We must remember that resurrection of the dead was a staple of Jewish belief that was recited three times a day at the beginning of the Amidah prayer. The central prayer of the Jewish liturgy stresses that God resurrects the dead.

After a person’s death, the first stage would be the afterlife of the personal soul of that person. This would be followed by a Messianic era in this world on earth. The third stage would be some sort of a general resurrection of the dead.