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The Holy Scriptures of the Abrahamic Religions introduce us to the conception of an afterlife, which we can call “paradise,” although more accurately described as Olam Ha-ba (“World to Come”) and the Gan Eden (“Garden of Eden”).
The afterlife is a fundamental tenet of Judaism, as well as in Christianity and Islam, based on the idea that the human Soul, or neshamah, is a divine spark that has an afterlife origin and will return to a higher state after this life. Belief in a life “in a world to come,” is not merely a theological philosophical concept, but grants purpose to the complexities of life and inspires individuals to perform good deeds by keeping mitzvahs (commandments).
Judaism emphasizes that the ultimate goal is not simply to reach paradise, but to bring paradise to earth. Gan Eden serves as an intermediate paradise for souls after death until the world is perfected and ready for Olam Ha-ba. The reward for living a righteous life on earth is to experience the fruits of one’s labor in the perfected world, where souls and bodies will unite to achieve a tangible connection with the divine.
Traditional Jewish texts, such as the Mishnah and Talmud, hint at discussions of heaven and the afterlife, but the focus remains on earthly deeds and the collective reward for GOD’s people in contributing the prefiguring of this world. Final spiritual pleasure and connection with GOD are expected when all souls have fulfilled their mission on earth.
In Judaism, the main textual source for belief in the “end of days” and related happenings is the Tanakh (Bible according to the Hebrew canon). In the Five Books of Moses, reference is made in Deuteronomy 28-31 to the fact that the Jews will fail to observe the Laws of Moses in the Land of Israel and therefore will subsequently be exiled, but ultimately redeemed. The books of the Prophets elaborate and prophesy regarding the end of days.
In rabbinic literature, the rabbis developed and explained the prophecies found in the Hebrew Bible along with the Oral Torah and traditions, making an elaborate exegesis of them.
Developed in the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, the main foundations of Jewish Eschatology are as follows, in no particular order:
- The End of the World (but not before everything else happens)
- GOD redeems Israel (understood as the Nations of the World who acknowledge GOD) from the captivity that began during the Babylonian exile, in a new Exodus
- GOD brings the people of believers back to the Land of Israel (Holy Land)
- GOD restores the House of David (King David’s lineage) and the Third Temple in Jerusalem
- GOD creates a regent (i.e., a Messiah) chosen from the House of David to lead the people of believers and the whole world into an era of justice and peace (Messianic Era)
- All nations recognize that the GOD of Abraham is the One true GOD
- GOD will raise the dead (Souls will return to …)
- GOD will create a new heaven and new earth (Olam Ha-Ba)
It is also believed that history will be completed and the ultimate destination will be reached when all mankind returns to the Garden of Eden, that is, to a place of perfect harmony between man and earth
Resurrection of the dead
Several times the Bible alludes to eternal life without specifying what form this life will take.
The first explicit mention of resurrection is the Vision of the Valley of the Dry Bones in the Book of Ezekiel. However, this account was intended as a metaphor for national rebirth, with the promise of the return of the Jews to Israel and the rebuilding of the Temple, not as a description of personal resurrection.
The Book of Daniel promises literal resurrection to the Jews, with concrete details. Daniel wrote that, with the coming of Archangel Michael, misery would befall the world and only those whose names were contained in a divine book would be resurrected. Moreover, Daniel’s promise of resurrection was intended only for the most righteous and the most sinful, because the afterlife was a place where righteous individuals would be rewarded and sinful ones would receive eternal punishment.
Greek and Persian culture influenced Jewish sects to believe in an afterlife even between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE.
The Hebrew Bible, at least according to the interpretation of the Bavli Sanhedrin, contains frequent references to the resurrection of the dead. The Mishnah (c. 200) lists belief in the resurrection of the dead as one of the three essential beliefs necessary for a Jew to participate:
All Israel has a part in the world to come, for it is written, Thy people are all righteous; they shall inherit the earth forever, the branch of my planting, the work of my hands, that I may be glorified.” But those who claim that resurrection is not a biblical doctrine, that the Torah was not divinely revealed and an Apikoros (“heretic”) have no part in it.
At the end of the Second Temple, the Pharisees believed in resurrection, while the Essenes and Sadducees did not. During the rabbinic period, beginning in the late first century and continuing to the present, Daniel’s works were included in the Hebrew Bible, signaling the adoption of the Jewish resurrection in officially sacred texts.
Jewish liturgy, particularly the Amidah, contains references to the principle of the bodily resurrection of the dead. In contemporary Judaism, both Orthodox and Conservative Judaism maintain traditional references in their liturgy. However, many Conservative Jews interpret the principle metaphorically rather than literally. Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism has modified the traditional references to the resurrection of the dead in the liturgy (“who gives life to the dead”) to refer to “who gives life to all.”
The notion of reincarnation, while considered by some to be a mystical belief, is not an essential tenet of traditional Judaism. It is not mentioned in traditional classical sources such as the Tanakh (“Hebrew Bible”), classical rabbinic works (Mishnah and Talmud) or Maimonides‘ 13 Principles of Faith. Although it can be argued that the idea of reincarnation is not outlined in the Tanakh, there are references to resurrection throughout Isaiah. However, the books of Kabbalah-Jewish mysticism-teach a belief in gilgul, the transmigration of souls, and thus the belief is universal in Chassidic Judaism, which regards Kabbalah as sacred and authoritative.
Notable rabbis who rejected the idea of reincarnation include Saadia Gaon, David Kimhi, Hasdai Crescas, Yedayah Bedershi (early 14th century), Joseph Albo, Abraham ibn Daud and Leon de Modena. Among the geonim, Hai Gaon sided with Saadia Gaon in favor of the gilgulim.
Rabbis who accepted the idea of reincarnation include, from the Middle Ages: the mystical leaders Nahmanides (the Ramban) and Rabbenu Bahya ben Asher; from the 16th century: Levi ibn Habib (the Ralbah), and from the Safed mystical school Shelomoh Alkabez, Isaac Luria (the Ari) and his exponent Hayyim Vital; and from the 18th century: the founder of Chassidism Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, later Chassidic Masters, and the Orthodox Lithuanian Jewish leader and Kabbalist the Gaon of Vilna.
With the rational systematization of Cordoverian Kabbalah by the Ramak in the 16th century and the subsequent new paradigm of Lurianic Kabbalah by the Ari, Kabbalah replaced “Hakirah” (medieval Jewish rationalistic philosophy) as mainstream Jewish traditional theology, both in academic circles and in the popular imagination. Isaac Luria taught new explanations of the gilgul process and the identification of reincarnations of Jewish historical figures, which were collected by Haim Vital in his Shaar HaGilgulim.
In the Kabbalistic conception of gilgul, which differs from many Eastern religious views, reincarnation is not fatalistic or automatic, nor is it essentially a punishment of sin or a reward of virtue. In Judaism, the heavenly realms could fulfill Maimonides’ belief principle in Reward and Punishment. It is rather the process of individual Tikkun (rectification) of the soul. In the Kabbalistic interpretation, each Jewish soul reincarnates a sufficient number of times just to fulfill each of the 613 Mitzvot. The souls of the righteous among the nations can be assisted through the gilgulim to fulfill their Seven Laws of Noah. As such, the gilgul is an expression of divine compassion and is seen as a heavenly agreement with the individual soul to descend again. This emphasis on the physical performance and perfection of each Mitzvah is related to the Lurianic doctrine of the cosmic Tikkun of creation. According to these new teachings, a cosmic catastrophe occurred at the beginning of creation called the “Shattering of the vessels” of the Sephirot in the “World of Tohu (Chaos).” The vessels of the Sephirot broke and fell through the spiritual worlds until they were incorporated into our physical realm as “sparks of holiness” (Nitzutzot). The reason that in Lurianic Kabbalah almost every Mitzvot involves a physical action is that, through their performance, they elevate each particular spark of holiness associated with that commandment. Once all the sparks have been redeemed to their spiritual source, the Messianic Age begins. This metaphysical theology attaches cosmic significance to each person’s life, as each individual has particular tasks that only he can perform. Therefore, the gilgulim assist the individual soul in this cosmic plane. This also explains the Kabbalistic reason why the future eschatological utopia will be in this world, since only in the lower physical realm is the purpose of creation realized.
The idea of the gilgul became popular in folk beliefs and is found in much Yiddish literature among Ashkenazi Jews.
The Last Judgment
In Judaism, the day of judgment occurs every year on Rosh Hashanah; therefore, the belief in a last day of judgment for all mankind is controversial. Some rabbis believe that such a day will occur after the resurrection of the dead. Others believe that there is no need for it because of Rosh Hashanah. Still others hold that this reckoning and judgment occur when one dies. Other rabbis believe that the last judgment applies only to the Gentile nations and not to the Jewish people.
New Testament and early Christianity
The descriptions of heaven in the New Testament are more developed than those in the Old Testament, but they are still generally vague. As in the Old Testament, God is described in the New Testament as the ruler of heaven and earth, but his power on earth is challenged by Satan. Jesus’ speeches recorded in the Gospels of Mark and Luke speak of the “Kingdom of GOD” (Greek: βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ; basileía tou theou), while Matthew’s Gospel more commonly uses the term “Kingdom of Heaven” (Greek: βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν; basileía tōn ouranōn). Both phrases have exactly the same meaning, but the author of Matthew’s Gospel changed the name “Kingdom of GOD” to “Kingdom of Heaven” in most cases because it was the most acceptable phrase in its cultural and religious context at the end of the first century.
Modern scholars agree that the Kingdom of God was an essential part of the teachings of the historical Jesus. Despite this, we do not read in any of the gospels that Jesus ever explained exactly what the expression “Kingdom of GOD” meant. The most likely explanation for this apparent omission is that the Kingdom of God was a commonly understood concept that required no explanation. Jews in Judea in the early first century believed that God reigned eternally in heaven, but many also believed that God would eventually establish his kingdom on earth as well. This belief is recorded in the first petition of the Eternal Prayer, taught by Jesus to his disciples and recorded in Matthew 6:10 and Luke 11:2: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Since the Kingdom of God was believed to be superior to any human kingdom, this meant that God would necessarily drive out the Romans, who ruled Judea, and establish his own direct rule over the Jewish people. In the teachings of the historical Jesus, people are expected to prepare for the coming of the Kingdom of God by living a moral life. Jesus’ commands to his followers to adopt lifestyles of moral perfectionism are found in many passages in the synoptic Gospels, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. Jesus also taught that, in the Kingdom of Heaven, there will be a role reversal in which “the last will be first and the first will be last” (Mark 10:31, Matthew 19:30, Matthew 20:16 and Luke 13:30). This teaching recurs in all of Jesus’ recorded teachings, including the admonition to be like a child in Mark 10:13-16, Matthew 19:30 and Luke 18:15-17, the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31, the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16, the Parable of the Great Banquet in Matthew 22:1-10 and the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32.
Traditionally, Christianity has taught that heaven is where GOD’s throne and holy angels are located, although this is considered to be metaphorical to varying degrees. In traditional Christianity, it is considered a state or condition of existence (rather than a particular place somewhere in the cosmos) of the supreme fulfillment of theosis in the beatific vision of the Godhead. In most forms of Christianity, heaven is also understood as the abode of the redeemed dead in the afterlife, usually a temporary stage before the resurrection of the dead and the return of the saints to the New Earth.
The resurrected Jesus is said to have ascended to heaven, where he now sits at the right hand of GOD, and will return to earth at the second coming. Several people are said to have entered heaven while still alive, including Enoch, Elijah and Jesus himself, after his resurrection. According to Roman Catholic teaching, Mary, mother of Jesus, would also be assumed into heaven and is called Queen of Heaven.
In the second century A.D., Irenaeus of Lyons recorded the belief that, in accordance with John 14:2, those who in the afterlife will see the Savior will be in different abodes: some will dwell in heaven, others in heaven, and still others in the “city.”
Although the word used throughout these writings, especially the New Testament Greek word οὐρανός (ouranos), applies primarily to heaven, it is also used metaphorically for the abode of God and the blessed. Similarly, although the English word “heaven” still retains its original physical meaning when it is used, for example, in allusions to stars as “lights shining from heaven” and in phrases such as heavenly body to refer to an astronomical object, the heaven or happiness that Christianity awaits is, according to Pope John Paul II, “neither an abstraction nor a physical place among the clouds, but a living and personal relationship with the Holy Trinity. It is our encounter with the Father that takes place in the risen Christ through the communion of the Holy Spirit.”
An explicit reference to the Third Heaven appears in the Christian New Testament canon. A Pauline epistle, written in Macedonia around AD 55, describes this mystical experience:
I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was assumed into the third heaven-whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that this person-whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows it-was raptured into heaven and heard things that cannot be told, which no mortal is permitted to repeat.
(2 Corinthians 12:2-4)
The description is usually regarded as an oblique reference by the author to himself. The passage seems to reflect first-century beliefs among Jews and Christians that the kingdom of heaven existed in a heaven other than the highest heaven, an impression that may find support in the original Greek wording (closer to “taken away” than “taken up”).
In the second century, Irenaeus also knows of seven heavens (see his Demonstration of Apostolic Preaching 9; cf. Against Heresies 1.5.2).
During the Middle Ages, Christian thinkers expanded the ancient Mesopotamian model of seven heavens into a system of ten heavens. This cosmology, taught in early European universities by the Scholastics, reached its highest literary expression in Dante Aligheri’s Divine Comedy.
The Second Book of Enoch, also written in the first century CE, describes the mystical ascent of the patriarch Enoch through a hierarchy of ten heavens. Enoch passes through the Garden of Eden in the Third Heaven to meet the Eternal One face to face in the Tenth (chapter 22). Along the way he encounters populations of angels tormenting evildoers, vividly described; he sees houses, olive oil and flowers.
The depiction of ten heavens in the book represents an expansion of the ancient seven-heaven model. This expanded cosmology was further developed in medieval Christianity.
Jahannam, Narr and Janna
Similar to Jewish traditions such as the Talmud, the Qur’an and Hadiths frequently mention the existence of seven samāwāt (سماوات), the plural of samāʾ (سماء), meaning “heaven, celestial sphere,” and cognate with the Hebrew shamāyim (שמים). Some of the verses in the Qur’an that mention samaawat are Qur’an 41:12, Qur’an 65:12, Qur’an 71:15. Sidrat al-Muntaha, a large and enigmatic Lote tree, marks the end of the seventh heaven and the highest end of all God’s creatures and heavenly knowledge.
One interpretation of “heavens” is that all stars and galaxies (including the Milky Way) are part of the “first heaven” and that “beyond this are six even greater worlds,” which have not yet been discovered by scientists.
According to Shi’a sources, Ali cited the names of the seven heavens as follows:
Rafi’ (رفیع) the lesser heaven (سماء الدنیا)
Still an afterlife destination of the righteous is conceived in Islam as Jannah (Arabic: جنة “garden [of Eden]” translated as “paradise”). About Eden or paradise, the Qur’an says, “The parable of the garden that was promised to the righteous: Under it rivers flow; perpetual are its fruits and its shade. This is the end of the righteous, while the end of the disbelievers is hellfire.”[Quran 13:35] Islam rejects the concept of original sin, and Muslims believe that all human beings are born pure. Children automatically go to paradise when they die, regardless of their parents’ religion.
Paradise is described primarily in physical terms as a place where every wish is immediately granted when requested. Islamic texts describe immortal life in the Jannah as happy, without negative emotions. Those who dwell in the Jannah are said to wear expensive clothes, attend exquisite banquets and recline on couches inlaid with gold or precious stones. The residents will rejoice in the company of their parents, spouses and children. In Islam, if good deeds outweigh sins, one can enter paradise. Conversely, if sins outweigh good deeds, one is sent to hell. The more good deeds have been performed, the higher the level of the Jannah to which one is directed.
Verses describing paradise are: Quran 13:35, Quran 18:31, Quran 38:49-54, Quran 35:33-35, Quran 52:17-27.
The Qur’an refers to the Jannah by different names: Al-Firdaws, Jannātu-′Adn (“Garden of Eden” or “Eternal Gardens”), Jannatu-n-Na’īm (“Garden of Delights”), Jannatu-l-Ma’wa (“Garden of Refuge”), Dāru-s-Salām (“Abode of Peace”), Dāru-l-Muqāma (“Abode of Permanent Stay”), al-Muqāmu-l-Amin (“Safe Station”) and Jannātu-l-Khuld (“Garden of Immortality”). In the Hadiths, these are the different regions of paradise.
The Qur’ān and Hadiths often mention the existence of seven samāwāt (سماوات), plural of samāʾ (سماء), meaning “paradise, heaven, celestial sphere,” cognate with the Hebrew shamāyim (שמים). Some of the verses in the Qur’an that mention samaawat are Qur’an 41:12, Qur’an 65:12 and Qur’an 71:15.
There are two interpretations of the use of the number “seven.” One view is that the number “seven” here simply means “many” and should not be taken literally (the number is often used to imply this in the Arabic language). But many other commentators use the number in a literal sense.
One interpretation of “heavens” is that all stars and galaxies (including the Milky Way) are part of the “first heaven,” and “beyond that are six even greater worlds,” which have not yet been discovered by scientists.
In other sources, the concept is presented in metaphorical terms. Each of the seven heavens is represented as composed of a different material, and Islamic prophets reside in each of them.
The first heaven is described as made of water and is the home of Adam and Eve, as well as the angels of each star.
The second heaven is described as made of white pearls and is the home of Yahya (John the Baptist) and Isa (Jesus).
The third heaven is described as made of iron (alternatively pearls or other dazzling stones); Joseph and the Angel of Death (called Azrael in some traditions) reside there.
The fourth heaven is described as made of brass (alternatively white gold); Idris (conventionally identified with Enoch) and the “Angel of Tears” reside there.
The fifth heaven is described as made of silver; Aaron and the “Avenging Angel”[disambiguation needed] hold court in this heaven.
The sixth heaven is described as made of gold (alternately garnets and rubies); Moses is found here.
The seventh heaven, which borrows some concepts from its Hebrew counterpart, is depicted as composed of divine light incomprehensible to mortal man (alternately emerald). Abraham resides there and Sidrat al-Muntaha, a large and enigmatic Lote tree, marks the end of the seventh heaven and the utmost extremity of all God’s creatures and heavenly knowledge.
Will all believers go to heaven?
Let us return to the Mishnah we quoted at the beginning:
Every Jewish person has a share in Olam Ha-Ba, as it is said, “Your people are all righteous. They will inherit the land forever. They are the shoot of My planting, the work of My hands, in which I glory.” (Isaiah 60:21)
And these are the ones who have no portion in Olam Ha-Ba: One who maintains that resurrection of the dead is not a Biblical doctrine, that the Torah was not divinely revealed, and one who despises the sages.
According to the Mishnah, every Jew has a part in the Olam Ha-Ba, also called the World to Come. This belief is based on the words of Isaiah 60:21. However, there are exceptions. Those who deny the resurrection of the dead, the divine origin of Torah or despise the sages will not have a part in Olam Ha-Ba.
Although every Jew is born with a part in Olam Ha-Ba, some wrong actions can cause him to lose it. For example, if someone understands the meaning of Olam Ha-Ba but denies its truth, he cuts himself off from the experience. The same applies to a person who knows Torah but rejects its divine origin or the guidance of the sages.
The Talmud lists other misdeeds and attitudes that can prevent a Jew from getting his share of Olam Ha-Ba. However, through teshuvah (remorse and return to G-d), a soul can reclaim his lost portion. Even if a person privately repents in his heart, he can still reclaim his share, as Maimonides explains.
In addition, good deeds can increase the soul’s share in Olam Ha-Ba. For those who have passed away, good deeds and their children’s Torah study can help them increase their share. The prayers of others for them can also be beneficial.
In conclusion, the belief is that no one will be permanently excluded from Olam Ha-Ba. According to Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman and Maimonides, at the end of the exile everyone will return and be redeemed.
Will nonbelievers go to heaven?
Yes, even according to the Talmud, righteous individuals of all nations have a share in Olam Ha-Ba, the World to Come. Maimonides’ Final Judgment supports this idea.
Being a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim, are not requirements for fulfilling one’s divine purpose, because GOD’s Plan calls for different human lives to come together in total harmony.
The Talmud and Maimonides outline seven basic guidelines of righteousness for all people. Furthermore, Maimonides states that Olam Ha-Ba is for those who do good because they believe it is what GOD wants, not just for those who do good based on their own understanding.
Olam Ha-Ba is a divine world and those who can access it must have experienced something divine in their lives to be part of the eternal, divine realm.
- Liguori, Alphonus (1868). “Chapter XXIX. Of Heaven” . Preparation For Death. Rivingtons.
- Wright, J. Edward (2000). The Early History of Heaven. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-195-15230-2.