Question: "What do Jews believe about the afterlife?"
Answer: Historically, there has been little unity of belief among Jewish people about any topic, including the topics of hell, eternal life, and final judgment. If you ask ten Jews about their beliefs on something, it is possible you will get ten different answers. Some Jews believe in hell, but most do not. Most Jews today have been more influenced by Eastern mysticism, secularism, and liberal theology than by the official tenets of Judaism. Another reason most Jewish people don’t believe in hell is that Christianity teaches the doctrine of hell. Anything identified as “Christian thought” is often rejected outright as “not Jewish.”
Belief in the eventual resurrection of the dead is a fundamental belief of traditional Judaism. But even that doctrine has been debated for centuries. A belief in resurrection distinguished the Pharisees (Rabbinical Judaism) from the Sadducees (see Acts 23:8). Divine reward and punishment are so basic to Judaism that they are taught in Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Judaism. Denying hell is an example of the extent to which modern Jews have been influenced by secularism.
What a Jewish person believes about heaven and hell, known as Olam Ha-Ba (“the World to Come”), depends on what he or she believes about God. Secular Jews, like secular Gentiles, usually believe that, at death, they just go into the ground and things are over. Jews with mystical leanings believe in reincarnation, and others in resurrection.
Traditional Judaism teaches that after death our bodies go to the grave but our souls go before God to be judged. God, as Scripture states, is the only one who knows our motives as well as our works. God sees the heart, whereas man looks at the outside (1 Samuel 16:7). Facing the only true Judge, we are assigned a place in heaven according to a merit system based on God’s accounting of all our actions and motives. Traditional Jewish thought is that only the very righteous go directly to heaven; all others must be cleansed of residual sin.
According to traditional Judaism, sins that were not cleansed prior to death are removed after death in a place called Sheol or Gehinnom. The name of the place is taken from a valley (Gei Hinnom) just south of Jerusalem, once used for child sacrifice by the pagan Canaanite nations (2 Kings 23:10). Some Jews view Gehinnom as a place of torture and punishment, fire and brimstone. Others imagine it less harshly, as a place where one reviews the actions of his or her life and repents for past misdeeds. “Hell” in Judaism is a place where the soul is cleansed or refined (see Zechariah 13:9). The exceedingly righteous and those who repent before they die can avoid being “cleansed” in hell. This doctrine bears some similarity to the Catholic teaching of Purgatory.
Contrary to the Christian view of eternal damnation in Hades or hell or the lake of fire, the “punishment” of Sheol, according to Judaism, is temporary. Judaism bases its doctrine of a temporary hell on Psalm 16:10, 1 Samuel 2:6, and Jonah 2:3. According to rabbinic teachings, the soul’s sentence in Gehinnom is usually limited to a twelve-month period of purgatory before the soul takes its place in Olam Ha-Ba (Mishnah Eduyot 2:9, Shabbat 33a). This twelve-month limit is reflected in the year-long mourning cycle and the recitation of the kaddish, the memorial prayer for the dead. Second Temple Judaism believed that, until the Messiah came, it was not possible for the faithful to enter heaven. The dead remained in Sheol, waiting.
In the Jewish view of hell, the pain the soul experiences is not physical; rather, it is psychological. The shame one feels upon reviewing one’s personal history causes anguish, as does seeing how many opportunities to serve God were wasted. Almost everyone, including non-Jewish people, can merit a portion in the World to Come. But some will not be given a chance of heaven: “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2). The “everlasting contempt,” in the Jewish view, is reserved for completely evil, unredeemable people such as King Ahab, the men of Sodom, and Adolf Hitler.
Just as all Christians do not agree on eschatology, all Jewish people do not agree on the afterlife. What the Bible clearly teaches is that sin demands a price to be paid by someone, that Jesus paid that price for us, that there is an afterlife, and that, in Christ, both Jews and Gentiles can have a place of blessing in Olam Ha-Ba, the World to Come.