How the Major Religions View the Afterlife


"Then the Lord God formed man out of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being" (Genesis 2:7). In the second chapter of Genesis, Yahweh, the god of Israel,

shapes the form of Adam from the clay, then breathes into him the "breath of life," so that Adam becomes nephesh, or a "living soul."

Interestingly, Yahweh also bestows the breath of life into the animals that flourished in the Garden of Eden, and they, too, are considered living souls. Nephesh is closely associated with blood, the life-substance, which is drained away from the body at death, thus establishing in Hebrew tradition the recognition that a living person is a composite entity made up of flesh and nephesh, the spiritual essence. "The body is the sheath of the soul," states the Talmud, Sanhedrin 108a.

The early Hebrews believed that after death the soul descended to Sheol, a place deep inside the Earth where the spirits of the dead were consigned to dust and gloom. "All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again" (Ecclesiastes 3:20). By the time the Book of Daniel was written, in about 165 B.C.E., the belief had been established that the dead would be resurrected and receive judgment: "Many of those who lie dead in the ground will rise from death. Some of them will be given eternal life, and others will receive nothing but eternal shame and disgrace. Everyone who has been wise will shine bright as the sky above, and everyone who has led others to please God will shine like the stars" (Daniel 12: 2–4).

While the verses from Daniel are the only ones in Jewish scripture that specifically mention the afterlife of the soul, the subject is widely discussed in Rabbinic literature, the Kabbalah, and Jewish folklore. Generally, the soul is believed to have its roots in the world of the divine, and after the physical death of the body, the soul returns to the place of its spiritual origin. Some Jewish thinkers refer to the soul's sojourn on Earth as a kind of exile to be served until its reunion with God.

By the second century B.C.E., many Jewish teachers had been exposed to the Greek concept of the soul as the essential self that exists prior to the earthly body into which it is born and which survives the body's physical death. However, the old traditions retained the view that, an existence in the afterlife requires the restoration of the whole person. As Jewish thinking on the afterlife progressed from earlier beliefs, a school of thought arose maintaining that during the arrival of the Messiah, God would raise the dead to life again and pass judgment upon them—rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked. Such a resurrection was viewed as a restoration of persons who would possess both physical bodies and spirits, thus reinforcing the traditional philosophy that to be a living person was to be a psycho-physical unit, not an eternal soul temporarily inhabiting a mortal body. More often, however, the references to a judgment of the dead in Judaism recall the scene in the seventh chapter of the Book of Daniel in which the Ancient of Days opens the books of life and passes judgment on the kingdoms of the Earth, rather than on individuals.

According to some circles of Jewish thought, the actual Day of Judgment, yom hadin, the resurrection of the dead, will occur when the Messiah comes. On that fateful day, both Israel and the Gentile nations will be summoned to the place of judgment by the blowing of the great shofar (ram's horn) to awaken the people from their spiritual slumber. Elijah the prophet will return and set about the task of reconciling families who have become estranged. The day when the Lord judges "will be dark, very dark, without a ray of light" (Amos 5:20). Those who have maintained righteous lives and kept their covenant with God will be taken to the heavenly paradise. Those who have been judged as deserving of punishment for their misdeeds will be sent to Gehenna, to stay there for a length of time commensurate with the seriousness of their transgressions.

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