This past May, the rather creative Ari Mandel of Teaneck, New Jersey tried selling “My Portion in Olam Habaah (heaven)”-rather than his soul-on Ebay. Both are considered violations of the “no item” policy on the site. That didn’t stop 181 bids on Mandel’s listing, skyrocketing the initial 99-cent bid to $99,900 shortly after posting. It was subsequently abolished from the auction site.
In the New York Daily News, Carol Kuruvilla describes Mandel as, “culturally Jewish and theologically atheist.” He might have had some vested interest in benefitting from either his Orthodox Jewish upbringing or simply from well off, less heretical Jewish people who would understand the significance of olam habaah, “the world to come.” Or he really might have been kidding.
Mandel offered his mizvot, good deeds, and (perhaps 100% sardonically), his 98% vegan lifestyle as proof of his having kept kosher laws-along with being idolatry free-in exchange for a set spot with God. If modern Judaism focuses on prayer, repentance and good deeds-post-Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s interpretation-as a way of getting into heaven, then buying a spot doesn’t make much sense either way. As a culturally Jewish, theologically theist New Jerseyan, I wanted to address the unmentioned half of this E-fiasco.
On his deathbed, Rabbi Yochanan wasn’t sure of his own fate, but was certainly convinced there was a distinct alternative to heaven, ‘”but now, when I am being led into the presence of the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be he, who lives and endures for all eternity, who if he be wrathful against me his anger is eternal, who if he imprisons me the imprisonment is everlasting, who if he condemns me to death the death is forever, and whom I cannot appease with words or bribe with money — nay more, when before me lie two ways, one of Gan Eden [heaven] and the other of Gehinnom [hell], AND I KNOW NOT TO WHICH I AM TO BE LED — shall I not weep?”” (Berachot 28b).
The general Jewish perception of the afterlife-hell in particular-proves nebulous, although the Scriptures are clear. Stricter sects of Orthodox Judaism mostly agree with the Christian understanding of a heaven and a hell. Since hell is the alternative to an eternity with God, it’s well documented in Scripture and worth exploring.
Unlike some common conceptions, hell is not foreign to Judaism. Hell is an English word that derives its meaning from several Hebrew terms. Biblically, these include Sheol, Abbadon, and the pit. Sheol is used extensively in the Torah, and all of Hebrew Scripture, and is the general term for the underworld (Psalm 89:48). The wicked feared it far more than the righteous (Job 24:19). Jewish thought on different levels of heaven, tiers in the afterlife, might originate from Deutoronomy 32:22 where Sheol is described topographically. Abbadon and the pit both refer specifically to the half reserved for the wicked’s punishment. Abbadon means “destruction”; three of the Tanakh’s poetry books mention Abbadon and the synonymous term, “the pit.” The pit is also mentioned in three of the prophets’ writings.
Gehenna belongs in this grouping, too. Gehenna, both a Yiddish and Greek term, stems from two Hebrew words meaning “the Valley of Hinnom” where at one point, outside Jerusalem’s walls, the many wayward kings of Israel performed human sacrifice, burning the bodies afterward. “Gehenna is associated with fire, and fire is the source of torment,” states Dr. Arnold Fruchtenbaum in his manuscript, The Place of the Dead (12). From both a biblical and rabbinical standpoint, hell is seen as a place of “fire and brimstone” (Psalm 11:6).
The rabbis often mention “Abraham’s bosom,” a phrase that appears in the New Testament’s story of Lazarus twice. That duo helps differentiate the sections of Sheol into separated halves, with interaction impossible. Abraham’s bosom is exclusively for the righteous, adjacent to hell, and it is impossible to travel between the two.
With this much information on hell in Jewish tradition alone, it’s difficult to see why anyone would make light of it or attempt to profit from it. The reality of hell is one we all should want to be excused from. That is apparent in the Mandel lot’s higher bidders.
Thankfully, those of us who are Jewish (and Gentile) believers in Jesus have found assurance that we can escape eternal punishment. It’s in the reality of God descending into the depths of humanity, humbling Himself in human form, and taking on our punishment in this life so that we can accept His sacrifice and be united with Him in heaven after we die.
Do you, like Rabbi Yochanan, wish you could know with certainty that God would accept you into His presence in the afterlife? He has made a way for you to do that which, thankfully, is not dependent on our merits at all.
It only takes:
- Verbal confession that Jesus is Messiah, God himself, and our redemption from sin through his death in our stead
- Belief that God raised Jesus from the dead, defeating the power of hell
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