Exploring what the Hebrew Bible tells us about life after death
by Ruth Rosen | November 13 2023
Gazing up at the black curtain of night sky, I was startled to see a dazzling streak of gold—as though a cosmic rip was revealing the “other side.” I felt myself lifted into the air by an invisible force—and realized I was going to heaven! When I arrived, I stared in wonder at the glorious gold light all around me. I was eager to see who was there and what was happening. But I didn’t see anyone, and nothing was happening as far as I could tell—other than the beautiful light shining everywhere. I soon got bored and came back to earth.
I awoke slightly disturbed by the dream but didn’t dwell on it. I never forgot it, and years later I understood its meaning.
I don’t suppose many Jewish kids wake up having dreamed about heaven. I grew up a little different than most Jewish kids though. Ours was a Messianic Jewish home, meaning that we believed that Yeshua (Jesus) is Messiah—and Messianic Jews were not welcome in traditional synagogues.
In those days, Messianic synagogues were few and far between, so, I attended a regular church Sunday school. There, among other things, I learned that Jesus came so that people can have “everlasting life.” Everlasting life was equated with heaven, and if I learned anything about heaven, it didn’t make much of an impression—a fact that obviously made its way into my dream.
As I got older, I discovered that belief in heaven (or hell) was not considered especially Jewish. Many of our people have only a “maybe” belief in any kind of life after death—if even that. Modern Judaism emphasizes doing good in this world, which is its own reward. Rather than a literal life after death, the hope is to live on through our accomplishments, our children, and in the memories of others.
On the one hand, the emphasis on doing good here and now is one of the things I love about Judaism. It makes good sense, whether you are “religious” or “secular,” to try to be part of making the world a better place here and now. But we all know that “here and now” will one day end for each of us. Then what?
Life gets a little weird if we think about death as the end of everything. Most find the idea frightening or depressing, or both—so it’s no wonder that so many of us spend our lives either trying to forget about death, or trying to make our lives a heavenly, painless existence that it will never be. But if we can’t have heaven in this life, what is the best we can hope for?
Many people, Jewish or not, seem to like the idea of heaven even if they don’t quite believe in it. Popular fiction, especially movies and TV shows, portray heaven as an ideal place where good people go when they die. Many heaven-oriented scripts are comedies about second chances: people who weren’t quite nice enough to qualify for heaven get sent back to earth to earn their way in, with lots of laughs along the way. We know these are silly fantasies, yet they have an appeal because, hey, who wouldn’t like to imagine that heaven operates that way?
But what if heaven is real? If there is such a thing, it exists apart from our opinions, imaginations, beliefs, and not least of all, our sense of humor. If you hope that heaven is more than wishful thinking, check out the following samples of hopes and hints of eternal life from the Jewish Bible—and see how they compare to your own hopes or expectations.
You would think that if the Bible mentioned a person made it to heaven without dying, it would be a really big deal with a long explanation, and everyone would be clamoring to know about it. Yet, according to some Jewish and Christian interpretations, a man named Enoch did just that—and the book of Genesis mentions it in a very brief, almost casual way:
“Thus all the days of Enoch were 365 years. Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him” (Genesis 5:23–24).
Some believe that “God took him” is a euphemism for “he died.” But the context makes us wonder. Chapter 5 is a genealogy of those early generations that came after Adam and Eve. In typical fashion, we are told who begot whom, how long they lived, and after reading how many years each person lived, we’re told, “And he died.” Except with Enoch. Suddenly he was gone, and the explanation is, God took him. Whether or not Enoch died, where did God take him?
The other mysterious disappearance was the prophet Elijah. According to 2 Kings 2:11, “As they [Elisha and Elijah] still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.” We don’t know for certain that Elijah made it to heaven without dying, though certainly, many devout Jews and Christians believe that to be the case. But whether or not he died, where did he disappear to? According to the Torah, he went into heaven.
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at the last he will stand upon the earth.
And after my skin has been thus destroyed,
yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
My heart faints within me!
The book of Job is the gut-wrenching story of a good person who suffers terribly and is woefully misunderstood because of it. Yet Job speaks of the very God who allowed this suffering as his “Redeemer,” or in Hebrew, go’el. Commentator John Walton writes: “The job of the go’el is to recover losses and to salvage the dignity of one who has suffered loss.”1
Job speaks of seeing God for himself “at the last.” He believes that after his skin (and presumably, the rest of him with it) has been destroyed, he will have a body from which he will see God. Some take this as a reference to the resurrection.* But one way or another, Job’s thought of seeing God is connected to redemption, which is a very strong theme in the Jewish Bible. Job’s certainty of a redeemer, and that one day he will see God, offers him hope and creates great longing.
Does the thought of seeing God create hope and longing in your heart? Unless or until God is the ultimate one you want to see, heaven probably won’t hold much hope for you.
For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol,
or let your holy one see corruption.
You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
In this amazing psalm, King David seems to predict life beyond the grave (Sheol). He trusts that God will not abandon him and that death will not end their relationship. He describes God’s presence as a place of total joy, where there are “pleasures forevermore.” While this psalm doesn’t talk about heaven per se, it certainly indicates a world to come after this mortal life.
“Pleasures forevermore” might sound like a wish list, like all the best things you can imagine and hope to find in heaven. In my childhood dream I went in search of those pleasures but didn’t find them. But in this psalm, we see that the presence of God is the source of total, eternal, joy and pleasure.
The New Testament indicates that King David was not merely speaking of himself in this psalm but was somehow also speaking about the coming Messiah.** It seems that David had confidence in life beyond the grave because he had confidence in God and in God’s promised Redeemer. Maybe even the same redeemer that Job mentioned?
Will we find anything besides God’s presence to enjoy in heaven? The New Testament tells us that no one has seen or heard or even been able to imagine “what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). But if we don’t find joy in the presence of God first and foremost, if we don’t love and long to be with Him, there’s really no basis to hope for the eternal pleasures that are described as being at His right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will receive me to glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
This psalm by Asaph includes the hope of being with God forever—and his greatest desire regarding heaven is just that. “Whom have I in heaven but you” doesn’t mean heaven has a population of two; it means that the afterlife is the “portion” of those who desire God more than anything or anyone else on earth.
Asaph is saying that God has no rivals—not a person and not a thing. Have you ever thought about heaven as the place where God is the ultimate and unrivaled source of satisfaction, and that He will fulfill your greatest longings forever? If we set our ultimate desire in this life on something or someone besides God, does it make sense that we will want Him more than anything in the next?
If heaven is what the Jewish Bible describes as everlasting joy in being in God’s presence, then it’s Jewish in the most original and classic sense. So if you find it hard to think about death, and equally hard to be excited about heaven, your hesitation probably doesn’t have anything to do with being Jewish.
He has made everything beautiful in its time.
Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart,
yet so that he cannot find out what God has done
from the beginning to the end.
The book of Ecclesiastes can be depressing or comforting, depending how you look at it. It demonstrates how normal it is to feel demoralized and frustrated about the troubles, inequities, and especially the temporary nature of life “under the sun.” However, the author (who many believe to be King Solomon) also understood that life is so much more than what we see “under the sun.” He introduces God as maker, giver, and judge throughout the book. And the passage above offers great hope in the face of our mortality.
People may differ about exactly what it means for God to put eternity in our hearts, but one thing is certain: it’s more than just a survival instinct. All animals have a drive for self-preservation, but we human beings have something more. It’s not just that we want our lives to continue—it’s that we want them to mean something. We know empirically that all good things come to an end—but the question that plagues us is a spiritual one: What good is a good that doesn’t last?
God has seen to it that we long for more than our mortal lives can offer. The entire book of Ecclesiastes demonstrates that no matter what we do to try to create some kind of heaven on earth, it will never work. If there is no eternity, we have to do all kinds of mental gymnastics to convince ourselves that there is a purpose to this life when eventually we will be dust, and whatever we did or didn’t do will be forgotten.
At our core, deep in our hearts, we sense that we were meant for eternity. Which raises an important question.
It might seem obvious that if heaven exists, everyone would want to go there, and all nice people would deserve a place. But what if heaven is real in the biblical sense that you just read about? Are you sure you would want it? And what would it mean to deserve it? If you are willing to ask yourself those questions, you might be shocked by your own answer. I know that I was. Because heaven doesn’t have much appeal until you are ready to know and love and worship God for who He really is. That doesn’t seem to come naturally for Jews or for Gentiles. But we don’t have to settle for what comes naturally.
Which brings me back to my childhood dream about heaven, and how I interpreted it years later.
In my dream, I was attracted to God’s beauty but when I started looking around, I wasn’t looking for God … I was looking for the cool places and the cool people and the cool activities I assumed He would have waiting for me.
In retrospect, my dream taught me that if I don’t want God above all things, I don’t want heaven. And while I believed in God and did my best to help others believe, I had a tendency to attach myself to all the good things He had given me, rather than being deeply impressed and overwhelmed by the joy of knowing I belong to Him. When I realized how “deeply shallow” my relationship with God was, I was horrified. I asked God to change my heart, and He did.
Whatever else heaven may offer, the Jewish Bible makes it clear that heaven is the ultimate experience of God’s presence and amazing qualities. Some of God’s qualities, like His beauty and glory, are inherently appealing, but they are inseparable from His power, authority, and many other attributes that He has and we don’t—things that make us far less in charge of our lives than we might like to think we are.
What about you? I don’t know how you feel about God, but if you are either ignoring or avoiding God in this life, do you really think you’d want an eternity to be with Him in the next? Most of us are interested in what God might give or do for us, and there is nothing wrong with that. Yet many of us simply shrug our shoulders as we ignore or simply refuse to honor what He might want and expect of us—and there is something wrong with that. The Bible calls it sin, and tells us that it’s been an ongoing problem since time began.
Sin isn’t just some moral lapse—it’s a dysfunction of our souls—a condition that renders us so bent on following our own path that we are incapable of giving God the trust and obedience He deserves. And if we can’t tolerate God’s right to set boundaries for us here and now, how can we possibly think we want, much less deserve, to be in His presence for eternity?
The bad news is, it seems like none of us is really capable of wanting God the way we should—the way we’d need to in order to enjoy Him in the world to come. That’s why the prophet Isaiah said, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6).
The good news is found in that same chapter of Isaiah: “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (v. 6). Read the whole chapter. See what it seems to be describing. And remember, Isaiah is in the Jewish Bible. We think Isaiah was talking about the coming of Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, who redeems us and makes it possible for us to want God, to receive the reconciliation he offers, and to enjoy the fact that he is God and we are not.
God wants us to know and enjoy Him forever—not as a fairy godmother who makes our dreams come true, but as the Creator and lover of our souls. He can supernaturally change hearts and restore our longing for Him as the source of everything truly good in this world and the next. That’s what He did for me. Ask Him. If you’d like support in doing so, please contact us through the chat box.
1 John H. Walton, NIV Application Commentary, s.v. “Job” (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 218, Kindle.
*The medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides included a statement about the resurrection as one of his “Principles of Faith,” which have become a kind of credo for Orthodox Jews.
**Acts 2:22–39 and Acts 13:30–37.