Death. Can any experience be more final?
Obituary notices placed in the Jerusalem Post read: Sarah is no more.” “Jacob has departed from us.” These words, while not intended to cause consternation, leave a person empty, haunted with the question: “Where did they go? Where will I go? Who can know?”
Most people rationalize the experience. When my wife Claire was a teenager, she went to her grandmother’s funeral. The sudden separation of a dearly loved one left my wife with a feeling of emptiness. At the gravesite some of the friends and relatives were lost in their thoughts, others were crying softly, others were screaming. Claire kept asking everyone around her, “Where is grandmother? Are we ever going to see her again?” The only reply she received was, “Who knows?” It left my wife helpless, with a feeling of hopelessness. If this was all there is, then what’s the use of living?
Other people rationalize death in a different way. As a young Jewish man I had come to believe in Yeshua (Jesus). After completing my theological studies, I became a pastor. One day I went into the store of a Jewish proprietor I knew to buy some paint. He looked so depressed and dejected that I asked him what was wrong. He replied, “I have just attended the funeral of my favorite aunt.”
Softly I inquired, “And where is she now? Will you see her again?”
“You know what we believe,” he replied. “When a person dies, the body is placed in the ground, and that is all there is to it.”
“Surely, there isn’t much hope with such a philosophy,” I said.
The proprietor continued, “All that remains is the memory of the departed in the hearts of the living.”
I went on to describe for him a funeral which had occurred in our own congregation several weeks previous. I mentioned how we stood around the gravesite and sang, “Rejoice, Rejoice.” The meaning, I said, was that one day we would all be together again in the presence of the Lord. And anyway, the deceased was actually alive, in a place where there was no sorrow or pain or tears.
As I looked at the proprietor, tears were coursing down his cheeks. His own belief had no such hope.
The Future of the Individual Soul: A look at Jewish Sources
Do Jewish traditions in ancient Israel tell us anything about where the departed go from this life? Certainly the Pharisees believed in the resurrection, a source of great friction between them and the Sadducees. The latter did not believe in any resurrection.1 They charged that the resurrection was not taught in the Torah and that such a belief really came from the oral law, which they repudiated. The Pharisees asserted there was no section in the written Torah which did not imply the doctrine of the resurrection (Sifre, Deut. 132a).
The Talmud, in commenting on Daniel 12:2, says that one shall go his way until the end be, and then he will have rest and stand in his lot at the end of the days (Sanhedrin 91b).2 Concerning Numbers 15:31, the man who is cut off has reference to this world, but the iniquity he bears can only refer to the world to come (Sanhedrin, 90b). The interpretation of Psalm 84:4 describes the people dwelling in God’s house who will be praising him; the future tense refers to the hereafter (Sanhedrin, 91b). Finally, the resurrection was shown to be valid from the instance of Elijah’s rapture (Numbers Rabbah l4:1).3
Various ideas were expressed as to who will be resurrected. Some believed in a universal resurrection in that they who are born are destined to die, but the dead will be brought to life again (Avot 4:29).4 Some declared that the resurrection is limited only to Israel (Genesis Rabba 13:6). Others stated that only a few will share in the resurrection because it is only for the righteous and not for the wicked (Taanit 7a).
As to the nature of the resurrection, the rabbis discussed whether the body was to arise clothed or naked. The Talmud holds that the body is to arise clothed. Referring to the incident of Samuel, it was said that the woman saw an old man coming up covered with a robe (Genesis Rabbah 95:1). For this reason, the Jewish custom calls for burying the dead wrapped in shrouds.
There was also speculation as to the nature of the resurrection body, and the majority opinion was that one came back with the same body with which he was buried. God is to raise the dead with their physical blemishes in order that people will not say that he put to death persons different from those he will yet restore to life. Others, however, declare that God will restore and heal the body after the resurrection, since it is said that God both kills and brings to life. Therefore those wounded in this world, either through physical disability or through accident or war, God will restore and heal.
If we are resurrected, whether clothed or naked, with blemishes or without, then what do the rabbis say about the place to which we are resurrected?
Gehinnom is a place of punishment with seven designations: sheol, abaddon, corruption, horrible pit, shadow of death, nether world and tophet (Eruvin 19a).
Gehinnom is said to be located below the earth (Tamid 32b), west of the world (Babe Batra 84a). Gehinnom is considered to have seven layers, and the more wicked the person, the lower is his place of condemnation. The torment of the sinful is a fire of intense heat, and this fire, according to some, never ceases (Tosefta Berakot 6:7). Others, however, declare that Gehinnom will one day cease to exist (Rosh Hashanah 16b).
Instructions are given to avoid this horrible place through various means and deeds. Circumcision is a means of escape (Exodus Rabba 19:4). Whoever reads the Shema is said to be cooled; that is, it will be that much less of an influence upon the pious (Berakot 15b). The principal safeguard to keep one from Gehinnom is the study of Torah, and the fire of Gehinnom has no power over the disciples of the sages.
Garden of Eden
On the other hand, the destination of the righteous is a place called the Garden of Eden, distinct from the place where Adam and Eve were placed before the temptation, but rather to be located in the heavens, to the east of the world opposite from Gehinnom (Babe Batra 84a). And, like Gehinnom, the Garden of Eden is considered to have seven layers, each compartment in ascending order designated for corresponding levels of righteousness. Each righteous person will be assigned a dwelling place in accordance with the honor due to him (Shabbat 152a). It is thought that in this world the wicked are rich, enjoying comfort and rest, and the righteous are poor, but in the heavenly abode the Holy One will open the treasures of the Garden of Eden to the righteous, and the wicked will bite their own flesh (Exodus Rabba 31:5).
In this Edenic Garden, there will be a wonderful banquet prepared by the Holy One for the righteous (Berakot 34b), and their chief joy will be to enjoy the actual presence of God who will sit and recline with them (Numbers Rabbah 13:2).
The Garden is described as a place of extreme beauty; the use of precious stones and pearls are in abundance, myriads of angels sing in pleasant tones, and the cloud of glory is over the place. In the midst of it all, the Holy One will sit and expound Torah.
A Place In Between?
As for eternal punishment, there are also a variety of opinions, but the majority of traditional teachers are reluctant to consider an eternal punishment. Three classes of people are mentioned with respect to the Day of Judgment: the perfectly righteous, the completely wicked and the average people. Those in the first class were considered as inscribed and sealed for eternal life. Those in the second class were sealed for Gehinnom.
Of the third group, the sages taught:
The third class (the average people) will descend to Gehinnom and cry out from pain and then ascend. The sinners of Israel (it would appear, the second class) with their bodies, and the sinners of the Gentiles with their bodies, descend to Gehinnom and are judged there for twelve months. After twelve months their bodies are destroyed, and their souls burnt and scattered by, wind under the soles of the foot of the righteous…but the…(terrible wicked sinners)…will descend from Gehinnom and be judged there for generations on generations…Gehinnom will cease, but they will not cease to suffer (Rosh Hashanah 16b).
So it appears that a variety of opinions are held by the rabbis about the destiny and experience of different kinds of people after death. The general consensus of opinion, however, is that for most there seems to be some sort of a purgatory experience. Once arriving in Gehinnom, they cry out in repentance and are then released to the Garden of Eden. Some rabbis believe that for wicked sinners, punishment will be for a certain length of time, followed by final annihilation. A smaller group of rabbis, however, state that the wicked will suffer endlessly, even after Gehinnom is destroyed.
The Hope of the Early Teachers
Yohanan ben Zakkai was a principal leader in the Council of Yavneh which restructured Judaism after the loss of the second temple (70-90 C.E.). As he lay on his death bed, he was asked by his student where he was going, and he replied: “Moreover, I have before me two roads, one to paradise and one to Gehinnom, and I know not whether he will sentence me to Gehinnom or admit me into paradise.”5 This man, one of the most famous of the rabbis of his time, had no assurance of his final destiny.
And yet, in the ancient days, the holy in Israel had a complete assurance of their destiny. When Judah was under the heel of a tyrant, possibly Antiochus Epiphanes (167-164 B.C.E.), we see how a mother and her sons were able to withstand the brutal torture to which they were subjected. What was their hope in the face of such death? The mother who saw six of her sons put to death said to the seventh as he was about to die:
I beseech you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed. Thus also mankind comes into being. Do not fear this butcher, but prove worthy of your brothers. Accept death, so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again with your brothers.
2 Maccabees 7:28-29
Her hope was in the resurrection to a better day, in a kingdom of peace. In the meanwhile, after death, there was a consciousness of hope and comfort and release from all suffering.
The Proclamation of the Scriptures
What does the Torah say about hope for where we go when we leave this life? Job, possibly a contemporary of Abraham, declared:
I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that in the end he will stand upon the earth.
And after my skin has been destroyed,
yet in my flesh I will see God;
I myself will see him
with my own eyes—I, and not another.
This patriarch of so long ago had no question about where he was going, even in the midst of his suffering with a mortal illness.
David, the sweet singer of Israel, certainly had no question in his mind and heart about what would happen to him after this life. In his beautiful declaration of Psalm 23, he proclaimed who was the sanctuary of his soul. “The Lord is my shepherd,” underscores an extremely personal relationship with the Creator. Because of this intimate relationship, the king of Israel could then declare without any question, “and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23:6b). David knew where he was going when his own earthly pilgrimage would end.
What about the Jewish writers of the New Covenant? In the first century, at the end of the second temple period, they declared without any hesitation what their future destination would be.
Yeshua could, in his humanity, declare with confidence where he was going after having suffered so horribly on the tree. Even while he hung there, with others on either side of him, he said with quiet assurance to one of them, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). So sure was Yeshua of his arrival into paradise, that he gave confidence to the one next to him who had repented of his sin.
What of the disciples of Yeshua? Shimon bar Jonah, called Peter, declared to those who had come to faith through the atonement provided by Yeshua:
Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Yeshua the Messiah.
I think it is right to refresh your memory as long as I live in the tent of this body because I know that I will soon put it aside, as our Lord, Yeshua the Messiah, has made clear to me.
II Peter 1:10-11, 13-14
Neither did Saul, also called Paul, have any question as to where he was going when he was to depart from this life. His one desire was to leave this world, but he also realized that he had a task before him to reach out to those who were still seeking for answers to life’s meaning. He declared, “I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with the Messiah, which is far better; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body” (Philippians 1:23-24).
Whether we turn to the Hebrew Scriptures or to the New Covenant, we see no hesitation on the part of God’s people to declare what was to be their final destination after this life. Of them it was never said, “They are no longer with us,” as if to say they no longer existed after they died. Their story was more than just the memory of the departed “maining in the living. Rather, having left this world, the godly men and women of the Scriptures are enjoying the presence of God where “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death, or mourning or crying, or pain, for the first order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4). These believers of the Scriptures have entered into their eternal rest; they are conscious, and they are enjoying everything God has created man to enjoy.
Dear friend, you can be sure where you go after leaving this life. It can never be said of the believer that he cannot know or have any assurance. The test of any faith is the confidence we have about where we go when we die. Nothing less than this assurance will suffice, because the God of glory has made it possible for us to be sure.
Are you sure? You certainly can be, through your faith in Israel’s Messiah who declared:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled; trust in God; trust also in me. There are many rooms in my father’s house; otherwise, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you, and if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the father except through me”.
- Louis Finkelstein, The Jews: Their History, Culture and Religion, Vol 1 (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1949), pp. 116,117.
- I. Epstein, ed., The Babylonian Talmud (London: Soncino, 1938) is the English version used, although references are provided in the traditional manner.
- H. Freedman and Maurice Simon, eds., Midrash Rabbah (London: Soncino 1939) is the English version used, although references are provided in the traditional manner.
- Herbert Danby, The Mishnah (London: Oxford University Press, 1933).
- Jacob Neusner, A Life of Rabban, Yohanan ben Zakkai (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1962). p. 172