From the E-Bag: Heaven and Hell in Scripture
A visitor to our website writes:
I stumbled across your website looking for information to speak to a Jewish friend of mine. Your topic “The Gospel in the Old Testament” is very helpful, thank you...
I could use help. Where can you point me in the Old Testament that would refer to heaven and hell? I understand Jews do not really believe in heaven or hell as its not specifically mentioned in the Old Testament. Any help or resources that you can provide would be appreciated.
I finally have my friend listening as when he asked his rabbi about how to get to heaven he said following the Shemah and Ten Commandments and doing good things.
So my friend is interested and his rabbi stumbled to give him an answer.
Thank you for reaching out and especially for your witness to your Jewish friend!
You have asked a great question and to start the answer I should first say that if you ask three Jewish people the same question, you will get five answers. There is a wide spectrum of thought, especially on discussions of life after this life.
One stream of thought is that our eternal standing is based on our doing good deeds while on earth so that on the day of Judgement there is a set of balance scales – good deeds on one side and sins on the other. The “hope” is that a person has accrued enough merit to tip the scale in their favor and they would be granted a place in “gan eden” or the bosom of Abraham (think heaven). But, the tradition goes on to declare, that those who do not have enough merit will, at death, go to Sheol, a place of punishment but only for up to one year. Then on the anniversary of that person’s death, they will be restored to the bosom of Abraham because to receive imputed righteousness from the good deeds done by righteous Jews whose accrue merit for those who have perished. This is one reason why the headstone on the grave is not “unveiled” until the yahrzeit (anniversary of a person’s passing).
On the other hand, the Reform branch of Judaism does not believe in a literal life after death, but eternal life is vested in the memories of a person’s deeds done here which memories are passed on from generation to generation.
There is little in the Old Testament which speaks directly of Heaven and Hell, but I would invite you to look closely at what Daniel the prophet writes:
At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people—everyone whose name is found written in the book—will be delivered. Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever. (Dan. 12:1-3, NIV)
Here we find a clear reference to a future day of judgement. Those who have died shall come back to life to face judgement – some to everlasting life, others to everlasting shame and contempt. I have asked hundreds of people over the years which of these two outcomes would you prefer and it has always been unanimous – people prefer the good stuff over the bad. So the question becomes, “What is the dividing line between those who get eternal life and those who receive eternal shame and contempt?”
Most Jewish people today believe it all depends on them and how they have lived their life. Have they accrued enough merit to outweigh their sin? Here I refer people to the prophet Isaiah:
Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry. How then can we be saved? All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. (Is. 64:4-6, NIV)
What a desperate state of affairs, all our righteous deeds are like filthy rags. In other words, they are not put onto the balance scale. In fact, on the side to counterbalance our sins we have… absolutely nothing of our own merit.
Our only hope is that God provides for us what we could not provide for ourselves – the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8, NIV)
We are here to answer any questions you may have about sharing your faith or for those who are seeking the truth about the Messiah.
Do check out our website, too. We have good information useful for witnessing or helping others understand important Biblical considerations.
Yours in Y’shua – Steve Cohen
Toi and Richard
Toi handles editing and copywriting for AOHE. Richard handles digital marketing, our website, and our email newsletter.