In all likelihood, the conception of an afterlife has been around ever since human beings recognized themselves as conscious entities. If I am real, if I believe that I matter in some personal way that goes beyond the basic instinct to stay alive, then how could I ever not be? It’s just not a sensible possibility. What does it mean for me to not be around somewhere? Not that I consider all of creation to be contingent upon me – I would never be so egotistical. I have no problem with the past having existed without me. I have no problem with the future taking place without me to experience it. I even can stomach most of the present existing without me being aware of it. But that’s where I draw the line – once I exist, I cannot imagine me not existing. Death flies in the face of this obvious logic. Hence, the need for an afterlife.
Most religions have some version of an afterlife. To many people, it is almost synonymous with religion itself. In recent centuries during which religion has slowly fallen out of favor, first with intellectuals and then with skeptics in general, the belief in an afterlife has also taken a dive. There is no place for an afterlife if there is no immortal soul. If we are only molecules and energy, death is nothing more than a redistribution of those molecules and that energy. Yet the belief persists, even among those who would not be caught dead admitting it in public. This belief is too deeply ingrained to dismiss with mere intellectual arguments, no matter how compelling they may be.
The Jewish belief in an afterlife does not stem from an existential crisis on ‘non-existence’. The World to Come, or Olam Habah, describes a reality that answers a broader question – the notion of divine justice. This world, Olam Hazeh, is so filled with inequality and unfairness that it simply cannot fit with a belief in a deity who is just and loving. Why do the righteous suffer? Why do little children die? Where was God during the Holocaust? There are a million and one questions that anyone could ask on the apparent lack of true justice in life, and every one of them pokes a huge hole in the neat picture of the Biblical God who rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. Hence, the need for an afterlife.
It is rather strange that Judaism, or at least the Biblical religion described in the Tanakh, gives only one hint of an afterlife. This is single phrase in the relatively late book of Daniel – ‘many of those who sleep in the dust will awaken, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt’ (12:2). The concept of Heaven is all over the place, but it is an abode for God and the angels, and not a residence for souls after departing life on earth. There was no connection whatsoever between the two in the Bible. Remarkably enough, there is nothing else in the vast panorama of Tanakh ideas that clearly describes an afterlife. But there are verses that indicate the opposite: ‘For the living know that they will die, and the dead know nothing, and there is no more reward, for their memory is forgotten’ (Ecclesiastes 9:5). Later commentaries attempt to reconcile this verse with the universal Jewish belief in afterlife, but it is not an easy fit.
In fact, it is not until the Apocryphal work, Maccabees II, that we can discern a clear belief in an afterlife. Among the many incidents described in this relatively obscure book is a scene involving an unnamed woman and her seven unnamed sons. The tyrannical Syrian-Greek king Antiochus, tried to force the seven brothers to eat pig meat, which they adamantly refused. He tortured them one by one, cutting off various limbs, tearing off skin, and burning bodies alive, all right in front of their mother. Each one was offered the same choice, and each one chose to suffer the fate of martyrdom rather than submit. When six were dead and only the youngest remained alive, the king tried to persuade him with different methods. He first offered him not only his freedom, but also wealth and power. When this had no effect, he demanded that the mother persuade him. Instead, she begged him as the mother who bore him and nursed him that he follow in the noble footsteps of his brothers and accept the same fate. The young boy didn’t even let her finish before mocking the king’s threats and justifying God’s judgment throughout the entire episode. (Maccabees II, 7)
No less than five times in the dramatic dialogues that precede each round of torture, the boys or the mother defend their martyrdom by calling on their faith in the everlasting life that awaits them. They suggest ideas of resurrection of the body and the soul. Whether they would have withstood the torture and submitted to martyrdom without this faith is unclear. Their complete faith in this radical but compelling idea lifts them above the normal concerns of human existence and the natural bonds of life. In particular the mother, in her words of encouragement to her sons, says:
“I do not know how you appeared in my womb, for it was not I that gave you life and breath, and it was not I that brought into harmony the elements of each. Therefore, the Creator of the world, who formed the human race and arranged the generation of all things, will give you back again life and breath in his mercy, as you now are without regard for your own lives, for the sake of His laws” (22,23)
These remarkable words from a mother witnessing the torture of her children evoke powerful feelings of both compassion and awe in anyone who reads them. Is she crazy? Is she superhuman? Is she banking on an illusion without a future, or is this the most natural consequence of this most noble act of religious faith? Is their faith merely a crutch, a wild grasp at the flimsiest of straws, or a confirmation of the most fundamental aspect of the loving God’s relationship with His beloved creations? In truth, it is this faith that enables a truly religious person to rise to the occasion in situations that would normally be well beyond his or her capabilities. The very least we can say about such a faith is that it works.
But is there anything more to it than faith? Could it be real? The answer, of course, is that we just don’t know. Nobody can definitely say whether there is or isn’t an afterlife. Perhaps this is why there is no definitive statement about it in the Old Testament. But if it is real, shouldn’t God, the author of the Torah, have let us know this crucial detail about life and death? How could such an essential matter have been left out of the text entirely?
Regardless of the answer to this important question, by the time of the Greek persecution a concrete belief in the afterlife had arisen. To perform the superhuman feats of martyrdom, a palpable motivation was necessary. A more ultimate system of justice was needed to account for the suffering of those who sacrificed themselves for the will of God. Eventually this mechanism of reward and punishment almost entirely replaced its earthly counterpart. Rabbinic statements like ‘This world is a vestibule (lobby) for the world to come; prepare yourself in the vestibule to enter the mansion’ (Avot 4:16), epitomized the ‘other-worldly’ approach that enveloped what was left of Biblical Judaism. A kind of tension arose within the collective Jewish mind between spiritual priorities – is the ultimate purpose this world or the next world?
It is interesting that the original statement from the book of Maccabees about the afterlife avoids this debate entirely. The mother tells her remaining sons that God will ‘give you back again life and breath in his mercy, as you now are without regard for your own lives, for the sake of his laws.’ The afterlife was a kind of ‘reliving’ that the Creator of life allowed those who had sacrificed themselves for God. Another son says, ‘I got these (my hands) from heaven, and for the sake of its laws I disregard them, and from it I hope to receive them back again.’ It appears that the willingness to deny the permanence of this world results in the creation of a permanent next world. The World to Come is a reward for sacrifice. Perhaps one’s motivation shouldn’t be to receive this reward, but it sure beats not being motivated by anything.
The notion of sacrifice as a cause for an afterlife gives us a window into what this late-Biblical conception of the afterlife really was. If one expects a reward then there is no sacrifice. It’s really just a trade-off. So why should such a bargain be worthy of the ultimate reward? If one has no expectation of reward then the sacrifice is genuine, and, somewhat ironically, the reward is justified. In other words, the World to Come is actually a ‘world’ that is created by giving up (part of) one’s own world for the sake of God. Grasping ultimate purpose in this world creates an everlasting life. It is the universal dream of immortality realized through choosing the eternal over the transient. What could be more just than receiving eternity as a reward for genuine sacrifice?
There is an undeniable comfort in believing that death is not the finality to which the biologists and existentialists doom us all. There is also a feeling of satisfaction in knowing that every deed gets answered for in the end. These twin benefits of an afterlife allow many of us to persevere when life threatens to overwhelm us with its difficulties. Focusing on some imagined (or real) eternity certainly gets us over the countless dead ends, the infinite moments of hopelessness, and the endless Sisyphean tasks we find ourselves burdened with. There is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
But there is more to this afterlife business. It is not just the heavenly equivalent of a year-end party to cap off a life well spent. It is a new life, a new world, earned dollar-for-dollar for every ounce of blood, sweat, and tears that went into life in ‘this’ world. It is those moments of sacrifice, those times when we would really rather be doing anything else than what we have to do, but persevere nevertheless because some ‘higher calling’ calls us to this task. Those moments are nothing less than preparation for the world to come. It is those moments that we are truly living for. In a sense, the fulfillment that can be reaped from them outweighs that compensating reward in the next world. For they are a taste of the next world in this world - they are literally heaven on earth.
It is high time we brought the notion of eternity back into our lives. Is the fleeting satisfaction of the here and now so overwhelming that we abandon all thought of what comes ‘next’? Heaven needn’t be a mere crutch for those who can’t handle the suffering of this world. It is a concept of profound spiritual depth. It enables us to see beyond the pettiness of a world of instant gratification, to gain a glimpse of our true selves and what we are capable of achieving. Heaven is right there waiting for us, right in the midst of our lives. We don’t have to die to attain this vision. Living a life that includes elements of sacrifice is our ticket to another world. It is ours for the taking.
Food for Thought
The afterlife is unquestionably one of the most universal of human beliefs. Why is it that it did not emerge as a prominent concept in Judaism until after the close of the Bible?
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