Jewish eschatology

Jewish eschatology is concerned with Mashiach (the Jewish Messiah) the continuation of the Davidic line, and Olam Haba (Hebrew for "the world to come"; i.e. the afterlife).



The Hebrew word Mashiach (or Moshiach) means anointed one, and refers to a mortal human being. Within Judaism, the Mashiach is a human being who will be a descendant of King David continuing the Davidic line, and who will usher in a messianic era of peace and prosperity for Israel and all the nations of the world. The job description, as such, is this:

  1. All of the people of Israel will come back to Torah
  2. The people of Israel will be gathered back to the land of Israel.
  3. The Holy Temple in Jerusalem will be rebuilt.
  4. Israel will live superior among the nations, and will have no need to defend herself.
  5. War and famine will end, and an era of peace and prosperity will come upon the Earth.

The traditional Jewish understanding of the messiah is non-supernatural, and is best elucidated by Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon), in his commentary to tractate Sanhedrin, of the Babylonian Talmud. He writes:

"The Messianic age is when the Jews will regain their independence and all return to the land of Israel. The Messiah will be a very great king, he will achieve great fame, and his reputation among the gentile nations will be even greater than that of King Solomon. His great righteousness and the wonders that he will bring about will cause all peoples to make peace with him and all lands to serve him.... Nothing will change in the Messianic age, however, except that Jews will regain their independence. Rich and poor, strong and weak, will still exist. However it will be very easy for people to make a living, and with very little effort they will be able to accomplish very much.... it will be a time when the number of wise men will increase...war shall not exist, and nation shall no longer lift up sword against nation.... The Messianic age will be highlighted by a community of the righteous and dominated by goodness and wisdom. It will be ruled by the Messiah, a righteous and honest king, outstanding in wisdom, and close to God. Do not think that the ways of the world or the laws of nature will change, this is not true. The world will continue as it is. The prophet Isaiah predicted "The wolf shall live with the sheep, the leopard shall lie down with the kid." This, however, is merely allegory, meaning that the Jews will live safely, even with the formerly wicked nations. All nations will return to the true religion [monotheism, although not necessarily Judaism] and will no longer steal or oppress. Note that all prophecies regarding the Messiah are allegorical - Only in the Messianic age will we know the meaning of each allegory and what it comes to teach us. Our sages and prophets did not long for the Messianic age in order that they might rule the world and dominate the gentiles....the only thing they wanted was to be free for Jews to involve themselves with the Torah and its wisdom."

This principle is accepted by Orthodox Jews. Conservative Jews vary in their beliefs, some affirming a personal messiah, while others affirm a messianic era. "We do not know when the Messiah will come, nor whether he will be a charismatic human figure or is a symbol of the redemption of humankind from the evils of the world. Through the doctrine of a Messianic figure, Judaism teaches us that every individual human being must live as if he or she, individually, has the responsibility to bring about the messianic age. Beyond that, we echo the words of Maimonides based on the prophet Habakkuk (2:3) that though he may tarry, yet do we wait for him each day..." [Emet ve-Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism]

Reform Jews generally concur with this latter position; they are more likely to believe in a messianic era than a personal messiah. Reconstructionist Jews reject the idea that God can send a personal messiah or bring about a messianic age, but they do teach that man can use the power or process termed God to help bring about such a world.

Like Jews, Christians use the word "messiah" to refer to the Davidic king promised to Israel. However, Christians believe that the messiah has already appeared, and that he was Jesus of Nazareth. Since most Christians believe that Jesus was himself God incarnate, their understanding of the messiah as a Davidic king is often overshadowed by their understanding of Jesus as the revelation of God to humanity.

The afterlife and olam haba (the world to come)

Judaism concentrates on the importance of this world, the fact is that all of classical Judaism does posit an afterlife. The Jewish tradition affirms that the human soul is immortal, and thus in some way survives the physical death of the body. The existence of the soul after death is sometimes described with terms such as Olam Haba (the world to come), Gan Eden (the Heavenly Garden of Eden, or Paradise) and Gehenna (Purgatory).

However, many secular or liberal Jews would state that Judaism does not believe in an afterlife, or that it is a this-worldly religion which concentrates on the here and now.

While all classic rabbinic sources discuss afterlife for the soul, there is dispute among the classic Medieval scholars regarding the nature of existence in the "End of Days" after the messianic period. While Maimonidies describes an entirely spiritual existence of souls, which he calls "disembodied intellects," Nachmanidies discusses an intensely spiritual existence on Earth, where spirituality and physicality are merged. Both agree that life after death is as Maimonidies describes the "End of Days." This existence entails an extremely heightened understanding of and connection to the Divine Presence. This view is shared by all classic rabbinic scholars.

There is much rabbinic material on what happens to the soul of the deceased after death, what it experiences, and where it goes. At various points in the afterlife journey, the soul may encounter: Hibbut ha-kever, the pains of the grave; Dumah, the angel of silence; The angel of death; The Kaf ha-Kela, the catapult of the soul; Gehenna (purgatory); and Gan Eden (heaven or paradise). All classic rabbinic scholars agree that these concepts are beyond typical human understanding. Therefore, these ideas are expressed throughout rabbinic literature through many varied parables and analogies.

Gehenna is fairly well defined in rabbinic literature. It is sometimes translated as "hell", but one should note that the Christian view of hell is different from the Jewish view. For Christians, hell is an abode of eternal torment or separation from God, where serious sinners and/or non-Christians go (details vary among Christian denominations). In Judaism, gehenna - while certainly a terribly unpleasant place - is not hell. The overwhelming majority of rabbinic thought maintains that people are not tortured in gehenna forever; the longest that one can be there is said to be twelve months, with extremely rare exception. Some consider it a spiritual forge where the soul is purified for its eventual ascent to Gan Eden (heaven), where all imperfections are purged.

Biblical verses

Although the belief in an afterlife is common to both Judaism and Christianity, in recent times some biblical scholars have argued that this belief is a later development not found in the earlier books of the Tanakh. Others argue the more traditional view, that the belief in an afterlife is found throughout the Tanakh. The following lists verses brought by both sides in support of their arguments.

Support for an afterlife

The Tanakh speaks of several noteworthy people being "gathered to their people." See, for example, Genesis 25:8 (Abraham), 25:17 (Ishmael), 35:29 (Isaac), 49:33 (Jacob), Deuteronomy 32:50 (Moses and Aaron), 2 Kings 22:20 (King Josiah). This gathering is described as a separate event from the physical death of the body or the burial.

Certain sins are punished by the sinner being "cut off from his people." See, for example, Genesis 17:14 and Exodus 31:14. This punishment is referred to as kareit (literally, "cutting off," but usually translated as "spiritual excision"), and is traditionally understood to mean that the soul loses its portion in the afterlife, or "World to Come".

The Torah also prohibits contacting the spirit of the dead in Leviticus 19-20 and Deuteronomy 18, indicating that something of a person lives on after physical death. As well, Saul, in 1 Samuel 28:19, employs a sorceress to raise the spirit of the prophet Samuel who had died some time prior.

Job 19:26 has traditionally been considered a reference to the afterlife: "And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God". Other verses suggesting an afterlife include:

  • Isaiah 26:19 "Thy dead shall live, their bodies shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy!..."
  • Ecclesiastes 12:7 "Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, And the spirit will return to God who gave it"

Perhaps the most explicit Biblical reference to an afterlife is found in the Book of Daniel:

  • Daniel 12:2 "And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to reproaches and everlasting abhorrence."

Support for no afterlife

In the Tanakh God's promises to the people of Israel - whether benefits or punishments - seem to concern events of this world and not another (e.g. good crops, peace; famine, plague). Some verses appear to qualify the existence of the afterlife wherein one cannot praise or thank God, though they do not rule out an afterlife in which one receives a reward or punishment for what one has done:

  • Isaiah 39:18 "For it is not Sheol that praises You, Not [the land of] Death that extols you; Nor do they who descend into the Pit hope for your grace. The living, only the living can give thanks to you."
  • Psalms 6:6 "For there is no praise of You among the dead; in Sheol, who can acclaim you?"
  • Psalms 115:17 "The dead cannot praise the Lord, nor any who go down into silence."

Other verses are more general:

  • Job 7:7-10 "Consider that my life is but wind; I shall never see happiness again....As a cloud fades away, so whoever goes down into Sheol does not come up.."
  • Ecclesiastes 9:4-5 "For he who is reckoned among the living has something to look forward to - even a live dog is better than a dead lion - since the living know that they will die. But the dead know nothing; they have no more recompense, for even the memory of them has died."

See also


Yitzchak Blau "Body and Soul: Tehiyyat ha-Metim and Gilgulim in Medieval and Modern Philosophy", The Torah U-Madda Journal, Volume 10, 2001

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