I am not certain how the concepts of the world to come, life after death, or heaven and hell became so confusing when viewed through a Jewish lens. Numerous articles can be found that begin with a statement insisting that what we have been told is wrong – that Jewish thought actually teaches us something very different. In conversations with Jewish persons on the same subjects, it is not uncommon to hear “But, I thought Jews don’t believe in…”
This world, according to Jewish faith, is the opening act for the world to come (Olam Haba). When we come to our physical deaths, Judaism asserts that this death does not affect the existence of our spiritual presence. Our spiritual presence continues on. So, if the opening act is this world (Olam Hazeh), Olam Haba is the main performance.
At a concert, it is the main performance we have all come to see. We may get lucky with a great opening act, but the headlining band is the one that we truly care about. In this world (Olam Hazeh), we are blessed with the opportunity for a little more control than we have when we attend a concert. We have the occasion to prepare ourselves accordingly for the world to come.
This groundwork calls for living with purpose. And, living with purpose requires a relationship with G-d. Our Sages tell us that we all have a place in the world to come. Our seat in the grand auditorium will depend upon our actions during our time in this world and the relationship we created with G-d.
Integrity in this lifetime will be rewarded in the next life. This includes care of our physical bodies and the world we live in. Not only must we focus on spiritual growth and well-being, but we must also realize that our spiritual livelihood is greatly impacted by how we maneuver through life in the physical world.
When confronted with death and the possibility of entering Heaven or Hell, many Jewish people are bewildered. A huge misconception within our religion is that Jews “don’t believe in hell”. While our notion of hell differs from most other religions, it certainly does exist.
Jewish hell is called Gehenom. It is a place created by G-d, a place we remain in to repair the mistakes that were not taken care of in Olam HaZeh. If a person must go to Gehenom, he or she may remain there for seconds, weeks or an entire (Jewish) year – but no more.
It is there, in Gehenom, that we are obliged to complete the difficult work we were not able to accomplish in the physical world. The path to avoiding Gehenom is to fix our mistakes while we are here. By ensuring that our lives are focused on mitzvot, something greater than ourselves, and trying to live righteously, we can do our part to avoid time in hell.
Death, Olam Haba, and Gehenom are all pieces of Judaism that are often misunderstood. Even in our living days, G-d has provided us with guidelines and tools to prepare for the world to come. They are all part of the great cycle of life and G-d’s intentions for our growth and spiritual endeavor.