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Jewish eschatology

Jewish eschatology is concerned with moschiach (the messiah) and Olam Haba (Hebrew for "the world to come"; i.e. the afterlife).

The Hebrew word 'moshiach' means 'anointed one,' and refers to a mortal human being. While Christians use the word "messiah" as well, they use it in a different way. For many Christians, God's ultimate miracle was His Self-Incarnation as a human being. In this view, God was both fully man and yet also fully human, both limited in intelligence and yet omniscient, simultaneously.

Philosophically and logically, these claims appear mutually incompatible. Yet the early church insisted that both truths be held together. See Christology, apophatic theology.

How can God die? This thinking has always been foreign to Judaism. Within Judaism, moshiach is a human being who will be a descendant of King David, 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 with be gathered back to the land of Israel.
  3. The Holy Temple in Jerusalem will be rebuilt.
  4. Israel will live among the nations as an equal, and will be strong enough to defend herself.
  5. Eventually, war, hatred 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....(Since no one can say for certain what will happen) each of us is free to fashion personal speculation. Some of us accept these speculations are literally true, while others understand them as elaborate metaphors. [Emet ve-Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism, not a public domain work. Is this quote too extensive for use here?]

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.

Table of contents
1 The afterlife and olam haba (the world to come)
2 Reincarnation
3 Biblical ideas that there is no afterlife

The afterlife and olam haba (the world to come)

If you ask many secular or liberal Jews whether Judaism teaches that the soul is immortal or if there is an afterlife, they will likely answer that Judaism doesn't believe in afterlife; rather, most people will say that Judaism is a this-worldly religion which concentrates on the here and now. While it is certainly true that Judaism does concentrate on the importance of this world, the fact is that much (not all) of classical Judaism does posit an afterlife. Much of 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 described with terms such as Olam Haba (the world to come), Gan Eden (the Heavenly Garden of Eden, or Paradise) and Gehenna (Purgatory).

Classical rabbinic afterlife teachings varied in different places and times; they were never synthesized into one coherent philosophy. As such, the different Jewish views of the afterlife are sometimes contradictory. This is especially true for "Olam Haba", the world to come. In some rabbinic works this phrase refers to the messianic era, a physical realm right here on Earth. However, in other works this phrase means Gan Eden, Paradise, a purely spiritual realm.

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 is said to 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; Paradise).

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 where sinners go; any person who does not accept Jesus as their messiah is defined by most Christian sects as someone destined for eternal damnation. 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 hell forever; the longest that one can be there is said to be 12 months. Some consider it a spiritual forge where the soul is purified for its eventual ascent to Gan Eden [Heaven], where all imperfections are purged.


The notion of reincarnation, the transmigration of a soul after death into a new body, has no place in the Bible. The classical rabbinic works (midrash, Mishna and Talmud) also are silent on this topic. These beliefs originally only existed in a few gentile sects; however, by the eight century these ideas had found their way into the beliefs of the Karaites, an offshoot of Judaism which later became a separate religion. In the tenth century, the Jewish medieval philosopher Saadia Gaon noted that the belief of reincarnation existed among some Jews despite the inherent "nonsense and stupidies" of such beliefs. Maimonides also did not write about reincarnation.

Although how this occurred is still a matter of debate among Jewish historians, the doctrine of reincarnation made its way into the mainstream of Jewish mysticism by the twelth century, where it made its first appearance in a mystical work called the Bahir (Illumination), around 1150 AD. From this point on the idea of reincarnation became increasingly popular among Jews who hewed to the Kabbalah.

The idea of reincarnation, called gilgul, became very popular in folk belief, and is found in much Yiddish literature among Ashkenazi Jews. Among a few kabbalists, it was posited that some human souls could end up being reincarnated into animal bodies. These ideas can be found in a small number of Kabbalistic works from the 1200s, and even existed among a few mystics at least into the late 1500s.

"Over time however, the philosophical teaching limiting reincarnation to human bodies emerged as the dominant view. Nonetheless, the idea that one can reborn as an animal was never completely eliminated from Jewish thought, and appears centuries later in the Eastern European folk tradition". [Simcha Paull-Raphael,Jewish Views of the Afterlife, p.319]

Today most Jews do not believe in any form of reincarnation. Most would state that it is a non-Jewish belief, and is forbidden for Jews to hold. However, many in Hasidic Judaism and a few non-Hasidic Ultra-Orthodox Jews maintain a belief in reincarnation; some Hasidic siddurim (prayerbooks) have a prayer asking for forgiveness for one's sins that one may have committed in this gilgul or a previous one.

Biblical ideas that there is no afterlife

It is worth noting that in the Old Testament, all of God's promises to the people of Israel - whether benefits or punishments - concern events of this world and not another (eg. good crops, peace; famine, plague). Moreover, some books of the Bible seem to actively deny the existence of the afterlife. The following quotes are from the new JPS translation.

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."

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."

It is difficult to maintain that one is obligated to have a belief both in an afterlife, as well as in a physical resurrection of the dead, when these books of the Bible deny this possibility. It is only in the book of Daniel - the last Biblical book written - that a modern understanding of an afterlife appears.

Compare with: Eschatology -- Christian eschatology -- Atheism

See also: Heaven -- Hell -- Messiah -- Judaism -- Theology