Most Christians believe that God created a place of eternal punishment and reward: 72% of Christian Americans say they believe in heaven — defined as a place “where people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded,” according to the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study.
And 58% of U.S. adults also believe in hell — a place “where people who have led bad lives and die without being sorry, are eternally punished”.
American Muslims are much stronger believers in an afterlife of Heaven and Hell: 76% believe in Hell and 89% believe in Heaven. Non-Christians and Muslims do not have a majority who believe in eternal reward and punishment after death.
About half or less of Hindus, Buddhists and Jews believe in heaven. And roughly a third or less of Buddhists, Hindus, and Jews believe in hell.
Of the three Abrahamic religions American Jews have the least belief in Heaven and Hell: only 22% of Jews believe in Hell and only 40% believe in Heaven.
The after-life, or as Rabbinic Judaism calls it, the World-to-Come, is mentioned many times in the Oral Torah, but there very little direct reference to it in the Written Torah because the Written Torah is a direct revelation from God to Moses and thus could only include that about which Moses could have a prophecy.
However, with respect to the World-to-Come, the Talmud states: All the prophets foretold only about the Messianic Age on Earth. However, regarding the World-to-Come, “No eye has seen, God, except for Yours” (Isaiah 64:3).
More important, Judaism teaches that people should live by God’s commandments not because they fear God’s punishments and seek God’s rewards; but because they love God and His commandments. As Rabbi Jacob taught:
“A single moment of repentance and good deeds in this world is better than all of the World to Come.” (Avot 4:17)
Jewish teaching about life after death has varied from historical age to age. The Hebrew Bible refers to an after-life but only very briefly and vaguely.
The Rabbinic sages did teach that there is a reward and punishment in store for each individual according to his or her manner of living on earth.
The Jewish mystical tradition of the Kabbalah teaches that souls undergo reincarnation. This teaching became wide spread during the 16-18th centuries, especially among the Hassidim.
The majority of modern Jews are closer to the Biblical teachings. but all the various views can be found among Rabbis today.
Christians frequently wonder why Jews try to do good if they do not expect a reward or punishment in their after-life.
Jews. in turn. find it hard to understand why that is so important to Christians. Judaism teaches that the reason for doing a Mitzvah, is the Mitzvah itself.
Judaism places the primary emphasis upon life in this world. Although there have been times when belief in an after-life was an important part of the Jewish consciousness,
it never assumed the significance (either in the folk or in the philosophical mind) that it did in Christianity or Islam.A Gallup poll shows this clearly. People were asked, “Which do you think you should be most serious about
– trying to live comfortably, or preparing for a life after death?” 46% of Catholics, 62% of Baptists, 50% of Methodists, 47% of ‘ Lutherans and only 5% of Jews said.
“Prepare for life after death”. Whether they were conscious of it or not, these Jews were simply articulating the teaching of the Talmud referred to above,
“Better one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world, than the whole of the life in the world to come
The Hebrew Bible speaks neither of heaven nor of hell. It does on a few occasions refer to the existence that follows death as Sheol.
The root meaning of the Hebrew word Sheol, comes from the verb Sha’al which means to question, ask or request.
It is possible that the use of this word is due to the fact that while everyone asks about what happens after death, nobody really knows, so the after-life remains an open question.
In the Hebrew Bible, Sheol seems to be a place, or dimension of existence, where the spirits of the departed continue their existence. Occasionally Sheol seems to refer to the actual grave itself.
In Biblical times Jewish thought placed primary emphasis on this world, and upon mankind’s obligations to God and to our fellow humans in this life.
The number of references to Sheol or to any of its synonyms, and the number of passages devoted to the question of life after death or the soul’s reward or punishment, does not take up even one half of one percent of all the pages in the Hebrew Bible; although in the Qur’an these kind of verses take up 10-15% of its pages.
Interest in life after death and the development of theories concerning life after death occurred primarily at the very end of the Biblical period, and during the early Rabbinic period.
During most of the Biblical age, Jews had found justification and purpose for their lives in improving life this world, and in their commitment to solidarity with the Jewish people.
But, Greek thought seeping into their imagination toward the close of the Biblical period, stimulated the development of individualism.
As the central focus of personal concern shifted away from the community, the importance of one’s own personality, there arose an anxiety about personal destiny.
Then ideas about individual resurrection, life after death, reward and punishment became popular.
By the first century these were the dominant ideas of the (Rabbis/ Sages) Pharisees. The more traditional priest oriented groups did not accept the teaching of personal reward or punishment after death.
Jesus believed in the concept of heaven and hell. Because of his beliefs, and the fact that the New Testament was written during the period when this concept was dominant among the Rabbis,
there is much more stress placed on heaven and hell in the New Testament than in the Hebrew Bible. So, beliefs and anxieties about heaven and hell have a prominent place in the Christian imagination even today,
whereas they scarcely prickle the surface of modern non-Orthodox Jewish awareness.
When the Rabbis and the sages who followed the Pharisees looked for names for the realms of reward and punishment, of course, they used names from the Bible to legitimatize their ideas.
For heaven or paradise they used the term Gan Eden, naming it after the Garden of Eden in chapters II and III of Genesis. The name they selected for hell was taken from a valley not far from the City of Jerusalem, which is mentioned several times in the Hebrew Bible.
It is called Gay Hinnom (the Valley of Hinnom) or Gay ben Hinnom (The Valley of the Son of Hinnom). This valley was used as a garbage dump.
Fires burned there for days on end. More significantly, it had previously been used by the non-Jewish Canaanites as a place where they sacrificed a first born child to their god Molech (Jeremiah 9:31-2 or 19:1-5).