As the early Christians worked zealously and methodically to convert the peoples of the Roman Empire to their faith, they were animated by a powerful belief in the immortality of the soul. Christian missionaries promised eternal happiness and everlasting life – on the condition of adopting the faith in their savior. In our times, the belief in the existence of heaven and the eternal life of the soul is taken as a given by most religious believers. But for pagans living through the long and slow decline of Rome, the prospect of immortality was both exhilarating and deeply comforting, and it prompted multitudes of peoples to convert to Christianity.
By contrast, the belief in heaven, or Olam Haba, plays a muted role in Jewish belief: “We might naturally expect that a principle so essential to religion would have been revealed in the clearest terms to the chosen people of Palestine… It is incumbent upon us to adore the mysterious dispensations of Providence, when we discover that the doctrine of the immortality of the soul is omitted in the law of Moses; it is darkly insinuated by the prophets; and during the long period which elapsed between the Egyptian and the Babylonian servitudes, the hopes as well as fears of the Jews appear to have been confined within the narrow compass of the present life.” (Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter XV) C.S. Lewis, another Christian writer, makes a similar point: “[God] revealed Himself [to the Jews] centuries before there was a whisper of anything better (or worse) beyond the grave than shadowy and featureless Sheol.” (C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy)
Gibbon, in spite of his virulent anti-Semitism, is correct in his assessment; […]