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; the belief in heaven is nowhere to be found in the written Torah. Only in Talmudic times do the Pharisees, the founding fathers of Rabbinic Judaism, explicitly discuss the existence of the next world; and even they had to contend with the Sadducees, who rejected the belief in heaven, along with all other religious beliefs not overtly stated in the Bible itself. Today, the belief in Olam Haba is widely accepted among traditional Jews – it is included in Maimonides’ 13 principles of faith – and yet it remains, curiously, at the periphery of the Jewish consciousness. The author Dan Jacobson recounts: “I once asked my mother if her father had believed in an afterlife. Did he think that the soul of a pious Jew like himself would survive to enjoy some kind of transcendental existence in another world? Remarkably enough, given his position as rabbi… she answered, ‘I really don’t know. I don’t know what he thought about that.’ Evidently the issue was not clear cut enough, or perhaps not important enough, for him to have made his attitude to it plain, even to those closest to him.” (Dan Jacobson, Heshel’s Kingdom, 7-8)
The conspicuous absence of explicit references to Olam Haba in the Bible has perplexed Jewish philosophers since the time of the Geonim, and their explanations span the gamut (see R Shlomo Ephraim of Luntschitz, Kli Yakar, Vayikra 26:11, citing seven different opinions as to why the Bible does not mention Olam Haba). The explanation of Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno is particularly compelling in its stark contrast to the attitude of the early Christians. In a letter to his younger brother, he writes: “Regarding your question, why the great reward and eternal punishment are not mentioned in the Torah… Eternal happiness is mentioned before the commandments are given [‘Now, if you listen well to Me and observe My covenant, you will be to Me the most beloved treasure of all peoples…’ (Shemot 19:5-6)], and their end (Devarim 26:18-19). However, it is just enough to inform us of the intention of the God Who commands and teaches the ways of justice in His kindness, so that we will be aware of the eternal happiness. The reason is that it is not proper to promise big things or make grand threats regarding observance of the Torah, whose intention is that we serve God out of love and awe, not because of fear of punishment or hope of reward. (R Ovadiah Sforno, Kitvei Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno, p.513)* And so heaven, a primary focus of Christianity, is marginalized within the Jewish tradition.
Heaven certainly awaits those who earn it in this world. But let’s think about that when we get there.
*One might sensibly challenge Sforno’s view, as the Bible explicitly and frequently promises blessing and threatens curses in this world! But Maimonides explains that these blessings and curses are not ‘rewards’ nor ‘punishments’ in the classic sense. Rather, if the Jewish people act in the proper way, God promises that they will be blessed with material bounty, so that their service of God will be easier and more successful. But these blessings are not intended to be a reward – a Jew must ‘do that which is truth because it is truth’ (Maimonides, Hilchot Teshuva, Chapters 9 & 10)