The Bible says nothing about life after death. It does not mention heaven or garden of Eden as a future abode of reward and Hell as a place of punishment after death. Maimonides states in his work Chelek that heaven is not an area where the good dead congregate and there is no Hell. Scripture’s entire focus is on the betterment of life, for humans and non-humans, on earth. Maimonides writes in his Guide of the Perplexed that the purpose of the Torah is to teach some truths and to help better people and society. The only rewards offered to those who need the carrot of physical rewards and the threatening stick of punishments are beware of how you act because there are consequences that follow acts that occur during a person’s life on earth.
The meaning of the terms sheol and nefesh
The Bible speaks about the dead going to sheol, but, although contemporary dictionaries define sheol as “the abode of the dead,” sheol means nothing more than the grave. When Jacob wails that his beloved son Joseph’s death will cause him to go down to sheol in Genesis 37:35, he means nothing more than that he feels that the loss of his son and his depression will kill him.
The Bible also uses the term nefesh, which Modern Hebrew defines as “soul.” However, the biblical Hebrew has only the connotation of “life,” “a person,” and “life force.” When Leviticus 2:1 speaks of a nefesh offering a sacrifice, it is certainly not describing an out of body experience in which a soul somehow separates from the encasement of its body to travel to the Temple to offer an animal sacrifice.
When Rachel was dying in Genesis 35:18 and Scripture says that her nefesh departed, it is not suggesting that her soul traveled to another world; it simply means that her “life” ended.
Ecclesiastes 12:7 expresses this biblical view: “For that which befalls people [literally, the son of men] befalls the beast, the same thing befalls them; as the one dies, so dies the other; they have the same breath; man has no advantage over the beast; for all is vanity. All go to one place, all return to the dust.” On his death bed, King David says the same in I Kings 2:2, “I go the way of all the earth.”
Most scholars recognize the true meaning of sheol and nefesh, but some scholars insist that “sometimes” nefesh does mean soul and that sheol is “sometimes” the afterworld of these souls. This is simply a case of forced reading, wishful thinking, a disingenuous attempt to compel the text to express one’s preconceived notion even when the notion is nowhere present.
The meaning of olam haba
The current Hebrew term for the afterlife – not found in the Bible – is olam haba. Since most people today think that after death, they or their souls will leave earth and go to another place, they translate olam as “world” or “place,” and haba as “to come” or “the future.” Thus, they understand the phrase to say that there is a site – usually thought of as heaven – that they or their souls will inhabit in the future, after death. They also think that the phrase is ancient and adds support to the idea that an afterlife exists.
However, as said previously, the phrase olam haba is not in the Torah, and the single word olam in the Bible means “eternal.” It only came to mean “world” in post-biblical Hebrew. Thus, the Torah does not discuss life after death and the terms nefesh, sheol and olam haba are not early scriptural indicators of an afterlife. However, it should be stressed that the fact that the Bible does not mention an afterlife does not prove or even imply that an afterlife does not exists. All that can be said is that this is not a subject that the Bible addresses.
Does Daniel 12 reveal life after death with reward and punishment?
The biblical books preceding the book of Daniel, as we said, do not contain clear unambiguous statements about the existence of life after death. Although a few chapters in Daniel appear to refer to life after death, but as Ezekiel 36, these passages are not speaking about individuals, they are speaking of the resurrection of the Jewish people after the nation is apparently destroyed. Daniel is not an exception.
Daniel 12:2 and 3 state:
And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.
Daniel 12:13 states:
But go your way to the end; and you shall rest and shall stand in your allotted place at the end of the days.
Assuming for the moment that these verses are informing about life after death, what are they saying? The verses are not at all clear.
If “those who sleep in the dust” denotes the dead and “awake” means that they are restored to life, what is everlasting life? The term is obscure. Even commentators who believe that the verses announce a life after death recognize that “everlasting life” could mean a long life that ultimately ends in a second death.
Additionally, what is the meaning of “those who are wise” and those “who turn many to righteousness”? Whatever it means, it seems clear that “wise” in this passage is not referring to those who were well behaved or those who observe Torah commandments. And in verse 13, what is Daniel’s “allotted place” and when is the “end of days”?
An Alternative Interpretation of Daniel
In view of these questions, many scholars are convinced that Daniel 12 is not referring to life after death. Daniel, according to these scholars, lived during a period – probably around the time of the Maccabean revolt against the Syrian Greeks – when life in Judea was very difficult and many misguided Judeans were seducing their co-religionists away from Judaism and toward the acceptance of pagan Hellenism.
Daniel’s vision, expressed in this passage, is not addressing a personal after life, for this was not his concern, but the existence of the Judean nation; Daniel envisions that the dire situation will not continue. Many living anti-Hellenists will find the strength to rise, as if awakened from the dead, combat the pro-Hellenists, shame them, and be able to live a long life in peace. Who were the anti-Hellenists? They were the wise people mentioned in the passage, scholars who taught their fellow Judeans the correct views of Judaism. They will shine, be ultimately respected by, their co-religionists.
Daniel feels that he is being told to be patient. He is advised to “rest.” He will be among the victors, where he belongs, when the day of victory arrives: “in your allotted place at the end of the days.”
This interpretation seems more reasonable, appropriate, and relevant considering the historical context and the personal concerns of Daniel; the verses are not a revelation about a personal life after death, but the revival of Judaism that is under duress.
There is no explicit biblical confirmation that life continues after a person dies. Rabbinical interpretations such as on Exodus 20:12, “Honor your father and mother so that your days may be long upon the land that the Lord your God gives you,” refers to a reward in the afterlife, is not the plain meaning of the verse. Indeed, the commentator Abraham ibn Ezra explains that it means that when people show kindness to their parents, they demonstrate to their children that they should treat them as they treated their parents, and as a result of the kind treatment by their children they will have a longer and more pleasurable life.
There are scriptural passages that seem to be speaking of life after death, such as Ezekiel 36 and Daniel 12, but a close reading of the verses show that they are speaking of the survival of the Judean nation. Even if we accept that these verses speak about life after death, it could mean that this idea entered Judaism at a late period.
The absence of the discussion of a life after death does not prove that the Torah and ancient Jews did not accept the concept. The Torah, unlike the contemporary Egyptian culture, stressed, as it should, that the focus of people should be on the betterment of life, one’s own life and society, not death.