The Bible says nothing about life after death. It does not mention heaven or hell as an abode after death. The Torah’s entire focus is on behavior that results in the betterment of life, human and non-human, on earth. The only rewards offered to those who need the carrot of physical rewards and the threatening stick of punishments are consequences 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 the dictionary defines 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 his depression will kill him.
The Bible also uses the term nefesh, which Modern Hebrew defines as “soul.” However, in biblical Hebrew the term 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 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, 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 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 we said, 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, and this is significant, we frequently do not know what an author means when he uses the phrase; he could be referring to a place or an eternal life in an unspecified area. It appears that Maimonides, for example, who states in his work Chelek that “heaven” is not an area, uses the term to mean “an everlasting existence.” He felt that what had an everlasting existence was the human intelligence. (He does not address whether the remaining human intelligence remembers its life with the now dead body.) 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.
Now 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 the existence of 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 number of chapters appear to refer to life after death, such as Ezekiel 36, these are actually speaking of the resurrection of the Jewish people after the nation is apparently destroyed by its enemies. Is Daniel 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 Daniel 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 it 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 are the anti-Hellenists? They are the wise people mentioned in the passage who taught their fellow Judeans the correct views of Judaism. They will shine in the eyes, be 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 and appropriate and relevant in light of 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. If people reject this interpretation and insist that Daniel speaks of life after death, they need to recognize that this is the first clear reference to life after death in the Torah, and it is possible that the belief in life after death did not exists in Judaism in earlier times.
There is no explicit biblical statement 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 how they should treat them, 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.
The absence of the discussion of a life after death does not in and of itself 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 proper behavior during one’s life and not on death.