Many people today, Christians, Muslims, and Jews, as well as people of other religions, are convinced that good people go to heaven when they die, while people who acted improperly go to Hell. But the notion that these places exist is pagan and entered Judaism only in the late second temple period, probably round 320 BCE.
In his introduction to the tenth chapter of Mishnah Sanhedrin, called Chelek, the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides (1138-1204) describes five groups of Jews who have opinions about life after death. The first group believes that righteous people will go to an idyllic land called the Garden of Eden where no work is required and the people live a life of joy forever, while evil people go to hell, called Gehenna Hebrew, where their bodies are burned and where they suffer various types of agonies for eternity. The second group expect the arrival in the future of a messiah when good people will live in comfort forever. The third is convinced that people will be resurrected in the future and then join their family that died and live in comfort forever. The fourth group contend that the reward for observing the biblical commandments is physical pleasure while alive. The fifth group, which is the majority, combine the prior four as their expectation following death.
Maimonides states that these beliefs are deplorable and childish. It is like the need to reward a child by saying “If you do such and such, I will give you candy.” A child who doesn’t understand the value of proper behavior needs this incentive. But an adult does not. Maimonides refers to Ethics of the Father 1:3, from about the year 220, which teaches. “Do not be like servants who serve their master [God] in order to receive a reward, be like servants who serve their master without thought of reward.”
Bart D. Ehrman addresses the question when and why did the notion of heaven and hell develop in his recent book “Heaven and Hell.” Ehrman stresses that the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh, has no mention, not even a hint, of life after death and reward and punishment at that time. Rather than childishness, as suggested by Maimonides, Ehrman states that it is fear that causes people to believe in heaven and hell. It is also possible that both are correct, both led to the beliefs.
Ehrman notes that people feared death from the beginning of time. It is discussed in the ancient Mesopotamian epic known as Gilgamesh. Scholars date the book back to 2100 BCE, long before the revelation of the Tanakh. In this fascinating tale which tells of an ancient flood much like the one in the later book of Genesis, also focuses on Gilgamesh’s fear of dying and his search for immortality. Later, in the eighth or ninth century BCE, Homer wrote the Iliad and Odyssey in which he tells of a non-tortured existing after death that is bleak, dreary, and completely uninteresting – not for some, but for everyone, without any reward or punishment. “For Homer and other ancient Greek authors, [a life force] goes to the underworld. Where souls (psychai) have the form [of a body] but not the substance of human life [no flesh and bones], and none of its goodness…. It is far better to be the lowest, most impoverished, slave-driven nobody on earth than to be the king of the dead in gloomy Hades.”
Ehrman writes that the current notion of many today that after death people receive their due rewards is not in Homer. “It is not a view that originated in Jewish or Christian circles but in pagan ones.” The great Greek philosopher Plato (c. 428 BCE- c. 348 BCE) endorsed “the notion of postmortem justice for both the virtuous and the wicked.” He said in Phaedo and Laws that the body will die but the soul will live after the body’s death. Later, the Roman author Virgil (70 BCE-19 BCE) wrote in his Aeneid that people are rewarded or punished after death and he added the idea of reincarnation. Jews most likely adopted the Persian idea of resurrection from the religion of Zoroastrianism when they came under Persian rule in 539 BCE.
Ehrman devotes many pages showing that the concept of life after death changed dramatically and repeatedly down through the centuries. There is not one view in Judaism and not one in Christianity; the ideas shifted from time to time in both religions. For example, “neither Jesus nor Paul appears to have taught anything about eternal punishment for the wicked” and it is not in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. Thus, even if one accepts that there is life after death, there is no way of knowing what it is.
The only solution to Maimonides’ idea that the childish belief in reward and punishment – that people need to feel that they will be rewarded if they behave and obey the commands and will be punished if they fail to do so – is mature intelligence. Perhaps, Ehrman’s revelation that these concepts are of pagan origin will help. He reminds us of Plato’s magnificent solution to the fear of death in his Apology. He describes Socrates about to die saying there is nothing to fear about dying. One of two things is possible: either one lives after death or the person ceases. If the first, the time after death will be joyous. It is a chance to see people who had died before. If death causes the cessation of consciousness, it is no different than sleep, and one does not fear sleep.