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.
Yes, I just finished a whole lecture by Roger Penrose, who is an atheist. I think he has some interesting ideas. The theory of microtubules is similar to how Maimonides viewed the soul as “pure intellect.” Even if he is wrong, he has a general solid framework and he doesn’t refer to any supernatural explanations. Only uses science. I think I can agree with that. It is possible.
Aristotle and Maimonides’ view that the intellect gets absorbed by the active intellect may be true. Two celebrated, well-respected scientists, world-class British theoretical physicist, Sir Roger Penrose together with an American anesthesiologist, Stuart Hameroff produced a peer-reviewed, scientific model for the existence of an active intellect. They argue that consciousness is quantum, which is stored in microtubules. When a person dies their intellect is “absorbed” by greater consciousness. This is purely scientific. Unlike “near death experiences.” As you know, I am a rationalist and accept only what science teaches. I am not a mystic by any means. While we do not know what Maimonides would say today, it is possible that he would agree that the philosophical idea is reflected in modern science.
Thank you Turk. This is very interesting. I think that the idea is based on the belief than nothing is lost on earth. It only changes to something else. It is possible that Maimonides and Aristotle would accept the idea of the two scientists, but I am not convinced.
Maimonides explicitly reaffirmed his belief in a literal resurrection, the soul’s reunion with its body, after its separation, in his Essay on Resurrection, written near the very end of his life. Of course scholars, as they are wont to do, have questioned and debated Maimonides real beliefs, see Maimonides’ Reinterpretation of the Thirteenth Article of Faith: Another Look at the Essay on Resurrection, Albert D. Friedberg, Jewish Studies Quarterly, Vol. 10, No. 3 (2003), pp. 244-257.
In his book Jon D. Levenson demonstrates resurrection’s centrality in Classical Judaism with roots in both rabbinic and biblical texts, Jon D. Levenson, Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life (New Haven: Yale, 2008).
תחיית המתים (resurrection of the dead) is certainly a core doctrine of traditional Jewish Theology.
Isaiah 26:19. Oh, let Your dead revive! Let corpses arise! Awake and shout for joy, you who dwell in the dust! For Your dew is like the radiant dew; You make the land of the shades come to life.
(Isaiah lived eighth century B.C.E.)
Daniel 12:2. Many of those that sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to eternal life, others to reproaches, to everlasting abhorrence.
Daniel 12:13. As for you, go to [your] end; you will rest-then arise for your portion at the End of Days. (Daniel lived about 600 B.C.E., Daniel is the latest biblical book, the final version of which is dated to around 167 B.C.E.)
Ezekiel 37:12-13. Therefore, prophesy and say to them: Thus says the Lord G-d: Behold! I open your graves and cause you to come up out of your graves as My people, and bring you home to the land of Israel. Then you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and lead you up out of your graves as My people.
(Ezekiel lived about 450 B.C.E or 600 B.C.E., but the Men of the Great Assembly (ca. 520 B.C.E. – 70 C.E.) compiled the Book of Ezekiel).
The Amidah prayer, composed by the Men of the Great Assembly, recited thrice daily by traditional Jews includes a blessing praising God who revivifies the dead.
You don’t correctly state Maimonides view on resurrection. In the same Introduction to Perek Helek
Chapter ten of Mishna Sanhedrin, Maimonides goes on to state further on, “The resurrection of the dead is one of the cardinal principles established by Moses our teacher. A person who does not believe in this principle has no real religion, certainly not Judaism. However, resurrection is only for the righteous.” See page 13 and 14 of this link https://www.mhcny.org/qt/1005.pdf
Very good question, and it is important in regard to understanding Maimonides. In short, His early statement in Chelek shows he doesn’t believe in ressurect of the body. But he included it in the 13 princoples that who wrote for the community. Here is a longer answer.
Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) mentions his view regarding resurrection in his introduction called Chelek. He did not think that the body, which had deteriorated will be reunited with a soul, which, as I wrote previously, he did not think existed; only the intellect survives the death of the body, and this intellect, as I wrote before, joins the active intellect that is near the moon, an idea believed at the time, but now shown by science to be untrue. So we don’t know what Maimonides would say today happens to the intellect after death, although he would surely say that it does not rejoin the body.
Resurrection is not mentioned in the Bible and is an idea that was taken from the pagans. However, it became very important to many Jews who did not want to cease to exist. The idea that they would be resurrected gave them comfort. Thus they criticized Maimonides viciously. Accordingly, as many philosophers before and after him, he told what the Greek philosopher Plato called the “noble lie,” noble because it makes people feel good, and said he believed that the bodies will be resurrected. In fact, he wrote a book on resurrection and said he believed in it. He wrote that anyone who doesn’t believe in resurrection doesn’t believe in miracles. This was a code for those who understood Maimonides’ views, because Maimonides didn’t believe in miracles. He felt that the world functions according to the laws of nature and God doesn’t interfere with these laws.
Maimonides also wrote thirteen principles of Judaism, and one of these is the belief in resurrection. However, scholars recognized, including Don Isaac Abarbanel, who disagreed with Maimonides, that Maimonides only felt that the principles he articulated about God, the first four of the thirteen, are true, the rest were noble lies.
Yes, it is possible that the Jew adopted the notion of reincarnation but I would be surprised if they got it from Zoroastrianism. Zoroaster said that people are judged and live either in Paradise or hell. Of course, it is possible that the Persians later adopted the notion of transmigration of souls from the Greeks when Alexander conquered them in 334 BCE. They might have gotten the idea from Pythagoras but there is no evidence that he had any contact with the Jains, so the idea might have come to him by itself. Personally, I find the thought appalling to be hopping about like a grasshopper from fish to snake to wasp to tree to man to whatever. It is quite enough to be born once. Personally, I am all for Aristotle’s active intellect. This seems to me to be not only rational but highly useful.
Thank you for the essay.