One of the questions I am asked the most by Christians is whether or not Jews believe in Heaven and Hell. I tell them that Jewish tradition believes in life after death, but does not really use the words “heaven” and “hell” these days to describe places of reward and punishment. Instead, the phrase “The World-To-Come” (“Ha Olam HaBa”) in Hebrew is the one that appears most frequently. One of the questions I am asked most by Jews, too, is whether or not we believe in Heaven and Hell. When I give them the same answer that I give to Christians, the conversation doesn’t necessarily end there. There might be follow-up questions, like “so we don’t believe in Heaven and Hell?”, or “so what does it mean to be in the Olam HaBa?”, or “are my parents/my brother/my sister/my child aware of me here on Earth?”, or “will I be reunited in the World-To-Come with the people I love?” You shouldn’t be surprised that we Jews ask questions and want answers; I’m certainly not. And the way that those questions are asked gives me the feeling that those who are asking have hope that death is not the end, that the uncertainty about life after death will be replaced with certainty, and that they can have the faith that everything will be fine. But, if we only had proof, now that would be great!
According to a former New York Times #1 bestseller, called Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back, there is proof, and it is good news for those who want to believe. Written by Todd Burpo – pastor of the Crossroads Wesleyan Church in Imperial, Nebraska, wrestling coach for junior high school and high school students, member of the Chase County Public School Board, volunteer fireman for the town of Imperial, and owner of Overhead Door Specialists – the book was published in 2010. I found out about it at the time when I happened to be watching the Today Show, and Todd was on with his wife Sonja and their twelve-year-old son Colton.
At the age of four, Colton had to undergo emergency surgery and was clinically dead for three minutes. He survived, and gradually began revealing to his parents in a matter-of-fact way that he entered Heaven. He was able to look down and see the doctor operating on him, see and hear his father praying by himself in a waiting room, and hear his mother talking to someone on the phone. In addition, Colton’s parents suffered through a miscarriage the year before he was born after already having a daughter born several years before him. During one of his instances of recalling his experience in Heaven, he said that he met his miscarried sister, whom no one had told him about, and his great-grandfather who had died thirty years before Colton was born, and then shared impossible-to-know details about each one of them. He saw Jesus riding on a horse and described the Son of God as being very nice and loving children, talked about having met God Who is really big with a really big chair to sit in, and how the Holy Spirit conveys power from Heaven to help us. He remembered people with wings and that his great-grandfather had really big wings and that Jesus wore a white robe with a blue sash. In addition, Colton related to his parents the message from God that there would be a big war on Earth and that the people who believed in Him and Jesus would be OK. The fact that I found this book in a local bookstore in the Christian section under a sign marked “Christian reading for Easter” was not a surprise to me. This book clearly affirms Christian beliefs about the afterlife, God, Jesus, and Judgment Day.
But what does Judaism believe? And how can I answer that question, which is worth an entire course or at least an hour-long lesson in my Tenth Grade and Adult Confirmation classes, in just a few minutes? I can answer it briefly. The Bible mentions Sheol, a place located beneath the Earth at the base of high mountains. It was thought to be dark and silent, the dead could not reach out to God, but there was no punishment connected with it. That belief existed for at least seven centuries, and when the Bible was canonized in the First Century C.E., rabbinic writings began to speak about the resurrection of the body and the soul. The Pharisees believed in resurrection and the Sadducees did not, and it was the Pharisaic doctrine that survived and thrived. Sheol was a vestige of the past, and new terminology came into being. The Olam HaBa was where and when the righteous would be rewarded and the wicked would be punished, although there was an extremely broad definition of who could be called “righteous.”
Gan Eden, or the Garden of Eden, also identified as Paradise, was set against Gehinnom, named after the valley in Jerusalem where the Canaanites sacrificed their first-born children within the earshot of our shocked ancestors. The term “techiyat hamaytim,” the resurrection of the dead, grew as a belief that the souls of the dead would be revived when the Messiah came. And what did those souls do until the arrival of the Messiah? In a book called The Wisdom of Solomon, it says: “But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish, they seem to have died, and their departure was thought to be an affliction, and their going from us to be their destruction, but they are at peace.”
And, that is what we would like to believe – that our family members and friends who have died are at peace. Growing up in a Reform congregation, I was not attuned to the traditional Jewish belief about the resurrection of the dead at some future time. In our version of the G’vurot prayer – as it is now in our prayer book Mishkan T’filah –we praise God Who gives life to everything, not Who resurrects the dead. I learned about the immortality of the soul, reflected in the ability of loved ones and friends to remember the person who died, in our realizing that he or she had bequeathed a moral legacy to us, and in our believing that they were with us in spirit when we celebrated happy occasions in our lives. If you think that such a Reform belief was beyond the normative Jewish beliefs, consider that the great medieval philosopher Moses Maimonides wrote: “In the World to Come, there is nothing corporeal and no material substance; there are only souls of the righteous without bodies – like the ministering angels. The righteous attain to a knowledge and realization of truth concerning God to which they had not attained while they were in the murky and lowly body.”
I as a Jew would like to believe that the Olam HaBa is for real – that there are souls attaining knowledge, being close to God, feeling no pain, aware of what is happening on Earth, and communicating somehow with those who are living. Wouldn’t you like to believe the same? I am fascinated by this boy’s story and I find it interesting and somewhat refreshing that the book wasn’t written until seven years after his experience with death and Heaven. I cannot logically explain how he knew about his sister who died, or how he could describe his great-grandfather in such vivid detail to his parents, having never heard about his sister and having never seen a picture of his grandfather. I can’t figure it out any better than I can in regard to people saying that they had past lives. But I do know this: having hope about life after death doesn’t have to come from a just-right-for-Easter book in the Christian section of Barnes and Noble. That hope can come from the prayers of Yizkor, from the Shabbat prayers that we read when you are at your Temple to observe a yahrzeit, and from the prayers of the funeral and burial services of Judaism. They speak of good and love, hope and faith, compassion and peace, life and afterlife. Heaven is very real for Colton Burpo, his family, and the hundreds of thousands of people who have read the book. The Olam HaBa can be real for you, too, if you choose to believe.
Rabbi Stephen A. Karol is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook, New York. He was ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Cincinnati in 1977, and has served at Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo, New York, Congregation Sha’aray Shalom in Hingham, Massachusetts, and Temple Isaiah. He teaches at Temple Isaiah and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Stony Brook University, and is a frequent speaker at synagogues, churches, Jewish Community Centers, and various organizations on 15 different topics. Rabbi Karol lives in Port Jefferson Station, New York with his wife Donna.
 Sonsino and Syme, What Happens After I Die?, 40.
 Ibid., 41.