Do Jews believe in heaven? I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve been asked this question. Modern people—and especially Jews raised in the Reform tradition—are flummoxed by the notion of heaven, and the rabbis are less than helpful. “Jews believe it is this life that matters, not the next”: You hear this a lot.
Judaism’s vagueness on the matter of heaven is a problem for many of Jews I know. An emphasis on this world may move them to honor parents and give to charity, but it’s cold comfort when the time comes for those parents to die—or, worse to the point of being unimaginable, if a child should die. When you are facing the sheer cliff of your own mortality, the modern Jewish emphasis on this life rather than the next can feel brutally insufficient.
Martyrs, Daniel promised, would be rewarded for their faithfulness in a special way.
It may astonish readers to know, then, that it was Jews that invented our idea of heaven. They did not invent the idea of an afterlife, or the idea of heaven as the home of God—those ideas had been around for thousands of years, long before Jews ever existed as a people. But the idea of heaven as we understand it—a place in the sky where the righteous go after death to live forever with God—that is a concept born to Jews sometime during the second century before the birth of Jesus. It was, if you will, a theological miracle. Heaven, at its root, is a Jewish idea.
At this season, Jews around the world celebrate Passover, the story of Moses and the exodus from Egypt. But it is another famous Jewish story (and holiday) that gave us heaven. Around 167 BCE, a poor Jewish boy named Judas Maccabeus “got away to the wilderness and kept himself and his companions alive in the mountains as wild animals do,” according to Hebrew scriptures. In revolt against the Greek king Antiochus, who had desecrated the Jewish temple by installing in it a statue of Zeus, who forbade Jews to observe their dietary laws and to circumcise their sons, Judas Maccabeus raised an army of 6,000 men. He rode into Jerusalem and vanquished Antiochus’ soldiers. He cleared the temple of its abomination and rededicated it to the one god of Abraham. The meager quantity of oil in the lamp he lit lasted eight days and nights. The story of heaven and the story of Hannukah are inextricably intertwined.
Somewhere on the sidelines, watching these bloody events unfold, sat a man I will call Daniel. As he watched, he wrote the lines—found in the Book of Daniel—that would form the foundations of a Western belief in heaven. Daniel was apparently a teacher and a sage. At first, Daniel advised Jews to ignore the fighting in the streets: Sit tight, he said, and pray to God. But once the streets of his city were full of Antiochus’ soldiers, he changed his mind. He wrote the words he hoped would inspire his people to passive resistance. Do not capitulate to the aggression or the influence of Greek overlords, he said. Martyrs, he promised, would be rewarded for their faithfulness in a special way. The words he wrote would change forever the way people imagined the future of their immortal souls. “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” This verse, from the Book of Daniel, gave us heaven.
Why was Daniel promising heaven just then? I asked this question of John J. Collins, a professor of Old Testament at Yale Divinity School and the world’s foremost scholar on the Book of Daniel. Until the Maccabean revolt, he explained, most Jews were content to sleep peacefully in family caves after death. But by 167 BCE, Jews had dispersed enough that often grandfathers, fathers, and sons no longer lived in the same cities. Where being “gathered to your ancestors” used to be sufficient, this was no longer simple and inevitable. And thanks to the influence of the Greeks, success for Jews had become as much a matter of individual accomplishments redounding to their own personal honor as to the honor of a family or a tribe.
Heaven, as the Book of Daniel tells it, is a reward for an individual. Indeed, it is specifically withheld from those who do not follow the prophet’s urgent call, who are not in his judgment “wise,” and who fail to “lead many to righteousness.” Being satisfied with sleeping forever in a cave worked, Collins says, “when the emphasis was on community of the family. The afterlife was your children and your name.” For the author of Daniel, though, “the goal in life is to hang out with the angels. Permanently.” At first, Collins adds, Daniel’s auditors must have thought he had lost his mind. Nothing like this had ever been an acceptable part of Jewish thinking. But the idea had been born, and it caught on fast. Within a hundred years after Daniel wrote, Collins says, many of the Jews of Jerusalem would have said they believed in heaven.
And then Jesus came along and changed everything.
From the forthcoming book HEAVEN: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife by Lisa Miller. To be published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins. Copyright © 2010 by Lisa Miller. Reprinted by arrangement with the author.