Resting with Abraham



Editor’s note: This column, Outside Perspectives, addresses a religious topic and seeks to find a common element in another faith while emphasizing the Catholic Church’s teaching.

In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, Jesus compares the two: The rich man receives much during this life, while Lazarus, the beggar, receives little. But at death their fortunes are reversed. When the rich man dies, he experiences torment, while Lazarus is taken to Abraham’s side, a place of comfort (see Luke 16:19–31).

Jesus’ term for the place of comfort — literally “the bosom of Abraham” (Luke 16:22) — is meant to describe a place of union with God, free of punishment or torment. Christians typically envision this kind of place as heaven, but for Jesus’ Jewish listeners, the term was a particular understanding of the afterlife, one shared by some but not all.

According to some Jewish traditions, Abraham was the gatekeeper of the afterlife (much like how Christians view the role of St. Peter). The bosom of Abraham was the place of bliss inhabited by the patriarchs, those who first received God’s revelation to the people of Israel. The resting place of the patriarchs — Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — was identified with God’s presence, meaning that the just remain alive in the sight of God. But not all Jews view the afterlife in this way.

The Jewish understanding of the afterlife is not easily synthesized; it is quite diverse with little agreement. In many cases, Jewish tradition is silent on the question. Yet some go so far as to say that belief in the afterlife is not consistent with Jewish belief, or at least unnecessary. Others say that the lack of attention to the afterlife in the Old Testament indicates that our focus should be fully living according to God’s commands in this life rather than being concerned about the life to come.

While not always in agreement, Old Testament passages provide some allusions to judgment and the possibility of heaven or hell, paradise or punishment. The biblical “Sheol” or “Hades” (and later “Gehenna”) is the place of the dead. Its use may or may not indicate a connection to judgment and punishment. It has been seen as a neutral place where “there will be no work, no planning, no knowledge, no wisdom” (Ecclesiastes 9:10), but also more negatively, the place “I shall not return, to the land of darkness and of gloom” (Job 10:21).

The Jewish scriptures do not clearly reference heaven or hell (in the way that most Christians understand them), but the Jewish understanding of the afterlife continued to develop. The writings that compose the Talmud refer to the world to come (olam ha-ba) in terms of the possibility of a place of bliss for the just, but also a place for the accursed: “Thou hast created Paradise, and Thou hast created Gehenna; Thou hast created the upright, and Thou hast created the wicked” (Tractate Baba Bathra, 16a). Some Jewish believers think that the olam ha-ba will be a single reality where the unrighteous will live with the knowledge of their transgressions, while others will live in the blessedness that comes from following God.

How one attains paradise, if one attains it, is distinctive for Christians and Jews. Though both traditions have evidence of the individual being judged according to how one lives and both have the language of repentance and atonement, Judaism does not believe in salvation through Christ. Since Jesus is not the savior, the path to paradise is rooted in fully living out this life in obedience to God’s law.

As the rabbi and scholar Jacob Neusner explained, “We do not have to die to enter God’s kingdom; we have to live.” The kingdom is about bringing forth God’s rule in this world. For Jewish believers, this hope is not individual, but communal. They work for the gathering of the scattered people of Israel and look forward to the coming of the messiah.

Since the Christian notion of the last things — death, judgment, heaven, and hell — is well developed, the lack of agreement on the Jewish understanding of the afterlife can be striking. Both Christians and many Jews hold to some belief in the afterlife, the resurrection of the dead, and a place of paradise or punishment. And while Jews and Christians may view the life to come and how we get there somewhat differently, we each view as revelation the comforting words of the prophet Isaiah: “Your people will all be just” (Isaiah 60:21).

Photo by Pablo Heimplatz / Unsplash EAvS-4KnGrk

We, Jews and Christians, who desire to be righteous in the eyes of God can yearn together for the place of rest for those who live in obedience to him.

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