The concept of life after death can be understood in many ways. It can refer to the memories carried by a child of a deceased parent, to the ongoing influence the dead may exert on the living, to the immortality of the human soul, to a reward God grants the righteous, to a messianic era of eternal life that will succeed the era of finite existence, to the physical resurrection of the dead, and so forth. Jewish beliefs on the question run the gamut. Here, let’s concentrate on bodily resurrection.
Many Jews associate the concept of bodily resurrection with Christianity, but the truth is that until modern times this belief was part and parcel of Judaism as well. Still, Judaism encompasses a range of views on the question. Let’s take a look at how different denominations have handled the traditional language found in the Judaism’s central prayer, the Amidah (which means “standing prayer”), recited thrice daily.
This prayer speaks of God three times as “mechayei ha-meitim,” literally “the One who brings life to the dead.” A commonly used Orthodox prayer book translates this to mean “resurrection” or “resuscitation” of the dead. A commentary on the phrase explains that it refers to “the literal resuscitation of the dead that will take place in the Messianic age.”*
The Conservative prayer book renders “mechayei ha-meitim” as “Master of death and deliverance,” or “Master of life and death.” A commentary adds: “We experience God not only through our history, but through the very pulse of life and death and the wonders of nature that support it.”*
The Reform and Reconstructionist Movements, which tend to reject bodily resurrection, changed the Hebrew to “mechayei ha-kol,” “the One who gives life to all.” However, the most recent Reform Prayer book follows this with the traditional Hebrew in parentheses, though it notes that the phrase should be understood metaphorically.* The Reconstructionist Movement explains its rejection of the prayer’s traditional language as follows:
…[It demonstrates] an understanding that all of life is rooted in the world’s divine order and avoiding affirmation of life after death. We cannot know what happens to us after we die, but we can, by our thought and action, affirm the possibility of this-worldly salvation.*
One scholar notes that although the more liberal movements may have abandoned bodily resurrection, they did not necessarily reject the notion of life after death. “Judaism had provided an alternative, the doctrine of spiritual immortality. In most of our texts, this latter doctrine either replaces resurrection of the dead or is read back into it.”*
Despite a multiplicity of views, the conclusion of Chad Gadya, the Seder’s final and perhaps most popular song, provides a point of unity. The Haggadahs of all denominations conclude with a verse that speaks of God’s slaying the Angel of Death. Exactly what we mean when we sing those words remains a question.
I am struck at funerals by the boldness of this proclamation:
In him who rose from the dead,
our hope of resurrection dawned.
The sadness of death gives way
to the bright promise of immortality.
Lord, for your faithful people, life is changed, not ended.
When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death
we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven.*
With the casket before our eyes, it is difficult to believe life has changed rather than ended—but that claim lies at the heart of Christianity. The apostle Paul tells the community at Corinth: “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures . . .“ (1 Corinthians 15:3-5). Note that Paul is passing on a tradition taught to him, so this formulation is likely one of the oldest in the New Testament. Later in that same chapter, Paul speculates about what might transpire when our perishable bodies “put on imperishability” and immortality. In the “twinkling of an eye,” the “trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:52-53). English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) ended one of his poems with this allusion to Paul:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood,
Is immortal diamond.*
To change the metaphor, Paul understood Jesus to be the “first fruit” of God’s power to create and re-create. So, too, will God’s creative power be at work in “those who have died in the peace of Christ and all the dead whose faith you [God] alone have known.”*
What is the nature of this changed life beyond the grave? We do not know. We live in hope, committing ourselves to walking the Way of Jesus. We hope, in the words of poet Mary Oliver:
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.*
The Qur’an gives details of death, life after death, and heaven and hell. God in Islam is all-powerful. He gives life and death and holds sway over everything (Qur’an, 6:61). The angel of death is efficient and takes the souls of people on appointed times. For those who are good and pious, the angels greet them while they take their souls. The Qur’an says: “. . . those whom the angels gather in death while they are in a state of inner purity, greeting them thus: ‘Peace be upon you! Enter paradise by virtue of what you were doing [in life]’” (6:32). What happens to the soul after it is taken from the body? Certainly good souls are welcomed and bad souls feel the pressure of their sins. It is said that all souls are put to rest after death till the day of resurrection: The Qur’an says when the souls will be resurrected on the day of Judgment, “They will say: ‘Oh, woe unto us! Who has roused us from our sleep [of death]?’ [Whereupon they will be told:] ‘This is what the Most Gracious has promised! And His message-bearers spoke the truth!’”(36:52).
The Qur’an makes it clear that there will be accountability. No one will be able to hide anything and everyone will see what they did in their life. The Qur’an says: “the Day when they shall come forth [from death], with nothing of themselves hidden from God. With whom will sovereignty rest on that Day? With God, the One who holds absolute sway over all that exists!” (40:16). Good and bad are not equal and those who did good shall be acknowledged. The Qur’an says: “Now as for those who indulge in sinful doings – do they think that We place them, both in their life and their death, on an equal footing with those who have attained to faith and do righteous deeds? Bad, indeed, is their judgment” (45:21). The Qur’an says: “And so, he who shall have done an atom’s weight of good, shall behold it; and he who shall have done an atom’s weight of evil, shall behold it”(99:7-8). Those who will receive their reward in right hand will enter the heaven (17:71) and those who will receive it in the left hand will enter the hell fire (69: 25).
A merciful and forgiving God will decide the fate of everyone. The justice of God will follow His mercy and forgiveness and He will shower His blessings on those whom He wills. A righteous Muslim cannot be certain of his/her salvation, yet hopes to receive it through God’s grace and mercy.