The God Squad: Historical look at concept of afterlife

Q: Where did the Jewish/Christian idea of life after death come from?

The Bible seems to teach that death is the complete end of life. Psalm 146:4 reads: "His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth, in that very day his thoughts perish." Or in Ecclesiastes 9:5: "For the living know that they shall die, but the dead know not anything, neither have they any more a reward, for the memory of them is forgotten." — D., via

A: The idea that we have something in us called a soul that can survive the death of our bodies came from God — via Aristotle. The period before the 4th century BCE was a time when our spiritual thinking was not informed by philosophical thinking. Stories, not syllogisms, formed and framed our pre-Greek ideas about life and death.

During this pre-philosophical time, the Hebrew Bible taught that people are comprised of bodies and something else, which was called in Hebrew, nefesh. Nefesh is sometimes translated as soul, but the biblical nefesh was nothing like the later post-Aristotelian idea of the soul, which was called in Hebrew the neshama.

The biblical idea of the nefesh is closer to what we mean by life or life-force. The nefesh was that divine force that made our bodies live, but the nefesh died when the body died, as the biblical passages you cited imply (my favorite is from Psalm 115:17: "The dead praise not the Lord, neither any that go down into silence").

After the conquest of Israel by Alexander in 333 BCE, a period called Hellenism began, which brought Greek philosophy into contact with biblical Judaism through the scholar/teachers called rabbis, who, unlike the biblical priestly class, were drawn to Greek philosophy as a new source of divine revelation. The revolutionary Aristotelian ideas that transformed biblical thought were the ideas of matter and form.

Matter was potentiality and form was actuality. Matter was, well, material, and form was an immaterial idea that had the ability to affect matter. A statue of a horse was thus the result of the mysterious interaction of the matter used for the sculpture (wood, clay, stone) and the form of ideal "horseness."

The rabbis, and later the Christians, transformed matter and form into the religious ideas of body and soul. This allowed them for the first time to teach that our souls survive the death of our bodies and return to God who is, like our souls, purely immaterial.

This enabled them to use heaven and hell as the way God would set right the scales of justice, which seem so often askew in this life. It also gave them a personally hopeful teaching that we will not be separated forever from those we love.

All this should remind us that the greatest advances in religious thinking happen only when religious people take seriously what the best representatives of the secular world are learning and teaching about the nature of human existence.


Q: What am I missing? I don't see a reason for praying for a soul in heaven. Since we can only guess the location of the soul of the deceased, neither a soul in heaven or hell would seem to benefit from our prayers. I guess purgatory makes sense. Please help this tired brain. — N., via

A: When I first began thinking about the big questions, I also wondered about the purpose of praying for the dead if the book of our life and our deeds is indeed closed when we die. The answer to that question that most satisfies me comes from my Jewish tradition. We Jews believe that although our divine account is basically closed at our death, it's not completely closed.

We believe that after our death, our souls go through a kind of spiritual debriefing in heaven (we Jews call heaven The World to Come). During this period, our souls are judged, but we're also allowed to understand why we feared what we feared and why we failed the way we failed, as well as why we succeeded and loved.

During this "soul school," the list of our good deeds is compared to the list of our bad deeds. Only one kind of good deed can be added to our account at that time, and that's the good deed of teaching our children to pray for us after we die. Each of their prayers gets recorded in our positive ledger.

Soul school can last an instant for the righteous, or up to a year for the spiritually challenged. This is why Jews say prayers for deceased close relatives (father, mother, sister, brother, child, spouse) for almost a year after their deaths. We stop at 11 months and a day because we don't want to imply that our dearly departed needed a full year of "extra credit."

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