By Hermon Ross
Most people assume that the afterlife was a major tenet of Judaism when a group of Jews led by Jesus of Nazareth formed a separate church to pray to the same God. But the afterlife is never mentioned in the Pentateuch or in any of what we call the Jewish canon—the 22 books of the Old Testament. No afterlife is mentioned or promised for Abraham or the other Patriarchs, nor for Moses, Joshua or any of the kings and prophets of ancient Israel. Allusions in the Bible to the afterlife—e.g., he “was gathered to his people”—are vague references, almost deliberately so. Or they are the subject of eschatological visions, as in Ezekiel.
As for Christianity, it adopted the Jewish canon but followed the thinking of the Greeks, who envisioned the body and soul as separate entities. Only the body dies, the soul goes to heaven for judgment by God and the prospect of eternal paradise or Hell when God finally returns Jesus to the world in the Second Coming and Rapture.
Islam is known for promising an afterlife of paradise for the righteous, full of beautiful virgins and other earthly delights, all as a reward for following the obligations of the Koran, especially the requirement of Jihad. “They shall recline on jeweled couches face to face, and there shall wait on them immortal youths with bowls and ewers and a cup of purest wine…. And theirs shall be the dark-eyed women, chaste as hidden pearls: a guerdon [reward] for their deeds….”
The role of the afterlife in human history has been critical, as countless generations have been unable to comprehend the purpose of life if it does not include the possibility of an afterlife based on one’s conduct during life. Wars costing millions of life have been fought using religion as a banner. Of course, most all modern leaders understand that there is no deity to be counted upon to help secure their policy objectives. In modern politics more so than at any time in history, God has become a political prop. As FDR is rumored to have told his speech writers, “don’t forget to throw in the God stuff.”
Belief in an afterlife should be regarded, given the absence of any scientific evidence, as the biggest lie in history, accepted by billions of humans over time and still today. The 2020 election may be an instance where the blackballing of the truth, the denial of science by Trump followers and truth deniers, has been most evident and egregious. But it does not hold a candle to the fact that hundreds of millions of people still believe there is a heavenly existence after death as a reward for good behavior or righteous beliefs during life. The growing awareness that there is no deity to answer our prayers may help explain why the suicide rate in the United States increased by 33 percent from 1999 to 2017. A rush to get to a wondrous afterlife in heaven? Or a rush to death because they have given hope up for an afterlife?
Salem Katsh’s book, Alo’el’s Dissent, presents the reader with a fast-paced thriller about the journey of Daniel Ornstein, a young mountain climber, archer, and sometime scholar, searching for meaning in life and the truth about religion, who discovers that our concepts of divine intervention are perhaps not so wrong after all.