Thoughts on the Afterlife: Q & A with Jonathan Bernis
Have you ever had a vision of Heaven? Please describe what you saw.
Although I have experienced a profound sense of God’s presence in prayer and had glimpses of the heavenly realm, I cannot honestly say that I have had what I would classify as a biblical vision of Heaven. I’ve met many people who have had Afterlife experiences and I believe those experiences are credible, but I personally am still waiting.
What did you learn about the Afterlife as a young Jewish man?
From the age of six when my grandfather passed away suddenly, I always had a deep interest in what happens after we die. From my earliest childhood memories, I always believed that there must be more to this life. I remember going to the rabbi when I was perhaps ten or eleven years old, and asking him what happens after we die. He replied, with a long, profound answer that we are climbing a mountain and don’t know what’s on the other side, because we’re still below the tree line. God, however, sits at the top of the mountain and knows what’s on the other side. Although profound, I was more confused after I left the rabbi’s study than before. Years later, I realized the rabbi had no idea whatsoever what happens after we die, but he was the rabbi, and rabbis never say, “I don’t know.” There are a myriad of different views within Judaism, ranging from atheism to a belief in the Afterlife to reincarnation. We have a funny saying that when you ask two Jews a question, you get three opinions! And that could not be truer regarding the question of life after death.
What are the typical responses Jewish rabbis have about the Afterlife?
Again, Judaism is not monolithic, and there is no one answer. Even in New Testament times there was disagreement among the Sadducees and Pharisees over this very issue. As I said earlier, the rabbinic views range from atheism to a fervent belief in eternal life and the age to come.
How does what a typical Jewish rabbi believes about the Afterlife differ from a Christian pastor’s viewpoint?
This is not an easy question to answer, because there are so many different beliefs among various rabbis and pastors. This is overly simplistic perhaps, but there tends to be more ambiguity within the Jewish community on this issue while Christian pastors, for the most part, would believe in the New Testament, which paints a clear picture of a literal Heaven (a place of complete peace and joy where we see God face to face and know as we are known), and the reality of Hell (which I understand to be absolute and total separation from God for eternity).
What are the differences in what an Orthodox rabbi believes about the Afterlife and what a Messianic rabbi believes about it?
For the most part the Old Testament and rabbinic literature is quite vague about the Afterlife. The most common Hebraic understanding of the Afterlife is summed up in Sheol, which is translated “the grave.” There is ambiguity about what lies beyond until we come to the New Testament. A Messianic rabbi would embrace the very specific teachings found in the New Testament, which teach a literal Heaven and Hell.
What verses in Scripture do you use to tell others about the Afterlife?
I have two favorite verses that deal with the Afterlife—one in the Old Testament and one in the New. The first is found in Daniel 12:2, where we read that Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. I don’t know of a clearer verse in the Old Testament that reveals the reality of an everlasting state of existence in one of two realms.
The other, found in the New Testament, is the story of the rich man and Lazarus from Luke 16:19-31. Here we have a picture of Sheol (the grave), but with a clear revelation that there is a division of Sheol into two areas: Abraham’s bosom or a holding place for the righteous, and what I believe is referred to in Hebrew as Gehenna, “a place of suffering and separation from God.” Although they can both see one another, these two compartments are very, very different. Every time I read this story, it makes me want to share with as many people as I possibly can about the Lord!
The only thing that determines where a person will end up is the decision they make in this life to receive God’s free gift of eternal life found in Jesus, the Messiah.
How essential is a correct view of the Afterlife for those who have made Yeshua their Messiah?
I believe it is absolutely essential, because a belief in not only Heaven, but Hell, should motivate all of us to do whatever is necessary to proclaim the Gospel to anyone who will hear. My conviction is that there is only way to eternal life and that is through accepting Yeshua as Lord and Redeemer. He is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father except through Him. A correct understanding of the Afterlife is essential to fully understanding what God has redeemed us from through His Son.