It is a common and comforting belief among many Christians that when people die, or at least when “good” people die, their souls go to heaven to be with God. Does that belief actually reflect the teachings of Jesus (or any first-century Jew for that matter)?
The afterlife was not so important in the ancient world as one might suspect today. Life in the present world was difficult enough and required all one’s effort as well as continuous attention to obtaining the necessary assistance from the gods in order to survive. Death was ever present. People died from ailments easily treatable today: infected scratches and wounds, colds and flus, malaria and worms. As a result, life expectancy was about 40 years for a man, somewhat less for a woman. Women began having children early because as many as half of all children died before the age of five. Women often died in childbirth and many men and women had multiple husbands and wives over the course of their lives. As many as a third of women were widows at any given time. The struggle to survive was paramount.
For most, the afterlife was not looked upon as a remedy or reward for living justly in this life. For non-Jews, one’s departed soul was often thought to reside in Hades with the god of the dead. This was not “hell” in the modern sense but a place of repose where the shades remained for all eternity. The separation of the human into body and soul was a Platonic concept derived from the teachings of the Greek philosopher Plato and his student Socrates. It is a companion of the equally Platonic concept of a realm of perfect reality, what we might call heaven, juxtaposed against its imperfect shadow realm, our earthly world. Plato thought that souls faced a judgment resulting in reward or punishment. Some ancient eastern “mystery religions” advertised communion with its particular god in the afterlife as a benefit of membership.
Originally, Jews held the Biblical belief, not so different from non-Jews, that the dead reposed in a postmortem realm they called Sheol. There the nephesh, the essence of the human life, took up residence forever separated from God. It was not until a post-Biblical movement took root within Judaism that the hope of reward in the afterlife began to catch on.