It turns out that lots of people believe in life after death. Two polls conducted by The Gallup Organization report that 79% of Americans believe that after they die their souls will be judged and sent to heaven or to hell, and that 33% believe in ghosts. An Internet poll informs us that 38% of those responding believe in reincarnation.
There’s a mixed message in these surveys. While they express a certain optimism regarding continuity of our precious selfhood, they also imply that our present state of existence is doomed to obsolescence. We may live on as a basking or roasting soul, a spooky apparition, or the neighbor’s cat; but at a certain point, common wisdom has it, life as we know it will come to an end.
Jewish tradition has a more encouraging scenario. While the Jewish concept of the hereafter includes heaven and hell (though a very different heaven and hell than the cloud-borne country clubs and the subterranean fire pits depicted in New Yorker cartoons), reincarnation and even dybuks, its central feature is techiat hameitim, the vivification of the dead. Techiat hameitim states that in the messianic age our souls will be restored to our resurrected bodies. In other words, life as our own soul inhabiting our own body–basically the life we know today–will resume.