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I’m Scared of Going to Hell . . .

I’m Scared of Going to Hell . . .



I’m a secular Jew, and I’m afraid of going to hell. What does the Torah say about hell, and will I go there simply because I don’t observe the Shabbat, Jewish holidays or the laws of kosher? All in all, I think I’m a very decent human being—but of course nobody is perfect.


I hope you don’t mind if I take issue with your first few words. You write that you are a “secular Jew.” I don’t believe there is such a thing. You see, the word secular means “mundane” or “un-sacred.” A Jew, by definition, is holy. And you are just as Jewish as me, your great-grandfather and Moses. Perhaps not as observant—but just as Jewish. I truly mean that . . .

I’m sure you’re a great person. You probably live an ethical life and do many acts of kindness. You have done much to express your innate holiness. And that’s exactly why you can grow so much through taking on a few new mitzvot. You can take your being a decent human being infinitely higher. Your goodness will be instilled with a G‑dly touch.

You write that you are not perfect. But then again—as you yourself say—no one is. And that’s exactly why Judaism is not an all-or-nothing religion. It treasures the power of a single act. So I challenge you to take on one new mitzvah. It’s a mitzvah that happens only once a week, and takes only a minute. But it is powerful. And you will find that its effect is profound.

Jewish women have the special commandment to light the Shabbat candles each Friday afternoon. It brings light, holiness, peace and tranquility into the home. Give it a try. Check out our Shabbat Candle-Lighting Wizard for more information about this special mitzvah.

Now, to address your question about hell:

You’re probably expecting me to depict a haunting scene of ghosts and goblins. But the Jewish concept of “heaven” and “hell” cannot be more different than the description found in medieval Christian texts or cartoons.

Yes, Judaism believes in punishment and reward in the afterlife. But in Judaism:

Hell is temporary—not permanent.

Hell is a therapy—not an imprisonment.

Hell is a consequence—not a punishment.

Hell is a washing machine—not a furnace.

Sounds interesting? Click here to read all about this topic.

Let me know if this helps. I await your reply.

Yours truly,
Rabbi Yisroel Cotlar

Rabbi Yisroel Cotlar is a Chabad rabbi in Cary, North Carolina. He is also a member of the Ask the Rabbi team.
All names of persons and locations or other identifying features referenced in these questions have been omitted or changed to preserve the anonymity of the questioners.
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Anonymous July 27, 2016

The premise of this article is faulty This is a non-question. If you are a secular Jew, you probably don't believe in God or subscribe to the religion. That's what makes you secular by definition. If you don't believe in God, you have no reason to fear going to hell. That makes this question unnecessary. A secular Jew, by nature, doesn't care about kashrus, shabbos, niddah, yomim tovim, or any mitzvah in particular. If he or she does, it is probably out of a cultural attachment to the Jewish people. The obverse of the statement is the following: If you believe in God and aren't doing that which you believe God commanded, then you're just being lazy. Then you might have some justification for being afraid of hell.

An ex-BT Reply

Michael Tupek New Ipswich December 26, 2015

Rabbinic speculation Allow me to respond to those who feel like the questioner here, because only an evangelical Christian will mention a totally different viewpoint based on the Jews' own Hebrew Bible. Here are some facts:

The response mentioned here in this article is based on rabbinic Talmudic teachings, which came into being much later than the Hebrew prophets stopped addressing the people of Israel. Consequently, this response is only uninspired speculation.

Neither the Torah nor the whole Hebrew Bible teaches anything close to the silly purgatory concept as mentioned here. Rather, Yahweh consistently determined the final destiny of those disobedient to his required covenant by his judgment of their character only during this life.

To be half-hearted, selective, or indifferent to Yahweh's covenant demands is to not love him with the whole heart (which is the critical commandment). Such an attitude always deserved damnation.

The few verses in the Hebrew Bible which disclose the afterlife of damnation is always an everlasting state of misery, which is not reversed after time.

The rabbinic concept of personal merit deserving of a part in the world to come is uninspired speculation and completely antithetical to the Torah, which teaches a free justification given to those who cling to Yahweh with loving reliance and belief in his revealed word (which includes belief in the message of all his prophets), as Abraham experienced.

If readers would like a fresh investigation of the Torah's teachings, let them read my book, “Torah of Sin and Grace.”

Anonymous earth December 25, 2015

hell versus purgatory that last description sort of describes the teaching on purgatory, whereas many understand hell to be permanent, therefore wise to aim to avoid it. We should encourage eachother to avoid hell, to aim for heaven, and to atone in this life. It is good to still try to keep all the commandments -- including keeping the Sabbath holy -- because God is good, He loves us, and He deserves our love ... that is the greatest commandment: to love God and neighbor, this fulfills the Law. So, when we learn to love God (by seeking to know Him, follow Him, serve Him), we find out that He's not too scary...that He has our best interest at Heart, that He takes good care of us if we trust Him, that He has a wonderful beautiful afterlife prepared for all who love Him... we must begin in this life to love God, so that we will have our souls trained and refined for an eternity of praising, worshipping, and communing with our Creator, the King of the Universe! It is good to care for others souls but first ours Reply

Anonymous October 27, 2015

So you're saying that even if there are some jews like me who were not raised to keep 100% shabbath or kosher, we can still get a share in the world to come? Reply

Susan September 23, 2014

Dear Sean,
I'm a student of Kaballah and have friends in the Lubavich community. Jewish people are required to help those in need, regardless of religion. I've seen numerous examples of this in the kosher soup kitchen where I live. No one is turned away. My own rabbi changed a tire for a Christian person who was stranded by the road. I'm counting on the scholars at to point to texts about this but do make the mistake of assuming from your brother's lack of knowledge (and hand gestures) that we only help "our own". The historic difference between Jewish and Christian outreach is that Jews do not try to convert non-Jews in order to help them. While Christianity may have evolved in recent years, historically Christian missionaries and clergy were only prone to help those they targeted for conversion. All the best. Reply

compugraphd Central NJ September 23, 2014

answer again to tribulism ב"ה

I don't know what people your brother has encountered, but true mitzva keeping Jews would help anyone. Whenever there is a disaster in this world, be it an earthquake in Haiti, trapped miners in Chile, a tsunami in Japan, which is the first country to send help?

Jews are taught to help all comers. It could be that your brother is surmising (or trying to give you an incentive to join him here in our little circle). We don't proselytize -- we even have Tora rules for Gentiles. We don't even think that Gentiles (non-Jews) are evil or are "going to hell", so to speak. Good Gentiles are good people -- Good Gentiles aren't required to keep all the Mitzvot we keep.

Chances are if your brother is new to Judaism, he might not know all the nuances of Judaism. And, BTW, just because you find someone who feels that way doesn't mean it's Jewish law.

Hope that helps..... Reply

Alan Columbus, OH September 22, 2014

Helping strangers Dear Sean: People of all faiths are predisposed to help those in need and this is certainly true for Jews. Be kind to the stranger for you were once strangers, etc. Until proven otherwise, I will believe that the Chabad rabbi would have helped you. Unfortunately, there are always persons who do not live up to the highest ideals of faith. One may look at the immigration debate in the US and see persons who hold themselves out as Christians and, yet, wish to deny aid to immigrants. One should not tar Christianity (or Judaism) because some who may fall short. Reply

Sean September 22, 2014

Tribalism compugraphd:

Wonderful answer!

Only problem is my brother goes on and on about how you can go anywhere in the world and you will find one of the People (Chabad) will help you out! He told the story of being in a foreign land and needing a cable for his computer. A Chabad person identified himself and got my brother a cable. All good!

But then I asked my brother if the same man would have helped me. My brother just grinned and held out his hands. His meaning was, "If you are not Jewish, why should he help you?" I think. I questioned him and he would not respond.

Forgive me, but in the Christian tradition, we are disposed to help anyone.

Sean Reply

anonymous ottawa September 19, 2014

Debby - Just to be clear the Norse Hel was not a place of damnation either. It seems to be something adapted by the Christians, that concept of eternal torments - possibly deriving from the Greek tatarus. Most likely by the looks of it, since so much of Christianity seems to pull more from the Greeks than the Hebrews. But Odin is the Chuck Norris of Gods. Reply

compugraphd Central NJ September 19, 2014

Response to Anonymous (Tribal) In answer to the following:

Is Judaism a tribal religion?

I am just wondering, because my brother converted to Judaism and he is absolutely elated! He says that when you become a Jew, you are not required to BELIEVE in anything at all! He says that all you simply become one of the PEOPLE! It's as though he has become a member of a club.

He derides the Catholic tradition in which we were raised, because it requires belief.

Is it true that being a Jew is nothing more than identifying with a particular group?

My answer:

I have had this argument with people for years. Judaism is a religion of deeds, not belief. If you believe in G-d but murder (like many Nazis) then you are evil. If you don't believe in G-d and you treat people with respect then you are good. Belief, IMHO, is only important inasmuch as it makes you a good person deeds-wise. Reply

Debbie Central NJ September 19, 2014

Shabbat is for us, not for G-d I've always (or at least since I "got it") felt that people who don't keep the Mitvot (commandments) are good people who are missing out on a gift that G-d gave us. G-d knows what humans need to survive -- Shabbat helps us recharge our batteries, being honest means people who we deal with on a daily basis will trust and be more likely to do business or deal with or work with us. I trust that even the Mitzvot that I haven't figured out the reasons for (not as many these days as when I was younger) have good reasons because I trust that G-d would give these mitzvot only if there is a good, practical, works well on this earth reason. I also believe that if you are Jewish and are a good person you are a good Jew. I also should remind you that Hell comes from Norse Mythology (where is was Hel). It's not a Jewish concept. Can you imagine that G-d would want to horribly punish 2/3 of the world's population for eternity? I cannot. Reply

Kathleen September 9, 2014

Stephanie, you are so correct on this one. I was not raised in a traditional Jewish household, but what I consider close to it in nature and beliefs. The higher ups considered themselves "chosen" and above the law of my fathers, and when I asked my mother about this, she said we were not to question their choices, and they were ordained by G-d. Thus, my search for the truth began.

My search began with the 10 commandments delivered by Moses who indeed WAS chosen by G-d to do so. When I saw the superiors freely breaking the laws without fear, I began to pray to the G-d that is not a hypocrite.

I do not believe He is a liar, and so I believe that there is a true heaven, and a true hell ( not an acceptable which we have created), and a future day we will stand before Him to give account. Reply

Stephanie Thomas (Armus) Santa Monica September 8, 2014

"Jews imagine themselves to be superior..." I vividly recall my grandfather, a Rabbi, teaching me that: "Jews were CHOSEN to TEACH right from wrong!" To teach right from wrong meant being RESPONSIBLE to learn...and then, being RESPONSIBLE to teach that which we learned!

I'm so sick and tired of hearing about the IRRESPONSIBLE SUPERIORITY! Some totally retarded idiot came up with that one. For those who take their responsibility seriously, one truly might consider them somewhat 'superior'... I know I do! Reply

Yaron Reuven New York September 8, 2014

The Torah laws are eternal R matalon

You're correct about upbringing circumstances being considered but nowhere near as much as some May like to believe. So if someone is born a Shote (fool or defective mentally) then of course that is considered. If someone is born in a place where there's nothing even remotely relevant to Judaism without Internet or TV access then of course that's considered. But the two cases are rare and do not apply to the cast majority if the world. If someone doesn't know about Judaism or God, but has access to the world around us he is responsible to use his common sense to search for the truth and the meaning if life. One cannot use ignorance as a plea on his judgement day if he wants a good judgement. One can also not rely on the opinion of others, but rather only use the opinion of the Torah. No matter who the person is and how smart or holy they may or may not be, their opinion is meaningless in comparison to Hashem's opinion. Anyone who does that will see the errors in this article Reply

David Chester Petach Tikva, Israel September 7, 2014

Judiasm and Tribal Rights Today Judiasm is not tribal as it once was. Anybody who is sincere can join and from the time of Hillel this was the situation.

Your brother seems to have the wrong idea but it may be that what is reported by you is inaccurate and that he is more devout than you think. Jews believe in the one God and in the need to obey his commandments (mitzvot) as much as is possible. They accept that our history has made us what we are and wish to show the rest of the world how this faith guides us. And as far as Hell is concerned there is no exact knowledge so its all guess-work and intuition. Reply

R Matalon September 7, 2014

Yaron Reuven
I don't discount that all the mitzvot are important. I was saying that a persons upbringing and circumstances are also factors in how we are judged. Reply

anonymous ottawa September 6, 2014

LR NY What you say about the collective mind lights me up like a Christmas tree and makes me ring like a bell. I agree it's the job of the priests to bear the burden of knowledge and disburse it, like a light for the rest of us. But it's all kind of messed up, isn't it? Those of us who warm to the collective mind idea also may warm to the idea or cling to the hope that this will not be our inherritance - speaking for myself, I hope there is a chance for individuals to transcend that. At least this way of looking at it leaves tons of room for possibilities and miracles. We live in hope. Reply

Anonymous September 4, 2014

Tribalism Is Judaism a tribal religion?

I am just wondering, because my brother converted to Judaism and he is absolutely elated! He says that when you become a Jew, you are not required to BELIEVE in anything at all! He says that all you simply become one of the PEOPLE! It's as though he has become a member of a club.

He derides the Catholic tradition in which we were raised, because it requires belief.

Is it true that being a Jew is nothing more than identifying with a particular group? Reply

Yaron Reuven New York September 3, 2014

R Matalon,
You quoted the ethics of our fathers verse that is in our daily prayers, but what many people don't know is that the verse continues much further by detailing the conditions of that statement. Once you read the conditions, you'll see how drastically misleading that verse by itself can be to people who don't know the rest of it. (Hint: there are many conditions). What that part of the verse means is that all Jews are born with a ticket to Olam Ha'ba, but the details of what's needed to exercise that ticket are extensive. Anyone who believes (or led to believe) that theyre guaranteed entrance just because of their parents, rabbi, or difficult circumstances, while they're "not" keeping the mitzvot is wrong. You're partially right about the levels of the 613 mitzvot, and that's why Rebbe Yehudah HaNassi taught us that we should pay careful attention to each mitzva, big or small. Also note that the 3 key covenants to Judaism are Shabbat, Britt, and Tefillin Reply

David Chester Petach Tikva, Israel September 3, 2014

Doubts about Faith Kathlene and others too, who think that Jews imagine themselves to be superior, is not facing the problem of faith squarely. If the Jews do indeed have the greater faith (which today I doubt) then they have nothing to fear and when others also have this almost perfect amount of faith, they too can rightly feel that Hell (which I don't deny exists) is not something they need fear.

But as we well know this is not always the situation and so it is thought to be useful (even amongst Jews) to remind ourselves that with our doubts there is a chance that a visit to Hell might cause us misery. Reply