2.7. Suffering and Gehinnom

Sources refer to the Ramchal’s Derech Hashem.


As we discussed throughout the preceding entries, man’s purpose in this world is to elevate himself so that he becomes worthy of the ultimate goodness, which is proximity to God in the Next World. God’s wisdom decreed that the best way to accomplish this would be for man to first exist in this world, which is constrained by the laws of physics. This world prepares mankind for the Next World. [II, 2.1] There are two types of preparation in this world – one for individuals and another for mankind as a whole.

The preparation of individuals is brought about through the deeds that they perform. The preparation of mankind involves getting the all of humanity in shape for the Next World.

As we have discussed (section 2.3), man has a good inclination, an evil inclination, and the free will necessary to choose between them. Because of this, some people turn out good and others turn out evil. The evil members of humanity must eventually be ejected in order for the good people to form the united community of the Next World. [II, 2.2]

The fact that man has free will is what enables some people to be good and others evil. And, while it is conceivable that all of a person’s deeds might be good or bad, it is far more likely that some of a person’s deeds will be of one kind and other deeds of the opposite kind.

Every individual is made up of a combination of good and bad. If only one type of deed were taken into account, a person’s judgment would be unjust, even if only the majority type of deed were considered. Judgment can only truly be just if all of a person’s deeds are evaluated. God therefore decreed that a person be paid for his deeds – both good and bad – in two stages.

A person’s deeds are therefore divided into two categories: the majority and the minority. One of these categories will comprise a person’s positive acts and the other his negative. Each category is evaluated separately and rewarded (or punished) separately, as appropriate.

As we have discussed, the ultimate reward is for a soul to be bound in proximity to God’s Presence in the Next World; the ultimate punishment is for a soul to be spiritually excised. But these fates await a person based on the majority of his actions. The minority of a person’s actions – meaning an evil person’s good deeds and a good person’s wicked deeds – are rewarded in this world through benefits or punished through suffering. This is why we often see evil people thrive (as the reward for their good) and righteous people suffer (as punishment for their misdeeds).

Ultimately, God repays a person for every action. When a reward is held over to be delivered in the Next World, it is because it is appropriate for perfecting the Next World. The Next World only awaits the souls of righteous individuals, not those of the wicked. Not only that, the righteous are relieved of any impediment to full benefit of their reward. The souls of the evil, on the other hand, are discarded and eradicated. [II, 2.3]

God in His mercy “stacked the deck” in order to help man fulfill his purpose. He decreed that there should be a second way for people to be cleansed for their misdeeds. This second way is appropriate for those overcome by evil but not to such an extent that their souls warrant eradication. This second manner of purification includes Gehinnom (“Hell”). These punishments cleanse a person of further culpability for his evil deeds so that he can then enjoy appropriate reward for the good he has done.

Because Gehinnom and other forms of purification exist, relatively few souls actually end up being eradicated. Kareis ends up limited only to those who are thoroughly steeped in their evil.

The result is that a person’s judgment occurs in three stages. The main judgment will occur after the revival of the dead, as was discussed in section 2.3. Some of a person’s deeds are judged before this. Of these, some are repaid in this world and others are repaid in the “world of souls.” Only God, however, understands when or where which deeds are judged or repaid. We have only been given the most basic information about the process. [II, 2.4]

We have discussed how a person’s good deeds improve his overall perfection, while his misdeeds increase his imperfection. A righteous person can improve himself tremendously but his minority of misdeeds still creates defects that render him unfit to draw close to God. For such people, God decreed purification through suffering.

Suffering has the ability to break down a person’s detachment, cleansing him so that he will be fit to receive God’s goodness at the proper time. The degree of suffering required to purify a person depends on the degree of detachment he has developed. If suffering in this world is insufficient to cleanse a person, spiritual purification in the Next World may also be necessary. [II, 2.5]

Some people, however, have become thoroughly corrupted by their misdeeds, rendering them wholly unfit to merit proximity to God. Nevertheless, even such a person could have merits, even if they are not sufficient to bring him to the side of the good. It would be unjust not to reward a person for these deeds, so they are repaid in this world (which is why we often see the wicked prosper). [II, 2.6]

It’s important to note that people will occupy different levels even in the future community of perfected individuals. God calculated the lowest level a person could occupy and still deserve proximity to Him. When a person has achieved this minimum level, he has earned the right to be a member of the community of the perfected and enjoy an eternal connection to God. The greater one’s level, the higher degree of attachment he will merit. If one does not reach the minimum level, his soul will ultimately be discarded and destroyed. God placed man in charge of his own fate, so man must achieve this goodness through his own efforts. Therefore, the level one can hope to occupy in the future community of perfection depends upon the choices he makes in this world. If one occupies a lower rung in the post-revival community, he would have no one to blame but himself. [II, 2.7]

This is actually another important principle in how God judges mankind’s deeds: a person’s deeds are judged as to whether or not they should affect a person’s level in the future community. Some deeds do not affect a person’s future standing and are repaid in this world. This person will therefore occupy a lower level in the post-revival world. [II, 2.8]

The information in this chapter is indispensable for understanding why righteous people suffer and why evil people thrive. It also explains how punishments help to prepare a person’s soul for its true reward in the future. [II, 2.9]