Who knows that the breath of man ascends upward and the breath of the beast descends downward to the earth? Ecclesiastes 3:21 NASB
Ascends upward – “Ecclesiastes, alone in the Bible, is aware of the belief that at death the soul goes upward to the heavens, rather than down to Sheol. This idea is not Semitic in origin, but it was found in popular Hellenistic religion, which held that the soul rises to the ether, the heavenly seat of the gods.”
Perhaps you should read that statement again. The idea of the soul rising to heaven isn’t found in the Tanakh. In the Tanakh, when a person dies, the nephesh (the person) goes to Sheol, the place of the dead, and awaits judgment. Everyone, good or evil, goes to Sheol. But when Hellenism began to impact Jewish-Hebrew thought in the 4th century BC, certain religious concepts present in Greek thinking found their way into rabbinic exegesis. Among these was the idea that the soul of the righteous ascended to heaven to be with God during the time between death and the Judgment. This idea made significant inroads among the rabbis, so much so that by the time Yeshua came on the scene, the concept of immediate translation to heaven or hell was firmly entrenched in even Jewish religious thinking. One of the reasons that the Sadducees objected to the doctrine of the resurrection was the awareness that this idea had its roots in Hellenism, not in the Tanakh. Of course, today both Hellenistic Judaism (which is really what Judaism is since the second century BC) and Christianity share this common belief. But it didn’t start in the ancient near-east. Perhaps that’s why the scope of the Tanakh is so entirely focused on this world and this life. After all, who knows what happens next?
The complicated interplay of ruah, nephesh, mut and the olam ha’ba simply isn’t clearly articulated in the Tanakh. Yeshua added a great deal to our understanding of the relationships between this life and the next, but it would be a mistake to claim that even He didn’t reflect some of the Hellenistic influence that was part of His culture. Perhaps the Father was really revealing more of this puzzle and that revelation happened to line up with some of the prior Greek thought. But if Yeshua is a man of His own age, then we can certainly see that Hellenism had an impact on rabbinic ideas during the time He walked the earth.
Does this possibility scare you? It might if you are putting your eggs in the “get to heaven” basket. If the focus of your hope is the exit strategy from this world to a place of perfect bliss, then you might feel a bit of discomfort when you read Michael Fox’s statement and realize that much of our thinking about heaven comes from Greek mystery religions, not from Hebrew Scripture. Just because the source of this material isn’t found in our canon doesn’t mean it isn’t correct. If your focus is pleasing the Lord and blessing others, then this little detail probably won’t bother you too much. You will ascribe it to one of those “no one knows for sure” categories. By the time you really have to face the issue, it won’t matter any more. You’ll be dead. Maybe it is disconcerting to realize that the Tanakh says next to nothing about what happens next. But it shouldn’t be surprising. The Tanakh looks to the past, not the future. It faces the long history of God’s faithfulness, His interaction with all those who stood before us, the relationships that they created or destroyed, the legacy they left and the story we will leave – this is the emphasis of the Tanakh. It is a masterpiece of trust, not the assurance of afterlife reward. If this is the foundation, the rest won’t matter, no matter how it turns out.
Topical Index: heaven, afterlife, olam ha’ba, nephesh, Ecclesiastes 3:21
 Michael Fox, Ecclesiastes: The JPS Bible Commentary, p. 26.