The idea that God rewards those who keep His commandments and punishes those who transgress them is one that runs through the whole of the Bible.
The biblical references are all to divine recompense and retribution in this world, in terms of material prosperity and suffering here on earth. But a remarkable shift of emphasis took place, it is generally held, at the time of the Maccabees, when righteous men and women were being slaughtered because of their loyalty to their faith. In the face of such direct contradiction to the notion of reward and punishment in the here and now, faith could only be maintained by affirming that recompense and retribution were to be the fate of humans in the Hereafter, in the World to Come, as it is called by the Rabbis. In the Rabbinic literature, while this-worldly formulations are not unknown, it is in the World to Come that the doctrine is made to receive its chief application (see GARDEN OF EDEN and GEHINNOM).
Because of all these factors the doctrine of reward and punishment is frequently interpreted by modern Jews in terms of natural progress rather than in terms of tit-for-tat. The emphasis among contemporary religious thought is on wickedness as carrying the seeds of its own destruction. The details can be left to God, while humans so conduct themselves that all the ancient teachings on reward and punishment are relevant to their lives. The doctrine as interpreted by moderns means that it is ultimately better to live the good life and reject an evil life.
Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies.