Many people confuse the concepts of the Messianic Era and the World to Come, thinking that they are one and the same. They are not.
The first thing to understand is that the World to Come is not a place, but a time.
Judaism divides our existence in the universe into two times periods: This World (Olam Hazeh), and the World to Come (Olam Habah).
The Resurrection will take place during the World to Come, and will involve a rebirth of the physical world. This is how it will take place:
The world will undergo a complete cessation. There will be only quite and desolation, and the world as we know it will cease to exist. All things will no longer be alive.
All souls will be brought to the Realm of Souls, to recharge, so to speak.
The world will be dormant for one thousand years.
Then the world will be resurrected. The world and everything in it will start to live again. Souls will be reunited with their bodies, but the reconstructed bodies will not have the same low level they now have in This World. Even the physical will have a much more elevated, holier nature to it, as it was before the sin of the Tree of Knowledge.
No longer will the body be impeded by its own materialism. No longer will the soul be impeded by the desires of the body, because the body and soul will be fully integrated, and as one will be holy.
This is what we call the World to Come, Olam Habah.
In the World to Come, says the Talmud, there will be no eating or drinking, nor any other physical needs that we know today. The righteous will sit and enjoy the splendor of the Manifestation of the holiness of Hashem, which we call the Shechinah (which is not Hashem Itself, despite the common misconceptions).
The World to Come will be forever. That is where we will enjoy the full effects of the spiritual work we do in this world. Many good deeds have «fruits» in this world that we can often appreciate and enjoy during our lifetimes, but the primary results and effects of our good deeds will be manifest in the World to Come.
About the World to Come not much is known. The Talmud says that even the Prophets could not see more than dimly into the World to Come. Only Hashem knows clearly the details of it.
What about the Messianic Era? What is that?
I have described this world as being separate in time from the World to Come. I have delineated two clear time periods: Olam Hazeh (This World), and Olam Habah (the World to Come). The Messianic Era is a part of This World. It is not a part of the World to Come.
Sometime during the period of time called This World, the world will begin to better itself spiritually. This will either be as a direct result of, or it will be a prelude to, the Messianic Era.
The Messianic Era will be a better time for people in This World. The physical nature of this world will not change. People will still die, people will still be born, but life spans will be very prolonged. Disease will disappear entirely, pain will be eradicated, and all the curses Adam and Eve received for their sin will be nullified.
Women will give birth quickly and easily, without difficult pregnancies and without painful labor and childbirth.
Life will be easy, and we will no longer have to work for a living. Loaves of bread will grow on trees, and clothing will be available at the drop of a, well, a hat, if you’ll excuse the expression.
Our main function at that time will be the attainment of spiritual growth. However, we will still live in the physical world, as we do today, yet without many of the distractions we have today. We will no longer be subject to the rule of oppressors of any kind, neither foreign or domestic. There will be no oppression, no war, and no crime anywhere on earth.
Eventually, all sin will disappear completely.
That is the Messianic Era. And it will take place during Olam Hazeh, This World.
The Messiah will be our first king, and he will live a very long and fruitful life, teaching the world how to attain all these things, especially Torah.
The King Messiah, after a very long and happy life, will die. His son will become king after him, and continue his good work. He too, will die at a very advanced age. His son, the grandson of the first King Messiah, will be king until This World comes to an end, and the thousand years of desolation begins.
All three will be «messiahs,» because the word «messiah» (moshiach in Hebrew) simply means «anointed.» It is applied to any king so designated by Hashem. In Isaiah 45:1 we find that Cyrus is called Hashem’s Anointed, and he wasn’t even Jewish! Nevertheless, we don’t call Cyrus by the title «Messiah,» simply because over the millennia that term has come to be used exclusively when we refer to the future King Messiah of the «Messianic Era.» But of course, King David was anointed, and so was King Saul. King David himself referred to King Saul as «Hashem’s Anointed» (2 Samuel 1:14, 16). We also see that King David calls King Saul’s shield «moshiach» (anointed), since King Saul used to apply oil to the leather parts of it.
So when will all this happen, the Messianic Era, and the time of desolation? Well, we do know something about that, but not all. The time of the Redemption — that is, the start of the Messianic Era — has intentionally been left secret. If we do not repent, it will happen at the ordained time. If we all repent and become what we should be, the Messianic Era will begin immediately. Hashem does not want us to simply sit and wait for the pre-ordained time to come. Hashem wants us to repent and be what Hashem created us to be. If we repent, and become what we should be, the Messianic Era will begin before the ordained time. The ordained time is only a deadline for the coming of the Messiah. He can come earlier. It depends on us.
The original plan was that the world should last six thousand years, to parallel the Seven Days of Creation. Two thousand years was «void,» that is, without people fulfilling the Torah. Two thousand years (starting from the time of Abraham) was to be of Torah, and the final two thousand years was to be the Messianic Era. Then the world would cease for one thousand years, and rest like we do on the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week. That was how it was supposed to be.
But we kept messing up. Since we keep sinning, and have not yet fully repented, the Messianic Era has not yet begun. The middle period has gone on for much longer than the two thousand years that it was supposed to last.
How long will the Messianic Era be, now that we have eaten into most of the final two thousand years? Will the Messianic Era last less than two thousand years? Let’s say the Messiah comes in the year 5800 Of Creation (which will be the year 2040 C.E.). Will the Messianic Era last only 200 years?
It is taught, according to some Rabbinic opinions, that the Messianic Era will span two thousand years regardless. So, instead of This World ending at the year 6,000 Of Creation, This World will end after two thousand years of Messianic Era, not before.
So, let us review the time chart.
- First we have the world as we know it, as it is today.
- Then the Messiah will come, and usher in a new and better life for all of us.
- After two thousand years of that beautiful life, This World will come to an end. The world will be dormant for one thousand years.
- During the one thousand years of desolation, all souls will be in the Realm of Souls, recharging for the purpose of the Resurrection.
- At the end of those thousand years, the Resurrection will take place, and the World to Come will begin, and that will last forever.
Bear in mind that I have used the simplest explanation for these concepts. The full understanding is much more complex.
A good source for this sort of information (and the place I got most of this from) is a Book called The Way of G-d, by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, translated by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan of blessed memory, published by Feldheim Publishers.