Western society understands the after-life as two different places: Heaven and Hell. Heaven is where people are rewarded after life, and Hell is where they are punished.
However, Judaism does not accept this idea of two different places. Rather, there is one World-to-Come. Its nature, however, depends on one’s manner of conduct in this world.
A powerful, yet cryptic description of Olam Haba is found in the writings of Rabbi Chaim Volozhin:
"The actions themselves of the person constitute the reward in Olam Haba. After the soul departs from the body it rises to take pleasure and satisfaction with the light, energy, and worlds of Kedusha (Holiness) that have been added and multiplied by his good actions. This is what the Sages meant when they said that "All of Israel have a portion to the World-to-Come [We translate it as in the World-to-Come, but the literal translation is to the World-to-Come] and not in the World-to-Come. "In" implies that Olam Haba is ready and waiting from the time of Creation, as if it where something with a separate existence, and if man warrants he will receive a portion of it for his reward [like a piece of candy waiting in G-d’s pocket to be given to whoever deserves it]. In truth, Olam Haba is [made up of] the actions of the person, which he expanded and added and perfected into a place for himself [to dwell]...and so it is with the punishment of Gehenam, the sin itself is his punishment [it becomes the "space" that he will occupy during the time of his "reward"].
As you can see, this is a very complex subject; too complex to deal with in such a short column. I advise you to study the following source texts for a better understanding of this fundamental topic.
- Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan - The Handbook of Jewish Thought, Moznaim Publishing Corporation, edited by Abraham Sutton, 23:11-19.
- Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin - Nefesh HaChaim 1:12.
- Rabbi Y.M. Tucazinsky - Gesher HaChaim (The Bridge of Life).