In yeshiva I was always told about gan eden and gehinnom, and how the good go to the former place while the bad go to the latter. However, in popular culture, Jews are always said to not believe in Hell (and many times Heaven). Why the discrepancy?
It might be because the Written Torah doesn't really go much into the topic. (Why that is so is a whole other question.) So people may have incorrectly concluded that these ideas weren't originally part of Judaism.
Another possibility is that they mean that we don't believe in the popular conception of Heaven (angels with harps) or of Hell (fiery lakes, satanic demons torturing souls, etc.). Which is perfectly true; those are Christian ideas (partly from Dante's Inferno) that have no place in Judaism.
The idea that most talk about is that Judaism's gehinom is not a place for the damned as the christian hell is. It's spiritual rehabilitation. Although not everyone is zoche to this- I'm not privy to their fate. Suggested reading with a Rebbi: Derech Hashem. "Gan Eden" and "Gehinom" are our labels for a spiritual phase, not the actual Gan Eden/Gehinom (from the Rishonim- I have to trace the source).
I must mention a cute mashal from R' Avigdor Miller that I heard on tape (imagine his voice): Everyone thinks that when we die, there are 2 places to go- Gan Eden and Gehinom. It's not true. There is only one place and everyone goes there. All day you sit there and learn. For the Tzadikim, it's Gan Eden. For the Reshaim, its Gehinom!
(This answer is given without any references to actual sources -- just the colloquial understanding. The actual picture differs somewhat, for example, in Derech Hashem.)
Christians believe hell is eternal. Jews believe that gehinnom is not (at least for the most part) -- one spends a maximum of 12 months in gehinnom being purified of his sins, and then joins Olam Haba. This is why Ashkenazim only say kaddish for a parent for 11 months, and Sephardim have various minhagim to stop short of 12 months -- so as not to imply that the parent was so wicked that he would be in geheinnom for a whole 12 months. (There are also various other leniencies in geheinnom which I will not elaborate at length.)
Perceptions of Judaism in popular culture are not often based on scrupulous study of Jewish sources. The reason for the perception is because a vast majority of Jews belong to liberal denominations that do not want to talk about hell. In fact, the "Pittsburgh Platform" of Reform Judaism rejected belief in hell as foreign to Judaism:
- We reassert the doctrine of Judaism that the soul is immortal, grounding the belief on the divine nature of human spirit, which forever finds bliss in righteousness and misery in wickedness. We reject as ideas not rooted in Judaism, the beliefs both in bodily resurrection and in Gehenna and Eden (Hell and Paradise) as abodes for everlasting punishment and reward.
Thus if "popular culture" refers to the majority of American Jews, its portrayal may be accurate. This doesn't make it accurate as a portrayal of traditional Jewish beliefs.
Most secular Jews do not believe in a traditional interpretation of the afterlife. Judaism is a horizontal religion where we pray on the high holidays for forgiveness last year and for the coming year to be good. We have no spires reaching up. We live on through accomplishments to society and remembrance including naming our children after those who died. Just ask a secular Jew. Sanford Gordon, Ph.D.