Fullness of Joy: The OT and the Afterlife

For centuries dying Christians have drawn comfort and hope from Old Testament passages like David’s Twenty-Third Psalm. Many scholars today, however, are charging earlier generations with reading the teaching of the New Testament back into the Old. They concede the New Testament has much to say about a resurrection, a final judgment, and eternal life. But modern scholars argue that a correct reading of the Old Testament provides little if any hope for a blissful life beyond the grave. The Old Testament believer simply lived for this world. For example, E. F. Sutcliffe, has claimed,

There has been a tendency to take it for granted that, like ourselves, Abraham, Moses, and David, and the other great men of God of the Old Testament looked forward to a judgment of their lives by God after death with a consequent apportionment of reward or punishment. But an attentive reading of the Old Testament shows that this is a mistaken notion and that for many centuries the religious life of the patriarchs and the people of Israel was based exclusively on God’s government of the world during the course of men’s pilgrimage on the earth.1

Similarly, Millar Burrows dogmatically asserts, “Early Hebrew religion had no conception of judgment or salvation after death.”2 He then accounts for belief in the resurrection among the Jews of Jesus’ day by arguing that “contact with Zoroastrianism, the religion of the Persian empire … supplied the pattern for the Jewish hope of resurrection and judgment after death.”3

Motivated by a desire to interpret God’s word accurately (2 Tim. 2:15), the Christian is compelled to reexamine the Old Testament to determine whether this modern charge is true.

Three Preliminary Considerations

To properly assess the Old Testament’s teaching on the afterlife, one must begin his study with an awareness of Israel’s ancient Near Eastern cultural milieu, an acknowledgment of Scripture’s progressive revelation, and an appreciation for the New Testament’s interpretation of the Old.

The Preoccupation of Ancient Near Eastern Society

Recent studies in ancient Near Eastern culture and religion have revealed a prevalent fascination with the afterlife.4 This ancient preoccupation with the afterlife may partially account for the relative paucity of a detailed revelation of afterlife in the Old Testament. God did not need to convince the Israelites of a reality they took for granted. Furthermore, He did not want to foster an unhealthy fixation upon the life to come, which might render the Israelites “no earthly good” (cf. 1 Thes. 4:11; 2 Thes. 3:7-12) and lead them into the superstitious practices of their ancient Near Eastern neighbors. For example, the Law forbids praying to the deceased (Exod. 22:18; Deut. 18:10-12). Certainly, the Israelites would not be tempted to pray to the dead if they, as many modern scholars contend, entertained no belief in life after death. The ancient prevalence of a belief in the afterlife also suggests the likelihood of a common innate sense of “eternalness” among human societies (Eccl. 3:11; Rom. 1:19-21), as well as a primeval revelation (e.g., Gen. 2:15-17; 3:22-24; 5:21-24), which depraved societies corrupted over time (Rom. 1:18-23).5

The Reality of Progressive Revelation

As a rule, redemptive truth generally becomes more detailed and clear as one approaches the New Testament era (Eph. 3:5; Tit. 1:1-3; Heb. 1:1, 2). This is especially true with respect to the doctrine of eternal life. In fact, it is not until one arrives at the New Testament that he finds a full and mature doctrine of the afterlife. Jesus Christ brought the truth of immortality out of the relative obscurity of Old Testament revelation and into the brighter light of New Testament revelation (2 Tim. 1:10). Therefore, as the Bible student searches for the resurrection and eternal life in the Old Testament, he must resist the temptation to read a fully developed New Testament doctrine into an Old Testament text where it does not belong.6

The Legitimacy of New Testament Input

On the other hand, Christians have the right and responsibility to take seriously the way in which New Testament writers interpret the Old.7 For example, the author of Hebrews portrays the faith and life of the Old Testament saints as future oriented (11:1-39).8 Either he is guilty of reading the New Testament hope of eternal life into the Old. Or he is properly exegeting the Old Testament texts under the Holy Spirit’s guidance. One committed to the inspiration of the New Testament must assume the latter.9

Three Pillars of the OT Believer’s Hope

Most modern scholars concede that one or two passages in the Old Testament may teach a future resurrection unto eternal life. But they usually date these passages after the exile and trace their teaching not to earlier Old Testament revelation but to Persian influence.10 Nevertheless, a careful examination of the Hebrew Scriptures reveals an indigenous source for these later eschatological texts. From the beginning of human history and on the earliest pages of Old Testament Scripture, God began to reveal three great truths which served as the pillars of the Old Testament believer’s future hope.

God’s Absolute Power over Life and Death

The book of Genesis portrays God as the creator and sustainer of human life (Gen. 1:26, 27; 2:7, 22). Many other Old Testament passages acknowledge human life as a gift from God (Deut. 8:3; 30:20; Job 33:4; Eccl. 8:15; etc.). But mankind forfeited life by sinning against God and incurred God’s curse of death (Gen. 2:15-17; 3:1-8; 3:19, 22; cf. Rom. 6:23). Being contrary to God’s original intent and an expression of his wrath, death became a dreaded enemy to mankind.11 The Israelite commonly referred to this enemy as Sheol and longed to be delivered from it (Pss. 6:1-5; 88:1ff.; 141:7-10; Prov. 7:24-27; 15:24; 23:14; Isa. 38:2-4; 9-16).12

Man’s only hope for deliverance resided in the God who exercises power and prerogative over both life and death (Deut. 32:39; 1Sam. 2:6; 2 Kgs. 5:7). Since the day of his death was determined by God (Gen. 47:29; Num. 27:12-15; Deut. 34:5; Job 14:5; Eccl. 3:2; 5:18; 8:8, 15; Isa. 38:1), the Israelite felt warrant to pray for God’s deliverance from the grave (Pss. 68:20; 118:18; 1 Kgs. 22:32; Isa. 38:2-5). Moreover, God’s absolute lordship over life and death suggested to the Old Testament saint the real possibility of life after death—even a physical resurrection. The writer to the Hebrews calls attention to this fact when he tells us that Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac because “he considered that God is able to raise people even from the dead” (11:19). Failure to appreciate this fundamental truth earned the Sadducees Jesus’ famous rebuke: “You are mistaken, not understanding the Scriptures nor the power [την δυναμιν] of God” (Matt. 22:29).13 Thus a belief in God’s power over life and death formed one of the pillars for the Israelite hope in the afterlife.

God’s Covenantal Purpose for Human Life

When God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:8-17), the place of His special presence,14 He was teaching that the summum bonum of man’s life would consist preeminently in a covenantal relationship with God. And the presence of “the tree of life” in the middle of the Garden (Gen. 2:9) indicated that this divine-human relationship would be eternal (Gen. 2:16-17; 3:22; cf. Rev. 2:7; 22:2, 14). Sadly, Adam’s sin resulted in the forfeiture of this eternal communion (Gen. 3:22-24; cf. Isa. 59:2). But the central theme of the Old Testament concerns the restoration of this broken relationship and is epitomized in the tripartite formula: “I will be your God; you shall be My people, and I will dwell in your midst” (Exo. 29:45-46; Lev. 11:45; 22:33; 25:38; etc.).15 Thus, the very concept of cove­nant life with Jehovah gave the OT believer reason to hope that nothing—not even death itself—could separate him from His God. In the words of James Denney, “The experience of God’s love in life, a providential and redeeming love, of which man was as sure as he was of his life itself, is the primary and the ultimate factor in the faith of immortality.”16

To ensure men saw the connection between covenant life and eternal life, God did something very unusual early in redemptive history. God exempted from death Enoch, the seventh from Adam, on the basis that Enoch “walked with God” (Gen. 5:21-24; cf. Heb. 11:5). The record of Enoch’s unusual translation no doubt served to encourage a similar expectancy among subsequent generations of believers who, like Abraham, enjoyed covenant life with God (Gen. 12:1-3; 2 Chro. 20:7; Jas. 2:23). The Lord Jesus certainly draws this conclusion when He infers the resurrection based on God’s covenantal relationship to the patriarchs (cf. Exo. 6:3; Matt. 22:32).

David also highlights the connection between covenant life and eternal life in his sixteenth Psalm. Because David enjoyed a saving relationship with God (16:2-8), he could entertain the strongest confidence in life beyond the grave:

Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoices;

My flesh also will rest in hope.
For You will not leave my soul in Sheol,
Nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption.
You will show me the path of life;
In Your presence is fullness of joy;
At Your right hand are pleasures forevermore (16:9-11).17

The fact that God’s “covenant love endures forever” (Ps. 136) enabled the Old Testament saint to overcome even the fear of death!18

God’s Redemptive Promise of Victory over Sin and Death

God’s curse upon the Serpent became for mankind a promise of life.19 This promise would be fulfilled after a long struggle between two divisions of humanity, climaxing in a cosmic battle between Satan and the woman’s Seed and resulting in Satan’s destruction and God’s victory over sin and death. And as the Old Testament saint looked forward to this great redemptive victory, he antici­pated two great events at the end of all history.

A final day of judgment. God’s dealings with Adam and Eve demonstrate that man must give an account for his sin. The descendants of Adam and Eve, according to Jude, anticipated a final day of accounting (Jude 14, 15). Peter sees the universal flood as portending a more final judgment (2 Pet. 3:5-7). Not surprisingly, David alludes to this day in the Psalms (Pss. 9:17-20; 37:37-38; 49:12-15). King Solomon also spoke of this day (Eccl. 12:13, 14).20 Daniel described this great Day of Judgment in a vision:

I watched till thrones were put in place, and the Ancient of Days was seated; His garment was white as snow, and the hair of His head was like pure wool. His throne was a fiery flame, its wheels a burning fire; a fiery stream issued and came forth from before Him. A thousand thousands ministered to Him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before Him. The court was seated, and the books were opened (Dan. 7:9, 10).

A final resurrection of the dead. God created man with a body to be His image, that is, God’s visible replica and representative upon the earth. God must reclaim man’s body from the grave if He would restore him to his original purpose.21 The patriarchs anticipated such a resurrection by securing a burial in the Promised Land (Gen. 23:16-18; 25:9-10; 35:27-29; 49:29-31; 50:13, 25-26; Exo. 13:19; Jos. 24:32). Isaiah assures God’s persecuted people of a coming day when “[God] will swallow up death forever” (25:8), and later declares, “Your dead shall live; together with my dead body they shall arise. Awake and sing, you who dwell in dust; for your dew is like the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out the dead” (26:19). Likewise, God revealed to Daniel that at the end of history “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2). These prophecies of resurrection were not imported from Persia. They were based upon God’s Old Testament promise of final victory over sin and death.22 Abraham believed this promise (Gen. 25:8-9; cf. Heb. 11:19). Job believed this promise (Job 14:14; 19:25, 26).23 Moses believed this promise (Deut. 30:19-20; cf. Heb. 11:26). David believed this promise (Psa. 16:9-11; 17:15; cf. Psa. 49:15).24 Solomon believed this promise (Prov. 14:32). Other Old Testament prophets believed this promise (Hos. 6:1-2; 13:14-15; Ezek. 37:1-14).25 Consequently, when Paul defends his doctrine of the resurrection before the Jews and Agrippa, he confidently asserts that he is preaching no novelty or foreign doctrine but exactly what the Old Testament Scriptures foretold (Acts 23:6; 26:6-8, 22-23). As Bruce Milne observes,

While the fullest and clearest teachings about the afterlife do certainly come from the lips of Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament, every last one of them was nurtured on the Old Testament. It was in effect the religious and spiritual womb within which their understanding of human destiny was conceived and nurtured.26

Conclusion

The Old Testament doctrine of life after death is not as clear or detailed as the New Testament. Nevertheless, we do find the acorn of gospel hope on the earliest pages of Old Testament revelation. Although the Old Testament saint could not describe all the details of what that acorn would become, he did know it would someday become a “tree of everlasting life.” Failure to exegete such a hope from the pages of Old Testament Scripture may be an indication of weak faith (Luke 24:25-27) or no faith at all (Matt. 22:29). Perhaps many modern scholars cannot see the bodily resurrection and eternal life in the Old Testament because they have never experienced the power of God’s spiritual resurrection (Eph. 2:4-6) and the blessing of His covenant communion (John 17:3).

  1. Cited in H. H. Rowley, The Faith of Israel (Westminster Press, 1956), p. 153, fn. 5.
  2. An Outline of Biblical Theology (Westminster Press, 1946), p. 192.
  3. Ibid., p. 203.
  4. Recent studies include, Jean Bottero, Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia, trans. Teresa Fagan (The University of Chicago Press, 2001); Norman Cohn, Cosmos, Chaos, and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith (Yale University Press, 1993); S. H. Hooke, Babylonian and Assyrian Religion (Basil Blackwell, 1962); H. Frankfort, Ancient Egyptian Religion: An Interpretation (Harper and Brothers, 1948); Helmer Ringgren, Religions of the Ancient Near East, trans. John Sturdy (The Westminster Press, 1973).
  5. The Roman Catholic doctrine of Mary illustrates how men can take a previous revelation (Luke 1:27-30) and over time distort it into superstitious error.
  6. Walter Kaiser suggests that the analogy of Scripture be limited to antecedent revelation. Toward an Old Testament Theology (Zondervan, 1978), pp. 5-19. This approach is generally sound provided one does not ignore the NT writers’ exegesis of the OT.
  7. S. Lewis Johnson is correct when he argues, “The use of the Old Testament in the New is the key to the solution of the problem of hermeneutics. Unfortunately, that has been overlooked. But surely the apostles are reliable instructors in the science of hermeneutics if they are reliable teachers of biblical doctrine.” The Old Testament in the New (Zondervan, 1980), p. 23.
  8. He does not merely claim Abraham and the other Old Testament saints went to heaven. Rather, he teaches that they were looking forward to heaven! (See especially vv. 13-16).
  9. Since the Holy Spirit never bears false witness and since He is the author of the Old Testament Scriptures, He will always guide the NT writer to accurately discern His own authorial intent in the OT Scriptures.
  10. Brian Schmidt, “Afterlife, Afterdeath,” Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, ed. David N. Freedman (Eerdmans, 2000), pp. 26-27; Burrows, pp. 203-04.
  11. Not surprisingly, ancient societies developed very gloomy conceptions of a netherworld beyond the grave.
  12. The Old Testament Scriptures do not present sheol (שאול) as a gloomy netherworld to which all men, both wicked and righteous, must go after death. The Authorized Version translates the Hebrew word sheol as hell (31x), grave (31x), and pit (3x). With the exception of a few narrative passages, the word is used mainly in poetry. This fact is crucial for our understanding of the word because of the highly figurative nature of Hebrew poetry. The word sheol is associated with such abstract ideas as death and destruction. It provokes such emotions as sorrow, pain, and a longing for deliverance. It is also frequently found in antithetical verse where the righteous are being contrasted with the wicked. Keeping these ideas in mind, along with the poetical environment, one can establish a proper semantic value for sheol which, in turn, will aid in defining the OT doctrine of life after death. The word שאול has two basic meanings and possibly a third. They are as follows: First, שאול may refer to the place of burial, where a corpse is subject to decay (Psa. 49:14). Second, שאול can refer to the state of being dead or separated from life and is semantically parallel to מות (mawet) (Hos. 13:14 [note: 1Cor. 15:55 translates this passage, using the Greek θανατη (thanate) to translate שאול]). Third, שאול may refer to the realm of the wicked dead, but the passages used to support this usage are inconclusive. In some cases, they may simply refer to the grave while employing metaphorical language as if the persons there were conscious (e.g., Isa 14:9). In other cases, they may be referring to a premature or untimely death (Ps 86:13; Prov 15:24; 23:14). It is immediately evident that the Hebrew word is much broader than the English glosses “hell” and “grave,” which tend to limit the word to a location. Thus, the English reader will most often think of senses one and three. However, when one remembers the poetical semotaxis, he will realize that the Hebrew frequently thought of שאול in the abstract. Therefore, whether it be the temporal location of the corpse or the immaterial realm, שאול is always associated with death, namely, that state of being separated from life. Thus, it is not surprising that the OT writers always present שאול in a negative light. Death is always portrayed as an enemy. As John Davis notes, “There were men of keen spiritual vision who yet felt dismay at the approach of death…. The pious Israelite might have believed that he would be with God and be the recipient of divine loving-kindness in the future life, and yet have dreaded sheol.” “The Future Life in Hebrew Thought During the Pre-Persian Period,” The Princeton Theological Review 6 (April 1908): 267-68. For further study on the OT meaning of שאול see R. Laird Harris, “The Meaning of the Word Sheol as Shown by Parallels in Poetic Texts,” Bulletin of the Evangelical Theological Society 4 (1956): 129-35; Eugene H. Merrill, “שאול, Sheol, netherworld,” New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, ed. Willem VanGemeren (Zondervan, 1997), 4:6-7.
  13. Some today find it too hard to believe. But it shouldn’t be. If scientists today can clone an animal (and maybe someday a human) from the genetic material of a dead cell, should we find it hard to believe that the same God who formed Adam from the dust of the earth and breathed into him the breath of life could take our genetic material from the dust and refashion our bodies? Once we come to grips with God’s omnipotence, it’s no longer difficult to believe in a bodily resurrection.
  14. Bruce Waltke, Genesis: A Commentary (Zondervan, 2000), p. 85; Gordon Wenham, Genesis 1-15 in The Word Biblical Commentary (Nelson, 1987), pp. 61-62. For a discussion of the Garden of Eden’s relationship to the tabernacle and temple as the place of God’s special presence, see James Jordan, Through New Eyes: Developing a Bible View of the World (Wipf and Stock, 1999), pp. 143-63; Gregory Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (InterVarsity, 2004).
  15. Kaiser argues that this promise should be the central governing motif for Old Testament theology (pp. 32-40).
  16. Factors of Faith in Immortality (Hodder & Stoughton, 1903), p. 59.
  17. As Peter and Paul indicate in the NT, David was not merely speaking of his triumph over the grave—he was looking forward to the resurrection of Christ (Acts 2:25-31; 13:36-37), which would insure His own resurrection from the grave.
  18. This is the same point Paul makes in Romans 8:35-39—“For I am persuaded that neither life nor death … nor any other created thing shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
  19. This is confirmed by Adam’s response to the promise in verse 20: “And Adam called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living.” Waltke appropriately refers to this verse as “the beginning of hope” (p. 95).
  20. Solomon cannot be referring to a merely temporal judgment since he has already concluded that a universal and complete judgment does not obtain in this life (Eccl. 3:16; 8:14; 9:1-3).
  21. Anthony Hoekema argues, “If the resurrection body were nonmaterial or nonphysical, the devil would have won a great victory ….  It would seem that matter had become intrinsically evil so that it had to be banished …. But matter is not evil; it is part of God’s good creation. Therefore the goal of redemption is the resurrection of the physical body, and the creation of a new earth on which his redeemed people can live and serve God forever with glorified bodies. Thus the universe will not be destroyed but renewed, and God will win the victory.” The Bible and the Future (Eerdmans, 1979), p. 250.
  22. L. J. Greenspoon has refuted the Persian origin hypothesis and argued that the resurrection in Isaiah and Daniel was based upon the Old Testament motif of Yahweh as “Divine Warrior.” “The Origin of the Idea of the Resurrection,” Traditions in Transformation: Turning Points in Biblical Faith, eds. B. Halpern and J. D. Levenson (Eisenbrauns, 1981), pp. 247-321.
  23. For a defense of Job’s belief in a resurrection, see Francis Anderson, Job in Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (InterVarsity, 1976), pp. 172-73, 193-94.
  24. By comparing the language of the Psalms to the ancient Ugaritic literature, Mitchell Dahood has demonstrated that the Israelites clearly believed in immortality. Psalms I: 1-50 in The Anchor Bible (Doubleday, 1965), pp. xxxv-xxxvii; Psalms III: 101-150 (1970), pp. xli-lii; see also Elmer Smick, “Ugaritic and the Theology of the Psalms,” New Perspectives on the Old Testament, ed. J. Barton Payne (Word Books, 1970), pp. 104-10.
  25. Granted, Hosea and Ezekiel may have a national restoration primarily in view. But it seems likely that the imagery of the nation’s “resurrection” arose from the Israelite hope of a future personal resurrection.
  26. The Message of Heaven and Hell (InterVarsity, 2002), p. 25.