Afterlife in the OT

AFTERLIFE The afterlife is a central image of the Christian faith. All human beings are destined to partake in the afterlife: *heaven (* paradise) for those who are in Christ, *hell (* punishment, absence from God) for the unregenerate. The final goal and reward for all Christians is eternity in the Lord’s presence. Moreover, the NT (especially Paul) envisions the Christian life as one that already participates in the heavenly realities that are to be experienced fully only with the return of Christ and the resurrection of the body.

Old Testament Premonitions. OT images of the afterlife are impoverished compared to those of the NT. The OT picture of an afterlife is only modestly developed. Instead, the focus in the OT is more on God’s care for his people in terms of earthly *blessing, particularly *land and offspring, and God’s punishment of both unfaithful Israelites and pagan nations by *exile or *death. Land and offspring are the content of God’s promised blessings to his people as far back as Abraham (Gen 12:1-3). This two-fold promise to Abraham is reiterated throughout the patriarchal narratives and is a regular refrain throughout the history of the monarchy, including the prophetic literature: Israel’s obedience insures her presence in the land, whereas her disobedience brings outside attack and eventual exile. Some have considered the land/ offspring promise to Abraham as an implicit reference to an afterlife blessing for Abraham, since these promises were not fully realized until many generations after his death, but this is really quite removed from the more developed sense of the afterlife we find in the NT. Whatever scant reference to the afterlife there might be in the OT, one must at least conclude that it does not play the primary role that it does in the NT. Furthermore, what little there is of the afterlife in the OT is of a varied and ambiguous nature. There are passages that suggest that death is the end, a few that seem to imply that consciousness continues after death and many others that are simply difficult to pin down precisely. A common understanding of death in the OT is that it signifies final separation from the land of the living and even from God as well. We see this quite clearly in such passages as Psalm 6:5; 30:9; 31:18; Isaiah 14:11; 38:18-19 and Job 3:13-19. The key word used here is the Hebrew she’ôl {שׁאול} which, at least in these passages, refers to the unconscious, decaying (or sleeping, cf. Job 3:13) state of the body in the *grave. The psalmist wishes not to go there, since no one remembers or praises God from the grave (Ps 6:5). For Job, as for Homer, the afterlife is a shadowy oblivion— a place where “the wicked cease from turmoil” and “the weary are at rest” (Job 3:17 NIV), “a land of gloom and deep shadow,” of “deepest night, of deep shadow and disorder” (Job 10:21-22 NIV). The best that can be said in this vision of the afterlife is that the troubles of life have ceased: “Captives… no longer hear the slave driver’s shout…. [A] nd the slave is freed from his master” (Job 3:18-19 NIV). Other passages reinforce the relative paleness of OT images of the afterlife, which picture the afterlife as something one would wish to avoid rather than look forward to (Ps 16:10; 86:13; 102:26). There is a sense in which the OT imagery of afterlife is gripping precisely by virtue of its absence. Since there is no afterlife, these texts enjoin the readers to focus on their relationship to God in the here-and-now. It would be wrong, though, to suppress the images of a positive afterlife that emerge occasionally in the OT. The writer of Ecclesiastes, in describing the moment of human death, differentiates between the dust returning to the ground and the spirit returning to God who gave it (Eccles 12:7). The accounts of how Enoch (Gen 5:24; cf. Heb 11:5) and Elijah (2 Kings 2:1-18) are taken to heaven after their earthly lives seem to suggest some notion of conscious existence in a transcendent world. Some commentators argue on the basis of the imagery of the Psalms for a clearer belief in an afterlife than is sometimes granted. Psalm 1:3 compares the godly person to a *tree whose leaves never wither, an archetypal symbol of immortality. Psalm 49:15 claims that “God will redeem my life from the grave; he will surely take me to himself” (NIV); while in Psalm 73:24 the poet predicts, “Afterward you will take me into glory” (NIV). Psalm 16:10-11 claims that God “will not abandon me to the grave” but will instead “fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand” (NIV); Psalm 139:24 speaks of being led “in the way everlasting” (cf. Prov 12:28, which claims that “in the way of righteousness there is life; along that path is immortality”). The closest OT approximation to the NT confidence and ecstasy about the afterlife is Job’s eschatological confidence that his *Redeemer lives and that, after his skin has been destroyed, in his flesh he will yet see God (Job 19:24-27).

Several other OT passages hint at consciousness in the afterlife. In 1 Samuel 28:1-24 the witch of Endor calls up Samuel’s spirit at Saul’s request. (The condemnation of “a medium or spiritist who calls up the dead” in Deut 18:11 also seems to assume, but by no means clearly, the existence of an afterlife of some sort.) Saul requests Samuel to be called up so that he can ask him how he might defeat the Philistines, since God has turned his back on him (1 Sam 28:15). Samuel’s reply is one of judgment: Saul and his army will be defeated because he previously disobeyed God (cf. 1 Sam 13:1-15; 15:1-35). Here we see the imagery of the afterlife closely associated with judgment. A similar notion is found in Daniel 12:1-4, perhaps the clearest statement of the afterlife in the OT, especially verse 2: “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt” (NIV).

This imagery ties in somewhat with the passages cited above that speak of death as the end: death represents in some sense separation from God, either by non-existence or “shame and everlasting contempt,” the latter clearly implying an afterlife. Daniel 12:1-4 does not simply speak of judgment, however. Some of the dead will “awake” to “everlasting life.” The context of these verses is God’s end-time deliverance of his people, whether dead or alive. It is difficult to be precise about what it means for the dead to “awake” (i.e., a spiritual or physical existence), but it does seem clear that this afterlife deliverance is a “resurrection” of some sort. This imagery is equally prominent in Isaiah 26:19: “But your dead will live; their bodies will rise. You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy. Your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead” (NIV). This may, however, refer to Israel’s restoration as a nation rather than to a personal bodily resurrection. The passage parallels Ezekiel 37:12: “O my people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back from the land of Israel” (NIV). The language of death and resurrection is employed to speak of Israel’s return to the land after exile. Hence, afterlife describes the actual state of deliverance, in this case possession of the land. In Ezekiel and Isaiah we therefore have the juxtaposition of the here-and-now reward of land, so prominent throughout much of the OT, and the hereafter reward of the afterlife.

Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, Tremper Longman III. Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (p. 18). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

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