This is part of a series on evidence for the bodily resurrection of Yeshua. This series is a follow-up to the Discovery Channel documentary, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus.” I am using N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God as a source.
Last time we talked about pagan beliefs regarding the afterlife. If you haven’t already, scroll down and read Witless Shadow in a Murky World. This time, as I promised to give the beginnings of the Jewish view of life after death. In this part, we will look at the Biblical views. Next time, we will cover later Jewish writings up to the the time of the New Testament (and maybe a litte of the later rabbinic views, just for fun).
Many people think that the life to come was a clear subject from the beginning of the Bible to the end. That is, many people think Abraham and Moses believed in heaven and hell and the resurrection of the body in the Age to Come. That is simple not true. You find very little teaching about life after death in the Hebrew Bible (even the New Testament says a lot less about this topic than people imagine).
But the Hebrew Bible does say some things about life after death.
1. There are the strange exceptions to the general rule that all must die: Enoch and Elijah.
2. There is the case of a dead prophet awakened from “sleep” to speak with King Saul.
3. The usual description is of Sheol, not the same as hell, but rather “the grave” or, more broadly, “the state of death.”
4. There is an early teaching that no one returns from death, which seems to contradict the idea of resurrection (but see below).
5. There is the common expression that someone is going to sleep with their fathers — which is not limited to being buried in the same tomb.
6. Finally, starting with Isaiah, and especially in Daniel, there is the full-blown doctrine of bodily resurrection after a period of being dead.
7. Then there is Yeshua’s argument that resurrection is taught even in the Torah.
Let’s start with the strange exceptions to the rule that everyone must die. Consider these verses:
Genesis 5:24 Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him.
2 Kings 2:11 As they were going along and talking, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire and horses of fire which separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind to heaven.
Though not explained, these verses show that there was some concept of life after death. God could bring people to be with him in heaven.
Consider the story of King Saul bringing the prophet Samuel back from his sleep of death. The prophet is not happy about being disturbed. He does not say he was asleep, but he is disturbed. The spirit who appears looks like Samuel and delivers a legitimate prophecy with new information about the timing of Saul’s demise.
Death is frequently described as Sheol, the grave or the place of the dead. This is mistakenly translated hell in some old translations. Like Hades in the New Testament, Sheol is not a place of judgment like hell, but simply the place of death for the righteous and the wicked. Nothing definitive about afterlife is made clear by the concept of Sheol, which could be anything from an abstract image of death to a place of holding where the dead are stored until the coming of Yeshua or the final resurrection (I’m thinking of Yeshua’s parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus).
Then there is the teaching that death is the end and no one comes back. This is especially strong in Ecclesiastes and Job. You could take a statement like “those who go down to Sheol do not come up” as a denial of the resurrection. This is not so. These writers may be unaware of the later doctrine of resurrection, but they are merely stating the obvious: people do not come back from death. This is true, even when you believe in resurrection. The resurrection at the end of the ages is a special exception to the rule we all know: the dead do not return.
The expresions “sleep with his fathers” and “gathered to his people” is common in the Hebrew Bible. This phrase about sleeping with fathers or ancestors is especially common in the books of Kings. It was said of Abraham also. An interesting case is David, who was buried in Jerusalem and slept with his fathers. This is interesting, as N.T. Wright notes, since David’s fathers were not buried in Jerusalem. The expression seems to mean something more than mere burial, It hints at people being together in a life to come.
Finally, there is the full-blown doctrine of bodily resurrection, which comes late in the biblical period.
Isaiah 26:19 Your dead will live; Their corpses will rise. You who lie in the dust, awake and shout for joy, For your dew is as the dew of the dawn, And the earth will give birth to the departed spirits.
Daniel 12:2-3 Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt. Those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.
Note that this view is about bodily return to life after a period of being dead. The doctrine of resurrection is not about immediate afterlife.
Yeshua also makes a case that the doctrine of resurrection is evident in the Torah. I don’t have space here to share with you the rabbinic tradition of proving the doctrine of resurrection from the Torah (presumably to defeat the Sadducees who denied the resurrection). Let’s just say that Yeshua’s argument, in my opinion, is far better than others listed in the Talmud. He says that resurrection (or more properly afterlife) is evident from the Torah expression that HaShem is “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” The Torah does not say HaShem WAS the God of Abraham, but that he IS the God of Abraham. Thus, Abraham must be with God, alive and not dead. God is the God of the living and not the dead (Matt. 22:31-32).
Next time: The Resurrection in Later Jewish Writings.