It is commonly thought that ‘the Old Testament does not place any substantial hope in the afterlife. Rather, God’s purposes for blessing and shalom are expected for the faithful in this life, in the midst of history.’ (Middleton 2014) However, Jesus expressly said that those who did not believe in resurrection were ignorant of Scripture (Matt 22:31f). N.T. Wright (2003) characterises the scriptures referring to resurrection as ‘covert allusions’, including the one that Jesus cited (Ex 3:6), and suggests that belief in the resurrection (e.g. Acts 23:8) developed only after the Old Testament canon had closed. While he concedes that Daniel 12:2 is not covert, in his opinion the book bearing Daniel’s name is a forgery dating to the 2nd century BC, four centuries later than its apparent date.
Wright also denies that the pagan world had any concept of resurrection. However, his examples from pagan literature consist of people saying that no one has ever seen a dead body rise: when you’re dead, that’s it. Like Psalm 90, such statements say nothing about the possibility that an individual might rise at some point in the future or come back to life in a paradise beyond the horizon. Wright’s assertion that ‘resurrection was not part of the pagan hope’ is simply untrue. One has only to think of the almost ubiquitous practice of including material goods in graves – a practice as old as that of burying the dead itself. Here is Manfred Bietak’s comment on the Bronze Age (c. 1600 BC) graves at Tell el-Daba:
The miniature offering vessels illustrate an interesting shift in the concept of providing the dead with the victuals they would need for their after-life. The initial tomb-offerings of food and drink would supply a man for a time but not eternally. The additional supply of miniature pottery guaranteed food forever by magical means. The form of the vessel substituted for its original contents, the form alone embodying all substance needed.
Even when Jesus rose from the dead, his followers did not believe they would rise until the end of the age. Despite scriptural witness to the contrary, many Christians today suppose that their souls will go immediately to heaven when they die, their body of course remaining in the grave. No doubt the widespread practice of cremation has contributed to the decline in belief in a bodily resurrection.
People began to ask questions independently of religious authority – to think philosophically – relatively late in history. In the ancient world, philosophy originated in 6th-century Greece. It rapidly came to relativist, agnostic or atheistic conclusions, as in the case of the Sophists, for example. Christianity was revolutionary in this respect, in that it argued that questions of life and death could only be definitively answered by revelation. On this basis, religion regained its place in educated society. Only in the 17th century did thinkers begin to question the authority of Scripture and philosophy revive. It reasoned from matter rather than spirit, and in the face of the absolutist claims of Christianity again came to conclusions that were relativist, agnostic and atheistic.
Regarding the Old Testament, what matters is not what Israelites themselves believed about life after death, but what God told them (whether they understood or not). The scriptures listed below span the whole gamut of the Hebrew Bible. Some are in the nature of covert allusions; others are plain enough. The psalms abound in assurances that one’s soul is in safe keeping, even if modern translators, being agnostic as to whether the soul is a real entity, prefer to speak of ‘life’ (for which Hebrew has a separate word). The prophets continually put the hope of resurrection before his erring people: one day he would fulfil his promise to ‘reverse their captivity’ and bring them back to the promised land. Since many generations died without seeing the promise fulfilled, that could only mean that he would restore them to their land when he raised them from the grave. Heaven was never represented as the final abode of souls.
Spiritual things can only be discerned with the spirit and mind of God (I Cor 2:13-16). We learn from the Word incarnate how to interpret the Word written. When Jesus quoted the saying, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”, adding that God was God of the living, not the dead, his point was that God would hardly be worthy of worship if those he acknowledged as his own were to perish. They would be no better off than those outside Israel’s covenant, who were neither blessed for obedience nor cursed for disobedience. To put it still more starkly, life would be meaningless and have no moral basis (I Cor 15:32) and God, the giver of life, would be a cruel deceiver. If in reality few people give way to despair on becoming aware of their mortality, it is because we are all born with eternity in our heart (Dor-Ziderman et al. 2019), atheists and believers alike.
Gen 4:4 – implied in Abel’s sacrifice, and by all in the OT who lived by faith (Heb 11).
Gen 17:8 – the gift of Canaan as an everlasting possession
Ex 32:13 – the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel will possess the land forever (if the promise was only for the nation as a whole, each member of which would die, the promise was broken more than once)
Ex 32:32f – the book of life (Rev 20:12)
I Sam 2:6-8
I Ki 2:10, 11:43, 14:20 etc – sleeping implies waking
Job 14:10-12 – implying that man will rise when the heavens are no more (cf. Rev 20:11)
Job 14:14 – ‘I will wait until my change [of garment] comes’ (cf. Gen 45:22 etc, I Cor 15:51-54)
Job 19:25f – pace Wright, the translation (ESV) is not problematic
Ps 1:6 – the way of the wicked will perish, implying that the righteous, though subject to the death to which all mortals are subject, will not suffer the second death (cf. Ps 9:5, Ps 68:2, Ps 73:16-19 and Job 19)
Ps 17:13-15 – ‘As for me, in righteousness I will see your face; I shall be satisfied when I awake in your likeness’ (cf. Job 19:26 and Ps 11:7)
Ps 23:6 – I will dwell in the house of Yahweh [not made with hands] forever [lit. ‘for length of days’, cf. Ps 21:4, Dan 7:9]
Ps 27:4 – the house/temple not yet built (the prayer will be answered when Ezek 44:3 comes to pass and David dines at the table of his Lord)
Ps 27:13 – normally ‘the land of the living’ is simply the earth, distinct from Sheol under the earth, but here it is the land of the resurrected
Ps 34:22 – Yahweh redeems the soul of his servants; none will be condemned
Ps 37:10f, 18-20, 22, 28, 29 (inheriting the land, referring back to Gen 17:8)
Ps 49:15 – ‘God will ransom my soul from the hand of Sheol, for he will receive me’
Ps 65:2 – cf. Ps 22:27, 86:9, Isa 2:3, 45:23, 66:23, Zeph 2:11
Ps 69:28 – book of life (cf. Ps 87:6)
Ps 71:20, 23
Ps 73:24 (Heb. kabod, ‘glory,’ the standard word for God’s ‘glory’ (e.g. Ex 16:7), rendered in the LXX doxa, the word for ‘glory’ in the NT)
Ps 73:26f – ‘portion’ connoting inheritance after death (cf. Lam 3:24); Israel inherits God and the Messiah, finally, inherits Israel
Ps 102:16-22, 28 – the Lord appears in glory, raises the dead (those who thought they would never rise) and receives in Jerusalem the worship of the nations
Ps 103:3-5, 17
Ps 113:7-9 – ‘He raises the poor from the dust’ (dust as in Gen 2:7, 3:19): this rarely happened in history, but will happen eventually. Likewise, ‘He settles the barren [woman] in a home, a joyful mother of children’ is a paradox, since by definition a barren woman does not have children (Sarah, Hannah and Elizabeth were rare exceptions), but when Israel is raised, perhaps then the barren woman will bear children.
Ps 116:8f (cf. Ps 27:13)
Ps 119:17, 37, 40, 50, 77, 88, 116, 144, 149, 154, 156 – since we must all die, ‘live’ must have the NT sense (e.g. John 6:57)
Ps 121:7f – ‘he will keep your soul … forever’ (cf. Mic 4:7)
Ps 136 ‘His mercy [Heb. hesed, Gk. eleos] [is] for ever’ – meaningful only if ‘for ever’ relates to the individual as well as the nation
Ps 142:5 (and v. 7 ‘Bring my soul out of prison’), cf. Ps 73.26
Ps 146:4 – implying that this is not the fate of those who trust in God, also v 7
Prov 4:22, 5:5f, 8:35, 12:28, 22:4 – references to life clearly not referring to this life (as for Ps 119)
Prov 10:30 – evidently the wicked do dwell in the present land
Prov 11:19 (cf implication of 11:7)
Prov 15:24 ‘… that he [the prudent person] may turn away from Sheol beneath’
Prov 23:14 – we all die, yet the one who learns wisdom will be saved from Sheol
Prov 23:18 (‘future’ is lit. ‘end’ or ‘hereafter’, referring to redemption at the end of the age; also Prov 24:14, 24:20, Jer 29:11)
Isa 27:13 – the dead exiles of Israel and Judah will rise
Isa 35:10 – ditto
Isa 42:6f, 49:6
Isa 51:6, 8 – the inhabitants of the earth will die, but his salvation will be forever
Isa 55:3 – ‘hear that your soul may live’: the hearer is already living, so the sense is ‘forever’ (so John 5:40, 20:31)
Isa 56:5-7 – the promise is that the childless will do better than live through their children after they are dead; having an ‘everlasting name’ in God’s house means having everlasting life, and God brings them into his house (v.7) by resurrection – cf. Rev 3:12
Ezek 18 – the whole chapter!
Ezek 33:9-20 – cf. Prov 4:22 etc
Dan 7:10 – cf. Rev 20:12
Dan 12:1 – the book of life
Dan 12:2 – ‘sleep’ as in I Ki 2:10
Dan 12:13 – Daniel will stand at the end of the age, after resting in the grave
Hos 1:11 (2:23) – they shall come up from the earth
Hos 6:2 – on the third day he will raise us up, namely Israel and all who are in Christ (Eph 2:6)
Mic 7:7-9 (also 7:19f)
Zech 9:11 (cf. Ps 102:20, 146:7, Isa 42:7, 61:1, Eph 4:8)
Mal 3:16-4:2 – On a future day God will ‘remember’ those whose names are recorded in his book (Ex 32:32f) by sparing them from destruction and making them his own; they will leap from the grave like calves from the stall
Acts 24:14-15 Paul confirms that the Law and the Prophets give hope of a resurrection
Heb 11:35 – ‘Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might attain to a better resurrection.’
I Chr 17:11 – cf. reiteration of this promise in Jer 33:26 when the dynasty is about to be terminated
Ps 16:10 – ‘You will not leave my [David’s] soul in Sheol or let your faithful one [the Messiah] see the pit [cf. Ps 30:9 and Acts 2:31]’
Ps 30 – written near the end of David’s life. v. 3 ‘You brought up my soul from Sheol; you revived me from among those going down to the pit’; v. 5 ‘His anger [death] is but for a moment, his favour is for life’, cf. Heb. 12:2; v. 9 ‘What profit is there in my blood, in my going down to the pit?’; v. 12 ‘… forever’
Isa 53:10 – ‘He shall see [his] offspring; he shall prolong [his] days’
Jer 30:9f – ‘They shall serve Yahweh their God and David their king, whom I will raise up for them’, where ‘they’ apparently refers to foreigners and David to the historical David, distinct from the Messiah (Jer 23:5, 33:15)
Ezek 34:23, 37:24f – David will be Israel’s ‘prince/king’, distinct from Yahweh the Messiah (44:3)
Jer 29:14, 30:3, 30:18, 31:1-25, 33:7, 33:26 (33:11 refers to the return from the Babylonian Exile).
Ezek 16:53, 39:25
Joel 3:1, Amos 9:14, Zeph 3:20
See the commentary on Rev 2:23 and 20:13. Also Ps 62:12, Prov 24:12, Eccl 12:14, Jer 17:10, Ezek 18. Open-ended judgement at the end of life implies that some receive eternal life.
Bietak, M., 1996. Avaris: Capital of the Hyksos, Recent Excavations at Tell ed-Daba, British Museum Press, London.
Dor-Ziderman, Y., Lutz, A., Goldstein, A., 2019. Prediction-based neural mechanisms for shielding the self from existential threat, NeuroImage 202, 116080.
Middleton, J.R., 2014. A New Heaven and a New Earth, Baker Academic, Ada MI.
Wright, N.T., 2003. The Resurrection of the Son of God, Fortress Press, Minneapolis MN.