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) According to the New English Translation, Daniel 12:2 is the ‘only undisputed reference to a literal resurrection found in the Hebrew Bible’. N.T. Wright (2003) characterises the scriptures that refer to resurrection as ‘covert allusions’, including the one that Jesus cited (Ex 3:6), and suggests that belief in the resurrection developed only after the Old Testament canon had closed. While he accepts that the Daniel verse 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. It counts for nothing that Jesus called Daniel a prophet and considered those who did not believe in resurrection ignorant of the Scriptures (Matt 22:31f).
According to Wright, pagans also had no concept of resurrection. However, his evidence simply consists of statements in pagan literature that no one has ever witnessed a dead body come to life. Like Psalm 90, these say nothing about the possibility that an individual might rise in the future or come back to life in a paradise beyond the horizon. In fact, the contention that ‘resurrection was not part of the pagan hope’ is not true. One has only to think of the almost ubiquitous practice of including material goods in graves – a practice as old as burying the dead itself. Here is archaeologist Manfred Bietak on the Bronze Age graves (c. 1600 BC) 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.
Even Christians did not believe that they would rise immediately; the biblical view was that there would be one resurrection at the end of the age. Perhaps the widespread practice of cremation has contributed to recent decline in belief in a bodily resurrection.
Philosophy, the practice of asking questions independently of religious authority, began relatively late in history, in 6th-century Greece. It rapidly came to relativist, agnostic or atheistic conclusions. Christianity was revolutionary in arguing that questions of life and death could only be determined by revelation. On this basis, religion regained its place in educated society and belief in an after-life returned. Only in the 17th century did thinkers begin to question the authority of Scripture. Reasoning from matter rather than spirit, philosophy revived, and in the face of the absolutist claims of Christianity again came to relativist, agnostic and atheistic conclusions.
As regards the Old Testament, what matters is not what Israelites believed, but what God told them, whether they understood or not. The scriptures 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, unsure whether the soul is a real entity, prefer to have them speak of ‘life’ (for which Hebrew has a separate word). The prophets continually put the hope of resurrection before God’s people: eventually 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 of God (I Cor 2:13-16). We learn from the Word incarnate how to interpret the written Word. When he said that God was God of the living, not the dead, his point was that God would hardly be worthy of worship if those who hoped in him were destined to perish. They would be no better off than those outside Israel’s covenant, who were neither blessed for obedience nor cursed for disobedience. In fact we are all born with eternity in our heart (Dor-Ziderman et al. 2019), believers and unbelievers alike.
Gen 4:4 – Abel offered blood sacrifices because he believed in the resurrection, as did all who lived by faith (Heb 11)
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 twice)
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
II Ki 4:18-37 – the OT equivalent of the raising of Lazarus, demonstrating that the dead can live again
Neh 5:19, 6:14, 13:14, 22, 29 – Nehemiah’s prayer that God should remember what he and his enemies have done must relate to judgement after death
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 – by implication, the wicked will not perish, 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 [in his presence] 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 his Lord’s table)
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 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’; v. 9 ‘What profit is there in my blood, in my going down to the pit?’; v. 12 ‘… forever’
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 22:29, 86:9, Isa 45:23
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)
Ps 73:26f – ‘portion’ connoting inheritance after death (cf. Lam 3:24); Israel inherits God and the Messiah inherits Israel
Ps 102:20 – to hear the groaning of the prisoner(s), to release the sons of death (cf. Ps 79:11, 142:7, 146:7f, Isa 42:7, 61:1, Zech 9:11, Eph 4:8)
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 can hardly be said to happen in this life. Likewise, ‘He settles the barren [woman] in a home, a joyful mother of children’ is paradoxical, since by definition a barren woman does not have children (Sarah, Hannah and Elizabeth being 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 of John 6:57, I Thes 5:10
Ps 121:7f – ‘he will keep your soul … forever’ (cf. Mic 4:7)
Ps 136 – ‘His love/mercy [Heb. chesed, 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 11:4, 11:7, 11:19
Prov 15:24 – ‘… that he [the prudent person] may turn away from Sheol below’
Prov 23:14 – we all die, yet the one who learns wisdom will be saved from Sheol
Prov 23:18 (‘future’ is lit. ‘hereafter’, referring to redemption at the end of the age; also Prov 24:14, 24:20, Jer 29:11)
Eccl 12:14 – open-ended judgement at the end of life implies that some receive eternal life (also Ps 62:12, Prov 24:12, Jer 17:10, Neh 13:14)
Isa 27:13 – the dead exiles of Israel and Judah will rise
Isa 35:10 – ditto
Isa 49:6, 21
Isa 51:6, 11 – the inhabitants of the earth will die, but his salvation will be forever; having been ransomed (from death, permanently), those who know righteousness will come to Zion
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 after death through their children; having an ‘everlasting name’ means having everlasting life, and God brings them into his house (v. 7) by resurrection – cf. Ps 23:6, Isa 66:22, Rev 3:12
Ezek 18 – the whole chapter!
Ezek 33:9-20 – cf. Prov 4:22 etc
Dan 7:10 – ‘judgement took its seat, and books were opened’, 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 Judah
Mic 7:7-9, also 7:19f
Hag 2:23 – the resurrection of Zerubbabel after the shaking of the heavens and the earth
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 by sparing them from destruction and making them his own
Acts 24:14f – Paul confirms that the Law and the Prophets give hope of a 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,’ and cf. Ps 30:9 and Acts 2:31
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
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.