Dr. Richard S. Hess

Old Testament Questions from the desk of Dr. Richard S. Hess

What does the Old Testament Have to Say About Death and Afterlife?

The biblical text generally speaks of the life after death in terms of Sheol, usually understood as a place of the underworld.  A classic text for this is the death of the king of Babylon in Isaiah 14:9-20, although it is a condemnation of a king of Babylon who goes down to his death.  Indeed, Sheol is generally seen as a place for the dead and especially the unrighteous dead.  Even so, Jacob describes joining his son Joseph in Sheol (Genesis 37:35).  Nevertheless, Enoch seems to go directly to heaven (Genesis 5:24) and Elijah goes directly to heaven with a fiery chariot (2 Kings 2:11-12).  In the New Testament gospels, Jesus speaks in a parable of righteous Lazarus who is in a good place in the afterlife from which he can see the unrighteous rich man (Luke 16:19-31).  However, it is not clear that this is an intentional teaching about different places in Sheol for righteous and unrighteous.  In Psalm 16:9-10 the Psalmist speaks of God not abandoning him to the realm of the dead.  Overall, there is no systematic presentation on what happens to the righteous after their death.  What seems to be clear is that the living soul (Hebrew nefesh) which God creates from the dust of the earth and his own breath of life (Genesis 2:7) continues to live after death. The book of Daniel (12:2) knows of a resurrection of the dead and the dry bones vision of Ezekiel 37:1-14 describe a general bodily resurrection of Israel as a nation.  The Daniel 12 text is probably the clearest Old Testament reference to a bodily resurrection of individuals (righteous and unrighteous).  This is consistent with the expectation of restoration of the nefesh as both spirit and body, which sin separated in death.  For this reason the bodily resurrection of Jesus is consistent with the teaching of the Old Testament, just as the resurrection of the dead in the final chapters of the book of Revelation continues this expectation of which Jesus is the firstfruits (1 Corinthians 15:20-28 and see the remainder of the chapter in verses 29-58). 

For a study of the soul, see my The Old Testament (p. 151).  For other biblical texts and information related to death and resurrection in Israel, see my Israelite Religions (pp. 265-68).  A good survey of Old Testament teaching on the afterlife is Philip S. Johnston’s Shades of Sheol (InterVarsity, 2001).  See my review of his book in the Denver Journal 8 (2005).

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