Fullness of Joy: The OT and the Afterlife (Part 1)

For centuries dying Christians have drawn comfort and hope from Old Testament passages like David’s Twenty-Third Psalm. Many scholars today, however, are charging earlier generations with reading the teaching of the New Testament back into the Old. They concede the New Testament has much to say about a resurrection, a final judgment, and eternal life. But modern scholars argue that a correct reading of the Old Testament provides little if any hope for a blissful life beyond the grave. The Old Testament believer simply lived for this world. For example, E. F. Sutcliffe, has claimed,

There has been a tendency to take it for granted that, like ourselves, Abraham, Moses, and David, and the other great men of God of the Old Testament looked forward to a judgment of their lives by God after death with a consequent apportionment of reward or punishment. But an attentive reading of the Old Testament shows that this is a mistaken notion and that for many centuries the religious life of the patriarchs and the people of Israel was based exclusively on God’s government of the world during the course of men’s pilgrimage on the earth.1

Similarly, Millar Burrows dogmatically asserts, “Early Hebrew religion had no conception of judgment or salvation after death.”2 He then accounts for belief in the resurrection among the Jews of Jesus’ day by arguing that “contact with Zoroastrianism, the religion of the Persian empire … supplied the pattern for the Jewish hope of resurrection and judgment after death.”3

Motivated by a desire to interpret God’s word accurately (2 Tim. 2:15), the Christian is compelled to reexamine the Old Testament to determine whether this modern charge is true.

Three Preliminary Considerations

To properly assess the Old Testament’s teaching on the afterlife, one must begin his study with an awareness of Israel’s ancient Near Eastern cultural milieu, an acknowledgment of Scripture’s progressive revelation, and an appreciation for the New Testament’s interpretation of the Old.

The Preoccupation of Ancient Near Eastern Society

Recent studies in ancient Near Eastern culture and religion have revealed a prevalent fascination with the afterlife.4 This ancient preoccupation with the afterlife may partially account for the relative paucity of a detailed revelation of afterlife in the Old Testament. God did not need to convince the Israelites of a reality they took for granted.

Furthermore, He did not want to foster an unhealthy fixation upon the life to come, which might render the Israelites “no earthly good” (cf. 1 Thes. 4:11; 2 Thes. 3:7-12) and lead them into the superstitious practices of their ancient Near Eastern neighbors. For example, the Law forbids praying to the deceased (Exod. 22:18; Deut. 18:10-12). Certainly, the Israelites would not be tempted to pray to the dead if they, as many modern scholars contend, entertained no belief in life after death. 

The ancient prevalence of a belief in the afterlife also suggests the likelihood of a common innate sense of “eternalness” among human societies (Eccl. 3:11; Rom. 1:19-21), as well as a primeval revelation (e.g., Gen. 2:15-17; 3:22-24; 5:21-24), which depraved societies corrupted over time (Rom. 1:18-23).5

The Reality of Progressive Revelation

As a rule, redemptive truth generally becomes more detailed and clear as one approaches the New Testament era (Eph. 3:5; Tit. 1:1-3; Heb. 1:1, 2). This is especially true with respect to the doctrine of eternal life. In fact, it is not until one arrives at the New Testament that he finds a full and mature doctrine of the afterlife. Jesus Christ brought the truth of immortality out of the relative obscurity of Old Testament revelation and into the brighter light of New Testament revelation (2 Tim. 1:10). Therefore, as the Bible student searches for the resurrection and eternal life in the Old Testament, he must resist the temptation to read a fully developed New Testament doctrine into an Old Testament text where it does not belong.6

The Legitimacy of New Testament Input

On the other hand, Christians have the right and responsibility to take seriously the way in which New Testament writers interpret the Old.7 For example, the author of Hebrews portrays the faith and life of the Old Testament saints as future oriented (11:1-39).8 Either he is guilty of reading the New Testament hope of eternal life into the Old. Or he is properly exegeting the Old Testament texts under the Holy Spirit’s guidance. One committed to the inspiration of the New Testament must assume the latter.9

Three Pillars of the OT Believer’s Hope

Most modern scholars concede that one or two passages in the Old Testament may teach a future resurrection unto eternal life. But they usually date these passages after the exile and trace their teaching not to earlier Old Testament revelation but to Persian influence.10 Nevertheless, a careful examination of the Hebrew Scriptures reveals an indigenous source for these later eschatological texts. From the beginning of human history and on the earliest pages of Old Testament Scripture, God began to reveal three great truths which served as the pillars of the Old Testament believer’s future hope.

to be continued …

​Notes

1 Cited in H. H. Rowley, The Faith of Israel (Westminster Press, 1956), p. 153, fn. 5.

2 An Outline of Biblical Theology (Westminster Press, 1946), p. 192.

3 Ibid., p. 203.

4 Recent studies include, Jean Bottero, Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia, trans. Teresa Fagan (The University of Chicago Press, 2001); Norman Cohn, Cosmos, Chaos, and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith (Yale University Press, 1993); S. H. Hooke, Babylonian and Assyrian Religion (Basil Blackwell, 1962); H. Frankfort, Ancient Egyptian Religion: An Interpretation (Harper and Brothers, 1948); Helmer Ringgren, Religions of the Ancient Near East, trans. John Sturdy (The Westminster Press, 1973).

5 The Roman Catholic doctrine of Mary illustrates how men can take a previous revelation (Luke 1:27-30) and over time distort it into superstitious error.

6 Walter Kaiser suggests that the analogy of Scripture be limited to antecedent revelation; Toward an Old Testament Theology (Zondervan, 1978), pp. 5-19. This approach is generally sound provided one does not ignore the NT writers’ exegesis of the OT.

7 S. Lewis Johnson is correct when he argues, “The use of the Old Testament in the New is the key to the solution of the problem of hermeneutics. Unfortunately, that has been overlooked. But surely the apostles are reliable instructors in the science of hermeneutics if they are reliable teachers of biblical doctrine.” The Old Testament in the New (Zondervan, 1980), p. 23.

8 He does not merely claim Abraham and the other Old Testament saints went to heaven. Rather, he teaches that they were looking forward to heaven! (See especially vv. 13-16).

9 Since the Holy Spirit never bears false witness and since He is the author of the Old Testament Scriptures, He will always guide the NT writer to accurately discern His own authorial intent in the OT Scriptures.

10 Brian Schmidt, “Afterlife, Afterdeath,” Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, ed. David N. Freedman (Eerdmans, 2000), pp. 26-27; Burrows, pp. 203-04.

Bob Gonzales bio


Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological ReviewThe Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.

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Bert Perry's picture

...comes to mind, as do David's statements at the death of his first son by Bathsheba; I will go to him, but he cannot come to me.  For that matter, consider the very existence of prophetic passages; what sense does this make if they believed they were worm food?  For that matter, Moses grew up in Pharaoh's court; if he had come to believe that the afterlife was not there after having been inundated in Egyptian preparations for the same, don't you think that would of shown up in the Torah?  

Let's just say that here, as elsewhere, I just don't get what modern scholars are doing.  Maybe they're reading themselves into the texts unless it's completely untenable?

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