Ancient Views Of Biblical Writers On The Afterlife

Ancient Views Of Biblical Writers On The Afterlife

The Bible contains multiple ideas about what happens after death, just as the ancient world also featured multiple ideas about what happens after death. Thus the Bible reflects its milieu. Lastly, neither do modern day Evangelical Christians agree on what happens after death. Read Zondervanʼs Viewpoint Series in which Four Views of Hell are debated:

  1. A literal burning eternal hell,
  2. a figurative eternal hell,
  3. a finite hell
  4. purgatory (The series neglects a fifth possibility that some Evangelicals from the last two hundreds years till today have embraced, along with some early church fathers, namely universalism.) Given such possibilities, vigorously debated amongst even Evangelicals, itʼs amazing that the one possibility that eludes ALL of these folks is simply that the Bible does not speak as “clearly” as all of them assume it does. *smile*

Herein follows:

  1. Some quotations from the O.T.
  2. Excerpts from a book on Judaism written by and for modern day educated Jewish readers.
  3. Article by a leading early Christian historian, James D. Tabor, “What the Bible Says About Death, Afterlife, and the Future” an outline of the development of Hebrew ideas about the afterlife.

In the Old Testament Godʼs promises to the people of Israel - whether benefits or punishments - concerned almost exclusively, events of this world and not another (e.g. good crops, peace; famine, plague). Moreover, some verses in the Bible speak as though the afterlife is a mere shadowy state that all men sadly go down to, not unlike other ancient notions. [quotations from the new JPS translation of the Bible] Isaiah 39:18 “For it is not Sheol that praises You, Not [the land of] Death that extols you; Nor do they who descend into the Pit hope for your grace. The living, only the living can give thanks to you.
Psalms 6:6 “For there is no praise of You among the dead; in Sheol, who can acclaim you?”
Psalms 115:17 “The dead cannot praise the Lord, nor any who go down into silence.”
Job 7:7-10 “Consider that my life is but wind; I shall never see happiness again…As a cloud fades away, so whoever goes down into Sheol does not come up…”
Ecclesiastes. 9:4-5 “For he who is reckoned among the living has something to look forward to - even a live dog is better than a dead lion - since the living know that they will die. But the dead know nothing; they have no more recompense, for even the memory of them has died.”


Excerpts from a Book by and for Jewish Experts: What was the Individualʼs Fate After Death?

What was the individualʼs fate after death? This was a question the writers of the Bible [keep in mind “the Bible” means the Hebrew Bible for this author] pondered, and eventually they reached a common conclusion. As we shall see later on, however, certain new ideas arose toward the end of the biblical period, about the third or second century B.C.E. The writers of the Bible generally agreed that after life the individual sank into oblivion in a place known as Shʼol, commonly translated as the pit or netherworld. Thus when Jacob learned of the apparent death of his beloved son Jowsph, he refused to be comforted but insisted that he himself would go down in mourning to Shʼol (this is what the Hebrew of Genesis 37:35 says). Later, when Joseph, now governor of Egypt, demanded that his brothers bring Benjamin, the youngest brother, back to Egypt with them,d their father Jacob refused. Said he:

…my son shall not go down with you; for his brother [Joseph] is dead, and he only is left. If harm should befall him on the journey that you are to make, you would bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to Shʼol
— Gen. 42:38

“What man can live and never see death?” asks a psalmist. “Who can deliver his soul from the power of Shʼol?” Everyone goes down to Shʼol at the end and there is no other hope for man (Job 14:7-19).

Shʼol was universally considered to be a pit deep within the earth to which all the dead went (see Ps. 88:7). It was a place of complete silence (Ps. 115:17), a region of darkness and forgetfulness (Ps. 88:13). Some said not even God could be found there (Isa. 38:10-11), but others insisted to the contrary, that He was everywhere, including the netherworld (Ps. 139:8; Job 26:6).

Existence in Shʼol was vague and shadowy. No longer in bodily form (Ps. 49:15), the dead were essentially like shadows, and are often referred to as “shades” (see Job 26:5-6; Ps. 88:11; Prov. 9:18). Moreover there was no possibility for the living to have any further contact with them.

All in all, the biblical picture of Shʼol is a dismal one. The psalmist who compared his misery to the condition of the dead there has left us this description:

…My soul is full of troubles,
And my life draws near to Shʼol.
I am counted among those who go down to the Pit;
I am a man who has no strength,
Like one forsaken among the dead,
Like the slain that lie in the grave,
Like those whom You (God) remember no more,
For they are cut off from Your hand.
You have put me in the depths of the Pit,
In the regions dark and deep.
Ps. 88:4-7

Once the breath of life leaves, the psalmist observes, the life-functions cease and the body starts to disintegrate:

When his [manʼs] breath leaves, he returns to the dust, On that very day his thoughts perish.
— Ps. 146:4

And the writer of the final chapter of Ecclesiastes confirms this with:

The dust returns to the earth as it was,
and the spirit returns to God who gave it.
Eccles. 12:7

With their conception of Shʼol, the writers of the Bible could scarcely have held out any hope of reward after death. Nor could there be any punishment.

Thus the psalmist asks:

Do you [God] work wonders for the dead?
Do the shades rise up to praise You?
Is Your steadfast love declared in the grave?
Or Your faithfulness in the region of abandonment?
Are Your wonders known in the [place of] darkness?
Are Your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
Ps. 88:11-12

The answer to these rhetorical questions is obviously no. In death, there is nothing. Therefore, any punishment for the wicked or reward for the righteous is to be experienced during their own lifetimes. The wicked, as we have already seen, are to be consigned to an earlier death (see also Ps. 9:17-18), and God may extend the life of the righteous (see Ps. 86:13). But eventually, as Koheleth (the preacher) observes, they share a common end:

Ecclesiastes 9

  1. It is the same for all. There is one fate for the righteous and for the wicked; for the good, for the clean and for the unclean; for the man who offers a sacrifice and for the one who does not sacrifice. As the good man is, so is the sinner; as the swearer is, so is the one who is afraid to swear.
  2. This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that there is one fate for all men. Furthermore, the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil and insanity is in their hearts throughout their lives. Afterwards they go to the dead.

The Timing Of Death

The biblical authors also pondered the timing of death and who, in the final analysis, determined this.

Here there was general agreement that the individual himself was responsible for the length of his stay upon earth. Doing Godʼs will extended oneʼs life, whereas wickedness and rebellion against Him shortened it. Thus, one writer says:

The fear of the Lord prolongs [oneʼs] days;
But the years of the wicked shall be shortened.
- Prov. 10:27

And another declares:

…I know that it will be well with them that fear God
…but it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his
days, which are as a shadow, because he does not fear God.
— Eccles. 8:12-13

The “way of life and death,” said different writers, was open to each person and the choice was plainly his [Deut. 30:19-20; Jer. 21:8]. Carrying out Godʼs law was a way of prolonging life [Lev. 18:4-5; Ezek. 20:11], and hence, keeping Shʼol at bay. “If you will walk in My ways to keep My statutes and my commandments,” God tells Solomon, “then I will lengthen your days” [1 Kg. 3:14]. The wicked, on the other hand, court death. As one prophet appeals to the people: “Turn away, turn away from your evil ways,d for why will you die, O house of Israel?” Ezk. 33:11.

The writers of the Bible did not doubt that it was God himself who ultimately decided when the individual would die. Deut. 32:39 Job 14:5. Yet, probably wanting to spare God the unpleasant duty, some biblical writers said that He employed an “angel of death” to carry out His decrees. In the majority of instances, he is called simply “the angel of the Lord” 2 Sam. 24:15-17, in one passage, “the destroyer” Ex. 12:23. And as the end of their lives drew near, they continued to voice their trust in God: “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil.” In this sense, death for the Jew was seen simply as a natural, normal part of his dedicated way of life. [As it also was for the Greeks and their idea of Hades. Those Greeks, so brave in battle, for whom only a very few would ever get to spend eternity on Mt. Olympus. Just as only Enoch and Elijah were taken to Godʼs heaven. - Ed.]

Exceptions To The Early Hebrew Idea Of Shʼol

In the entire Bible [Hebrew Bible], there are rare exceptions to the above view. One is the revival of a dead child by Elijah in 1 Kings 17; the other, by Elisha in II Kings 4 [Parallel miracles, probably mythological doublings, which happened commonly in the growth of mythologies. The book, Gospel Myths by Randall Helms even points out the parallels between Jesusʼ raising of a few dead people and how the stories appear to be derived from the tales of Elijah and Elisha. - Ed.] But such acts of individual resurrections were regarded as extraordinary singular deeds, completely out of the ordinary. Apart from these two exceptions, the consistent attitude taken by the biblical writers was there was no recourse from death. The best illustration of their thinking is the story told in II Sam. 12 about King David and his ailing son.

David is described as fasting and praying in the hope that God might spare the boyʼs life. However, once the child was dead, the King arose and went about his normal affairs. His servants were shocked at this change in behavior, since they had witnessed his strenuous fasting and weeping during the childʼs illness. David told his servants:

2 Samuel 12

  1. He said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who knows, the LORD may be gracious to me, that the child may live.’
  2. “But now he has died; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.”

Two other ideas are touched on briefly in the Bible. They flash on and off very quickly and are never developed fully anywhere in the Bible. The first occurs in connection with the tale of the “Tree of Life” in the Garden of Eden. It suggests that man once had the opportunity to life forever but neglected to take advantage of it, and then was deliberately hindered from doing so after having eaten from the “Tree of Knowledge,” and then was shuffled from the garden so he could not eat from the “Tree of Life.” The second arises when certain individuals - Enoch in Gen. 5 and Elijah in II Kings 2 - were said to have been “taken by God.” This curious phrasing suggests that they somehow escaped dying. However, this may only be a more poetic way of saying that they died. Neither of these ideas is pursued further. For all practical purposes, the writers of the Bible were convinced that since God had so established it, death was inevitable for everyone. [Though the cases of Enoch and Elijah might be cases like the rare exceptions to the Greek Hades concept, wherein certain peoples did get to spend eternity on Mt. Olympus. - ED.]

A New Concept Is Introduced

Some of the last prophets and writers of the Bible introduced a new conception of manʼs fate after death. They advanced the idea that the dead might be “resurrected,” that is, brought to life again in bodily form.

Scholars believe that the notion of resurrection grew out of the hope that the nation of Israel would one day be reconstituted. The prophet Ezekiel likened his exiled people to a collection of dry bones that God restores to life. Here is his description of what he saw in his vision:

Ezekiel 37:

  1. The hand of the LORD was upon me, and He brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of the valley; and it was full of bones.
  2. He caused me to pass among them round about, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley; and lo, they were very dry.
  3. He said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord GOD, You know.”
  4. Again He said to me, “Prophesy over these bones and say to them, “O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.
  5. “Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones, “Behold, I will cause breath to enter you that you may come to life.
  6. “I will put sinews on you, make flesh grow back on you, cover you with skin and put breath in you that you may come alive; and you will know that I am the LORD.”
  7. So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold, a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to its bone.
  8. And I looked, and behold, sinews were on them, and flesh grew and skin covered them; but there was no breath in them.
  9. Then He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, “Thus says the Lord GOD, “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they come to life.”
  10. So I prophesied as He commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they came to life and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.

And shortly after that, the prophet hears God promise Israel:

Ezekiel 37

  1. “Therefore prophesy and say to them, “Thus says the Lord GOD, “Behold, I will open your graves and cause you to come up out of your graves, My people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel.
  2. “Then you will know that I am the LORD, when I have opened your graves and caused you to come up out of your graves, My people.
  3. “I will put My Spirit within you and you will come to life, and I will place you on your own land. Then you will know that I, the LORD, have spoken and done it, declares the LORD.”

What Ezekiel is speaking of here is clearly the restoration of national life to the Jewish exiles in Babylonian exile. there are some, however, who believe that the prophet may also have been thinking of individual resurrection. [Individual and even a final resurrection and judgment day was a concept that the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism already had developed, and the Persian empire soon conquered the Babylonians and allowed the Jews to return to Israel. - Ed.]

A passage in the book of Isaiah likewise appears to hold out hope for the resurrection of the people of Israel. In it the prophet promises the suffering people:

Your dead shall live, their bodies shall rise.
Awake and sing, those who dwell in the dust!
For Your [Godʼs] dew is a dew of light,
And the earth shall bring the shades to life
— Isa. 26:19

And in yet another passage, Isaiah seems to go beyond this first promise and foretells ultimate resurrection of ALL people. For he prophesies:

He [God] will swallow up death forever,
And the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces,
And the reproach of His people He will take away from all the earth;
For the Lord has spoken.
— Isa. 25:8

Only in the Book of Daniel do we find the resurrection of the dead definitely promised. The appearance of the Book of Daniel with its belief in resurrection and its concept of reward and punishment after death reveals that Judaism was groping toward something more hopeful than a shadowy afterlife in Shʼol. The author of this book predicts that at the end of the reign of a certain evil king, the angel Michael will arise:

Any many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth will awake…
— Dan. 12:2

Thus, late in the biblical period arose the belief among a few writers that there was more of an afterlife than the shadowy existence of Shʼol. As yet, however, belief in the eventual restoration of the dead to renewed bodily form does not appear to have been widespread.

It is only in the period of the rabbis that teachings of the immortality of the soul and the eventual resurrection of the dead became accepted Jewish belief. The soul, they taught, is part of Godʼs spirit that gives life to the body and lives on with Him when man dies. And if he is deserving, with the coming of the Messianic Age, his body will be resurrected for eternal life in a blissful hereafter called “the world to come.”


What The Bible Says About Death, Afterlife, And The Future” by Dr. James D. Tabor, from the website, “The Jewish Roman World of Jesus.”

James D. Tabor is a Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte where he has taught since 1989. He previously held positions at the University of Notre Dame (1979-85) and the College of William and Mary (1985-89). His undergraduate and M.A. degrees were in Biblical Languages (Pepperdine University), and his Ph.D. is from the University of Chicago in the area of Biblical Studies, with an emphasis on Christian Origins and ancient Judaism, including the Dead Sea Scrolls, John the Baptist, Jesus, James, and Paul.

Tabor serves as Chief Editor of the Original Bible Project, a decade-long effort to produce a historical-linguistic translation of the Bible with notes. He is often consulted by the national media (e.g., quoted or appeared in/on Time, Newsweek, USNews, NYTimes, LATimes, WashPost, Wall St. Journal, Harpers, AP, NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX, PBS Frontline, A&E (TV & Radio) particularly in connection with the Dead Sea Scrolls, modern apocalypticism and millennialism…

All the dead go down to Sheol, and there they lie in sleep together—whether good or evil, rich or poor, slave or free (Job 3:11-19). It is described as a region “dark and deep,” “the Pit,” and “the land of forgetfulness,” cut off from both God and human life above (Pss. 6:5; 88:3-12). Though in some texts Yahwehʼs power can reach down to Sheol (Ps. 139:8), the dominant idea is that the dead are abandoned forever. This idea of Sheol is negative in contrast to the world of life and light above, but there is no idea of judgment or of reward and punishment. If one faces extreme circumstances of suffering in the realm of the living above, as did Job, it can even be seen as a welcome relief from pain—see the third chapter of Job. But basically it is a kind of “nothingness,” an existence that is barely existence at all, in which a “shadow” or “shade” of the former self survives (Ps. 88:10).

This rather bleak (or comforting, depending on your point of view) understanding of the future (or non-future) of the individual at death is one that prevails throughout most of the Hebrew Bible. It is found throughout the Pentateuch (the Books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), and it runs through the books of history, poetry, and prophecy (from Joshua through Malachi) with few exceptions. Those exceptions, however, are noteworthy. The most obvious is the infamous account of the seance in which King Saul has the “witch” (or medium) of Endor conjure up the spirit of the dead prophet Samuel. The narrative is fascinatingly realistic. The medium asks Saul, “Whom shall I bring up for you?” Saul replies, “Bring up Samuel for me” (1 Sam. 28:11). What follows is worth quoting in full:

The king said to her, “Have no fear; what do you see?” And the woman said to Saul, “I see a god (elohim) coming up out of the earth.” He said to her, “What is his appearance?” And she said, “An old man wrapped in a robe.” And Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground, and did obeisance. Then Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” (I Sam. 28:13-15) (my emphasis)

Saulʼs intent in trying to contact Samuel was to consult him regarding the wisdom of going into battle against the Philistines. Samuel appears to him in bodily form and gives him a clear prediction of what would befall him, just as he would have done in his prophetic ministry while still alive, he clearly knows the future, even though he has departed below, to Sheol.

Here the dead (at least Samuel) are viewed as “gods” of sorts, resting below in Sheol, but potentially capable of “coming back”—after being “disturbed”—and participating in the life of the living to the extent of even knowing the future. The practice of consulting the spirits of the dead was strictly forbidden in both the Torah and Prophets, but it obviously went on persistently (see Deut. 18:11; Isa. 8:19, 29:4). Throughout this period Israelites apparently thought that the dead could be consulted on behalf of the living. This indicates that their view of the state of the dead in Sheol below was not entirely static. Although generally pictured “at rest,” such spirits could assume special power and still have verbal intercourse with the living world above. Some have also noted as exceptions texts such as Psalms 73:18-26 and 49:13-15, which contrast the fate of the wicked as perishing in Sheol with that of the righteous, who will somehow be “ransomed” from its power. These texts are impossible to date with any certainty, and they might reflect some beginning “hints” of an idea of a resurrection hope for the departed righteous. If so, they probably come from the late Persian period. But even these texts lack a clear affirmation of resurrection of the dead. They might reflect the mere notion of God saving one from Sheol, i.e., rescuing from danger, sickness, and prolonging life. This is clearly the sense of passages like Psalms 22:19-24 and 103:1-5, Isaiah 38:10-20, and Jonah 2:1-9. It is only in certain late portions of the Hebrew Bible, and in sections of the Apocrypha, that we find the beginning expressions of any kind of an actual “future” for the individual beyond death…

Beginning in the eighth century, and well down into the sixth century B.C.E., the nation of Israel suffered through political, social, and military catastrophes. First under the Assyrians, then successively under the Babylonians and Persians, large parts of the population were exiled and their land was occupied. This is the time of the Hebrew Prophets—whose books comprise Isaiah through Malachi. It is primarily in these texts—written before, during, and after this period of exile—that we find the beginnings of a new view of the future. It is this new view, in contrast to what I called the “historical” view above, that can properly be called “eschatological.” It seems to develop over time from a rather simple hope for the ultimate restoration of the national fortunes of the tribes of Israel to a fantastic vision of total cosmic renewal and transformation. This development is somewhat, though not strictly, chronological. The type and range of “eschatological” solutions proposed seem to correspond directly to the perception of the scope of the historical problem…

Immortality of the Soul and Resurrection of the Dead

Side by side with the expanded speculation about when and how the end of the age would arrive are two important developments regarding the future of individuals beyond death. First, there is a vastly increased concern with the state and fortunes of the dead, both wicked and righteous, before the end of the age. Second, we see the full-blown development of the notion that some (or all) of the dead will rise to face a final judgment. As we have seen, in the Hebrew Bible the dead are in Sheol, barely existing, and never to return. The “state” of these dead is hardly any state at all. Daniel 12:2-3 is the earliest text in the Bible to speak clearly and absolutely about a resurrection of the dead, both wicked and righteous [12] His reference to the dead as “those who sleep in the earth” shows that he does not yet know, or share an interest in, their so called “interim” state (i.e., before the resurrection at the end). 2 Maccabees (written sometime between the first century B.C.E. and the first century C.E.) reflects an interesting state of development in this regard. Not only does the author believe in the resurrection (at least of the righteous martyrs), but he advocates prayer and sacrifice for the dead and believes that they can intercede for those on earth and vice versa (2 Macc. 12:43-45, 15:11-16). Likewise, in 2 Esdras the dead are fully conscious, already suffering either punishment or comfort in various levels and compartments of the heavenly realms, awaiting the final day of judgment (2 Esd. 7). Here the view of the immortal soul that departs the body at death is combined with a view of final and future resurrection of the dead. We know from texts outside the Old Testament canon, like the Ethiopic Enoch (third century B.C.E. to first century C.E.), that such views were common among various Jewish and Christian groups during this period.

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