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Is there life after death?

19 January 2023

The great religions are known for having strong ideas about heaven and hell and about the judgment passed on man after his death. How, then, is it possible the Bible is so reticent about the afterlife? And that applies to both the Old and New Testaments. This reluctance is pretty amazing. How can it be explained?

Professor Old Testament

Old Testament: reluctant about heaven

In the Old Testament there is only one text that says anything about a judgment after death. It is found at the end of the book of Daniel. It was written in the second century BC and belongs to the last books of the Old Testament. The book aims to encourage the faithful who suffer under the hard-hearted reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who commanded the Jews to worship the Greek gods. Whoever clung exclusively to the belief in the one God of Israel would be put to death. Many were martyred during that time (a gruesome example is found in 2 Maccabees 7). In Daniel 12 it is revealed that the executioners will not have the last word. At the end of time, all the dead will rise and be judged. The righteous will shine like the stars, forever. The criminals will be punished with eternal reproach.

The afterlife and the belief in a just God 

It is significant that the hope of a final judgment after death was in some sense forced by the extreme situation of the moment. Belief in a just God could no longer be reconciled with the misfortunes of his worshipers. This forced the Bible writer to cross a line they had hitherto stopped in front of. In older texts the realm of the dead is mentioned, but usually as something that people wanted to avoid as long as possible. Some Psalms (like Psalm 30) that thank God for healing from a serious illness see it as a deliverance from that realm of the dead. The focus is on life, not death. But very occasionally, something more is said about what awaits a person after death. Isaiah 14 sings about how the king of Babylon will get his shameful place among the dead in the depths of the realm of the dead. That is in stark contrast to what he expected himself. He assumed that he would be given a place among the gods, but pride comes before the fall. Now he is not among the stars in the sky, but covered by worms.

Against worship of the dead

From Isaiah 14 we can deduce why the Old Testament is so closemouthed when it comes to the afterlife. It has everything to do with what is held against the king of Babylon. He assumed he would continue to occupy as prominent a position after death as in life. At the time, the idea wasn't that strange. In the ancient Near East, the cult of the dead played a major role. High status was accorded to the dead, certainly to deceased kings and other dignitaries. They were worshipped as a kind of demigods, who could mediate between humans and the higher gods. Conversely, the spirits of the dead were often perceived as a threat. They were held responsible for all kinds of misery. For example, they would punish the living for the wrong done to them in the past, or for the fact that their graves were not properly maintained. This meant the dead were given divine status - something unacceptable within the monotheism of Israel. That is why the Law of Moses strictly forbids contact with the dead (Lev. 19:31; Deut. 18:11).

Leave the hereafter to God

Israelites were afraid of making a wrong connection between God and the dead. Having the dead somehow take the place of God had to be avoided. Unlike the Egyptians, the Israelites had the realisation that one could not control existence after death. In ancient Egypt, enormous attention was paid to the attempt to ensure a good life after death. The body was preserved by mummification as an imperishable home for the soul. The mummy was given a home for eternity in the form of a pyramid or subterranean dwelling. The dead received all sorts of things for life in the hereafter. This included books of the dead with magical texts that were supposed to help with problems and dangers in the afterlife. You will find none of this in the religion of Israel. The Old Testament indicates that such things are best left to God. This is very aptly expressed in Psalm 73. When the poet expresses the hope that everything will be all right in the end, even after death, he says:

“Yet I am always with you... My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” (Psalm 73:23-26, NIV).

What awaits us after death

In the third chapter of the deuterocanonical book of Wisdom, the reader is given more information about what is supposed to await us after death. The representation of the course of events given therein is based on the idea of the immortal soul, an idea which had by then been adopted from Greek culture. The righteous dead are reported to be "at peace." Their souls will be refined “as gold in a furnace” and they will “rule with God as kings forever when the time comes for God to have mercy on them.” When exactly that will be is not revealed to us. It could be at the end of time, but it also seems that the dead experience heavenly bliss immediately after dying. In the New Testament you encounter both views.

With Jesus forever

Just like in the Old Testament, you will find less about life after death in the New Testament than you might expect. There's a different reason for that, though. The first Christians lived in the firm expectation that Jesus would soon return. The people who were converted assumed that they would experience this themselves. That becomes clear in one of Paul's first letters, when the apostle has to answer the question of what will happen to the church members who, contrary to what was thought, died before Jesus' second coming. Paul then writes that they will rise first and then be caught up with the living to meet the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17). It is striking that Paul says nothing about what exactly awaits them. He limits it to:

“And so we will be with the Lord forever.”

This is reminiscent of the quoted verses from Psalm 73. Because initially the Christians were so convinced that Jesus would not be long in coming, they paid little or no attention to the question of where the dead were in the meantime.

Differences in depictions of the afterlife

In the Gospels, which were written later than Paul's epistles, we find different representations of the state of the dead juxtaposed. In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus tells of the final judgment, at the end of time, in which a division will be made between the righteous who will receive eternal salvation and the sinners who will face eternal punishment. In the Gospel of Luke we come across a different picture a few times. The book describes how people immediately after their death already will experience heavenly bliss as their just reward - or the opposite of it. We find it in the story of the rich man and poor Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), and also in the promise that Jesus makes on the cross to one of the criminals who is crucified with him:

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43, NIV).

Again, one can conclude that the most important information does not lie in the precise description of time and place, but in the indication of the relationship with Jesus (“with me”). We saw it earlier in Psalm 73 and also in 1 Thessalonians 4. We also find it in 1 Corinthians 15. That chapter pays the most attention to the belief in the resurrection of the dead. However, you will search in vain for details about the hereafter. The chapter is mainly about how our expectation is tied to what happened when Jesus was resurrected.

So, what does the Bible say about life after death?

Compared to the other cultures at the time when the Bible was created, the Bible writers are very reserved in speaking about what comes after death. That is food for thought, and certainly also applies to our time. Partly based on 'near-death experiences', there is a lot of speculation about the afterlife. It is sometimes even spoken of as proof of heaven. But from the Bible, you can learn that the hope of life after death is based primarily on trust. Trust in the lasting relationship with God, or Jesus Christ: friendship with the Eternal is eternal friendship.