The Old Testament
There is little in the Old Testament about life after death. It finds no mention in the first five books of the Bible. Phrases like ‘he was gathered to his fathers’ need suggest no more than that he joins them in the grave, while references to ‘making live’ (Deuteronomy 32.39) refer to God’s power of life and death, and not to the after life. It is true that Enoch ‘was not, for God took him’, but this could mean simply that he passed away in an unusual way. These hints gathered new meaning once people knew of the resurrection, but they did not mean that to the people of the time.
In most of the Old Testament, where the thought of a ‘beyond’ arises at all it is in the ‘land’ of Sheol (the grave), the land of shadows, a land of no substance and no joy. It is a land of emptiness (see Isaiah 14.9; 38.18; Ezekiel 32.21; Psalm 6.5; 49.14; 88.5; Job 7.9; 17.13; Ecclesiastes 9.10). The eyes of the people were concentrated on their future in this life.
There are hints of an after-life in Psalms such as Psalm 16.10-11 and 49.14-15, for the Psalmists express a joyful certainty that there is ‘something beyond’, where they will be received by God (compare Psalm 23.6; 73.24), but it is not expanded. It is just that they have confidence in their God that He has something better for them than Sheol (see also the inference in Hosea 13.14). Job 19.25-26 is a difficult passage, as the text is not clear, but again it would appear to carry the inference that he has a future hope.
The taking of Elijah suggests the possibility that he has been ‘glorified’, but again it is a bald fact given without explanation.
Isaiah 25.8 speaks of God swallowing up death in victory, but the phrase is enigmatic until we receive further revelation. The explanation is found in Isaiah 26.19 , “Thy dead shall live, their bodies will rise. Oh dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy. For thy dew is a dew of light and on the land of shades thou wilt let it fall”. Here there is the definite expression of hope for the righteous. (Indeed all references to date only have the righteous in mind). For them death is not the end.
The clearest passage in the Old Testament is Daniel 12.2-3. “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament, and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever.” The heavenly imagery would suggest a heavenly destiny.
Here we have clearly stated the resurrection of both righteous and unrighteous, some to everlasting life and glory, others to everlasting shame and contempt. But there is no suggestion that it is conscious shame, except at the moment of sentence. Isaiah 66.24 suggests otherwise. There they are dead bodies, exposed to continual maggots and permanently burning fires, a picture of rubbish dumps, like the valley of Hinnom outside Jerusalem. As only the bodies of criminals and such like were disposed of on rubbish dumps, it is a place of shame.
The Gospels do not say a great deal about the resurrection as such, but much of the material assumes it. Unlike the Greeks, the Jews had no concept of an after life without the body. Plato believed in the immortality of the soul. The Bible teaches the resurrection of the body.
The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke)
Much of the teaching in the synoptic Gospels takes the after life for granted, without defining how or when in greater measure. One problem they raise is the difference between what will happen at the end of the present ‘age’ to those alive at the time, and what will happen to the dead. Jesus encouraged His followers to expect the end of the age as a possibility in their lifetimes. He stated clearly that while on earth He did not know when it would be. Only the Father knew (Mark 13.32). Thus many of His statements, which might at first sight appear to refer to the resurrection, in fact apply to the end of the age. This must be constantly kept in mind if we are to understand what He says.
In Matthew 5.11-12 those who are persecuted for Jesus’ sake can rejoice, ‘for great is their reward in Heaven’. In contrast those who refuse to obey his commands will be ‘cast into Gehenna’ (see later) (v.29, 30). As some of the persecuted will have died this assumes an after-life of some kind.
In Matthew 6.19-20 we are told that we should not lay up treasure for ourselves on earth, but should lay them up in Heaven. Indeed the gate that leads to life is an afflicted one, while the broad and easy way leads to destruction (7.13-14). Not everyone who says to Jesus, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven ‘in that day’, only those who do the will of the Father who is in Heaven (Matthew 7.21-23). The phrase ‘in that day’ confirms that this is speaking of a future experience of climactic importance. There is no suggestion that death would rob men of the benefits so these promises and exhortations have in mind both the end of the age and an after-life. (The term ‘destruction’ is ‘apoleian’ which, with its related verb, Plato constantly uses in his work on Immortality to mean soul destruction, which he does not believe in, in contrast to having unconditional immortality. The doctrine of unconditional immportality is Platonic not Biblical. The Bible says that only God has immortality unconditionally (1 Timothy 6.16). For Christians it is a blessing they receive from God (Romans 2.7; 1 Corinthians 15.53-54; 2 Timothy 1.10)).
In Matthew 8.11-12, in commending the faith of a Roman centurion, Jesus says, “Many will come from the East and West, and will sit down with Abraham, and Isaac and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven. But the children of the Kingdom will be cast into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”. This again refers, taken naturally, to a future life (as the Patriarchs are there and it is in contrast to outer darkness) and punishment. Again it is inconclusive as to the length of the punishment. They weep and gnash their teeth because of the sentence to outer darkness. What happens then we are not told. The mention of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob counts against it referring to simply the future on earth, or if it did they clearly must have been resurrected, as most Jews believed they would be. (The phrase ‘children of the Kingdom’ must mean ‘those for whom it was originally intended’, those who should have inherited it).
In Matthew 10.15 we are told concerning the cities who reject the testimony of the Apostles that “it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment than for that city” (compare 11. 20-24; compare also Luke 10.13-15). So the Apostles are not to fear those who can kill the body, but they are to fear the One Who can destroy (apolesai) both body and soul in Gehenna (10.28). Then they will have nothing to fear, for ‘the hairs of their head are all numbered’, a vivid way of saying that God watches over every detail concerning them, and they are ‘of more value than many sparrows’ (v. 30-31). Indeed Jesus will testify on their behalf before his Father in Heaven (v.33). However, those who reject the testimony of the Spirit will not be forgiven, neither in this age nor in the age to come (12.32). In the day of judgment men will give account of every idle word they speak. All this points to the resurrection of just and unjust for judgment.
In Matthew 13.40-43 Jesus speaks of ‘the end of this age (aionos)’. Then “the Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and those who do iniquity, and will cast them into a furnace of fire; there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the Kingdom of their Father”. This latter would appear to be an indirect reference to Daniel 12, although the whole passage is not necessarily a reference to resurrection as it could be speaking of the living. However the ‘shining forth as the sun’ suggests a destiny with Heavenly connections rather than earthly glory.
Again in Matthew 13.49-50 “so will it be at the end of the age. The angels will come forth and sever the wicked from among the just, and will cast them into the furnace of fire: there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth”.
In Matthew 18.8-9 those who ‘offend’ (treat badly) little children will be cast into everlasting fire (v.8), - the Gehenna of fire (v.9). Mark speaks of it as “the fire that never shall be quenched, where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (many important ancient texts omit the second part). This stresses the certainty of the punishment. It looks back to Isaiah 66.24 but makes the fire and the maggots unceasing. It is, of course, a vivid picture and not to be taken literally. (To make the ‘undying worm’ the worm of the soul is not to do justice to the text or to Isaiah 66.24, which is its source. Maggots are clearly in mind and were as horrific as the fires).
In Matthew 19.27-30, at Peter’s claim that they have left all and followed Jesus, Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, you who have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit on the throne of his glory, you also shall sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And every one who has forsaken houses, or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life” (compare also Mark 10.29-30). The disciples could look forward to this without necessarily applying it to the after-life. They knew that the end of the age could come at any time. With later knowledge it must have in mind the resurrection.
The Sadducees did not believe in a resurrection, and in Matthew 22.23-32 they come to test Jesus out with a question. Jesus replies, “in the resurrection people neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in Heaven. But concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read that which was spoken unto you by God, saying ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob?’ God is not the God of the dead but of the living.” The significance of the latter phrase is that it suggests that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were already alive, and not awaiting the resurrection at the last day (compare Luke 20.27-38).
Speaking of the end of the age in Matthew 24.30-31 Jesus says, “And then shall appear the sign of the Son of Man in Heaven:and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of Man coming in the clouds of Heaven with power and great glory. And He shall send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of Heaven to the other --- then shall two be in the field, the one shall be taken and the other left, two women will be grinding at the mill: the one shall be taken and the other left (vv.40-41)” (see also Mark 13.27; Luke 17 26-37).
Previously it has been the wicked who have been separated from among the righteous (see Matthew 13.40-43, 49-50). This is a warning that this is eschatological language, using pictures to present a vivid reality, and the details are not to be overpressed. The important point is that some will be separated for judgment, while others will be gathered for their reward. We could, of course, argue that the wicked are cut out from among the just by the taking of the just to God, but that would not be a natural way of taking Matthew 13. (Even if Matthew is not seen as doing so, Luke 17.31-36 makes it impossible to argue that the ones ‘taken’ are the wicked, as suggested by some).
It will be an unfortunate time for the unfaithful servant, “the Lord of that servant will come in a day that he looks not for him, and in an hour that he is not aware of, and will cut him asunder and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites (those who put on an act): there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 24.50-51). Again of an unfaithful servant his lord will say, “Cast the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (v.30). This is said by the lord in the parable, but it is clearly intended to represent the sentence of the Son of Man.
Finally in Matthew we have the description of the great Judgment. “When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit on the throne of his glory, and before him will be gathered all nations, and he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And he will set the sheep on his right hand but the goats on the left. Then will the king say to those on his right hand, ‘come you who are blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world, for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was in rags and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me --- inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these my brothers, you have done it to me.’ Then will he say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the Devil and his angels, for I was hungry and you gave me no food, ---- inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these you did not do it to me’. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into life eternal”.
This is outwardly a picture of the judgment of the living nations, it does not therefore impinge on the resurrection. It is clear, however, that both parties go into the eternal state, one to life the other to punishment, and that the sheep are ‘the righteous’. The fact that the punishment is eternal does not necessarily mean that it involves conscious punishment, only that its consequence is unending. We must look elsewhere for the idea of conscious punishment beyond the grave. The punishment has been depicted as ‘outer darkness” and “the Gehenna of fire”, the one stressing banishment from the light of God, the other the shame heaped upon them. The latter has in mind the continually burning fires of the rubbish heaps outside Jerusalem in the valley of Hinnom (ge-hinnom - Gehenna). These were also reflected in Isaiah 66.24 where the wicked were dead bodies. To express horror at their sinfulness the worst criminals were flung onto the rubbish heaps after being executed, as an everlasting shame on them. The wicked dead will be objects of everlasting shame.
It is not treating words rightly to suggest that in this passage “life eternal” is different from its meaning elsewhere and here simply means that they go into the ‘kingdom age’. It is true that it does mean strictly ‘the life of the age to come’ (as the punishment is the ‘punishment of the age to come’) but it means the same elsewhere, where the life of the age to come follows the resurrection (John 5.29 with 5.24), although in one sense being received on believing. To make it just ‘life in the kingdom age’ for the sake of a theory is to denigrate it.
Luke 12.42-48 is an important passage with regard to the fate of the unbeliever. Here Jesus tells a parable (it was a favourite theme of His, told often, with slight adjustments) of a steward given authority while his lord is away. If that steward is unfaithful and misuses his lord’s goods, beating the servants and making merry on what is not his, the lord will suddenly come and will “cut him off, and appoint him his portion with the unbelievers. And that servant which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, will be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes”.
Of course, this parable does not strictly have the resurrection in mind. The idea was of those expecting to be alive when the Son of Man comes (see v.40). But it makes clear that there will be grades of punishment. Whether this applies to the after-life is open to question. If so it does away with the idea of the one awful punishment for everyone. “Beaten with few stripes” can hardly mean the awfulness of eternal conscious suffering in the flames of Hell. If, however, it is restricted to those alive at the Lord’s coming, we have only one passage in the Gospels that can be used to teach conscious punishment in the after-life and that is the story of the rich man and Lazarus, which we will consider shortly.
In Luke 14.14 we have specific mention of ‘the resurrection of the just’. Those whose goodness reaches out to the poor, the maimed, the lame and the blind - in other words to those who are helpless and cannot help themselves - will be recompensed at the resurrection of the just. This statement is quite important as it demonstrates that Jesus does not just have in mind judgment for the living at the end of the age. It suggests that all the past references can be read as including the resurrection.
This is re-emphasised in Luke 16.1-12 where the cunning steward finds ways to make up for his bad management by clever negotiation. Jesus comments, “And I say to you, make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness, so that when you fail they may receive you into everlasting habitations” (v.9). This again suggests that Jesus sees the Heavenly future as the place of reward.
Luke 16.19-31 is a unique passage. If it is taken literally it teaches conscious punishment beyond the grave of a most awful kind (far more than the few stripes mentioned earlier by Jesus), and the existence in the after-life both of the good and the wicked before the resurrection, in human bodies which are capable of human suffering. These are concepts found nowhere else up to this point, and in fact contradict the idea of a future resurrection. Always the resurrection of the body, both for the just and the unjust, has been in the future. Here it is presented as having happened for some. This suggests we must approach the passage carefully. It is either a vivid picture of an after-life in the present not given to us anywhere else, or it is a vivid picture which is intended to present a truth but whose details must not be pressed.
In view of the fact that it draws heavily on Jewish imagery the latter would seem the most likely solution. Abraham’s bosom was a favourite picture of future blessing in the after-life, and the conscious torment in eternal flames, never spoken of in Scripture, was a Jewish concept of what awaited faithless Jews, and Gentiles. What Jesus is really saying in vivid terms that his listeners would recognise, is that men have their chance now. If they will not listen to Him and believe Him when He preaches here on earth, no miracle or sign will be sufficient to convince them otherwise. If they will not believe His words then they are fixing their own destinies. Jesus never had any confidence in those who required signs and wonders in order to believe. (In order to bring conversation into the parable it was necessary to depict the parties as alive).
In Matthew 27.52-53 we are told that “after His resurrection the graves were opened, and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves, and went into the holy city and appeared to many”. This would suggest that a preliminary resurrection takes place at this time of the righteous dead (it could be that the dead are thought of as going back to their graves, but it seems unlikely). If this be true there are, in a sense, two resurrections.
John does not give us any information about the above passages. He writes long after the other writers when he is an old man in Ephesus. He wishes to make known what they have omitted, (possibly because, at least in part, it was only known to the few). In his day the Temple had been destroyed and the other Apostles had died. He is doubtful whether he himself will be alive when the Lord comes (John 21.23). He therefore takes up words of Jesus, which, like Luke 14.14, look specifically to the resurrection.
In John 5.28-29 the words of Jesus clearly have in mind Daniel 12.2-3 (compare Matthew 13.43), and it comes at the end of a passage where Jesus has spoken of receiving eternal life, and thus avoiding condemnation. He says, “Do not marvel at this. For the hour is coming in which all that are in the graves will hear his voice, and shall come forth, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of condemnation”. Compare John 3.36 where those who refuse to believe ‘the Son’ will endure the wrath of God. This confirms that the promises of receiving life throughout the Gospels have resurrection in mind. The concept of eternal life, which appears often in John, assumes the resurrection.
A first reading of John 5.28-29 does seem to imply that both resurrections will occur at the same time, but that is not necessarily required. Each might have its different hour.
In John 6.39-58 Jesus stresses the future hope. Of all that the Father has given to Him He will lose nothing, but will raise them up at the last day (v.39). Everyone who sees the Son and believes on Him will receive everlasting life and be raised up by Him at the last day (v.40). Those whom the Father draws will come to Him and He will raise them up at the last day (v.44). If any man eat of Jesus as the living bread he will live for ever (v.51) and will be raised up at the last day (v.54). It will be noted that there is a constant stress on ‘the last day’.
As in Daniel, in all these examples the future hope of the Christian lies at the last day. There is no mention of what happens on death. How the thought that ‘Abraham rejoiced to see Jesus’ day’ is to be interpreted (8.56) is open to question. It may simply refer to the promises that Abraham had from God which he revelled in. Alternatively, it may imply consciousness on the point of Abraham at the time of Jesus, as might also Jesus’ words to the Sadducees mentioned earlier (see on Matthew 22). But the question, like the taking of Elijah, is never explored.
In John 11.25, after Martha has confirmed her belief that her dead brother would arise at the last day (v.24), Jesus declares “I am the resurrection and the life”. This glorious fact has the result that those who believe in Him will never ‘die’, for even though they may die, they will live, because He is the resurrection and they will rise because they will share in the benefits of His resurrection.
In John 12.47-48 those who refuse to hear His words will be judged by those words at the last day. They will be raised to be condemned, but we are not told the nature of their condemnation.
In John 14.1-3 Jesus informs His disciples that they should not worry at the thought of His coming death. Although He must die, He is then going to prepare a place for them in His Father’s house, and He will come again and receive them to Himself, so that they may be with Him where He is. Because He lives, they will live as well (v.19). Whether this refers to His Second Coming or not may be debated. But it fits in with what has gone before to suggest that it does, for His coming will be ‘the last day’ as far as they are concerned, whether they are alive at the time or have to be raised for it.
When Jesus is brought before Pilate, He informs him, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then would My servants fight that I should not be delivered to the Jews” (John 18.36). This is not necessarily conclusive as it may simply be Jesus’ way of pointing out that He had not come to lead an insurrection. But if He had only meant that we might have expected a clearer explanation. Jesus seems to be saying that as far as His kingdom is concerned, this world has nothing to do with it, either now or in the future.
We can probably summarise the teaching of the Gospels as follows:
1) At the coming of Jesus there will be a division between the righteous and the unrighteous, the righteous going to enjoy the Father’s presence, the unrighteous being judged and suffering an ignominious fate. It must be questioned whether the latter will be conscious, or if they are for a time, how long the consciousness will last. The story of the rich man and Lazarus may only be a parable but it does suggest the experience of unpleasant consequences.
2) There will be a resurrection of the just and the unjust, the righteous and the unrighteous, when the righteous will receive their reward, and the unrighteous will suffer due penalty for their unwillingness to obey God. We are only told that this is at ‘the last day’, but many would see this as being at Jesus’ coming, especially as both have the same destiny as the living nations at that time.
3) There are hints that some enjoy life with God before the resurrection. It is only said of the righteous, and the idea is never expanded.
4) There is the probable suggestion that there is a preliminary resurrection at the time of Jesus’ resurrection
Excursus. The Coming Age.
When the prophets looked forward to the day when God would deliver His people they did so in terms of a coming age of peace and plenty (e.g. Isaiah 11.6-9). Men in those days thought in physical terms. As we have seen, the idea of an after-life was almost unknown, rarely being thought of except by the few. The future of Israel was firmly linked to this earth. Even the resurrection in Isaiah 26.19 gives the impression of rising in order to enjoy the future life of blessing on earth. Any other concept would have been so revolutionary as to be meaningless to the people.
The prophets wanted to offer hope and certainty of God’s future mercy, and they did it in vivid pictures in a way that could speak to the people at the time.
So many and vivid are the Old Testament pictures of this glorious future life on earth that some are unwilling to accept that they were just pictures of what would later be revealed as an after-life with God in Heaven, pictures of future happiness and joy, of peace, prosperity and plenty. They therefore argue that there must yet be such a kingdom on earth. However, a careful study of the different pictures makes it difficult to reconcile them, although they all contain the idea of peace and plenty, and benefit for nations other than the Jews.
Those who take this view seek to read it into the passages above, but if they are not careful they offer only a second best. And it is a second best that most of them do not want, for they either tend to exempt themselves from it, or make provision for the ‘best’ of them to avoid it (consider the Jehovah’s witnesses and their 144,000). God’s mercy does not offer second best. What is bought with the life-blood of God’s Son can only be the best. The truth is that the passages above give the strict impression that once the judgment is given it is final and forever. The future blessing is with the Father. Nothing less than that can be acceptable.
The idea of a ‘kingdom age’ is often presented as ‘another chance’ for the unbeliever. But any application of it can only result in inconsistency and a dilution of the Gospel. The ‘ideal’ conditions of a ‘kingdom age’ will not result in those who are made strong through being tried in the fire, but could only result in a false apathy and life of pretence - such is human nature! A kingdom age is not needed to demonstrate this. Our lives of ease in some Western countries are sufficient to demonstrate it. Jesus makes clear to His listeners that their chance is now. If they refuse it, He says, they must take the consequences they have brought on themselves.