Old Testament and Afterlife

There are a vast number of differing viewpoints; mine is just one more.

Please note, a huge portion of scholarship is hostile. That is, the scholar goes into the question assuming the worst and isn’t surprised to find evidence supporting their view. You won’t catch me playing games with that. I come to the same vast collection of evidence with a bias, too, but mine is conscious.

My bias rests on my spiritual experience; I am convinced I’ve met God Himself, that His Spirit lives in me. A part of my bias is utterly certain my intellectual organization of that belief is mine alone, and could be of only limited interest to others. When this world is done and we face God in His own higher reality, all our silly mental organizations will wash away like dust in the rain of His ineffable truth. What we gather here in our minds cannot be called “Truth” because this entire universe is temporary and false. This approach to understanding things comes from outside my intellect; my brain had to absorb and adjust it’s calculus of things to accommodate this.

My understanding of the Old Testament includes a recognition of my personal fallibility. It also assumes I don’t need to know the “absolute truth” of things because it simply doesn’t matter that much. I need only a working understanding, a way to organize my operations on this plane so that I can maintain a sense of peace with God in my spirit. I participate in scholarly discussion and try to play by their rules, but I don’t take things all that seriously. I’m not expecting to know all the details, because no one does. The experts know only what they have encountered and what they can make of it. As I work out how to approach my project (ACBM), the critical element for me is accountability to the reader for faithful execution of God’s calling on my life, not some pretense of grand expertise. I’m trying to offer enough substance to feed your spiritual search for your own answers so you can organize your mind to obey whatever the Spirit of God demands of you.

Some people don’t have that spiritual fire. Some imagine they do when they don’t. I can’t judge, but I cannot avoid an awareness of the difference it makes. Just so, not every figure in the Old Testament had a spiritual awareness. It’s a factor in what they said, and a factor we must consider when we evaluate the evidence to discern what folks might or might not have believed. To imagine there was a single orthodox theology is simply stupid, a form of intellectual dishonesty. Thus, we discern at least two threads of thinking in the Old Testament narrative; one was spiritual and one was pretty worldly. Complicating it more would be folks like Solomon, clearly aware on a spiritual level, yet unable to stay faithful as his life declined into increasing disobedience to God. What a man can know and what he can do are not the same.

On top of this, we run into a broad refusal of folks to understand the huge difference between how the West and East approach things, right down to the very meaning of language as a means of communication. Does it not seem funny how we realize modern people use figures of speech from mythology, but don’t allow biblical figures the same latitude? We often speak today of the world as flat, when almost no one actually believes that. Just so, a common mythology of expression pervaded the language of the Old Testament, especially in the word sheol. Some of the common folks literally believed that mythology; certain central figures clearly did not believe it. Such is the way of any real society anywhere and anytime in human history.

Finally, we have rather blunt statements in the New Testament that the revelation of God before Christ came in bits and pieces. It was not all truth all at once in some primordial event back near the Garden of Eden. It was as much as God felt mankind needed to know at the time. It was growing corpus of understanding that waxed and waned. If you are paying any attention at all, you realize God called Abraham out of Mesopotamia at a time when that revelation was very sorely occluded by a vast cloud of mythology. It was time to clear things up, and Abraham went to school. The eventual result was the calling of an entire nation as an incubator for revelation. The name “Israel” is more about a mission than about a people.

All of that so I can say this: Those in the Old Testament who were spiritually aware did, indeed, understand there was an afterlife. Their choice of words and figures of speech indicate they knew death was divided between those in the presence of God and those who were somewhere else. It’s not as if Christ burst on the scene with a totally new theology about death and Hell and Heaven. At the same time, only a fool would deny He used figures of speech that the Hebrew people learned from other cultures. In the Gospels, “paradise” in the mouth of Jesus was a word clearly borrowed from Persian. He borrowed it because the common Aramaic of His people didn’t offer a better word for what He was indicating. The truth was not new, nor was the idea itself.

The ancient Hebrew people were spooked by the idea of handling sacred things with negligence. The same goes with names for sacred things; it extends to things they might say about sacred things. There was precious little idle talk about the Spirit Realm because it was considered dangerous to blaspheme God. So we don’t find much discussion of what they might have believed about things above the Realm of the Flesh until much later. Even Jesus was careful to use parables because He bluntly said only a living spirit could handle that kind of truth in the first place. The truth was above human speech because it was above human intellect. The point in bothering to teach was to train the mind to serve the spirit, to subject the intellect to that higher realm as a faithful servant, not as the executive.

Jesus did not bring foreign ideas into Hebrew theology; He brought foreign language for ideas already there. The ideas may not have been fully formed in previous times, but the truth was always inherent in so much of revelation as God permitted. Men and women whose spirits were awakened to life would have recognized what Jesus said as true, even if He had gone backward in time to say it to them. He would have chosen different figures of speech, naturally, but the message itself would remain unchanged. He was God in the flesh; His message would have been consistent with everything coming before. The only inconsistency is in humans who try to process revelation into obedience.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. 😉

About Ed Hurst

Disabled Veteran, prophet of God's Laws, Bible History teacher, wannabe writer, volunteer computer technician, cyclist, Social Science researcher
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3 Responses to Old Testament and Afterlife

  1. Michael says:

    Not trying to bust your balls here, Ed.. really. (In fact I really like where your next post is headed!) But,

    “All of that so I can say this: Those in the Old Testament who were spiritually aware did, indeed, understand there was an afterlife. Their choice of words and figures of speech indicate they knew death was divided between those in the presence of God and those who were somewhere else. It’s not as if Christ burst on the scene with a totally new theology about death and Hell and Heaven. ”

    is an issue. Once again, I’ll ask for chapter and verse as back-up for this assertion.
    Specifically: “they knew death was divided between those in the presence of God and those who were somewhere else”. Really? Where do we find that truth taught in the OT? Or anywhere else? Chapter? Verse? Is this a personal theology or a scriptural truth? I think it’s important to specify which.

    Anyway, when Christ “burst on the scene” he gave no “totally new” theology.. He CLARIFIED the Old!

    The pertinent question is what he meant by “heaven” (actually the “kingdom of heaven”–“heaven”, alone in NT scripture, implies the contraction–an important difference), and what was translated as “hell” in the English bibles. But, we must be careful; tradition will no doubt be 99% of your answer. Jesus had not much good to say about “traditions of men”. True?

    For anyone that’s truly interested, the word “heaven” in the NT is one Greek word (Strong’s 3772, ‘ouranos’). A curious word, connotative of “elevation”, “sky”, something above our experience and senses. “Hell” on the other hand… let the reader study. 😉 IN fact, what most ‘Western christians’ have been taught about ‘heaven and hell’ has been quite “Western”…steeped in the stinking, low-hanging fruit of Baptistic preachers; false prophets of Babylon. Something tells me you’ve partook of this hideous ferment, Ed, and have not yet purged it.


  2. Ed Hurst says:

    I doubt you’ll take the time to read this, Michael, so I write it for those who would. It will help them answer others like you. Do you honestly imagine I am not familiar with Greek and Hebrew terms used in Scripture, and what scholars suggest they mean? No, I suppose you write comments about them for others to read, so I’m playing the same game, except I actually read your stuff and try to come up with answers.

    Demanding chapter and verse is not a biblical approach in the first place. Those markings arose much later from Western scholars. Your intellectual approach is still too much like the Pharisees, who were not Hebrew but Hellenized. Judaism is not at all the religion of Moses, except in the most superficial way. Much of what Jesus had to say to His opponents was a call back to the Hebrew Mysticism of old.

    At least we agree Jesus taught nothing that was not already available from the Old Testament. However, the Old Testament included a wealth of material not written in the narrative, as anyone reading the New Testament can see. Try the book of Hebrews, which includes references not written anywhere, but considered part of the body of Old Covenant truth. We no longer have that body of narrative, and we certainly cannot trust any Jewish scholars now. We’ll have to trust the New Testament references to it and consider it part of the Old Testament. Yet, I will contain my remarks to the Protestant Canon.

    Alert readers will notice at no time have I ever suggested we could have any direct knowledge of the Spirit Realm in the sense of facts. If it is not in this universe, there are no facts, only parable. You cannot describe spiritual reality, only indicate it with human language. The logic behind revelation is symbolic logic. Even saying that is parabolic, but most scholars involved in Antiquities will recognize what it means. They know context is everything, and that a symbol morphs with changing verbal contexts, yet continues to reflect something substantive beyond human intelligence.

    Symbols and parables are not at all like allegories. There is no one-to-one relation to something concrete. Symbols are indicators of something above human intelligence. They remain self-consistent, but in a context above the human plane. That’s reflected in statements like, “Let God be found true and all the world a lie.” The standard of truth is outside the human realm.

    So any statements about heaven and hell are necessarily symbolic in all cases. As noted in previous posts as well as above, even the scribes of Hebrew text didn’t shrink from popular pagan imagery we call “mythology” as a means of getting across something indicative of how God operates. Jesus referred to the Valley of Hinnom, where garbage was burned, as something indicative of what it was like to be separated from God.

    He also referred to His Father’s courts in terms of Kingdom of the Sky. His Ascension was a literal departure into the sky, not so radically different from that of Elijah. At no time would I attempt to explain what was on the other side of that moment for the people involved. Scripture doesn’t explain it either, defaulting to mythological imagery because you can’t really talk about it.

    The Parable of Lazarus is indicative, loaded with symbolism not unfamiliar to the Judean folks of Jesus’ day. It’s consistent with Old Testament revelation because we agree that we dare not question whether Jesus taught from the same ancient body of truth, that truth His nation’s leaders had perverted and twisted into some rationalistic excuse for abusing the people and calling it “the will of God.” Beyond death, righteous folks like Lazarus are comforted from the sorrows of human existence, while others are afflicted over their sins. That much we can take away from the parable without doing violence to it.

    And what are we to make of Paul’s reference to a Third Heaven? Well, we do have some idea because it shows up in the Talmud as a very old concept. We can’t much trust what they say about it in the Talmud, but the reference is clearly not a big secret among Paul’s people. All we need to really know about it is how Paul uses it in the context. Do you suppose Enoch went there? And how about the time Jesus said His opponents were mistaken about whether the Patriarchs were still alive in some sense? “He is the God of the living…” Mose and Elijah talking with Jesus on the mount — did we forget that? It took place under the Old Covenant.

    I have no trouble noticing the symbolism of the dead also “going down into the earth” — i.e., Sheol. The narrative speaks of Samuel’s spirit appearing to Saul at Endor and coming up out of the ground. Is there a conflict between that and Elijah going into the sky? Only if you demand a literalistic reading, a thought pattern alien to Scripture. Neither image has anything to do with facts about the afterlife because there can be no such facts. Both are symbols the people of that day understood in the context. Try the poetic language of Psalms for lyrical discussions of going to be in the Presence of God, of dropping into Sheol or being saved from its power (Psalm 49:15 for those who can’t recall it), of being remembered and being forgotten, all from the same authors. Christ’s reference to the Bosom of Abraham versus “in torments” is symbolic of separation between good guys and bad guys in death under the Old Covenant.

    Was death before the Resurrection a different thing from death after Christ’s gospel? Yes it was, but there is little we can say about it in human language without resorting to parabolic symbolism. I’ve always said speculative theology is not important. It’s not wrong unless you intend to make it normative for others. For your own use, it simply reflects a means to organizing your thoughts so you can figure out how to obey God.

    The whole purpose of the Bible is not building a correct mental structure, thought doing so is necessary. The whole purpose of the Bible is to communicate the imperatives of God for people after the Fall. The Bible declares up front that we are fallen and goes on to offer a narrative that indicates something how God revealed Himself, explained how to return to whatever Eden symbolized. I think everyone understands part of the meaning of the Flaming Sword is the revelation of God to fallen men.

    I offered no more answer about the afterlife in my post than was found in Scripture. Using a modern mythology, whether Baptist or any other background, does no violence to Scripture so long as I state bluntly, as I often do, that such language is indeed mythology and not meant literally.


  3. Pingback: What the Hell? | Kiln of the Soul

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