Books on heaven enjoy considerable popularity. The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven tells the story of a six-year-old boy who believes he went to heaven and talked to Jesus following a car crash. Heaven is For Real tells the story of a boy who claims to have visited heaven during emergency surgery, where he visited with deceased relatives. To Heaven and Back is written by an orthopedic surgeon who claims to have drowned during a kayaking accident and reluctantly returned from eternal life to fulfill her mission on earth. In Proof of Heaven, a neurosurgeon describes a near-death experience when bacterial meningitis sent him into a coma.
People all over the world have always believed in an afterlife. The ancient Egyptians lived in a culture obsessed with it. Kings began constructing their pyramids and tombs almost from the moment they took the throne. Other peoples ancient and modern shared their concern for a life beyond the grave. Although some philosophers in Greece and the far East denied the existence of life after death, widespread disbelief in such is a relatively modern phenomenon.
Christians derive most of our beliefs concerning afterlife from the New Testament. The Old Testament is nearly silent on the issue. Despite the infrequent references to the afterlife in the Hebrew Bible, there are a few passages that help us to understand what the ancient Israelites believed about it.
Existence After Death in the Old Testament
The Hebrew writers mention the afterlife only rarely, and what they do mention seems gloomy and sometimes frightening. They describe the realm of the dead, or She'ol, as a dark and dreary pit. Israel's neighbors had a similar view. The ancient Mesopotamians viewed the netherworld as a dark and gloomy place of profound misery. Life was similar to what it had been on earth, only worse.
In poetic language, She'ol is described as deep (Job 11:8), dark (Job 10:21-22), and having bars (Job 17:16). It seems almost like a subterranean prison. It also appears to be a place where the dead are conscious. Speaking of the king of Babylon, the prophet Isaiah says that the monarch will be greeted by the inhabitants of She'ol when he arrives there (Isaiah 14:4-21). The prophet Ezekiel paints a similar portrait of the king of Assyria (Ezekiel 32:17-32). Unfortunately, neither prophet spends any significant time on the fate of the righteous in She'ol, only that of the wicked.
She'ol does not always appear to be a fitful place of fear and dread. In Psalm 139:8, David describes it s a place where God can be found. Another relevant text is 1 Samuel 28:12-20, where Saul has been forsaken by God, rejected twice, and no longer has a prophetic voice to advise him on his upcoming battle with the Philistines. He seeks out a female medium at En-dor to speak with the spirit of the prophet Samuel. When the spirit appears, he asks Saul, “Why have you disturbed me?” The Hebrew term, meaning to “incite” or “anger,” indicates that Samuel seems to have a conscious existence in the afterlife. The fact that Samuel is angered by being raised may indicate that he preferred to remain in She'ol. This would go against the common interpretation that the realm of the dead was a shadowy, tormented existence.
Two exceptions to the norm are Enoch and Elijah. Enoch “walked with God, and he was not, for God took him” (Genesis 5:24). This is a highly unusual situation, and the text does not give any specifics. One creative artist illustrated a Medieval edition of the Bible with a picture showing God's hand appearing from a cloud and taking a rather surprised Enoch up to heaven by the hair of his head. Elijah had an equally unusual passage to the afterlife, being carried away in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11).
Personal Identity After Death
When a person dies in the Old Testament, the biblical authors frequently refer to the person as having been gathered to his people (Genesis 25:8; 35:29) or to his fathers (2 Chronicles 34:28). This seems to be an expression for death, and usually does not refer to the ancestral burial plot or to an actual tomb. Abraham and Aaron were not buried in the same tombs as their fathers. Moses' burial site was known only to God. The picture painted by this phrase seems to communicate the idea that those who pass from this life will be reunited with family members who have already died.
The personal existence of the individual is implied in two passages involving grieving fathers. In Genesis 37:34-35 Jacob, who believes Joseph is dead, says, “I shall go down to She'ol to my son, mourning.” Similarly, in 2 Samuel 12 David's newborn son becomes sick and dies. When his attendants inform him of the child's passing, David bathes and eats, saying, “Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Samuel 12:23). It seems that both Jacob and David believed they would see their children again in the afterlife.
During his ministry, the prophet Elijah visits a poor widow and her son in Zarephath (1 Kings 17:8-24). The boy becomes ill and dies. When Elijah raises the widow's son from the dead after praying, “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I sojourn, by killing her son? … O Lord my God, let this child's life come into him again” (vv. 20-21). The child's soul (Hebrew nephesh) continued to exist and retain his identity after the boy had expired.
Jesus' parable of the rich man and Lazarus clearly indicates that the place of the afterlife contains both the righteous and unrighteous dead (Luke 16:19-31). It is unclear whether the belief in a division in She'ol was present in Old Testament times, since no passages make a clear reference to it. It is clear, however, that the righteous could expect to be redeemed from this place (Psalm 49:15).
Death is Not Permanent
Death in the Old Testament is sometimes described as falling asleep (Psalm 13:3; Daniel 12:2). Similarly, resurrection is described as awakening (2 Kings 4:31; Job 14:12; Daniel 12:2). This imagery is continued in the New Testament, such as in the case of Jairus' daughter (Mark 5:21-24, 35-43; cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:14). The young girl dies before Jesus arrives to heal her, prompting her father to dismiss Jesus. Nevertheless, Jesus continues to the home, where he announces to those present that the girl has not died but is merely sleeping. With their incredulous laughter still echoing outside the house, Jesus raises the girl from the dead.
Two of the clearest passages referring to the raising of the dead are found in Ezekiel 37 and Daniel 12. Ezekiel sees a vision in a valley of dry bones in which a great army is brought back from the dead. This indicates that Ezekiel and his audience were familiar with the idea of resurrection. Daniel is clearer still: “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2). The passage almost sounds as if it belongs on the lips of Jesus or one of the New Testament writers.
Although the Old Testament reveals very little about the afterlife, the New Testament authors continue the thinking of the Hebrew writers before them. Thanks to the additional revelation provided by the inspired writers of Scripture, we can have a wonderful hope of things to come which believers before the time of Christ did not yet understand.