The axiom of Genesis 3:19, “for dust you are and to dust you shall return,” and similar statements in the Hebrew Bible
a human is in no way better off than an animal. Everything goes to the same place: everything comes from the dust, and everything returns to the dust (Eccl 3:20)
a human being, he dies and dead he remains (Job 14:10)
a human being, once laid to rest will never rise again (Job 14:12)
is predicated on the ontological and empirical evidence that all men die, that Death, if we wish to personify it, comes to all, and that there is no returning from the grave, or Sheol as it is commonly referred to in the Bible. Nothing in the Hebrew Bible, in other words, prepares us for the New Testament’s declarations that, according to Paul, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross has defeated Death itself, that Death no longer exists or, in light of Paul’s historical context, is currently becoming extinct (Rom 6:21-22, 8:2; 1 Cor 15:26). Likewise, apart from a very brief one-liner in Daniel 12:2, a late text, there is nothing in the Hebrew Bible that paves the way for belief in resurrection—that is, in a post-mortem reanimated corporal rising from the grave and eternal existence on earth.
Like many of the contradictions contained within the Bible’s 66 different books, whose dates of composition span an entire millennium!, this one is the result of a long editorial process that brought together two vastly different texts, and whose dates of composition were centuries apart (read about Contradictions in the Bible). More so, it is the result of two vastly different religious ideas and belief systems. It would be preposterous to think that there were no religious changes and developments between texts written in the 7th century BC and those written in the 1st century AD, and under drastically different political and religious convictions. Just because the Bible preserves texts written in the 7th century BC and texts written in the 1st century AD does not mean that this so-called “Book” is representative of a continuos religious tradition safeguarded over, as many presume, a divine rational plan. This in itself is a later interpretive framework that was imposed upon these texts by readers and scribes, who much like modern readers, lived centuries after these texts were written and knew next to nothing about the historical circumstances that produced these texts, their authors, and their audiences. It is our task, here and now, to understand this, to lend an ear to these individual texts and their authors. (Read more about What the Bible is).
What follows is a chronological overview of the religious ideas of death and punishment, and their transformation into later ideas and beliefs about an afterlife and resurrection as it can be surveyed in the literature of the Bible itself.
Death for all and for good!: Death and Dying in the Hebrew Bible
Heaven is the abode of Yahweh. Sheol is were the life-spirit (nephesh) goes after death, for both the just and the unjust. There are no exceptions, well other than the mythic Enoch and Elijah. The idea and belief in resurrection would have been unheard of, even unimaginable, to the authors of the Pentateuch (the Yahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist, and Priestly writer). In fact such an idea would have been unheard of, even blasphemous, to all the authors of the Hebrew Bible except the author of Daniel, the last text to be written. That is to say, not until the 2nd century BC does the idea of and belief in resurrection emerge in the biblical corpus! And as we shall see it emerges as a direct result of a very specific historical crisis. But let us back up a moment.
“I put before you life and death”: The theology of reward and punishment in the Old Testament
We must approach the topic of death and how it morphed into the creation of the idea of resurrection through a discussion of theodicy or divine justice (why there is evil) as it was conceived and portrayed by our various biblical authors. Because ideas and beliefs about divine justice and punishment changed—and the biblical record attests these changes—so too ideas and beliefs about dying and/or being resurrected (i.e., being vindicated).
In the earliest texts of the Hebrew Bible, those written before the 5th century BC, the problem of theodicy is answered in terms that would offend any sensible man or woman of today. It is a theology structured on empirical evidence!
If you or your nation are suffering evils or have been struck down, then it is because you have sinned against Yahweh and his Torah; if you or your nation are healthy and prosperous, then it is because you have keep Yahweh’s laws and statues and Yahweh has blessed you. This is what might be referred to as the Deuteronomic theology, since it is most visible in the Deuteronomic literature and throughout the Prophetic corpus. The quote above, “I [Yahweh is speaking] put before you life and death” (Deut 30:15) sums up this theology of reward and punishment. The reward for obedience is life and prospering on the land; the punishment for disobedience and apostasy is suffering, exile, illness, etc., and death. In other words, how do you know if someone is just or unjust in this theological system? Easy. Just look and see whether he or she is healthy and prosperous or suffering and misfortunate.
It is a retrojective theology. That is, it is dictated by the empirical evidences at hand, and the biblical writers used this to create powerful historicizied theological narratives as we will see in the next section. Certainly, later Biblical authors will questions, and disagree, with this theological interpretive grid, particularly the authors of Ecclesiastes and Job, but let us get there in due fashion.
God is sovereign! How Faith informs history writing for the just and unjust alike
This retrojective theology actually rested on another theological premise which was for our biblical writers an unshakeable given, namely that God is just. Too much lip service is given to this idea in modernity, without much understanding about what this meant in terms of the biblical writers. Even those that toot such axioms today are a far cry from what this theological premise meant for the biblical writers.
To assert that God is just is to expose our human tendency and desire to see and claim that the world operates according to principles of justice, that there is a divine, cosmic system of justice that permeates through the world, even if man cannot see it at times. This idea will become increasingly more important as we move from a religious system that assigns death as the ultimate punishment for transgressions to one that assigns a post-mortem existence in hell as the ultimate punishment. But to give up this premise is to assert that the world did not operate on just grounds. That our biblical authors could not do. So all problems pertaining to the question of why there is evil in the world had to be answered without altering this theological “given.”
This theological premise co-existed with another which was just as important, namely that Yahweh is sovereign. What that means to our biblical writers is that all events whether national or individual were Yahweh’s doing. Now that’s a hard pill to swallow. No devil had yet been created (another religious idea that emerges after the texts of the Hebrew Bible were written). Yahweh was sovereign, period. Here are some expressions of what this sovereignty meant to the biblical writers.
Should evil befall a city and Yahweh has not done it? (Amos 3:6)
I am Yahweh and there is none other; I fashion light and create darkness; I make peace and create evil. I am Yahweh who does all these things! (Isa 45:6-7)
Who makes a person dumb or deaf, gives sight or makes blind? Is it not I, Yahweh! (Ex 4;11)
Of course this meant that while evil comes from God, God is not the cause of one’s evils or suffering, the individual or nation is. Yahweh is just is the theological premise. The choice between life and death was theirs to make. In other words, these theological “givens” work in tandem. The two together create a powerful theological interpretive framework through which the world was seen, and history was recorded by our biblical scribes.
Thus, in the conceptual and theological framework of judgement, death was seen as the ultimate punishment for disobedience and apostasy. And Yahweh was the death dealer. This is perhaps nowhere more accentuated than in the Deuteronomic and Prophetic literature (e.g., Deut 13; 28-30; Is 28; Jer 20-2; Ezek 18; 33). Much of the Old Testament legislation also ordained death as the punishment for a number of sins and issues of impurity. In fact the over-reaching theology of the Old Testament is that disobedience and apostasy lead to death, while obedience and righteousness lead to life. The goal of existence was living a good life, not an afterlife reward, but for the rewards and comfort of this life. Remember, no such idea was even imaginable to our biblical writers.
Thus, under the Old Testament’s theological framework, an individual or nation that was blessed, was seen as being blessed not only on account of Yahweh, the bestower of those blessings, but more so on account of the individual’s or nation’s own obedience and righteousness. In other words, according to this Deuteronomic theology, the empirical reality of a good life was proof enough of the individual’s or nation’s obedience to Yahweh. For the author of Deuteronomy stipulated this to be so (Deut 28-30). Conversely, the opposite also holds true under this theological interpretive framework: namely if the empirical reality revealed suffering, destruction, exile, loss, and death, the evidence irrefutably pointed toward the individual’s or nation’s disobedience to Yahweh’s Torah. This too was written in the covenant theology of the Deuteronomic law code.
Nowhere is this theology more powerfully presented than in the prophetic literature. Israel’s destruction, loss of land, and death and exile of its people in 722 BC, and Judah’s destruction, loss of land, and death and exile of its people in 587 BC were reasoned to be the result of their disobedience to Yahweh and his Torah. Whether this was an historically valid reason or not for the fall of Israel in 722 and Jerusalem in 587 was not the point. The actual facts of history are never the point in ancient historiography; rather, the interpretive theological understanding was. Faith informed history.
Furthermore, Deuteronomic theology and that of the prophets as well would have seen those that forged this attack on Israel in 722 BC and Judah in 587 BC as servants of Yahweh, an instrument of his divine biding. Yahweh, and Yahweh alone was sovereign. This is what that means. Even the books of Daniel and Revelation, which create an interesting twist to this theology nonetheless see their unjust sufferings as a product of divine providence. To deny this theology for the biblical authors was to question the sovereignty of God!
As a side note, I should mention that this theological interpretation of history through the premise that one’s national deity was sovereign over all the events of history was shared by all ancient Near Eastern cultures. For the Babylonians, for example, Marduk was sovereign; he controlled all the events of history. In this light it’s interesting to compare Ezra 1 where it is claimed that Yahweh was the cause of the demise of the Babylonian empire and for allowing the Judean exiles to return (Yahweh is sovereign) and the Babylonian cylinder seal where it is claimed that Marduk caused the demise of the Babylonian empire because the people disobeyed his laws and commandments AND allowed the exiles to return! It’s the same theology. Aunt Martha isn’t the only one who can bake an apple pie!
Job questions the Deuteronomic theology of reward for the just and punishment for the unjust
Nevertheless this Deuteronomic theology—if an individual or nation is healthy and prosperous it is on account of their loyalty to Yahweh and his Torah, and conversely if an individual or nation is suffering evils, even exiled, it is on account of having transgressed Yahweh’s Torah—comes into question in later periods. It is not difficult to see why. What if an individual or a nation were truly pious and righteous according to the terms of the Torah but were suffering evils anyway—that is suffering unjustly! What then? Remember up to this point the idea of suffering unjustly did not exist. The theology which stipulated that Yahweh is just and Yahweh is sovereign insisted that if the empirical evidence indicated that you were suffering evil, destruction, oppression by your enemies, etc., then it was as clear as day that you have transgressed against Yahweh and his Torah.
The book of Job, written in the 3rd century BC, however, brings this theology into question. And rightly so. Yet even the author of Job is not going to give up the theological “givens” that Yahweh is just and Yahweh is sovereign. The conundrum was whether that theology rested on empirical evidence or not.
In fact, Job’s friends represent the old school theological reckoning which claims that since Job is suffering, since they can see it, he must have sinned; the empirical experience dictates the theology. Job insists, however, that he has not sinned. The reader also knows this to be the case. The book of Job, however, does not provide, nor attempt to provide, an answer to the question of Job’s suffering. It simple asserts that it is beyond human understanding. In other words, although we start to see the emergence of a culture that now questions the older Deuteronomic theology that basically says if you are suffering misfortunes it is because you have offend Yahweh, but it has failed to provide an answer. The first step is to question the old long-standing interpretive tradition, even if no answer is as of yet foreseeable.
Qoheleth concludes all is vain, the just and unjust suffer the same fate: Death comes to all
The picture becomes more dismal when we come to the book of Ecclesiastes, another late 3rd century BC text. Contrary to the aporia that the text of Job ends in, the author of Ecclesiastes does have an answer: the just and the unjust both suffer the same fate! Death. All is vain! What profit is there to man’s labors when all receive the same fate?
In the end, however, like the author of Job, Qoheleth concludes that he has no answer, and that it is nevertheless best to follow Yahweh’s Torah, even if the sun shines on both the just and unjust.
We start to see that the issue of theodicy (why is there suffering/evil) has intensified and that the Deuteronomic answer no longer satisfies. Finally we arrive at the book of Daniel, which is an even later book of the Hebrew canon that also questions this theological belief—well sort of—and postulates a catchy solution.
Daniel speculates the just will rise from the grave and be rewarded: A reply to unjust sufferings
Like many of the texts of the Bible, Daniel is written to address a very specific historical situation and thus attempts to offer a theological rationale for its occurrence and for its hoped for end. The specific historical circumstance that text of Daniel is responding to is persecution. Daniel is written during the persecution of the Jewish nation under the foreign monarch Antiochus Epiphanes IV, who came to power in 167 BC. The emergence and creation of the belief in resurrection, of a post-mortem eternal reanimated corporal existence on a just earth—we are still a long distance from the idea of heaven—can be pin pointed to a specific historical event. In other words, both the textual and historical evidence clearly indicate why and how belief in a post-mortem existence was born. There is both good literary and historical grounds for seeing the belief in resurrection emerging, that is being created, as a direct response to a very specific situation: persecution.
In fact, Antiochus forbade the practicing of Judaism, burnt all Torahs, killed mothers who circumcised their sons, and forced Jews to forsake the Torah and profane themselves by eating unclean foods, and basically outlawed Judaism and slaughtered those who still followed its tenets and rituals. In the end, he even set a statue of Zeus in the guise of himself in Yahweh’s Temple, Daniel’s “abomination of desolation.”
If, according to the older theological construct of the Deuteronomic theology, an individual’s or nation’s suffering and unjust treatment is due to former transgressions and sin, and thus the suffering is seen as divine punishment and retribution—often referred to as God’s wrath—then Daniel does not really question this difficult to swallow theological construct, even in the face of witnessing his Jewish brethren being persecuted and martyred! However, the author of Daniel did create and amend to this belief another, that of vindication in an eternal life. Let’s pause for a moment and think about this.
Under the old theological system, the goal was to obey Yahweh’s torah in order to live a prosperous and good life. There is no post-mortem existence here; a good life, which largely equated to keeping the land, was the goal. Additionally, under this older theological system heaven was seen as the abode of God, period. Sheol is where one goes upon one’s death, whether one has lived an evil existence or a good one. Thus why Qoheleth lamented that all was in vain.
The reader may be confused at this moment, so drawn in and persuaded by later Christian ideas of reward and punishment in a post-mortem existence. Yet we are in the midst of explaining how this system of ideas and beliefs were created, yes created. In the Old Testament there is no hell. In other words, to address this from the perspective of reward and punishment, which the theology of the Deuteronomic history certainly deals with, Old Testament theology does not conceive of this reward and punishment in terms of a post-mortem reward or punishment. No such thing existed. When one dies, sleeps, or goes down to Sheol, that’s it. “A man once laid in the grave, will never rise again” (Job 14:12). According to this theological system, reward was living!, living a blessed life per the covenantal stipulations of the Deuteronomic writers. Conversely, punishment was living a sufferable existence, like for example, in exile, having your lands destroyed by the Babylonians, having your family cannibally consumed, or having all the plagues of Egypt come upon your nation (Deut 28). Again, under this theological system, these horrid sufferings and experiences were empirical proof of one’s sin or apostasy and thus called for divine retribution.
One now sees why and how the author of Job questioned such a construct. Does reality really work this way? The author of Daniel, although agreeing in part with this theology, amends it as well. What if an individual or nation were truly righteous and piously followed Yahweh’s Torah, but were experiencing horrid sufferings or even persecution anyway? The author of Daniel responds, in accord with the reigning older theological paradigm: that individual or nation is paying for their forefathers’ punishments. Well if the reward for being loyal to Yahweh’s Torah was living itself, and presumably living a blessed life, then what about those who were actually loyal and obedient to the Torah but lived horrible lives under severe persecution and suffering as many did when the book of Daniel was being written? This is Job’s question that goes unanswered.
If the empirical data of the existence of a truly righteous and pious individual is that of unjust suffering and persecution, and even if this is because that individual or nation is still paying for the sins and transgressions of its predecessors, nonetheless, the author of Daniel affirms, there is a reward, and furthermore that reward for being loyal to Yahweh and his Torah is still living, but since living is now a matter of suffering and persecution it is no longer conceived of in terms of living this existence—how could it be when there is nothing but persecution and suffering—but living in a post-mortem existence.
For Daniel, the just, defined as Torah obedient Jews, even though living a sufferable existence under the severe persecution of Antiochus, nevertheless are vindicated for their loyalty to Yahweh through a post-mortem existence. They are rewarded even though the empirical reality of their current suffering and persecution would indicate otherwise. For they are rewarded in an eternal life, which was envisioned to commence at some imminent point in history. For the author of Daniel, it was envisioned to commence after the three and a half years wherein Antiochus persecuted the Jews and placed a statue of himself in the guise of Zeus in Yahweh’s temple, in other words in the year 163 BC!
The text of Daniel 12:2 claims that “of those who are sleeping in the dust will awaken, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting disgrace.” The resurrection, literally the raising of the body and its life-force from the grave, is seen as a solution to the irresolution created by the Deuteronomic theology. According to the authors of Daniel, those who have suffered persecution and martyred themselves and were indeed loyal to the Torah—a theme that rings throughout the book—will be raised from the grave to everlasting life. This is a reanimated body living in what is conceptualized in the literature as the kingdom of God. Most significantly this is an earthly kingdom that our author sees as imminently coming upon the demise of the last foreign kingdoms, specifically that of Antiochus’ evil rule. This post-mortem reanimated life is therefore perceived as the due vindication for the righteous and loyal who have died from Antiochus’ persecution. It is a martyr’s vindication—uniquely for those who have given their lives to remain loyal to the Torah of Yahweh. This is more explicitly portrayed in the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees which were written also in the context of Antiochus’ persecutions and provides us with a good amount of historical information about these persecutions. 2 Macc 7:1-11 brings home quite vividly this belief in resurrection for those who martyred themselves.
It happened also that 7 brothers and their mother were arrested and were being compelled by the king, under torture with whips and throngs, to partake of unlawful swine’s flesh. One of them, acting as their spokesperson, said “What do you intend to ask and learn from us? For we are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors.” The king fell into a rage and gave orders to have pans and caldrons heated. These were heated immediately and he commanded that the tongue of their spokesperson be cut out and that they scalp him and cut off his hands and feet, while the rest of the brothers and mother looked on.
And the second brother, when he was at his last breath said, “You accursed wretch, you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting resurrection of life because we have died for his laws.”
And after him, the third was the victim of their sport. When it was demanded, he quickly put out his tongue and courageously stretched forth his hands and said nobly, “I got these from heaven and because of his laws I disdain them, and from him I hope to get them back again”
Bodily resurrection from the grave, and if necessary the recreation of lost limbs as seen in the above example, to an eternal corporal reanimated life was the theological solution for the righteous Torah-obedient Jew who suffered and was martyred for his god’s sake—a true vindication. More than describing the ontological constitution of reality, the tales of vindicated martyrs served a literary and historical purpose: to consol and praise those who died, and were dying for Yahweh and his Torah. Approximately 200 hundred years later, the same ideas and beliefs were to reappear in the book of Revelation, where also those who martyred themselves—and only the martyrs the text affirms—were to be vindicated in a reanimated post-mortem eternal or millennial life on earth.
Resurrection, Judgement, and the Just and Righteous in Jewish Intertestamental Literature
We do not have the time to review this large corpus of literature, but starting in the 2nd century BC, the notion that the just sufferer will be given his reward in a post-mortem resurrected existence spread like wildfire. It answered the question of theodicy while nevertheless kept intact the theological “givens” that Yahweh is just and sovereign. The book of Enoch, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and other texts expressed this same idea. Thus the belief in resurrection was something that Paul inherited from his Judaism; it was not born from his belief in Christ. Something else was however.
Paul proclaims the Resurrection has begun: Death is Dead!
Paul, who is the first author of what will become Christian literature, believes in the resurrection and most likely he was informed about such beliefs from these Jewish traditions that already existed in the Judaism of the 1st century AD. However, on account of his Christ-experience Paul also believed that the Resurrection, capital R, of the dead had begun! In other words, if Jewish tradition affirmed that on the day of Judgement, the God of the cosmos was going to raise up the bodies in the grave in order to pass judgement on them and assign everlasting life on earth to the righteous ones, then for Paul that moment had already commenced. This belief was predicated on the empirical fact, for Paul, that Jesus rose from the dead. In other words, and harmonious with the Jewish tradition Paul adopted, Paul deemed that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead was the sign that the Resurrection of all the dead had begun (1 Cor 15). In fact, Paul also seems to have firmly believed that he himself and other believers in Christ would not die! (1 Thess 4). That’s how much Paul was caught up in the belief that the day of Judgement and the Resurrection had already begun. Some of the righteous living during this event would not even die; their bodies will just be transformed and they will join those who are being raised from the grave, and apparently they will all sit down to a meal of French toast and Earl Gray (that last part is not in the Bible; it’s been a long night typing this up). This is exactly why Paul can also proclaim that Death is dead; it exists no more; that sin too is dead, that Torah obedience is gone, that we are all dead in fact—because what was happening was the beginning of a post-mortem existence awakening. Paul was witnessing this … or so he believed.
“There are some standing here who will not taste death!”
Paul’s belief that he was living in the midst of the Judgement and Resurrection, and that therefore he himself and others of the righteous would not die, was passed on to some of the writings of the early church. The quotation above (Mk 9:1; Matt 16:28; Lk 9:27) expresses this belief. Although placed on the lips of Jesus in these gospels, it most likely was the very words and beliefs of the authors who, much like Paul, believed that they were living in the midst of the Judgement, the second coming, and the Resurrection, so much so that some were thought not even to die!