Afterlife and Hope in the Old Testament

The God of HopeAny discussion of Christian hope must look carefully at Scripture, both the Old Testament and the New Testament. The next section of John Polkinghorne’s book The God of Hope and the End of the World turns to Scripture beginning with the Old Testament and the views of life, death, hope, and the hereafter expressed in the Old Testament. Polkinghorne’s sketch is similar to Iain Provan’s as described last week (Old Testament Hope: For New Jerusalem – Not For Eden), but emphasizes different elements.

Belief in an afterlife was common in the ancient Near East, especially in Egypt. Israel was in close proximity to Egypt, brought out of Egypt as we read in the book of Exodus, yet the Egyptian obsession with the afterlife was not reflected in Israelite thinking. As Polkinghorne notes: “the people of Israel centred their hopes on justice, prosperity, and honored old age, attained in the course of the life of this world. Hope for the future lay in the continuance of the nation and the family.” (p. 54) There appears to be a belief in an existence after death in the law, the histories, and the wisdom literature, but this is shadowy and not particularly hopeful. There are hints of something better, but these are only hints (Psalm 139 and Job 3 are examples). But the afterlife is not a foundations of hope for the people of Israel.

In general Israel viewed God as working within history and their hope rested in the faithfulness of God to preserve and to prosper his people. “This confidence did not arise from some facile optimism, but it was forged in the fire of disaster and disappointment.” (p. 58) In the pages of the Old Testament over the course of a thousand years there are cycles of deliverance and disaster, from the deliverance of Israel out of slavery in Egypt to defeat at the hands of the Babylonians and the destruction of the temple. Through it all there is hope in the covenant faithfulness and mercy of God. He will not forsake his people.

The defeat at the hands of Babylon, the exile and then the return to Jerusalem prompted deeper thinking about God’s plan for Israel and indeed all of mankind. Passages of Scripture that reflect a more profound hope, a hope that extends beyond a long and peaceful life and continuance of nation and family, come only at the end of the Old Testament period. Either during the exile, or as most scholars think, after return from exile and in the intertestamental period leading up to the first century. One example is found in Isaiah 26 and includes an image of imminent birth that Paul uses in Romans 8 for all of creation.

As a pregnant woman about to give birth
    writhes and cries out in her pain,
    so were we in your presence, Lord.
We were with child, we writhed in labor,
    but we gave birth to wind.
We have not brought salvation to the earth,
    and the people of the world have not come to life.

But your dead will live, Lord;
    their bodies will rise—
let those who dwell in the dust
    wake up and shout for joy—
your dew is like the dew of the morning;
    the earth will give birth to her dead.

Go, my people, enter your rooms
    and shut the doors behind you;
hide yourselves for a little while
    until his wrath has passed by.
See, the Lord is coming out of his dwelling
    to punish the people of the earth for their sins.
The earth will disclose the blood shed on it;
    the earth will conceal its slain no longer. (Isaiah 26:17-21)

The other major example is found in the apocalyptic vision recorded in Daniel 12:1-4

“At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people—everyone whose name is found written in the book—will be delivered. Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever. But you, Daniel, roll up and seal the words of the scroll until the time of the end. Many will go here and there to increase knowledge.”

Both of these passages occur in a context where the Jews were wrestling with the fact that God’s judgment and deliverance did not seem to be happening in the way that they were expecting. This opened the possibility of a far greater plan, and a more extensive hope for the future. This future includes victory over death and the divine gift of life.

In the prophets we also find an expectation for something new, not simply a repetition of the past. The future will include judgment, vindication, and the breaking forth of something new. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel all speak to a new creation and/or a new temple. This is envisioned as “within the future unfolding of present history” … but also as something radically new. Isaiah 67:17,25 is a case in point. “See, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind” and “The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent’s food.”

The prophets set the table for the Christian hope developed in the New Testament. New creation, judgment, victory over death, a new Jerusalem, the concept of the Messiah, the book of life. All of these are found in the prophets. The figure of the Son of man in Daniel 7 plays a significant role in gospels, one that Polkinghorne believes goes back to Jesus himself “as he drew on the Hebrew scriptures for an understanding of his vocation.” (p. 64) The eschatological overtones are significant. One thing is certain in the Old Testament. “The ultimate eschatological issue, and the only adequate ground of hope, is the everlasting faithfulness of God.” (p. 65)

What is the ground of hope in the Old Testament?

How important is this for Christian faith?

If you wish to contact me, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

If you would like to comment please see Afterlife and Hope in the Old Testament at Jesus Creed.

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