Chapter 6: The Idea of Immortality

A Guide to Understanding the Bible
by Harry Emerson Fosdick

Chapter 6: The Idea of Immortality

A modern behaviorist, holding that a human being is simply a physical organism with its various functions, draws the inevitable inference that no continued life after death is possible. The early Hebrews, starting with a similar idea, came to no such conclusion. While they believed that man was a body with breath for his soul, blood for his life, and organs whose functions were both physical and psychical, the earliest Hebrews of whom we have record were convinced that dead men were not altogether dead. What remained existent after death was not soul conceived as an immaterial reality, for no such idea dawned on the Hebrews until ages later, when Greek influence was felt in Judaism. Human beings after death were, to the early Hebrews, still bodies, attenuated leftovers and shadowy replicas of the flesh, and these existences beyond the grave the Old Testament called rephaim --that is, shadows or ghosts.

That the dead were thus not sufficiently dead to cease being matters of concern to the living is made clear both by direct statement and indirect intimation in the Old Testament.

1. As among all early peoples, necromancy, dealing with the dead, was an active superstition among the Hebrews. In the background of such wizardry were doubtless the same influences, especially dreams, that have commonly persuaded primitive peoples of the continued existence and influence of the dead. Man’s mind at first did not value waking experience above sleeping as a clue to truth, and far down in history, dreams, instead of being discredited as unreliable witnesses to fact, were given supernormal importance as revelations. When, therefore, a living man dreamed, let us say, of his dead father, and in his dream conversed with his sire and saw him act, the door was opened to the conviction that the dead were not dead, and to the still further belief that the dead, being mysterious and possibly dangerous presences, needed to be rightly dealt with.

Such ideas always have given rise to a special class of people, witches and wizards, who practice necromancy, and in the Old Testament they are repeatedly mentioned in terms of denunciation. The Deuteronomic law commanded the extirpation of any one who could be called "an enchanter, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or a consulter with a familiar spirit, or a wizard, or a necromancer." (Deuteronomy 18:10-11; cf. Exodus 22:18) Isaiah poured scorn on "them that have familiar spirits" and on "the wizards, that chirp and that mutter," (Isaiah 8:19-20) and the later law of Leviticus twice returned to the same attack. (Leviticus 19:31; 20:6)

The most picturesque passage in the Old Testament in illustration of such prevalent beliefs concerns the Witch of Endor, whom Saul consulted in order to seek counsel from the dead Samuel. One notes the weird night scene, the underground setting, the fact that only the witch is reported to have seen Samuel, the complete credulity of Saul, Samuel’s rising out of Sheol in bodily form, clothed in a robe and physically recognizable, and, implied in the whole story, the popular prevalence of such necromancy in making use of the still-existent dead. (I Samuel 28:3-25)

2. By all analogy we should expect to find ancestor worship associated with this range of ideas about the afterworld. In the Old Testament, however, the actual practice of worshiping ancestors had been so far overpassed that while one first rate scholar says, "There is a growing consensus of opinion that the Hebrews, like all other peoples at a certain stage of thought, worshipped these spirits," (Henry Preserved Smith: The Religion of Israel, p. 25) another first-rate scholar says, "The alleged indications of Ancestor Worship are all exposed to more or less serious objections." (E. Kautzsch: "Religion of Israel," in Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible, Extra Vol., p. 614.)

What we do have in the Old Testament is a mass of evidence that the dead were of profound importance to the living, that elaborate ceremonies and popular customs were involved in dealing with them, and that such observances were concerned both with the veneration due from the living to the departed and with the possible good or evil that might come from the departed to the living. Many mortuary customs which persist today -- putting food on graves, as in China, for example, or flowers, as with us -- are traceable to primitive endeavors to please and placate the spirits of the deceased, and similar offerings to the dead in Old Testament times should be so understood. (E.g. II Chronicles 16:14.) General analogies with Egyptian and Babylonian folk-ways confirm this, and in detail the kinship of Hebrew and Semitic mortuary customs is clear in such observances as offering one’s cut hair to the dead or making incisions in the flesh to establish blood-covenant with the dead. (Isaiah 22:12; Jeremiah 7:29; Amos 8:10; Micah 1:16; Ezekiel 7:18; 27:31. See W. Robertson Smith: Lectures on the Religion of the Semites, pp. 323-326) The persistence of such rites among the Hebrews is indicated by their condemnation in both early and late codes of law. So Deuteronomy said, "Ye shall not cut yourselves, nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead," (Deuteronomy 14:1; cf. 26:14) and Leviticus still found it necessary to insist, "Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead." (Leviticus 19:28.)

Indeed, it has been supposed by some that the teraphim, household gods, (Genesis 35:4; 31:19; 30-35; I Samuel 15:23; 19:13, 16; II Kings 23:24) were originally images of ancestors; that they were honored as such and were part of the apparatus of popular religion; (Hosea 3:4) that mortuary customs which the prophetic school later condemned grew up around them; (Cf. Deuteronomy 26:13-14) that the right of performing the necessary ceremonies for one’s ancestors devolved upon a son and that this fact underlay both the sense of tragedy in being sonless and the practices of levirate marriage and of adoption to avoid such disaster; (Cf. Genesis 15:2-3; 30:3-8; Deuteronomy 25:5-10) and that this set of ideas and customs was an integral part of the whole clan organization of early Israel. "From such a mass of evidence," says Lods, "it would seem that we are warranted in the conclusion that before their entry into Canaan the Hebrew tribes must have possessed a fully organized cultus of the ancestors of families and clans." (Adolphe Lods: Israel from its Beginnings to the Middle of the Eighth Century, translated by S.H. Hooke, p. 229; cf. R.H. Charles: Eschatology; Hebrew, Jewish and Chrisitian, pp. 21-33) At any rate, there can be no doubt, in view of the evidence presented by mortuary customs, that early Hebrews felt a deep concern for dealing effectively with the influence of the still-existent dead.


As for the dwelling-place of the rephaim, the Old Testament leaves us in no uncertainty. The Hebrew cosmos was three-storied: the sky, or heaven, above; the flat earth beneath; and, under that, Sheol, the abode of the departed. In this regard, primitive Greek and Hebrew conceptions were practically unanimous, and Sheol in the Old Testament was of one piece with Hades in Homer’s poems. The dead in Hades, as the Iliad and Odyssey pictured them, were not souls, in the later Platonic sense, but vaporous bodies. Just as Samuel came up from Sheol in visible presence, clothed as he was on earth, so the shade of Patroklos is described in the Iliad as "in all things like his living self, in stature, and fair eyes, and voice, and the raiment of his body was the same." Yet, despite this earthly verisimilitude, the difference made by death was profound, for when Achilles "reached forth with his hands" he "clasped him not; for like a vapor the spirit was gone beneath the earth with a faint shriek." (The Illiad of Homer Done Into English Verse: by Andrew Lang, Walter Leave, and Ernest Myers, Bk. 23, pp. 452, 453) So Odysseus found the shade of his mother wholly insubstantial, (Homer; The Odyssey, With an English Translation, by A. T. Murray, Vol. I, Bk. 11, pp. 401-403) and even valiant heroes were reduced in Hades to ghosts so feeble that a draught of the fresh blood of sacrificial victims was necessary to rouse them to action. (Ibid., Bk. 11, pp. 393, 397)

In general conception and in many particular details the similarity between Hades and Sheol is plain. In the Hebrew underworld, the prophet still wore his ghostly mantle and kings sat on shadowy thrones. (I Samuel 28:14; Isaiah 14:9) The dreariest words in the vocabulary were used about the dwelling of the dead and its inhabitants. It was the land of the "dark" and of "forgetfulness," (Psalm 88:12) of "silence" (Psalm 94:17) and of "destruction." (Job 26:6 [marginal translation]) Far from being consulted as "the knowing ones," its inhabitants were conceived by those who had renounced necromancy as neither knowing nor caring about anything on earth:

His sons come to honor, and he knoweth it not; And they are brought low, but he perceiveth it not of them. Only for himself his flesh hath pain, and for himself his soul mourneth. (Job 14:1-22 [marginal translation])

As though to leave us in no doubt about this shadowy half reality of Sheol, Isaiah drew a picture of it with even its royal tenants rising to greet newcomers and saying, "Art thou also become weak as we?" (Isaiah 14:9-10)

Clearly, therefore, no hope was associated with Sheol. It was the sad, inevitable end of man, "the house appointed for all living." (Job 30:23) To go there was to lose real existence and the pious sick could pray,

Oh spare me, that I may recover strength,

Before I go hence, and be no more. (Psalm 39:13)

The best to be said for Sheol was that life on earth might become so wretched that Sheol’s very negativeness would be a relief. Job, finding his existence intolerable, craved the unreality of the underworld, too empty of positive content to involve the sufferings of earth:

There the wicked cease from troubling;

And there the weary are at rest.

There the prisoners are at ease together;

They hear not the voice of the taskmaster.

The small and the great are there:

And the servant is free from his master. (Job 3:17-19)

While the early Hebrews, therefore, believed in existence after death, it was so pallid and unreal, in an underworld so undesirable, that no hopes were associated with it. Until far down in their history, all the vivid and enheartening hopes of the Hebrews were concerned with the future of their nation on earth --

. . . thy seed shall be great,

And thine offspring as the grass of the earth. (Job 5:25)

As for those who went "down into the pit," they were

. . . as a man that hath no help,

Cast off among the dead. (Psalm 88:3-5)

In suggesting the literal location of Sheol -- an underworld beneath the surface of the ground and as geographically real as any place on earth -- the Old Testament is clear and explicit. When, for example, Moses executed Yahweh’s wrath against the rebellious sons of Korah, they were dropped alive into Sheol through the yawning ground -- "The ground clave asunder that was under them; and the earth opened its mouth, and swallowed them up, and their households, and all the men that appertained unto Korah, and all their goods. So they, and all that appertained to them, went down alive into Sheol: and the earth closed upon them.’’ (Numbers 16:31-33: cf. Psalm 63:9; 86:13; Ezekiel 26:20; ; 31:14;32:18, 24)

Such was the beginning of the Bible’s conception of the afterworld, and the development of thought from this crude primitiveness of Sheol to the New Testament’s doctrine of eternal life constitutes one of the most significant contributions of the Scriptures to religious history.


Among the factors that played a part in this development, the enlarging idea of God was prominent. Sheol was an inheritance in Hebrew belief from a past long antedating the introduction of the people to Yahweh. At first, therefore, Yahweh as the storm god of Sinai, or as the war god of the migrant tribes, or even as the agricultural god of Canaan, had nothing to do with Sheol; the underworld of the dead was outside his realm.

Commonly in ancient mythologies, the gods of the nether world were not the gods of the earth’s surface. So it was in Greece, where Hades had its own deity; and so it was in Babylonia. The Babylonian Sheol, called Aralû, was a great cavern in the bowels of a mountain under the earth; (Cf. Jonah 2:6) it was without light, covered with dust and filth, its inhabitants eating dust save as offerings of food were received from the sacrifices of the living; and the shades who dwelt there were no longer under the domain of the gods of earth but had deities of their own, supremely Nergal. To be sure, in the Old Testament no gods of Sheol are specifically named, but Dr. Paton is probably correct in thinking that we have the faded reminiscence of them in such personifications as "Death shall be their shepherd" (Psalm 49:14) or "He shall be brought to the king of terrors." (Job 18:14) Moreover, it is not unlikely that the death angels of later Judaism were the old gods of the underworld, reduced, according to the habit of early religions, to the subordinate position of spirits. (See Lewis Bayles Paton: "The Hebrew Idea of the Future Life," in The Biblical Word, "New Series," Vol. 35 (1910), pp. 159-171, for influence of Babylonian thought on Hebrew thought of life after death.)

In any case, the Old Testament repeatedly reveals that, at first, Yahweh had no control over Sheol; he was god of the earth, then god of the sky, but at the gates of the underworld relationships with him ceased. The Eighty-eighth Psalm is explicit on this point:

. . . My life draweth nigh unto Sheol.

I am reckoned with them that go down into the pit;

. . . .

Like the slain that lie in the grave,

Whom thou rememberest no more,

And they are cut off from thy hand.(Psalm 88:3-5; see also vs. 11)

Similarly, the sick Hezekiah shrinks from death believing that it separates from Yahweh:

For Sheol cannot praise thee, death cannot celebrate thee:

They that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth. (Isaiah 38:18)

Whether within the Old Testament, where the psalmist is convinced that

The dead praise not Yahweh,

Neither any that go down into silence, (Psalm 115:17: cf. 6:5; 30:9; 118:17)

or in Jewish literature outside, as in Ecclesiasticus -- "Who shall give praise to the Most High in the grave?" (Ecclesiasticus 17:27) -- or in the Book of Baruch -- "The dead that are in the grave, whose breath is taken from their bodies, will give unto the Lord neither glory nor righteousness" (2:17) -- we have the persistent tradition that death breaks off all relationships between man and Yahweh.

One of the major factors, therefore, both in redeeming Sheol itself from its original negativeness and in arousing hope of resurrection from it to full life again, was the extension of Yahweh’s sovereignty to the nether world. As Yahweh overpassed early limitations in the thinking of his people until he was recognized as God of heaven and earth, the question of his power over the realm below the earth was inevitably raised, and the forces which had expanded his sway elsewhere tended to include also under his domain the abode of the rephaim. The Old Testament still retains the early evidences of this new theology, explicitly contradicting the older restriction on Yahweh’s power.

The first motive, of which we have expression, for thus extending Yahweh’s rule to Sheol, was the desire that unpunished men might not escape justice there. So Amos represented Yahweh as saying, "Though they dig into Sheol, thence shall my hand take them,’’ (Amos 9:2) and Deuteronomy pictured him in a threatening mood:

For a fire is kindled in mine anger,

And burneth unto the lowest Sheol. (Deuteronomy 32:22)

In a word, the nether world, at first for the sake of justice, was gradually taken possession of by Yahweh’s expanding power, until Isaiah could challenge Ahaz to ask a sign of God "either in the depth, or in the height above" (Isaiah 7:11) -- that is, in Sheol or in heaven.

Without understanding this gradual expansion of the divine sovereignty until, at least in the imagination of a few, the entire Hebrew cosmos with its three levels -- sky, earth, and underworld -- were under Yahweh’s sway, we cannot feel the full force of one of the supreme passages in the Old Testament. It was new theology when it was written, an immortal expression of man’s faith in the universal presence and availability of God, and it was phrased in terms of the threefold Hebrew cosmos with the triumphant conviction that Yahweh was inescapably present throughout the whole of it:

Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?

Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?

If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there:

If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, thou art there.

If I take the wings of the morning,

And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;

Even there shall thy hand lead me,

And thy right hand shall hold me. (Psalm 139:7-10)

Along this line of development hope traveled that Sheol might not be the last word in the story of man. "God," cried the psalmist, "will redeem my soul from the power of Sheol." (Psalm 49:15) Moreover, with the divine sovereignty thus extended to the dead, and with the divine character conceived increasingly in terms of righteousness, Sheol itself was bound to be transformed. It gradually ceased being inane and meaningless, a non-moral land of darkness and forgetfulness. It became ethically significant, with rewards and punishments administered to its inhabitants. And, at last, along with the transformation of Sheol itself into a morally meaningful place, came the hope of restoration from it to full life again.


In achieving this result, the developing idea of man was also influential. So long as man was more or less completely submerged in the social mass, his personal fortunes beyond death would be imagined and cared for dimly, if at all. The continuing social group was the reality on which attention was centered and in which all hope inhered. This is the meaning of Hezekiah’s words:

They that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth

The living, the living, he shall praise thee, as I do this day

The father to the children shall make known thy truth. (Isaiah 38:18-19)

When, however, the individual as a personality with rights of his own began to stand free from social submergence, the question of his fate after death was inevitably raised

Apparently it was the demand of the individual for justice that pushed this issue to the fore. At first, justice had especially concerned the social group as a whole and Yahweh was held to be inflexibly fair in dealing with the clan or nation, thought of en masse. With the increasing discrimination of the individual, however, as a center of keen interest, it became clear that the problem of life’s justice to him is a much more complicated and difficult affair. So the Book of Job wrestled with the apparently insoluble dilemma -- Yahweh just, and yet not always just to persons one by one, within their lifetime on the earth.

It is in the Book of Job, therefore, that we find what has been called "the first tentative demand for a life beyond death." (H. Wheeler Robinson: The Religious Ideas of the Old Testament, p. 94) That this demand sprang from considerations of equity to the individual is made clear in the drama. Job, a virtuous man, suffering incredible afflictions and so facing in acute form the problem of life’s injustice, blazed tentative trails toward a solution. One of these was the hope of at least a temporary restoration from Sheol and a vindication of his character at the judgment seat of God. Sheol itself was to Job what it was to his contemporaries, "the land of darkness and of the shadow of death" (Job 10:21) but, all the more because of that, his demand for individual justice led him to hope that the inanity of Sheol was not God’s last word to a mistreated man. Out of this situation rose Job’s conviction that, in a special case like his, Sheol might turn out to be only an intermediate state with a final vindication of righteousness afterwards. At times he denied such expectation and was hopeless:

As the cloud is consumed and vanisheth away,

So he that goeth down to Sheol shall come up no more. (Job 7:9; cf. 14:7-12)

But even in those dark hours hope rose:

Would’st thou but hide me in the nether world,

concealing me until thy wrath is over,

and then remember me when it is time!

If only man might die and live again,

I could endure my weary post until relief arrived;

thou would’st call, and I would come,

when thou didst yearn for life that thou hadst made. (Job 14:13-15 (Moffatt translation)

And in one passage Job’s conviction was expressed with notable strength:

Still, I know One to champion me at last,

to stand up for me upon earth.

This body may break up, but even then

my life shall have a sight of God;

my heart is pining as I yearn

to see him on my side. (Job 19:25-27 (Moffatt translation)

Taken in connection with the rest of the drama, this passage indicates no generally accepted doctrine of resurrection from Sheol and no widespread application of hope, but it does show that the idea of resurrection was in the air. Indeed, the Greek Septuagint Translation of the book climaxes Job’s restoration to prosperity with this significant addition not in the Hebrew: "And it is written that Job will rise again with those whom the Lord doth raise." (See John Edgar McFadyen: The Problem of Pain; A Study in the Book of Job, pp. 248-249) In his realistic facing of life’s frequent injustice to individuals and in his hope, however tentative and limited, that restoration from the underworld might bring vindication, Job blazed a trail which afterward became a heavily traveled road. The more the values and rights of personality were recognized and the more the concept of divine justice was applied to individuals, the more Job’s clue was followed. Even Tennyson’s "In Memoriam" is to be found in the tradition which Job inaugurated:

Thou wilt not leave us in the dust

Thou madest man, he knows not why,

He thinks he was not made to die;

And thou hast made him: thou art just.


Even more influential in its permanent effect on the Biblical hope of real life after death was the growing experience of personal religion as an inward, intimate relationship between the soul and God. At first Hebrew religion, being altogether tribal, involved no such interior meaning for individuals. In any powerful spiritual movement, however, such as Israel’s faith involved, mysticism is bound to emerge despite all obstacles; special personalities, at first few in number but increasing by contagion, find their religious experience becoming within themselves a profound resource, a "fountain of living waters," an intimate, sustaining fellowship with God. Whenever, in any religion, this development takes place, the sense of essential timelessness in the experience is not far off and the hope is sure to rise that such a fellowship contains the prophecy of its own continuance.

When, for example, Jeremiah, thrown back on God amid the social disintegration of his time, entered into a trustful reliance on Yahweh -- "my strength, and my stronghold, and my refuge in the day of affliction" (Jeremiah 16:19) -- he was unwittingly blazing a trail toward faith in immortality. He never himself followed it to its conclusion; in his long and self-revealing book there is no indication that he thought much about Sheol or thought of it differently from his contemporaries, or had the slightest hope of resurrection out of it. Despite that, however, he made an incalculable contribution to the inwardness of the soul’s relationship with God, and from that experience, at last, came the assurance that what is in quality so timeless will not come to a futile finale in the nether world.

When a late Isaiah represents God as saying, "I dwell . . . with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite," (Isaiah 57:15) the question rises in the mind of one who understands from within what the implied experience means: If God so cares for persons one by one and so dwells in them with creative power, is it not impossible that the relationship will be summarily terminated at death? However many individuals in Israel may have failed to raise this question or, raising it, may have left it shrouded in doubt or negatively answered, the question was bound to be raised by some and answered affirmatively.

As a whole, the Old Testament gives no clear reply to this question. The intimations of faith in the resurrection of the dead are few in number and late in date. Two of the Psalms, however, move up from a description of inward communion with God toward an expectation of release from Sheol:

Nevertheless I am continually with thee:

Thou hast holden my right hand.

Thou wilt guide me with thy counsel,

And afterward receive me to glory.

Whom have I in heaven but thee?

And there is none upon earth that I desire besides thee.

My flesh and my heart faileth;

But God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever. (Psalm 73:23-26)

I have set Yahweh always before me:

Because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.

Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth:

My flesh also shall dwell in safety.

For thou wilt not leave my soul to Sheol;

Neither wilt thou suffer thy holy one to see corruption.

Thou wilt show me the path of life:

In thy presence is fulness of joy;

In thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore. (Psalm 16:8-11)

Along this road from inward, personal religion to the assurance that God’s care for the soul is too eternal in quality to be stopped by death, Hebrew-Christian thought traveled to its most distinctive idea of eternal life.


Another influence which raised the question of restoration from Sheol was the Hebrew expectation of a coming Messianic age, "the most striking and characteristic feature of the religion of Israel." To be sure, this expectation was social; it concerned the nation as a whole; but by indirection it brought the Jews face to face at last with the inescapable problem of individual destiny after death. The Messianic hope in a rudimentary form began with the sudden glory of David’s kingdom. From a whipped and humiliated people, burdened by the Amorites among them and the victorious Philistines over them, the Hebrews under David’s leadership sprang through swift conquest into an unexpected domain reaching from the borders of Egypt to the gates of Damascus. The glory of this kingdom caught the national imagination and established the first pattern of Messianic hope. David’s domain was soon lost and the memory of its splendor was metamorphosed into hope of its restoration. At first this expectation was doubtless emotional in its appeal, as Mussolini stirs Italians now by pictures of a new Roman Empire, but as the centuries passed and the powerful theological conviction that Israel was a chosen people in special covenant relationship with Yahweh blended with the national dream, the coming Messianic age became increasingly a fixed idea and a cherished dogma. That the "day of Yahweh" would come, and Israel be triumphant over her enemies, thus vindicating Yahweh’s choice of her and proving him to be God of gods, became a settled conviction of the nation even before the Exile.

During and after the Exile this Messianic expectation became for obvious reasons even more emphatic and assured. It furnished to a distressed nation, suffering intolerable trouble, a psychological compensation. From the humiliation and disillusionment of the present a Jew could retreat into the vivid hope of a Messianic future, when David’s glory would be restored, with much more besides, and Israel would be triumphant over the world. This doctrine, which before the Exile had become orthodoxy, became during and after the Exile a psychological necessity, and its practical effect in holding together a distracted people and sustaining them through one disaster after another was incalculable.

The form taken by this Messianic hope varied from age to age. Even in the eighth century B.C., while the "day of Yahweh" meant to popular expectation a nationalistic victory, to Amos it meant a day of judgment on Israel’s sins. (Amos 5:18-20) By the time Greek domination was in full swing, however, the outlines of typical Jewish Messianism were established, as the Book of Daniel makes evident. The power of heathenism, as the writer saw it, had been incarnate in one world empire after another, each of them in turn afflicting Israel, the people of God. Four imperial representatives of heathenism, in particular, he visualized -- the Babylonian, Median, Persian, and Greek -- all of them pictured as beasts which rise to power and then disappear. Israel, however, was not beast but "son of man," the people of the one true God; Israel alone had incarnated Yahweh’s purpose and at a definite date in the future would sweep into world power over the ruins of the fallen heathen realms. This kingdom of God, inaugurated by Israel’s victory, would be eternal, the final consummation of Yahweh’s will for man. (Daniel 7:1-27)

The Book of Daniel was thus the first of a long series of Jewish apocalypses which present, amid many differences, certain common characteristics. They all spring out of a background of national distress; they all are utterly pessimistic about the present, which is ruled by heathenism; they all are absorbed in expectations of a future that stands in vivid and glorious contrast with the present; they all see the possibility of this future’s achievement only through the supernatural and miraculous act of God; and they all are so eager for escape from unbearable oppression that they set the time for this divine invasion of the world immediately ahead. Within this general framework the apocalyptic expectations are variously phrased. In particular, the personalization of the Messiah as an existent supernal being waiting the set hour to leave the sky and lead his hosts to victory, appears in some apocalypses but not in others. The general framework, however, outlined in the Book of Daniel remains characteristic of them all.

Obviously this Messianic hope was social rather than individual, but because it was the typical and controlling Jewish way of visualizing a worth-while future it was bound to become entangled, one way or another, with the idea of Sheol and what might come after it. The more the glorious reign of God on earth was believed in and the more vividly its splendors were imagined, the more surely the question of individual destiny was pushed to the fore: Should the beneficiaries of this divine consummation be only the fortunate persons who happened to be alive on the surface of the earth when the great day arrived? It was not they who had borne the burden of patient endurance and sacrifice, walking, as it were, in a "burning fiery furnace." The faithful servants of Yahweh, who amid untold distresses had been true to their trust and held Israel together as Yahweh’s witness in the world, were in Sheol. How could the social hope of a Messianic reign on earth be ethically complete, if those who had sacrificed little or nothing enjoyed it and those who had given all for it remained unblessed in the nether world? Moreover, should not its ethical completeness be emphasized by the resurrection also, to proper punishment, of those whose cruelties had desolated the saints?

A new road was opened, therefore, through the Messianic expectation into a hope that at least some of the rephaim in Sheol would be restored to life. So in the Book of Daniel we find this conviction stated: "Many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt,’’ (Daniel 12:2) and in two late Isaian passages a similar expectation is expressed: "He hath swallowed up death for ever; and the Lord Yahweh will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the reproach of his people will he take away from off all the earth: for Yahweh hath spoken it"; (Isaiah 25:8) "Thy dead shall live; my dead bodies shall arise. Awake and sing, ye that dwell in the dust; for thy dew is as the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast forth the dead." (Isaiah 26:19)

It is to be noted that in these passages the hope of resurrection is not universal. In Daniel many, but not all, shall rise, and in the Isaian hope the restoration which is joyfully proclaimed is explicitly limited to Israelites. Of heathen oppressors it is said, "They are dead, they shall not live; they are deceased, they shall not rise." (Isaiah 26:14) Thus even in the latest documents of the Old Testament the expectation of any resurrection out of Sheol is restricted and partial and is so infrequently expressed that, beyond the few passages which we have quoted in this chapter, no others intimate belief in a future life. It is not strange that, when Jesus came upon the scene, the Sadducees, the ultraconservatives of their day, who accepted only the earlier books of the Old Testament and refused credence to the new ideas of the later literature, held "that there is no resurrection." (Acts 23:8)


Indeed, the factors that made headway toward Hebrew faith in immortality difficult were very powerful.

1. The prophetic movement, in its endeavor to purge Israel’s religion of its worst primitivism, waged a stout contest against the cult of the dead. As we have seen, consultation with the dead, placation of the dead, and accompanying practices of necromancy and necrolatry were firmly intrenched in the early traditions of the Hebrews. Indeed, since the Old Testament represents mainly a purified Judaism, such ideas and practices probably exercised, at the beginning, a much more predominant influence than the documents now indicate. Against this entire cult of the dead the prophetic movement waged a tireless battle.

The early prophets, however, and, for the most part, the later prophets too, provided no alternative ideas to take the place of those they were destroying. They did not believe in any resurrection from Sheol; they simply attacked, as dangerous to Yahweh’s sole claim on worship and service, the tangled mass of wizardry and demonolatry associated with the dead. In a word, their message in this regard was negative, and its first effect was to take from the dead in Sheol and from Sheol itself even such significance as they had hitherto possessed. In the primitive religion that lay behind Yahweh’s introduction to Israel, the dead had been at least "knowing ones" to be consulted, vivid significance existed in the popular picture of Sheol and its inhabitants, and active commerce was carried on between the dead and the living. All this the prophets undertook to wipe out. In so far as they succeeded, they reduced the dead to even more utter deadness than primitive paganism had attributed to them. The prophetic hostility against mortuary superstition, therefore, had its first result in demolishing the only way of thinking vividly concerning the dead that the Hebrews had possessed.

The consequence of this is evident in the passages where Sheol is pictured as utterly negative and the dead as utterly inactive and inane. Once the rephaim had been worth consulting; now they had been stripped of one attribute after another until they were powerless. "Thus," as Dr. Paton puts it, "the victory over necrolatry was won, but at the cost of the extinction of even a rudimentary belief in immortality." (Lewis Bayles Paton: "The Hebrew Idea of the Future Life," in The "Biblical World, "New Series," Vol. 35 [1910], p. 258)

2. By this process of negation, emptying Sheol of such positive meaning as it had possessed, the Hebrew mind was driven, even more certainly than it might otherwise have been, to picture hope in terms of physical resurrection out of Sheol. The more the nether world was denied vivid reality, the more hope, when it rose at all, was coerced into one pattern of imagination -- reëmbodiment and restoration to the surface of the earth. In Hebrew thinking, so far as any worth-while future life was concerned, it was that or nothing.

So persistent has been the influence of this idea of bodily resurrection, belief in which is still affirmed by millions of Christians in their recitation of the creeds, that its origins are worth special consideration. All the major elements in Hebrew thought about the dead conspired to make bodily resuscitation the only way of picturing hope.

Belief in the geographical reality of Sheol, as a definite place in the underground portions of the earth, worked to this end. Those who died did not, in Hebrew imagination, vaguely disappear. They went "down into the pit’’; (Psalm 28:1; Isaiah 38:18) they dwelt in "the nether parts of the earth." (Ezekiel 26:20: 31:14) Sheol was as definitely a place beneath as the sky was a place above, (Job 11:8: Isaiah 29:4) and a synonym for dying was to say, "The earth swallowed them." (Exodus 15:12) Therefore, the dead, who were so realistically pictured as going, one might say, from one floor of the cosmos down to another, could be as realistically pictured as coming back again. This, indeed, was the characteristic Hebrew way of visualizing hope for the dead.

Moreover, the fact that in Hebrew thought the body was regarded as the essential constituent of the man worked to the same end. By Plato’s time Greek philosophy had conceived the soul as immaterial, but such metaphysical generalization was alien from the realistic, dramatic, picturesque methods of the Hebrew mind. Since, therefore, man was unimaginable to the Hebrews without a body, life after death was naturally pictured as the resuscitation of the embodied life and its restoration to the land of the living. Always Hebrew hope of immortality, when it existed at all, concerned the whole man and not a disembodied wraith. When Enoch was translated or Elijah, escaping death, was raised to the sky, the whole man went. This way of thinking held firm from the beginning to the end of the Old Testament and long afterward. When, either in the Persian or the Hellenistic period, a writer said, "Thy dead shall live," he used as a parallelism, "My dead bodies shall arise," (Isaiah 26:19) and one of the familiar prayers of subsequent Judaism ends with the words, "Blessed art Thou, O Lord, who dost return souls to dead bodies." (As translated by George Foot Moore: Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, Vol. II, p. 215, q.v.)

With regard to this identification of life with body, one naturally thinks of the influence of Egypt, where a unique climate made possible the mummifying of bodies as the seat of continued life. At any rate, the Hebrew mind habitually dramatized its immortal hopes in terms of physical resurrection

Another factor which emphasized this pattern of thought was the desire of the individual Israelite, if he was to have any immortality, to have it as a member of the Messianic kingdom on earth. Greek thought of eternal life, at its higher levels, early became individualistic; it concerned the escape of the soul to the pure world of spirit, immaterial and invisible. Hebrew thought, however, while it developed a strong tradition of personal value and possibility, did it within the framework of a predominant social expectation. Always the ultimate goal and consummation of God’s purpose was the divine sovereignty made manifest in the Messianic age. When, therefore, the individual hope of future life began to arise, it was phrased, as in Daniel, in terms of a commonwealth on earth, to have part in which was the highest conceivable desire of man. But if one is to join in the victorious Messianic age on earth, he must be fully restored to life, reembodied, and made a real man again.

Whether one thinks of Sheol as a literal "pit" beneath the ground, or of man as basically a body, or of the enjoyment of future life as sharing in the Messianic age on earth, bodily resuscitation is demanded, and since all three of these ideas were operative in the Hebrew mind, there was no escaping their coercion. Future hope and physical resurrection were done up in one bundle of thought. In view of the body’s visible decomposition, however, such a way of picturing hope was not easy to believe, so that one reason for the long sustained negativeness of the Old Testament on the subject of life after death may well have lain in the difficulty of imagining resurrection.

3. A further difficulty lay in the fact that the early traditions of the Semitic race were negative about return from Sheol. To be sure, there were ghosts which, in Hamlet’s phrase, revisited the glimpses of the moon, (Acts I, Sc. IV) but even in English speech ‘ghost’ and ‘gust’ come from the same stem and represent something atmospheric and insubstantial. Genuine resurrection to real life does not appear in the Babylonian legends. There Aralû is often "the land of no return," (As translated by Stephen Herbert Langdon: Semitic Mythology, p. 161) and Gilgamesh, speaking of Eabani, says, "My friend whom I loved has become like clay. . . . Shall I not also like him lay me down to rest, and not arise for evermore?" (Gilgamesh Epic, VIII, v, 36 f. as translated by Lewis Bayles Paton: "The Hebrew Idea of the Future Life," in The Biblical World, "New Series," Vol. 35 [1910], p. 161) This was precisely the note of David’s lament for his child, "I shall go to him, but he will not return to me." (II Samuel 12:23) When to such influences from ancient racial tradition and from the controlling patterns of contemporary thought was added the fact that prophetic orthodoxy in Israel had held out no hope of a future life for the individual, it is not strange that even in the Old Testament’s later writings we have explicit and convinced denials of such hope.

The Eighty-eighth Psalm, for example, was written by an outspoken skeptic on this subject (E.g., Psalm 88:3-12) and the Book of Ecclesiastes was scornful in its denials:

For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; and man hath no preëminence above the beasts: for all is vanity. All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again. (Ecclesiastes 3:19-20)

For to him that is joined with all the living there is hope; for a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not anything, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. (Ecclesiastes 9:4-5)

Nevertheless, the very scorn of such denials reveals the reality and prevalence of the ideas they disdain. The hope of future life for individuals expanded and grew strong. Between the Testaments the affirmations of it became convinced and unequivocal: "Sheol also shall give back that which it has received"; (The book of Enoch 51:1) "The earth shall restore those that are asleep in her, and so shall the dust those that dwell therein in silence." (II Esdras 7:32)


That the influence of Persian religion, which affected Hebrew thinking from the late Exile on, encouraged the developing hope of life after death and helped to shape its form, seems probable. Indeed, in four major apocalyptic matters a close affinity exists between Zoroastrianism and the later Judaism: the separation of the righteous from the wicked at death; their distinct estates, the one blessed and the other miserable, between death and the resurrection; the general raising of all the dead at once; and the last judgment with its eternal consequences. Such affinities between two religions, however, may not hastily be interpreted as the mere unilateral influence of one upon the other. Some scholars even think that the Zoroastrians borrowed apocalyptic ideas from the Jews, and, while this is improbable, it is also improbable that the Jews came by their ideas merely by grace of Zoroastrian influence. Such conceptions were rather common property, developing by an inner logic out of the primitive background, and if the Jews borrowed largely from the Zoroastrians, as they probably did, it was because they found in Zoroastrianism a kindred set of mental categories.

Whatever may be true about the effect of Persian ideas on Judaism’s thought of the future life, it is clear that between the Testaments there was a powerful swing of faith toward convinced hope. To the Judaism of that period, Sheol still remained the abode of the dead; bodily resurrection from it was the characteristic way of picturing hope; and this resurrection, associated with the coming of the Messianic kingdom, was staged, in the dramatic imagination of the people, as a general judgment day. The more orthodox party in Israel, represented later by the Sadducees, denied all this and held to the negative attitude of the Torah and the prophets. The liberal party, represented later by the Pharisees, accepted the new teaching and won to its credence and support the more religious Jews. Thus the future hope, all the more welcome because it furnished compensation for a humiliating present, became a dominant factor in Judaism.

To the advancing thought involved in this process the moral meaninglessness of the primitive Sheol became intolerable, and between the Testaments we find a change taking place in the descriptions of the underworld itself. The demand for diverse fates in Sheol, corresponding with diverse character, had already been voiced by Isaiah (Isaiah 14:18-20 and Ezekiel, (Ezekiel 32:8-32) and this demand became ever more imperative. In the Book of Enoch, written in the first two centuries B.C., Sheol is divided into four parts, two each for the wicked and the righteous. One contains the wicked who in torment await the resurrection day, when final penalties will be adjudged; another contains the wicked who already have been punished and for whom there is to be no resurrection; another contains the moderately good who await their reward at the judgment; another contains the faithful saints who enjoy Paradise until their rising at the last day to eternal blessedness. (The Book of Enoch, Chap. 22)

In this transformation of Sheol, as in other regards, a florescent development of Jewish thought took place between the Testaments. The details of the various books are confused and contradictory. Always in the background is the persistent idea of Sheol, but as in the Greek Orphic cults Hades became an intermediate state where souls were punished and purged until, fully cleansed, they could ascend to the blessed life with God, so Sheol among the Jews became intermediate and preparatory, leading up to the judgment day and its eternal awards. As such, the idea is still immensely influential under the guise of the Roman Catholic purgatory, for purgatory is simply Sheol developed and sublimated.

Within this general framework, however, the details of the inter-Testamental books are too varied to be reduced to harmony. Sometimes there is one resurrection, accompanied by the final judgment, sometimes two resurrections, the first partial, the second for all the dead, with a millennial reign between; sometimes only the righteous are to be raised, sometimes both righteous and wicked; in some writings the dead come back to live on earth under familiar, material conditions; in others the transcendental and supernatural quality of the resurrected life is emphasized. Throughout this confused and difficult struggle of Hebrew imagination with its intractable heritage of primitive idea, only one thing is entirely clear: a deepening certainty that death is not the end, that moral destinies include a future life, that it requires the eternal to complete the temporal.

At one point there appeared an emergent idea so radical in its nature as to constitute a departure from traditional Judaism. About 100 B.C. the Messianic kingdom on earth became to some of the Jews an inadequate picture of the final consummation of God’s purpose for man. The earth was seen to be no proper theater for an eternal staging of divine redemption. To give up the hope of the Messianic reign on earth would have been an impossible break with a cherished pattern of faith. The Jews, therefore, did not elide from their thinking the earthly reign of the Messiah, but limited it in time. It was to last a thousand years -- that is to say, a long time but not endlessly. So began the idea of a millennium, which even yet in Biblical fundamentalism exercises a potent sway over the imagination of many Christians, and upon which the curiosity of the credulous has worked for centuries in an endeavor to predict "times and seasons." The millennium came into Hebrew thought as a means of putting a time limit to the hitherto endless extension of the Messianic age on earth. It sprang from a desire not to emphasize the Messianic realm but to circumscribe it; it originated in a more spiritual conception of the world’s finale than could be satisfied by a nationalistic victory or by any kind of social order imaginable on earth. This limitation of the Messianic age opened the door to a notable expansion and heightening of hope. Man’s destiny lay beyond Sheol, beyond bodily resurrection and judgment day, even beyond the Messianic age. All these became inherited scenery, retained, but no longer regarded as the ultimate goal. The consummation of the will of God for the righteous lay in heaven, after this earth had been utterly destroyed.

This development of thought and imagination tended to escape from old nationalistic and materialistic conceptions of the Messianic reign. Its pictured rewards became heavenly rather than earthly. It lent itself to an increasing emphasis on the fate of the individual soul apart from the nation. It rose above the old geographical realism into sublimated interpretations of the future. However limited the effect of such ideas on the apocalyptic writings, their importance was very great. The New Testament stemmed out from this branch of Jewish eschatology.

Indeed, one area of Jewish thought, centering in Alexandria, was so deeply influenced by Hellenistic ideas that its Hebrew distinctiveness was well-nigh lost. The Wisdom of Solomon, in the Apocrypha, represents this submergence of Jewish apocalyptic in Greek philosophy. The writer of this book returns repeatedly to the subject of the future life, but for him Sheol has vanished, bodily resurrection has become both incredible and undesirable, and the Messianic age has so lost its dramatic staging and its vivid importance that the most explicit reference to the idea simply says that the righteous

. . . shall judge nations, and have dominion over peoples;

And the Lord shall reign over them for evermore. (The Wisdom of Solomon 3:8)

The characteristic ideas of Hellenism, however, are present in this book in full force. The soul is immaterial and preexistent, and each soul, when born into the world, receives a body appropriate to its quality; (Ibid., 8:20) the body is a clog on the soul, a prison in which spirit is immured while here on earth; (Ibid., 9:15) the death of the body is a blessed release from imprisonment, and at death the righteous pass to an immediate reward. (Ibid., 4:7-15) Here we find, growing in Judaism under Greek influence, a specific idea of the immortality of the soul as distinct from the resurrection of the body, and this doctrine rises into notable expression:

. . . The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,

And no torment shall touch them.

In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died;

And their departure was accounted to be their hurt,

And their journeying away from us to be their ruin:

But they are in peace. (Ibid., 3:1-4. Cf, Josephus: Antiquities, Bk. xviii, chap. 1, par. 5, and The Wars of the Jews, Bk, ii, chap. 8 par. 11, for similar ideas among the Essenes.)


In passing from pre-Christian Judaism into the New Testament, we cross a boundary line into no strange country; the same ways of thinking used by Palestinian Jews to express their future hopes were used also by the first Christians. In the teaching attributed to Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels are the five major elements characterizing the picture of life after death to which in his youth he was accustomed.

1. Sheol -- called Hades in the New Testament -- was still the place to which the soul went at death. It involved, however, no longer a listless and negative existence. It was under the sovereignty of God, and rewards and penalties were there administered. It was, in a word, recognizably the same Sheol that had developed in the imagination of later Judaism, an intermediate state between death and resurrection. When Jesus said to the thief upon the cross, "Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise," (Luke 23:43) ‘Paradise,’ as usage then current shows, meant not eternal heaven but the portion of Sheol where the righteous were rewarded even before the resurrection. So too in Jesus’ parable, the poor man, dying, went to "Abraham’s bosom," while the rich man "in Hades" was in torment, and between the two a great gulf was fixed. (Luke 16:19-31) The very words in which this scene is depicted were taken from the literature of the time (E.g., II Baruch 51:11; IV Maccabees 13:15, 17. See William Adams Brown: The Christian Hope, p. 84) and refer not to final destinies in an eternal heaven and hell, but to the intermediate fate of the dead in the time between decease and resurrection. It should be noted, however, that Jesus is reported to have used the word Hades only three times, (Matthew 11:23; 16:18; Luke 16:23) twice with an obviously figurative significance Capernaum brought "down unto Hades" (Matthew 11:23) and "the gates of Hades shall not prevail against" the church (Matthew 16:18) -- and only once, in the parable just quoted, in any such way as to throw light on his opinions. From this one use of the word we may infer that Sheol was an inherited factor in Jesus’ thinking, with which he dealt little, if at all, so that his characteristic and original contribution to immortal hope was not phrased in terms of it.

2. The supernatural advent of the Messiah is prominent in the reported words of Jesus. Indeed, this inherited phrasing of hope is so clearly set forth that it seems impossible to read it away, to ascribe it altogether to the disciples’ misunderstanding, to poetize it or otherwise dispose of it except by taking it as a familiar, contemporary way of thinking used by Jesus when he imagined the end of the present evil age and the inauguration of the kingdom of God. Even the accent of immediacy is in Jesus’ words about the coming Messiah, (Matthew 16:27-28) and alike in direct statement and in parable his reported teaching shows the influence of the prevalent Jewish apocalypticism. (E.g., Mark 13:35-37; Matthew 25:1-13; 24:37-44. For contemporary reaction against overstressing the effect of apocalyptic ideas on Jesus’ teaching, see Charles Harold Dodd: The Parables of the Kingdom)

3. The resurrection of the body stands clear in Jesus’ reported teaching. He used the word and the idea behind it, in common with his contemporaries, as a natural vehicle for expressing hope of victory over death. Continued life after Sheol meant to him not the escape of an individual soul to the realm of ‘pure being’ or reabsorption into the eternal Spirit, but the shared life of a divine kingdom. To be readily imagined, this had to be in some sense an embodied life, however sublimated body might become. At any rate, unless the records utterly misrepresent him or his disciples completely misunderstood him, Jesus shared with his race expectation of a bodily resurrection from Sheol.

In the Fourth Gospel he is explicitly quoted on this matter (John 5:28-29) but, even if this saying be read out of the record, evidence remains, especially the narrative of his conversation with the Sadducees about the nature of the resurrected body. (Luke 20:27-40) Jesus joined issue with his opponents, not on the doctrine of the Messianic age and a resurrection preceding it, but on their too gross conceptions concerning it. "They that are accounted worthy to attain to that age," he said, "and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry, nor are given in marriage: for neither can they die any more: for they are equal unto the angels; and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection." (Luke 20:35-36 [marginal translation]) Indeed, quite apart from special quotations, a reëmbodied life, however rarefied and sublimated, was involved of necessity in the whole dramatic picture of the future which Jesus shared with his race and time.

4. The final judgment is present as a dominant factor in this picture. As Jesus is reported to have spoken, there are to be not two resurrections with an earthly kingdom between, but one resurrection, after which comes a general assize, inaugurating the Messianic age. This kingdom, far from being earthly, is itself to be heavenly and eternal. Jesus’ picture of the consummation of mankind’s life is thus freed from popular trappings of materialism and nationalism, and the Messianic age itself becomes so spiritual that those who attain to it are conceived "as angels in heaven." (Matthew 22:30) In this regard Jesus was at one with the best tradition of his people. Both the Book of Enoch (The Book of Enoch 103:4,6; 51:4) and the Apocalypse of Baruch (II Baruch 41:10) use the same comparison with angels in giving an ethical and spiritual interpretation to Israel’s hope. It is impossible, therefore, clearly to distinguish, in Jesus’ thought, the kingdom on earth from the eternal destiny of the righteous in heaven, for the former idea has been so elevated and sublimated that it blends with the latter. Thus to "inherit eternal life" (Mark 10:17; cf. Mark 10:30) and to "enter into life" (Matthew 18:8; 19:17) mean the same thing as to "inherit the kingdom" (Matthew 25:34) and to "enter into the kingdom." (Mark 9:47; Luke 18:24) In a word, the idea of the kingdom of God was interpreted by Jesus in terms of spiritual quality, so that in a real sense men enter the kingdom now and find in the future age the flowering out and full release of the life with God and with one another that begins here. While, however, the Messianic age was thus deprived by Jesus of its early, crude characteristics, the picturesque inauguration of it by a last judgment was still retained, and repeatedly appears in his teaching. (E.g., Matthew 16:27; 25:31-33)

5. Hell, as the ultimate destination of the wicked, was another inherited factor in the thinking of Jesus. His word for it, Gehenna, "the Valley of Hinnom," is familiar in the writings of the later Judaism. The Valley of Hinnom (Cf. Nehemiah 11:30; Joshua 15:8; 18:16; II Chronicles 28:3) was a gorge outside the gates of Jerusalem where in earlier days idolaters had sacrificed their children to Molech. After Josiah’s reforms and his pollution of the accursed spot, it became an object of horror to the Jews and was used for the incineration of refuse and of the bodies of animals and criminals, and in general for the disposal of anything noisome and unclean. The origin of the historic Hebrew picture of hell, therefore, may with some accuracy be located: "He defiled Topheth, which is in the valley of the children of Hinnom, that no man might make his son or his daughter to pass through the fire to Molech." (II Kings 23:10)

Later, the Talmudic theology represented the mouth of hell as being in this valley, and drew the picture with vivid detail: "There are two palm-trees in the valley of Hinnom, between which a smoke arises.... And this is the door of Gehenna." (As quoted by J.T. Barclay: City of the Great King, p. 90) Hell itself, according to the teaching of the apocalyptic writings, was a great abyss full of fire, (The Book of Enoch 18:11-16) in the midst of the earth, and so vividly were its tortures imagined and the satisfaction of the righteous in the contemplation of them conceived that, according to Charles’ understanding of the text, a notorious element in the later Christian doctrine of hell appears in a Jewish book, probably written during Jesus’ lifetime:

. . . Thou wilt look from on high and wilt see thy

enemies in Ge(henna),

And thou wilt recognize them and rejoice

And thou wilt give thanks and confess thy Creator. (The Assumption of Moses 10:10)

In the first three Gospels, the word Gehenna is often used in the original Greek, (E.g., Matthew 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; Mark 9:45-47)and there is nothing in its usage to distinguish its meaning from its Judaistic heritage. The "whole body" is likely to be "cast into hell"; (Matthew 5:29) there "both soul and body" may be destroyed; (Matthew 10:28) there is "eternal fire," (Matthew 25:41) "the furnace of fire"; (Matthew 13:42) there is "weeping and the gnashing of teeth" (Matthew 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30; Luke 13:28) and "their worm dieth not." (Mark 9:48) In all this Jesus was a pensioner on contemporary Judaism-even for the special phrases that he used. (E.g., Judith 16:17) As for the permanence of this torture chamber, while the Greek word, a i w u i o (may mean age-long, and the corresponding Hebrew word means the same, there is no clear reason for supposing that Jesus entertained any mitigating thought about what he called "eternal punishment," (Matthew 25:46) or saw any end to its quenchless fire. To be sure, in one passage the penalties of God are said to be graded to the degree of guilt; (Luke 12:47-48) from another passage one may infer that after the "last farthing" of penalty is paid the sinner may hope for escape; (Matthew 5:25-26) from another passage one may argue that since only one sin can never be forgiven, "neither in this world, nor in that which is to come,’’ (Matthew 12:32) there is the possibility of pardon for all other sins. Only by such dubious, and, in the last case, almost certainly mistaken inferences, however, can one introduce hope into Jesus’ picture of Gehenna. The general statement still holds good that he took over the contemporary pattern of thought about hell, and, neither denying it nor seeming interested primarily in teaching it, he rather used it as a basis for redefining the qualities of character that are eternally disapproved by God. (Matthew 25:41-46)

These five familiar elements in the Jewish thinking of Jesus’ day -- Sheol, the Messiah’s coming, the resurrection, judgment day, and eternal punishment -- are present in Jesus’ reported teaching. In view of this fact it is the more astonishing that his advent did, in the end, make so epochal a difference in man’s outlook on immortality.


This difference must be clear to the reader of the Scriptures as soon as he steps from the Old into the New Testament. In the Old Testament even the references to life after death are few; in the New Testament from the beginning the reader is in an atmosphere of radiant hope concerning life eternal. Moreover, when one adds to the Old Testament the later Jewish writings and moves from them into the Christian scriptures, a contrast still is evident. "When we pass from Jewish literature to that of the New Testament," one scholar says concerning future life, "we find ourselves in an absolutely new atmosphere." (R.H. Charles: Eschatology; Hebrew, Jewish and Christian, p. 306)

This impression should not blind us to the continuance in the Christian scriptures of the patterns of thought and imagination which we have been describing. Indeed, the vividness with which the first Jewish Christians continued to use their inherited categories is obvious in the way they thought of Jesus’ death, his intermediate stay in Sheol, and his bodily resurrection. Still in the Apostles’ Creed millions of Christians confess their faith that Jesus, when he died, "descended into hell," that is, into Hades or Sheol, but the average person, making this confession, does not clearly visualize the literal, geographical significance that this idea had at the first in the New Testament. So realistically was the visit of Jesus to the nether world conceived that early Christian tradition pictured him as preaching the gospel to the rephaim there, thus giving them an opportunity for repentance and salvation. During the intermediate state between his cross and resurrection, when Jesus was in "Paradise" -- that is, the fortunate area of the nether world -- we read that "he went and preached unto the spirits in prison, that aforetime were disobedient (I Peter 3:19-20). . . . For unto this end was the gospel preached even to the dead, that they might be judged indeed according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit." (I Peter 4:6)

Moreover, after this realistic and active stay in the nether world, Jesus’ return to life on earth and, by ascension, to life in heaven, was presented in bodily terms and was picturesquely set in the framework of the three-storied Jewish cosmos. His resurrected body, as described in the assembled narratives of the New Testament, represents alike the original, primitive belief in a resuscitation of the flesh with all its earthly functions still intact and, as well, the later tendency to rarefy and spiritualize the idea of ‘body’ in the risen life. On one side, Jesus’ body is real "flesh and bones"; (Luke 24:39) it is the body that was laid in the tomb revivified so that the tomb is empty; it can be seen and handled; it bears still the wounds of the crucifixion; it can even eat food, and Jesus partakes of "a piece of a broiled fish" to prove it. (Luke 24:36-43; John 20:20-27) On the other side, his flesh functions in utterly unfleshly ways, appearing and disappearing, passing through closed doors, and at last ascending visibly by levitation through the clouds into the sky. (John 20:26: Luke 24:31, 51; Acts 1:9) However one may explain the rise of these stories, with their obvious conflict in the involved ideas of ‘body,’ their import is plain. In the New Testament, in so far as its sources were Jewish, the old dramatic picture of the future world still held sway, including Sheol and a physical resurrection to restored vitality on earth. Without such bodily restoration, so the narrative in Luke makes clear, only a ghost might return from Sheol -- "They were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they beheld a spirit" (Luke 24:37) -- and the one satisfactory proof that the apparition was not a ghost but a resurrected man lay in the evidence of "flesh and bones."

This convinced belief in a resurrected body -- howbeit full of confusion as to what ‘body’ meant -- was the Jewish-Christian way of phrasing life after death. The history of this idea explains the wrestling of Paul over the problem of the Christian’s resurrection. To him it was not a physical affair in any fleshly sense -- "Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God" (I Corinthians 15:50) -- but it was a bodily affair. Throughout the fifteenth chapter of First Corinthians the reader can feel Paul struggling to express his profound faith that the incorruptible part of plan eternally survives his corruptible flesh. But always his Jewish heritage and training prevented his acceptance of the Greek idea of soul as immaterial, although he must have been acquainted with it. In the story of Paul’s address to the Athenians, it is at this point that conflict becomes acute between his faith and theirs: "When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked." (Acts 17:32) Paul, however, was adamant upon this point. He wished not to be "unclothed "of his body in the future world, but "clothed upon" with a new body, (II Corinthians 5:4) a fit spiritual organ and vehicle of his risen life. It seems clear, therefore, that Paul would be on the side of the more idealized and sublimated ideas of Christ’s rising from the dead, and quite out of tune with stories about "flesh and bones" and meals of fish. In Paul’s eyes the new organism given to the Christian, of whose resurrection Christ’s was the prototype, (I Thessalonians 4:14; I Corinthians 15:12ff) would be utterly different from this present flesh. The body, he wrote, "is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: it is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power: it is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body." (I Corinthians 15:35ff)

Furthermore, in the New Testament generally, this Jewish insistence on keeping the body, however rarefied and spiritualized, as part of the future hope, was associated with the Jewish apocalyptic drama -- the sudden arrival of the Messiah on the clouds of heaven and the resurrection to eternal destinies. (E.g., I thessalonians 4:14-17) Some of the conflicts already noted in the confused apocalyptic writings of the Jews reappear in the New Testament. The Book of Revelation, for example, is at odds with the Synoptic Gospels in having not one resurrection, but two, with a millennial reign of the Messiah on earth between them. (Revelation, chap. 20) Only in this passage does the millennium appear in the New Testament. Starting some two centuries before, as a way of stating the long but limited extent of the Messiah’s earthly reign, the millennium had been formalized and made literal in Jewish thought. So an Egyptian Jew, writing probably during the half century preceding the advent of Jesus, figured that since the world was created in six days, and each day is with the Lord as a thousand years, the world would last six thousand years, and that, since after the six days came a day of rest, the world would have a millennial ‘Sabbath’ when its history was over. (The Book of the Secrets of Enoch [Slavonic Enoch]. See R.H. Charles: Eschatology; Hebrew, Jewish and Christian, p. 261) Thus from clever juggling with figures and texts came the literal significance of the famous Jewish-Christian millennium, which the Book of Revelation includes in its drama of the future.

If inherited categories and patterns of thought from the Jewish heritage thus persist into the New Testament, whence came the "absolutely new atmosphere" with regard to the hope of life eternal? The profound difference between typical passages in the New Testament, such as the fifteenth chapter of First Corinthians, and even the most confident passages in the Old Testament is striking. Yet the contrast is not explicable, so far as the New Testament as a whole is concerned, by basic change in the formal patterns of thought.


There is, however, one New Testament book, the Fourth Gospel, where the inherited Jewish categories can be seen in process of reinterpretation. The reason for this rethinking of hope lies in the same factor -- the influence of Hellenistic thought -- that had caused in certain Jewish writings such as the Apocryphal book, The Wisdom of Solomon, the submergence of apocalyptic drama. That the Fourth Gospel shows Hellenistic influence is clear. To be sure, this need not mean conscious dependence on special sources, such as Philo of Alexandria, as has been commonly thought, nor need it reveal any thoroughgoing knowledge of NeoPlatonic philosophy. The ideas of Hellenism were in the air, and in a city such as Ephesus, where the Fourth Gospel probably originated, they would impregnate the thinking and speaking of intelligent people as familiarly as general ideas of evolution and of a law-abiding cosmos do among us today. The Fourth Gospel, therefore, represents early Christianity as it moved out from its first Palestinian setting into the Hellenistic world. The book is not primarily or formally philosophy; it is preaching -- the earnest endeavor to present Christ, and the "eternal life "he came to bestow, to the mind and conscience of a world thinking in Hellenistic terms. The opening verses, based on the idea of the Logos, would be understandable by all Ephesians who knew current thought, even though their special affiliations were as far apart as Stoicism, Neo-Platonism, Alexandrian Judaism, and Persian Zoroastrianism. All such schools of thought contained the idea of the Logos.

So far as future life was concerned, the Hellenistic hope’ represented of old in the Orphic cults and moving through Platonic teaching into the characteristic thinking of cultured Hellenists, was phrased in terms of an immaterial soul escaping imprisonment in a material body. It was, therefore, critically at odds with the Hebrew phrasing. The Greeks taught the immortality of the soul; the Jews taught the resurrection of the body, an idea alien to the Greek mind at its best. Moreover, along with distaste for and disbelief in the idea of physical resurrection, the Greek mind could not be at peace with the apocalyptic drama in general, so that, from the beginning, Hellenistic Christianity questioned the inherited framework we have been describing. The Book of Revelation, for example, which is probably a Jewish apocalypse rewritten in Christian terms, was utterly uncongenial to Hellenists; it was, in consequence, opposed by the Eastern church when its admission to the sacred canon was pressed; and, in the end, it was accepted only after the use of allegory had substituted spiritual meanings for its literal intention.

The Fourth Gospel represents this Hellenistic attitude at work within the New Testament. As the Book of Revelation is early Christianity cast in the mold of Jewish apocalyptic, so the Fourth Gospel is early Christianity trying to commend itself to the Hellenistic mind and, in order to do this, setting itself to supersede the literal dramatics of the Jewish hope.

For example, judgment day, according to the Fourth Gospel, is not so much external and future as internal and present. It is removed from the outer world of picturable events into the inner world of spiritual experience. Repeatedly the Christ of the Fourth Gospel denies that his function is to sit in judgment on men, although in Jewish Christianity that aspect of his commission was magnified: "I came not to judge the world, but to save the world’’; (John 12:47) "Think not that I will accuse you to the Father" ; (John 5:45) "God sent not the Son into the world to judge the world." (John 3:17) In so far as divine judgment takes place, it is operative here and now, an inherent testing of life by its responses to opportunity, a constant interior arbitrament by which light shows up darkness -- "He that believeth on him is not judged: he that believeth not hath been judged already. . . . And this is the judgment, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light." (John 3:18, 19) In this view of divine judgment, which dominates the Fourth Gospel, Jewish dramatics have disappeared and only a spiritual residuum remains. Christ has so revealed light that God need not judge any man, because that light, by being what it is, reveals the status of men’s souls: "For neither doth the Father judge any man, but he hath given all judgment unto the Son." (John 5:22; cf. John 8:15-16)

Similarly, the triumphant arrival of the Messiah, in the Fourth Gospel, loses its theatricality and becomes a present, spiritual experience. The second coming of Christ is not so much a postponed, external event -- if, indeed, any passage in the Gospel can be certainly interpreted to mean that at all -- as it is an inward coming of Christ into the heart of the believer. The fourteenth chapter contains a deliberate discussion of this new view of Christ’s coming, put upon the lips of Jesus as though he were presenting in advance a Hellenistic reinterpretation of the Jewish hope as it would appear in Ephesus at the end of the first century. He will not leave his disciples comfortless and desolate, he says, but will come to them and will manifest himself unto them; this coming is of such a kind, however, that it means his being in them and making his abode with them; far from being a visible, external manifestation, the world cannot see him, and only those who love him and are loved by him will inwardly know this divine parousia. (John 14:16-24) So radical a change was involved in this Hellenized version of the Messiah’s coming that the Jewish objection to it is put upon the lips of "Judas (not Iscariot)" who marveled, we are told, at a second coming so inward and spiritual that it would not be dramatically obvious to the whole world. (John 14:22) This sublimated and spiritual understanding of Christ’s coming dominates the Fourth Gospel.

Out of the same manner of thinking comes the Johannine idea of eternal life. The hope which the Synoptic Gospels had phrased in terms of the kingdom of God on earth is reinterpreted in terms of life eternal. Only three times in the Fourth Gospel is the kingdom even mentioned, (John 3:3; 3:5; 18:36) and in all three its spiritual, unworldly nature is emphasized. The great hope of this Gospel is not any kind of reign on earth but "eternal life," and even this, far from being a post-mortem goal, is a present, interior possession of the soul. "He that believeth hath eternal life"; (John 6:47) "He that heareth my word, and believeth him that sent me, hath eternal life, and cometh not into judgment, but hath passed out of death into life"; (John 5:24) "This is life eternal, that they should know thee the only true God, and him whom thou didst send, even Jesus Christ" (John 17:3) -- this conception of immortal life as a present gift, inhering in the quality of spirit that Christ bestows, is characteristic of the Fourth Gospel. The writer even reveals his conscious awareness of the old view -- physical resurrection to an earthly kingdom -- and deliberately changes its meaning: "Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour cometh, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God; and they that hear shall live." (John 5:25) Note the "now is"! The dramatic scene of the general resurrection is spiritualized and made a present event in the souls of men. It is within the human spirit that the voice of Christ sounds and the dead rise to a new life which is eternal; there, in quality of living, men pass "out of death into life"; there, as the first Johannine Epistle puts it, "He that hath the Son hath the life; he that hath not the Son of God hath not the life." (I John 5:12)

In consequence, for those who have received Christ, the entire issue involved in the future hope is already settled. They have been raised from the dead; they have passed through the judgment; they have been born again and entered the kingdom; they already possess eternal life. Physical death, therefore, is only an incident, so lacking in determinative power that, in a deep sense, it is no longer real: "Verily, verily, I say unto you, If a man keep my word, he shall never see death.’’ (John 8:51) Only in the light of this range of thought can Jesus’ reported words to Martha be understood: "Jesus saith unto her, Thy brother shall rise again. Martha saith unto him, I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day. Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth on me, though he die, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth on me shall never die. Believest thou this?" (John 11:23-26) Martha represents the Jewish belief in an external, postponed, physical resurrection; the Johannine Jesus represents the Hellenistic belief that both death and resurrection are spiritual states within the man. (On Johannine conception of eternal life, see E. F. Scott: The Fourth Gospel; Its Purpose and Theology, chap. 8)

Far from being a matter of merely historic interest, this contrast in the New Testament between Jewish and Hellenistic ways of thinking about the future life has remained ever since an unresolved dilemma in Christianity. In general, the best thinking of the church has followed the Fourth Gospel, but always the old picturesque apocalyptic drama, with its intermediate state, bodily resurrection, theatrical parousia, and millennial reign, has lured the imagination of multitudes. Even within the Fourth Gospel occasional phrases suggest the older pattern of thought, such as, for example, Jesus’ promise, "If I go and prepare a place for you, I come again, and will receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also," (John 14:3) and his word to Peter, "If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?" (John 21:22. On John 5: 28, 29, see R. H. Charles: Eschatology; Hebrew, Jewish and Christian, pp. 370-372) Moreover, in the Johannine thought of the future there doubtless is a consummation in time by which the quality of spirit constituting life eternal will be crowned. In this sense there is a "day of judgment," (I John 4:17) an ultimate denouement in which "the world passeth away, and the lust thereof," (I John 2:17) and an eternal fulfillment of the life in Christ that begins here. The wonder is not that such sublimated reminiscences of apocalypticism should be present, but that the Johannine writer should have commended so boldly to the early church so radical a rethinking of its hope.

One reason, therefore, for the "absolutely new atmosphere" in the New Testament is to be found in this vivid apprehension of eternal life as a present possession, so real that he who has it has already received Christ’s second coming, passed through the judgment, and been raised from the dead.


The distinctive quality of the New Testament in this regard is not, however, to be explained merely by a shift of mental categories. Like everything else characteristic of the Book at its best, this also goes back to the influence of Jesus’ personality. The profoundest note struck in the Old Testament in the development of a future hope came, as we have seen, from the experience of communion with God. Let the interior fellowship of a soul with God be once conceived in terms of mutual care, so that as the soul adores and trusts the Most High, the Most High values and supports the soul, and the corollary is bound to be drawn that such a relationship predicts its own continuance. Such divine friendship is, to use Johannine language, ‘eternal life,’ and unless the world is so topsy-turvy that its material structure abides and its spiritual meaning perishes, what is thus excellent is, as Emerson said, permanent. This has always been the implicit logic of faith in immortality when it has been most powerful and morally significant.

The deepest convictions of men in favor of future hope, therefore, have come not so much from those who have framed arguments for it as from those who have heightened life’s spiritual value, given it new meaning, made it wealthy with fresh significance and purpose until it has seemed as though it ought to go on. The influence of Jesus in this realm cannot be understood without the apprehension of this major fact. He never argued for immortality. He did, however, introduce his disciples into a quality of life that incalculably elevated for them the significance of living. In particular, he made filial relationship with God a vital experience, and in so doing caused a fresh, original upthrust of confidence that death is an open door through which the soul’s life with God moves on.

Indeed, the most characteristic thing Jesus is reported to have said about life after death makes this explicit. No one was surprised when, in speaking of the moral tests of future judgment, he took for granted the familiar thought patterns of his race and time. Once, however, he spoke about immortality not so much out of inherited frameworks of thought as out of his own vivid experience, and "when the multitudes heard it, they were astonished at his teaching. "(Matthew 22:31-33) What he said, in effect, was that when God enters into friendship with any personality, saying, "I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob," there is henceforth no doubt of the continued life of such friends of the Most High, for "God is not the God of the dead but of the living. "That is, after he becomes the God of any soul he will never throw that soul away; the souls for whom God cares are always living, and not dead. The major influence of Jesus himself, therefore, in the matter of endless hope, sprang from the kind of life with God into which he introduced his followers. He moved them up into a quality of experience and a faith concerning it that made expectation of an endless future persuasively real.

How persuasively real he made it is clear not alone from their hopes for themselves but from their convictions concerning his own resurrection. The central factor in creating the difference between the Testaments with reference to life after death is the disciples’ confidence that Jesus himself had been raised from the dead. Whatever opinion the modern mind may arrive at with regard to the origin and validity of the stories associated with Jesus’ resurrection, the historic fact is clear that the first Christianity was essentially associated with a triumphant faith, not alone that death would be overcome but that it had been overcome. In this regard Paul was typical in insisting that if Christ had not been raised, his preaching was vain. (I Corinthians 15:14)

The development of ideas and stories related with Jesus’ resurrection presents one of the most tangled, if not altogether insoluble, problems faced by New Testament scholarship. The assembled documents, as they now stand, suggest that the empty tomb and the sight and handling of the risen body were the origin of confidence in the resurrection, and that the experience of the early Christians afterward went on to further visions of him, more spiritually conceived, as, for example, Paul’s on the Damascus road. Careful study of the New Testament, however, throws doubt on this and suggests the possibility that the line of development may have been in precisely the opposite direction.

The New Testament plainly indicates two kinds of experience as bases of faith in Jesus’ continued life -- one, the empty tomb and its associated events; the other, appearances of the heavenly Christ to various people, especially to Paul at his conversion. Chronologically, the written records of these spiritual visions of the heavenly Christ are the earlier. The Epistles of Paul antedate the Gospels, so that the first written testimony we possess to the resurrection of Jesus is I Corinthians 15:3-8, where Paul lists his own transforming sight of Christ as on a par with, and of the same sort as, all the other appearances of the risen Lord. The question inevitably rises: What if faith in Jesus’ continued life originated in such spiritual experiences and was translated afterward into stories of physical resuscitation by the inveterate Jewish-Christian idea that without such revivification no life after death was conceivable?

Certainly it must be said that such experiences as Paul had on the Damascus road are intelligible and have often been reproduced in Christian history, but that as soon as we pass to the later writings, where the empty tomb and its related events are involved, we find ourselves amid dubious evidence and irreconcilable confusion. The earliest Gospel, Mark, has lost its original ending, as the Revised Version states, so that after verse eight of the final chapter we are dealing with a late addition not present in our oldest Greek manuscripts. As the main body of the Gospel is left, the story of the resurrection is reduced to terms so simple that only the finding of an empty tomb and the word of a young man that Jesus was not there remain; Jesus himself is not seen and the three women who found the tomb empty are too terrified to tell any one.

When we turn from this to the late addition to Mark’s Gospel and to the narratives of the later Gospels, Matthew, Luke, and John, we find a florescent growth of story, full of irreconcilable details. In Mark one young man announces to the surprised visitors at the tomb that Jesus is risen; in Luke, two men; in Matthew, one angel; in John, two angels. In Mark, the women, coming from the tomb, say "nothing to any one"; in Luke they tell "all these things to the eleven, and to all the rest"; in Matthew, they depart quickly and run to bring the disciples word. Whereas in Mark three women visit the tomb, and in Matthew two women, and in Luke three women plus a larger group, in John only Mary Magdalene is thus early at the sepulcher and she tells the first news, not to the eleven, but only to Peter and "the other disciple whom Jesus loved." In Matthew Jesus himself meets the women as they run from the tomb to tell the disciples; in Luke he does not meet them; in John he meets only Mary Magdalene, not as she goes to tell the disciples about the empty sepulcher but after two disciples themselves have visited it. Neither in Matthew nor in Mark, even with the late addition, is there any account that the disciples themselves saw the empty tomb; in Luke Peter ran and looked into it; in John Peter and the "other disciple" both entered the sepulcher. As for specialties in the individual narratives, Matthew alone records the sealing and guarding of the tomb and he alone introduces an earthquake; Luke expands the story of the revelation on the road to Emmaus, which Mark’s addition suggests, and introduces the meal of broiled fish partaken of by Jesus to prove the reality of his resuscitation; John alone, at the end of the century, narrates at length the conversation between Jesus and Mary Magdalene and records the scene between Jesus and Thomas and the appearance by the Sea of Galilee. (Cf. Mark 16:1-20; Matthew 27:62-28:15; Luke 24:1-43; John 20:1-21:23)

No straightforward dealing with these and other similar facts can resolve their incompatibility into even the semblance of consistent narrative. Moreover, underlying such disharmonies is the still more substantial conflict, which we earlier noted, between two ideas of Jesus’ resurrected body, one altogether fleshly, the other so spiritualized as to escape the trammels of a material organism.

It is not clear, therefore, whether within the New Testament itself the idea of Jesus’ resurrection started with an empty tomb and moved on to such spiritual ‘appearances’ as Paul experienced, or, on the other hand, started with ‘appearances,’ such as Paul lists along with his own vision of the heavenly Christ, and moved on to stories of a physical disentombment, which, in Jewish-Christian thought, would be the necessary phrasing of a resurrected life. Certainly, if the idea of Jesus’ risen life started with any factual element associated with an empty tomb, that element was never clearly visualized, even in the imagination of the first disciples, and is now confused for us in narratives that contradict each other on every important detail.

Moreover, when one takes the full measure of Paul’s experience on the Damascus road and of his subsequent thinking about the risen life, both of the Lord and of his followers, there is a profound disparity between his spiritual conceptions and the stories of a revivified body with its physical functions intact. Paul did not believe in the resurrection of the flesh; he specifically denied that "flesh and blood" continued after death; (I Corinthians 15:50) and the spiritual ‘body’ with which he wished to be clothed moved in new dimensions altogether, quite different from the Jews’ resuscitated "flesh and bones." So, too, the heavenly Christ was to Paul a spiritual presence. Being "the first fruits of them that are asleep," (I Corinthians 15:20) he had gone ahead into that new world where flesh was left behind, and the "spiritual body" was not similar to but utterly unlike the "natural body." (I Corinthians 15:35-44) In the New Testament, therefore, our earliest written testimony to the resurrection of Jesus comes from one who devoutly believed that Christ was "raised on the third day" (I Corinthians 15:4) but who could not, consistently with his other thinking, have conceived it as the revivification of a physical body. It is, therefore, entirely possible that the New Testament’s radiant confidence in Jesus’ continued life had more profoundly spiritual origins than an empty tomb. It may have begun in the ardent conviction of the disciples that they were still in communion with their Master, that death could not control him, (Romans 6:9) that he had appeared to them in self-revelations, whether outwardly visible, as psychic investigators like Dr. Frederic Myers would say, (See Frederic W.H. Myers: Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death) or inwardly spiritual as the result of their own kindled faith. This type of experience, suggested not only in Paul but in some of the Gospel narratives, (E.g., Matthew 28:16-17; Mark 16:9-12) may have been the beginning of the conviction that Jesus was not dead but alive, and the more physical representations of the disentombment may have been an aftermath, caused by the insistent belief of the Jewish-Christian mind that resurrection was of necessity involved in life after death.

The acceptance of such an hypothesis, however, leaves still unanswered a host of questions. No one who knows the full extent and complexity of the problem will be dogmatic about it. The tracing of the development of faith in Christ’s risen life is still and probably always will be an unfinished task. Only one thing is certain -- the towering faith of the New Testament that Jesus is alive. By whatever route the first Christians arrived at that faith, their arrival itself is clear. Their confidence in his continued life turned their dismay at Calvary into triumph, and without it some of the most characteristic elements in the New Testament -- the radiant hope and joy of the whole Book, the Christ-mysticism of Paul, the shining reality of the eternal world in the Epistle to the Hebrews, and the enthusiastic acceptance of sacrificial hardship exhibited by the early church -- are inexplicable. Fortunately, the sharing of this faith that Jesus is not dead, but alive, does not depend on any hypothesis as to its origin in the New Testament.


Along with the Johannine interpretation of future hope in terms of eternal life and the victorious faith of the first Christians in their Lord’s conquest of death, other elements, sometimes not easily blended into a consistent whole, contributed to the New Testament’s distinctive faith in life after death. While Paul, for example, always expected the speedy advent of Christ, the old apocalyptic scheme with its dramatic details was in his thinking increasingly sublimated. The spiritualizing of the eschatological hope had its Pauline as well as its Johannine form. Already Christ dwelt in the Christian’s heart by faith; (Ephesians 3:17) already the faithful enjoyed "every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ." (Ephesians 1:3) While, therefore, Paul longed for the great consummation, when at Christ’s coming "the body of our humiliation" would be fashioned anew and "conformed to the body of his glory," (Philippians 3:21) this climactic experience became less an external and imposed event and more the fulfillment of the Christian’s present blessedness. Apparently this emphasis affected Paul’s imagination of the future, although how much it is difficult to say. The individual’s immediate passage through death into eternal glory is even suggested, and Paul, facing life and death, was "in a strait betwixt the two, having the desire to depart and be with Christ; for it is very far better." (Philippians 1:23) In his thinking, apparently, to be "absent from the body" was "to be at home with the Lord," (II Corinthians 5:8) and in the contemplation of this the external dramatics of the traditional apocalyptic tended to grow dim. Some have even thought that according to one passage Christ’s second coming in glory will disclose the saints not in Sheol waiting to be raised, but in heaven with him waiting to join his triumph. (Colossians 3:4) Whether Paul ever harmonized these various elements in his thinking and, if so, how he did it, we cannot know. One thing, however, is certain: with Paul as with the Fourth Gospel, the richness of present spiritual life in Christ was such that the central meanings of the apocalyptic drama tended to be conceived as already in spirit consummated for faithful believers. They had already been raised with Christ; (Colossians 2:12; 3:1) they were already "alive from the dead"; (Romans 8:13) they already sat "in the heavenly places." (Ephesians 2:6) Death, therefore, was to them an incident, a transition from this fleshly body to being "with the Lord. "

A further problem of great interest concerns Paul’s attitude toward the final estate of the wicked. If one accepts the account of the Apostle’s preaching in Acts, he carried over into his Christian faith the Jewish doctrine "that there shall be a resurrection both of the just and unjust." (Acts 24:15) In Paul’s Epistles, however, no such clear declaration is either made or implied. When Christ comes, Paul says in Second Thessalonians, the disobedient will "suffer punishment, even eternal destruction from the face of the Lord," (II Thessalonians 1:7-9) but whether this involves a prior resurrection, on the one hand, or annihilation or endless torment, on the other hand, is not evident. Indeed, almost complete reticence characterizes Paul’s Epistles with reference to the final estate of the wicked. It is worth noting, however, that in one passage the privilege of being made alive again is apparently confined to those "that are Christ’s"; (I Corinthians 15:22-23) that, in another, attaining "unto the resurrection from the dead "is represented as the prize of high endeavor rather than as a universal fact; (Philippians 3:10-11) that, in a third, an essential relationship is announced between the indwelling "Spirit of him that raised up Jesus" and the possibility of resurrection. (Romans 8:10-11) Logically, therefore, Paul could not have believed in the resurrection of the wicked; certainly they are not clearly placed in his picture of the ultimate outcome of the cosmos; whether they pass out of existence or remain in Sheol separated from Christ and his kingdom, it is difficult to say.

Paul’s positive pictures of the ultimate triumph of God over all opposing forces at times suggest universalism -- "all things" sub- jected to Christ and he in turn subjected to God, "that God may be all in all." (I Corinthians 15:28) Whether this involved the annihilation of all opposing forces, demonic and human, or their redemption, or their reduction to utter impotence in Sheol is not made clear. In some passages the old idea of two realms, one of eternal blessedness and the other an alien one of rebellious souls in misery, seems to have been overpassed. As Christ is the Being in whom all things cohere and have their meaning, so it is God’s purpose "through him to reconcile all things unto himself." (Colossians 1:19-20) At his name "every knee" shall bow, and this will be true, says Paul, in all three levels of the cosmos, "of things in heaven and things on earth and things under the earth." (Philippians 2:9-11) All antagonistic "rule and all authority and power" shall in the end be "abolished," (I Corinthians 15:24) and God will "sum up all things in Christ." (Ephesians 1:10)

The New Testament, therefore, so far as faith in immortality is concerned, does possess an "absolutely new atmosphere." This newness, however, is strangely blended with old ways of thinking and nowhere is consistency to be found, either in the imaginative pictures or the intellectual categories used. That is to say, the New Testament is a living Book, representing new thoughts emerging out of old settings, and full of contrasts as individual minds and racial traditions contribute their distinctive qualities. Nevertheless, in this diversity there is unity -- the "promise of the life which now is, and of that which is to come." (I Timothy 4:8)

Considered as a whole, the development of ideas in the Bible concerning the future life represents one of the most notable and influential unfoldings of thought in history. At the beginning, Yahweh is pictured, not only as indignant at man’s eating of the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil" (Genesis 2:9) and so becoming conscious of sin, but as being anxious lest man should "take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever," and, in order to guard against this event, man is driven from Eden and its gates are guarded by "the flame of a sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life." (Genesis 3:22-24) This, in the early Old Testament, Yahweh cherishes immortality as a divine prerogative which he will not share with man. As with social regimentation and behavioristic concepts of human nature, so too with the denial of immortality, what seems to many people a modern conclusion was, in fact, the primitive beginning. From that beginning the Bible records a long development of experience and thought consummated at last in Christ, "who abolished death, and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel." (II Timothy 1:10)