You may not know it, but there is a very controversial issue in Old Testament theology concerning the afterlife. It seems that the Old Testament saints did not have the privilege of reading all these books about people who have died, seen heaven, and come back to tell us all about that which awaits us! In fact, as odd as it may seem, the hope that you and I have of being in a conscious state of existence with Christ at the moment of death is strangely absent among Old Testament believers. Those in the Old Testament often speak of death as the absence of God, hopelessness, and dead silence.
This makes little sense to most of us. We, like Paul, attempt to view death as gain (Phil. 1:21). We believe that the moment we exit the body is the moment we are present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8). Let me correct myself. The word “present” does not do this passage justice. “We are of good courage,” Paul says, “and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.” The word used here for “home” is endemeno. It is used only here in the New Testament. In fact, Paul uses it three times. It means “to be in a familiar place” (BDAG) or “to be in a place of comfort.” “Home” is a good translation. We believe that when we die, we exit the familiarity of our current existence to a greater comfort with the Lord. We believe that the day we die is the day we are in Paradise (Luke 23:43), when we are home. As well, although we need to be careful that we don’t make parables walk on all four theological legs, I think a good case can be made that we have an angelic escort to heaven the moment we take our last breath (Luke 16:22). All of this to say that believers in Christ have very strong biblical support for the hope that death immediately presents us with a mysterious yet wonderful new life with Christ.
However, this does not seem to be the case with Old Testament believers. They present themselves as those who fear death a great deal, more than most of us are comfortable with. In fact, in some cases, it looks like they don’t believe in heaven at all. Notice here:
For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?
David, fearing the presence and antagonism of his enemies, is calling on God for deliverance. What is his main argument? Well, it goes like this: “If my enemies take my life, I will not be able to praise you.” What gives here, David? In Sheol (death, the grave), he won’t be able to praise God? Are you kidding? When we die, we will be in his very presence. And the first thing I will do is fall down and worship Christ.
And this verse is not the only troublesome verse in Old Testament personal eschatology (theology of the what happens after death). Listen to these passages:
What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?
Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the departed rise up to praise you? Selah
The dead do not praise the LORD, nor do any who go down into silence.
For Sheol does not thank you; death does not praise you; those who go down to the pit do not hope for your faithfulness.
For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten.
Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.
These passages are indeed difficult to harmonize with a New Testament theology. All of them suggest that, at least according to Old Testament believers, death is it. There is no afterlife or intermediate state of existence and, possibly, no resurrection.
So how do we deal with this? I see a few options:
1. There is no intermediate state
This is often referred to as “soul sleep” or “Christian mortalism.” There is another fancy term for this, hypnopsychism. This view simply argues that the soul ceases to exist during the time between death and judgement. There is no conscious intermediate state of existence. This has been around for a while. In fact, John Calvin wrote a tract condemning this view called Psychopannychia. The subtitle reads: “Or a refutation of the error entertained by some unskillful persons, who ignorantly imagine that in the interval between death and the judgment the soul sleeps.” As odd as it may seem, there are some well-known theologians who have argued for this view. Among them are John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, John Milton, and A.T. Robertson. Of course this is the doctrine that is dogmatized by Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christadelphians, and Seventh Day Adventists. And it will probably surprise many of you to know that N.T. Wright is an advocate of Soul Sleep. But the most significant believer in this view is Martin Luther (although many argue he changed his position later in life).
My opinion is that while this view sufficiently deals with these Old Testament passages, it is nearly impossible to systematize with the New Testament passages mentioned above. I don’t think this is a legitimate Christian option and I would be comfortable labeling it as heterodoxy (note: that does not mean that those who hold to this are not saved; it just means that their view of personal eschatology is coloring outside the lines of the historic Christian faith and fails to present a legitimate biblical theology).
2. Old Testament believes did believe in a conscious intermediate state
The argument here is that these passages in the Old Testament must be contextualized. The writers were not trying to present a theology of personal eschatology, but simply saying that our life here on earth presents us with a particular work that ends at death. While here on earth, we can praise God in a different way through the trials, tribulations, and glories of this world. For example, when we die, we can no longer evangelize. When we die, we can no longer partake in the sufferings of Christ. When we die, we cannot grow in our sanctification. When we die, we cannot continue to acquire rewards. It is in this sense only that our spirit becomes silent. Support for this can be found in John 9:4 when Christ says, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work.” The “night” is not an uncouncious state of existence, but a ceasing from the work that glorifies God in a unique way.
This view is the most popular in Christian history and held by most evangelicals and Catholics.
3. Old Testament believers did not believe in a conscious intermediate state, but this does not mean that there is not one
Here, it is granted that the Old Testament believers did not believe in an intermediate state of existence, but the New Testament provides further revelation which reveals a greater hope. The Old Testament passages above seem to present an authorial understanding which lacks any view of hope in the afterlife, while it seems very possible that they did have a hazy view of the resurrection. In short, their view of what happens after death is dark, sad, and wrong. But we should not expect Old Testament believers to have a fulfilled theology. Revelation is given progressively. What this means is that there are a lot of things that Old Testament believers did not know. When they spoke on issues such as this, we should not expect them to always express a perfected hope.
Of course, the problem with this may be obvious. It seems to deny inerrancy as there is a suggestion that these Old Testament texts teach wrong theology. However, I don’t necessarily think we have to go there. Many times Old Testament saints write to illustrate their feelings, but this does not necessarily mean that what they write is teaching doctrine. For example, in Psalm 22:1 David says “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We know that God does not forsake any of his children and he had not forsaken David (Heb. 13:5). David was wrong in his theology, but accurately expressed his feelings. We give David some theological slack here, understanding that such cries are not meant to contribute to doctrine, but to accurately represent the troubles that people go through. With the passages that do seem to suggest soul sleep, they, like Psalm 22:1, are not meant to contribute to doctrine. Yes, it is very possible that Old Testament saints (at least the ones who wrote the above passages), did not believe there was any consciousness after death, but this does not mean that there is not consciousness after death. Progressive revelation explains this problem.
I reject any notion of soul sleep. Again, I don’t think anyone is going to hell for believing it, I just don’t think it is a legitimate option. I do believe both #2 and #3 are worthy of support. However, I am more inclined to #3 right now. I do understand the problems people may see with inerrancy (a doctrine to which I hold), but I think these problems can be overcome by looking at it as presented above. I think #3 holds to the integrity of authorial intent hermeneutics (interpreting the Bible through the eyes of the author) better than the other two options. Either way, I believe very strongly that when believers die, they are immediately escorted to the presence of Christ and await resurrection with great anticipation.
What about you? Which option do you think is best?