The religions of the ancient world had one thing in common. They all developed around an elaborate afterlife theology. One of the primary religious impulses of the ancient religions is the ideas of some kind of theory about the afterlife. Greeks, the Babylonians, the Egyptians, native Americans, Hindus, eastern Indians, all have their own elaborate afterlife theologies. Whether it’s joining the world of the forms, going off to the stars, a happy hunting ground, or reincarnation…
All the religions of the ancient world had developed elaborate afterlife theologies with one notable exception – the religion of the Hebrews. The worshippers of Yahweh, the God of Israel, not only did they not have an elaborate theology, they barely had any afterlife theology at all. It’s almost as if God, in leading his people through the Old Testament, did not let them develop a lot of theories about the afterlife.
As we read the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament, we tend to try to read more into the Old Testament than what is actually there. The fact is, there is very little emphasis on an afterlife in the faith of the ancient Hebrews as they became the worshippers of Yahweh. The psalmist would say things like “God deliver me, who is going to praise you in sheol (the land of the dead)? If I die, whose going to praise you when I’m dead? I can praise you when I’m alive You better save me now before I go down into the pit, into Sheol. No ones going to praise you in Sheol.” That kind of language is common among the prophets.
The religion of the Jews of the Old Testament was a religion that was centered on being formed through the Torah into a just and worshipping society here and now. Unlike the pagan religions, the religions of the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Hebrew religion was not founded or based upon an afterlife expectation. It was based upon being the people of God formed into people of justice and worship here and now according to the Torah.
But late in Jewish life there began to be a few hints of afterlife theology, notably in the books of Isaiah and Daniel. “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day, “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”” Isaiah 25:6-9 ESV. Here’s the image. God is setting up a banquet table, a sumptuous feast for us to come and enjoy. But if you’re going to enjoy a sumptuous feast, what good is it if you’re dead? What good is the finest New York Strip if you don’t have any teeth? You’ve got to be raised from the dead to enjoy this feast. If you’re lying in the grave with all your teeth falling out, that steaks not gong to do you any good. You’re going to have to be resurrected to eat that steak.
The picture the poet gives is this – And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He’s talking about this shroud covering the nations, the veil covering the people. You know how when someone dies, we will pull a sheet over them to cover their face. What Isaiah sees is that this shroud of death is being pulled over all humanity, because all humanity is subject to death. Every human being will have that experience of the veil, the shroud, the burial cloth being pulled over their face. But Isaiah imagines a day when God takes that burial shroud, that sheet being pulled over the dead, and he takes it off, turns it into a tablecloth and spreads his banquet and calls people out of their graves to a feast, to experience once again the richness of life.
It will be said on that day, “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation. What is it we need to be saved from? Death. This resurrection becomes the hope of the Jewish people. It happens late in their history. It’s not during the time of Abraham, not during Moses, not during David, but late, as we get into the prophets, especially after the exile. Resurrection begins to become the hope, especially when we get to Daniel. It becomes the hope that what God is going to do is raise the dead. This is unique, none of the Gentiles think like this. The Gentiles think “what we’ve got to do is go to a better place.” You hear that kind of language, “he’s gone to go to a better place.” That is the dominant pagan, gentile way of thinking. This place is subject to death, ultimately it’s no good, what we’ve got to do is go to a better place.
That is not the Jewish hope or the Christian hope. The Jewish, and Christian, hope is this – this is good. God’s creation is good. Yet it’s been defiled by death because of sin. But God has not given up on it, he’s not kicking it to the garbage can. God is going to conquer death. There is going to be a resurrection. Death will be defeated. Death will be no more. We don’t have to go to a better place, this place is just fine if we can overcome death, if we can conquer death, if we can get rid of death. If we can overcome sickness and disease, this place is just fine. That’s the Jewish hope, that’s the Christian hope.
That’s the hope that’s been fulfilled in Jesus Christ, because on the third day he was raised from the dead. Now we have come to believe in Him.