The Old Testament teaching on the resurrection is consistent with what the New Testament teaches
Greg A. King
The claim has sometimes been made that the Old Testament has little or nothing to say about the resurrection from the dead. In particular, it has been posited that the teaching of bodily resurrection, so clearly proclaimed in the New Testament (1 Cor. 15:51‒55; 1 Thess. 4:13‒18), is absent from the Hebrew Bible, or that the teaching that dead corpses will be revived in toto appears rather late in the Old Testament era, after the destruction of the monarchy and the onset of the Babylonian exile.
For instance, Thomas Ridenour asserted, “There is no ‘uniform and certain doctrine of the afterlife’ offered in the Old Testament.”1 To cite another example, “The Old Testament teaches virtually nothing about resurrection or life after death.”2 The well-known scholar R. H. Pfeiffer was only slightly more positive, concluding that the doctrine of the resurrection was “a doctrine unknown in the Old Testament before the third century.”3
But a careful study of several Old Testament passages raises serious questions about the validity of these assertions, suggesting that they may be flawed in one or more ways, including operating with faulty presuppositions, overlooking important biblical evidence, and/or incorrectly interpreting some key verses pertaining to the topic.
It is worth mentioning that this article will not deal with Ezekiel 37:1 to 14, a passage that has sometimes been used to support bodily resurrection in the Old Testament. Most scholars hold that this passage does not speak primarily of a personal or individual resurrection but of the resurrection of Israel from exile, a national restoration. Having said this, however, it is interesting to note that the imagery of Ezekiel 37 appears on the wall of an ancient synagogue from Dura-Europas to illustrate the promise of a bodily resurrection from the grave. As Lamar Cooper aptly states: “While clearly the prophet had a national resurrection for Israel in mind, it also is but a small step from what he saw concerning Israel to the realization that the same God who could resurrect a dead nation also had the power to conquer humanity’s greatest enemy, death.”4
Before turning to a study of the specified Old Testament verses, other questions should be briefly considered: Why is this issue important? Does it really matter whether the Old Testament clearly teaches bodily resurrection, as long as it is taught in the New Testament? After all, as some believers energetically proclaim, “We are New Testament Christians!”
There are several reasons that this study is of consequence: First, it has implications for the unity of the Bible. The following question is an important one: Does Scripture express a unified and consistent teaching on the doctrine of the afterlife? Or are there competing and contradictory perspectives put forward within the pages of the Bible, perspectives that are in conflict with one another and that jostle for supremacy within the inspired record? If the latter is the case, then perhaps the Old Testament maintains that death is the end of personal identity, with the grave being the final destination for humanity, leaving it to the New Testament to offer hope beyond the grave. However, if the Old Testament description of bodily resurrection is consistent with that of the New Testament, then it provides support for the position that Scripture presents an overarching unity on this and perhaps other subjects as well.
Second, it has implications for the coherence of the biblical teaching on the plan of salvation. In a nutshell, this plan involves God’s intention to restore humans to the state of perfection, glory, and immortality that existed prior to the fall of Adam and Eve, to grant them eternal life once again. The culmination of this plan is clearly described in the Bible’s last book, Revelation (see especially chapters 21 and 22), but it is sometimes asked whether this plan was known in Old Testament times. Is there any solid Old Testament support for God’s plan to restore humans to immortality in bodily form? Or is such evidence only discoverable in the New Testament? If support is also found in the Hebrew Bible, it buttresses the view that Scripture sets forth a coherent plan of salvation.
One might also consider this issue from the standpoint of godly Israelites who lived in the Old Testament era. As they inevitably aged and died, as they marched inexorably toward the grave and the ensuing separation from those whom they loved, was there any reason to hope for a reunion? Did the Lord grant His faithful followers prior to the first coming of Jesus any basis to hope that they would see their loved ones again? Or was their perspective on the afterlife full of bleakness and despair, and were they enshrouded in a fog of darkness that would not be lifted until the appearance of the Messiah and the writing of the New Testament? These questions would have mattered to believers in Old Testament times, and they should matter to us as well.
Job 19:25 to 27
It is appropriate to turn to Job 19:25 to 27 first because it is arguably the earliest of the three passages under consideration here. Certain details mentioned in the book, such as the priestly role that Job assumes within the family unit (Job 1:5) and the way that his wealth is measured in livestock rather than in precious metals (vs. 3), suggest a patriarchal setting for when the events of the book took place. Also, the connections between the vocabulary of Job and both Aramaic and Ugaritic can be used to support an early date for the composition of Job. It is worth noting that an early date is consistent with the tradition recorded in the Babylonian Talmud supporting Mosaic authorship. In any case, the points made here are not dependent on an early dating of the Book of Job.
“‘For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!’” (Job 19:25‒27).5
This passage is thought by some to be “the high point of the book” of Job.6 While much of the book is permeated with an atmosphere of pessimism because of Job’s intense suffering and anguish, here a note of hope and optimism is struck. In fact, the hopeful note is all the more obvious because of the contrast it presents with its surroundings.
This jarring contrast has led some commentators to view it as a secondary interpolation from the hand of a later editor and to disregard it when interpreting the theology of Job. However, unless there is some manuscript support, it is better to avoid such forays into subjective speculation and consider the entirety of Job when setting forth the book’s message.
Several main points emerge from this passage: First, Job is convinced that he has a living Redeemer. “‘I know that my Redeemer lives,’” he declares. In this statement Job is speaking with certainty, proclaiming his deepest conviction.
The word Redeemer is the participial form of a verb sometimes translated “kinsman-redeemer.” This participle is used in two major ways in the Old Testament. First, it is used to speak of a next of kin who works to help uphold and defend the rights of another person because of the latter’s inability to do so for some reason, such as poverty or death. Additionally, it is used in a theological way to claim that the Lord is Redeemer. It is possible that both of these usages are brought together here.
In the context of Job 19, Job faces accusations from his so-called friends, and he is in danger of losing everything, including possessions, life, and posterity. His family line is at risk of being eliminated from the community. In light of the jeopardy in which Job finds himself, it is extremely important that he has a redeemer who lives. But just who is this redeemer?
A second important point that emerges from this passage is that Job’s redeemer is none other than God Himself. It should be noted that neither all scholars nor all Bible translations agree with this view. Some Bible versions capitalize the word redeemer, showing that they consider the term a reference to God, while other versions, such as the KJV and the NEB, render the word in lower case. The latter position was supported by Sigmund Mowinckel, who opined, “The redeemer is an arbiter, one other than God, who will arise to defend Job before God.”7
However, there are convincing reasons in favor of identifying this redeemer with God. First, a close reading of the passage itself supports this identification. The “Redeemer” of verse 25a is likely the same as the “God” of verse 26b, whom Job will see. As Francis Andersen states, “Verses 25–27 are so tightly knit that there should be no doubt that theRedeemer is God.”8
Second, “the use of the adjective ‘alive, living’ . . . with ‘redeemer’ adds great weight to this identification of God as the kinsman-redeemer.”9 Job states that even though he may die, his Redeemer, who is living, will come to his aid. This description calls to mind the references to God in Scripture as “the living God” (see, e.g., Deuteronomy 5:26; Joshua 3:10; and Jeremiah 10:10). God is the living God because He created life in the first place, sustains it in an ongoing way, and will work to restore it to all who are faithful to Him. “Therefore, the title ‘living Redeemer’ applies to none other than God.”10
A third salient point that should be highlighted from this passage is Job’s confidence that he will be revived from death in bodily form to have a personal encounter with God. As Job 19:26 proclaims, “‘After my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God.’” Though this point might seem self-evident, based on a close reading of the text, two significant aspects of it have been challenged:
Not all Bible scholars think that Job is speaking of something that will occur after his death. For example, evangelical commentator John Hartley takes the position that Job is expecting God to “intervene before Job’s death and restore him to his former status.”11 However, the phrases “at the last” in verse 25 and “after my skin has been thus destroyed” in verse 26 provide strong evidence that there will be the passage of some undetermined amount of time and that Job will experience his own death before his redeemer stands up to do His work. In fact, the phrase “at the last” can properly denote an eschatological event. Moreover, Job’s expressed hope that his words be permanently inscribed in stone (19:23, 24) presuppose his death. As Andersen states, “there would be no need for Job to deposit a written testimony, if he expects to be vindicated before he dies.”12
A second aspect of the above point that has been challenged is whether Job will be revived in bodily form. Some early Jewish interpreters, as evinced by the Book of Jubilees (23:30, 31), took the position that Job as a bodiless spirit would witness his vindication by God before the local assembly.
However, this seems very unlikely. “The references to skin, flesh, and eyes make it clear that Job expects to have this experience as a man, not just as a disembodied shade, or in his mind’s eye.”13 How can Job be in a disembodied state, if, as he declares, “‘in my flesh I shall see God, whom . . . my eyes shall behold’”? Furthermore, such a perspective would be out of keeping with the entirety of the Old Testament, which never presents the spirit or the soul as something capable of an independent existence apart from the body.
While this passage does not describe the resurrection of the righteous at the same level of specificity and detail as does the New Testament, Job does clearly seem to anticipate a “favourable meeting with God after death as a genuine human being.”14
Though some have assigned Isaiah 26:19 to a time later than the prophet Isaiah because of its content, there is ample evidence to consider the book a unified composition coming from the time of the prophet in the eighth century. The verse reads: “Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead.”
Much could be said about this significant declaration of the prophet Isaiah. First, simply stated, there is hope for the dead. This serves as a positive note that runs counter to some of what has come before in the so-called Little Apocalypse of Isaiah found in chapters 24 to 27. These chapters report that the earth is to be severely depopulated, due to divine judgment (24:1–6). The false gods that have been worshiped by the people of Israel are said to have died, never to be heard of again (26:13, 14). One might legitimately wonder, is this same future—namely, death leading to oblivion—in store for all people? No! In a bright statement of hope that contrasts strongly with the previous verse, the prophet declares, “Your dead shall live” (vs. 19).
Second, this hope is based on a bodily resurrection of a certain group of people. As the text proclaims without equivocation, “Their bodies shall rise” (vs. 19). In other words, Isaiah is not speaking of bodiless spirits or formless apparitions rising from the dead. It is “their bodies,” the portion of them that is “in the dust,” that shall arise. This is in keeping with the Hebrew anthropology set forth in the Book of Job.
Third, this resurrection is described as rousing the dead from a state of sleep. The command given to those who dwell in the dust is “‘Awake!’” As will be noted, the raising of the dead being likened to awakening them from sleep is consistent with the rest of Scripture.
Two questions sometimes arise in connection with this verse. Is it referring to an individual resurrection or the resurrection of the nation, that is, the restoration of Israel from exile? And who is the group that shall be raised, the ones described as “your dead”? Are they only Israelites, or are others included as well?
Regarding the first query, though some renowned scholars have opined that the reference is to the restoration of the nation, this position is not borne out by the evidence. Unlike Ezekiel 37:1 to 14, there is nothing explicit in the context to indicate that the nation’s resurrection is being described. In fact, as Gary Smith notes in his recent commentary, “There is no reference in this section to leaving Babylon, going through the desert, returning to the land, the restoration of Davidic rule, rebuilding ruined cities or any of the other themes so commonly associated with the restoration of the nation in other passages.”15
Additional support for the position that Isaiah 26:19 is speaking of a literal resurrection of people from the dead comes from noting that it is expressing the fulfillment of a promise stated in the previous chapter: “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” (25:8). However, the assertion that Yahweh will eliminate the “covering” of death, as the prophet describes it (vs. 7), is stated without indicating how it will be done. This matter is left unresolved. Isaiah 26:19 resolves this by indicating that it will be accomplished by a resuscitation of bodies that sleep in the dust.
But who is this group that will be raised? The answer to this question is given in Isaiah 25. Death is depicted as both a “covering” and a “veil” (25:7), something enshrouding certain people and keeping them from experiencing the light of life. As for the identity of those enshrouded, they are said to be “all peoples” and “all nations” (vs. 7). Thus, this resurrection is not limited to Israel; rather, it is of universal dimensions. As Alec Motyer states: “In sum, therefore, the verse is a promise of life for the world, the fulfillment of 25:6–10a. . . . In this regard, the terms of the present verse go beyond the figurative to the literal and declare a full resurrection, including the resurrection of the body.”16 Such a wondrous reality should not be overlooked in understanding the message of the Old Testament regarding the afterlife.
The passage in Daniel that speaks to the resurrection is a part of the prophet’s last and most detailed prophecy. Though it is near the beginning of a new chapter, “the chapter division should not be allowed to obscure the continuity of the text with what has gone before.”17
The verse reads: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” As indicated above, this verse is considered by some scholars to be the clearest—or even the only clear—reference in the Old Testament to proclaim the resurrection of the dead. But what does the text actually say? There are several important points to note:
First, it declares the certainty of a future resurrection. Without equivocation, the prophet proclaims that those who sleep, a favorite biblical metaphor for death, “shall awake.” Notwithstanding the fact that some scholars have taken the position that this verse is speaking of a national restoration for Israel in the same vein as Ezekiel, this is clearly not the case. Nearly everything about the text and its surrounding context indicates that a personal resurrection is in view.
When will this resurrection take place? Though an exact time is not specified in Daniel 12:2, the previous verse, which seems to precede it chronologically in the sequence of events, twice states that the event described will happen “‘at that time.’” Also, Daniel 11:40 specifies that these climactic events of the prophecy will happen at “‘the time of the end.’”
Second, the resurrection includes both the righteous and the wicked. Though one might expect that the resurrection would include only those faithful believers in God, the text is clear that two groups are raised to receive their different rewards.
There is some uncertainty about the meaning of the adjective many. Some have advocated the view that this is a reference to a limited resurrection. While this is one possibility, Joyce Baldwin has pointed out that this term is used several times in the Old Testament with an “inclusive significance,” in which it basically means “all.”18 For instance, in Isaiah 2:2 and 3, the phrase “‘all the nations’” in verse 2 is equivalent to “‘many peoples’” in verse 3. Another example of this usage is in Isaiah 53:11 and 12, in which the “many” that the Servant justifies and for whom He serves as sin-bearer include all of the saved. “In any case, resurrection at the end of time is presented as a clear reality.”19
A third salient point from Daniel 12:2 is that this resurrection is, at least for the righteous, of permanent duration. That is, they are raised to “‘everlasting life,’” never to die again. While this may have been implied by the promise in Isaiah 25:8 that the Lord “‘will swallow up death forever,’” this is the first clear statement that those who are raised become recipients of immortality. They are not raised simply to age and die again, as was the case with other instances of resuscitation. No, there is a climactic finality to the Lord’s action on their behalf.
Some prominent scholars have declared that there is no certain hope of the resurrection in the Old Testament or that the belief in the resurrection in this era was only hazy and vague. Such views are not based on a careful examination of the biblical text, but on a certain evolutionary perspective on the development of Old Testament thought. This perspective holds that the Old Testament progressed from a rather impoverished belief system early on to a much more advanced one during the intertestamental period, and that early Old Testament writings and persons exhibit neither belief nor interest in the afterlife.
But in the strong riposte of Alec Motyer: “How insubstantial this is! The Egyptians had an intricate and highly developed mythology of the dead and the life to come centuries before Isaiah. Even Canaanite religion, with all its brutishness, ascribed to its executive god an annual victory over death. We are expected, however, to accept that Israel’s ‘emphasis on Yahweh as the living God’ put the ‘shadowy realm of the dead . . . outside his jurisdiction’ (Herbert). In the name of all logic, how could this be so?”20
It is worth remembering that when Abraham arrived in Egypt, the pyramids of Giza, constructed by a people who expended a great deal of effort providing resources for the departed Pharaoh’s existence in the next world, were already several hundred years old. Should we take the view that the Israelites were one of the only ancient people groups that did not have a belief in the afterlife?
Moreover, there is biblical evidence to dispute this perspective. For example, the Old Testament does tell of several people who are resuscitated from death (1 Kings 17:17–24; 2 Kings 4:18–37; 13:20, 21), as well as at least one who escaped death entirely (Gen. 5:24). Additionally, several psalms manifest the belief that death is not the ultimate end and proclaim deliverance from the grave. For instance, Psalm 49:15 declares, “God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me.”
Though the Old Testament teaching on resurrection is not as explicit and detailed as in the New Testament, it is “theologically consistent with what the New Testament teaches. Human hope is not in the immortality of an internal portion of a human being, but rather in God’s wholistic restorative, re-creative power.”21
“The God of the [Old Testament] is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exod. 6:3; cf. Luke 20:37, 38). The prospect of life after death in the [Old Testament] is not as fully developed as it is in the [New Testament], but there can be no doubt about the fact that [Old Testament] saints believed they would see God and enjoy his presence.”22
Greg A. King, Ph.D., is Dean of the School of Religion, Southern Adventist University, Collegedale, Tennessee.