Immortality: Evolution of an Idea

March 14, 1999


Immortality:  Evolution of an Idea

A member of this church has asked  if I would spend some sermon time on the topic of life after death,  knowing that there would be in this audience a wide range of opinions.  She is one of our best and brightest, and I owe her, and others of you who have expressed a similar interest, a response as thoughtful and honest as possible.   From as far back in human history as we have any kind of record people have wondered whether there is life of some sort after death, but you would have to read dozens of  books to trace all their beliefs and customs, so we will limit ourselves today  to what is said in what we call the Old Testament, where it may surprise you to discover how slowly the notion of personal immortality evolved among the Jewish people. 

The first thing to notice is the amazing degree of silence in the Old Testament about life after death.  Through the early centuries of their history, there  is no hint that the Jewish people believed in an afterlife where some would be rewarded and others  punished — in other words, no heaven or hell as Christians understand those words.  The Jewish people focused on a this-worldly religion rather than on what they apparently felt were futile speculations about life after death. If you did evil, you would be punished in this life.  If you did well, you would be rewarded in this life.  What Job wins at last in that famous story is  long life, a  large family, and more riches than ever before — all of it right here, on  earth.  Not a word is said about spending eternity with God, an idea that evolved late and very slowly in the Hebrew religion.  You will look for it in vain through book after book of the Old Testament.  When Job asks, “If a man die, shall he live again?” the question is rhetorical.  He gives no hint that he thinks the answer could be Yes.

Questions about life after death, which fascinate us, seemed not to interest the ancient Hebrew people at all — an indifference that contrasted sharply with the beliefs of their close neighbors in Egypt.  We all know from those withered relics we call mummies that in Egyptian faith any hope of survival in an afterlife depended on preserving  the body, so they went to incredible lengths to do that, helped by vast tombs and an unusually dry climate.  If we study Egyptian art we quickly realize that for them life after death in the realm of the gods did not differ from life on earth.  What the dead are shown doing for work or play are the same things they did while alive on earth:  the peasant plows, the craftsman spins or weaves or makes pottery, the nobleman goes birdhunting.  The Egyptians felt that this life was good;  they asked no more than that the gods would let them go on having the same kind of life after death.

We see nothing of all this in most of what we call the Old Testament.  The great influence on the Hebrew people came not from their neighbor, Egypt, but from Mesopotamia, the country of their origin, known at various times as Babylon and Persia and in modern times as Iraq.  According to Jewish scripture, a man named Abraham grew up in this country, hundreds of miles away from what we now know as Israel.  When he left Mesopotamia  to become the founding father of the Hebrew people, he took with him the religious legends of his homeland.

 Students of history and comparative religions agree that the early Hebrew people understood the universe in terms of that Mesopotamian mythology, which viewed the universe as a three-tiered structure:  an upper realm where the gods lived, a middle world given by the gods to humans, and  a dark and gloomy  underworld where the dead were thought to dwell in a kind of vast mausoleum.  This place was called Sheol, or the pit, where ghostly shades of the dead lingered on, oblivious of their former lives, in a silent world with none of the pleasures of life on earth and no hope of a future somewhere else.  Job has Sheol in mind when he describes his own future death as “[taking] the road from which I shall not return.”   As you read about it, you discover that it’s  a kind of nothingness,  where the described features of dust and darkness, doors and bolts are similar to what one might find  on an ancient tomb.  Sheol, in other words, is one huge grave  in which all mankind lies down together.  When Job describes this as a place where the “wicked cease from troubling,”  “the weary are at rest,”  and “the slave is free from his master,” he is not talking about the Christian heaven, and he does not mean those words to be consoling.  He is simply stating that death is the great leveler which strikes all people alike and leaves them all equally and permanently dead.  [Chap.3]

As I have said, almost every detail of this picture can be found in the religions of Mesopotamia, where Abraham grew up, and in Canaan, the land to which he migrated.  What that suggests is that biblical writers simply drew on traditional Semitic folklore when they had anything to say an afterlife.  And because this is so often misunderstood, a reminderone more time that the Hebrew Sheol, or pit, bears no resemblance to what  Christians mean by hell, an idea which would enter Jewish life much later.   As one of the great scholars of comparative literature puts it, “Nowhere in the OT is the abode of the dead regarded as a place of punishment or torment.  The concept of an eternal ‘hell’ developed in Israel only during the Hellenistic period [in the two or three centuries before Christ]….”  (T.H.Gaster, IB Dict., vol. 1, p. 788)

The prophet Isaiah gives us a vivid picture of the Hebrew netherworld when he tells how the hated king of Babylon would be brought down to Sheol, the pit, to be met on his arrival by other kings who had preceded him in death, all of them mere shadows of their former selves [Chap.l4].  This kind of image comes straight out of Babylonian  folklore.  When their goddess Ishtar goes down into the underworld it is described as the “dark house…. which none leave who have entered it, where over the door is spread dust” — about as dismal and hopeless an image of the destiny of humanity after death as anyone has ever imagined.

In the religion of Abraham’s native Babylon, people did not share the Egyptian notion that death was a continuation of this life.  For them death was nothing more than what it seemed to be, the end of life.  So when their great national hero Gilgamesh goes looking for the plant of immortality, a goddess tells him he won’t find eternal life because  the gods have reserved that for themselves.  And since that’s  the case, she advises him to enjoy this life to the fullest.  “Of each day,” she says, “make thou a feast of rejoicing,  day and night dance thou and play.  Wear sparkling clean clothes, wash your head, bathe in water.  Pay attention to the little one that holds onto your hand, enjoy life with your mate.”  This, she says, and not expecting an afterlife, is the way human beings were meant to live.

Influenced by this outlook, it’s  understandable why most of the Old Testament has the same attitude toward any notion of an afterlife.  Listen to these grimly blunt words from Ecclesiastes  (3):   “The fate of humans ,” that author says, “and the fate of animals is the same;  as one dies, so dies the other.  They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals….All go to one place….”    While you are alive, this biblical author goes on, you have hope, but after death there is nothing — or as he puts it vividly in another way:  “Aa living dog is better than a dead lion.”  The point of that memorable metaphor is that once you are dead, neither status nor strength really matter.  You have  no future, and  you are soon forgotten.  So in a classic summary of  ancient Jewish thought, he echoes what we heard a moment ago from the creed of Babylon:   “Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved [this]…..  Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head.  Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life… Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge….in Sheol, to which you are going.”   [Eccles. 9]

With no hope of real life after death, the Hebrew people saw their children as their future, which made it a disaster for one to die childless.  In their patriarchal culture a man lived on as his name was carried by his sons.  Remember all those dreary genealogies you ran into when you had resolved to read straight through the Bible and you came to as many as nine straight chapters of with nothing but “W was the son of X, and X was the son of Y, and Y was the son of Z” — only you wished it had been that easy to read their real names!  Always the names of sons, of course, in that male chauvinist world.  One had a kind of life after death if one had sons to carry on the family name.    Granted, it’s not personal immortality, but it’s obviously some comfort to think one might live on through his descendants. 

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the God of the Old Testament is said to talk intimately at times with mortals, and messengers from God (we call them angels) are forever showing up to announce one thing or another, but neither God nor his messengers are ever represented as saying so much as one word about an afterlife? Christians who believe in personal immortality  find a couple of verses in the Psalms which at first glance may seem  to express hope of life after death, but on closer examination appear to be pleading rather for continuance of this life.  As a footnote in our most widely accepted Protestant  Bible says,  these verses are “better understood merely as confidence in being delivered from present trouble.”  [See Psa. 49 and 73]

On occasion a prophet, feeling  that his despairing  country has figuratively “died” from long oppression, reassures his people that they  will come back to life again as a nation:  “Your dead shall rise” he tells them.  “O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy!”  [Isa. 26]  The scholarly footnote to that verse explains it like this:  “Without God, the people were in agony and helpless before their oppressors.  Though as dead, they will be raised up by God….”  So even here it’s  doubtful that Isaiah has in mind either a literal death or a literal resurrection — only that his people will soon stand tall again among the nations.  The evidence against any real Jewish faith in a hereafter is strengthened  when one reads the 30th Psalm where  the author thanks God for saving his life and reminds  God that after all there would have been no profit to God from his death, because down in Sheol the “dust” can no longer express  gratitude to its maker.   And still another Psalm [88]   describes what Sheol  is like as the Jews imagined it:  a region dark and deep for people whom God does not remember.  The poet  asks a rhetorical question. “Do the shades rise up to praise you?  Does anyone praise your love in the grave, in [that] land of forgetfulness?”  Of course not, the he reminds God, but “I’m still alive,  I spread out my hands to you, and call out in prayer,” so do something for me before I go to that place of nothingness.

So it goes through book after book of the Old Testament, but in late Jewish literature,  the idea of immortality begins to take hold, partly from their exposure to outside influences during their long exile in Babylon, and partly, I think, as a solution to a very painful problem.  They believed themselves to be the Elect people of God, destined for glory and greatness, but they were squashed over and over by invading armies until they had to wonder when they were going to be rewarded for their faithfulness.  So it made good sense when they encountered the idea of an afterlife where the injustices of this life would be corrected, where they would  enjoy eternal happiness and security while their enemies would suffer for having mistreated them.     It’s impossible to trace clearly the development of this idea, but we finally meet it full blown in a book thought to have been written in the second century before Christ, a date which makes it several centuries later than the historical and prophetic books of the Old Testament.

In this late book of Daniel  (Chap. 12)  we suddenly read that “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake,” that the bodies of the righteous will rise to glory, while the bodies of the wicked  rise to shame.  It’s like Boom! —  all of a sudden we have a fullblown statement of faith in an afterlife when it had been absent from Jewish thought for centuries.  New ideas had obviously taken hold,  because other Jewish writings of this  late period express the same faith in a resurrection of the body.  And later still, by the time a few of these Jewish people had accepted Christ as their long-promised Messiah, bodily resurrection was widely believed in by the masses.  But not by everybody.  A wealthy and educated Jewish minority called Sadducees, who dominated Temple worship as Christ was growing up, strongly  rejected the new-fangled idea of life after death.  [Mk.12, Lk.20, Acts 23].  What this means is that Christianity itself  was born among Jewish people who were sharply divided over the great issue of life after death.  People remain divided to this day, and the division is not simply between believers and non-believers.  Even within the ranks of those who profess to be Christians there are deep differences of opinion about whether there is life beyond the grave, and if so, what it might be like.  You might like to do some serious and honest probing of our own feelings this week before coming back next Sunday to hear more on a topic of compelling interest to almost everybody.


            We believe, gracious God, that when the Apostle Paul told his

            friend Timothy to win your favor by being a serious student, he

            included us.  Guide us as we do so on mornings like this, we ask

`           in the name of Christ our Lord.  Amen.