Sunday, March 26, 2023

Thoughts on Death and Resurrection in the Old Testament

C.S. Lewis, in his book “Reflections on the Psalms,” suggests that by the time of Jesus, Jewish theology had evolved to include life after death as we understand it today, as well as the concept of resurrection. Lewis wrote that previous generations of Christian theologians seem to have thought that the authors of the Psalms understood theology from a Christian perspective as we do today; that they wanted eternal joy and feared damnation. Lewis, however, does not think they had even the same concept of death as Christians.

Though he cites many portions of the Psalms to make his case, Lewis’ idea can be challenged. The idea of an afterlife and resurrection is present long before the time of Jesus’ earthly life and even before the composition of the Psalms. In fact, the belief in life after death is a central component of the entire Bible.

In the book of Daniel, the prophet writes:

“Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2).

This passage clearly indicates that the dead will be raised from the grave, and it suggests that there will be different fates for the righteous and the wicked.

Similarly, in the book of Job, it is written:

“I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God” (Job 19:25-26).

Job expresses his confidence that he will see God even after his body has been destroyed. Additionally, some theologians, such as Franz Delitzsch, believe that Job is the oldest book in the Bible. If this is true, it makes Job’s confession all the more significant.

In his book, Isaiah writes:

“Your dead will live; their bodies will rise. You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy” (Isaiah 26:19).

This passage refers to the resurrection of the dead, and it is clear that the author believes in a physical resurrection.

Lewis’s thesis is further undermined by the fact that the Sadducees, whom Lewis identifies as a remnant of the older way of thinking, were a small and marginalized group in Jewish society. The Pharisees, who were the dominant group, believed in both an afterlife and a bodily resurrection. As Kretzmann notes, “The Pharisees accepted the resurrection of the dead as a fundamental tenet of the faith, and they based it on the Scriptures.” Similarly, Keil & Delitzsch declare in their commentary, “The belief in a resurrection is so firmly established in the Old Testament, that even the Sadducees could not entirely escape its influence.” The idea of the resurrection was not something that developed late in the history of Israel. It is a concept that was present in Jewish theology from an early period; from the time of Job who expected to see his redeemer after death; to Abraham who expected God to return his son Isaac to him from the dead because of God's promise (Genesis 22:1-19); and the prophets who, like Elijah, even raised the dead by the power of God.

There was certainly development in the theological understanding of God’s people. As God came to them and revealed more of His word to them by His prophets, the blurry picture they had of the one who would crush the serpent’s head and restore all things came into sharper focus over time. Rather than a development of their theology, however, one could think of this as a gradual revelation. The development was not a natural evolution through stages of philosophical complexity as Lewis seems to suggest. It was a gradual expansion of their collective understanding, meticulously directed by the Almighty and Omnipotent God who created all things. He prepared them for the day when He would Himself enter His creation to redeem it from sin, death, and the devil. As the author of the letter to the Hebrews explains, those who came before us believed, but they did not get to see the fulfillment of God's promise to send a savior. 

We, however, now fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. He is the fulfillment of all these things. He is the resurrection and the life. Because He lives, we too shall live, having been baptized into His death and His resurrection. This is the faith we have in common with all those who came before us. And we will all rise together on the Last Day.  Even though our bodies have been destroyed, in our flesh we shall see Jesus. 

Works Cited

Delitzsch, Franz. A New Commentary on Genesis, Vol. I. Translated by Sophia Taylor, T&T Clark, 1888.

Keil, Carl Friedrich, and Franz Delitzsch. Commentary on the Old Testament. Hendrickson Publishers, 2006.

Kretzmann, Paul E. Popular Commentary of the Bible. Kretzmann Project, 1921.

Lewis, C.S. Reflections on the Psalms. Mariner Books, 1958.