In This Article Afterlife and Immortality

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • General Overviews
  • Social-Scientific Models and Studies
  • Israelite Religion
  • Second Temple and Early Judaism
  • Greek and Roman Eschatology and Burial Practice
  • First-Century and Early Christianity
  • Death, Afterlife, and Biblical Theology

Biblical Studies Afterlife and Immortality
by
Stephen L. Cook
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 September 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 September 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0003

Introduction

Biblical understandings of death and the afterlife have proved of enduring fascination to scholars, and have been the subject of an intriguing history of interpretation. Few modern biblical scholars continue to associate the Hebrew Bible with an otherworldly heaven, an immaterial soul ensnared in a physical prison, or death as an experience of liberation. The biblical world simply did not oppose spirit and matter, mind and body, in these sorts of ways. This fact, however, generally comes as a surprise to large segments of the general public, who continue to assume that the Bible depicts salvation as something disembodied and ethereal. In reality, the Scriptures bear witness to an increasingly explicit hope in a general, corporeal, bodily resurrection. What scholars are currently debating is whether belief in a soul and belief in corporeal resurrection are incompatible and whether the idea of resurrection was a very late (Maccabean?) and possibly foreign (Zoroastrian?) phenomenon in Israel, or whether it had much deeper, indigenous roots. Scholars also now hotly debate the older, commonplace position that the idea of a soul, separable from the body, played little or no role in preexilic Israel. Is it really true that the Israelites believed in little more than the perpetuation of the name and memory of the family dead? Recent approaches to Israelite religion that are increasingly informed by archaeological artifacts are defending the view that Israel’s beliefs in an afterlife were much more vibrant than many scholars have been willing to admit. Certainly, a variety of Ugaritic and Aramaic texts reveal a lively fascination with disembodied shades and the practice of cults of the dead. This milieu must have affected Israelites and their experience of death in substantial ways. What is more, newer studies drawing on cross-cultural parallels are emphasizing the crucial role that deceased (“living-dead”) ancestors generally play in traditional societies such as old Israel, where ties of lineage, tenure on ancestral land, and burial at the homestead form core building blocks of societal organization. Scholarship is raising different sets of questions about views of afterlife and resurrection in early Judaism and early Christianity, but the research here has been no less energized in recent years. The approaches to death and afterlife of early Judaism(s) are looking increasingly rich and varied. Scholars are mining new insights about the variety of perspectives at issue from sources such as Josephus, the Qumran texts, the apocalypses, and Jewish epitaph inscriptions. At the same time, scholars recognize how, from the Second Temple era on, an interaction with the cultures of Greece and Rome is discernible in the late biblical writers. A number of significant up-to-date studies are now available illuminating Greek and Roman eschatology and burial practice. Students of the New Testament will be interested in these studies as well as in recent work outlining the multiple perspectives on afterlife within differing New Testament texts. They will also be drawn to focused exegetical studies of such fascinating texts on afterlife and resurrection as Luke’s story of the Rich Man and Lazarus and Paul’s reference to “baptism on account of the dead.” Some exegetical studies now available draw specific comparisons and contrasts between the New Testament presentations of afterlife and the notions and practices of their wider cultural milieu. Finally, many readers will be interested in engaging works of biblical theology that continue to find the topic of afterlife of utmost interest and import. Fresh critical and theological work is recovering the spirit of biblical responses to death, reemphasizing the resurrection of the dead in both Christianity and Judaism, and rethinking modern tendencies to personalize, domesticate, and sanitize death.

Introductory Works

The articles and essays in this section provide succinct treatments of afterlife/immortality in the biblical texts and in the cultures that produced the Bible. Bible dictionary and encyclopedia articles often focus on the Hebrew and Greek terms used to describe death and the states of persons after death. They usually provide some summaries of descriptive and disputed texts concerning afterlife and immortality in the biblical canon. Some of these entries describe cultural beliefs and practices of the milieu in which the biblical writers functioned. Responsible, recent treatments of afterlife in the biblical texts can be found in Segal 2006, Schmidt 2000, and Richards and Gulley 1992, although these scholars seem to minimize the importance of living-dead souls in ancient Israel. A fuller appreciation of the liveliness of afterlife beliefs in Israel and its milieu from the perspective of the history of religions is found in Rouillard-Bonraisin 1999. Johnston 2008 offers an evangelical point of view focusing on afterlife as conceived of in wisdom literature, poetic texts, and the Writings. Cook 2007 addresses afterlife and resurrection within the broader perspective of “eschatology” in the Hebrew Bible. Schmidt, et al. 2009 is an up-to-date series of articles on the subject, covering both the biblical era and the history of reception of its ideas on afterlife. Stendahl 1984 and Orr 1939 are representative of classic studies of the theme of afterlife that fit the theological spirit of their intellectual milieus.

  • Cook, Stephen L. “Eschatology of the OT.” In The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Vol. 2. Edited by Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, 299–308. Nashville: Abingdon, 2007.

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    A wide-ranging survey of perspectives on “last” or “final” things in the Hebrew Bible, including key sections on “inclusive (universal) salvation,” “apocalyptic eschatology,” “personal eschatology,” and “resurrection.”

  • Johnston, Philip S. “Afterlife.” In Dictionary of The Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry and Writings. Edited by Tremper Longman III and Peter Enns, 5–8. Downers Grove, IL, and Nottingham, UK: InterVarsity, 2008.

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    Part 1 of this article presents the now contested thesis that death in the Old Testament entailed no meaningful extension of existence. In Part 2, Johnston presents a rather skeptical examination of texts within the wisdom corpus, Psalms, and the Writings that may indicate a “developing” belief in afterlife.

  • Orr, James. “Immortal; Immortality.” In The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Edited by James Orr. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1939.

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    This article from an early 20th-century Bible dictionary, now available online, provides a quick overview of the basic theology of immortality as understood by orthodox Protestants from that period. It also gives a systematic presentation of biblical citations, organized by topic, related to immortality.

  • Richards, Kent Harold, and Norman R. Gulley. “Death.” In The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 2. Edited by David Noel Freedman, et al., 108–111. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

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    Presents the now-contested view that the Hebrew Bible lacks a vision of an afterlife and understands death as the natural cessation of life. In his conclusion, however, Richards does caution that an approach such as Bailey’s risks domesticating the biblical perceptions of death. Gulley presents the New Testament material as maintaining that death is not part of the natural order and that eternal life, given now, but not in fullness, is the opposite of death.

  • Rouillard-Bonraisin, Hedwige. “Rephaim.” In Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible. 2d rev. ed. Edited by Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. van der Horst, 692–700. Grand Rapids, MI, and Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 1999.

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    This treatment of the Hebrew term for the “spirits of the dead” is a representative example of a history-of-religions approach to understanding the role of afterlife in ancient Israel. Covers such matters as the deified royal ancestors of Ugarit, the biblical conceptualization of the denizens of the netherworld, the identity of King Og, the healing power of necromancy, and the equivalence of the biblical term “Teraphim” to images of deceased ancestors. A good bibliography is included.

  • Schmidt, Brian B. “Afterlife, Afterdeath.” In Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. Edited by David Noel Freedman, Allen C. Myers, and Astrid B. Beck, 24–27. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000.

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    Sketches the abode of the dead in preexilic Israel as a dark, deep prison and describes necromancy as a late adaptation from Mesopotamia. (Some have questioned Schmidt’s resistance of the evidence for belief in the preternatural powers of the dead.) He understands resurrection as a possibly foreign (Zoroastrian) development of Maccabean times.

  • Schmidt, Brian B., J. Edward Wright, José Costa, et al. “Afterlife.” In Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception. Vol. 1. Edited by Hans-Josef Klauck, Dale C. Allison, et al., cols. 519–561. Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 2009.

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    A detailed overview of afterlife in the ancient Near East, Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Judaism, Greco-Roman Antiquity, New Testament, Christianity, and Islam, and in literature, music, and film.

  • Segal, Alan F. “Afterlife.” In The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Biblev. Vol. 1. Edited by Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, 65–68. Nashville: Abingdon, 2006.

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    Segal’s quick, wide-ranging survey hits on many of the key biblical texts and terms important in the scholarly debate on afterlife in the Scriptures. See also Segal 2004 (cited under General Overviews), his monograph on life after death.

  • Stendahl, Krister. “Immortality Is Too Much and Too Little.” In Meanings: The Bible as Document and as Guide. Edited by Krister Stendahl, 193–202. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984.

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    A classic study maintaining the emphasis of the post–World War II biblical theology movement that resurrection, not an ethereal heaven, constitutes the thrust of biblical hope for life beyond the grave. Stendahl contends that the world coming to us through the Bible is “not interested” in the soul.

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