LCN Article
Life After Death: What Does the Old Testament Teach?

July / August 2021

Gerald E. Weston

Does the Old Testament offer eternal life? Not according to one prominent scholar. Time magazine published an article by Bart D. Ehrman titled, “What Jesus Really Said About Heaven and Hell” (May 8, 2020). Ehrman’s credentials are impressive. Time describes him as “a Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,” and “a leading authority on the New Testament and the history of early Christianity.” With such impressive qualifications, we would expect that whatever he wrote must be true—but was he correct in writing the following?

The Hebrew Bible itself assumes that the dead are simply dead—that their body lies in the grave, and there is no consciousness, ever again…. And so, traditional Israelites did not believe in life after death, only death after death. That is what made death so mournful: nothing could make an afterlife existence sweet, since there was no life at all, and thus no family, friends, conversations, food, drink—no communion even with God. God would forget the person and the person could not even worship. The most one could hope for was a good and particularly long life here and now.

Professor Ehrman is hardly alone in this opinion, which you can readily find elsewhere among so-called “Bible scholars.” Is this what the Bible—specifically the Old Testament—tells us? Or is this merely an opinion of historians and elite university professors? And if “Bible scholars” are wrong about this, what other errors may they be promoting?

To be fair, Ehrman is not wrong about everything in his Time article. Some of what he writes is true—albeit shocking to many professing Christians. For example, he describes the soul as mortal, not as something that immediately goes off to heavenly bliss or hellish punishment at death. That is true, but a careful reading of his article indicates that he views the Bible as being comprised of—and Jesus as bringing forth—various human ideas. Ehrman does not tremble before the word of God and understand it as just that—the divinely inspired word of God (Isaiah 66:1–2).

How many fail to understand that countless so-called theologians do not take the Bible literally, but view it as a philosophy book made up of humanly devised tales? James Moffatt translated the Bible—no easy task—yet he wrote that the Hebrew text he translated was “often desperately corrupt” and called the Old Testament texts “uncertain and precarious” in parts, a combination of different “strata” that have been “fused and confused” (The Old Testament: A New Translation, 1924, vol. 1, pp. viii, x). How could we place any trust in the Bible’s teachings if this were the case?

Let us look at the Old Testament scriptures, which we know to be part of the inspired word of our very Creator Himself, and see what they say about life after death.

No Ever-Living Soul

Surprising to many, nowhere does the Bible say that the soul is immortal—in that, Professor Ehrman is correct. He is also correct that when we die, we die; we do not go to heaven or “hell” upon death. What is sometimes translated hell in the Old Testament is, in fact, the Hebrew word Sheol, which simply means the grave—nothing more and nothing less. Here is proof.

When God created Adam, He told him that if he ate of the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” he would “surely die” (Genesis 2:17), and his wife Eve understood this to be the case. It was the devil, in the guise of a serpent, who introduced the idea that “you shall surely die” did not really mean death: “And the woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden; but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, “You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.”’ Then the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die’” (Genesis 3:2–4).

The Bible does not teach that we have a soul, but rather that we are a soul, as I asked and answered in our resource John 3:16: Hidden Truths of the Golden Verse:

So, what is the human soul? The word “soul” in the Old Testament comes from the Hebrew word nephesh, and merely means “a creature.” For example, the first time the word “soul” is used in the King James Version is in Genesis 2:7, where we read, “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” This alone should cause us to pause. Note that it says “a living soul.” Would that not indicate the possibility of a dead soul? The New King James Version translates it in a way that leads to less confusion, stating that “man became a living being” (p. 49).

Nephesh is also used to describe other living creatures (e.g., Genesis 1:20). Whatever else a nephesh is, it is clearly stated in the Hebrew scriptures that it is mortal. A simple word study on the subject ought to put any doubt to rest. The Hebrew priests were not to “go near any dead body [nephesh]” (Leviticus 21:11). And the book of Ezekiel states emphatically that “the soul [nephesh] who sins shall die” (18:4, 20).

Further, we see in the Hebrew scriptures that death means death—not bliss in heaven or torture in hell. “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). “For in death there is no remembrance of You; in the grave who will give You thanks?” (Psalm 6:5). “Do not put your trust in princes, nor in a son of man, in whom there is no help. His spirit departs, he returns to his earth; in that very day his plans perish” (Psalm 146:3–4; cf. Psalm 30:9).

But does all of this mean that death is the end, and that there is no hope for life after death? Is this what the Old Testament teaches? And, if not, how can we reconcile that with the scriptures we just read?

Hope for the Dead

From the very beginning of Scripture, we see that God has something special in mind for mankind. He did not make us according to any animal kind, but according to a special kind. After creating other strange, beautiful, and wonderful creatures for sea, air, and land, “God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness’” (Genesis 1:26). Do you realize how profound that statement is? Consider what it says: Mankind was made according to the God kind!

The truth that mankind was made in the image and likeness of God ought to wake us up to realize God has a great purpose for creating us—something far greater than eternal retirement. He has given us a calling so great that it could never be fulfilled in our flawed physical existence. King David recognized this purpose, and understood that he would not be in the full likeness of God, experiencing life on another level, until he was resurrected from the dead. “As for me, I will see Your face in righteousness; I shall be satisfied when I awake in Your likeness” (Psalm 17:15).

And there are more direct proofs that the Old Testament scriptures offer hope of eternal life. All three major prophets attest to this fact. In one millennial passage, Isaiah said, “He will swallow up death forever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces” (Isaiah 25:8). Some may try to explain away the clear significance of this, but can there be any doubt that Isaiah believed in life after death when he wrote, “Your dead shall live; together with my dead body they shall arise. Awake and sing, you who dwell in dust; for your dew is like the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out the dead” (Isaiah 26:19)?

What about Jeremiah? Did he believe in life after death? Jeremiah stated on more than one occasion that King David, who had been in his grave for several hundred years by that time, will be resurrected to life at the end of the age. “But they shall serve the Lord their God, and David their king, whom I will raise up for them” (Jeremiah 30:9). Some think this is a reference to Christ, the promised descendant of David—but notice that those described “serve the Lord their God, and David their king.”

God also affirms this through the third of the major prophets. Speaking of this same future time, He says, “I will establish one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them—My servant David. He shall feed them and be their shepherd” (Ezekiel 34:23). Now, notice again in the next verse that this is speaking not of Christ, but of King David himself: “And I, the Lord, will be their God, and My servant David a prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken” (v. 24; cf. Ezekiel 37:24–25).

An Awakening for Many

We also read in Ezekiel 37 about a valley of dry bones, and of a great multitude of people—specifically, the “whole house of Israel”—being resurrected from the dead. For a full explanation of this crucial resurrection, see our booklet Is This the Only Day of Salvation?

Daniel was another great servant of God, and he also recorded hope in the resurrection of multitudes. Describing the end of the age (Daniel 12:4), he recorded this inspired passage:

At that time Michael shall stand up, the great prince who stands watch over the sons of your people; and there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation, even to that time. And at that time your people shall be delivered, every one who is found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament, and those who turn many to righteousness like the stars forever and ever (Daniel 12:1–3).

Note that Daniel refers to “every one who is found written in the book” (v. 1). What is this book? David refers to it in Psalm 69 where he speaks of the wicked and declares, “Let them be blotted out of the book of the living, and not be written with the righteous” (v. 28).

This book of life is also referenced in the last book of the Old Testament in these terms:

Then those who feared the Lord spoke to one another, and the Lord listened and heard them; so a book of remembrance was written before Him for those who fear the Lord and who meditate on His name. “They shall be Mine,” says the Lord of hosts, “on the day that I make them My jewels [special treasure]. And I will spare them as a man spares his own son who serves him” (Malachi 3:16–17).

It is already difficult to understand this “book of the living” and “book of remembrance” in any terms not referring to life after death, but the New Testament scriptures put it in plain language. Paul wrote to one of the congregations of his day, “And I urge you also, true companion, help these women who labored with me in the gospel, with Clement also, and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the Book of Life” (Philippians 4:3).

In Revelation, John on seven occasions refers to the “Book of Life”—in which are written the names of those who may enter the future New Jerusalem. The wicked will be excluded. “But there shall by no means enter it [New Jerusalem] anything that defiles, or causes an abomination or a lie, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life” (Revelation 21:27).

If you have attended a funeral conducted by a Christian minister, you may have heard the following powerful passage from the book of Job, in which this Old Testament figure asks and answers his own question: “If a man dies, shall he live again? All the days of my hard service I will wait, till my change [or transformation] comes. You shall call, and I will answer You; You shall desire the work of your hands” (Job 14:14–15). Can anything be clearer?

How Can This Be?

So, with all this biblical proof demonstrating that Moses, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Malachi, and Job believed in the resurrection from the dead, how can a distinguished professor, a “leading authority on the New Testament and the history of early Christianity,” conclude the following?

And so, traditional Israelites did not believe in life after death, only death after death. That is what made death so mournful: nothing could make an afterlife existence sweet, since there was no life at all, and thus no family, friends, conversations, food, drink—no communion even with God. God would forget the person….

As we have seen, Professor Ehrman is not entirely wrong. He is correct that “the soul” is not immortal. He is correct that we do not immediately go to heavenly bliss or hellish punishment upon death.

However, he is totally off-base when he says that the Old Testament does not hold out the hope of life after death. As we have seen, the Hebrew scriptures do reveal a resurrection from the dead. Job understood this. Daniel wrote of a future resurrection. King David expected to see God’s face upon being resurrected with God’s likeness. Isaiah expected to be resurrected. And Jeremiah and Ezekiel proclaimed David’s future role as King over Israel when Christ rules as King over all the earth.

It is true that some Jews in the first century AD did not believe in the resurrection. We read of an interesting exchange between Jesus and “some of the Sadducees” who denied a resurrection (Luke 20:27–33). Their hypothetical question mocked the idea of life after death, but Jesus turned the tables on them when He appealed to their own Hebrew scriptures. “But even Moses showed in the burning bush passage that the dead are raised, when he called the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ For He is not the God of the dead but of the living, for all live to Him” (Luke 20:37–38).

Denial of the resurrection was far from universal at that time. The Apostle Paul used this fact to divide his accusers:

But when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, “Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee; concerning the hope and resurrection of the dead I am being judged!” And when he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees; and the assembly was divided. For Sadducees say that there is no resurrection—and no angel or spirit; but the Pharisees confess both (Acts 23:6–8).

What we see from all of this is that the distinguished professor is partly right, but also grievously wrong. While he is correct regarding the erroneous immortal soul doctrine, as we have seen from the Scriptures, Professor Ehrman is clearly in error when he asserts that after death “there is no consciousness, ever again…. God would forget the person…. The most one could hope for was a good and particularly long life here and now.”

How can someone with Ehrman’s credentials—someone so educated and intelligent—be so obviously wrong? The answer lies in something that many sincere professing Christians do not understand. Many, if not most, liberal professors of religion do not believe the Bible, which would also explain why obedience is not high on their agenda! And only the righteous—the obedient—will have His Spirit and understand the Scriptures (Acts 5:32; Daniel 12:9–10).

It is natural to believe that people with lots of credentials from a university must know what they are talking about. This notion is especially tempting because many struggle to understand the Bible and assume that the most professionally educated people must understand the most. However, nothing could be further from the truth! Jesus prayed, “I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and revealed them to babes” (Luke 10:21).

Jesus’ disciples were considered uneducated by the religious authorities of their day. “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated and untrained men, they marveled” (Acts 4:13). Of course, they were neither uneducated nor untrained; their education and training was unparalleled, but it came from a source the authorities did not recognize. “And they realized that they had been with Jesus” (v. 13).

Not even the highest human credentials matter with God. Instead, a humble attitude and an obedient mind are truly important to him. As we are told in Isaiah 66:2, “But on this one will I look; on him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, and who trembles at My word.”