The Doctrine of Immortality in the Old Testament

Author: Joseph W. Koterski, S.J.

The Doctrine of Immortality in the Old Testament

(It is precisely by fidelity in suffering that the just are given the gift of life that is incorruptible and eternal, life with God.)

by Joseph W. Koterski, S.J

Our hope for eternal life with God depends entirely on sharing in Christ's conquest of sin and death. For the most part, even divine revelation about the afterlife awaited his coming. What Christians take as deep consolation against the natural fear of death-the promise of immortality of the soul and resurrection of the body- began to be disclosed only in the final installments of the revelation that makes up the Old Testament.1 Yet seen in light of Christ's resurrection and the promise that His faithful will rise on the Last Day, the anticipation of these truths within the Old Testament become clear as part of the gradual preparation of His people to which the Lord had been carefully tending as he revealed over the centuries through Moses and the prophets all that was needed for salvation.

Prior to the only hints of individual survival after death are found in pictures of the shadowy regions of Sheol. Psalm 65 pleads for deliverance from an enemy, "for in death there is no remembrance of thee; in Sheol who can give thee praise?"2 If there is some expectation of on-going existence in this cry for help, it is muted by the same sense of futility that accompanies the early reference to Sheol in Genesis. In distress over the apparent loss of his son Joseph to wild animals, Jacob "refused to be comforted, and said, 'No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning"' (Gen. 38:35).

Psalms which we can read in the light of Christ as offering hints of immortality seem (without this perspective) to treat death as final and terrible. In the somber tones of Psalm 49, for instance, we find scorn heaped upon those who trust in their own riches and great confidence that God alone can rescue the just from their persecutors, but there is a constant presumption that death is the end: "Even the wise die, the fool and the stupid alike must perish and leave their wealth to others. Their graves are their homes forever, their dwelling places to all generations" (vv. 10-11). What comfort the Psalm offers to the just by promise of a divine deliverance to stave off the approach of death can be seen through the Christian optic to give an ever deeper consolation by the promise of the afterlife: "Man is like the beasts that perish. This is the fate of those who have foolish confidence.... Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol; Death shall be their shepherd; straight to the grave they descend, and their form shall waste away; Sheol shall be their home. But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for He will receive me" (vv. 12-15). The earnest prayers for salvation in the Book of Psalms, however, seem primarily to envision deliverance during this life and give little recognition of the prospect of post-mortal existence, as in Psalm 115: "The dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any that go down into the silence. But we will bless the Lord from this time forth and for evermore" (vv. 17-18; see also Psalm 88:3-6).

Clearer revelation of the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body only come late in the course of the Wisdom literature, that set of biblical books that includes and the . The give-and-take of quite different positions on the problem of evil and human suffering makes this portion of Scripture read rather like a philosophical debate, but the Old Testament culmination of this debate in the doctrine of an "immortal" state for righteous souls is clearly a disclosure of divine revelation beyond the arguments from philosophy and folk wisdom, as well as an anticipation of the fullness of revelation on this point in the resurrection of Christ.

The problem of evil in general, as it tends to be posed in the Old Testament, is a problem of grasping what seems to be unfair in the fates of good people who suffer and die before their time, without children or good name, and of the wicked who prosper and become famous. But it also involves the classical theodicy problem about the justice of God: how can God, who is all-just, all-knowing, and all-powerful, allow such things to happen to people who have lived in fidelity and virtue? Elaborate notions of an after-life were common in Greece and in other religions of the ancient Near East, but the religion of Israel in general kept its distance from the re-incarnation motif typical of those cyclic views of life. It focussed instead on this-worldly deliverance of the nation from its enemies, on the model either of the Exodus or the return from the Babylonian Captivity. In the prophets occasional apocalyptic scenarios of a cosmic battle on the "Day of the Lord" sometimes portray a trans-historical solution to Israel's problems, but there is no hint of the concept of personal immortality that marks the sapiential books.

Proverbs presents a basically optimistic picture about the likelihood of justice being done to the good and the wicked. Many of its pairs of proverbs on this point recapitulate the basic teachings of Deuteronomy, as in the following: "He who digs a pit will fall into it, and a stone will come back upon him who starts it rolling" (Proverbs 26:27). It is a highly integrated view of life that promotes a strong connection between a deed and its consequences, with constant exhortation to the young to choose the nobler of the "two ways" proposed by Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly (chs. 1-9). By emphasizing that a sinful deed contains the seeds of its own tragic outcome, the book makes the point that "Crime does not pay." As a work of moral advice rather than a theoretical treatise, it does not press the question about the problem of evil very hard, but it is not naive about the fact that sometimes the good do suffer and the wicked do prosper. Rather, it asserts the link between acts and their consequences according to a law of natural retribution, established at creation and carefully watched over by God, as the way the world works and thus a principle that any young person thinking about a path for life ought to embrace as a guide to conduct (ch.7-8).

The principle is offered in some striking proverbs, e.g., "Can a man carry fire in his bosom and his clothes not be burned?" (6:27) to admonish us against choosing the way of Lady Folly, who sits in the shadows of the city gate at dusk and entices the unsuspecting with the deadly pleasures of "real living." Lady Wisdom, who discusses the traditional wisdom of Israel at noon in the midst of the town-square, tries to show how the way of virtue, community- loyalty, and other bonds of morality bring the fruits of life (including the portrait of the ideal wife in ch. 31) for those who choose wisely in marriage and other life-questions. There are occasional proverbs (e.g., 3:11-12) about enduring suffering as parental discipline from the Lord or not being jealous of wicked people who prosper. They show that it requires real wisdom to know how to apply these traditional proverbs to various situations, including the problem of evil.

However tempting it is to take the references to the "life" which righteousness brings as references to an after-life, it seems more likely that the promise of life (e.g., 8:35) and of "deliverance from death" (10:2) mean only the reward of a long life (9:11), for an early death seems to be a punishment for sin. The shadowy existence of the dead in Sheol is mentioned as the result of accepting the invitation of Lady Folly (5:23, 7:26-27, 9:18), but the lack of any description, or even promise, of something like "heaven" could well mean that all will end up in Sheol, and so the project is to delay having to go there. Traditionally longevity is seen as the point of observing the Covenant (see Deuteronomy 28:1- 14 end Psalm 34:12-14). But the openness of these texts to a deeper meaning about personal immortality is part of the divine pedagogy that gradually prepares a people for the definitive revelation in Christ.

The Book of is intensely concerned with the problem of evil, but its answer seems to be that there is no theoretical solution to the problem. Rather, there is need to reconfigure one's outlook on life so as to be faithful to God even amid suffering. The issue is raised by Job's three friends, who operate the optimistic confidence of the book of about the link between acts and consequences and the law of divine retribution an answer to the problem of evil. They expect that virtue will be rewarded by prosperity, health and a long life. In their various ways they try to convict Job of some sin, whether by a conscious and deliberate offense he must have committed (even though they do not know what it is), or perhaps by some unintentional transgression of a ritual law, for they are sure that such suffering as he is experiencing could not be the lot of anyone who is really innocent. If Job is suffering, he must somehow be guilty. Job rejects their judgment uncategorically. Although exasperated by their stubbornness, he continually seeks to have his suit heard by God. He steadfastly maintains that his innocence would become clear if only he could have his day in court (e.g. 9:32-35, 13:3, 16-22, 19:23-29, and 31:35-37).

While the character Job does not offer a theoretical answer to the general problem of evil, the dramatic development of the book of does seem to propose that the question about evil is being asked in the wrong way and must be put differently (see 21:7-17). The character Elihu, for instance, presumes to speak for God in ch. 32. He may show great piety, but he is in error to think that he understands the divine plan enough to discern who is righteous and who is unrighteous by measuring Job's suffering and chastisement. His bombast is shattered by God's own whirlwind (ch. 38). This dramatic divine appearance both asserts God's utter sovereignty and declares Job not "not guilty." No human wisdom can comprehend God's mind sufficiently to answer the question about God's justice, for wisdom is beyond any creaturely understanding (ch. 28). Job is right to keep silence, except to praise the unfathomable mystery of God's majesty (42:1-16) and to plead for his friends, who suddenly seem guilty of presumption in God's court.

Only the vindication of Job and the restoration of his fortunes at the end of ch. 42 correspond to the optimism of about a suitable reward in this life for the just who suffer. Some scholars treat this chapter as an epilogue by a hand which remained committed to the optimistic tradition, but it could equally well testify to the author's confidence in divine grace to set things right. Regardless, the bulk of the book of Job is not so much a theoretical answer to the problem of evil as an affirmation that suffering in life must be accepted as part of the mystery of divine providence, often without sufficient explanation (for Job remains unaware of the decisions made in the heavenly council at the beginning of the book, even though the reader knows of them). The task is to preserve one's fidelity to God, even amid great hardship and confusion, trusting that God will sustain and redeem. There is no explanation of the suffering of the innocent, but only strong affirmation of God's creative power and knowledge. There is no talk about recompense in the next life, but only an example of how to speak to God in the midst of this life's tragedies.

represents a pessimistic, or at least a somewhat skeptical position on the theodicy question. In a strategy that anticipates Descartes by holding as "doubtful" whatever can be challenged by even one strong objection, Qoheleth rejects both the traditional confidence in retribution as at odds with experience (3:16-18, 7:15, 8:10-9:1) and any trust in human wisdom to chart the course of the "two ways" (8:16-17). If it remains clear to him that God does direct the universe, he insists that we are unable to know anything of God's plans or reasons, and that the right course is simply to enjoy whatever ordinary gifts of prosperity God may send (2:1-11, 5:18, 9:7-10).

While he seems primarily intent on showing that God's ways simply cannot be known, and only uses the problem of evil as a dramatic case in point, we find him ready to assume in passing that there is nothing beyond the grave: "one fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked.... This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that one fate comes to all" (9:2-3). After men live "they go to the dead." There may be some hope for something better while one is still alive, but there is nothing to recommend the state of the dead: "the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, but the memory of them is lost. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and they have no more forever any share in all that is done under the sun" (9:5-6). The certain prospect of death and the absence of any hint of heaven leave Qoheleth with the unexplained discrepancy between the fortunes of the righteous and the unrighteous in this life. Experience gives no reason to think that these claims are adjudicated here, and there is no mention of anywhere else. Yet, this does not bring him to distrust God so much as to distrust human abilities to press the theodicy question.

By contrast, is filled with respectful allusions to the book of and shares its basic optimism that injustice and sin contain the seeds of destruction while virtue, however difficult, is sure to prosper. This book too is designed for the education of the young about responsible use of their free choices by stressing the natural links between acts and their consequences as well as the law of divine retribution. But the book is more thematically alert to the problem of evil than is , and we find both a melange of citations from earlier wisdom books as well as new material. The author repeats, for instance, the traditional answers about God's control of the universe and history (1:2ff). Although human beings may not now or ever be able to comprehend this plan, they should rest assured that there is a divine plan by which providence is wisely administering the world (1:6-10). What human beings need is "fear of the Lord" (1:11-20), that is, a firm adherence to true religion, reverence for the one God, trust in His arrangements, and especially observance of divine law (), with which Sirach identifies wisdom (ch. 24). Living out their religion faithfully is the proper and fitting course.

Sirach's contribution to the problem of evil shows tremendous sensitivity to the mystery of suffering. Sometimes the Lord must compassionately discipline his children, like a father must his son. Suffering could also come as a test of patient endurance (2:1-6). Personal experience of how this works makes the author able to give encouragement that divine providence is operating in everything (33:1), even though understanding this operation may remain cloaked in mystery. Unlike Qoheleth, Sirach finds it neither wrong nor impossible to seek to know the meaning God may intend; in fact, this is the point of education in the wisdom tradition. But it would be wrong to presume to understand the divine plan so well as to lose the proper fear of the Lord (33:14- 15, 42:24).

The apocalyptic passages about God's redressing of wrongs on the day of judgment and vengeance do imply a judgment of souls after death, with punishment for the wicked and a joyous life with God for the righteous, but there are great textual difficulties here, for these passages are found in late Greek and Latin versions, but not in the existing Hebrew manuscripts of the book, which mention immortality only in terms of the memory of one's name by one's descendants (14:1119). This is the perspective governing the many stories about the courage of the just patriarchs amid their sufferings (chs. 44-501, included here for the first time within the wisdom literature. But death is usually regarded as final and the proper course is resignation, yet there are hints about an afterlife (28:6) and about the retribution which the Lord will bring about on the day of a person's death (11:26-28). What is not clear is whether this means that there will be reward and punishment in the next life, or simply that moral retrospection about how a life was spent cannot be completed until death. On the whole, seems more concerned with exhortation to virtue and wisdom by the internalization of observance than with the disclosure of a theoretical analysis or the revelation of the solution to the problem.

It is only with the latest books of the Old Testament that we find a clear and unequivocal teaching on immortality, e.g. in and the . The martyrdom of many Jews faithful to at the hands of Antiochus IV Epiphanes had raised the question anew, and a vision is granted in the apocalypse of Daniel that "Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake; some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt" (Daniel 12:2). From this disclosure there comes a more profound sense that the "resurrection" mentioned in the and the prophets refers not merely to the restoration of the nation of Israel but to individuals based on personal merit. This same truth is revealed again in <2 Maccabees> by one of the seven brothers facing martyrdom: "But the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws" (7:9). Their mother is filled with the same inspiration when she says: "The Creator of the world, who shaped the beginning of man and devised the origin of all things, will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again, since you now forget yourselves for the sake of his laws" (7:23).

The , written just before the Christian era, employs the assumption of immortality throughout and even presents a form of the doctrine of the resurrection that Christ will reveal in its fullness by His teachings. In the first opening five chapters we find a vision of the judgment in the afterlife to be made by Jews killed for their fidelity to upon their persecutors. The doctrine of immortality thus serves to help resolve the problem of unjust suffering. The other theodicy cases typical of the Bible are also mentioned-the sinless barren woman, the eunuch who has been faithful to the Lord, and the good who die young and without progeny or with name dishonored (Ch. 3). The Lord makes them judges of those who scorned their Torah loyalty, and the wicked themselves testify to their surprise at the power of God manifested in this vindication of their victims (ch.5). Such a revelation offers a strong defense of God as all-just and all-powerful, for the divine plan is here seen to right wrongs and to punish wrong-doers according to the law of retribution suggested in A second illustration is provided in the second half of the book by a typological interpretation of certain events from the Exodus story. The punishments which the Egyptians receive in the course of the plagues are all shown to have been carefully suited to their crimes, and the implication is that they should have known better. Much of the burden of the address through the persona of King Solomon to his fellow kings of the earth (ch. 6-10) is to make clear that the Egyptians should have recognized the power of God and the signs of Israel's divine protection, but "the fascinations of evil" blinded them and their devotion to their idols perverted their morality (13:1-15:17).

As a resolution of the problem of evil, the goes beyond the other books of Old Testament wisdom literature by envisioning a postmortem judgment for souls that are immortal. Like Job, the book also re-emphasizes the utter sovereignty of God and the divine power at work in the forces of nature to redress sins and injustice against the Lord's people. Some important elements in this teaching deserve special mention. (1) The term "immortality" () occurs throughout the text to name the gift God will grant the just who persevere in fidelity. Unlike the use of this term in Greek philosophy, where immortality seems to be an inherent trait of the soul by its natural structure, immortality is here regarded as a gift that comes from union with Divine Wisdom (8:13, 17) and as a result of God's power. It is clearly more than the immortality of being remembered by later generations typical of , and more than the shadowy existence in Sheol, for after death it is only life with God that is worthy of the name life. There is real risk of destruction and annihilation (1:12-13, 2:2-3), and yet ironically it is the presence of the wicked in the postmortem vindication-scene that allows us to infer that the wicked too have immortality as the condition for the suffering of their punishment.

(2) The coming resurrection of the body is suggested by the frequent use of the term "incorruption" (). It occurs in an allusion to Genesis 2:7: "for God created man for incorruption, and made him in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil's envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his party experience it" (2:23-24). This final destiny intended by God for humankind is portrayed as a matter of holy hope, but not as an inevitable outcome of life. In both the vindication-scene and in the allusions to and the rescue from Pharaoh, does not seem to mean "incorruptibility" but "incorruption," a state that the human being is supposed to share, but a gift that was lost and must be restored again by an act of God. In what the Church has seen as a fascinating anticipation of the connection between the Eucharist and everlasting life, it is the gift of manna, the "food of angels" (16:20), that the uses to present the utter gratuity of the gift of immortality and incorruption. That with which God fed the people during the Exodus proved "indestructible" by fire (16:22-23, 19:21), a food for immortality; it is no surprise that the Church has taken up the language of in the ritual of Benediction to proclaim that the Eucharist, like this manna, "has all sweetness within it" (16:20c). The entire cluster of images around the gift of manna seems to express concretely what abstract terms like and express thematically: the Lord alone is the giver of the nourishment that bestows immortality on the just as the reward of their righteousness. God will restore perfect order in justice and mercy in the after-life, and we are exhorted to live rightly in this life to prepare the way for union with God beyond the grave in eternity.

The near absence of an idea of personal immortality in the earlier periods of Israel's history is remarkable, especially in light of the widespread diffusion of this idea in surrounding cultures. But the persistent questions of evil and theodicy provided a context for Divine Revelation, in God's good time, to disclose partially in the wisdom literature, and then fully and completely in the Gospels, an answer consistent with earlier affirmation of God's ultimate justice and providential care for creation, and yet a truth not discussed in the Bible before this time, the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body. This is to say that God's plan from the beginning was to share His divine life with His creation and that the education and disciplining of the Chosen People was directed to stimulate their recognition that only life with God is true life. But, as the old adage has it, wisdom comes through suffering. It is precisely by fidelity in suffering that the just are given the gift of life that is incorruptible and eternal, life with God. These Jewish roots of Christian hope anchor our expectations about the last things and the life to come in a profound divine pedagogy. If the fullness of revelation comes about only in Christ, as we are told by the Second Vatican Council's declaration on divine revelation, the patience of God in providing the channels to bring about that fullness should fill us with holy awe.

Joseph W. Koterski, S.J is a professor in the Department of Philosophy at Fordham University.


1 A point noted by Pope John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae #31 :

"Revelation progressively allows the first notion of immortal life planted by the Creator in the human heart to be grasped with ever greater clarity: 'He has made everything beautiful in its time; also he has put eternity into man's mind' (Ec 3:11).

This first notion of totality and fullness in waiting to be manifested in love and brought to perfection, by God's free gift, through sharing in his eternal life."

2 All Biblical quotations are from the Revised Standard Version.

This article was taken from the Mar-Apr. 1996 issue of "Catholic Dossier". Catholic Dossier is published bi-monthly for $24.95 a year by Ignatius Press. For subscriptions: P.O. Box 1639, Snohomish, WA 98291-1639, 1-800-651-1531.