Life after death according to the old and new testaments

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The Christian perspective of life after death is founded on the teachings of Jesus alongside his crucifixion and resurrection. While both the Old Testament (OT) and New Testament (NT) both have significant indicators of the afterlife, the NT notably reflects a higher number and more specific revelations from God. A number of scholars have even shown that the OT says almost nothing on the afterlife subject (Kselman, 2014). However, some acknowledge that the bible’s general view is that when a human being dies, the physical body goes back to dust while the soul or spirit (non-physical self) returns to God and continues in a conscious state as a disembodied spirit awaiting judgment. This paper will survey the OT’s and NT’s references to life after death and then compare and contrast them. Additionally, it will give the writer’s conclusions about the views.

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Life after Death in the Old Testament

The clearest suggestion of physical resurrection in the OT is seen in Daniel 12:2 which says that those who “sleep” in the earth’s dust will awake, further referring to two kinds of resurrection. While some people will awake to everlasting shame and contempt, others will awake to everlasting life (Wright, 2013). The implication of these phrases, it may be deduced, is that the physical death is not the end of life, regardless of the kind of life the dead will “awake” to. In verse 3, it is said that the wise, linked to awaking to everlasting life, will shine forever like the heaven’s brightness. Therefore, according to the numerous promises of a divine kingdom God gave to His people in Daniel, resurrection and vindication in the face of death can be predicted. In Job 19:25-27, there is an assurance that although Job knew he would be eaten by worms, he was not only going to receive a new body but, in that new body, he would actually come face to face with God. More importantly, it must be noted that his encounter with God would be conscious. More mention of the afterlife is found in Isaiah 26:19, where it is assure that that the bodies of the dead will raise and they will live and also shout for joy (Kselman, 2014).

Psalm 49 explicitly contrasts the deaths of people considered as righteous and those considered to be wicked. On one hand, there are good deaths for the righteous and, on the other hand, there are punitive deaths for the wicked. While the righteous are promised redemption from the grave by God, the wicked will perish without hope of living on forever. It is also noted that the Greek had a platonic view of the afterlife, which was essentially a dualistic one, in which the spirit and the physical body were independent of each other (Brunt, 2010). Additionally, the early Jewish tradition believed that the dead were destined to a place known as Sheol, where they existed in undesirable, dim, and lethargic circumstances. However, with the evolving of Judaism, some groups and especially the Pharisees started believing in the bodily resurrection of the dead. Several inferences can be made from the foregoing. First, it is evident that the OT brought forth the notion that the physical bodies of the deceased were brought back to life. Then, there is also the idea that another form of body, precisely the spiritual body, was brought back from the dead. Yet, a Greek Gnostic interpretation asserts that body only imprisons the soul, which is set free upon death (Brunt, 2010).

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Life after Death in the New Testament

The NT bases hope in life after death on Jesus Christ’s resurrection. Jesus was aware that He could not be annihilated by death. Essentially, God, rather than death, determines human destiny, in similar manner as Jesus conquered death. According to Mathew 27:52, graves will be opened and sleeping bodies of the saints will awake. With specific regards to Lazarus, Jesus Christ asserted that death of the physical body was merely sleep. This is used as a figure of speech in the NT, which implies that there are no pauses in the human consciousness. Therefore, it was only Lazarus’ physical body that was dead. From the provisions of the NT, the human soul, which is as much a constituent of the human body, never dies. Drawing upon this understanding, the NT teaches that the dead are alive. When viewed from the perspective of the last words dying men utter, the NT also shows Jesus giving up his spirit to God in Luke 23:46. It is noted that slightly over 30 years earlier, Jesus came from God’s presence, whereby His spirit took abode the Virgin Mary’s womb that was prepared by God. More importantly, Jesus came to bring to light life and immortality (Frye, 2015). He not only came to bring immortality; he also came to reveal it and show humans that they could live in eternity.

According to the NT, when Jesus finished His task, He fulfilled all of the righteous laws of God. Essentially, He offered his life to pay for sin. Then, he departed from thus life. However, the NT also teaches that He knew God was seeing and listening to what was happening to him. Thus, Jesus spoke to God confidently that He has completed His task. Most importantly, the words “into thy hands I commend my spirit”, became the NT’s principle of immortality. In those words, Jesus was teaching the human race of the continued living of man’s spiritual part after the death of the physical body (Brunt, 2010). The key idea noted in this teaching is that physical death is not simply an unconscious and cold condition; on the contrary, it is a passage into eternal spiritual life. The NT clearly shows that Jesus knew about both life and death, whereby he gave His divine assurance that only the physical body dies but the spiritual existence of man goes on in a state of consciousness.

Luke 23:42 tells that when Jesus was dying on the cross, the criminal hanging next to Him asked to be remembered in God’s kingdom. Through all Christian belief, the thief was destined to hell, but Jesus promised him that his soul shall be with Him in paradise on that very day. Evidently, only the thief’s physical body was being killed, but Jesus’ promise explicitly shows that the soul has no pauses or moments of unconsciousness or sleep. This promise from Jesus is also manifestation of the absolute confidence He held in the heavenly life that immediately followed the physical death of the righteous. It can be deduced from this teaching, when the righteous die, they immediately, rather than at a distant period, ascend into God’s eternal presence.

Old Testament and New Testament Similarities and Differences of Life after Death

The two divisions of the bible are in agreement that life indeed goes on after the death of the physical body. They both acknowledge that the being of man consists of the boy, soul and spirit as a unitary being. Equally importantly, they both acknowledge that sin is the cause of death, although there are striking differences in the type of death refered to in the tow divisions of the bible (Wright, 2013). For instance, the OT at earlier points (the pre-exile period) viewed death as eternal. On the other hand, the NT (and the OT from the post-exile period) views death as temporal and only with regards to the physical body. However, the most notable difference between the views of the OT and the NT is that the OT largely views life after death in the context of physical resurrection. The NT, on the contrary, strictly views life after death in a spiritual context. Specifically, John 12:48 teaches that people who reject Jesus and God’s teaching in their lifetime will be condemned to an afterlife of punishment and eternal suffering (Frye, 2015). On the other hand, those who lead righteous lives will be rewarded with everlasting joy in heaven. This view of the NT is consistent with the post-Exilic view of the OT.

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In conclusion, the writer of this article opines that personal belief and religious inclination plays a significant role in what one thinks of life after death. Without making assumptions that everyone has knowledge of the teachings of the bible regarding what happens after death, the writer believes that an individual’s consciousness will guide their perception of life after death. For instance, even the OT has two contrasting views of life after death; while the pre-Exilic Hebrews had no belief of any form of the afterlife, the post-Exilic view is that man can either be condemned to life in hell of rewarded with life in heaven. With the post-Exilic view strongly in harmony with the NT, the writer also believes that the way a human leads his life will determine what they will be handed in the afterlife. However, and more importantly, while even the OT and the NT cannot be held as empirical evidence as to what happens in the afterlife, the writer believes that the promise of heaven or hell is primarily meant to inspire man to live righteously.

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  1. Brunt, J. (2010). Resurrection and Glorification. Maryland: Review and Herald Publishing  Association.
  2. Frye, R. (2015). Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine. Princeton University Press.
  3. Kselman, T. A. (2014). Death and Afterlife in Modern France. Princeton University Press.
  4. Wright, N. (2013). The resurrection of the Son of God: Christian Origins and the Question of  God. Minnesota: Fortress Press.
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