Note from CM: As a hospice chaplain, my work revolves around supporting the dying and their families. I officiate many funerals. I deal with questions about death and what happens after people die. I am asked regularly about mysteries beyond our human experience in this life.
We’ve had a break for some time, but it’s time to get back into this subject, considering what Gerhard Lohfink has to say in his excellent new book, Is This All There Is?: On Resurrection and Eternal Life. After all, it is Eastertide.
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What happens to us after death is something we can only know in faith, and it is only from faith that we can ultimately speak of it. I want to say that at this point, as clearly as I can, I am not writing as a natural scientist or a student of the history of religions or as a philosopher. I write as a Christian theologian, that is, as someone whose calling is to interpret the word of God. And that is why I want to emphasize again that as regards what happens to us after death we can know nothing except through God’s own self and out of a listening faith. Christian tradition calls that “revelation.” (p. 61)
Lohfink goes on to say that God’s revelation comes through the communicated experiences of those who follow him. The greater part of the Bible, the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh — Israel’s story — is an example of fides quaerens intellectum, or “faith seeking understanding.” So, how did Israel’s faith and understanding develop with regard to death, resurrection, and the afterlife?
“Large portions of the Old Testament appear to know of no life after death. Death is the end” (p. 64). In the ancient world, people held the concept of Sheol, the place of the dead, the underworld, but as Lohfink reminds us, Sheol was the place of nothingness, of a shadow existence. “There is no life there that is worthy of the name” (p. 65). It’s not so much that the ancients saw in death a ceasing of existence, per se, but in Sheol all vital connection with life and the living has been severed. They no longer share in history. They are no longer part of this world of life and living.
Furthermore, there is such a separation from God that in Sheol the dead cannot praise God. Sheol is “the Pit,” and in the imagination of Israel, when a person was delivered from death he/she was raised up out of that dark, dank, lifeless and hopeless place, with feet set on terra firma, where the blessings of life are enjoyed and one may worship and celebrate the living God.
Are not the days of my life few?
Let me alone, that I may find a little comfort
before I go, never to return,
to the land of gloom and deep darkness,
the land of gloom and chaos,
where light is like darkness.’ (Job 10:20-22)
So, Israel’s sense of hope was earthy. Even the quaint phrase used when one died — “he was gathered to his people” — did not connote “the communion of saints” or life with God as Christians understand it today, but rather that they lay in death among those they loved.
Didn’t Israel have a future hope? Yes, Lohfink affirms, it was clearly held forth, especially in the Hebrew prophets, who promised that the kingdom of God would be restored in Israel, with justice and peace and shalom for all.
But all that only confirms what has been said, because in the first place it all takes place in the realm of this time and place, in this world, on this earth, in the land of Israel. If the images of peace, justice, and blessing seem to surpass the measure of normal experience, they are still located in the sphere of earthly history. (p. 68)
At this point, it is important to simply acknowledge that Israel’s faith, as spelled out through much of the Hebrew Bible, was one of “radical worldliness” (p. 68), with overwhelming blessings for future generations but no indication that the dead would be raised to share in those blessings.
Gerhard Lohfink distinguishes Israel’s faith from their neighbors in the ancient world in an interesting way. It is actually Israel that refused to sacralize death and the dead. It was those who believed in God who rejected the cultural ideas of an afterlife that were around them!
Israel believed in the God of creation, the God who had deemed this world “good,” who had delivered them out of slavery and brought them into a land of abundance. Their theological feet were firmly planted on earth, they worshiped a living God whose Torah taught them wisdom for living now, and they would not be tempted by the metaphysical myths of the nations around them who developed elaborate cults of death and the afterlife.
Israel did not take after the Canaanites, who had a god of death, and used means such as witchcraft and necromancy so that people could gain access to death’s power. They had their own rituals built around the death and resurrection of Baal and the seasonal cycles of fertility. They linked their own hope for life beyond this life in the patterns of nature and the gods. But Israel was taught to reject this kind of theology derived from the annual renewal of life.
Nor did Israel follow the ways of the Egyptians, whose thought developed from seeing eternal life as the hope of the pharaohs to a personal piety that assured an afterlife for all. In the development of Egyptian culture, it came to be that “all who lived rightly and could pass through the ‘judgment of the dead’ could become immortal gods in a life after death” (p. 73). Preparing for this afterlife was a preeminent part of Egyptian religion and, as Lohfink observes, “Egypt became a state in which immortality was better organized than anywhere else” (p. 73).
Exposed to this “cult of the tombs” face to face, the Israelites recoiled from Egypt’s obsession with the afterlife. Life and blessing in this world was what YHWH was about, not helping people “become gods” after death.
Israel, the people of the living God, resisted these and other afterlife theologies because her God created this world and created people to be God’s priestly representatives that life here might flourish. The lack of resurrection thought throughout much of Israel’s history is actually testimony to her faith in YHWH.
Nevertheless, as Israel continued to experience the goodness and salvation of God, they began to speak in terms of a “safety in God that is without limit,” especially in their psalms. The tentative expressions embedded there show a stretching of Israel’s perspective about life and what it means, now and even after death.
When we look at the wise, they die;
fool and dolt perish together
and leave their wealth to others.
Their graves are their homes for ever,
their dwelling-places to all generations,
though they named lands their own.
Mortals cannot abide in their pomp;
they are like the animals that perish.
Such is the fate of the foolhardy,
the end of those who are pleased with their lot.
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. (Psalm 49:10-15, emphasis mine)
Most famously, we hear this hope in Psalm 16.
Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices;
my body also rests secure.
For you do not give me up to Sheol,
or let your faithful one see the Pit.
You show me the path of life.
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures for evermore. (Psalm 16:9-11)
…we see that the psalmist speaks out of a confidence that extends beyond the borders of death. Nothing is said about enemy threats, dangerous illness, or violent death. This is about death itself. The one who prays the Psalm knows that a community of life with YHWH cannot be lost; it is so profound that it lasts beyond death.
But whence this assurance? It certainly does not rest on dreams of the afterlife or speculations on eternity; rather the psalmist always sees the face of God, who constantly accompanies her or him. So the one who prays this Psalm is already living now, in this life, out of an experience of the sheltering presence of God. For such a person death is no catastrophe.
What is special about Psalm 16 is that it shows that Israel’s faith remains altogether earthly, but at depth it is open to an action of God that encompasses even the realm of death and the underworld. The psalmist lives in profound confidence that God will not abandon her or him, even in death. People who pray this Psalm know that they can trust in God absolutely. Other texts reveal the same attitude: for example, Psalms 22 and 73. Here again, nothing is said about a “resurrection of the dead,” and yet they reveal a profound confidence that the devout in Israel are always sheltered in God. (p. 78)
More next time on Israel’s growing understanding of resurrection and the life to come as seen in the pages of the Hebrew Bible.