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Life After Death in the Hebrew Scriptures


With so much turmoil in our world, these are days of great apocryphal speculation. One thing is certain—we live in a day in which one of our most important attributes is hope. For it is hope that serves as an excellent indicator of the way we view what happens after we die.

For centuries the great hope of the Jewish people was the Messiah—a one-of-a-kind set apart individual who would bring redemption and peace to our world. He was the great hope of Israel for generation after generation. But the most common belief of today's Jewish community is that the Messiah is not a person, but a metaphor for an age of peace and harmony. Now, the great hope is for mankind to become more civilized, to make an ideal world in which to live.

At the same time, belief in life after death no longer prevails in contemporary Jewish thought. In its place stands the notion that when we die physically, our inner soul ceases to exist. Beyond this life, then, only stands unending silence.

No Messiah. No life after death. No eternal hope. The only hope that remains is in humanity to create heaven on earth. We might ask ourselves, why has there been such a dramatic shift in belief? And what do the Hebrew Scriptures actually say about eternity? The answers are, needless to say, very important to all of us.

"A Vanishing Point"—The Hebrew Understanding of Eternity

Olam is a Hebrew word usually translated as "everlasting" or "permanent." It is derived from a root meaning "something concealed" or a "vanishing point." Like a road that appears to get smaller and smaller as it approaches a vanishing point on the horizon, this word picture describes a chronological duration that extends indefinitely. And just as we know in our minds that a long highway continues even beyond that point on the horizon, eternity continues beyond time as we know it. In the Hebrew Scriptures olam is used to highlight the continuous existence of specific subjects:

  • Everlasting God—God Himself is described as being eternal (e.g. Ps. 41:13), including attributes such as His righteousness (Ps. 112:3) and His mercy (1 Chron. 16:41).
  • Everlasting memorials—Special moments in time were commanded by God to be observed by the Israelites as a way of recognizing His redemptive works. For example, in the midst of giving His instructions for the observance of Passover, God declared:

"Now this day will be a memorial to you, and you shall celebrate it as a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations you are to celebrate it as a permanent (olam) ordinance." (Ex. 12:14).

So in this context it means observing the holiday throughout the generations, although it does not rule out the possibility of a change of the content or the form of the observance.

  • Everlasting principlesOlam is also used in Scripture to describe the permanence of God's covenants (e.g. Gen. 17:19) and His Word (Ps. 119:44). These principles are tied to the enduring nature of God Himself.
  • Everlasting life—It's not as common as the previous cases, but olam is used regarding the existence of people. As shown in the Garden of Eden, God intended for humanity to live forever (Gen. 3:22). Everlasting life, as the following section describes, is woven into the very fabric of the Old Testament.

Ancient Jewish Beliefs about Immortality

In the Torah (the books of Moses) there is no direct mention of heaven or hell. But there are passages which present a portrait of man's immortality in ha olam haba, the World to Come:

  • Linguistic clues—The Hebrew idiom commonly used whenever an individual died was "gathered to one's fathers" (e.g. Gen. 15:15) or "gathered to one's people" (Abraham, Gen. 25:8,17). This terminology can mean simply being buried with the bodies of one's ancestors or family members. But it also allows for a spiritual reunion of the souls of righteous men and women in the presence of God.
  • Descriptions of people who never died—The Bible depicts two examples of persons who moved directly from earth to heaven without dying—Enoch (Gen. 5:24) and Elijah (2 Ki. 2:11). The experiences of these righteous men are certainly not the norm, but if they could enter eternity directly, it is reasonable to conclude that an all powerful God is able to provide life everlasting for other righteous people in some fashion.
  • Declarations about resurrection—Listen to the words of Job and Daniel, who spoke under the inspiration of the Spirit of God:

And as for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, And at the last He will take His stand on the earth. Even after my skin is destroyed, Yet from my flesh I shall see God; Whom I myself shall behold, And whom my eyes shall see and not another. My heart faints within me. (Job 19:25-27)

Now at that time Michael, the great prince who stands guard over the sons of your people, will arise. And there will be a time of distress such as never occurred since there was a nation until that time; and at that time your people, everyone who is found written in the book, will be rescued. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt. (Daniel 12:1-2)

The historical books of the Apocrypha, while not being divinely inspired Scripture, nevertheless provide us with an understanding of the contemporary beliefs of the Jewish people in the era between the writing of the Old and New Testaments. They contain many references to resurrection and life to come. For example, consider this passage from Second Maccabees:

"You like a fury take us out of this present life, but the King of the world shall raise us up, who have died for His Torah, unto everlasting life" (2 Macc. 7:9).

In New Testament times only the minority sect called the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead and eternal life. The dominant sect was the Pharisees and their belief in resurrection was the standard doctrine of the day. This belief continued long after the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. The rabbinic writings of the Talmudic period strongly retained the assurance of the World to Come (Sanhedrin 10:1).

The bottom line is this . . .

Life After Death is a Traditional Jewish Belief

Believing in an afterlife was originally a key part of the world view of Israel. But rejection of that tradition has become commonplace today. There is a new world view that characterizes much of the modern Jewish community—this present world is all that we can count on, so make it your heaven on earth.

We might ask ourselves why is that so? Could it be that there is a connection between anticipating the coming of Messiah and our belief in the afterlife? With so many people rejecting the concept of the Messiah as a literal person, it is not surprising that there is also much rejection of a literal heaven.

Yet we can know with great confidence that the Word of God is as valid today as it was when it was first written. The Hebrew Scriptures foretold the coming of a person who would fulfill God's plan for redeeming humanity. The Messiah was God's way for securing life everlasting for all who would believe in Him. And when He came two millennia ago, He gave us this incredible promise:

"In My Father's house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also. (John 14:2-3)

These promises are the fulfillment of the hope of Israel down through the ages—the Messiah who would bring paradise to humanity.

"A Strong Cord"—The Hebrew Understanding of Hope

When we think about hope, it describes a way in which we look forward from our present state to something good or better in the future. We need a future focus. Because without hope, our future dies. The Bible has various ways of looking to the future, such as the term vision. Prov 29:18 tells us, "Where there is no vision, the people perish." Like eyes looking ahead on the highway, we can see where we are going and thus keep from "perishing."

Hope is another term that is related to vision—it too is centered around the future. But unlike vision which derives its meaning from the eyes, in the Hebrew language hope is derived from the hands. Hope is tikvah, from a root meaning "to bind together like a cord." Imagine a long strong cord that you can grasp tightly and will pull you to a place of safety. That is the word picture for hope in the Hebrew culture.

What is the hope that we are promised? We have been given a cord that has been bound together and stretches back in one direction to eternity past. It is tied to a real personal Messiah who secured for us our place in heaven by giving His life as atonement for our sins here on earth.

And this cord stretches in the other direction to eternity future, where it is tied to this same Messiah who will return again. In that day, He will receive everyone who believes in Him and is alive to meet Him, plus every believer whose life has ended and will be resurrected. All He has to do is to pull on this symbolic cord and pull us in. We can hold on tight and know that our hope is secure.

This cord connects to the Father Himself. In John 14:6, we are given these familiar words by Yeshua:

"I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me.

It is important for us to realize that Yeshua has made it clear that He alone is the way to the Father. Because no one else is like Him. He alone is one with the Father. He alone is the hope of Israel. There is no other cord that we can grasp that will reach into heaven and to our Heavenly Father.

So when you think of hope in its biblical context, you have this beautiful word picture of olam – "a vanishing point" and tikvah – "a strong cord." Put them together and you have tikvah olam – our "everlasting hope." It is a strong cord tied to you that stretches off past the horizon, and leads us to the Father Himself.

The biblical model of hope is one in which our eyes remain fixed on the Lord and expecting His imminent return, yet keeping our hands busy working to aid and comfort all people as He has commanded us.

We must recognize one very important point – this world will never become heaven on earth. Ultimately, our hope rests in the one who came and dwelled among humanity, then ascended on high nearly two millennia ago, and will one day soon return to receive His redeemed ones. As it is recorded in Titus 2:13, we are "looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Yeshua haMashiach. . . "

Meanwhile, as shown in the next verse, our obligation is to be actively working for His kingdom:

". . . who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds." (Titus 2:14)

Both an upward look and an outward reach are essential for our hope to be genuine and able to give us purpose in life. The ultimate reward for such a hope is eternal life.

It is not just our eternal future where hope applies. We need a "strong cord" to get us through the trials of the day. Sooner or later, hope will be very important to you, if it isn't already. Whether some kind of incident with major global implications occurs in our lifetimes, we can't be certain. But there are always things with major personal implications right around the corner. You may face a major health crisis. Someone you love may tell you it's over or do something foolish. You may lose your job or your home.

The question is – what will you do when that day comes? Based on the word picture of tikvah, the answer is three simple words: "Hold on tight."

  • Hold on to your faith in spite of the deceptions and doubts you encounter.
  • Hold on to God's promises in His Word because the give us reliable answers and comfort during trials.
  • Hold on to God's people who can help bear your burdens.
  • And hold on to Yeshua.

How easy it is to lose track of what is really important. It's like the story of a mother, yes a Jewish mother, who was pushing her baby stroller along the sidewalk. She came upon a neighbor who said how beautiful her baby was. And the mother boasted, "That's nothing, you should see his pictures."

You see, we already have the genuine article – the Messiah. We don't have to go looking anywhere else. He is so beautiful. He is so strong when we need Him. Never hesitate to cry out to Yeshua. For He is our Rock, He is our ultimate hope. Grab on to Him and hold on, day by day. He will never let you go. And ultimately He will draw you to His eternal presence.

In the meantime, we have been promised one final everlasting trait:

Simchat olam – Everlasting joy

The prophet Isaiah said it well:

"And the ransomed [redeemed] of the LORD will return, and come with joyful shouting to Zion, with everlasting joy upon their heads. They will find gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing will flee away." (Is. 35:10)

Everlasting joy comes from having a hope in something that is very real. Unlike reality TV or the rumors that spread around our world, we have been given something that stands the test of time and becomes part of who we are. We have an everlasting hope in His return, an everlasting life in His atonement, and an everlasting joy in His many blessings.

What more could a person hope for?

"Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit."
(Rom. 15:13)


Dr. Galen Peterson
© 1999 American Remnant Mission