Can you remember your earliest concept of life beyond death? I must’ve been about 4 years old when I made my mother smile while passing through the clouds in an airplane and asked if this was where “Sarah” lived. Sarah was the little girl down the street who had died earlier that year and I was told she now lived in heaven.
My mother was pleased with my question and like any child given an explanaton for death, I didn’t challenge her concept. I believed Sarah lived in the clouds because that’s what my mother told me.
But what if nobody had ever mentioned heaven to their children? What if even the concept of any kind of life beyond the grave were foreign?
What was the first mention of a resurrection in the Bible?
The concept of dying was first brought to Adams’ attention in Gensis 2:17 but there is no mention of something after death. In fact, the devil claimed there was no death at all in Genesis 3:4 thus obscuring any need to question whether there would be a resurrection from death. But God remained true to His word in seeing that the original pair would not live forever (Genesis 3:20-24) Only life and death were set before them. No mention of a heavenly reward nor the punishment of hell were offered.
In Genesis 4:10 we learn that God hears the blood of Abel crying out even in death. To God, Abel is alive. To his family, he remained dead silent in the grave and the reader has been told nothing yet of a resurrection of life beyond death.
Finally in Genesis 5:24 we get a glimpse of life beyond earth when told Enoch was taken by God. But where did he go? Likewise in Genesis 35:18 we’re told Rachel’s soul departed but neither text mentions any heavenly reward.
I pondered being my 4 year old self through all those generations. Would I have conceived of anyone floating around in the clouds once they’d been pronounced dead?
In his suffering, Job seemed to view life as futile from womb to tomb with no further reward (Job 10:18-22)
“Remember that my life is a mere breath; My eye will not see goodness again. The eye of him who sees me will no longer look at me; Your eyes will be on me, but I will not exist. When a cloud vanishes, it is gone; In the same way one who goes down to Sheol does not come up. He will not return to his house again, Nor will his place know about him anymore.Job 7:7-10
It’s passages like this that lend to the beliefs of those who say we only have today. There is no consciousness in the grave and no life after death according to them.
And yet through his ponderings, Job still begs the question “if a man dies will he live again?” (Job 14:14)
After such certainty that his Maker has no more to do with a man after death, Job turns his attention to a Redeemer
Yet as for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, And at the last, He will take His stand on the earth.Job 19:25
Job didn’t express a longing for heaven but rather a far off picture of a Redeemer upon the earth.
Continued reading in the Old Testament had me discovering Psalmists and Prophets also placing their hope in being redeemed from death.
Much like Job’s questioning back and forth as to whether a man lives again, Isaiah says, “He will swallow up death for all time, And the Lord God will wipe tears away from all faces, And He will remove the disgrace of His people from all the earth; For the Lord has spoken” (Isaiah 25:8), and then switches to “The dead will not live, the departed spirits will not rise; Therefore You have punished and destroyed them, And You have eliminated all remembrance of them” (Isaiah 26:14). But hope enters the Prophet as he follows up a few verses later with “Your dead will live; Their corpses will rise. You who lie in the dust, awake and shout for joy, For your dew is as the dew of the dawn, And the earth will give birth to the departed spirits” (Isaiah 26:19).
The Psalmist also pondered whether God would perform wonders for the dead asking “will the departed spirits rise and praise You?” (Psalm 88:10) then another psalm answers back, “The dead do not praise the Lord, Nor do any who go down into silence” (Psalm 115:17) Yet, with hope another psalm proclaimes “All the prosperous of the earth will eat and worship, All those who go down to the dust will kneel before Him, Even he who cannot keep his soul alive.” – Psalm 22:29
Men questioned whether it was even in God’s heart to allow a man to live again, but if He did, it was far off into the future when a Redeemer would be seen upon the earth. The focus was placed upon redemption from the grip of death itself rather than what kind of reward would be waiting the redeemed.
Hosea records God asking “Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol? Shall I redeem them from death?” (Hosea 13:14) And years later the Prophet Daniel is confident in answering that many who sleep in the dust of the ground would awake to life (Daniel 12:2) Likewise, David somehow knew that his soul would not be abandoned to Sheol (Psalm 16:10). How could these men be so sure since there was no proof yet of anyone awakening from death?
In searching for the common thread that unites the books of the Bible, how do we account for the pre-Christian writings of such men as Job, Hosea, David, Daniel, and Isaiah who put faith in some form of redemption from death?
In answering that question, I went back to the first person recorded as having the gospel preached to him. In his letter to the Galatians, the apostle Paul tells us that man was Abraham.
The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “ All the nations will be blessed in you .”Galatians 3:8
We know Paul describes the gospel as the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:1-4) but how was Abraham able to put faith in this thousands of years before the birth of this babe in a manger?
You’ll note that 75 year old Abram first encountered the promise of a great nation coming through him when he yet had no child (Genesis 12:1-3). Abram believed the Lord and it was credited to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:5-6). God would establish His covenant through Abraham’s offspring Isaac (Genesis 17:19). So Abraham had been believing God’s promises for a quarter century when he obeyed the command to offer up his son Isaac upon the altar. He was prepared to kill his only son yet told the men with him that he and the boy would return (Genesis 22:5).
How is it possible that Abraham was fully obedient in willing to kill Isaac yet at the same time confirmed he and Isaac BOTH would return from their journey to the place of sacrifice? A simple explanation is that Abraham reasoned that if Isaac were dead he couldn’t go on to have children and thereby foster a great nation, and so he said “WE will return” rather than “I will return.”
Apparently God showed Abram more in those stars than we realize (Genesis 15:5-6). Remember, Paul said Abraham had the gospel declared to him (Galatians 3:8). And so, Abraham did not simply put faith in a promise of descendants coming through him but he was also trusting in the good news of a resurrection through Jesus Christ.
By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and the one who had received the promises was offering up his only son; it was he to whom it was said, “ Through Isaac your descendants shall be named.” He considered that God is able to raise people even from the dead, from which he also received him back as a type.Hebrews 11:17-19
There it is. Abraham believed God is able to raise people from the dead.
Today we put faith in the story of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, but imagine the faith of these old testament saints who believed yet had no proof of anyone rising from the dead. Like many listed in Hebrew’s famous Hall of Faith, Abraham gained approval through faith, but did not receive what was promised (Hebrews 11:39) Why?
We’ll explore what the Bible has to say about God’s appointed time for their resurrection in the next article!
Keep yourself in God’s love, Julie