What happens after we die?
The answer to that question has been, perhaps, one of the greatest driving forces behind religious thought — and it should come as no surprise the answer to that question has evolved in incredible ways as well.
Back in the days when the Israelites were still henotheists (see yesterday’s post for more on that), the concept of an afterlife seemed to be the furthest thing from their minds. The covenant they made with God was all about the Promised Land here on earth, all about the present. Never once did God demand they do something so they could get into heaven or enjoy an afterlife of any kind — instead, the promises of following God’s Law included things like “so it may go well with you in the land.” In fact, the notion that any human could ever “go to heaven,” which was God’s dwelling place, was absolutely ludicrous to them.
The ancient Hebrew people believed in a state called Sheol after you died — not Heaven or Hell. (“Sheol” is translated in our English versions of Scripture as “the pit” or “the grave.”) The idea that a part of you would continue living after your body perished would have been laughable. Instead, Sheol was the final resting place for everybody – good, bad, or indifferent. It was a place where there was no consciousness, no pleasure, no pain. Sheol was the great equalizer, and their wisdom writings treated it as such. Sure, they would say, you could lie and cheat your way through life and be lazy, but ultimately you’ll end up in Sheol, so what good was it? Sure, you can acquire massive amounts of wealth and lord it over folks, but once you die your wealth will rot — and so will you, in Sheol. Kind of a “you can’t take it with you” philosophy to the extreme.
Of course, in some deeper moments of reflection, that also led to the obvious flipside of the issue: you can live a virtuous life and deny yourself worldly pleasures and do all the good you can, but when you die you will still end up in Sheol. This disquieting line of reasoning is what led the ancient Hebrews to write the incredibly reflective book of Ecclesiastes, where they bemoan everything as meaningless because ultimately everyone ends up dead in Sheol anyways. (“The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise? I said to myself, ‘This too is meaningless…’ Like the fool, the wise too will die.” -Ecc 2:15-16)
Now, in Hebrew belief it was possible to reanimate someone who had gone to Sheol. Doing so would cause them to come back as a ghost-like entity, and this was specifically the power held by those who practiced witchcraft. This was also the power that was forbidden several times in the Old Testament Law from ever being used, because when folks died and descended to Sheol that’s where they were supposed to stay. Forever. We see a striking example in 1 Samuel 28 of a witch using this power to call the prophet Samuel up from Sheol. Samuel’s question when he appears is telling: “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” That verb “disturb” literally means “to excite” or “agitate” — or in this context, something akin to “reanimate.” And notice he’s being brought up, from the grave where he was resting, not down from some heaven-like location.
So that was how our earliest faith ancestors viewed the afterlife: in essence, there wasn’t one. As time wore on, however, the unease with that whole philosophy began building… and it reached its apex and boiled over during — what else? — the Babylonian exile.
Just as the Babylonian exile was the catalyst for the shift away from henotheism into monotheism, it was also the largest driving factor behind the development of afterlife theology. It should be no surprise that this was the case, because the very idea of an afterlife is predicated on one foundational principle: justice.
True, we want to ease our pain during the grieving process, and a belief in the afterlife greatly assists in that. But zooming out a bit farther, the concept of justice looms much larger over the development of this theology. We inherently want there to be a difference between what happens to a good guy and what happens to a bad guy. We join with the author of Ecclesiastes in saying that Sheol is not enough. And once we begin travelling down that road, all it takes is one major example of injustice to kickstart our afterlife theology into high gear.
Enter the Babylonians.
The Hebrews were God’s people. They had a special relationship with him. They were the good guys. The Babylonians were the bad guys — wicked heathens who did awful things like oppressed people, sacrificed their children, and went on bloodlust-fueled killing sprees. So when Babylon began marching on Jerusalem, is it any wonder that the Israelites believed they would defeat them? The good guys were supposed to win! Here, now, on earth, the good guys had to win. If they didn’t, everyone would end up in Sheol and life would be, well, meaningless.
So imagine the shock when Babylon conquered them, destroyed their cities, and took them captive as slaves. Oppressed, mistreated, and more defeated than we will ever understand, they stood asking: Why? How could this happen? How were they supposed to make sense of this? What was the point of life if the bad guys won?
It was in this context that they began developing an increasingly complex afterlife theology. In fact, the first time anything about an afterlife is directly taught in Scripture is during a vision that the prophet Daniel had while in Babylonian captivity:
“Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.” (Dan 12:2-3)
The perfect response to the gross injustice of life is erased with this new, evolving theology of the afterlife. The idea is introduced here that at some point in the future, the dead will be resurrected, and a final justice will be served. The bad guys will face everlasting shame and contempt (not fire, yet…) while the good guys will face everlasting life. Sheol isn’t dismissed or tossed aside — the dead will still reside there, unconscious, until this resurrection — but Sheol is now amended with a rather massive footnote.
Eventually, even if it doesn’t happen in this life, everything will be made right. The meaninglessness is fixed with a future hope to which the righteous can look forward.
But this new amended view of the afterlife introduced a whole slew of new, unintended questions, the primary one being: what determined whether you were resurrected into shame and contempt, or life? Where was that dividing line?
What really happens after someone dies?
Enter the Greeks, who took over Galilee and Judea as part of their expanding empire, and who introduced a more refined set of beliefs about the human soul. According to the Greek philosophers, humans were dual creatures with a body and a soul, one of which is temporal and the other which is eternal. We’ve been interpreting afterlife theology through that Greekk lens ever since.
The idea of this eternal soul, coupled with the Hebrew people’s newfound interest in the afterlife as a way to see justice done, led to a theological explosion of ideas for the four hundred years leading up to Jesus. By the time Jesus comes on the scene there was little in the way of orthodoxy on the subject. Most rabbis at least taught that there would indeed be a resurrection of the dead, but when that would occur was up for debate. Some taught it would happen when the Messiah came and some taught it would happen to individuals shortly upon their death. Others still maintained that there was no resurrection at all. Some rabbis suggested that people spent up to eleven months, maybe twelve if necessary, in Sheol as a place of purification upon their death. At the end of that time, if the dead were purified, they would enter Eden (the everlasting life Daniel wrote about) and if they were not able to be purified, they were annihilated. Others started to teach that there was a place of conscious torment after death for the bad guys, although nobody could come close to agreeing on what would land someone there.
Some rabbis taught that adultery would send you to this new location of “Hell.” Others said denying the resurrection was what got you the one-way ticket there. Still others claimed being an Epicurian philosopher was Hell-worthy. And a larger group of rabbis taught that even if you ended up in Hell, nobody would live there forever. Everyone would eventually be purified and ascend back to Eden.
The Garden of Eden was one of the foundational principles the Jewish people latched onto while they were evolving this new afterlife theology. To them, it represented God’s original plan for creation. To them, God was restoring the brokenness of his creation and making it back into what he originally intended. To them, “heaven” was still God’s dwelling place and humans didn’t go there — but God was remaking the earth into the Garden of Eden for the good guys.
So we went from no afterlife and Sheol, to an amended version of Sheol that included a resurrection, to a confusing heterodoxy of afterlife ideas. This was a massive evolution of faith, and when Jesus stepped into the mix he continued advancing new ideas and thoughts on the subject. This post is already far too long, so we’ll have to save the conclusion of this discussion for another day. The point of this post isn’t to definitively answer the question, “What happens when we die?” — just to show how the answer to that question has evolved over the centuries. (Suffice it to say, however, that Jesus’ ideas on the afterlife look pretty different than the conservative evangelical view of things today.)
The point is this: Scripture is a story. It is a story of a people trying to figure out who God is and what their relationship to him is. It is not a set of timeless principles laid out to be the same from beginning to end. There is a trajectory and evolution that occurs through its pages, and rather than inviting us to use it as a set of doctrinal proof texts or rules, it invites us instead to join in that story. To continue the trajectory. To continue the evolution. We’ll talk more about that idea later this week.