A Biblical Case For Universalism: Old Testament Perspectives on the Afterlife

“There is no more tiresome error in the history of thought than to try to sort out our ancestors on to this or that side of a distinction which was not in their minds at all. You are asking a question to which no answer exists.” - C. S. Lewis


  Fallen Angels in Hell  by John Martin, 1841. 

Fallen Angels in Hell by John Martin, 1841. 

To quickly review, this was the conclusion of the last post

Once we acknowledge the diversity of the biblical witness concerning hell and final judgment, the relevant hermeneutical question shifts, from finding the unified voice of Scripture to finding the theological high points of Scripture. The strength of universalism lies in its ability to honestly account for the texts that don’t fit while focusing on the larger biblical testimony concerning God’s character and on the overall direction of the biblical narrative towards the reconciliation of all things in Christ. It is on this basis that I believe universalism does more justice to the biblical data than either traditionalism or annihilationism.

Now that the foundation has been laid, we are ready to take a closer look at what the Scriptures have to say about the fate of the wicked. In the next two posts we will focus on the Old Testament, dealing with specific texts about the afterlife in this post and with texts about God’s purposes in judgment more generally in the next. In following posts we will look at the relevant passages in the Gospels, the letters of Paul, and the book of Revelation. 

A Question To Which No Answer Exists

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind as we approach the OT is that the questions we are asking are not the same questions faced by the majority of OT writers. Christians who look for clear expressions of postmortem judgment in the OT, expressions which they find in the NT or other later sources, are bound to turn back almost completely empty handed. This is because the focus of the OT lies elsewhere. As N. T. Wright explains, 

“When Walter Zimmerli wrote his short, clear monograph, Man and his Hope in the Old Testament, the question of life beyond the grave was not only not the main issue; it hardly rated a discussion… The hope of the biblical writers, which was strong and constant, focused not upon the fate of humans after death, but on the fate of Israel and her promised land. The nation and land of the present world were far more important than what happened to an individual beyond the grave” (The Resurrection of the Son of God, 99). 

If we read the OT in its own historical context, it becomes clear that the primary hope of the Jewish people was for national restoration, not personal immortality. The promise to Abraham was not that he would go to heaven when he died, nor even that he would rise from the dead, but that he would have thousands of descendants to carry on his name in a land they could call their own. And as with heaven, so with hell: the end of Isaiah 14 shows that the ultimate expression of God’s judgment against the wicked was not to be seen in postmortem torment, but in making their land desolate and cutting off their family line (Isa. 14:22).

There is of course a long tradition of reading later ideas about hell into texts like Isaiah 66:24, but a historically sensitive reading of those texts shows that such ideas were not in the minds of their authors. In Isaiah 66, the “fire” and “worms” are feeding upon the decaying corpses of the dead outside of Jerusalem; they are not images of torment after death (cf. Jer. 17:27). As Jewish author Simcha Paull Raphael states, “From its inception, biblical Judaism… was concerned exclusively with the collective destiny of the nation and not at all with the postmortem fate of the individual Israelites per se” (Jewish Views of the Afterlife, 43). 

Given the centrality of heaven and hell in the modern evangelical worldview, the complete lack of interest in the afterlife displayed in the first two thirds of the Bible is unsettling. But this lack of interest has a cogent historical explanation. “It’s important here to remember,” notes Rob Bell, “that the Israelites, who wrote the Hebrew Scriptures, had been oppressed and enslaved by their neighbors the Egyptians, who built pyramids and ornate coffins and buried themselves in rooms filled with gold, because of their beliefs about life after death. Those beliefs appear to have been a turnoff to the Jews, who were far more interested in the ethics of and ways of living this life” (Love Wins, 66-67). A detailed understanding of the afterlife was not an issue that they needed to get absolute clarity on like it is for so many evangelicals today.

Sheol: The Land of No Return

This is not to suggest that the ancient Israelites had no thoughts about the afterlife. They did. But again, we must be careful not to read later ideas about heaven and hell into these ancient texts. In fact, not only does the OT show little interest in the fate of the wicked after death, but most of the OT assumes that death is the end, not just for the wicked, but for everyone. Rich and poor, saints and sinners — all faced the same fate in Sheol (e.g. Job 3:11ff). As Raphael summarizes, 

“One of the main attributes of Sheol, at least in the early stages of development as a postmortem concept, was its amoral character. Existence in Sheol was neither good nor bad… it is not a realm of torment or punishment; it is simply the domain of the dead” (Jewish Views of the Afterlife, 53). 

There are of course several passages, such as 1 Samuel 28:3-25 or Isaiah 14:4-21, which suggest the belief in some sort of continuing existence in Sheol, but the minimal “life” which we see reflected in such passages was a cause for neither hope nor dread in ancient Israel. As Wright says, “Only a world which had already begun to hope for something more interesting and enjoyable after death would find this vision unusual or depressing” (RSG, 90). When Isaiah 56:4 extends the hope of an “an everlasting name that will not be cut off” to the faithful eunuch who keeps the Sabbath, it means that he will be given an honorary plaque in the temple, not that he will live forever in the hereafter. The fact that the author calls these plaques “better than sons and daughters” shows that he had no conception of bodily resurrection or personal rewards in the afterlife.  

Of course, such an analysis is understandably problematic for anyone committed to finding a unified voice in the Bible’s depictions of the afterlife, which is why many evangelicals attempt to harmonize all the data into a monolithic whole. For example, annihilationist author Edward Fudge (whom I’ve chosen as a primary dialog partner in this series) claims that while the wicked had no reason to expect to leave Sheol, the righteous did have strong grounds for hope. Although Fudge says that this hope is “stated explicitly only a few times,” he declares that it nonetheless “pervades the entire Old Testament” (The Fire That Consumes, 49). In order to say this, however, Fudge has to effectively mute large portions of the OT which explicitly preclude such an expectation, such as the following: 

“As the cloud fades and vanishes, so he who goes down to Sheol does not come up; he returns no more to his house, nor does his place know him anymore.” - Job 7:10

“For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.” - Ecclesiastes 3:19-20

“For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?” - Psalm 6:5

“For Sheol does not thank you; death does not praise you; those who go down to the pit do not hope for your faithfulness. The living, the living, he thanks you, as I do this day; the father makes known to the children your faithfulness.” - Isaiah 38:18-20

Given the outlook of such passages, which are myriad throughout the OT, Wright shows more respect for the dignity of individual OT authors when he says that “Psalm 16 in its way, and Psalm 73 and 49 in theirs, are alone among the biblical texts in hinting at a future of which the rest of the ancient Israelite scriptures remain ignorant” (RSG, 107). In other words, there is a sense in which most of the OT expresses a form of “annihilationism” far beyond the view of any Christian annihilationist. 

Everlasting Contempt

Most of the OT, yes, but not all of it. The clearest exception is Daniel 12:1-2, which pictures a great reversal of fortunes after death, the vindication of Israel’s martyrs and the judgment of their enemies by way of bodily resurrection:

“And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” 

This passage does not reflect an annihilationist perspective in any sense. No, for true justice to be served, according to this text, not only will the persecuted saints rise from the dead to receive their eternal inheritance, but their oppressors will also rise and receive a sentence of shame and everlasting contempt. From this apocalyptic seedbed springs the whole tradition of eternal conscious torment.

Fudge argues that because the Hebrew word translated “contempt” in Daniel 12:2 is the same word translated as “loathsome” in Isaiah 66:24, Daniel must be referring to unburied corpses the same as Isaiah. In a fantastic display of puzzle-piecing hermeneutics, Fudge claims that the simplest explanation is to see Daniel 12:2, Isaiah 66:24, and Revelation 20:10-15 as describing three different phases in the same process of eschatological destruction:

“Daniel shows us a scene earlier than the second death—the general resurrection of good and evil. The destiny of the wicked will be ‘shame and everlasting contempt,’ but between Daniel’s resurrection and that final destiny there is the second death and the scene we saw in Isa 66:24” (The Fire That Consumes, 81).

Once again, by harmonizing all of the data Fudge has denied the biblical writers the basic dignity of expressing their own thoughts. The simple fact is that Isaiah 66 envisions no resurrection for the wicked, and Daniel 12, the first passage in Scripture to clearly speak of a resurrection for both the righteous and the wicked, gives no hint that the wicked are destroyed after being raised. This is the conclusion of John J. Collins, one of the most respected scholars of apocalyptic literature:

“The sinners in Isaiah 66 are not restored to life to experience their humiliation… [And] Daniel does not elaborate on the punishment of the damned and makes no mention of a fiery hell, but he does seem to go beyond Isaiah 66 in having the sinners restored to life to experience their disgrace” (Daniel, 393). 

Within Daniel’s apocalyptic framework, the purpose of the resurrection of the wicked seems to be that they should experience “shame and everlasting contempt” as their just recompense in contrast with the “everlasting life” of the saints. But both parties are raised, and the contrast is not between everlasting life and everlasting death, but between everlasting life and everlasting ignominy. 

It’s important to note, however, that while the earliest stratum of the OT expresses a form of “annihilationism” more universal than the later Christian position which bears that name, Daniel 12:2 expresses a form of eternal suffering much more limited than traditionalism. “Daniel does not envisage universal resurrection,” says Collins. “His concern is focused on the fate of the faithful, especially the ‘wise,’ and of their perfidious counterparts in the crisis of the Hellenistic age” (Daniel, 392). Nowhere in the OT do we see the eternal suffering of all the wicked. 

Seeds of Hope

So we can see the roots of both annihilationism and traditionalism in the OT, even though neither view became a fully developed eschatology there. But what about universalism? Do we see anything in the OT that supports the hope for the ultimate reconciliation of every human being? 

Yes and no. Many universalists believe there are straightforward and explicit references to universal salvation throughout the OT. I think such proof-texts are tenuous at best, just like most of the texts used by annihilationists and traditionalists. But although there doesn’t seem to be any direct support for universalism in the OT, there are two important developments toward the end of the OT era which together lay the groundwork for the universalist expressions which we find in Paul and other NT writers. While no OT writer puts these two thoughts together, they did plant the seeds that, as we will see in later posts, would eventually grow into something more.  

The first of these developments, which we see most clearly in the prayerful contemplation of several Psalms, is the increasing sense that the love of Israel’s God is so powerful than even death itself cannot overcome it. The Hebrew word for this kind of love is chesed: faithful, steadfast, relentless, never ceasing. According to Wright, it was the personal experience of this love, rather than any theory about innate immortality, “that gave rise to the suggestion that, despite the widespread denials of such a thing, YHWH’s faithfulness would after all be known not only in this life but in a life beyond the grave” (RSG, 103). Yes, the wicked will be consumed in Sheol, but the beloved saint can trust that “God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me” (Ps. 49:14-15). 

The second development, which we see most clearly in the prophets, is the growing conviction that the saving love of Israel’s God extends beyond Israel to the entire world. The Israelites were often tempted to think of YHWH in the same way that the surrounding nations thought of their gods: tribal deities interested only in the victory of their little group. But the prophets remind Israel that YHWH is not a tribal deity; he is the creator of heaven and earth, and he didn’t choose Abraham’s family for their own sake, so that they could be saved while the rest of the world is damned, but so that they could become conduits of his saving grace to every tribe, tongue, and nation. As we see in one of Isaiah’s Servant Songs:

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” - Isaiah 49:6

Standing alone, neither of these developments require that God will continue to seek and save the lost after death. But what happens when they are combined? If the love of Israel’s God is stronger than death, and if the same love extends to every human being, then what does that say about the ultimate fate of the lost? These seeds may be small, but the good news is all about small seeds that don’t stay small. When these developments are considered in the light of the OT’s broader theology of judgment, and in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the hope of ultimate reconciliation becomes, not just a small seed, but a great tree towering above all the other plants of the garden.