Should Christians Be Concerned About the Evolving Concept of An Afterlife in the Old Testament?

Afterlife (Video 2018) - IMDb

Gary: I left Christianity after evaluating the many inconsistencies and false claims in the Bible, not just because of a couple of books by Bart Ehrman. One of those inconsistencies/false claims is: the evolving concept of an afterlife in the OT.

Christian blogger: That’s not problematic given Jewish or Christian theism. Since there’s the Biblical concept of progressive revelation whereby God grants more and more information about spiritual matters down through Redemptive History. It’s not one large data dump. That progression is seen even within the the Old Testament. And even within the first five books [i.e. the Torah/Penteteuch]. Also, “evolving” in what way? The Old Testament taught a conscious afterlife in Sheol and hinted at a more blessed condition for the righteous than for the unrighteous. That basic outline is completely consistent and compatible with the New Testament’s understanding of the afterlife. While it has some flaws [as Annihilationists point out], I recommend the general arguments presented by Robert Morey in his book “Death and the Afterlife.” For example, he points out how Gen. 35:18 says regarding Rachel “And as her soul was departing (for she was dying).” Implying an immaterial aspect to Rachel and its departure. Sure, the Hebrew word “soul” used could sometimes be translated “life,” but in this case it could also [more?] plausibly be translated as “soul.” Similar to how in 1 Ki 17:21 the “soul” [or “life”] came back INTO the child’s body. Or how Jacob said in Gen. 37:35, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” Implying Jacob believed in a conscious afterlife in Sheol where he would be reunited with his son Joseph.

While a bit dated, here’s a public domain link to Messianic Jewish scholar Alfred Edersheim’s Appendix 19 in his famous book, “Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah.” He shows how the New Testament didn’t invent the Christian afterlife out of thin air, but was partly built upon previous 2nd Temple Jewish beliefs about the afterlife. Beliefs that themselves were built upon from the Old Testament revelation.

Appendix 19, On Eternal Punishment, According to the Rabbis and the New Testament by Edersheim
https://ccel.org/ccel/edersheim/lifetimes/lifetimes.xi.xviii.html

Gary:

“Since there’s the Biblical concept of progressive revelation whereby God grants more and more information about spiritual matters down through Redemptive History. It’s not one large data dump.”

Says who? Did God say this or is this “apologetic spin”, an ad hoc “harmonization” to explain away inconsistencies in one’s belief system? Yes, the Christian god may exist and, yes, progressive revelation might be true. But it is also entirely possible that the concept of an afterlife did not develop until the Jews were taken into captivity and exposed to the religions of Babylon, Persia, and Greece/Macedonia. Prior to their captivity, Jews believed that obedience to God resulted in blessings in THIS life. Once they were captives, the chances of blessings in this life looked bleak, their theology changed. Now obedience to God might not provide any benefits in the life, but one could look forward to blessings (or punishment) in the next.

Bottom line: Progressive revelation might be true but it also may be nothing more than an ad hoc rationalization for a gaping inconsistency between the God of the Hebrews and the God of Christians. In my re-evaluation of Christianity, it wasn’t just one inconsistency. It was MANY. I came to realize that Christianity is a house of cards, a house of cards held together by the glue of ASSUMPTIONS. Christians must make a lot of assumptions to maintain their faith.

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End of post.

24 thoughts on “Should Christians Be Concerned About the Evolving Concept of An Afterlife in the Old Testament?

  1. I pretty much tend to agree with Gary’s general take on this. (Yeh, there’s a bit of room for a bit of disagreement / discussion / debate, but nothing worth fooling with).

    My take on it is even more simple than Gary’s, though: NOBODY (in Judaism) actually knew whether there was any kind of afterlife or not. And just about every social group, going back to about the Neanderthals, had some kind of “belief” of some sort – at least, according to anthropologists that mention things about “burial rituals” and “being buried with tools, beads, weapons (etc)”.

    Now – by the first century, a Jew could pretty much believe whatever the heck he wanted to believe about the afterlife: the “Big Sleep” in Sheol, or in Paradise in the Presence of God, or he could believe in being reincarnated as another person, or, in resurrection, or – believe that there’s no afterlife at all.

    That’s still pretty much the view of Judaism At Large: there really is no scripturally-prescribed afterlife belief.

    Now – IF Jesus were bodily resurrected, well, then, that sorta ends any debate over what the “afterlife paradigm” is. Or, at least, it narrows the focus way down…

    Basically, then, the “general statement” from the earliest Christians was “if you had any questions about whether there was an afterlife, or how it might be experienced (which is understandable, since, hey, we’re Jews, and got no real afterlife dogma), then it might very well be the questions have been answered. Jesus was resurrected. That’s probably a big hint”.

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    1. Slightly off-topic, but you mentioned “burial rituals” and “being buried with tools, beads, weapons (etc)”. I realize that many think this is a sign of an “after-life” belief, but could it not simply be a means of coming to terms with the death of a loved one? Must it necessarily mean the people believed the dead would use these items in “another life”? I tend to think a considerable amount of projection comes into play in today’s religious beliefs.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. yeh, I think it’s totally possible that in the really ancient (ie, Neanderthal) burials, it might not have had anything to do with an “afterlife”. From what I’ve read, I don’t think there’s any real agreement among anthropologists on that point; some say one thing, some say another. shrug

        The reason that those that say “indication of belief in afterlife” say it (I think) because afterlife beliefs are virtually a “universal”. It’s well-known that small children develop the idea of “person permanence” at a very early age, and that this development is cross-cultural; it even happens in cultures that have no apparent religious beliefs at all. And, such anthropologists might argue, it’s an easy step to go from a belief that “Grandma is still with us” (ie, “person permanence”) to an afterlife belief. But, that doesn’t imply anything about any kind of well-formed “theology” (as it were), or anything beyond the idea that “when you die, some non-material part of you survives”.

        So my guess is that some anthropologists just sort of “project backwards”, thinking that there was (at any rate) some kind of belief that the dead don’t just cease to exist. It’s very easily imaginable that a brain that is capable of consciousness is also capable of having post-mortem grievance hallucinations (for example) that would support the “phantom existence” kind of thing….

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    1. That’s what always comes to mind when I read Randal Rauser’s blog. He’s big on Divine Accommodation and Progressive Revelation, but dismisses The BOM and Mormonism with a wave of the hand.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. epirurus, I have a question for you. In all the years you have been following Randal’s blog, has he ever made any argument that made you question your current worldview and consider adopting his own (i.e. becoming a practicing Xian again)?

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        1. Short answer- No, not even close.

          Longer answer – His ideas and arguments mostly aways seem to be motivated reasoning – where his faith will ultimately dictate his conclusion, even as he seems to continually slide further from his denomination’s and seminary’s position. Of course, he would probably reply that unless one can refute his arguments, one is also guilty of motivated reasoning. Attempting that, however, will take one down endless rabbit holes and have one engaging in word games until one side or the other gets tired of it.

          While I used to regularly follow and comment on his blog, for the last year or so I’ve only been checking it once or twice a month. If we were not acquainted with each other in real life, and he lived on the other side of the country, I probably would never had started reading his blog, or at least had any interest in following it, which I first became aquatinted with when I read John Loftus Debunking Christianity blog, and Randall used to comment there.

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          1. I once told Rauser that I believe he will deconvert from Christianity within five years. He was shocked. I said that because I think it is very hard for fundamentalist Christians to become “progressive Christians”. This is Rauser’s history. He grew up fundamentalist Pentecostal. Having grown up fundamentalist myself, every fiber in your body cringes at progressive Christianity’s wishy washy positions on Christian teaching. It is very difficult to go from a black and white world view to a gray worldview.

            Bart Ehrman experienced the same song and dance. He started out fundamentalist, became moderate, then became progressive, then finally, agnostic/atheist.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. I’ve wondered about that too – he seems to be on the path to deconversion ; however, I think it may take a lot longer, as he is wrapped up in Reformed Epistemology and the thought of people like Wolterstorff and Pantinga. That, and his penchant for philosophy (even though he does not have actual degrees in Philosophy), mean he has built up a high fortified wall around his absolute core beliefs about Jesus and God, and is able to come up with a myriad of ways to protect those core beliefs. To quote a long time but occasional commenter on his blog – The Atheist Missionary- he is too smart for his own good. So I’d bet longer than 5 years.

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          2. Thanks for that thoughtful reply, epicurus.

            I recall that I discovered Randal’s site as you did via John Loftus and his blog. I noticed Randal was an eloquent spokesperson for “Progressive” Christianity. I thought it was novel that he regularly engaged skeptics with ongoing dialogue on his site. That being said, some of his defenses re. his personal beliefs surprised me. His personal takes re. verbal plenary inspiration and inerrancy, for example, seemed mystifying. To me, it sounded like he was trying to erect an impenetrable fortification around his core beliefs.

            My opinion of Randal changed markedly after I started following his tweets on Twitter. At times his site was rife with vitriolic and/or inflammatory comments re. politicians, political commentators, political developments, evangelical Christian leaders, evangelical Christian institutions etc. I found a number of Randal’s comments to be alarming. Some were daft, and some were demonstrably false. The insightfulness he demonstrated on his blog re. his theological and philosophical viewpoints seemed strangely absent re. some of his political commentary. At times he sounded like little more than an angry parrot. I think he would do well to stop posting such comments on social media, but it seems he simply can not resist publicly sharing his opinions on such topics. In summary, as I have said before, I am surprised he is still gainfully employed at an evangelical theological seminary.

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            1. I realize Twitter has a word count restriction, so comments are by necessity short and can’t be fleshed out, but I think his Twitter account reflects who he really is. It’s a bit like some people who, after a few drinks, start revealing the real person they keep hidden away when they are sober.

              The angry and vitriolic comments, as well as his need to engage in those, as evidenced by how quickly he got back to tweeting after making a grand pronouncement on his blog that he was done with twitter for good, sure seem to suggest he needs to vent and rage somewhere and goes stir crazy if he can’t.
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              He doesn’t typically do it on his blog (although it does flare up occasionally, particularly in the comments section over the years), as he also seems to have a need to be seen as a reasoned, restrained, philosophical thinker – understandable given his position as a seminary professor I suppose, but probably also driven by a bit of ego as well.

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              1. Thanks for the reply.

                Yes, Twitter has its limitations as a forum. However, it allows you to string a series of tweets together in sequence when you have more to write. Randal and others have done so.

                You mentioned his apparent need to be regarded as a “reasoned, restrained, philosophical thinker”. I had that general opinion of him from his blog early on. I saw flare-ups from time to time, but he generally seemed reasonable whilst engaging various interlocutors. Following his comments on Twitter for a few years changed my opinion of him. The vitriol toward various conservative (mainly U.S.) politicians, conservative commentators, conservative publications, conservative Christian leaders and institutions etc. was on full display. He is entitled to his viewpoints, but repeatedly insulting people and/or institutions with whom he disagrees is not productive. Some of his comments were ill-informed. Some were flat-out wrong and demonstrably so. Some were ridiculous. And, it was patently obvious which side of the political spectrum he generally resides, as he rarely ever criticized liberal U.S. politicians or commentators or publications etc. Rather than appearing fair and balanced, he came across as an angry leftist shill. Again, he is entitled to be such, but it is contrary to the image of even-handedness he burnishes for himself. Several people (including me) implored him to restrain himself and focus on topics (i.e. theology and philosophy) that he is well-versed. That feedback was rejected. The article he wrote on his blog re. why he is off Twitter now seems farcical. I think he stayed off Twitter for less than one week.

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              2. epicurus, I wanted to add an addendum to my last post for clarification. My issue with Randal is not that he is decidedly liberal on so many political issues. His political leanings are of no real concern to me. He could be a neo-Marxist and I wouldn’t particularly care. My issue is that his method of engaging those on the other side of the political aisle on political issues is markedly different from how he purports to engage those who have different theological views from his own. He claims to welcome and promote engaging dialogue with skeptics on his forums. Fine. I do not see an equivalent effort from him when it comes to political issues. He is decidedly on one side of the aisle (i.e. the Left) on so many issues. I have seen him shut down dialogue with conservatives time and again. He explicitly stated on Twitter that he refused to engage “Trump” apologists (which would include nearly 47% of the voting electorate in the 2020 U.S. POTUS election). He repeatedly cites liberal news outlets as sources of fact on issue after issue. He repeatedly attacks conservative news outlets and has implored people to disregard them. Again, I don’t care much what his political views ARE, but his methods are not remotely comparable to how he claims Christians should engage others with different theological viewpoints. He is not remotely “even-handed” in this regard, and it reflects poorly upon him (imo). Many have noticed. Many have opined. Yet he continues.

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                1. I understand and agree. I tend toward Liberal myself, but I can see the double standard. Given that he belongs to a religion that is full of misinformation and crackpots, and that any skeptic or atheist who dismisses him for that reason makes him absolutely furious, it is ironic that he does much the same against those on the right. While refusing to engage Trump apologists, he would be outraged at someone refusing to take him seriously because he belonged to a wacky superstitious cult that believed, as Gary likes to put it, that a brain dead 1st. century peasant lives in peoples heart if they believe in him.

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                  1. Thanks for the reply. As an FYI, I did not vote in 2016 or 2020. I did not personally care for “any of the above” in the POTUS elections. I think the two-party system we effectively have in the U.S. is a dismal failure. And, I think many (if not most) of our elected representatives (on both sides) are essentially beholden to corporate lobbyists, special interest groups, and big-money donors. I am completely soured on U.S. politics.

                    “While refusing to engage Trump apologists, he would be outraged at someone refusing to take him seriously because he belonged to a wacky superstitious cult that believed, as Gary likes to put it, that a brain dead 1st. century peasant lives in peoples heart if they believe in him.” – epicurus

                    Well stated.

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                    1. Also interesting is that I just searched his website/blog and nowhere was there a link or mention I could find of his twitter activity in the menu sections – bio, blog, books, about, etc. Usually a blogger who tweets will mention it and link to it-yet nothing. The only way you would know is if you searched Twitter on his website and then you would get blog posts and comments. But that’s not the same thing as having an official “hey you can catch me on Twitter, here is the link.”
                      I wonder if this is another example of what seems to be a desire to separate the angry raging Randal, free from the constraints of being a seminary prof, from the image of the reasoned, moderate seminary professor Randal. Just a guess.

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                    2. Thanks for the reply. That is interesting.

                      It’s also interesting what Randal wrote in the comments section of his grandiose article explaining why he is “off Twitter”. Randal did not delete his main Twitter account. He temporarily deactivated it. He mentions in the comments that he deleted 2,900 tweets. Gee, I wonder why he did that? If he posted his honest opinions in his tweets, why would he delete 2,900 tweets while his account was temporarily deactivated? Perhaps he embarrassed or angered someone with content he posted? He also said he might still use Twitter in a limited capacity going forward, but I can assure you he is back to posting inflammatory remarks about politics, current events, arguing with skeptics, and attacking conservative evangelicals etc. Methinks he simply can not refrain from spouting his many opinions.

                      https://randalrauser.com/2021/08/why-i-am-off-twitter/

                      “I wrote: “I still might use Twitter in the future in a limited capacity to send out notifications about new books, blog articles, interviews, or debates.” That’s what I’m doing. I’ve also deleted 2900 tweets.” – R.R.

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                    3. I searched but couldn’t find his Inner Atheist ( or whatever it was called) Twitter account. So looks like he chose to keep that one closed I guess. I bet he was probably getting more flack from his employer or denomination over that than his tentative apologist Twitter account. I think we’ve discussed that before, but anyway, do you know if it’s still up and maybe I just missed it while searching?

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                  2. I recall that both of his Twitter accounts were deactivated in August, but I also can not find the “Inner Atheist” account today. Perhaps that one has been deleted. That account had very little content. The Twitter account Randal was referring to in his grandiose article was his main Twitter account. That was the account from whence he reportedly removed 2,900 tweets. Again, if Randal posted his honest opinions on Twitter, why would temporarily deactivate his account and remove 2,900 tweets? For that matter, he refused to say why a single tweet was removed in which Randal labelled Franklin Graham an “incomparable sleaze” and beseeched folks to stop donating to Samaritan’s Purse. 2,900 tweets removed? He must have had some reason to do that.

                    I only shared a few tidbits with you here re. what Randal posted on his main Twitter account. He posted scores of inflammatory posts over a long period of time (I followed his comments for several years). Plenty of them looked venomous. Some were patently false. Some were so absurd that I (and others) could hardly believe Randal tweeted them.

                    Liked by 1 person

  2. hey, Gary –

    Here’s an early Christmas gift for you:

    Q for WL Craig: “Well, on that basis since there is no virgin birth in Mark but there is in Luke and Mathew doesn’t that suggest that the virgin birth is likely to be legend coming in to the story?”

    A by WL Craig: “Well, from an historical point of view as an historian then, yes, it may be legend; but from a theological view and as a Christian then I have to accept the virgin birth as true.”

    You can read the whole account here: https://skepticink.com/tippling/2013/01/05/exclusivewilliam-lane-craig-accidentally-admits-nativity-accounts-of-matthew-and-luke-may-be-legend/

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    1. Interesting. He recognizes the validity of history but in order to maintain his status among “believers,” he must confirm his faith in fairy tales. I think they spell that h-y-p-o-c-r-i-s-y.

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    2. That is exactly what Roman Catholic scholar Raymond Brown said. But he believed that the virgin birth is historical because the Church says so, not because the Bible says so.

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