When the Apostle Paul returned to Jerusalem after his third missionary journey, he was arrested when he entered the Temple. He was falsely charged with bringing a Gentile into the Temple (Acts 21:26-36). The next day he was brought before the Sanhedrin (the highest judicial court of the Jews) and he was put on trial for desecrating the Temple (Acts 23:1-10).1
Paul knew that the Council (composed of 70 members) was ruled by the Sadducees, but he was also aware of the fact that many of its members were Pharisees. He used this knowledge to immediately throw the Council into disarray, He cried out, “I am a Pharisee…and I am on trial for the hope and resurrection of the dead!” (Acts 23:6).
The result was “a great uproar,” as the Pharisees began debating the Sadducees. The conflict became so intense that the Roman soldier who had brought Paul to the Council decided that Paul’s life was in danger. He intervened, took Paul by force, and returned him to the Roman barracks (Acts 23:10).
The Basic Issue
Why did Paul’s comment produce such an explosion of emotion? It was due to the fact that the Sadducees and Pharisees differed strongly on certain points of theology—one of the most important being life after death and resurrection.
The Sadducees, who controlled the Temple and the Sanhedrin, strongly rejected the idea of an afterlife and therefore dismissed the concept of resurrection as heresy. They based their theology solely on the writings of Moses (Genesis through Deuteronomy). Based on these five books, they argued that there was no evidence in them of life after death or resurrection.2
The Pharisees, on the other hand, relied on all the Scriptures and also believed that the Oral Law (interpretations of the Written Law which were consolidated centuries later in the Talmud) was equal to the written Scriptures. The Pharisees rejected the idea of the Sadducees that the soul ceases to exist at death. They believed instead in the immortality of the soul and in a future resurrection of the dead.3
When the Sadducees discerned that Jesus believed in life after death and resurrection, they decided to challenge Him (Mark 12:18-25). Jesus gave them a very clever response. Knowing that they relied only on the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible), He referred them to the passage in Exodus 3:6 where God spoke to Moses out of the burning bush, saying, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Jesus then made His point by asserting that “He [God] is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Mark 12:27).
Jesus could have referred the Sadducees to a very clear example of future life after this earthly existence that is portrayed in the writings of Moses. I am referring, of course, to the rapture of Enoch to Heaven that is recorded in Genesis 5:22-24. Jesus probably refrained from this example because Enoch did not experience death.
Scriptures Outside the Pentateuch
How about the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures? Is there any reference to life after death and resurrection, or are these concepts strictly New Testament revelations?
There is no doubt that most of what we know about death, consciousness after death, and resurrection come from the New Testament Scriptures. The Bible is definitely progressive in its revelation about what happens after death.
But the Old Testament is not silent about these subjects. There are verses in the Hebrew Scriptures that clearly teach life after death, and there are others that imply resurrection. These verses are to be found primarily in the wisdom literature (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes). The topics are also addressed in the writings of the prophets both the Major and Minor.
Before we take a look at some of those verses, let’s consider a story in First Samuel 28 that clearly teaches life after death. This passage relates to a time when King Saul was facing war with the Philistines. He was very fearful, and he prayed earnestly to God for reassurance, but God would not answer his prayers because of his rebellious spirit. So, in desperation and in violation of God’s Word, Saul went to a medium and asked her to call up the spirit of the prophet Samuel who was dead. She did so, and Samuel appeared in a transitional spirit body and announced that the Philistines would be triumphant and that Saul and his sons would be killed and “therefore tomorrow you and your sons will be with me” (1 Samuel 28:19).
Another story that affirms spiritual existence beyond earthly life is found in 2 Kings 2:1-11, where we are told that the prophet Elijah was raptured to Heaven, just like Enoch.
The Afterlife in The Wisdom Books
Concerning life after death, King David certainly believed in it. When his son born of Bathsheba died, David proclaimed that one day he would go to be with his son (2 Samuel 12:23).
Additionally, David speaks of life after death several times in his psalms. For example, in Psalm 16:10, he says, “You will not abandon my soul to Sheol.” This was a reference to the belief that after death, the soul goes to a temporary holding place of the spirits of the dead, called Sheol in the Old Testament and Hades in the New Testament.
David’s best-known reference to life after death is found in Psalm 23:6, where he wrote, “Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.” A similar affirmation is found in Psalm 133:3 where, speaking of the unity of believers, David wrote: “It is like the dew of [Mount] Hermon, coming down upon the mountains of Zion; for the LORD commanded the blessing — life forever.”
On one occasion, David said that the thought of life after death was what kept him hopeful: “I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living” (Psalm 27:13).
Other psalmists also affirmed their belief in life after death. In Psalm 49:15, the Sons of Korah proclaimed: “God will redeem my soul from the power of Sheol.” Asaph, David’s worship leader, wrote: “With Your counsel You will guide me, and afterward receive me to glory” (Psalm 73:24).
King David’s son, Solomon, like his father, affirmed his belief in life after death when he concluded the book of Ecclesiastes with the observation that “God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14). There would be no need for such a judgment if people’s souls were annihilated at death. Solomon also spoke of life after death in his Proverbs. He wrote: “The path of the godly leads to life. So why fear death?” Proverbs 12:28 (TLB).
The book of Job is considered by many scholars to be the oldest book of the Bible, written before the Pentateuch. In it, the central character, Job, proclaims his belief in life after death when he is recorded as saying, “Though He [God] slay me, I will hope in Him” (Job 13:15). This is an amazing statement since Job lived before any written revelation of God to Mankind. His faith was grounded solely in His personal relationship with his Creator.
The Afterlife in The Prophetic Books
The prophet Isaiah spoke of his belief in life after death when he declared that a day would come when God would “swallow up death for all time,” and He would then “wipe away tears” from the faces of those who were redeemed (Isaiah 25:8). He spoke of it again in his taunt of the King of Babylon when he wrote: “In the place of the dead [Sheol] there is excitement over your arrival. The spirits of world leaders and mighty kings long dead stand up to see you” (Isaiah 14:9, NLT).
A similar passage about souls in Sheol welcoming the dead is found in the writings of Ezekiel: “The Egyptians will fall with the many who have died by the sword, for the sword is drawn against them. Egypt and its hordes will be dragged away to their judgment. Down in the grave [Sheol] mighty leaders will mockingly welcome Egypt and its allies, saying, ‘They have come down; they lie among the outcasts, hordes slaughtered by the sword.'” (Ezekiel 32:20, NLT). Here Ezekiel depicts some mighty leaders among the dead in Sheol mocking the dead Egyptians who have arrived there.
In his first letter to the Corinthian church, Paul quoted one of the Minor Prophets to justify his claim that there was life after death. He pointed his readers back to the prophet Hosea who defiantly sneered at death with his chant: “O Death, where is your victory? O Death where is your sting?” (Hosea 13:14).
Resurrection in the Hebrew Scriptures
There are a number of examples in the Old Testament of persons being raised from the dead. They include the son of the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:17-24), the son of the Shunammite woman (2 Kings 4:18-37), and a man who was thrown into Elisha’s grave (2 Kings 13:20-21). However, none of these were true resurrections. Instead, they were resuscitations, for each of these people died again. A true biblical resurrection results in eternal life.
Belief in a day when a true resurrection of believers will take place can definitely be found in the Hebrew Scriptures. The patriarch Job expressly stated his belief that one day his body would be resurrected. He asked, “If a man dies, will he live again?” (Job 14:14). He seemed to answer the question himself by stating, “You [God] will call and I will answer You; You will long for the work of Your hands” (Job 14:15). He got even more specific later when he affirmed his absolute belief in the resurrection of his body (Job 19):
25) “As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, And at the last He will take His stand on the earth.
26) “Even after my skin is destroyed, Yet from my flesh I shall see God;
27) “Whom I myself shall behold, And whom my eyes will see and not another. My heart faints within me!”
King David affirmed belief in his resurrection in Psalm 17:15 when he wrote, “But as for me, my contentment is not in wealth but in seeing You and knowing all is well between us. And when I awake in heaven, I will be fully satisfied, for I will see You face to face” (TLB). In Psalm 22:29, David extended this belief to all who had ever lived and died: “…All those who go down to the dust will bow before Him [Jesus], even he who cannot keep his soul alive.”
An unknown psalmist professed belief in resurrection in Psalm 71:20 when he declared that God would one day revive him and “bring me up again from the depths of the earth.” Isaiah spoke specifically of that resurrection day when he wrote, “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).
Another specific reference to resurrection in the Hebrew Scriptures is to be found in Daniel 12:1-3, where the prophet is told by God that Old Testament Saints will be resurrected at the end of the Great Tribulation:
1) “At that time Michael, the archangel who stands guard over your nation, will arise. Then there will be a time of anguish greater than any since nations first came into existence. But at that time every one of your people whose name is written in the book will be rescued.
2) “Many of those whose bodies lie dead and buried will rise up, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting disgrace.
3) “Those who are wise will shine as bright as the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness will shine like the stars forever.”
This passage makes it clear that Old Testament saints will not be included in the Rapture. That is due to the fact that the Rapture is a promise to the Bride of Christ, the Church. All Church Age saints will be taken in the Rapture, both the living and the dead (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). Old Testament saints and Tribulation martyrs will be resurrected when Jesus returns to earth at the end of the Tribulation.
The One True Resurrection
The only true resurrection that has taken place thus far in history is the resurrection of Jesus. His resurrection to life in an eternal glorified body proved His claim to be God in the flesh. It also serves as the guarantee that those who put their trust in Him will also be resurrected to live forever with Him in glorified bodies on a new earth.
Jesus’ triumph over death is the Gospel — it is the good news. It is our hope. It was the focus of Apostolic preaching (Acts 2:29-36). It should be the theme of preaching today.
Have you received Jesus as your Lord and Savior? He is the only way to the atonement of your sins and reconciliation with your Creator (John 14:6).
Do not be deceived by Satan’s lie that you can work your way into Heaven by performing good deeds. Faith in Jesus is your only hope. Heaven is not for good people. Rather, it is for saved people:
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
1) All Scripture references are from the New American Standard Bible (1995), unless otherwise noted.
2) GotQuestions.org, “What are the differences between the Sadducees and Pharisees?” https://www.gotquestions.org/Sadducees-Pharisees.html
3) AskAnyDifference.com, “Difference Between Pharisees and Sadducees,” https://askanydifference.com/difference-between-pharisees-and-sadducees/