Apocalyptic thinking and the fate of the dead in the New Testament

Read time: 9 minutes
The Inferno, Canto 10, Gustave Doré

I “attended” an online workshop yesterday hosted by the Centre for the Study of the Bible at Oriel College, Oxford. The theme was “Apocalyptic thinking.” We were treated to some excellent presentations from a good range of scholars, including such luminaries in the apocalyptic firmament as Loren Stuckenbruck and John Collins.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the perennial conundrum of how we define “apocalyptic” dominated much of the discussion. Is it a noun or an adjective, a genre or a system of thought, literature or liturgy? To my way of thinking, however, two questions are important. What is the relation of apocalyptic to Old Testament prophecy? And what is the relation of apocalyptic narrative to history? These questions naturally go hand in hand.

Prophecy, apocalyptic, and history

Both Jewish prophecy and Jewish apocalyptic reveal from heaven, principally for Israel’s benefit, what is unknown or poorly understood. The relation of Old Testament prophecy to history is more or less transparent. The word of the Lord comes to a real person, in a real place, at a known moment in history, to address a set of historical circumstances. The language may well be poetic or visionary, but we rarely lose sight of the concrete situation. The word of the Lord comes to Jeremiah, he sees “a boiling pot, facing away from the north,” and he is told that “Out of the north disaster shall be let loose upon all the inhabitants of the land” (Jer. 1:14).

Apocalyptic material tends to have a more obscure relation to history: the circumstances of composition are unknown or fictitious, often set in the ancient past, the work is likely to be pseudepigraphal, insight is gained through visions or on a heavenly journey and, perhaps most importantly, conveyed through heavily symbolic language.

I do not think that the New Testament seriously entertains the idea that after death people go immediately to a place either of conscious well-being or conscious torment.

But apocalyptic texts still, for the most part, it seems to me, address historical crises—just in a different idiom. The only “word of the Lord” in Daniel is the one spoken to Jeremiah about the period of Jerusalem’s desolation (Dan. 9:2). Daniel is less “rational” than Jeremiah; he has dreams and visions. He sees four hybrid beasts emerging from the sea, the last of which is especially destructive, and then a figure in human form—a figure vulnerable to attack from a monstrous horned creature—coming with the clouds of heaven to receive the dominion that is taken from the four beasts (Dan. 7:1-14).

The vision is not self-explanatory. Daniel is provided with an interpretation, but in rather general terms: the four beasts are four kingdoms, the human figure represents (I think) persecuted Jews who remain faithful to Torah (Dan. 7:15-27). But in the subsequent chapters it becomes clear that the vision pertains to a historical crisis faced by the Jews in the early second century BC, when the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes sought by violent means to suppress Jewish religious distinctiveness (Dan. 11:29-45).

To explore some of the implications of this a bit further I want to review the paper presented by Philip Alexander from the Centre for Jewish Studies at Manchester University. The paper was snappily entitled ‘The “World to Come” as a postmortem disembodied state v. the “World to Come” as a post-resurrection embodied state at the end of history: A conundrum of apocalyptic thinking.’

The double eschaton

Alexander finds in all the major Near Eastern eschatologies (Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Zoroastrianism) a pervasive anomaly, which he calls the “double eschaton.” On the one hand, these systems of religious thought teach that “after death the human soul will find itself fully conscious in a spiritual realm where it will enjoy either bliss or pain, depending on how the individual in question lived his or her life on earth.” On the other, they hold that there will be a general resurrection at the end, when souls will be reunited with their bodies and judged once again. Why have two judgments? What is the point of the resurrection?

The example is given of the shift in meaning of the expression ʿolam ha-ba’ (“the world to come”). In early Rabbinic Judaism, Alexander argues, it refers to a renewed messianic order at the end of history, following the resurrection of the bodies of the dead; but from the late Tannaitic period (i.e., around 200 AD) onwards it become the standard term for the “afterlife.”

We may then ask how this anomaly arose. The original Hebrew belief was that all the dead, good and bad, ended up in Sheol, which was equivalent to the Homeric Hades. But if all the dead descend alike into the shadowy non-existence of Sheol, there is no final accountability, no final justice. This is what Alexander calls the “moral deficit” of the old Hebrew doctrine of Sheol. Late Second Temple Judaism devised two incompatible solutions to this problem.

There is, first, the belief that the dead will be raised to face judgment in conjunction with the deliverance of Israel—“some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2). This elicited a concomitant belief in an “intermediate state” of “suspended consciousness.” It is those who sleep “in the dust of the earth,” Daniel says, who will be raised. The idea was popular with the Pharisees but was rejected by the Sadducees, and perhaps also by Hellenistic Jewish thinkers such as Philo.

But alongside this idea there also emerged, at the earliest stage, a doctrine of a “conscious afterlife in which people were rewarded and punished according to how they conducted themselves in this life.” Alexander gives the example of Enoch’s description, which he thinks may antedate Daniel, of a great mountain in which there are four caverns. In these the souls of the dead are assembled until “the appointed time of the great judgment upon them”(1 En. 22:4). There are three dark, unpleasant caverns for the wicked and one brightly lit and comfortable cavern for the righteous. Alexander thinks that there is “clear recognition of the fact that human consciousness survives death…, and that souls suffer pain and pleasure in the afterlife.”

Only one paragraph in the paper is given to arguing that early Christianity held both doctrines. Paul obviously believed that there would be a resurrection of the dead, and Alexander suggests that references to “those who have fallen asleep” in 1 Thessalonians 4:14 and 1 Corinthians 15:18 clearly allude to Daniel 12:2. In other words, those in Christ who sleep in the dust of the earth will be raised at the parousia.

But he thinks that the New Testament also contains traditions which “describe the afterlife as a sentient state and as involving both reward and punishment.” The example he gives is the “parable” of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk. 16:19-31). He then suggests, without going into details, that Abraham’s bosom, to which Lazarus is carried, corresponds to the “heavenly Paradise/Gan Eden,” and Hades to the “post-mortem Gehinnom/Gehenna/Hell.”

He concludes that “both the doctrine of post-mortem reward and punishment, and the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead are found in authoritative early Christian literature, and this meant that later Christianity felt obliged to find a place for both in its eschatology.” Well, we are certainly still struggling to make sense of the anomaly today, but I’m not sure we should blame the New Testament for it.

The “ends” of New Testament eschatology

I take it that Paul, as a good Pharisee (cf. Acts 23:6; 24:15, 21; 26:6-8), believed that there would be a resurrection at least of the persecuted righteous—the martyrs—among those who slept in the dust of the earth, along the lines of Daniel 12:1-3. As in Daniel, this would happen at the moment when the faithful are delivered from their enemies and vindicated and the kingdom of God is established. It is not an end-of-history event. It is an end-of-crisis event.

The narratives lack precise historical reference; they draw heavily on Old Testament symbolism; and in places seem perversely obscure (1 Thess. 4:16-17; 2 Thess. 2:3-10). But I would argue, all the same, that real historical developments are in view. Like Jesus, though with a different frame of reference, Paul repurposes Daniel’s visionary drama to speak about the eventual resolution to a historical crisis that would see sovereignty over the nations given to Jesus as a figure who comes with the clouds of heaven.

I do not think, however, that the New Testament seriously entertains the idea that after death people go immediately to a place either of conscious well-being or conscious torment.

The story of the rich man and Lazarus certainly makes use of such a tradition, but not to affirm heaven and “hell” as real destinations for the disembodied dead. It does not give us an authoritative “doctrine of post-mortem reward and punishment.” It looks much more like a “parable,” which is what Alexander actually calls it, about who in first century Israel is a true son or daughter of Abraham. Like the parable of the dishonest manager earlier in the chapter it begins, “There was a rich man who….”

It seems likely that Jesus has borrowed a literary model, perhaps an Egyptian folktale, and has used it to critique the complacency of the rich and powerful in Israel. Father Abraham’s function in the story is not to embody paradise or preside at a heavenly banquet; it is to engage in heavily didactic conversation with the rich man, just as the father in the parable of the prodigal son interacts at length with the older brother (Lk. 15:25-32). Lazarus may well correspond to Eliezer of Damascus (Gen. 15:1-6)—the outsider who now becomes heir in place of those who boast that they “have Abraham as our father” (Lk. 3:8). In other words, it is a parable of the coming reversal of fortunes in Israel.

So my argument is that the New Testament is actually quite consistent in its eschatological outlook. The prophetic-apocalyptic expectation is, for the most part, that sooner or later God will resolve the historical crisis faced by his people, bringing about deliverance, vindication, judgment, and the inauguration of a new political-religious order for the world, under the rule of his Son. I realise that there are other texts that need to be considered—Jesus’ saying to the man crucified with him about being in paradise, and the torment of those who worshipped the beast and its image, for example—but I don’t think that they change the picture.

Outcomes are differentiated not synchronically but diachronically, not as alternative, concurrent solutions to the “moral deficit” of Sheol but as staggered solutions to the failure of Israel. So the first eschatological horizon is the judgment and restoration of Israel, focused historically on the destruction of Jerusalem and temple in AD 70. The second eschatological horizon is wrath against the Greek—judgment of the classical pagan world, the defeat of the old gods, the removal of the corrupting, idolatrous presence of imperial Rome, the worst of the beasts, and the confession of Jesus as Lord to the glory of the one, true, living, creator God.