Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?
Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend to heaven, thou are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, thou are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there thy hand shall lead me,
and thy right hand shall hold me. Psalm 139:7-10 (RSV)
When Christians read the Hebrew Psalms, many will claim that Psalm 139 is one of their favorites. The psalmist says there is no place we can go in life where God’s Spirit is not present with us. Given the many vicissitudes of life, this is a profoundly consoling message.
Few who read this psalm, I suspect, have any idea that they are also watching a world-changing insight emerging in these words.
It comes as a stark surprise for many Christians when they first learn that the ancient Israelites of these Old Testament eras had no belief in a heaven or a hell as the our destinations after death. Christians just assume that the ancient Israelites believed just as we do. They did not.
The prevailing belief among Old Testament Israelites was that when people died, all of them (whether righteous or evil) descended to a land under the earth, a land of the dead. It was a gray and shadowy land where people experienced a gray and shadowy existence. One could hardly call it an afterlife, for it was devoid of all that makes life alive for us. The dead existed in a state we might compare to zombies.
This land was called Sheol, or the Pit. And we find references to it throughout the Old Testament, but most especially in the psalms.
What was most distressing about Sheol was that God was not there. It was a godless world. And so in Sheol no one praised God or enjoyed the comforts of being in God’s presence. (For an example, see Psalm 6:5.) In Sheol, the relationship the righteous had established with God in this life was shattered. It was gone.
This accounts for the desperation we often find in the psalms when the psalmist pleads with God not to let him be swallowed into Sheol or to let the Pit close its mouth over him. (For an example, see Psalm 69:15.)
A belief in an afterlife and in a resurrection of the dead did not make its appearance in Judaism until late into the post-exilic period. And the Christian belief in a heaven and hell is largely a Christian development.
We see an insight, however, that death does not lead to a godless existence emerging in Psalm 139. When the psalmist says, “If I make my bed in Sheol, thou are there!”, he is saying something revolutionary for the Old Testament world. In that world, Sheol was godless. The psalmist, however, senses that maybe Sheol is not godless after all. God’s Spirit is present there as well as in heaven.
This is not a full-blown declaration of a belief in an afterlife, in a heaven and hell. But it is a suggestion that there is a mystery about what happens after death that the old settled dogma of Israelite religion cannot conceive. The ground is shifting. What is emerging in this small seed of an insight will ultimately blossom into the fully developed ideas of the afterlife that we find in rabbinic Judaism and Christianity.
What I find striking about all this is how it speaks to our modern world. The ancient Israelite mind is not that far away from the mind of many modern secularists. They believe that when we die, we just cease to be. There is nothing to expect after death.
Well, in a sense, so did those ancient Israelites. A relationship with God was important, therefore, not as fire insurance, ensuring that we go to heaven when we die. It was important for the way in which that relationship served as the core of life in this world. To be truly alive here and now was to be in close relationship with God here and now. When a belief in an afterlife emerges, it comes as the icing on the cake, not the cake itself.
And I would contend that that is still the case in a biblical faith, despite Christianity’s exuberant development of ideas about heaven and hell. The point of evangelism is not to get people saved so they will go to heaven when they die. It is to invite people into a relationship with Jesus Christ that will transform life here and now.
In John 17:3, Jesus defines eternal life as knowing the only true God and Jesus Christ whom God has sent. Eternal life is defined as a form of knowing, i.e., relationship, not by how long life continues after death.
Christians are too inclined in their descriptions of the afterlife to get too graphic. We seem to know too exactly, as Reinhold Niebuhr once quipped, the furniture of heaven and the temperature of hell.
That is why I read a book like Heaven is for Real with great skepticism. I am not sure we are ever given the kind of details about heaven and hell that such a book claims to give. More importantly, it distracts our attention from the real issue, which is our transforming relationship with God who comes to us in Jesus Christ. The focus of that relationship is first and foremost a changed life here and now, not the here after.
Interestingly, the apostle Paul never goes into the detailed description of heaven and hell that the Book of Revelation does. Instead he says simply, when we die, we are with Christ. What does being with Christ look like? Paul never says, nor should we. That is the big surprise that awaits each of us at the moment of our death. And I am willing to let it remain a surprise.