Watching Consciousness Expand

In Psalm 139 we glimpse a new insight into God as it emerges.

Christians are often surprised when they learn that there is no concept in the Old Testament of the afterlife being divided between the two realms of a heaven and a hell. They assume that is the one consistent Biblical viewpoint. It is not.

The ancient Israelites who wrote the Old Testament had a very different idea about what faced the dying after the death. All the dead had the same fate, whether they were righteous or evil. They all entered into the underworld realm of the dead. This place bore the name Sheol. Hebrew poetry also often refers to it as the Pit.

Sheol was a gloomy, vaporous place where the dead existed (if you call it existence) in a semi-alive condition. They were shadows of their former selves, not creatures of flesh and blood, something like zombies. In this respect, the ancient Hebrews shared a parallel view of the afterlife with the ancient Mesopotamians and the ancient Greeks. Remember the shades of the Trojan war heroes that Odysseus meets in Hades.

The shocking thing in this ancient Hebrew belief was that in Sheol God was not present. It was a godless place, and so the dead could not enjoy any kind of relationship with God. One did not praise God in Sheol. (See, for example, Psalm 6:4-5.) Nor could one expect any succor from God. (See Isaiah 38:18-19.)

This was true for all the dead, whether they had lived good lives or bad. Religion therefore served as no opiate for the oppressed masses by promising them a better hereafter in the sweet bye and bye. A relationship with God was something one enjoyed only in this life. And the only immortality that one could hope for was the continuing of one’s seed in one’s line of descendants. This is one reason why a barren woman was such a tragedy. It meant the family line would come to an end.

This view of the afterlife is what gives poignancy to all the repeated pleas in the psalms that God will spare the psalmist from entering Sheol or going down into the Pit. (See Psalm 28:1 and Psalm 143:7.) Sometimes we find the psalmist bargaining with God, arguing that God will get no praise if God allows the psalmist to die. It is in God’s self-interest to keep the psalmist alive. (See Psalm 30:8-10.)

Psalm 88: Darkness Descending

There is no more gloomy psalm than Psalm 88. It is classic in expressing this view of death. The psalmist, for example, finds his soul full of troubles. He fears his life is drawing near to the doors into Sheol. He describes himself as one who has no help, like the forsaken among the dead. That sense of abandonment comes through clearly in verses like these:

Is your [God’s] steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?

The psalm ends on one of the gloomiest notes in all Scripture:

You [God] have caused friend and neighbor to shun me;
my companions are in darkness.

Psalm 139: A Seed of Hope is Planted

Given this pervasive belief in ancient Israel, I for one am quite startled when I read Psalm 139. This is a beloved psalm celebrating God’s constant presence with the psalmist in all circumstances of life. In a series of lines (verses 7-12), the psalmist asserts that there is no place where he can flee that he can escape God’s presence.

If [for example] I take the wings of the morning
and settle in the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.

In this wonderful litany of how God’s presence goes with the psalmist wherever he goes or into whatever the conditions of his life he endures comes this unexpected note:

If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. What gives here? We do not expect such a positive assertion from an Old Testament writer.

This line is no assertion of a belief in a resurrection, nor any awareness of a heaven or hell. But the psalmist does seem to sense Sheol may not be eternal finis. Maybe God has not given up on the dead. At least God is present in Sheol. For what purpose is not clear. But that very fact is a cause for hope.

The seeds of a belief in a Paradise and a Gehenna do emerge in the inter-testamental period in Judaism. They are active ideas in Jesus’ day. But they are not here in Psalm 139.

And yet in this one line in Psalm 139, we get a glimpse of how a new insight into God is emerging in the Hebrew consciousness. Sheol may just not be the end of the story. A seed has been planted. It will bloom into full flower in later Jewish literature and the New Testament.

A Note to My Readers:
There has been a long gap in my postings because of a serious family illness that I needed to care for. Now that recovery is under way, I am hoping to resume my postings on a more regular basis.

Watching a Biblical Insight Emerge

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.