Did the Hebrews have a concept of the soul’s life after death? Did they believe the dead continued to exist as disembodied spirits?
Many (but not all) who believe in annihilationism and universalism deny it. They say the idea that the soul survives the death of the body comes from Plato, not the Bible.
Why do they deny it? In part, because they want to avoid any notion of a prolonged torment after death. Many annihilationists and universalists think it is unjust for the wicked dead to experience torment after death for hundreds or thousands of years until the Last Judgment. If someone was a sinner for twenty-five years, it seems unjust to them for that person to suffer for hundreds, or thousands of years, let alone for eternity. So they deny the dead continue to exist as disembodied spirits capable of being tormented. They say that is a pagan idea that Christians should reject.
I have been defending the doctrine of eternal conscious torment (ECT) in a series of blog posts. Part of that traditional doctrine has included the idea that the soul consciously survives the death of the body. ECT says that’s a Biblical idea, not a pagan one.
Who is right? Is that doctrine taught in the Bible? And more specifically, is there any evidence the Hebrews believed it?
I will give five verses from the Old Testament that convince me the Hebrews had the concept of the soul’s life after death.
Sheol below is eager to greet your coming.
He stirs up the spirits of the departed for you—all the rulers of the earth.
He makes all the kings of the nations rise from their thrones (Isaiah 14:9 HCSB).
Here Isaiah depicts the spirits in Sheol—especially those who used to be kings—rising up to meet a newcomer.
Isaiah is not the only prophet to teach this. Here is a similar quote from Ezekiel:
From within the realm of the dead the mighty leaders will say of Egypt and her allies, “They have come down and they lie with the uncircumcised, with those killed by the sword” (Ezek 32:21 NIV).
Here Ezekiel depicts some mighty leaders among the dead mocking the dead Egyptians who have arrived there.
Isn’t it clear the Hebrews believed that the soul survives the death of the body?
But it’s not just the unbelieving dead who are described as existing as disembodied spirits. Consider this:
Then Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” (1 Sam 28:15).
This concerns the prophet, Samuel. This event occurred during Saul’s infamous meeting with the witch of Endor. Samuel had died, but his spirit was called up from the dead. Of course, that implies his spirit continued to exist after his physical death.
The same is true for the prophet Jonah:
He said: “In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me. From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry” (Jonah 2:2 NIV).
Did Jonah actually die in the belly of the fish or was he only on the verge of death? Either way, Jonah certainly painted the picture of his departed soul crying out to God from Sheol.
Lastly, Jesus also invoked the image of a disembodied spirit pleading for relief:
“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire’” (Luke 16:22-24).
As I read these passages, it seems clear to me they all depict disembodied spirits continuing to exist in the realm of the dead.
Do you see that, too? D o you see this teaching doesn’t come from Plato or some other unbiblical source but from the Bible itself?
As I said, some versions of annihilationism and universalism deny this truth. Not all, but some. They deny the soul survives the death of the body. By contrast, ECT affirms it.
Who is right?
I take these passages as further proof that ECT has a stronger Biblical basis than its rivals.