Christians sometimes speak of the various prophecies fulfilled by Jesus as the long-awaited Jewish messiah. Whatever truth there is in that, there is one thing Jesus did that was not prophesied: the resurrection. There is no hint in the Old Testament that the coming Messiah would die and rise again. The very thought of the Messiah, a harbinger of victory over evil, would even die was absent.
Beyond that, there is very little about the afterlife in the Old Testament. Growing up as a Christian, I was taught a traditional belief in heaven and hell. Over time I learned there were other understandings of what exactly heaven and hell are. That said, whatever you believe about heaven and hell -what they are and how they work – they are largely absent from the Old Testament. Instead, the dead all reside in Sheol, a shadowy place.
This is all in the background of Psalm 30. Go ahead and read it.
Verse 3 – You, Lord, brought me up from the realm of the dead;
you spared me from going down to the pit.
Now, David did not literally die. But he is clearly going through trials which he can compare to death, thus God’s saving of him is akin to bringing him up from “the pit” which is a symbol of death. This emphasizes God’s saving acts, even when the darkest seems most dark, hope of life is just around the corner:
weeping may stay for the night,
but rejoicing comes in the morning. (v. 5)
In the midst of this, a question arises. God turns wailing to mourning. The testimony of much Old Testament scripture is that God will punish evil and justify good. Yet, what happens when this is not the case? The book of Proverbs provides a hopeful spin on the whole thing, assuring us that the wise person will succeed and the fool will perish. But the book of Job turns this all on its head, asking what happens when the wise person perishes? If God does not bring justice in this life, then perhaps justice will be done beyond death?
“What is gained if I am silenced,
if I go down to the pit?
Will the dust praise you?
Will it proclaim your faithfulness?
Hear, Lord, and be merciful to me;
Lord, be my help.” (v. 9-10).
Can death really be the end? Will God leave us in the grave? Is this world our only hope?
It was questions like these which led Jewish thinkers to develop the idea of a future resurrection. By Jesus’ day, there was hope that at the end of all things, God’s people would rise again to new life. When Jesus rose again, in the middle of history and not the end, it was an indicator that this future hope was breaking into the present. For those who followed Jesus, there was hope beyond the grave.
We live in a world that does not possess that hope. Karl Marx said such a hope was “opiate for the people.” For Marx, hope beyond the grave was a tool of the powerful to keep the marginalized in line. Yet, today we live in what philosopher Charles Taylor has called the “imminent frame.” The horizon has diminished and all we have is this world. If this world is all there is, then we must pursue justice at all costs. From this it is a short road to totalitarianism – why not gain power and force people into justice, even if against their will, if we truly believe it is best for them?
Marx was on to something – religion can be a tool of the powerful. But hope that the arc of the universe bends towards justice (as Dr. King said) can also be a motivation to do good. Recognizing there are forces at work guiding things, and I can work with those forces rather than all the pressure being on me, can be reassuring. We can work hard for goodness and justice without giving into the temptation to take worldly power, knowing there is hope.
The light is winning.
The light will win.
Even in the darkest night, morning is coming.