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The Old Testament and the Afterlife

A Review of Philip Johnston's Shades of Sheol

N.E. Barry Hofstetter


This review was posted on the Evangelicals and JWs Discusson Board, June 16 2004


Johnston, Philip S.  Shades of Sheol: Death and Afterlife in the Old Testament.  Downers Grove : Inter-Varsity Press, 2002.  288p, $20.00


That the subject of death and afterlife is of perennial interest in biblical and theological studies is nearly too obvious an observation.  The problem is that various theological traditions have come to differing conclusions concerning the precise nature of death and the afterlife.  While both mainstream Western Christianity and Eastern Orthodoxy have generally agreed on certain aspects, not all theologians in either of these major divisions have always agreed, and in modern Christendom, opinions have arisen which do not accept the earlier consensus.  More recent cults and religious movements nearly always advance ideas of death and afterlife which are not in accordance with that same earlier Christian consensus.  Even within conservative, evangelical Christianity voices have arisen which question the eternity of hell and the reality of the resurrection.  Additionally, many of the works which address this issue are written either tendentiously from theological positions which produce a less than adequate handling of the relevant texts, or are so technical that they remain buried in various journals and are often accessible only to scholars.


Philip Johnston (currently Tutor of OT at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford ) has produced a fine, semi-popular but still comprehensive study on the subject of death and afterlife in the OT.  In his introduction, he states that his main concern is the difference in the OT view of the subject and the NT.  Scholars, he suggests, have generally explained the difference by historical development during the inter-testamental period.  Traditional Judaism and Christianity, on the other hand, have tended to read their theological, and specifically eschatological conclusions back into the OT texts, and so have placed undue limits on a proper understanding of the OT texts.  Having defined the problem, Johnston then proposes “to read and examine the Hebrew Bible in its own cultural and religious setting, without importing later concepts” (p. 16).  As part of this, he also wishes to demonstrate that the Israelite conceptions of death and afterlife are significantly different from those of the rest of the ANE (thus arguing against quite a bit of mainstream critical scholarship).


A tall order indeed, but Johnston proceeds to provide a great deal of exegetical support for his contentions.  He organizes the book according to various subjects under which he then discusses the relevant texts.  Johnston ’s topics are death in general, the realm of the dead, relations between the living and dead, and the afterlife, and he includes both material which he considers of “general interest” as well as more detailed interaction with scholarship.  These sections reveal a good depth of mastery of the subject, and being well footnoted, will be of interest to the more serious student, even though Johnston himself admits that he has eliminated a fair amount of technicalia in the interests of general readability.  The Hebrew is done according to standard transliteration, and the arguments so framed that even one without a knowledge of Hebrew may benefit from the discussion.  There are also summaries strategically placed at the end of each major section and some chapters, and the nice thing about these summaries is that they are concise, but truly summarize the wealth of material that Johnston explicates (one could actually get the flow of the arguments from these summaries, as I did, which then makes reading the chapters a more pleasant experience).  Essentially, the earlier chapters provide the necessary background for interpreting the clearest life after death and resurrection passages discussed in the latter chapters.


Johnston writes well, and I found his actual treatments of the various texts fair and well balanced.  While no author is without bias, including Johnston , he is especially careful, following his stated purpose, to allow the texts to speak for themselves.  For example, on page 206-207, he argues exegetically and contextually that Psalm 17:15 almost certainly does not refer to seeing Yahweh after death, but rather resting and awaking satisfied despite being surrounded by enemies.  In his treatment of the rather key passage in Ezekiel 37:1-14, he correctly notes that the primary emphasis in the passage is national restoration, not personal resurrection (though I would perhaps have emphasized more that the idea of a personal resurrection is certainly not inconsistent with the imagery of the passage, and that the passage informs later reflection on the subject, both canonical and extra-canonical). 


What he goes far in demonstrating, however, is that that although the OT does not have a well developed theology of death and afterlife, being primarily concerned with the relationship of the believer in this life to Yahweh, it nevertheless, in a variety of texts, provides seeds (as it were) which may be developed into such a theology, and particularly the theological strains of the NT.  Particularly cogent was his discussion in chapter 9, as he examines Enoch and Elijah, Psalms 16, 49, and 73, inter al. 


Simply put, death and afterlife were not major concerns of the OT writers.  They were concerned with the majesty and glory of Yahweh, however, and of his covenant faithfulness to his people, and it is this aspect of covenant faithfulness which seems to give rise to most of the passages which hint that the afterlife is more than just a powerless void or quasi-existence, and that the saints of God have a future beyond simply the emptiness of Sheol.


All in all, this book should be helpful both to the trained scholar and the laymen seeking to have a better biblical/exegetical foundation for understanding the nature of death.  I have two additional observations:


  1. While the nature of the work precludes extensive interaction with all the details of higher critical work, and while Johnston does interact quite well with certain scholarship relevant to the subject, I felt that several times the reader would have been served by additional interaction with higher critical explanations of the texts. Using Ezekiel 37 again as an example, some critics have seen 1-14 as a post-exilic tract redacted quite late into the text, and not contemporary with Ezekiel at all.  This issue may arguably be resolved through a literary critical and discursive analysis of the entire restoration section (Ezek 36-39) in the context of the whole of Ezekiel.  While certainly Johnston could not have done this in the present treatment, he could have noted the issue with some reference to the literature on the subject.

  2. It is certainly very striking, and in line with the overall Tendenz of Johnston’s work, that when Jesus was asked about the issue of the resurrection, he did not quote any of the OT resurrection passages, but instead referenced the nature of God and his covenant with his people, “Have you not heard what was said to you by God ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’?  He is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Matt 22:31b-32, ESV).  While this passage introduces its own interpretative difficulties, and while exegesis should have as its starting point the local text and context, from a total canonical, redemptive-historical perspective, Jesus’ comments should provide the ultimate hermeneutical reference for any work on understanding the Hebrew Bible’s view of death and afterlife.


N.E. Barry Hofstetter

The Center for Urban Theological Studies