Did the ancient Jews believe in life after death?

By James M. Rochford

“Most of the scholarly world agrees that there is no concept of immortality of life after death in the Old Testament.”[1] With these words, George Mendenhall summarizes the consensus of critical academics regarding the afterlife in the Hebrew Bible. Even many Jewish thinkers deny an afterlife. For instance in a 1991 interview, Jewish professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz said,

Death has no significance… only life matters… In the entire Torah there is not the slightest suggestion that anything happens after death. All the ideas and theories articulated on the subject of a world to come and the resurrection of the dead have no relationship to religious faith. It is sheer folklore. After you die, you simply do not exist.[2]

Critics of the Bible argue that the concept of the afterlife was an evolutionary development: God didn’t slowly reveal the subject of Heaven; instead, the Jewish people slowly invented it over time.










Does the OT speak about the afterlife? And if it does, why doesn’t it describe the afterlife as much as the NT Scriptures?

Direct evidence for the afterlife in the OT

The book of Genesis refers to the afterlife. Even in the first few chapters, we read about the opportunity to “live forever” (Gen. 3:22). Later in Genesis 5, we find a rather grueling genealogy of Adam and Eve’s descendants, reading the repeated refrain: “And he died… And he died… And he died…” Yet one man doesn’t die in this account. In the midst of this repetition, we read, “Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him” (Gen. 5:24). Where did he go? The Bible doesn’t say, but we know that he didn’t die—like the others. Later in the Bible, we read that the prophet Elijah “went up by a whirlwind to heaven” (2 Kin. 2:11). If there is no afterlife in the OT, then where did these two men go? Did God take them only to annihilate them? Such an answer hardly explains these passages.

Job said, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will take His stand on the earth. 26 Even after my skin is destroyed, yet from my flesh I shall see God; 27 whom I myself shall behold, and whom my eyes will see and not another” (Job 19:25-27). In just a few short verses, Job emphasizes how he will “see God” three times. Elsewhere, Job states,

Though He slay me, I will hope in Him. Nevertheless I will argue my ways before Him. (Job 13:15)

If only you would hide me in [Sheol] and conceal me till your anger has passed! If only you would set me a time and then remember me! 14 If a man dies, will he live again? All the days of my hard service I will wait for my renewal to come. 15 You will call and I will answer you; you will long for the creature your hands have made. 16 Surely then you will count my steps but not keep track of my sin. 17 My offenses will be sealed up in a bag; you will cover over my sin. (Job. 14:13-17 NIV)

The Psalms refer to the afterlife in a variety of ways:

You will not abandon my soul to Sheol; nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay. 11 You will make known to me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy; in Your right hand there are pleasures forever. (Ps. 16:10-11)

I shall behold Your face in righteousness; I will be satisfied with Your likeness when I awake. (Ps. 17:15)

You make him most blessed forever; You make him joyful with gladness in Your presence. (Ps. 21:6)

God will redeem my soul from the power of Sheol, for He will receive me. (Ps. 49:15)

With Your counsel You will guide me, and afterward receive me to glory. 25 Whom have I in heaven but You? And besides You, I desire nothing on earth. 26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Ps. 73:24-26)

Isaiah wrote about the resurrection of the dead: “Your dead will live; their corpses will rise” (Isa. 26:19). He also wrote of a time where God “will swallow up death for all time, and the Lord God will wipe tears away from all faces” (Isa. 25:8). Paul understood this passage to refer to the afterlife (1 Cor. 15:54).

Daniel also wrote, “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2). Nelson writes, “Daniel 12:2 is the first undisputed, unambiguous teaching on the resurrection of individuals from the dead in the Bible.”[3] Jesus surely interpreted this passage in this way (Jn. 5:28-29; Mt. 25:46).

Indirect evidence for the afterlife in the OT

We discover the Jewish belief in the afterlife through indirect ways as well. For instance, when people of faith died in the OT, they went “to [their] fathers in peace” (Gen. 15:15) or were “gathered to [their] people” (Gen. 25:8; cf. 35:29; 49:33; Deut. 32:50). David viewed this message as comforting in grieving the loss of his newborn son (2 Sam. 11:23).

Saul—the first king of Israel—made the grievous error of trying to contact the dead prophet Samuel (1 Sam. 28). Of course, God strictly forbid “one who calls up the dead” (Deut. 18:11), but Saul did it anyway. While much could be said about this strange passage, it shows that the Jewish people believed in life after death. After all, why would the king of Israel even try to contact the dead, if the Jewish people didn’t believe in the afterlife? Morey comments, “What is absolutely clear is that Saul believed Samuel was still consciously alive in Sheol. That the King of Israel would believe in an afterlife while the rest of the nation did not is totally unreasonable.”[4]

Additionally, while the surrounding nations all believed in some form of an afterlife, God never condemns this concept. Morey comments,

When God wanted Israel to believe something which was unique and contrary to what the surrounding cultures believed, He always clearly condemned and forbade the pagan beliefs and then stressed the uniqueness of the new concept. For example, in order to establish monotheism, God repeatedly and clearly condemned the pagan concept of polytheism and stressed monotheism. While God clearly condemned polytheism in the Old Testament, at no time did He ever condemn belief in a conscious afterlife. At no time did God ever put forth the concept of annihilation or nonexistence as the fate of man’s soul at death.[5]

The OT teaches that humans have immortal souls

The OT teaches that humans have a spiritual component to them. The Hebrew word for a “soul” is nephesh. In some contexts, this word simply means “throat, neck, or breath,” but it can also be translated as “living being, people, personality, life, or soul.”[6] Consider just a few examples:

God has a soul (nephesh). Of course, the Jewish people didn’t believe that God was a physical being. Yet God swears by his nephesh (Jer. 51:14; Amos 6:8). He promises that his “soul” (nephesh) will not reject the people (Lev. 26:11). Later in context, the human “soul” can reject God (Lev. 26:15). God’s “soul” (nephesh) can “abhor” (Lev. 26:30; Isa. 1:14), and he has desires in his “soul” (1 Sam. 2:35).

Humans have a soul (nephesh). We are to put the words of God “on [our] soul” (Deut. 11:18). Samson’s soul was “annoyed” (Judg. 16:16). The “soul” of Jonathan was “knit to the soul of David” (1 Sam. 18:1). Hannah “poured out [her] soul before the LORD” (1 Sam. 1:15). Moreover, the “soul” (nephesh) can experience sorrow (Lev. 26:16), distress (Gen. 42:21), hate (2 Sam. 5:8), bitterness (1 Sam. 1:10; Isa. 38:15), misery (Judg. 10:16), grief (1 Sam. 2:33), trouble (2 Kings 4:27), trembling (Isa. 15:4), or alienation (Ezek. 23:17-18). Finally, death occurs when the “soul” (nephesh) leaves the body (Gen. 35:18; 1 Kings 17:21-22), and life occurs when the “soul” enters the body (1 Kings 17:21-22). The “soul” is contrasted with mere “life” (2 Sam. 11:11). It is parallel with our “spirit” (ruah; Isa. 26:9; 42:1).

Jewish translations never translated this word as mere physical life. A couple hundred years before Christ, Jewish men translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek—a translation called the Septuagint. When they came to the term nephesh, they never once translated it with the Greek term bios (“life”). Morey writes, “They wished to avoid the idea that man’s soul could be reduced to mere physical life, they avoided using bios which would have given people that idea.”[7]


For these reasons, almost all ancient Jewish believers affirmed the existence of an afterlife and the immortality of the soul. While the Sadducees denied the existence of the afterlife,[8] Josephus records that all other Jews believed “the souls are immortal, and continue forever” and were subject to reward or “eternal punishment.”[9]

What is the nature of the afterlife in the OT?

Before Jesus paid for sins, people waited in Sheol. We might think of Sheol as a temporary holding tank before Heaven was opened. The OT mentions Sheol 65 times. It is said to be in the depth of the Earth (Ps. 63:9; 86:13; Isa. 14:9; Num. 16:30). The afterlife was a place of darkness (Job 10:21-22) and silence (Ps. 94:17; 115:17), but it was also considered a conscious existence (Isa. 14:9-10; Ezek. 32:21-31; Deut. 18:11; 1 Sam. 28:11-15). While both the righteous and unrighteous dead went to Sheol, the righteous are said to “enter into peace” (Isa. 57:2). By contrast, the unrighteous dead went to “the lowest part of Sheol” (Deut. 32:22; c.f. Isa. 14:15; Ezek. 32:23).

The descriptions of Sheol often confuse us. For instance, David writes about the “terrors of death” (Ps. 55:4), and elsewhere we read about the “terrors of Sheol” (Ps. 116:3). Yet these pictures are resolved when we remember that people before Christ didn’t have the security we have now. It wasn’t until after the Cross that people could conquer their fear of death. Through his death, Jesus broke the “power of death” and “set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying” (Heb. 2:14-15 NLT). Before the payment had transferred, their fate in Sheol was still open ended: Would God pay for their sins or not? After the Cross, we never need to worry about this question ever again.

Before Jesus died, these OT believers waited for him to actually pay for sin. For instance, when Moses and Elijah visited Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration, what was their topic of conversation? Luke tells us that they were “speaking of His departure which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Lk. 9:31). Everything was on the line for Moses and Elijah. If Jesus didn’t take up the Cross, they would be lost.

Those who deny the afterlife in the OT want to make Sheol nothing more than just “the grave.” To them, Sheol is just a Hebrew word for “death.” In fact, older English translations will render Sheol with “the grave.” Yet this is unfounded. As Lutzer comments, “Just because it is sometimes translated ‘grave,’ this does not mean that it refers only to the grave.”[10]

For one, the Jewish people had a word for “grave” (kever). Sometimes, they distinguished between these two (Isa. 14:19). Moreover, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (the Septuagint) never translates Sheol as “grave” (Greek mneema). Instead, Morey writes, “It is always translated as Hades which meant the underworld.”[11] Likewise, the Hebrew word for “grave” (kever) is never translated as “Hades.”[12]

Why doesn’t the OT teach more about the afterlife?

God didn’t reveal everything about Heaven all at once. Like every theological topic, God slowly revealed his truth over millennia. In fact, even with a completed Bible, we still don’t know everything about Heaven.

Since all cultures believe in some sort of life after death, it would be remarkably strange if the Jewish people denied the existence of the afterlife. Theologian Charles Hodge writes,

That the Hebrews… should be the only nation on the face of the earth, in whose religion the doctrine of a future state had no place, would be… absolutely incredible, for it supposes human nature in the case of the Hebrews to be radically different from what it is in other men.[13]

Even today with all 66 books of the Bible, we don’t know everything about Heaven. Perhaps the afterlife wasn’t mentioned more in the Hebrew Bible, because it was only assumed to be true. As Solomon writes, “[God] has planted eternity in the human heart” (Eccl. 3:11).

[1] George E. Mendenhall, “Chapter 5: From Witchcraft to Justice: Death and Afterlife in the Old Testament.” Edited by Hiroshi Obayashi, Death and Afterlife: Perspectives of World Religions (New York: Greenwood Press, 1992), 68.

[2] Yeshayahu Leibowitz, interview by Israeli students, Sof Shavua, weekend supplement of Maariv, February 8, 1991. Cited in Helene Dallaire, “Chapter Three: Judaism and the World to Come.” Craig Blomberg and Sung Wook Chung, A Case for Historic Premillennialism: An Alternative to “Left Behind” Eschatology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 39.

[3] W. B. Nelson, Daniel. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013), 295.

[4] Robert A. Morey, Death and the Afterlife (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 1984), 49.

[5] Robert A. Morey, Death and the Afterlife (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 1984), 73-74.

[6] Ludwig Koehler (et al.), The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994-2000), 712.

[7] Robert A. Morey, Death and the Afterlife (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 1984), 49-50.

[8] Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, 2.166.

[9] Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, 2.154-159, 163.

[10] Erwin W. Lutzer, One Minute After You Die (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1997), 31.

[11] Robert A. Morey, Death and the Afterlife (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 1984), 76.

[12] Robert A. Morey, Death and the Afterlife (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 1984), 76.

[13] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 716.