Every generation of the church has been plagued by a hot topic of some sort. We only need to think of the doctrines different denominations fight over today to see that. It wasn’t any different in Jesus’ time, as different sects of Judaism were having their own doctrinal debates. And one of those debates was about resurrection.
The perception of many today is that when you die you either go to Heaven or Hell, but that was not the perspective of early Hebrews. Trying to understand the afterlife is always a bit difficult because the Bible leaves a lot of questions unanswered, leaving us to fill in the blanks to some extent. I don’t know if this is because the Bible writers were writing as though everyone in their time knew what they believed or if it’s because they had limited knowledge themselves, but today we do our best to understand everything in light of the information they left for us.
And in surveying all of this information, we see that before we were given the notion of the New Testament concept of Heaven and Hell, there was the Old Testament concept of Sheol. It’s a place that we’ve all read about if we’ve cracked open our Bibles, but we never really talk about it. From what we can understand, the Hebrews believed that all who died went to this unpleasant cosmological space to spend eternity there.
This was more or less the Old Testament concept of the afterlife. In fact many Old Testament interpreters, including John Walton, have concluded that in their mindset, “that there was only one possible destiny after death: Sheol, which was clearly not a place of reward, but neither was it a place of punishment (Eccles 6:6). It was a place of negation outside the ordered world.” (Walton, John H. Old Testament Theology for Christians: From Ancient Context to Enduring Belief. Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2017, p. 246.)
In general, details on the Old Testament afterlife are completely lacking.
Israel had no ideas about salvation, afterlife, or resurrection that could produce a theology on which we could build. We have seen that Israelites had no hope of heaven, no mechanism that could possibly have achieved an eternal, heavenly existence for them, no sense of reward or judgment in the afterlife, no thought that they would spend eternity with God, and no concept of personal resurrection. They also had no thought of salvation from sins. They thought in terms of corporate, community identity, rather than of their individual plights or destinies. (Ibid, p. 255.)
There was very little in the Old Testament that seemed to imply anything at all about something like resurrection—and that’s why it became such a hot topic in Jesus’ day when the Pharisees started teaching on the idea. Much of the idea was more specifically found in Jewish literature like 1 Enoch, Psalms of Solomon, and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. But despite this, the Pharisees latched onto every passage in the Old Testament that they could in order to promote their doctrine—passages like Daniel 12:2, which said, “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” In light of these kinds of sayings, the Pharisees came to believe that the righteous would one day be resurrected and the wicked would not. Starting to sound familiar?
Of course, due to the lack of passages like these, other sects of Judaism rose against the teaching. The Sadducees were especially known for their aggressive disbelief in the idea. Resurrection to them might as well have been blasphemy—not to mention that the passages the Pharisees were quoting were weak in their eyes. After all, the Sadducees only believed the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) to be Scripture, so if the concept didn’t exist there, then as far as they were concerned, it wasn’t Biblical.
The Sadducees were hard hearts to crack. They were about as stripped down as you could be about the afterlife. Not only did they deny resurrection, but they also believed that one’s soul simply died along with their body. To them there was not even a Sheol. The only way you lived on in this world was by having children and letting your name live on through them.
These opposing viewpoints made for a strong debate between the Pharisees and Sadducees. In fact, their opposition to each other was so strong that it’s almost humorous to read about. You may recall a story from Acts where Paul mentions the idea of resurrection and the Pharisees and Sadducees react so violent that Paul is pulled out of the room by soldiers who were afraid Paul would be “torn to pieces” (Acts 23:6-10).
But Jesus shows us that resurrection is real—not just in his teaching (Mk 12:18-23), but also by being resurrected.