For the living know they will die, but the dead know nothing; and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, hatred, and envy have now perished; And they have no portion forever in all that is done under the sun (Eccl 9:5–6 OSB).
Growing up Seventh-day Adventist (SDA), I knew this passage well as a proof text demonstrating the “state of the dead.” I believed that when I died, even if I died “in Christ,” I would in essence cease to exist until the general resurrection of the dead on the “last” day. Only my “breath” would return to God. For an extreme biblicist, it is challenging to read the above passage from Ecclesiastes and come to any other conclusion but that the dead are in stasis, lacking all sensibility. In essence they are no more than the molecules remaining from the decomposition of their bodies; cosmic dust. What Seventh-day Adventists and a handful of other protestant denominations fail to understand is the magnitude and immediacy of the resurrection. The resurrection for them and for many other protestants is some distant event that will happen in the future. Yet even many people from denominations that believe that the spirits of the just take up their abode in heaven after death, believe that they have “no portion forever in all that is done under the sun.” I have listened to at least one sermon by a Southern Baptist preacher who assured us that those who have passed from this life cannot see what goes on upon the earth, because, of course, “it’s not in the Bible.”
I posit that at the resurrection, there was a very clear and drastic change in how the people of God understood what the SDAs call “the state of the dead.” The pre-resurrection Jewish understanding of the state of the dead is drastically different than the post-resurrection Christian understanding. This is not to say that one is correct and the other is incorrect, but that this change in understanding was brought about by an ontological change in the state of the dead.
In this brief series, I would like to depict a very basic picture of the Jewish understanding of the state of the dead. I would then like to provide a brief sketch of the Christian teaching on the resurrection, and finally to discuss how this drastic change brought about by the resurrection is testified to by Orthodox and Catholic veneration of the saints. In this first post I will address the Old Testament (and SDA) understanding.
Judaic Teaching on the State of the Dead
In a sense, ancestors were attributed with great honor and a form of veneration. For instance, God is often referred to as the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” honoring these three patriarchs. But this veneration is very different from The Church’s living veneration of our saints. The patriarchs are remembered, but never directly invoked. In fact, throughout the Old Testament, there are very few references to communication with the dead. Furthermore, communication with the dead is condemned by the Law of Moses:
There shall not be found among you anyone who … conjures spells, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. For all who do these things are an abomination to the Lord your God, and because of these abominations the Lord your God will destroy them before you (Dt 18:10–12).
Near the time of Christ, the common understanding of life after death resembled the views held by the Greeks (notwithstanding SDA teaching). The Old Testament Sheol is analogous to the Greek Hades, and Hades was considered to be a place where the souls of the dead were collected.
The following is an example of how the two concepts are similar. Between the Biblical concept of Sheol and the Greek concept of Hades, there is a similar division of the souls of those who were evil during earthly life from those who were good. In Greek mythology, Hades contains a place called the Elysian Fields, where the souls of those who were heroic and virtuous abode. Likewise, in the Judaic view held near the time of Christ, the righteous dead abode in The Bosom of Abraham (cf. Luke 16:23), which was separate from the place where the unrighteous stayed.1 This view is upheld by Christ’s parable of “The Rich Man and Lazarus,” in which the rich man, who lived a very sinful life, was separated by a vast chasm from the righteous Lazarus, who abode in the bosom of Abraham.
This concept has been understood, and translated in accordance with this understanding, since ancient times. The Septuagint, the primary version of the Bible used by the Orthodox Church, translates the word sheol as hades. The Septuagint has been demonstrated to be the text of the Scriptures that Christ and his Apostles quoted from in the New Testament Scriptures. It predates the New Testament. Likewise, the Vulgate, the primary version of the Bible used by the Catholic Church up until recently, translates sheol into various forms of the word inferno. The Vulgate was compiled only a few hundred years after Christ. It was not until the 1500s and the protestant reformation that Bible translators began replacing the word hades or sheol with grave or death.2
In the next post in this series, we will discuss the post-resurrection Christian view on the state of the dead.
1 F. Gigot, The Bosom of Abraham, In The Catholic Encyclopedia. (New York: Robert Appleton Company 1907).
2 Gary Amirault, The Hell Words of the Bible.