This begins what will probably prove to be a long series on eternal hope. As you know, hope is the only sustaining influence in a person’s life. Love, obligation, fear – these and other factors can motivate, but only hope can provide a motivation that stands the test of disappointment. You will find “hope” used 129 times in the King James Version of the Bible, 141 times in the NAS, and 185 times in the RSV.
Hope defines the object of your faith, as well as identifies your values. For example, you may place your faith in (take risks in the direction of) the stock market because you hope to have adequate finances for retirement. These, in turn, identify your values, i.e. – you value or consider it important to live well without having to depend on your children or charity during your retirement years.
Hope therefore identifies what you consider gain. You say, “I hope to do well in the stock market.” You do not say, “I hope to lose my investment.” The study of the end of the world (eschatology) seeks to identify what God defines as a biblical hope. In what direction does God say you can legitimately hope? In the New Testament, Paul prays for the Ephesians, “having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints…” Again, Paul says, “For the hope which is laid up for you in heaven, whereof ye heard before in the word of the truth of the gospel…”
In the Old Testament, God offered an eternal hope to the nation of Israel, illustrated by His promise to Abraham, the father of the nation: “for all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever.” In the Old Testament, however, I can find no parallel hope given by God to an individual, no place where God promises an individual eternal life. This does not mean that the OT saints lacked an eternal hope; Hebrews 11, for example, tells us “they desired a better country, that is a heavenly one.” Rather, I can find no reference to God offering an individual an eternal hope.
I found this so strange that I read the entire Bible looking for exceptions. A large part of this study will be devoted to analyzing various texts that may suggest that individuals did, in fact, have an eternal hope. Before beginning, however, let’s look at some obvious Old Testament indicators pointing in the direction of eternal hope:
Indicators that people believed in the immortality of the soul:
1) – Genesis 1:26-27: “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” The fact that God created him in His own image drove man to conclude that he is more than a temporal being like the rest of God’s creatures.
2) – Genesis 2:9: “And out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” In verse 22, Moses says that if man eats of this tree he shall “live forever.”
3) – Matthew 22:32: “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” Jesus quotes from Exodus 3:6 to prove the resurrection and the immortality of the soul.
4) – In 1 Samuel 28:7-15 Saul uses the witch of Endor to call Samuel back from the grave, thus demonstrating that although dead, Samuel lived.
5) – Israel lived 400 years in Egypt, and we know that the Egyptian people held to a belief in the immortality of the soul.
6) – Genesis 5:22: “Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him.”
7) – Genesis 37:35: “All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, and said, ‘No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.’ Thus his father wept for him.” Isaac saw Sheol as a place where he would be reunited with his son. There are many similar passages to this.
8) – Ecclesiastes 12:7: “and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” Evidently Solomon alludes to Genesis 3:19: “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” In Genesis, however, God does not say “the spirit returns to God who gave it.”
9) – 1 Kings 17:22: “And the LORD heard the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived.” God used Elijah to raise the widow’s son from the dead. (Cf. also 2 Kings 4:35 and 13:21). Thus, God demonstrates His power over Sheol; it cannot hold those who enter.
10) – 2 Kings 2:11: “And as they still went on and talked, behold, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.” As his prodigy looked on, Elijah was translated into heaven. No mention is made of what happened to him. When God translated both Enoch and Elijah, He demonstrated that Sheol was not the inevitable end of man. The prophet Micah, speaking for God, predicts: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes.”
Other indicators exist. These are merely illustrative.
Old Testament Theocracy
As we move through this study, we will explore passages in the OT that hint of life after death, but as already noted, they are relatively rare and do not promise the people of God the hope of heaven after death.
With the establishment of the Theocracy, God dwelt among His people in a sort of kingdom of God on earth. With the disintegration of Israel as a nation ruled by God (first with the loss of the ten northern tribes in the Assyrian captivity and then the Babylonian captivity), you gradually see the emergence of the individual as the focus of the Old Testament writers.
The continuity of God’s commitment to the nation did not require a hope of heaven; that commitment can be kept indefinitely in a temporal environment. When it came to the individual, God’s commitment had to transcend the temporal, simply because of man’s mortality. A cursory analysis of life reveals that a temporal hope alone is no hope at all. Without an eternal hope, life is futile.
The word “heaven” is used in the OT as the abode of the stars and some times as the abode of God. Deuteronomy 26:15: “Look down from thy holy habitation, from heaven, and bless thy people Israel.” And again, 1 Kings 8:43: “Hear thou in heaven thy dwelling place.” On occasion an oath was made using heaven as surety: Deuteronomy 30:19: “I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.” As far as I can tell, the ascension of Elijah is the first reference of a person going to heaven.
Psalm 139:8: “If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in Sheol, behold, thou art there.” This seems to be the first reference in Scripture to both heaven and Sheol in the same thought; Sheol and heaven are separate places. David says that it is possible for a person to “ascend up into heaven,” the first such reference since the ascension of Elijah. Also, Amos 9:2: “Though they dig into Sheol, thence shall mine hand take them; though they climb up to heaven, thence will I bring them down.” As far as I can tell, these are the only OT references to people going to heaven, and even here I am not sure if the author means the abode of God or merely disappearing in the clouds.
Proverbs, possibly more than any other OT book, talks about Sheol as a place akin to the New Testament understanding of hell.
New Testament Teaching
Jesus discusses the eternal destiny of individuals, but doesn’t tie their destiny to His substitutionary death. He came to present the kingdom of God to the Jews, and it wasn’t clear until after their rejection of Him and His crucifixion that His was a propitious death for the sins of the world. Interestingly, throughout the gospels you find the Baptist, Jesus, and His disciples all preaching the kingdom of God. But nowhere that I can find do they give the content of the message. It seems reasonable to assume that whatever its content, it had to be understood by the masses, and thus given in OT terms.
Not until you get into the epistles do you find the purpose of Jesus death amplified, as well as an emphasis on the individual and the necessity of his receiving forgiveness of sin through the blood of Christ as a necessary condition for inheriting eternal life. This, according to the Apostle Paul, takes place because the “wild olive branch” has temporarily replaced the “natural olive branch” until “the fulness of the Gentiles is complete.”
In the New Testament, then, we as the “wild olive branch” are to be included in the kingdom of God. In Matthew 5:9 Jesus establishes a condition: you and I are a child of God only if we become a peacemaker:
“Blessed are the peacemakers: for they be called the children of God.” You will not be able to meet this condition of the Master unless you obey His admonition in v. 44: “I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Until you can love, bless, and pray for your enemy you will never be at peace with him.
Those with a temporal hope will find themselves at war with their fellow man, for temporal resources are finite and people compete with one another in an endeavor to obtain them. Peace, with self and with others, is impossible without an eternal hope. With self because you say with the Apostle Paul, “Having food and raiment, let us therewith be content,” and with others because you are no longer competing with them. You “look for a city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” An eternal hope ensures your dependence upon God, for clearly only He can provide the object of an eternal hope.
When a man declares his autonomy from God he guarantees the anarchy of his passions. In the heat of passion a man will do what under the influence of reason he abhors. If you renounce your autonomy in favor of being God’s slave, He will help you control your passions, alter your hope, and empower you to be a peacemaker.
In I Corinthians 13:3 Paul ties love to profit: if I don’t transfer my hope for gain into the eternal, I won’t be able to love in a way different from the world. It seems to me this is the gist of Jesus’ words in John 13:34-35.
 Ephesians 1:18, RSV
 Colossians 1:5, KJV
 Genesis 13:15, JPS (Jewish Publication Society)
 Hebrews 11:16, RSV
 Micah 4:5
 Cf. Romans 11
 1 Timothy 6:8, KJV
 Hebrews 11:10, KJV