Enoch and the Afterlife

It is very common to hear the claim in biblical scholarship that there is no doctrine of the afterlife in the Pentateuch, that the afterlife is a later idea that evolved throughout the Old Testament from (1) no afterlife at all to (2) sheol, the shadowy realm of the dead to (3) full-blown bodily resurrection unto heaven and hell. This final doctrine is held to be the result of contact with Zoroastrian thought during the exile, and thus represented in only a few, later Old Testament texts like Daniel 12:2.

Typically Christians respond by appealing to the notion of progressive revelation. Initially, it is maintained, God taught the Jewish people to know him only in this life, and then only gradually revealed the reality of the afterlife. C.S. Lewis even compared the state of early Old Testament theology to his own pre-conversion state between 1929 (theism) and 1931 (Christianity): “my training was like that of the Jews, to whom He revealed Himself centuries before there was a whisper of anything better (or worse) beyond the grave than shadowy and featureless Sheol” (final chapter of Surprised by Joy, italics his).

I think the idea of progressive revelation is a helpful category, and the primary way to respond to this issue. But we must remember that the progression is generally not from total ignorance –> brand new information, but rather from murky, dim hope –> fuller realization. God always builds on what he has previously done and said. Therefore there are almost always clues about the data of later revelation embedded in the earlier revelation.

In the case of the doctrine of the afterlife, for instance, we have a little clue all the way at the very front of the Bible, in the first genealogy, before even the flood story: “Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him” (Genesis 5:24). The words “he was not” here cannot simply mean that God killed Enoch. In context, it is a commendation, the result of his walking with God and God’s consequent protection and blessing. As Hebrews 11:5 comments, Enoch “was taken up so that he should not see death.”

So if there was no doctrine of the afterlife in early Jewish thought, where is Enoch supposed to have gone? Where did God “take” him, if the early Jews had no notion (however dim) of heaven?

I think this verse checks the radical evolutionary paradigm of Hebrew religion, and the skepticism about the supernatural character of biblical revelation upon which it is based. It also clarifies the nature of progressive revelation as an organic, continuous development. In other words, the subtext of progressive revelation is less like, “surprise! Didn’t see this coming, did you?” and more like “remember that tiny seed? Look at this flower it has now become.”

3 Comments

  1. Job 19:25-29 certainly comes to mind for me when thinking about the OT and afterlife.

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  2. […] Gavin Ortlund. Enoch and the Afterlife. […]

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  3. Great post. And yes, Job is very early, and ch. 19 very clearly talks about enbodied joy in God’s presence after physical death.

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