Is the Hope of Resurrection Found in the Old Testament?

Hope of Resurrection

Paraphrasing the beloved apostle Paul, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:6–8). But there is something better: to be raised in the body is to be glorified with the Lord. You were made for this. The earthly tent of this body will give way, at the coming of Christ, to the glory of embodied immortality (2 Cor. 4:16–17; 2 Cor. 5:1).

What if I told you that a glorified and risen body was not just a New Testament hope? And what if I told you it was rooted in previous biblical revelation?

Problem and Solution

The New Testament announcements about our future resurrection and immortal physicality are explicit and fully-flowered concepts that grew from earlier divine revelation. The hope of resurrection is an Old Testament idea because death is an Old Testament problem and because God’s steadfast love is an Old Testament reality. Divine love is greater than death, and resurrection will establish this truth forever.

Resurrection Hope and the Death of Death

Mitchell L. Chase

Mitchell L. Chase traces the theme of resurrection hope throughout Scripture, explaining how an understanding of resurrection is essential to faith now, in addition to a longing for what is to come. 

The book of Daniel reminds us that people go to the dust at death. Their bodies are asleep in the ground. But people “who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2). The solution to the problem of physical death is new physical life. In the words of Daniel 12:2, both the resurrection of the righteous and the resurrection of the wicked are in view. For the purposes of this article, we will focus on the resurrection of the righteous.

Resurrection is waking up to a kind of life that won’t end. It’s an everlasting bodily existence, an embodied glory that reflects the risen life of the Lord Jesus. At our Savior’s return, he “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phil. 3:21).

If we are to be raised, a death-defeating power is required—and the Lord has it. Jesus has inaugurated the glory of resurrection in his own third-day vindication. He wasn’t delivered apart from death but through it. He has overcome the problem of death by defeating it from the inside.

Death Finally Devoured

Earlier than the words of Daniel 12:2, the prophet Isaiah tells of a future day when life will swallow up death. God “will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth” (Isa. 25:8). The image of death being swallowed is a striking one. After all, death itself is a devourer. Death consumes life on earth. Image-bearers succumb to the forces of death which pull them to the dust. The mouth of Sheol “has enlarged its appetite and opened its mouth beyond measure” (Isa. 5:14).

Throughout the Old Testament storyline, death seems inevitable in every way. Who can escape it? Kings and peasants die. The wise and foolish both perish. Rich and poor are heading to the grave. The words of Isaiah 25:8 are an explosion of hope in a death-saturated world. The great devourer will be devoured—by God. The almighty God of life will close its jaws, and death will die.

For death to die, the dead must be delivered. Bodily resurrection is the death of death. And the “rumor” is that a Jerusalem tomb became ground zero for embodied glory. According to the story, God did not abandon his Son to corruption but raised him up as the first fruits of resurrection life (Ps. 16:10; Acts 2:24). Because he lives, our deaths are future but are not final. Death may disrupt our physical lives, but bodily resurrection will disrupt death.

Promises and Power

Death will not keep God from fulfilling what he has promised. In Romans 4:13, Paul says that the patriarch Abraham would be “heir of the world.” The promised land which God spoke about (Gen. 12:1–3) foreshadowed the new creation, the heavenly city on earth. The patriarchs died in faith, desiring a better country which God had prepared for them (Heb. 11:13–16).

God’s promises are so sure, so trustworthy, that the forces of death will not prevail over them. Bodily resurrection will result in the full inheritance of God’s promises. If God has made his people heirs of a new creation, then death will not make him a promise breaker. Resurrection will prove him a promise keeper! Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. And they shall inherit the earth because God will raise them from death.

In an important sense, resurrection hope is the organic outgrowth of divine faithfulness and divine power. God will be faithful to his promises, and he has the power to accomplish everything he has pledged. Abraham believed this. When God told him to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, Abraham walked to the appointed place to obey. Abraham told the young men who had accompanied him and his son, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you” (Gen. 22:5). These words were words of faith in God’s power and promises. God had promised that Abraham would have offspring through Isaac (Gen. 21:12), though in Genesis 22 no offspring through Isaac had yet come.

God will be faithful to his promises, and he has the power to accomplish everything he has pledged.

If God promised offspring through Isaac, and if God had told Abraham to offer up Isaac, then God must be able to raise Isaac from the dead. Abraham was ascending the mountain with Isaac alive, and he believed he would descend that mountain with Isaac alive again (see Heb. 11:17–19).

Resurrection hope in the Old Testament is tied to the faithfulness and power of Yahweh. God is able to keep his promises. If the looming threat of death seems to keep his promises from coming to pass, remember the faith of Abraham. He reasoned that God could raise the dead. Bodily resurrection was reasonable because divine unfaithfulness was unthinkable.

A Tree of Forever Life

While prophets like Daniel and Isaiah can help us think about resurrection in the Old Testament, and while characters like Abraham can help us see the reasonableness that God will keep his promises through raising his people, we can backtrack in the biblical storyline all the way to Eden where we see a tree holding forth the life we were made for.

God placed a tree of life in the garden of Eden. When he exiled Adam and Eve from the garden, he prevented them from taking the fruit from this tree lest they eat “and live forever” (Gen. 3:22). Alienated from Eden, Adam and Eve would surely die. If we understand this consequence in light of God’s words in Genesis 3:22, then the tree of life held out hope for unending bodily life.

The design of bodily life is clear in Genesis 2 when God created the man and woman. They were not disembodied spirits who were given bodies later. God created his image-bearers as embodied creatures.

The fruit of the tree of life was a sign of what God made his people to experience: embodied immortality. If exile from Eden means physical death, then only resurrection from the dead will bring us to the goal of the garden’s fruit. Though the first Adam did not experience embodied immortality, the last Adam did. On the third day from his crucifixion, Jesus of Nazareth rose with imperishable life. And he holds forth the fruit of his victory to sinners. Take and eat and live forever.

The Last Word

While the apostles proclaimed the bodily resurrection of Jesus, their hope for bodily life after death was older than the empty tomb. Consider Paul’s words to Governor Felix: “But this I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything written down by the Law and written in the Prophets, having a hope in God, which these men themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust” (Acts 24:14–15).

Paul affirmed resurrection hope because he believed the Old Testament. The forces of death are at work in the world, but the last word does not belong to them. The biblical authors say to death, “You shall surely die.” The bodily victory of Jesus confirms this message.

The Old Testament cultivates and advances a hope for embodied life, and at our Lord’s return the perishable shall put on the imperishable. For his promises to come to pass, death must pass away. The fruit from the tree of life will be ours, the faith of Abraham in God’s power will become sight, the devourer of flesh will be swallowed by life, and the dust will release the bodies it has held captive. On that day we will no longer hope for resurrection. People hope for what they don’t yet see and have. We will see and have because we will rise and live.

Mitchell Chase is the author of Resurrection Hope and the Death of Death.

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