If the Bible stopped at Daniel Chapter 11, we would not hear the songs that Bethel Mountain Band is going to sing. I don’t know what they’d sing about instead: maybe chicken soup or halibut fishing. Their next songs, however, are about eternal life, heaven, whatever you wish to call our glorious destiny. That promise, and that hope, is another gift that comes to us through Israel’s experience of Exile in Babylon. Before the Exile, the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, is not very clear about what happens to the individual person after death. There are references in the Psalms to “Sheol,” or “The Pit,” some deep, shadowy and undescribed state of limbo or sleep for the dead. It’s not a place nor a state of joyful relationship with God or others. If anything, the Psalmists ask God, “Of what value to you is my death? Is there any praise for you in the abode of the dead?”
When God instituted his covenant with Abraham and Sarah, God effectively promised eternal life for the people of God, but not so much for any individual person of God. Their descendants would be as numerous as the stars of the sky and the sand on the beach. The name, the fame, and the family of Abraham or Sarah might live forever, but not Abraham nor Sarah, necessarily. So, if you want to really blow your mind, think about how those Hebrews who kept and observed their covenant with God and worshiped God alone did so at least as much for love and loyalty to God, and for their ancestors and their descendants as for themselves. They weren’t as individualistic as we tend to be. They were more communitarian, and their sense of community included generations past and future, the dead and the unborn, as well as those living and present. What a threat, what a challenge, then, the Exile posed to anyone’s faith in God’s promise of eternal life for the people of God.
That shadowy uncertainty about our destiny changed toward the end of the Exile, with the Prophet Daniel’s last vision in the first verses of chapter 12: “…And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. 2 And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. 3 And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.”
There you have it, a clear, straightforward revelation promise of the conquest of death and everlasting life for persons, for good or ill. Depending on when you date other books of the Bible, Daniel 12 has the first and clearest of such promises in the Bible. The break between before and after Daniel on this matter of life after death is so great that those Jews who did not consider Daniel part of God’s Revealed Word did not believe in life after death for any individual. In Jesus’ time, those were the Sadducees, the priestly class. Those who did accept Daniel as divine revelation also believed in life after death. In Jesus’ time, included the Pharisees.
And Jesus himself. Jesus confirms Daniel’s revelation about life after death, echoing Daniel’s very own words, when he says, in Matthew 13: “then’ the righteous shall shine like the sun’ in the kingdom of my Father.” Jesus expands further on Daniel’s vision in John chapter 5: 25 “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. 26 For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. 27 And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. 28 Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice 29 and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.”
Not only does Jesus then confirm what Daniel had foreseen and said about eternal life, Jesus claims to be the agent through whom Daniel’s vision of resurrection to eternal life comes to pass.
I don’t know why this particular revelation had to await Israel’s hard time in Exile. I don’t think it sneaked into Judaism through Babylonian and Persian religions, as some would say. Maybe the people of God had to go through the near death and resurrection of Exile to be ready to hear about the resurrection life of every person of God. That’s just a guess, of course.
All I know for sure is the difference that this hope, this revelation, makes. As Paul the Apostle said, “If only for this life do we have hope, then we are of all people most to be pitied.” Some may caution us against being so heavenly-minded that we are of no earthly good. “Preach about how to make this world better, instead of about a better world to come,” I’ve been told. But I don’t see the two as mutually exclusive. If anything, consider what C.S. Lewis observed about this promise: “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next.”
Lewis also said, in his sermon, The Weight of Glory: “It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”
Why? Because of eternal life, for persons, not just a people, which Daniel foresaw from his place of Exile, and which Jesus confirmed with his life, his words, his death and his resurrection.