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Does the Old Testament Teach Resurrection Hope?

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The Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Revelation all proclaim the blessed hope of our Lord’s return to bring the dead back to life and, in doing so, defeat the last enemy—Death (1 Cor. 15:26). It might seem like resurrection is an exclusively New Testament hope. But it you grab this hope and pull, you’ll find it has roots leading you deep into the Old Testament. God has provided resurrection hope to his people from the beginning.

Not everyone affirms resurrection hope in the Old Testament. The Sadducees denied it because they didn’t believe it was taught in the Pentateuch. But Jesus challenged them: “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. . . . As for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God?” (Matt. 22:29, 31).

We need to read the Bible like Jesus did. He looked into the pages of the Old Testament and saw a God of life, whose power prevails over the grave.

Bodily Resurrection

The clearest Old Testament passage about a future bodily resurrection is Daniel 12:2: “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.” Both Jesus and Paul affirm its teaching in the New Testament (John 5:29; Acts 24:15).

Daniel isn’t the only prophet to speak this hope, however. Isaiah also prophesies physical resurrection:

Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead. (Isa. 26:19)

The dead are dust-dwelling sleepers, and resurrection will wake them up. Shifting metaphors, Isaiah depicts the earth giving birth. The tomb is a womb, and one day the dead will emerge in renewed bodily life.

Future bodily life isn’t just a truth to be spoken, but also a hope to be sung. The psalmist notes that while the wise and foolish both perish (Ps. 49:10), God “will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me” (Ps. 49:15). Ransoming the soul from Sheol is receiving the whole person back from death (see Ps. 16:10; Acts 2:24–29). Moreover, for the author of Psalm 71, resurrection is a comfort. Reflecting on past calamities and future deliverance, he declares: “You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again; from the depths of the earth you will bring me up again” (Ps. 71:20). God will revive us by raising us.

These statements about resurrection hope are like flowers that grow from seeds sown in garden ground. Indeed, resurrection hope makes sense when we consider the life for which we were made. In Genesis 2, we don’t read about a disembodied Adam and Eve who eventually received bodies from the Lord. No, God made the man from the ground and then the woman from the man (Gen. 2:7, 21–22). Embodied people—that was the pattern disrupted by death.

After Adam and Eve rebelled, God expelled them from the garden, lest Adam “reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever” (Gen. 3:22). That tree offered life Adam didn’t yet have. So barred from the tree, Adam died. But the last Adam came to lead us back to that tree in the midst of the garden. He died on a tree (Gal. 3:13) and on the third day ate the fruit of life. And when he returns, the dead will be raised, and we too will eat the fruit and live forever.

Other Kinds of Resurrection

When we think about death, we tend to focus on the physical state alone. But the Bible depicts death as a dynamic reality that pervades this fallen world, manifesting itself in peril, famine, disease, loss, barrenness, and exile. God provides resurrection for these types of death as well. Take the notion of exile. Ezekiel saw a vision of dry bones springing to life by God’s word (Ezek. 37:7–10), which represented God’s people returning to God’s land (Ezek. 37:12). Israel’s captivity in Babylon was a death, and their return would be a resurrection.

Or consider barrenness. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob each had barren wives. Before Rachel was with child, she pleaded with Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!” (Gen. 30:1), since barrenness signaled the death of the family line. The reversal of barrenness, then, was life from the dead (see Rom. 4:19). Whenever God overcame the barrenness of the patriarchs’ wives, he was bringing life to a dead womb and to the family line.

At other times, God decided to rescue his people before they died, showing his power over life and death. In Genesis 22, Isaac was as good as dead. Abraham had bound him for sacrifice, but just before the knife struck skin, God intervened with an innocent substitute (Gen. 22:4–13). Indeed, the author of Hebrews observes that Isaac was figuratively raised from the dead (Heb. 11:19).

Using this template, the Old Testament pictures resurrection all over the place. Noah and his family are delivered from the flood, Joseph from the pit, the Israelites from Egypt, the three friends from the furnace, Daniel from the lions’ den, the Jews from Haman’s plot, and Jonah from the great fish. Such stories of deliverance from peril stimulate and feed trust in God’s power to defeat death.

Resurrection Fulfills God’s Promises

Without an understanding of resurrection in the Old Testament, God’s people would have died thinking God had failed to fulfill his promises. God promised the land of Canaan to the patriarchs and their offspring (Gen. 12:7; 13:15), yet Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all died “not having received the things promised” (Heb. 11:13). How, then, will God keep his word to the patriarchs? By raising them from the dead. Abraham will receive all that God promised and more—he is an heir of the world (Rom. 4:13). So death doesn’t make God a promise-breaker; and resurrection will prove he is a promise-keeper. We can enjoy the stability of resurrection hope, because the promises of the world to come will never waver or fail.

God has also made promises to us in Christ that are yet to be fulfilled. Though inwardly we are being renewed, outwardly we are wasting away (2 Cor. 4:16). At the resurrection, however, the perishable will finally put on the imperishable. So may we not lose heart (2 Cor. 4:16). Jesus evacuated his grave, and so shall we.

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