Old Testament Intimations of Heavenly Immortality

In the early 1960s Professor G.E.Ladd, a classical premillennialist, produced a highly influential book entitled “Jesus and the Kingdom”. Despite maintaining that salvation did not include all Israel but only a believing, purified, remnant (p.68), what the NT refers to as the spiritual seed of Abraham, he nonetheless maintained that the earth must share in God’s final redemption (p.56). The following essay represents a rather cursory attempt designed to show that even the somewhat ambivalent OT itself provides plenty of evidence militating against this view.

According to the OT God inhabits eternity in heaven (Isa. 57:15, cf. Ps. 11:4; 14:2); it is his throne. By contrast, earth is his footstool  (Isa. 66:1; Mt. 5:34f.). This clearly implies that it must eventually be completely subjected beneath his feet like the enemies of Joshua (10:24f.). As the NT Joshua and second Adam, Jesus executed the charge God gave to man at the beginning (Gen. 1:26-28); he exercised appropriate dominion and overcame the world (John 16:33). Though we do not yet see everything in subjection to him (Heb. 2:8), having been crowned with glory and honour at God’s right hand in heaven (Heb. 2:9), he is slowly completing the intended subjection (Ps. 110:1; 1 Cor. 15:24-28).   

Though made in the image of the eternal God, man as a son of Adam is flesh and derives from the earth. As such he is in the providence of God (Dt. 32:8; Acts 17:26) given temporal life and his allotted space (Ps. 74:17; Acts 17:26). As part of God’s temporal creation man is mortal and corruptible (Rom. 1:23) but is promised escape from death and corruption on condition of exercising dominion and keeping the commandment (Gen. 2:17). While this is never lost sight of in the OT (Lev. 18:5, etc.), the law, which promises life, never delivers because man cannot keep it. Man never succeeds in subjecting the earth to his dominion and he never wholly keeps the law. On the other hand the law is necessary to regulate human life on the earth until the end (Mt. 5:18). Thus, throughout his life on earth, when he falls into sin and repents or is sick or injured, man looks for healing or restoration to a previous condition (see e.g. 1 K. 13:6). Clearly, what is needed is something more permanent which the old covenant, lacking the revelation of Jesus, does not supply. For all that, though the teaching about life after (permanent) death is vague (cf. John 3:31f.), it does contain intimations of heavenly immortality or eternal life

Hoping in God

One of the hopes of the OT people of God is that God will dwell with them on the earth in what they see as the land of the living. Writers frequently wonder how in Sheol, the place of the departed, they who were created to glorify God (Ps. 102:18; Isa. 43:21, cf. 1 Cor. 10:31; Rom. 11:36) will praise him after death (Ps. 6:5; 30:9). Job has difficulty in understanding how the God who created him and is so clearly different from him (10:4f.) can so readily return him to the dust (10:8f.). It all seems so contradictory. For all that, he cannot fully accept that he is permanently separated from God even in death (cf. vv.12f.), and, groping for greater understanding like the OT saints in general (1 Pet. 1:10-12), he has the conviction that he will eventually see God (19:25f., cf. Ps. 17:15; 73:24). Occasionally, apart from the rest of the Promised Land which is inadequate (Heb. 3,4), prophets like Micah hope for better things when every man will sit in peace under his vine and under his fig tree and walk in the name of the Lord forever and ever (Mic. 4:3-5). Doubtless at bottom he trusts he will find his dwelling place and a refuge in God (Ps. 90:1), in the shadow of his wings as the title of Psalm 17 has it. Isaiah’s idyllic picture of the wolf living with the lamb and the lion eating straw like the ox points to or symbolizes heaven rather than earth where knowledge of God is universal (Isa. 11:6-9; 65:25, cf. John 17:3; 1 Cor. 13). Clearly here there will be no more death (cf. Rev. 21:4). Like Paul at a later date Isaiah was hoping for what is presently invisible (Rom. 8:24f.).   

The Prophets

Much aware of his weakness and vulnerability Moses craved God’s presence with him and the people he was leading in the wilderness (Ex. 33:12-16). The pillar of fire by night and the cloud by day were tokens of it. It is not therefore surprising that his successors required God’s presence on reaching the Promised Land (Jos. 1:5,9) when their mission was to oust and replace the wicked Canaanites. Later, the manifestation of God’s glory in the completed temple is one of the highlights of Scripture (1 K. 8). Later still, Isaiah and Micah in a noteworthy passage anticipate the streaming of the nations to Zion (2:2-4; Mic.4:1-3, cf. Isa. 25:6ff.; 27:12f.; 35:1-10; 62:10-12) and a worldwide extension of knowledge of Israel’s God (cf. Isa. 11:9; Hab. 2:14) involving even Egypt and Assyria (19:23f.).  In 25:6-9 Isaiah whose appreciation of the uniqueness and sovereignty of God is second to none makes so bold as predict blessing for all peoples and even the swallowing up of death and sorrow. And this expression of his faith is taken up in the NT (1 Cor. 15:54; Rev. 21:4). It hardly needs to be added that seen against this background exile and assumed separation from God is regarded as catastrophic. In the event, God himself is a sanctuary for his people even in a foreign land (cf. Ezek. 11:16). Though Abraham’s intercession for Sodom and Gomorrah pointed in that direction (Gen. 18:25), the only unequivocal teaching regarding final judgement and the separation of the good from the bad in the OT is to be found in Daniel 12:2. 

Eternal Life

As noted above, man was implicitly promised eternal life from the start (Gen. 2:17). Despite universal sin and the lack of clear teaching about heaven and God’s presence, OT believers nonetheless entertained hope even if they were prisoners of it (Zech. 9:12). In view of this, while intimations of heaven are sparse early in the Bible, they are certainly implied (see e.g. Gen. 5:21-24, Enoch, and 2 K. 2:1-12, Elijah). Apart from the obvious distinction between the eternal Creator and his temporal creation in Genesis 1 (cf. Ps. 102:25-27; Isa. 40:6-8), the promises God makes to Abraham are highly instructive and are noted in the NT. The fact is that Abraham himself does not inherit the fullness of the promises in this world (cf. Acts 7:5; Rom. 4:16f.) and to that extent they appear to come short. In other words, since the blessings he was promised like the sure mercies of David (Isa. 55:3f., cf. Ps. 132:11f.; Acts 13:34) were received by faith and not by sight (cf. 2 Cor. 4:18; 5:7), they were spiritual not material, eternal not temporal and they would not be perfect(ed) till the end (Heb. 11:39f.). (1* Though, as believers, Caleb and Joshua did reach the physical Promised Land, not having seen it they received it earlier by faith and not by sight. Those who did not believe died in the wilderness. Moses of course, though a man of faith, was excluded on account of his disobedience.) This is underscored by the author of Hebrews who informs his readers on the one hand that Abraham obtained the promise (6:15, cf. 11:33) and on the other that along with others he did not. The paradox is resolved by the recognition that God had provided something better so that Abraham and all his believing children should be made perfect together (11:39f.) In light of this it is scarcely surprising that Jesus himself points out, first, that Abraham rejoiced that he would see his day (John 8:56) and, second, that he is still alive (Luke 20:37f.). Only those who live forever can inherit eternal blessings (cf. Ps. 89:1-4,29,36; Luke 1:32f.; 20:34-36; Acts 13:34) which in the nature of the case are heavenly. Thus Abraham the father of all who have faith looked for a heavenly city or country (Heb. 11: 10,16) and we his spiritual descendants do the same (Phil. 3:20; Heb. 12:22-24; 13:14, cf. 10:34).

Perhaps it was continual suffering, death and failure linked with an undying belief in national purpose as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation that helped to give rise to notions of heaven in the course of Jewish history. Thus Isaiah doubtless with teaching like 2 Samuel 7 and Psalm 89 pictures a shoot coming from the stump of Jesse bringing judgment, righteousness and faithfulness on the one hand and an idyllic existence on the earth (Isa. 11:1-9). Later he depicts a return to Zion and a salvation which, though couched in earthly terms, clearly transcends the merely earthly (35).

This somewhat “unearthly” or rather non-earthly picture emerges in various OT passages.  The prophets frequently picture the nations streaming to Jerusalem (Isa. 2:2; 66:18-21; Mic. 4:1; Zech. 8:20-23) the city of the one true God who is the Creator of all the earth (Ps.96:5; Jer. 10:12; Isa. 45:12,18) in the latter days. But the Jerusalem in question is somewhat different from the present (cf. Isa. 62:6-9). Indeed, in Isaiah it eventually becomes Jerusalem in a new heavens and new earth  (Isa. 65:17-20, cf. 66:22f.). Thus the way is prepared for the new or heavenly Jerusalem of the NT referred to by Paul (Gal. 4:26), the author of Hebrews (12:22, cf. Phil. 3:20) and John (Rev. 3:12; 21:2,10).

Other intimations of heaven occur elsewhere in the OT, and it is difficult not to be powerfully impressed by some of them even though, not surprisingly since the revelation brought by Jesus was not yet available, they often retain a somewhat earthly or materialistic character. So while Zechariah 14:9 (cf. Hab. 2:14) states explicitly that the Lord will become king over all the earth other passages like Habakkuk 3:17-19 suggest that the earth itself is transcended. Its material pleasures are dwarfed by experience and enjoyment of God himself (cf. Ps. 16:11). While Amos 9:8 depicts the destruction of the sinful kingdom from the face of the earth, the house of Jacob will be preserved. A verse or two later, however, the emphasis falls on the restoration (a familiar OT theme) of the tent of David (9:11f.). In the NT this is clearly subject to transformation (Acts 15:16f.). For, as we have seen, the blessings of David, which are absorbed into the eternal throne of Jesus his Son, can only be enjoyed in heaven (cf. Acts 13:34). In Ezekiel 48:35 if the city described earlier may in some sense be regarded as earthly, it is transformed by the very presence of God himself. This in itself suggests its heavenly nature, and this is supported by the idea as old as Solomon that God is too great to dwell on the earth (1 K. 8:27, cf. Acts 7:49). In Joel, God’s people are said to dwell forever in Judah and Jerusalem, and their eternal character receives confirmation when it is said that the Lord dwells in Zion (3:14ff.). This is important in that it is taught early in the Bible that to see the invisible God on earth in the flesh is lethal but in the heavenly Jerusalem (Isa. 33:20f.), he will be seen in all his glory (Isa. 33:17; 66:18; Rev. 22, cf. John 17:24). 

While idols are said to be as ephemeral as the morning mist (Hos. 13:3, cf. Ex. 12:12; Num. 33:4), the redemption of Israel or Ephraim from Sheol and Death itself is clearly posited (Hos. 13:14, cf. 1 Cor. 15:54f.). In the next chapter the prophet teaches that their disloyalty will be healed and that they will dwell in surroundings not unlike Eden (14:4-7, cf. Isa. 11:6-9; Ezek. 36:33-36). But an earthly Eden like the rest of the Promised Land requires consummation in heaven for it to be of permanent value (cf. Heb. 3 & 4). The promise of being planted permanently on their land has the same implication (Amos 9:15).


While resurrections occur in the OT (e.g. 2 K. 4:32ff.), they are restorations to physical life on the earth like that of Lazarus (John 11). Nonetheless, they point to the significantly different or better resurrection to which the NT looks forward  (Heb. 11:35). The latter involves bodily replacement (Rom. 8:23) and eternal life in heaven in the presence of the glorified Jesus (John 17:5,24; Phil. 3:21). 

The resurrection of Ezekiel 37 may also be said to be graphically terrestrial, but it also points beyond itself to the final chapters of the book of Revelation. For Israel as a whole is said not only to be spiritually renewed but also to live in their land forever in an eternal sanctuary under the terms of an everlasting covenant of peace. What is more it is said to do so under the rule of David, their prince (37:24-28). Perhaps Obadiah had a somewhat similar idea in mind when he said that those who had been saved would go up Mount Zion to rule Mount Esau under the kingship of God himself (21).

The Day of the Lord

The Day of the Lord is mentioned frequently but contrary to the expectations of the Jews (cf. John 6:15), it is not primarily a day of vindication but of destruction (Isa. 13:5f.,19; 24: 33:14; Amos 5:18-20; Joel 1:15; 2:31; 3:14ff.. 29:23) in essence a repetition or recapitulation of Sodom and Gomorrah (Luke 17: 29f., cf. 2 Pet. 2:6; 3:6-12). It nonetheless makes way for heaven itself as for example in Isaiah’s little apocalypse (Isa. 24-27), which pictures the return of the tribes of Israel from Egypt and Assyria (27:12f., cf. Jer. 23:3f., etc.). This symbolises God’s worldwide harvest of the true Israel (Israel restored) depicted in the NT at the return of Jesus (Mt. 24:31). In Haggai where the heavens and the earth are shaken the temple will be filled with a splendour greater than that of the former one (Hag. 2). This clearly leads to new heavens and new earth or heaven where God dwells in righteousness (2 P. 3:13, cf. Mt. 5:10,20; 6:10,33; Heb. 12:23). In the picture of heaven described in Revelation the throne is that of God and the Lamb (chs. 4 & 5) and they themselves mysteriously provide the habitat of the people in what may be termed a spiritual marriage relationship (Rev. 21:22-27, cf. Eph. 5:30-33).           

The Inheritance of the Levites

In light of all this the Levites’ immaterial inheritance under the old covenant is not so surprising (Num. 18:20; Dt. 10:9; 18:2; Jos. 13:14). God himself was to be their portion (cf. Dt. 32:9) and he stood in sharp contrast with the material blessings which were often the lot of the wicked (Ps. 17:14, cf. 73:3-7). The same is true under the new covenant where treasure in heaven is at a premium (Mt. 6:19-21, etc.).

So despite the earthly character of so much of the OT we are led willy-nilly to appreciate the permanent nature of the blessings inherited by the spiritually faithful like Abraham. They are in fact identical with those of believers in the NT (Heb. 11:39). While the physical descendants of Abraham are not guaranteed a place in the eternal kingdom of God (Mt. 8:11f.), his spiritual children certainly are (Gal. 3:14,29, cf. 1 Cor. 6:9-11, etc.). Thus, as F.F.Bruce contends (p. 298), we may discern in the promise made to Abraham that the earthly Canaan would be his and his descendants’ an underlying promise of a richer eternal inheritance. And according to the author of Hebrews, it is the heavenly Jerusalem (12:22; 13:14) in the eternal spiritual realm that has been made accessible by the completion of Christ’s high-priestly work. All men and women of faith are enrolled there as free citizens. Thus Bruce quotes with approval the words of C.J.Vaughan (The Epistle to the Hebrews, London, 1908, p.221): “There is an instinct of immortality in saintship. He who lives to God knows that he must live forever…. Canaan could not be the goal of one who walked with God.” This comment is amply justified by Jesus’ assertion that Abraham (and implicitly all his spiritual children, Mt. 8:11; Gal. 3:28f.) is alive to God as one who has inherited the kingdom and entered God’s eternal rest (Luke 20:37f., cf. 9:30). 

Restoration or Replacement?

If what has just been said is true then the widespread idea that the material creation, the earth in particular, will be redeemed and restored is false. While it may be freely acknowledged that restoration is characteristic of old covenant thinking, the old covenant in itself is subject to replacement (cf. Heb. 3,4). Both Paul and the author of Hebrews leave us in no doubt about this (2 Cor. 3; Heb. 8). Had not Jesus himself taught that the law would function only until the end of the world (Mt. 5:18, cf. Rom 7:1). On the other hand, he stressed the permanent or eternal nature of his words under the new covenant (Mt. 24:35). We may therefore draw the conclusion that just as the temporal law comes to an end (Heb. 8:13), so does the shakable world it regulates (Heb. 12:27-29, cf. 2 Pet. 2:6; 3:7,10-12). Both give way to the kingdom of heaven where righteousness dwells (Mt. 5:10,20; 6:10,33; 2 Pet. 3:13; Heb. 12:23; Rev. 21:1).

Old Testament Theology

If heaven in the OT is in some sense a refurbished earth where God dwells with his people, in the NT the teaching of Jesus makes it clear that heaven is the presence of God which his people enter to dwell with him (John 14:2f.; Eph. 2:18; 3:12; Heb. 4:16, etc.) and share his glory (Rom. 5:2; 8:17; 2 Cor. 4:17). The latter was unthinkable under the old covenant, for how could man who is flesh see God and live (Gen. 16:13, etc.)? The answer is provided by our recognition of progress in revelation and extension of covenant theology. In the OT the new birth or birth from above is never more than a promise (Jer. 31:31-34; Ezek. 11:19; 36:25f.) which was not properly understood (John 3:4). Furthermore, the transformation, which Paul insists is paramount for all (1 Cor. 15:54f.), was only vaguely hinted at (Hos. 13:14; Ezek. 37:12). However, in Deuteronomy 30, for example, Moses looks forward to a time when God will gather his people from the ends of the world, restore their fortunes and circumcise their hearts (30:1-6). And the implication of his people enjoying length of life in the land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (30:20) is as we have seen heaven itself. If God fully confirmed his oath to the fathers (Acts 3:22-25; Rom. 4:16-25; 15:8f.; Gal. 3; Heb. 11:10,16,39f.), then nothing less was involved. 

So even in the OT God had in more ways than one truly put eternity into the heart of man (Eccles. 3:11).



F.F.Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, London, 1964.