Life Hereafter: A Primeval Revelation

Anthony Zimmerman
Faith and Culture
Reproduced with Permission

Is it true that the Old Testament does not support the idea of an afterlife? Or, on the contrary, do scriptural commentators perhaps miss some of the subtle signals there? Do they "miss seeing the forest because the trees are in the way"? We see a quite universal belief in the afterlife among peoples around the globe, and it would be an anomaly if the ancient Israelites, a very religious people, were completely wanting in this belief.

Japanese Look Forward to Meeting Their Ancestors

A wedding ceremony between a Catholic and a Buddhist was ready to begin at a Tokyo parish, when worried parents burst breathlessly into the sacristy: "They can't get married. Stop the wedding! The Catholic heaven and Buddhist heaven are separate. The family can't meet when we go to our ancestors." The unruffled priest calmed them: "Not to worry. Heaven has no compartments. God's providence is for all people, for the entire human race; all good people will gather in the holy city which is illumined by the glory of God." Calmed by the persuasive Benedictine, the relieved parents thanked him and allowed the wedding to proceed as planned.

Nanzan high school girls burst into tears and lost control when the coffin of their beloved English teacher, Father Oberle, was carried to the funeral hearse: "Wait for us there! We MUST meet you there. Don't forget! Remember our faces."

"We will help your children to reach your ancestors," is a service offered by numerous Buddhist temples in Japan. The temples cater especially to parents who aborted one or more of their children. At one temple I noted that the price for complete service is $500, including: chanted prayers, incense, a memorial plaque, and a statue of a child rented for one year; thousands of child statues line the temple grounds. Parents dress the statues in a bib, place a pin wheel into the hand, put a few play things around, write notes of love and care, and advise the child: "We love you. Be at peace!"

It is important for Japanese parents that their beloved - but aborted - children are conducted safely to the company of their ancestors. For example, a temple of Sakakibara promises that the Kanon (goddess) will help their children reach the ancestors. The fee is standard: $75 for each child, up to $375 for five children. The ad reads in part (my translation):

Everybody wants happiness and prosperity for himself and for the children. Why, then, do we forget only these little children? These children were destined to be born like all others; it was by unfortunate chance that they were not born into this world. Does human compassion not urge us to seek happiness and heavenly bliss for these children? Can a family expect to be happy if it abandons them to their fate? ... Do the memorial service for the child, and help it to become peaceful. For you yourself, that is also the shortest road to happiness. (From Mainichi Daily News, 12 July 1983).

The ad promised that the Kanongoddess, in response to the service, would conduct their children safely to the other side of the River Sai, into the arms of the waiting ancestors.

Mother Teresa, while in Japan, sensed a feeling of unease among mothers when she spoke about abortion. She has this to say to them to help them grieve and repent:

My dear Japanese Mothers... It is true, some of you have done the wrong thing in killing the unborn child in your womb through abortion; turn to God and say: 'My God, I am very sorry for killing my unborn child; please forgive me. I will never do it again.' And God, being our loving Father, will forgive you. Never do it again. And believe me, God has forgiven you... The child is with God. Your child loves you, has forgiven you and is praying for you. The child is with God so it cannot do any harm and can only love you. I am praying for you all and I hope to come again to Japan-and we will meet together. I love you all because God loves you. God bless you." Mother Teresa. (Asahi Daily, March 19,1984.)

Mother Teresa did not ask whether her readers believed in God and eternal life. She felt that they do. She spoke these intuitive words to hearts throbbing in grateful response.

The Afterlife Among Hunter-Gatherers

The ancestors of the Japanese, like those of Americans and of all peoples, were at one time hunter-gatherers; only about 10,000 years ago did humans begin to farm and keep herds. Prior to that time peoples around the globe lived on the bare bosom of nature's bounty. Our own roots tap into their civilization and beliefs. Very remarkable is the belief in an afterlife manifested by surviving hunter-gatherers. A number of tribes state that the Supreme Being lived for a time with their founding ancestors to reveal Himself and to teach moral and practical matters.

In 1919-1923 anthropologist Martin Gusinde, SVD, studied the religious beliefs of the Ona and Yamana Indians of Tierra del Fuego. These hunter-gatherers survived in the terrain of the inhospitable tip of South America. Fr. Gusinde reports:

The older members of the Ona Indians ... spoke with profound earnestness and absolute conviction about their Supreme Being... He is a Spirit, a Kaspi, like human beings after they die. He neither eats nor drinks; no one can explain how He keeps Himself alive. He never feels tired, does not sleep. He lives above the firmament, beyond the stars. He never comes down to earth, but He sees and knows all that goes on here. No one can hide from Him, because he sees everyone and everything. He hears exactly what everyone says, knows even what one thinks and intends... Temaukl (the Supreme Being) is the originator of all the prescriptions and regulations by which the lives of individuals are arranged, and by which relations with others are prescribed. He made all these commandments known first of all to K'enos [our Adam?], who was commissioned, in turn, to instruct all the people ... At the time of death the soul of a person, the Kaspi, is called to Himself by Temaukl, and goes up to heaven where Temaukl lives (in Wilhelm Schmidt, Vol. II, pp. 892 if; see the writer's The Religion of Adam and Eve, pp. 48-49.)

The Yamada Indians, neighbors to the Ona, name the Supreme Being Watauinewa. Fr. Gusinde, together with Fr. Wilhelm Coppers, SVD, collected prayers spoken spontaneously without formal ritual. Here are samples. Note that they speak to Watauinewa as earnestly, even as petulantly, as children speak to their parents. An elderly woman was not pleased when she saw the snow through which she would have to walk barefoot, and she spoke up: "Please my Father, graciously give us good weather! Why do you make me suffer this hardship, my Father? Why did you shut your eyes, my Father; don't you see the snow?" A widow who had lost her husband complained: "Talawaia! You, above there! You snatched the father from these orphans, Talawaia! Okay! Then go ahead and feed them yourself from up there, my hard Father. Talawaia." A prayer commonly said before any kind of activity like hunting, fishing, etc.:

"My Father, please be good to me today." An evening prayer: "Let us all together say: "May my Father be kind everyday!" Thanks after recovery: "See now, He looked on me, and did not take me away today..." "Wonderful, My Father was kind to us: Graciously he saved the boat for us. We are happy with My Father." Fr. Coppers comments: "The lively inner relationship of the Yamana to their Supreme Being expresses itself in these warm and frequent prayers; we see that they bring all of the experiences of their lives, the joyful and the sorrowful, into an interior communion with their Watauinewa.

Fr. Schmidt reports that the Yamana called the soul "kospix," meaning spirit. They describe it as being very fine, like breath; it moves, it is as invisible as the air. What happens to the soul after death? It leaves the body and departs into the world beyond. But both the Yamana and Ona say they don't know in what condition souls live there. Hence their intense grief when one of their dear ones departs. Perhaps, though, their hearts know what words do not express: "My Father takes care of them."

The Lenape Indians, who once inhabited the drainage area of the Delaware River, likewise addressed the Supreme Being as "Our Father." They prayed and danced to Him during their nine-day Thanksgiving Celebration. A few verses of their remarkable creation song, "Walam Olum," gives us insight into their exalted religious feelings and national pride. The epic recounts their origins, travels, struggles and hardships:

... At first, forever, lost in space, everywhere, the great Manito was. He made the extended land and the sky. He made the sun, the moon, the stars. He made them all to move evenly. Then the wind blew violently, and it cleared, and the water flowed off far and strong... Anew spoke the Manito, a manito to manitos. To beings, mortals, souls and all. And ever after he was a manito to men, and their grandfather. He gave the first mother, the mother of beings. He gave the fish, he gave the turtles, he gave the beasts, he gave the birds. (The epic continues through five cantos, covering 46 printed pages, and is available at the Smithsonian in Washington. See a discussion in The Religion of Adam and Eve,Ch. 3).

The Lenape have fantastic descriptions about the "Happy Hunting Grounds." Good people, they believe, travel to this heaven after death:

They say that the land of the living is an island of breath- taking beauty and of vast expanse. A soaring mountain rises majestically in the center, and upon the peak of His vast realm. The courses of the thousand streams and rivers, clear as crystal, stretch out yonder like so many shimmering threads; the shady forests, the plains strewn with flowers, the calm seas, which mirror steadily the wholesome rays of a splendid sun...

The blessed souls which are admitted there, recover all of their vigor again and are preserved from sicknesses. They feel no weariness, either during the hunt or during the other pleasant activities which the Great Spirit grants them, and they never have a desire to seek rest. (Brinton, p. 64; see the writer's, Original Sin: Where Doctrine Meets Science, p. 45.)

The Australian Aborigine Kurnai look to Mangan Ngaua (Our Father) as the Supreme Being, who is the father of all tribes, who at one time dwelt on the earth. At that time He instructed the ancestors about their duties of living as good human beings, and about practical matters of daily life. He is pictured as a benevolent and loving Father who dearly loves the humans He had created. The Yuin tribe call Him Daramulun; they relate that when a person dies, his soul goes to meet Daramulun who welcomes it and takes care of it. The Supreme Being dwells in heaven, where He rewards all who lived a good life. (See Chapter 10 of The Religion of Adam and Eve.)

Many of the hunter-gatherers tell about a time when the Supreme Being lived with humans on earth. They look forward to meeting Him when they die; to reach Him, some say, they travel on the road of the Milky Way into the joyful region of heaven:

The time that the Supreme Being spent on earth living intimately with man shortly after He, the boundless Good, had filled His creation with goodness until it overflowed ... was considered to be the best of all times on this earth .... People look back to this time as to a lost island of bliss with painful longing, a longing they think is now satisfied by the existence in heaven which the souls of the good experience there. This reestablishes the golden age, now located in heaven and no longer on earth (Brandewie, p. 271).

Death and Judgement According to the Ainu

The Ainu, once spread far and wide in Asia, who survive now in Hokkaido, believe that after death the spirit travels on a road down to the underworld. There the road divides, one leading to heaven, the other to a place of punishment. Pastor Dr. John Batchelor describes what is said to happen there in his two books, The Ainu and Their Folklore and The Ainu of Japan.

Ainu Life after Death

All spirits are believed to go first to the underworld when they leave the body at death; they go with bodies exactly like the present one, though it is not stated whether this is a spiritual or a material body. The just as well as the wicked go to this first station after death, where they are to be given further direction. Batchelor, continuing, tells it as follows:

In the center of Hades there are said to be three roads. The first leads from the earth upon which we live, and which the Ainu call kanna-moshiri, 'the upper world.' This road goes to the centre of Hades. All spirits go by this road when they leave the body. The second and third roads start from the centre of Hades, one leading to heaven and the other to Gehenna. All along these roads there are watch-dogs stationed at different points to direct the spirits on their journey, and to see that none go into the better world clandestinely or in a surreptitious manner.

As soon as the spirit from the 'upper world' - that is, our earth - passes down to the centre of Hades, a watch-dog informs it that he has received a message from the Creator, sent through the goddess of fire, as to where it is to go. If it has done good during life it passes along the road to heaven, at the doors of which gods and men meet it and lead it inside. If the spirit belonged to a person who did evil during life, it is informed that, a message having been received concerning its evil deeds, it has now to proceed to Gehenna for punishment. Should the spirit deny having done any wrong, the goddess of fire is summoned and she causes a great picture, representing the whole life of the spirit, to be placed before it. Thus the spirit stands self-condemned, and there is no escape, for the fire goddess has a perfect picture of every word and act the spirit ever said or did while in its body upon earth.

Gehenna, or hell, is called Teinei-pokna-shiri, and that means 'the wet underground land.' The wicked are punished in this place. As to what these punishments consist of, the Ainu are not all agreed. Some say that the spirits which go there will be wet, uncomfortable, and very cold for ever. Another idea is that they will burn for ever in the fires which exist in the centre of the earth: thus some will be for ever cold, and others for ever hot.

Not only do the Ainu believe that the souls of human beings will have a conscious and personal existence after death, but those of animals also. They seem to conceive of men and women as living in large communities in the other world in the same way and under the same conditions as they do in this, excepting that they can know no death. They believe that husband and wife, parent and child, will be rejoined to one another after death, and that there will also be marrying and giving in marriage; but there will be no more pain, or sorrow, or death. The living fully expect to have bodies in form exactly like the present, to live in houses, to have their daily work to do, their hunting and fishing, their dogs and their animals. They will laugh and talk, eat and drink as now, and altogether have a very material existence (ibid., 568-570).

But if a man will have the same wife and a woman the same husband hereafter as is this life, then what about concubines, or remarried widows and widowers? It is the question which the Sadducees already put to Christ (Matt. 22). Batchelor, in this connection, relates the following incident:

As I once was walking in the forest with an old Ainu, we happened to meet a woman from a neighbouring village. We stayed in the path, and had a long chat with her upon various common subjects. After she was gone the Ainu confided to me the fact that that particular woman was an excellently good one. As a proof of this he said she had lost her husband, and though often asked to marry again she would not, stating as her reason that she could not bestow her affections upon another, and that she was only waiting for the time to come when she should rejoin her lost loved one" (Batchelor, The Ainu of Japan, 233). This indicates how deep-rooted is her belief in the afterlife.

The Ainu are thus instructed that it is wise to be "good"; in this life in general, since eternal rewards await the good in the next life, whereas eternal cold--dreaded by the Ainu who live in Hokkaido where winters are long, dark, and sometimes fiercely cold--or eternal fire awaits the "wicked." (See Batchelor, The Ainu and Their Folklore, 262).

The Afterlife in the Old Testament

We return now to afterlife in the Old Testament. If we assume that the Israelites preserved a belief in the afterlife such as the peoples in the above examples, we can, with good will, find support for this. Enoch spent his life in fellowship with God, and then "God took him away" (Gen 5:24). His "fellowship with God" presumably continues in the next world. Elijah was swept up into heaven (2 Kings, 2), and was expected to come back to earth (see Mt 17:10), so he must be living with God. Christ interpreted Exodus 3:6 to the Sadducees, implying that Moses and the Israelites knew that their ancestors were living with God: Haven't you ever read what God has told you? He said, "I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. He is the God of the living not of the dead" (Mt 22:31-32). In a word, Christ said to the Sadducees: "Moses and his people believed that their ancestors were alive with God. So why should you not believe in the resurrection?"

Psalms support a belief in the afterlife, if we allow them to resonate our belief in life after death: "The Lord is righteous and loves good deeds; those who do them will live in his presence" Ps.11:7). "They shall praise the Lord, those who seek him; May their hearts live for ever and ever" (Ps 22:26). "Indeed, how good is the Lord, eternal his merciful love" (Ps. 100:5). It is typically the sinners who die, whereas the just continue to live in God's presence. On the other hand, Psalmists also question how the dead can praise God. We get mixed signals.

It appears that the very ancient Sacred Writers breathed an atmosphere of belief in an afterlife, but the Holy Spirit was not yet breaking out to them the full good news. The time was not appropriate. Christ had not yet redeemed humankind, so the news would be pre-mature. It would be like celebrating the wedding before it took place. Moreover, the Israelites were prone to consult the dead instead of praying to God. Necromancy itself implies communion with departed souls in the next world, a sure sign of belief in the afterlife; but it is an attempt to make a detour around God to appropriate secret news and deadly powers. To combat the evil practice, King Saul forced all the fortune tellers and mediums to leave Israel when Samuel died. Yet even Saul, in his darkest hour, asked a medium to "consult the spirits for me and tell me what is going to happen" (1 Sam. 28:6).

We also see in Israel a war of words between the good who will live forever, and the wicked who will die forever. In Psalm 49 the psalmist lists himself with life's winners, and gloats over opponents who will be dead as sheep when they die:

See what happens to those who trust in themselves ...they are doomed to die like sheep, and Death will be their shepherd. The righteous will triumph over them, as their bodies quickly decay in the world of the dead far from their homes. But God will rescue me: He will save me from the power of death (Ps 49:13-15).

Commentator Carroll Stuhlmueller points to this Psalm as an example of the dialogue between those who maintain that death is the absolute end for all, as opposed to "views of popular religion (life with God extended beyond one's limited time on earth)... The Psalmist is intuiting what is theologically unacceptable in public worship ...Orthodox theology refused to look beyond life on earth for fear of contamination with sorcery and mediums (Deut. 18:9-14)" (Stuhlmuller, 456).

There may also have been another reason why the Holy Spirit did not shine a bright light on the next life in earlier Old Testament books: Christ had not yet risen, and the departed were "on hold," awaiting redemption and then deliverance from the prison of death. The death trap had not yet been sprung by Christ. The Israelites, were rightly quite in the dark about actual conditions in the other world. Judas Maccabeus would eventually draw the curtain aside a bit reveal "the resurrection of the dead" (2 Mac 12:43). But the finality of the good news would be spoken only by Christ who said to Martha: "I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die" Jn 11:28).

Works Cited