Author Greg Koukl
Published on 12/06/2021

How Progressive Revelation Makes a Case for an Afterlife

Greg and Amy give suggestions on how to answer a non-practicing Jew who claims there is no afterlife because Heaven and Hell are not mentioned in the Torah.


Greg: What if I said there is no Heaven or Hell mentioned in John 6? How can you argue for Heaven or Hell if it’s not mentioned in John 6? Well, that may not be the purpose of John 6. Argue for something even though it’s not mentioned in this? Well that’s an artificial restraint. The Pentateuch was meant to accomplish a particular thing, by the way.

The word “love” doesn’t even occur until Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is the last book of the Pentateuch. What if I said, “God’s love is not even mentioned in the first four books of the Pentateuch, so how can you say God’s loving when in the first four books it’s not there? How do you argue for God’s love?” Well, you can’t from those first four books where it’s not mentioned, but that’s because those books had a different purpose.

[The Torah is] not meant to describe eschatology. Now, there is eschatology—that is, end things—in other parts of the Scripture. How does this all work out? Heaven and Hell? Final resurrection? You see it in Job, where Job says, “Without my flesh I shall see God,” and you see it in Daniel, making reference to things that are going to happen in the future and an ultimate resurrection. Daniel talks about a resurrection, but you don’t see these more graphic descriptions of Heaven or Hell. You see descriptions of God’s punishment, but most of God’s punishment depicted in the Old Testament is characterized by physical descriptions of what happens to the physical body. Tim Barnett and I talked about this when we wrote the series called “Hell Interrupted,” a Solid Ground series to answer the challenges that many Christians have raised against the idea of eternal torment.

My point with regards to the Old Testament passages was that the focus was on what could visibly be seen, but the final word is the last word, and we get the final word in the New Testament—the Gospels with Jesus and the book of Revelation—and that adds information that we didn’t have early on. There is clearly this idea of progressive revelation in Scripture, even in the Pentateuch. You start out with some basic stuff in Genesis, and then more is added. So, you get more details in Exodus and Leviticus regarding how God works out the promise he made to Abraham in Genesis 12 to build a nation, because a nation requires not only a group of people, but also a government that provides cohesiveness to that group. That comes in in Exodus and Leviticus. So, that’s later. It’s progressive revelation. As time goes on, God reveals more of what is necessary.

Therefore, certain things that are part of the whole story are not mentioned in the beginning of the story. It’s just a wrong way to approach it. Wait a minute. I don’t see the Ten Commandments anywhere in the book of Genesis. Show me the Ten Commandments in Genesis. If you can’t show me the Ten Commandments in Genesis, then that’s not significant or important. Genesis is the book of beginnings, and so, the beginning of the world—you have beginning of mankind, you have beginning of the problem, and you have the beginning of the solution, which is God’s call of Abraham and the promise made there, and how that works out. So, I think the question is misplaced, and to demand that one section deliver all of these goods, I think, is inappropriate.

Does God have to mention Heaven and Hell in the Pentateuch? No. The Pentateuch was for a different purpose. God was laying the foundation for the theocracy and God’s plan for rescuing the world. By the way, if God has got a plan to rescue the world, that means there is a cost if it’s not rescued, or if some are not rescued. There’s a price to pay. So, the rescue means something. It is unfortunate that Jewish people who acknowledge the Pentateuch as essential—which it is—don’t look at the other books that bear witness to some of these other things.

In the Pentateuch, you have the whole sacrificial system, right? The sacrificial system is to secure forgiveness for the people. If the people weren’t forgiven, what would be the consequence? Well, it would have to be something, or else there’s no point in forgiving them, and certainly the consequence isn’t in this life.

Amy: In that instance, I think he could argue that it was the curses. So, the Mosaic Law had the blessings and the curses. If they weren’t forgiven, then they would receive the curses for their nation. So, maybe he could answer that way, but one thing I wanted to expand on is the idea that God was doing something at the beginning, even in just the revelation as he’s revealing things. He was changing a whole worldview. He was shaping and creating a whole worldview, and he did that through history. He did that through physical things to later on illustrate spiritual things. So, for example, the Exodus rescue from slavery, rescue from sin;

Later on, they used that to illustrate rescuing from sin. There was the temple, which had all these physical things that you do, that later on you find out in Hebrews how all these things represented Christ, and it was preparing people to see the spiritual aspects of what was going on. And the same thing happened with judgment. I think 2 Peter and maybe even Jude talks about how the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah is an illustration for us of what will happen in the afterlife. God’s judgment. God hadn’t explained all that yet. That wasn’t the way he was operating. He was creating these ideas in their culture to shape their worldview so that the spiritual ideas would make sense, and he used the physical things in history to make sure we understood the spiritual things.

One other thing that occurred to me is that this is exactly the argument that was going on between the Sadducees and the Pharisees: whether or not there was a resurrection. This is why they had the big fight when Paul said, “I’m here defending the resurrection.” But it occurred to me that somebody asked Jesus this very question. In Luke 20, they come to him, and they say, well, if a man has a wife, and then the man dies, and she takes the next husband, which one will be her husband in the afterlife? They’re trying to make the afterlife look silly. The Pharisees believed that the resurrection is the event that leads to the afterlife, so the Sadducees are asking Jesus this question to show him that there is no afterlife. They say that there is no resurrection, and that’s why they were trying to make it look foolish. And here was Jesus’s response. He says, “But that the dead are raised even Moses showed, in the passage about the burning bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now, he is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” So that was Jesus’s response.

Greg: In other words, those who had died relative to Moses—they were in the past, they were dead and gone—are still alive in themselves, not in God’s memory, but in themselves at that temporal moment. The point is that those individuals who were dead to Moses are actually alive to God in the moment. “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Another point, too, is, Jesus makes a theological argument based on the Old Testament Scriptures and the tense of a word. In other words, he took these verses seriously as being God breathed, even down to the tense of the verb because that’s what his argument hinges on.