Does Ecclesiastes Deny The Afterlife?

Does Ecclesiastes Deny The Afterlife? June 18, 2017

I received an e-mail about an older blog post of mine that I linked to in a recent post, and thought I would share it, and my response here.

James,

I read your “Just Sayin” post today and clicked through your link to your post from 2010 about Eccles 2: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2010/03/the-inerrancy-of-ecclesiastes-92-6.html

Not sure if you’ve had any dialogue about it over the past seven years, but I hold to Biblical inerrancy and I don’t see it at odds with any Christian doctrine about the afterlife. The author is talking about the seeming meaningless of life. “All share a common destiny”: DEATH.

In 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible by Robert Plummer, he writes, “Inerrancy respects the authorial intent of the passage and the literary conventions under which the author wrote” (42). It doesn’t seem that the intent of the author of Eccles was to deny the afterlife, but rather merely to state that when people die “they have no further reward [under the sun/on earth].” Maybe you reject the bracketed part; but to think it teaches the rejection of the afterlife, you also have to add something in those brackets—and what you add is the presupposition you’re bringing that it rejects the afterlife.

People live and then people die and then “never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun.”

If you think the author rejects the afterlife, then what do you do with the very end: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” If we die and that’s it, where does this judgment come into play?

This article from TGC has been helpful to me in understanding Ecclesiastes: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/everything-is-not-meaningless

Thoughts?

Here is what I wrote in reply:

Hi! Thanks for reading my blog post from this morning, and being interested enough to click further and read the older one that I linked to! As Tremper Longman says in the Gospel Coalition piece you linked to, “Qohelet has no confidence in an afterlife.” The statements in 9:5 do not require the additions you wish to make, and are not obviously compatible with them, since “the dead know nothing [under the sun]” is not an obvious way of understanding it. Whether the epilogue is an attempt to make an earlier text more orthodox, or simply means that deeds are judged by God, neither view requires us to understand the author to envisage something at the end of the book that was not envisaged in the earlier passages.

We see the same point of view in the Book of Job 7:7-10, where Job says:

Remember that my life is a breath;
my eye will never again see good.
The eye of him who sees me will behold me no more;
while your eyes are on me, I shall be gone.
As the cloud fades and vanishes,
so he who goes down to Sheol does not come up;
10 he returns no more to his house,
nor does his place know him anymore.

The idea of an afterlife is missing from most of the Hebrew Bible/Christian Old Testament, which is why the prophets predict that calamities like famine, plagues, and exile will come as a punishment for the nation’s misdeeds, and never that they will be sent to hell because of them.

It isn’t that these texts are actively denying that there is an afterlife over against some other group that thinks there is one. They simply ignore it for the most part, and only occasionally mention it as explicitly as “the one who goes down to the grave/sheol does not come up.”

I think these texts are pretty clear, but would be happy to talk more about this, whether by e-mail, or on the blog, or over coffee sometime!

 

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