Do Dead People Praise God?

Do dead people praise God? The Psalmist says that they don’t. Read for yourself the last two verses from Psalm 115:

The dead do not praise the LORD,
Nor do any who go down into silence;
But as for us, we will bless the LORD
From this time forth and forever.
Praise the LORD!

For those of us grew up in evangelical churches that teach about saints praising God in the afterlife, this text can come across as quite a jolt. Can it really be true that departed saints no longer praise God?

To be sure, skeptics take these lines to indicate that the Psalmist has no eschatology. They would say that this text is clear evidence that Old Testament saints had no notion of heaven or of the resurrection of the dead at the end of the age. OT saints simply believed that when a person dies, that’s it. When your heart stops beating and you stop breathing, that’s the end of you. All that remains is the decay of your mortal coil.

I think, however, that such a reading distorts this Psalm. There are hints and pointers in the Psalms and other OT texts that are suggestive of an afterlife (Psalms 17:15; 49; 73; Ezekiel 37:12-13; Daniel 12:2-3). But perhaps even more important than that is the fact that the skeptical reading entirely misses the point of the Psalmist. The Psalmist is not contrasting life with afterlife. He is contrasting live bodies with dead ones, and he is viewing the matter from the perspective of one resides in the present fallen world.

The Psalmist is saying that as long as he has breath in his lungs, he will praise the Lord publicly. When the breath goes out of his lungs, his public praise in this fallen world ceases, and at least one living testimony to the greatness of God is silenced.

The challenge to readers is this. Would the world’s worship decibel be diminished at all if you weren’t here? Is your life so marked by unbroken worship of the living Christ that your testimony would be missed if you were to die? Do you praise God in a way that would enable you to pray as the Psalmist prays: “Lord let me live so that the volume of your praise might not be diminished in this fallen world!”

The Psalmist’s assumption is that embodied life means continual worship of Almighty God. Can we say the same about our lives?

16 Responses to Do Dead People Praise God?

  1. John Mark Harris August 31, 2011 at 1:09 am #

    The Jewish worldview of immediate life after death is dubious at best, however that the OT teaches resurrection can be seen best (i think) in Job 19:25-27

    25 For I know that my Redeemer lives,

    and at the last he will stand upon the earth.

    26 And after my skin has been thus destroyed,

    yet in my flesh I shall see God,

    27 whom I shall see for myself,

    and my eyes shall behold, and not another.

    My heart faints within me!

    You can find it other places too, for example, YHWH is the God of Abraham Isaac & Jacob, and he’s not the God of the dead, so we know they must be raised again (because they’re dead now).

    • Christianes August 31, 2011 at 9:21 am #

      John Mark, you got here before me . . . I thought of that verse as I was reading Denny’s post . . . it is a part of the Anglican burial service . . . the most triumphant part.

      And it would be beneficial if an orthodox rabbi could come here and comment on this post . . . as there is so much that is misunderstood among some Christians about Judaism.

  2. RD August 31, 2011 at 8:30 am #

    I think it’s pretty clear in scripture that the earliest understanding among the Hebrew people was that there was no afterlife. Certainly, God gives no indication that there is any kind of afterlife awaiting Adam and Eve (“from dust you were created and to dust you shall return).

    At some point in the progression of Hebrew history there did begin to awaken the notion that all people (good or bad, observant or wicked) entered into Sheol after death. Still, afterlife destinations weren’t determined by any kind of earthly behavior really. The point of living for God was that God would bless you in the here and now (good lands for your herds, good health for your family, protection from your enemies, etc). The passages in Job and Daniel come from books written during the rise of Jewish apocalyptic theology where notions of distinct destinations in the afterlife, of heaven and hell, began to emerge (though belief in the resurrection of the dead was never accepted by all Jewish sects).

    I think the passage Denny quotes from Psalms is a pre-apocalyptic writing that reflects the belief that this life is all there really is. Once you’re dead, you’re dead. Your influence is gone. Whether you praise in the afterlife or not might be open to speculation, but for certain your praising among the living is over! The important point – and Denny makes it very convincingly here – is that God wishes for us to praise him now, while we are among the living. As for later, well, as Paul says, now we see through a glass dimly. But for right now, there is no question that we should be praising the Lord with our voice and our actions, making a difference for the kingdom each day that we are given the grace of breath.

    • chris taylor August 31, 2011 at 1:18 pm #

      RD,

      I’m sure you realize that you are presenting an alternate reading of the OT from the one the author to the book of Hebrews presents. For my part, I feel much safer receiving his reading.

      Heb 11:13-16 These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. 14 For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.

      Heb 11:35-38 Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life [lit. ‘obtain a better resurrection’]. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—38 of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

      If temporal blessing was all they were expecting, they would not have ‘refused to accept release.’

  3. JohnnyM August 31, 2011 at 10:29 am #

    Let us not forget that many times in the OT God is referred to as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is the God of the living and not the dead.

    Jesus says the following in Mat 22:32

    “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living”

  4. Fr Chris Larimer August 31, 2011 at 4:08 pm #

    Let us also not ignore the witness of John the Revelator that the saints in glory (the church triumphant) worship God and pray for us below (the church militant). cf Rev. 5:8ƒ; 6:9ƒƒ; 7:9ƒ, 13ƒ; 8:3ƒ.

    The Eastern Church (and, recently, certain pentecostals) teach the “harrowing of Hell.” That would indicate that before the crucifixion of Our Lord, heaven did not have the saints – but that they were “waiting.” I’m not sure we can go that far, and your exegetical argument for the context of this particular text is much more satisfying.

    • Christianes August 31, 2011 at 6:22 pm #

      Hi Fr. Larimer,

      I would like to add to what you said:
      for those who may not know about the ‘Harrowing of Hell’, it refers to the time when Christ was in the tomb before His Resurrection and the following traditional prayer is said on Holy Saturday among many Orthodox Christian people:

      “Today a great silence reigns on earth, a great silence and a great stillness. A great silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. . . He has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve, captive with him – He who is both their God and the son of Eve. . . “I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. . .

      I order you, O sleeper, to awake.

      I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.”

  5. RD August 31, 2011 at 4:49 pm #

    Hi Chris Taylor,

    Thanks for the comments. Yes, clearly the writer of Hebrews holds to the belief that deceased Christians are in heaven offering praise. This does not change the fact that when we read scripture in as accurate a chronological order as possible, we see a development of ideas concerning the afterlife over the long history of the Hebrew people.

    In fact, the Torah does not reflect the later New Testament teachings that earthly struggles are between spiritual forces (Satan and his demons), either.

    • chris taylor August 31, 2011 at 8:07 pm #

      Two things I guess:

      1) I wasn’t trying to suggest that OT believers had the same level of understanding into the mysteries of Christ that we have been granted. But I think we have ample reason to believe that OT believers had much more than you seem willing to grant them. True I am greatly helped by looking to Hebrews to argue such a thing, but I don’t think the authors of the NT should be accused of anachronistic tendencies.

      2) As for the Torah’s teaching on spiritual warfare, what else are we to make of talking serpents and angels with flaming swords guarding the garden? What are we to make of angels climbing Jacob’s ladder? What are we to make of Abraham’s three visitors who destroy Sodom? Just because we have statements that give us more explicit ways of thinking about what is really going on, doesn’t mean they didn’t have enough to figure much of it out.

  6. Donald Johnson August 31, 2011 at 5:10 pm #

    Where do you get that Hebrews talks about this?

    • chris taylor August 31, 2011 at 8:24 pm #

      Donald Johnson,

      I’m assuming that your comment is directed toward RD and that the ‘this’ that you are asking about can be rephrased like this: ‘Where does Hebrews talk about how OT believers think that they would be singing God’s praises when they die.’

  7. RD September 1, 2011 at 8:40 am #

    Chris and Donald,

    As to my comment about Hebrews expressing that deceased Christians engage in parise, I made it hastily. I don’t see any reference in Hebrews concerning actual praise of God going on from within heaven. As I made my comment I was focusing on the fact that Chris had used Hebrews to support the idea that OT Jews understood and believed in an afterlife. As I typed my response Hebrews 12:1 came to mind. This great passage concerning the great cloud of witnesses has always been a moving one to me and I have always envisioned this to mean that the saints who have passed before us are, in effect, cheering us on as we undertake our own spiritual journey. There has always been, for me, a kind of praise atmosphere that is depicted in this verse. However, literally speaking, this verse does not indicate that these saints are praising God (or even really cheering us, they are simply witnessing).

    The fact remains, however, that I still contend that one can trace the developing ideas of life after death as one reads the scriptures. Earliest references make no indication that life exists after death. Later period literature – after the first temple but before the exile – seems to indicate that there is a kind of shadow underworld where every human being resides after death. Exile and post-exile literature begins to reflect distinct notions of heaven, hell, Satan, demons, etc.

    The writer of Hebrews, in Hebrews 11:15-16, seems to be making the case that when God called Abraham out of Ur into the promise of Canaan that Abraham was actually longing for a heavenly home. I don’t see this when I read Genesis. This seems to be an example where the writer of Hebrews is taking his own beliefs concerning the nature of afterlife and casting them back on the Genesis accounts of Abraham.

    Another example: Original Sin. When Adam and Eve are expelled from the garden God does not tell either of them that they have lost their eternal good favor with him. He speaks to them specifically about how their earthly life will be from that time forward. He never tells either of them that from that moment forward their natural final destiny – that every future human beings natural destiny – is an eternity in Hell when they die. God tells Adam he is going to return to dust when his life is over. Period.

    I’d like to ask a serious question. Can someone give me the passage(s) from scripture where the teaching first appears that all human beings are, by nature, sin-stained and that Hell is their default destination upon death?

  8. Donald Johnson September 1, 2011 at 12:06 pm #

    I see heaven used as an evasive synonym for God in many places in the NT, as a concession to the Jewish audience which were taught to not say “God” at all, in case one used the name in the wrong way. And esp. as Hebrews is written to such people, I see this being the case in the passage from Heb 11 you quoted.

  9. RD September 1, 2011 at 12:45 pm #

    Donald,

    I’m a bit confused by your explanation. If the writer of Hebrews is referencing heaven in Hebrews 11:15-16 rather making direct reference to God, why does the writer then immediately follow by directly naming God twice? The writer, in my mind, is clearly stating that Abraham and family were not desiring mere land (a better country) in the worldly, earthly sense. Rather, they were anticipating heaven. Understanding the time in which Hebrews was likely written, I completely understand this thinking. I just don’t think it’s an accurate interpretation, by the writer of Hebrews, of what was actually going on in Genesis 11. In these passages in Hebrew I think the writer is viewing the Genesis 11 passages through an apocalyptic theological lens.

    By the way, my question to Denny and the group still stands. I’m seriously curious to know where we first find in scripture the direct teaching that all human beings are fallen and, upon death, are destined for Hell.

  10. Fr Chris Larimer September 1, 2011 at 1:02 pm #

    All are fallen is found in Romans 3:23, which reiterates Psalm 14:3. Similarly, Job 1:1 and Genesis 7:1 indicate a uniquely righteous person as contrasted to the vast swathes of sinful humanity.

    Hebrews 9:27 teaches that after death, the judgment comes. Isaiah 59:2 says that God hides his face from the iniquitous.

  11. Donald Johnson September 1, 2011 at 1:16 pm #

    RD,

    As I understand it, Hebrews is saying that Abraham sought a Godly country, as contrasted with the pagan countries everywhere else. This was later called Israel, but they fell short of God’s plans.

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