Does the Psalmist Believe in the Afterlife?

Do dead saints praise the Lord? The Psalmist says that they don’t. Read for yourself from Psalm 115:17-18:

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 churches that teach about saints praising God in the afterlife, this text can come across as quite a jolt. It reads as if departed saints are just dead. No praise. No afterlife. Just dead.

To be sure, skeptics take these lines to indicate that the Psalmist has no eschatology. They would say that the Psalmist simply had no notion of heaven or of the resurrection of the dead at the end of the age. The Psalmist believed that when you die, 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.

This reading entirely misses the point of the Psalm. 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. From the perspective of those left behind, dead saints don’t praise the Lord. It’s not a commentary on the afterlife. It’s simply saying that those who remain behind can no longer hear the praises of departed saints.

The Psalmist is declaring that as long as he has breath in his lungs, he intends to live a life of unbroken, public praise to the Lord. 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 will be silenced.

The challenge to readers is this. Would the decibel level of the world’s worship 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 be undiminished in this broken world!”

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

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*There are hints and pointers elsewhere in the Psalms and in other OT texts that are more explicit about the existence of the afterlife. E.g., Psalms 17:15; 49; 73; Ezekiel 37:12-13; Daniel 12:2-3.

3 Responses to Does the Psalmist Believe in the Afterlife?

  1. Don Johnson June 14, 2012 at 8:30 pm #

    As far as I can tell, Scripture teaches that one enters into eternal life or one does not. This psalm is entirely consistent with that.

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