The Afterlife – A Sober Look – 3

[Continuing the final chapter of Neil Gillman’s book The Death of Death: Resurrection and Immortality in Jewish Thought; this is an ebook downloadable on the kindle app from; reformatted for posting.–Admin1]





The Theological Argument:  God is more powerful than Death



Ask the typical Jew to describe the nature of God and he or she will immediately tell you that God is omnipotent. No doctrine is more central to popular Jewish religion.  Of course, God can do whatever God wants to do.  That is what makes God, God!  But even a brief glance at the image of God as it emerges in our classic texts will reveal that our ancestors understood God’s omnipotence to be far from absolute.



Read the Bible carefully and the overwhelming impression is of God’s dismal failure in accomplishing God’s central purpose:  The creation of a sacred people who will be unquestioningly loyal to God’s will.  God’s very first interaction with human beings, with Adam and Eve in Eden, is a paradigmatic narrative since Adam and Eve are everybody.  They disobey God’s command with tragic results.  The Bible recapitulates that pattern again and again with the role of Adam and Eve taken up by the people of Israel.  Israel, too, rebels, with equally tragic results.  God tries to re-establish a relationship with Israel, is challenged yet again, and the cycle continues.  The whole is a poignant record of frustration suffused with hope and infinite yearning.



In much of the Bible, the main impediment to the full manifestation of God’s power is human freedom.  That God created human beings free even to rebel against God is never questioned.  Adam and Eve were free to eat the forbidden fruit; Cain to kill his brother; the Israelites to build a golden calf.  God had to live with the fruits of that freedom.  The only significant exception to that rule is Pharaoh.  God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, we are told, so that God’s eventual redemption of Israel would be a striking manifestation of God’s power:



 I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply my signs and marvels in the land of Egypt.  When Pharaoh does not heed you, I will lay My Hand upon Egypt and deliver My ranks, My people the Israelites, from the land of Egypt with extraordinary chastisements.  And the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord . . . .(Exodus 7:3-5)



The Bible goes out of its way to show that God deprived Pharaoh of his freedom to choose to release the Israelites.  That is a clear signal that Pharaoh’s inability to act freely is the exception that proves the rule.



Sometimes God’s power is limited by God’s own commitments.  When God threatens to destroy the Israelites for having built the golden calf, Moses intercedes, pleading that God remember the covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob:


You swore to them by Your Self and said to them:  “I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven, and I will give to your offspring this holy land of which I spoke, to possess forever.” And the Lord renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon His people.  (Exodus 32:13-14)



In this instance, the limitations on God’s power are not intrinsic, but rather result from God’s decisions about the destiny of Israel.  There is no question that God has ultimate power.  There is also no question that God chose not to exercise that power.



In other texts, the reasons for God’s impotence are far more mysterious.  The author of Psalm 44 has been told (by his ancestors) that in days of old, God had led Israel to victory over its enemies, but in his own day, 


You have rejected and disgraced us; You do not go with our armies, You make us retreat before our foe; our enemies plunder us at will.  You let them devour us like sheep; You disperse us among the nations . . . . You make us a byword among the nations, a laughingstock among the peoples . . . .



The psalmist would understand God’s abandonment of Israel if it had been disloyal to God.  But this is not the case now:  


All this has come upon us, yet we have not forgotten You, or been false to Your covenant . . . . 



Indeed, the very opposite is the case:  


It is for Your sake that we are slain all day long, that we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.  



It is precisely for Israel’s loyalty that it has been persecuted.  Finally, the coda to the psalm:  


Rouse Yourself, why do You sleep, O Lord?  Awaken, do not reject us forever! . . . . Arise and help us, redeem us, as befits Your faithfulness. (44L10ff)


Is Israel’s vulnerability before its enemies a commentary on God’s lack of power?  Or is it a matter of God’s will? There is not explicit answer to this question in the text.  It may be the result of a deliberate decision by God.  But it may also be the result of intrinsic divine impotence, some inherent limitation on God’s power.  That conclusion is certainly the implication of the psalmist’s claim that Israel has not been unfaithful to God.  Why then would God choose to abandon God’s people?  The psalmist is left to wonder, as is the author of Psalm 13:



 How long, O Lord, will You ignore me forever?  How long will You hide Your face from me?  How long will I have cares on my mind, grief in my heart all day?  How long will my enemy have the upper hand? (Psalm 13:2-3)



The setting of this psalm is personal not communal as in Psalm 44.  But the experience of God’s withdrawal is the same.  In neither case is God’s absence a form of punishment.  Indeed, in the first of these, the author insists that Israel suffers not only despite, but paradoxically because of its loyalty to God.



However limited God’s power may be in historical time, it is Judaism’s overwhelming testimony that these limitations will vanish in the Age to Come. The central thrust of Jewish eschatology is that this Age will mark the ultimate manifestation of God’s sovereignty over all creation.  That promise forms the climax of one of the earliest Jewish eschatological visions on record:


 In all of My sacred mount Nothing evil or vile shall be done; For the land shall be filled with devotion to the Lord As water covers the sea. (Isaiah II:9)



A far more elaborate statement of that vision is the concluding paragraph of the Aleinu liturgy which dates from the 2nd century of our era and now is the concluding prayer of every Jewish service of worship.



We therefore hope, Lord our God, soon to behold Your majestic glory, when the abominations will be removed fom the earth and the false gods exterminated; when the world will be perfected under the reign of the Almighty, and all mankind will call upon Your name, and all the wicked of the earth will be turned to You.  May all the inhabitants of the world realize and know that to You every knee must bend, every tongue vow allegiance . . . May they all accept the yoke of Your kingdom and reign over them speedily forever and ever.



It is also expressed in the High Holiday Amidah.



Now, Lord our God, put Your awe upon all that You have created . . . . Grant honor to your people, glory to those who revere You, hope to those who seek You . . . . May the righteous see this and rejoice, the upright exult, and the godly delight.  Iniquity shall shut its mouth, wickedness will vanish like smoke, when You will abolish the rule o tyranny from the earth.  You will reign over all whom You have made, You alone, O Lord, on Mount Zion the abode of Your majesty, in Jerusalem Your holy city, as it is written in Your Holy Scriptures, “The Lord will reign forever, Your God O Zion, for all generations.” (Psalm 146:10)



This is the very same impulse that leads the tradition to forecast God’s eschatological triumph over death as well.



The expectation that death itself will eventually die assumes that death was perceived to challenge God’s power manifest in history.  How we understand that expectation depends on how we deal with Judaism’s differing accounts of the origins of death.



Earlier, we reviewed four biblical explanations for the presence of death in the world.  Death may be part of God’s original creation, it may be retribution for Adam and Eve’s disobedience, it may be a trade-off for human self-awareness and our powers of discrimination; or it may represent a remnant of a pagan notion of death as a power that God did not or could not subdue at creation and that persists independently of God’s will and power.



In reverse order, if death is a power that resisted God’s ordering work of creation, it will banish in an age when God’s sovereignty will be complete.  If death is understood as the fruit of the full flowering of our humanity, it becomes one of the many tensions that mark the nature of human life within this age of history, and which will be abolished when history has come to a close.  If death is retribution for sin, it will disappear in an age when loyalty to God will be intuitive on the part of all humanity.



But if death is part of God’s creation from the outset, we find ourselves in more difficulty.  If from the outset, God created us to die, why then the eschatological promise to banish death?



The clue to understanding this paradox lies in the message of Psalm 44 and 13.  Their authors despair at God’s mysterious abandonment of Israel or of the psalmist.  Where is God’s power now? But history is replete with instances of God’s apparent withdrawal, both in the communal sphere and also in the life of individuals.  The psalmists make no attempt to account for God’s withdrawal; they bemoan it and plead for God’s renewed engagement.  The psalms end with a pleas that God’s presence and protection be manifest once again, but also with no explicit assurance that this will, indeed, take place.



That God’s presence is sometimes inexplicably eclipsed is the central paradox of the life of faith.  this is what led Martin Buber to suggest the notion of “moment gods,” and Rabbi Irving Greenberg to write of “moment faiths.”  The immediate context of Greenberg’s discussion is our theological response to the Holocaust.



After Auschwitz, faith means there are times when faith is overcome.  Buber has spoken of “moment gods”; God is known only at the moment when presence and awareness are fused in vital life. This knowledge is interspersed with moments when only natural, self-contained, routine existence is present.  We now have to speak of ‘moment faiths,” moments when the Redeemer and vision of redemption are present, interspersed with times when the flames and smoke of burning children blot out faith—though it flickers again.



For Greenberg, in the light of the Holocaust, the dichotomy of theist and atheist is impossible to maintain.  Instead, faith exists in a dialectic, it is a life response of the whole person to the Presence in life and history.  Like life, this response ebbs and flows.  The difference between the skeptic and the believer is frequency of faith, and not certitude of position.



It is not the Holocaust alone that challenges faith.  History is replete with holocausts, communal and personal.  They represent an enduring challenge to God’s power.  But the believer’s response to that challenge is nourished by the assurance that the dialectic of faith is endemic to our historical situation alone, and that it will be resolved in an age when, in the words of the High Holiday liturgy:



Iniquity shall shut its mouth, wickedness shall vanish like smoke, when You will abolish the rule of tyranny on earth.  You shall reign over all whom You have made, You alone O Lord . . . .



Death may well be an inexplicable part of God’s created world, as inexplicable as the other manifestations of anarchy we see about us.  But if Jewish eschatology views history as moving from chaos to cosmos, then God’s victory over death is part of that broader mythic pattern.



On theological grounds, then, Judaism demands the death of death.  If God is truly God, if God’s will and power are absolute, then God must triumph over death as well.  The death of death marks the final step in the triumph of the monotheistic God.



Next:  The Argument from Anthropology:  I. My Body, II. My Soul

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