First of all, we should establish the lack of an ancient Israelite belief in afterlife. This is apparent from the following Biblical passages:
For now I shall lie in the earth; you will seek me, but I shall not be. (Job 7:21)Many Biblical passages, including the above, mention Sheol, which has various meanings. Sometimes it simply refers to the depths of the earth:
For a fire is kindled by my anger, and burns to the depths of Sheol (Deuteronomy 32:22)However, since the Israelites always buried their dead, Sheol also refers to the grave, with its accompanying imagery of maggots, worms, darkness and dust:
They make night into day; 'the light,' they say, 'is near to the darkness.'The 'bars of Sheol' referred to above are an image which emphasizes the finality of death; the dead can never escape the grave.
Sheol is also spoken of as a netherworld where the shades of the dead reside, but it still retains its imagery of maggots and worms as distinct reminders of the physical grave:
Sheol beneath is stirred up to meet you when you come;It is striking how the language of judgement, paradise and hell are completely absent from all of the above, and in fact from all of the oldest books of the Hebrew Bible. There are only two cases where Biblical characters appear to gain some sort of immortal existence, and even these do not really correspond to our modern afterlife concepts. The first case is that of the prophet Samuel, who obviously does exist after his death as he is conjured up by Saul, the first Israelite king:
Then Saul said to his servants, 'Seek out for me a woman who is a medium, so that I may go to her and inquire of her.'... They came to the woman by night. And he said, 'Consult a spirit for me, and bring up for me the one whom I name to you... bring up Samuel for me.' When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice... The king said to her, 'Have no fear; what do you see?' The woman said to Saul, 'I see a god coming up out of the ground.'... Then Samuel said to Saul, 'Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?' (1 Samuel 28:7-8, 11, 13)Samuel's question as to why he has been brought 'up' implies that he was dwelling previously beneath 'the ground', presumably in Sheol. However, it is interesting that he is called a god. This passage brings up the possibility of gaining true god-like immortality, which can be investigated further after looking at the literal ascension of the Biblical prophet Elijah:
Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal... As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlind into heaven. (2 Kings 2:1, 11)Elijah's ascension to the sky is not technically an indicaton of afterlife, as he never dies. Presumably being taken up to the heavens means gaining god-like immortality, as the sky is the abode of Yahweh and his heavenly court of divine angels. Samuel and Elijah both seem to gain some sort of god-like status in spite of the lack of an afterlife in old Biblical texts.
The stories of Samuel and Elijah both imply traditions of great men who were granted god-like status. This may be akin to the character of Utnapishtim in the ancient Babylonian epic of Gilamesh; as a reward for saving humanity from the flood of the gods, Utnapishtim is granted immortality:
Ellil came up into the boat,So the stories of Samuel and Elijah do not seem to represent Biblical views on afterlife, but rather refer to an older belief, perhaps common in the ancient near east, that great men could sometimes be granted immortality by the gods.
How could the ancient Israelites not believe in an afterlife? The fact is that Israelite religion was principally a tribal religion, and their relationship with God was couched in tribal terms. The tribal deity Yahweh would make the Israelites powerful and prosperous and give them the land of Israel in exchange for worship and obedience, as reflected in his original promise to Abraham:
Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation' (Genesis 12:1-2)
Afterlife never entered this picture, as the divine rewards of the land of Canaan (later Israel) were for the entire Israelite people. The concept of individual judgement, rewards and punishment in an afterlife simply did not arise. It seems that during the earliest period of Israelite history, within which the Biblical stories of Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David and Solomon are found, there was no real belief in afterlife as we now picture it.
The idea of afterlife only begins to appear much later, with the advent of a Jewish religious movement which scholars now call 'apocalypticism' (derived from the Greek word apocalypsis, meaning 'revelation', rendered in English as 'apocalypse'). The rise of apocalyptic literature seems to be the result of the failure of the old nationalist promises of Israelite religion; after the Babylonian conquest of the Davidic kingdom of Judah in 586 BC, there was never another independent Jewish state. Subsequent rulers of Israel were actually governors and tax collectors acting on behalf of the Babylonian, Persian or Roman Empires. To explain the apparent failure of Yahweh to preserve the Jewish kingdom, apocalyptic literature emerged. Since people of the current age of darkness were obviously not being rewarded for their faith by protection of their kingdom (since it was gone), apocalyptic literature redefined divine rewards for the faithful in terms of new ideas such as resurrection, the end of the world, judgement day, paradise and hell. The apocalyptic authors are largely unknown, but the writings themselves claimed to be records of visions of the cosmic struggle of God and the angels against Satan and his allied forces of evil. Apocalytic literature held that the fall of the Israelite nation corresponded to the temporary influence of Satan and the powers of darkness in the world, and was full of predictions of the coming triumph of God which would correct the situation in a final cataclysmic triumph over evil that would completely destroy the current world. This would usher in a new era of divine rule, which the select few judged worthy amongst the living and the resurrected dead would experience.
There is only one truly apocalyptic work in the Hebrew Bible; the book of Daniel, probably written around the middle of the second century BC. By Biblical standards this is very late indeed, only a short while before the time of Jesus. Not coincidentally, it is here that one finds the only unambiguous assertion of afterlife in the entire Hebrew Bible.
There shall come a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered... Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky; and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. (Daniel 12:1-3)
Now we can look at where Jesus fits in to this picture. Over the last century, one of the principal views that Biblical scholars have developed in their quest for the 'historical Jesus' is that he was in fact a preacher of apocalyptic Judaism. To understand this, we need to know a little bit about modern scholarship of the story of Jesus' life as found in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the Christian New Testament. Modern Biblical scholars believe that the Gospel of Mark is the earliest document, written around AD 60-70, perhaps thirty years or so after his crucifixion. However, this earlier date does not make Mark's the 'original' story of Jesus' life, as even it shows traces of Christian theological modifications, as we shall see most directly in the case of dietary laws. The later Gospels of Matthew and Luke are held to have been composed from the Gospel of Mark together with a lost (but reconstructed) collection of Jesus' sayings called Q, which is short for the German word 'quelle ' or 'source'. Hence Matthew and Luke are longer than Mark, and contain many common materials. Matthew and Luke also contain some extra material which is unique to each; these are apparently derived from additional lost sources which scholars term 'M' and 'L' respectively. John's was the last Gospel to be written, and thus shows the most evidence of Christian theological development. Scholarly analysis of the gospels is a huge field, but anyone wanting to know more should read Bart Ehrman's excellent introduction to the subject, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenium.
Central to the early reports of Jesus' message is the warning that apocalyptic end of the world with the coming of the 'Son of Man' is at hand:
Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of that one will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels. Truly I tell you, some of those who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the Kingdom of God has come in power. (Mark 8:38-9:1)In the above, Jesus does not seem to be claiming to be the 'Son of man', but is rather talking about one who is to come soon (specifically within the lifetime of the audience). 'Son of Man' is in fact an apocalyptic term used in the the book of Daniel for one who comes at end of the world to establish an eternal kingdom of the just;
I saw one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven... To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away... (Daniel 7:13-14)The above wording is critical: 'one like a son of man' means that it is someone who only looks like a man, but is actually a divine being such as an angel. The 'everlasting dominion' which Daniel speaks of becomes the 'Kingdom of God' of Jesus.
The apocalyptic end of the current world is also what Jesus is referring to in his foretelling of destruction below:
And as Jesus was coming out of the Temple, one of his disciples said to him, 'Teacher, see what great stones and what great buildings are here.' And Jesus said to him, 'Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another that will not be destroyed.' (Mark 13:2)Eternal life is synonymous with the Kingdom of God in Jesus' words, and both are to be obtained by following the commandments of the Jewish law:
As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, 'Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?' Jesus said to him, '... You know the commandments: You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.' He said to him, 'Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.' Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, 'You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven'... (Mark 10:17-21)As Jesus' last sentence quoted above makes clear, though, the urgency of securing one's place in the immortal life of the Kingdom of God requires a heightened sense of morality and ethics that actually goes far beyond the basic requirements of the law. This heightened awareness is what results in Jesus' focus on living solely for others and not for oneself. In his comment above, this implied giving away everything one owns to the poor. Below, it is explicitly the moral requirement to 'love one's neighbor as oneself':
And one of the scribes who came up heard them arguing, and noticing that [Jesus] was giving good answers, he asked him: 'What is the first among all the commandments?'It may seem an immoderate and impractical morality which would demand that one literally live entirely for others and give up all one's wealth. But that is completely in keeping with an apocalyptic view of the world. If the world is indeed going to end soon, there is no need to be moderate or practical because the only thing relevant in the long-term is the Kingdom of God, not one's money, family or health. Many of Jesus' sayings make complete sense in this context in that they have no concern for any worldly concerns:
Truly I tell you, there is not one who has left a house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and the sake of the good news, who will not receive them all back a hundredfold in the present time... and in the age that is coming, life that never ends. (Mark 10:29-31)In fact, this way of thinking does flow naturally from the apocalyptic world-view. Jesus' instruction to forgive and turn the other cheek (in the Q source) is also part of his apocalyptic mindset, things like justice and retaliation are worldly and none of his concern.
You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other cheek also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well (from Q, occuring in Matthew 5:38-40 and Luke 6:29)Jesus also tells his followers to ignore the needs of their bodily health, the supreme example of short-term apocalyptic moral extremism;
If your eye should cause you to sin, pluck it out; for it is better to enter into the Kingdom with a single eye than to be cast with two eyes into Gehenna, where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched. (Mark 9:47-48)As Gehenna is used above as the name for an eternal fiery hell, it is worth looking at the roots of this particular afterlife idea. The term is derived from the Hebrew ge-hinnom, which means 'valley of Hinnom', which was a valley southwest of Jerusalem; it also referred to as 'valley of the sons of Hinnom'. Some of the later kings of Judah used it for forbidden practices; these included human sacrifices by fire, which took place there at a site called 'topeth' (derived from an Aramaic word for 'fiery place').
Ahaz... reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem. He did not do what was right in the sight of the Lord, as his ancestor David had done, but he... made offerings in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and made his sons pass through fire, according to the abominable practices... (2 Chronicles 28:1-3)The association of the name with evil and fire made it a evolve over the centuries into a name for Hell, and the origin of the Arabic word jahannam which is used in the Qur'an. But this is yet another example of how the ideas of afterlife which are now commonplace originated in specific historical circumstances.
To get back to Jesus, viewing his teachings in an apocalyptic context also helps us to understand his rejection of the old nationalist religion of the Israelites:
And they came and said to him, '... Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?'... Jesus said to them, 'Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's.' (Mark 12:14-17)
The issue above is whether or not the Roman domination of Israel is religiously acceptable, since paying taxes implies accepting the imperial authority of Caesar. Jesus' reply reflects that, unlike other apocalyptic Jews such as the Essenes who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls and were wiped out trying to bring about a physical Kingdom of God by fighting the Romans, he had completely given up on the old nationalist trappings of religion. In terms of Jesus' apocalyptic ethics, taxes and empires are worldly and irrelevant. Ignoring and forgiving the evil rule of the Romans is in the political equivalent of offering someone who strikes you your other cheek.
One of the most obvious things separating Muslims and Jews from Christians is their dietary laws. Any yet if Jesus was a Jewish apocalypticist, he certainly would have maintained the Jewish law's forbidding of pork. This is indeed what we see below:
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them... So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, 'Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?'... He said to them... 'Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?' (Thus he declared all foods clean). And he said, 'It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder... All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.' (Mark 7:1-2, 5, 18-23)The comment in brackets have obviously been added later, as the original saying has nothing to do with declaring 'all foods clean'. That interpretation of the saying would only have made sense in the predominantly non-Jewish Christian churches outside of Israel which arose after Jesus' crucifixion. In Jesus' context of Jewish apocalypticism, however, it does not make sense. What is obviously being discussed is the Jewish custom of ritual washing of hands before meals to remove ritual impurity (similar to the Muslim ritual ablutions before prayers). With a moralist focus characteristic of his apocalyptic views, Jesus is saying that this ritual washing is pointless, as real impurity comes from immorality, and ritual washing of hands does not address the real problem.
Now comes another question; obviously the apocalyptic message of Jesus as reconstructed above by modern Biblical historians is very different from the traditional Christian views of Jesus; that he was the divine Son of God incarnated as a man; that he died on a cross as a sacrifice to forgive the sins of humanity; and that he was part of the divine Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So next we should look at how the traditional Christian ideas evolved from his apocalyptic message.
First of all, we should understand that images of God as a father is well established in the Jewish tradition. The king of Israel was considered a 'son of God', as God tells David:
When your days are fulfilled... I will raise up your offspring after you... and I will establish his kingdom. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. (1 Samuel 7:12-14)The Hebrew Bible also talks about the 'spirit of the Lord' as descending on prophets and kings at certain times, giving them the authority of God:
Samuel took a vial of oil and poured it on his (Saul's) head, and kissed him; he said, 'The Lord has anointed you ruler over his people Israel... you will meet a band of prophets coming down from the shrine... they will be in a prophetic frenzy. Then the spirit of the Lord will possess you, and you will be in a prophetic frenzy along with them and be turned into a different person. Now when these signs meet you, do whatever you see fit to do, for God is with you.' (1 Samuel 10:)In the sense described above, Jesus, as well as any Jewish prophet, might well consider themselves to be sons of God and possessed of the 'holy spirit' of Yahweh. In fact, the New Testament often describes the Apostles and other early Christians as possessing and speaking under the influence of the Holy Spirit in this way. But once Christianity moved to the primarily non-Jewish context of the early churces, the original meanings of terms like 'son of God' and 'holy spirit' within the Hebrew Bible became less relevant. These terms then evolved into the divine Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit which has little to do with their Jewish origins.
As described above kings and priests were 'anointed' (that is, their heads were rubbed with oil) to signify that they were engaged in holy acts and were vessels for the 'spirit of the Lord'. This is significant, as the Hebrew word for 'anointed one' used above is messiah. This is exactly how Jesus' followers understood him:
He asked them (his disciples) 'But who do you think I am?' Peter answered him, 'You are the Messiah.' (Mark 8:29)
But a messiah could be either a prophet, priest or king who was the vessel of the spirit of the Lord. Which did Jesus' followers think he was? It is possible that some of them thought of him as the rightful King, to be enthroned once the apocalyptic cataclism eliminated the Romans and established a physical Kingdom of God. If any of them told the Roman authorities that he viewed himself as King of Israel, that would be treason and sedition against the Roman rule, and would explain why he was crucified after being 'betrayed' by one of his followers. This is exactly the charge recorded against him in the gospel accounts:
It was nine o' clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, 'The King of the Jews'. (Mark 15:25-26)It is interesting that there is some confusion recorded as to exactly when Jesus became the 'son of God'. One tradition holds that Jesus becomes the 'son of God' only when the spirit of the Lord enters him during his baptism, marking the beginning of his prophetic career. Until that point, he was presumably a normal person. This is in keeping with the Jewish idea that those chosen as sons of god are posessed by the spirit of the lord:
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John (the baptist) in the Jordan. And just as he was coming out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, 'You are my Son...' (Mark 1:9-11)
Then is the tradition that Jesus is the 'son of God' from his birth. This seems to give rise to the stories of his virgin birth, in order to establish that he had no human father:
Mary said to the angel, 'How can this be, since I am a virgin?' The angel said to her, 'The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.' (Luke 1:35)Finally, there is the later view that Jesus is the divine 'son of God' from beginning of time, which is obviously the result of much more theological development of the Trinity outside a Jewish context. John's gospel expresses it in Greek philosophical terms as logos, the divine 'Word' or cosmic logic which orders the universe:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God... All things came into being through him.... And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory... through Jesus Christ. (John 1:1, 3, 14, 17)What does all this mean for Muslims? It is important as it affects how one understands the evolution of religion over time, and how one understands the Qur'anic view of history.
The fact that the analysis of the Gospel accounts disagrees on several points about Jesus' life which the Qur'an mentions.
When the angels said, 'Mary, God gives thee good tidings of a Word from Him whose name is Messiah, Jesus son of Mary'... 'Lord,' said Mary, 'how shall I have a son seeing no mortal has touched me?' 'Even so,' God said, 'God creates what He will.... And He will teach him... to be a Messenger to the Children of Israel, saying 'I have come to you with a sign from your Lord. I will create for you out of clay as the likeness of a bird; then I will breathe into it, and it will be a bird, by the leave of God.'' (Qur'an 3:40-43)
It is obvious from the above that the Qur'an asserts the virgin birth and even mentions that Jesus is the 'word' of God, even though as we have seen both of these are later theological developments of the Jewish term 'son of God'. The miracle of animating a clay bird is not in any of the early Gospels, but only found in a later work, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, written in the 2nd century AD.
When this child Jesus was five years old, he was playing at the ford of a stream... He made soft clay and modeled twelve sparrows from it... Jesus clapped his hands and cried to the sparrows, 'Be gone.' And the sparrows flew off chirping. (Infancy Gospel of Thomas, 2-4)
It is also apparent that the trinity talked about in the Qur'an is not the conventional Christian one of Father, Son and Holy Spirit; rather the Qur'an is describing it as composed of God, Jesus and Mary.
And when God said, 'O Jesus son of Mary, didst thou say unto men, 'Take me and my mother as gods, apart from God'?' He said, 'To Thee be glory! It is not mine to say what I have no right to.' (Qur'an 5:116)It seems from these that the Qur'an is not concerned with the historical Jesus, but rather with addressing concepts of Jesus that must have been present in Arabia at the time of Muhammad. Like the Gospels, the Qur'an is apparently talking about a mythical figure of Jesus which does not correspond the the historical one. Furthermore, an afterlife as we conventionally think about it did not exist until very late in the Biblical period. This means that most of the Biblical figures whom Muslims hold as revered messengers of God . figures such as Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David and Solomon . could not have believed in an afterlife. And yet the Qur'an asserts that all of these messengers bore the same message:
Say you: 'We believe in God, and in that which has been sent down on us and sent down on Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac and Jacob, and the Tribes, and that which was given to Moses and Jesus and the Prophets, of their Lord; we make no division between any of them' (Qur'an 2:130)
But in fact, the message of God has obviously changed over time; the earliest Israelites received the law expressed in terms of a nationalist religion with no afterlife. It was only with Jewish apocalypticism as expressed in the teachings of Jesus that detailed afterlife views were developed. So Abraham and Jesus could not have had the same views of afterlife; in lumping them together, the Qur'an must again be talking about the mythical figures of Abraham and Jesus and not historical ones.
The above discussion has important consequences for Muslim views of both culture and orthodoxy. Islam holds the Qur'an to be divine revelation; so we cannot accept the assertions of Western scholars that the Qur'anic positions on Jesus and the identity of all previous revelations are due to ignorance of history on Muhammad's part. In fact, we can find alternative explanations.
As we have seen, the Qur'anic picture of Jesus does not correspond to the historical reconstruction of Jesus as apocalyptic preacher, as the Qur'an retains traditional elements of the story such as the virgin birth and Jesus as logos/'Word' which are later Christian theological developments. However, here we need to ask the question of why the Qur'an talks about Jesus at all. In fact, the reason the Qur'an talks about Jesus is to link Muhammad's message with the religion and culture of Christianity, which was already known and respected in Arabia. In establishing this link, the Jesus of the historians is irrelevant; what is necessary is the Jesus of Christian mythology. It is through mythology and not history that religion and culture is expressed. It is the narrow-mindedness of our modern perspective which leads us to expect history, precisely because we have forgotten how to respect cultures and their mythologies. Fundamentalists typically deride culture for its implicit inclusion of many different traditions and consequent 'impurity' in Islamic terms; but the Qur'an itself is showing its respect for earlier Christian culture and mythology by largely accepting it and rejecting only one of its many claims; the divinity of Jesus.
The historical lack of belief in afterlife on the part of previous prophets is likewise a problem of our current mindset. The unfortunate fact is that we are conditioned to think of religion in terms of orthodoxy, and thus we perceive a problem whenever we cannot find that orthodoxy. But the fact that the Qur'an asserts the identity of the messages of all prophets means that the Qur'an is not interested in asserting any kind of historical orthodoxy. Rather, the Qur'an is interested in asserting a continuity of the Judeo-Christian-Muslim traditions regardless of the lack of historical orthodoxy on afterlife. As in the case of the Qur'anic story of Jesus, the Qur'anic stories of the Jewish prophets serve to illustrate this continuity of tradition and mythology.
So the Qur'an does not share our current fascination with either orthodoxy or history, and focuses on inclusiveness and the mythological connections between cultures. This has important consequences for the open-mindedness of Muslim societies. Recently in Bangladesh, Ahmedi Muslims have been attacked as non-believers due to their supposed belief in the prophethood of their spiritual leader, Mirza Ghulam Ahmed of Qadian. And yet, even if this charge were true, would it be nearly the deviation from orthodoxy as Abraham's apparent lack of belief in an afterlife? Likewise, in Bangladesh there are radical fundamentalist groups who are so opposed to non-Islamic manifestations of local Bengali culture that they are willing to plant bombs at traditional Bengali New Year celebrations and Sufi shrines. And yet, the intrusions of local culture that they so violently oppose are little different from the intrusion of Christian mythology (as represented by the virgin birth) which the Qur'an easily accepts.