When the patriarch Jacob thought his young son Joseph was dead, he believed that in death they would be reunited, “he refused to be comforted and said, ‘No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.’” (Gen 37:35b ESV). “Sheol” is the Hebrew word for the abode of the souls of the dead, equivalent to Hades in the Greek language. Likewise, when King David’s infant son was gravely ill, David prayed and wept and fasted, but when the child died, David got up and had a meal. He too reasoned that he would, in death, be together with his son. “But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Sam 12:23 ESV). Both Jacob and David believed that in death they would experience a reunion with those who had gone before. When Isaiah the prophet foretold the downfall of the mighty king of Babylon (Isaiah 14:4ff), he predicted that other kings who had faded from the earth would mockingly greet the king of Babylon as he descended into the common realm of the disembodied dead (Isa 14:9-19).
Jacob and David and Isaiah believed that in death the personality and character is intact, the individual is recognized and remembered, and is conscious and remembers. Particularly striking in Isaiah’s depiction of the descent of the king of Babylon into Sheol is that the souls of other lesser kings still had their resentment and jealousy and grudges from their life experiences in this world as they ridiculed the fallen king when he fell into death, the great equalizer.
The same idea of personality and experiences being carried into the grave when the body dies is brought out in Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. In that story both the poor man Lazarus and the rich man, who always ignored the poor man’s suffering, died. Lazarus, with the aid of the angels, was escorted to be with his honored ancestor Abraham, while the rich man found himself in a place of torment in Hades (the Greek name for the abode of disembodied souls). It is clear in the story that Abraham is himself, and completely recognizable, though dead for almost 2000 years. Similarly, the rich man is still himself, with all the same memories and attitudes he had acquired as a man in the flesh. Likewise, when Jesus was momentarily glorified on the “Mount of Transfiguration” (Matthew 17:1-5), two men from the distant past appeared with him, Moses and Elijah, and it is clear again that they still had their identities, and that they were recognizable even to the disciples who had never seen them in the flesh. Later, in the book of Revelation, John’s visions included a glimpse of souls under the altar in heaven, believers who had died for faith in the Lord, and clearly again those souls are depicted as aware and remembering their life experiences and were pleading with God for justice (Revelation 6:9-11).
Job, the man renowned for his patience, was an exemplary follower of God who lived in the same time frame as the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He was made painfully aware of his own frailty and mortality by suffering severe losses of family, wealth, and health. He was horribly, miserably sick through most of the text of the book of Job, and as he wrestled with trying to understand why he was suffering so much he expressed his confidence that, even if his skin, his body, was destroyed, yet he would still at some time stand bodily before the Lord and see God with his own eyes, “my eyes shall behold, and not another” (Job 19:25-27). That assertion of faith in the resurrection of his whole self to stand before God, complete in mind and body, is prefaced with the statement, “I know that my Redeemer lives and at the last he will stand upon the earth” (Job 19:25 ESV). Job knew his flesh would be destroyed, but he would continue, and he would again be clothed in a body some day, and he himself would see God after his Redeemer did his work. Himself, “and not another.”
Jesus, the grand example of our future resurrection and glory, clearly remembers in heaven all that he knew and experienced in this world (Hebrews 2:18, 4:15-16, 13:8), and with full comprehension of the kindness and justice of God has prepared a place where his people, whole and healed, can rest in complete understanding with real peace in the light of his presence (Consider also 1 John 3:2, 1 Corinthians 13:12).
~ Charles Fry