What Distinguishes Sheol from Hell?

If you are not familiar with the terms Sheol, Gehenna, etc. please see some of the previous blogs at this site.

The Bible has a number of terms that describe places of after death suffering:  Sheol, Hades, Gehenna and the Lake of Fire.  In many versions of the Bible and in many people’s minds, these all get lumped under the term “Hell”.  More careful study shows you that Hades and Sheol are the same thing (just a different language for each word).  Gehenna and the “lake of fire” are most likely the same as well.  The thing that distinguishes these groups is the Sheol is before Judgment Day and Gehenna is after Judgment Day.  But is that the only difference?

The descriptions used for these places can seem confusingly similar:  fire, worms, anguish.  The similarities between Sheol (Hades) and the Lake of Fire (Gehenna or Hell as we call it) are probably a key reason why they are conflated in most people’s understanding of the destiny of the damned.

The same could be said for Heaven and the New Heaven and Earth.  Both have God’s direct presence and the absence of sin, Satan and suffering, but they are not the same thing.

The fact that Sheol and Hell are different is made by Revelation 20 where Sheol (Hades) is dumped into the Lake of Fire.    A qualitative difference is found in Psalm 139.  Psalm 139 speaks of the presence of God:

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;  if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

The Old Testament people expected to go to Sheol at their deaths. Part of Sheol, sometimes referred to as “The Bosom of Abraham” or “The Limbo of the Fathers” was a place of comfort, but still outside the visible presence of God.  Psalm 139 may be referring to just this good neighborhood of Sheol or, more likely, the whole thing.  The final judgment involves God forsaking a place and its contents.  So a key difference may be that Sheol is still without the absence of God, even for the damned.  That doesn’t make it nice.  But it certainly suggests Hell is worse.  It is hard to imagine being forsaken by God.  It is not like we are conscious of His presence even now.  But when God is gone so are all good things.  Hope, friendship, happiness, every good thing gone.

Another difference is the company one would have in Hell.  There is no reference of Satan or demons in Sheol.  The classic picture of demons enjoying the tormenting of the damned is non-biblical fantasy.  Sheol seems to be for people.  The Lake of Fire, says Revelation 20, is prepared for Satan, his cohorts, and those in Sheol.  The point is made that their torment is “day and night for ever and ever”.  So no rest or reprieve for them.  They suffer together.

That God would make punishment eternal offends many people.  The suffering seems disproportionate to the sins.  In the end, those who suffer in Hell didn’t want God.  They have rejected His love, rejected His rule and (for people) rejected that great sacrifice made to save them.  Hell is essentially getting that for which you asked.  The eternal nature of Satan, angels and people is simply a part of what we are.

Sheol may also be different in that it holds a dim ray of hope.  Jesus’ post-crucifixion descent into Sheol seems to be for the purpose of saving some who are there. 1 Peter 4:6 makes this point.  What is criteria?  Are those in Sheol capable of faith?  Did Jesus go more than once or reach out to more than “those who disobeyed in the days of Noah?(1 Peter 3:18)  We don’t know.

The differences, though small, point to the importance of Judgment Day.  Judgment Day is the “line in the sand”.  Things change for the worst for those without Christ.  Things change for the better for those who are in Christ.

 

Can Near Death Experiences Be Deception?

What does it mean to die?  It certainly doesn’t mean to slip into non-existence.  When we die what is conscious and immaterial about us breaks from what is material.  People experience this sometimes as hovering above their bodies, or going through a tunnel toward a light, or they experience the horrors of Sheol, but many times the experience is of a joyful, loving Heavenly bliss.  No one who experiences these joys is interested in returning.  Life suddenly loses its interest.  But, as we know, many people are resuscitated and live to tell the story.  But is the story real and accurate?

The majority of reported experiences are of Heaven.  “Reported” may be the key word here.  Most people don’t want to report they experienced “Hell” or for that matter even remember the experience.  Those who experience “Heaven” are more willing to speak, though no one wants to be considered delusional.

I don’t doubt the reality of Heaven nor the possibility that one might experience a bit of Heaven in a NDE.  I do have some doubts that everybody who reports seeing Heaven actually did see it.

A fairly large group of people return proclaiming a message that Heaven is a place of pure love that everyone will experience.  They endorse universal salvation.  This pronouncement runs contrary to those who experience Sheol.  It also runs contrary to what Jesus proclaims in the Bible.  Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  He also states, “For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.”  That’s not universal salvation.  How did people come back to life with a contrary message?

Transcendental Meditation seems to have a similar capability of separating your conscious self from the physical self.  This practice is not benign.  Some practitioners have reported experiencing evil, perhaps Satan himself, in whatever dimension TM puts you.  Could death, even temporary death, also put a person into a dimensional space (not Heaven) to encounter a spiritual being who there to deceive?  I think the answer is “yes”; and all experiences, no matter how positive or blissful, need to be tested.

I would very much wish for universal salvation.  Even God desires universal salvation.  But if universal salvation is not the truth, then a message of universal salvation is extremely dangerous and is exactly the type of misinformation that Satan wants to spread.

The goal of those who experience a NDE and return with a message of universal salvation is not to deceive.  They want to spread hope and remove the fear of death.  But they are the one’s who have been deceived.  We are neophytes when it comes to experiencing death.  We don’t know what we are experiencing and could easily be misled.  Perhaps this is part of the reason why God strongly forbade practices that could lead to such out of body experiences.  A NDE just happens to us, but discerning the reality of the experience takes some caution.

Near Death Experiences Don’t Always Go to Heaven

If you have heard or read about Near Death Experiences (NDE), you are most likely aware of how people experience a beautiful environment of love, deceased loved ones, enchanting music and unparalleled peace.  These experiences are common, and they are commonly reported by those who experience them.

What is not so commonly reported is the experience of darkness, pain, fear and frightening beings.  The people who do report them never want to return.  They claim to experience Hell.

If you have been following this blog, I make a technical distinction between the place of the damned before Judgment Day and the place of ultimate separation from God after Judgment Day.  I prefer to call the post-Judgment Day destination Hell.  The Bible uses the words “Sheol” or “Hades” to describe what one would experience now.  These people experienced Sheol, and didn’t like it.

The very fact that some experience Sheol casts a question mark on the experience of those who come back to life and report that they experienced a place of unconditional salvation for all.  We will address this in my next blog entry.  Also to be questioned is the prevalence of a Heavenly experience in the research of NDEs.  It makes sense that people don’t want to report that they went to Sheol.  In fact, the experience is so negative that it makes sense that people may block it out of their own memory.

Jesus says in my least favorite Bible passage:

Enter through the narrow gate.  For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow is the road that leads to life and, and only a few find it.  (Matthew 7:13-14)

This passage emphasizes the necessity of Jesus to a positive eternal outcome.  He is the narrow gate (John 14:6)  It also suggests that the prevailing experience of people should be of Sheol.

How do people describe their experience of Sheol? Here are some excerpts from the book, THell and Back:

The darkness of Hell is so intense that it seems to have a pressure per square inch.  It is an extremely black, dismal, desolate, heavy, pressurized type of darkness.  It gives the individual a crushing, despondent feeling of lonliness.

The heat is a dry, dehydrating type.  Your eyeballs are so dry they feel like red hot coals in their sockets.  Your tongue and lips are parched and cracked with the intense heat.  The breath from your nostrils as well as the air you breathe feels like a blast from a furnace.  The exterior of your body feels as though it were enchased within a white hot stove..

The agony and loneliness of Hell cannot be expressed clearly enough for proper understanding to the human soul; it has to be experienced.

Actually, I’ll pass.  People do experience others being there.  They even recognize some, but there is no positive relationships.  Sheol seems to have a landscape, and according to the Bible story of Lazarus and the Rich Man, is divided into at least two sections by some sort of “chasm”.  The one side being where the Old Testament righteous lived comfortably until Christ’s victory on the cross.

It is interesting to note that those who experience Sheol describe it in physical terms, as if they had a body.  Our body is a proper part of this universe.  It doesn’t go with someone to Sheol, but that doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t have a body that is a part of Sheol.

The NDEs of Sheol that many people have is warning to us all.   Even Bible believing Christians want to dismiss the existence of eternal judgment, and some do.  The experience of those who go briefly to Sheol tells us that reading about it is as close as we want to be.  It should be taken seriously.

What Should We Think of Near Death Experiences?

Near Death Experiences (NDE) and Out of Body Experiences (OBE) are two similar events where a person is conscious of being separated from their bodies.  Experiences like this have always happened, but because of medical advances they now happen by the thousands.

In the Bible there are visions where the person experiences beyond their physical location, but it is not a true OBE/NDE.  When Daniel sees God on His throne or when Isaiah or John experience Heaven, these would seem to be visions.  The distinction is that God is viewed directly (which should not be possible for a sinful human) and/or much of what is viewed is symbolic.  It is more of a Powerpoint than a field trip.  A biblical exception is reported by Paul in 2 Corinthians 14.  In this passage, Paul speaks of himself going to Heaven and hearing “inexpressible things than man is not permitted to tell.”  Some theorize that this happened after an unsuccessful stoning of Paul.  If true, this was a Near Death Experience.  Paul refers to what he hears as “inexpressible” which could mean that he has no words to convey it, but he also says that he was not permitted to convey it.

Death normally separates body and spirit.  Other, not recommended, procedures seem to do the same thing temporarily.  We will get to that later.   Since we know so little about the interface of body and spirit, it is hard to medically or theologically explain the moment of separation and why it is possible to do this “before our time”.

Skeptics dismiss NDE’s and OBE’s as illusions created by the brain in distress, usually blaming it on hypoxia, a lack of oxygen to the brain.  There are several facts that make the hypoxia argument not credible.  First, hypoxia makes a person confused not hyper-aware.   Many people having a NDE find themselves floating above their bodies and they can recall details of the room or even details outside of the room accurately.  This takes us to the second reason it is not hypoxia.  People can see and hear without having their eyes open and with no discernable brain activity.  It is the soul operating without the body.

Careful recording of the nature of the experience is important before drawing too many conclusions.  People tend to under-report NDE’s.  The reason is that they fear skepticism or judgment.  This is especially true if the experience is bad.  Most reported NDE’s are about a beautiful experience of Heaven.  Some even come back with a message of universal love and salvation.  These collide with experience of many, and perhaps even more than is reported, who experience what is reported as Hell.  Obviously, universal salvation is incorrect if some are experiencing “Hell” (I would reserve the word “Hell” for a post-judgment day place. What they experience is technically Sheol–see my other blogs about this).

I believe the ultimate truth about the afterlife and many other things is the Bible.  Experiences like NDE’s are interesting and exciting but they need to be tested against the facts presented in the Bible.  The Bible itself warns to “not treat prophecies with contempt.  Test everything.  Hold on to the good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:20)  NDE’s could be seen as a type of prophecy.  It is information about the afterlife that gets to us by a different means.  But that doesn’t make the information correct.  It needs to be tested, because intentional deception is possible.

Who would the deceiver be?  I am not laying this on the people who have a NDE.  I suspect Satan has ways to intercept this experience and spin it in a way that disseminates false information.  On the flip side,  I see no reason to conclude that all NDE’s are the “work of the Devil”.

So with a degree of caution, we will examine in later blogs some of the NDEs and OBEs reported in books on the topic to see if there is anything to learn about life after death.

Can You Tell a Person’s Destiny?

Knowing what happened to somebody who died, or knowing what will likely happen to somebody when they die are two pieces of information we can greatly desire.  Sometimes you want to know because you care.  Sometimes you want to know because you want to minister to them appropriately.  Sometimes that knowledge would help you to grieve.

But can you know?  Jesus urges us not to judge in Matthew 7:1.  This command is especially relevant here, because there are many factors that could lead to the wrong conclusion.  Here are a few:

One cannot determine a person’s eternal destiny based on how they died.  It is common to view a peaceful death that is well anticipated as a superior sign over a violent, unexpected death.  But the cause of death says nothing about a person’s eternal destiny.  Jesus confronted this popular misperception when a tower that was under construction collapsed.  People concluded that the workers who died must have been worse “sinners” than others.  Jesus put us all in the same boat.

Nor can we conclude anything based on experiences as one dies.  Some have visions of Heaven.  Some express nothing at all.  My own mother had the experience of “falling” as she was dying.  Sheol isn’t actually down and Heaven is actually up.  So experiences of going up or down are just caused by the failing of the brain.  In my next blog entry, I plan to start to address Near Death Experiences.  While both experiences of Sheol and experiences of Heaven occur, also in the mix are intentional deceptions by Satan.

One cannot make an absolute judgment based on behavior.  When we are connected to Jesus and saved from our sins the Holy Spirit does change us for the good.  This change of qualities and increase in love should be observable.  But even saved people continue to struggle with sinful nature.  As such, the progress of our sanctification (being made into somebody good in our actions) can be slowed with periods of digression along the way.  Don’t get sucked into the “good enough” evaluation.  We are not saved by our deeds.  We are saved by Christ’s deeds.  While good works are valuable, they are neither the source of salvation nor a trustworthy way to evaluate whether somebody is saved.

One cannot make an absolute judgment based on whether a person’s faith is unwavering.  Ephesians 2:8 says we are saved by grace through faith.  This sentence uses the word “faith” to describe a connection that God makes between us and Jesus.  That type of “faith” can produce the “faith” that is certainty in what is unseen but promised by God.

Many solid disciples of Jesus can have frightening doubts as they approach death.  It is common.  You are not saved by your certainty.  You are saved by Jesus.  So do not get sucked into the “faith enough” evaluation either.  Comfort a dying person who is afraid.  Don’t beat them into believing better as if that were possible to do.

In the end, judgment is God’s business alone. Our ministry to the dying should be one of sharing and reaffirming God’s promises of grace.  Our “self-evaluation” can be this simple three-question quiz: 1.  Did Jesus really die and rise again?  Yes or no. 2.  Did God promise eternal life to all who call on Jesus?  Yes or no. 3  Is God a liar?   If you can answer yes, yes, no, it is because God chose you and gave you those answers.

Any other circumstantial evidence should kept at arm’s length.  It probably doesn’t mean anything.

Are Those Who Die in the Womb Saved?

A pregnancy is a powerfully emotional experience.  If you really want a child, then the baby in the womb in precious and you feel connected to this child very early in the pregnancy.  If you didn’t want a child, the same connection can be felt, but sometimes the desire to be free of the upcoming responsibility can trump any recognition of the pregnancy being your child.

As we know, whether for human reasons or biological reasons, not every pregnancy results in a live birth.  Is the deceased child a person with an eternal existence?  If so, when does it start?  Even more important, what happens to them?

I will be up front.  The Bible doesn’t give us much information about these questions, so definitive answers are elusive.  The Bible teaches that a human is both a body and a soul.  These aspects of ourselves are separable.  Because of sin, our body dies and remains dead until the resurrection.  Our soul assumes a different body in Heaven or Sheol depending on the status of our relationship to Jesus.  Can a body and soul be separate at the beginning of life as well?  We don’t know, for sure.

The Bible speaks of us being “sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” (Psalm 51:5)  This is an acknowledgment that sin is part of our nature and therefore a part of our genetics and body.  Does it automatically mean that we have a soul from conception?  It could, but it’s not clear.  The Bible also speaks of God knowing people in the womb (i.e. Jeremiah, John the Baptist).  You don’t need the Bible to tell you that being born doesn’t make you into a human.  You are a human before you are born.  But when?

Science tells us that the fertilized egg is genetically distinct from the parents.  It is not a “part” of the mother.  But science as a whole struggles with what consciousness is and what is the unique value of a human being.  We have no way to measure a soul.

To fill the void that the Bible leaves on this emotional question, the doctrine of the “Limbo of the Unborn” was created by the Roman Catholic church.  This is a place of comfort, but without the visible presence of God meant for those who die unbaptized.  Such a place is not found in Scripture, but it acknowledges our human conundrum.  We are born sinners.  We are not born saved.  But God is merciful.  That is His character. Still God operates strictly by His Law.  So what does He do?

I can share a bit of anecdotal evidence from a relative of mine.  He experienced an out-of-body experience following a truck accident.  In this experience he met someone in Heaven who identified himself as a biological brother.  The only problem is that he didn’t have a deceased biological brother to his knowledge.  He had arrived at the hospital as DOA (Dead on Arrival) but doctors were able to revive him.  Later, he relayed the experience to his mother.  She revealed that she had a miscarriage of a male child that she had never told to him.

Make of this what you want.  I personally don’t think that all of the unborn are saved.  The Bible shares that a relative few are saved among the living.  However, I also believe that God has His way to reach those who haven’t or can’t be reached by the power of the Gospel during their lives, however brief.  This thinly attested belief will have to do for now.

Is Hell God’s Wrathful Presence or His Absence?

One of my favorite church announcement gaffs is:  Our weekly Bible Study is “What is Hell?” ,followed by “Come early and hear our choir practice.”  We can joke about what would make Hell tormenting, but there is really nothing funny about it.  Hell is eternal suffering.

Hell, the place of final judgment, is described this way in Revelation 20:10, 14:

“and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever…Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.  And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”

The picture of fire and brimstone is a classic one.  Satan and his minions are there, but not to add to the torment.  Rather they are tormented themselves.  A lake of fire that would normally consume someone fails to do so because the resurrected body of a human is indestructible.  The fire only adds to their physical suffering.

The question I am asking today is about the presence of God in Hell.  Some characterize Hell as God continually and intentionally venting an unending wrath against these beings.  While God can be a God of judgment and the biblical warnings about Hell should be taken seriously, is this the type of being that He is?  Does God have a wrath that is never satisfied?

I believe the answer about God’s presence in judgment comes from the story of Jesus on the cross.  Being whipped and nailed to a cross was indeed painful, but the worst of it seems to be something unseen.  Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Jesus knew the plan.  He knew that He would experience the full judgment on sin which included being forsaken by God.  When that finally happens the experience overwhelms him.  Even Jesus can’t stand being forsaken.

Hell fire sounds bad and I’m sure it is, but the judgment on sin isn’t God battering you for an eternity.  It is God forsaking you.  God being “all-knowing” and “present everywhere” doesn’t mean that God must know everything and be everywhere.  He can intentionally forget and intentionally leave.  The worst part about being damned is that He does.  For this reason, the ultimate judgment for sin can be experience is a space, which we call “Hell” or on a cross.

We don’t realize how “present” God is with us all the time, even for those who deny His existence.  But you would certainly know it when He is no longer present.  It is agony.  That is why it is so good that God wants to be with us.  Jesus’ forsakenness was the main event on the cross.  It is questionable whether the scourging and the torturous form of execution is even God’s idea.  I think it is Satan’s idea to get Jesus to bail out on us.  Forsakeness is the scary part, and since Jesus experienced it for us, we never have to experience it ourselves.  Hell can be spoke of from afar.