What To Do With “Sheol”

Unless you are quite the Bible expert, you probably don’t even know what “Sheol” is.  You might be shocked to find out that this Hebrew word is actually quite common in the Old Testament, yet in many English Bible translations the editors struggled to know what to do with it.  It is a place name.  So it should capitalized and left as is, still many times it is translated as “grave”, “pit” or “Hell” with a little footnote that says:  Hebrew:  Sheol.  The footnote almost seems like an apology.

The main reason why Sheol is not something you heard about or that it gets translated away is that it doesn’t fit in the most common understanding of places in the afterlife.  Most people just know Heaven and Hell.  It is poorly recognized that Judgment Day makes a big difference in what will exist.  Before Judgment Day the best fitting understanding of what exists after death is Sheol and Heaven.  After Judgment Day, Sheol (or in Greek Hades) is thrown into a “lake of fire” along with Satan and his angels, as well as, all the damned of humanity.  This lake of fire is what I think of when I use the word “Hell”.

Sheol/Hades does have some Hell-like properties, which adds to the confusion.  There is suffering, fire, worms.  It is a prison.  But I can’t connect the presence of Satan and demons nor can I connect being completely forsaken by God with Sheol.  It is different than the final destination.

The classic picture of demons tormenting people, whether it be from Michelangelo or “The Far Side”, is biblically incorrect.  In Sheol, they don’t seem to exist.  In Hell, they suffer with everybody else.

I’m sure most people dismiss both Sheol and Hell as a myth.  Who wouldn’t want to?  I don’t like the idea that these places are the destination of most people at their death.  I hate it, but I can’t dismiss it. Jesus speaks of both Hell (Gehenna) and Hades.  Jesus also descended to Sheol.  It is forbidden, but apparently possible to communicate with people in Sheol.  And modern people have had out-of-body experiences of Sheol.

My dog hates going to the Vet.  When they are about to do a procedure on him, he hides his face under my arm.  It is like he is thinking, “If I can’t see you, you don’t exist.”  That is how those who dismiss Hell or Sheol are coping with a frightening reality.  Unfortunately, the Vet still exists, so does Hell and Sheol.

Would God really do this?  Where is the love?  God is very “literal” in the sense that once a law is written in Heaven, it is enacted.  The Law requires sinners to be sent to Sheol and Hell.  The love is found in that God created a personally costly way for both the Law to be fulfilled and people to be spared Hell and Sheol.  That way is Jesus being forsaken on the cross.

That is serious stuff.  You don’t go to the extremes that Jesus went to if you don’t really love who you are trying to save and what you are trying to save them from is something aweful.

Rationalizing about Hell, living in denial, ignoring it until later are all dangerous coping mechanisms that push one close to finding out about Sheol and Hell from personal experience.  I would rather just read about it.

No More “Oi!”

Perhaps you have heard the Yiddish expression “Oi Vey”.  It is an expression of  frustration that literally means, “Woe to us”.  In Isaiah 6, Isaiah has an experience of Heaven.  What kind of experience isn’t clear, even to Isaiah.  It seems like an actual field trip.  What could be cooler than a field trip to Heaven!  Isaiah probably thought that way at first until his unworthiness to be there set in.  At that point he exclaims, “Oi li!”, “Woe to me”, “for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips.”  Isaiah didn’t need a napkin at that moment.  He realized that a sinner didn’t belong with the holy, and he was a sinner because of what he had said and more.

Isaiah’s experience was both terrifying and exhilerating.  A Seraphim flys to him and touches Isaiah’s lips with a burning ember from the altar.  “See this has touched your lips, your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”  From that point Isaiah felt like he belonged.  There was no more “Oi!”

As it turns out, Isaiah saw and felt all these things without actually being in Heaven.  It was a vision of some sort.  Jesus said in John 3:13, “No one has ever gone into Heaven except the one who came from Heaven–the Son of Man.”  We can add “up to this point.”  Isaiah had not gone.  Daniel had not gone. Elijah and Enoch had not gone.  To this point no Old Testament person had gone because the true atonement for sins, which is represented by the coals in the altar, is Jesus’ death and resurrection.  They all would really go when Jesus accomplished what He came for.

When we are connected to Jesus through faith and baptism, then the “coal” has already touched our lips.  We are made holy by Jesus and belong in a holy place like Heaven.

Some people have out of body experiences of Heaven.  It is hard to say for sure what they are.  Are they a vision, a field trip or something else?  It is possible that they don’t have an “Oi” experience because of Christ.  This is certainly the experience we all should wish to have upon our death.  We certainly don’t want to experience an “Oi” because we have landed in Sheol without forgiveness and without a Savior.  That need never happen because Christ came to save “the world”.  While many are called but few are chosen, it is not because God doesn’t want us.  Those who reject Jesus will have the full “Oi” experience.

The Immediate Judgment

When we sin, God knows.  You can’t slip things by Him.  Because we don’t see God, we sort of forget that He sees.  It is similar to what happens to us in a hotel.  We get into an empty hallway and we feel all alone even though possibly every room is full.  So we talk loudly as if no one is there to hear.  But everyone hears us.

God knows our sin, but for those who are connected to Jesus through faith and baptism God sees Jesus, and we live as forgiven for as long as faith remains.  In a way, we have been judged as righteous from the moment God connected us to Jesus

For as long as we live, forgiveness through Jesus is possible for anyone whom God can bring to faith.  Their fate has not been sealed.  You can’t plan on it, but even on a death bed it is possible for somebody to be saved and avoid the permanent judgment of God.

Is death the line in the sand, the point of no return?  Or is Judgment Day when eternal fates are sealed?

The Bible clearly indicates that some kind of judgment accompanies death.  With our death, we either enter Heaven because we are forgiven and therefore righteous or we enter Sheol (see my other blog entries about Sheol), because we are sinners without a Savior. Is that the final judgment?

Hebrews 9:27-28 is often evoked on this topic:

Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and He will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for Him.

The understanding of most is that the judgment accompanying death is immediate and final, but what is the function of Judgment Day in that scenario?  Is it merely a technicality?  The passage is making the point that Jesus doesn’t die multiple times for sin.  To bolster the point, the writer appeals to the fact that we don’t reincarnate.  Hebrews 9 doesn’t technically answer our question.  1 Peter 4:6 may speak to our question better.  I’m quoting New King James here because NIV is a lousy translation of this passage.

For this reason the gospel was preached also to those who are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.

The uncomfortable yet literal understanding of this passage is that the Gospel was preached to dead people with the end goal of having them live or, in other words, be saved.  The context of this passage is Jesus’ descent into Hell (Sheol) mentioned in 1 Peter 3:19.  If we are to understand this passage as the Gospel was preached to living people who have subsequently died, then the second half of the sentence doesn’t make much sense and you are not literally translating the original text.  You are adding (now) dead, which is what the NIV does.

Could it be that Judgment Day is the line in the sand, the point of no return?  We are given marching orders to spread the Gospel to the living.  It is of urgent importance that people hear about Jesus’ death and resurrection and the promise of salvation through that event while they live.  I cannot go to Sheol to preach to the dead.  But did Christ do that?   Does He still do that?  The ancient church, particularly in the East believed that He did.  I hope so, too.

Christ’s Descent into Hell (final)

In this final installment, I want to share with you a few more probable references to Christ’s descent in Scripture and then tie up a few loose ends on the topic.

There are a series of passages in Isaiah that can be understood to refer to the liberation of the Old Testament redeemed. The clearest is Isaiah 49:6 where the Father speaks to Jesus and says,

It is too little of the thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and bring back the preserved of Israel…

Typically this passage is understood in a very metaphorical way, which dismisses what it is really saying. The “preserved” in Israel are clearly not already in Heaven according to this language. They need to be “raised up” and “brought back”. This isn’t just speaking of people alive at the time of Jesus or part of the exile at the time of Isaiah. It makes perfect sense that this is speaking of people who already are deceased or will become deceased before the time of Jesus. These people need to be raised from Sheol.

The same understanding informs the meaning of Isaiah 42:7b,c, “I give you …to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” Jesus did not lead any jailbreak during his earthly ministry. To understand this solely as freeing people from their dungeon of sin, doesn’t quite follow the pattern of the passage. The things spoken of in Isaiah do have a broader spiritual application, but Jesus also actually did these things for some during His earthly ministry (like healing the blind). So for these passages to be understood as a literal liberation from the prison of Sheol makes perfect sense.

Captives are also mentioned in Psalm 68:18, which is quoted in Ephesians and Isaiah 61:1, which is quoted in Luke 4:18.

With this many passages either directly speaking about or alluding to the liberation of the Old Testament redeemed, there is little doubt the Christ’s descent into Sheol accomplished at least this much.

This doesn’t keep modern theologians from being a little embarrassed about the topic of Christ’s descent, also called “the harrowing of hell”.  The mythology that grew up in the Eastern Church about this topic leads some to want to dismiss the whole topic as a myth.

Modern people are sensitive about confusing a myth with a historical truth. There are many religious myths in the world including some that hang around Christianity in non-canonical literature.   Depending on your view of scripture, you may even consider some biblical stories as fictional. So is this one of them?

Without a doubt, some segments of Christianity have approached the story of Christ’s descent with a degree of embarrassment, preferring to see it as an intentional metaphor of some sort. Also the presence of similar ideas of life after death in other religions makes people wary of the even the idea of Sheol. Adding to the pressure to paint this as a myth is the desire for there to be no Sheol, Hell or final judgment at all.

Still there is a clear testimony in the Old Testament of the expectation of Sheol after death for both the righteous and the unrighteous. There is a reasonable explanation as to why other cultures expected basically the same thing. There is also a future hope that this would be changed. Christ’s descent to Sheol is very reasonably the thing that changed the fate of the Old Testament righteous.

Christ’s descent into Sheol is therefore foreshadowed in the Old Testament, spoke of in the New Testament albeit somewhat obscurely, and clearly testified to in the earliest Christian literature. Together they make a coherent whole.

A cosmology that includes only a heaven, the current universe and a hell has no more proof or disproof from our scientific understanding of reality than does a cosmology that contains a Sheol and an Abyss. We don’t know with certainty where any of these places are but we know enough to doubt that reality is only three-dimensional space.

So is Sheol just a metaphor for death and Christ’s descent just a metaphor for his suffering or burial? You won’t get me to buy into that explanation, and that is saying something. As I embarked on this study I honestly did not know the teachings of either the Orthodox nor the Roman church on this topic. In fact, I would have to admit that I am biased against these church bodies if anything. But, when you start with trying to understand what Sheol is without confusing it with hell or the grave, the testimony of scripture points to a real descent of Christ to Sheol to liberate the Old Testament redeemed and even to attempt to save some of the Old Testament damned. That was a real paradigm shift for me, and a very hopeful one.

 

Christ’s Descent into Hell (Part 5)

One of the reasons that most people have learned very little about Christ’s descent into “hell”, is a reaction to an overreaction about this part of the story in the early Eastern Church.  “Christ’s descent” became the ancient equivalent of a superhero story.  There are stories about Jesus being swallowed by Sheol and in Jonah-like fashion, Sheol vomited out Jesus and everybody else.  You can still get a very popular story of the time on Amazon, The Gospel of Nicodemus.  I read it on Ibooks.  Stupid book, but it was free.  It is about Jesus saving the Old Testament people from Sheol, but all the characters could only say lines that they had said in the Bible.  Anyway, the fiction around this story became so thick that people couldn’t discern fact from fiction.  Augustine expressed this complaint, and that seems to have carried down to the Reformers.

One idea that arose in the Eastern Church and remains to this day is that Christ’s descent was not only to free the Old Testament righteous, but also to bring a saving Gospel to the unrighteous.  This bothers a lot of people.  Some church bodies have expressed doctrines that your destiny is sealed at your death.  Others basically have that same assumption without enshrining it as a doctrine.

Is there anything biblical to say or even suggest this?  One comes shortly after the passage in 1 Peter mentioned earlier in 1 Peter 4:6:

For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who were dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.

The chapter and verse number system was introduced to the Bible during the Reformation period. It is invaluable in helping us find stuff. But sometimes it gets in the way and makes us break up the context of the Bible in our minds. In this case, if you ignore the big number four and let Peter continue his thought, it seems pretty clear that the preaching to the dead referred to in this passage is the same dead Peter spoke of in 3:19. A more literal translation might be: “For this reason, the dead were evangelized”. The verb rendered here as “were evangelized” is what is called an indicative aorist verb. In Greek, this indicates past continuing action. One common interpretation of this verse is that it refers to the evangelization of people while they were living who are now dead, but that doesn’t quite fit the sentence. What is past is the evangelizing, not the people’s lives. What this sentence seems to propose is shocking. It says the dead were evangelized, and almost all of us assume that once you die the opportunity for evangelism is over.

This makes it sound like the preaching was a second chance for people who had disobeyed God during life and had not had an opportunity to hear the promise of salvation. Peter is acknowledging that the disobedience of these people resulted in their judgment—namely death in the flood and thousands of years in the agony of Sheol. But the purpose of this visit from Christ is that they might live in the spirit.

Obviously, this makes us nervous on one hand and relieved on the other. It has always seemed unfair that some would go to Sheol without the benefit of hearing the Gospel in some form, even though they are sinners and knew right and wrong inherently. All humanity deserves the judgment and cannot earn salvation, but cannot God be gracious to whom He chooses when He chooses? Can we say for certain that physical death marks the end of your opportunity to believe and be saved? Judgment Day could be the end of opportunity.

The main biblical objection to this interpretation is found in Hebrews 9:27:

And just as it is appointed for man to die once and after that comes judgment, so Christ having been offered once to bear the sins of many will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

This passage is not primarily about whether there is any chance of being saved after physical death, but it does make a statement about dying once with judgment assumed to immediately follow. This passage is essentially saying, “Just like we live and face judgment only once, Christ lived and died once, not over and over again. This would rule out a reincarnation scenario, but can we really say it precludes Jesus reaching out to someone in Sheol. As noted in an earlier blog about Psalm 139, Sheol is not quite yet forsakenness. The timing of the judgment in relation to physical death is not specified in the Hebrews passage. We just assume it to be immediate and final.

In one sense, judgment upon our death is immediate. The dead found themselves in Sheol and not Heaven. That is a judgment. Their residence in Sheol could be for thousands of years. But is it final? If it is final, then is Judgment Day simply perfunctory?  I will say here that I do not know God to be simply perfunctory about anything. Everything has its purpose. Some treat baptism as perfunctory, for example. It isn’t. Baptism has a definite function.

Establishing that Jesus can, did or even does reach out to the lost in Sheol is a radical enough of a suggestion that one needs more than these somewhat obscure passages in 1 Peter. Another possible reference to Jesus liberating even some of the damned in Sheol is Psalm 107.   Once again these words:

He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death, and burst their bonds apart. Let them thank the Lord for His steadfast love for His wondrous works to the children of man! For He shatters the doors of bronze and cuts in two the bars of iron.

The phrase “doors of bronze” gets frequent use in non-canonical literature as a reference to Sheol. So if this passage applies, and I think it does, it is speaking about the “disobedient” rather than the righteous. Still other passages, namely Isaiah 42:7b and Luke 1:79, speak of “captives”. These passages are inconclusive, however, because they do not specifically say to whom they are referring.

For some early Eastern Church fathers and for the Orthodox Church, the teaching that Jesus preached the Gospel to perhaps save some of the lost or even all of the lost in Sheol is a big piece of their doctrine and liturgical life. They consider it to be simply logical that this process continues to this day. I will say I hope this is right.

Does this teaching do violence to any other understanding or practice within the Church? It certainly seems in line with the mercy and passion of God. It doesn’t necessarily suggest that everyone is saved in the end. We will see in a later entry that people are eternally damned and in great number. Some argue that a loving God couldn’t and wouldn’t damn someone eternally. They don’t understand the unchangeable nature of God’s Law. God clearly does damn people because of the requirements of the Law, but a loving God could pursue someone up until the last possible moment and that last moment may be Judgment Day rather than death.

If Christ did preach the Gospel in order to save in Sheol, wouldn’t everybody there repent and believe? I mean what sort of idiot would decline such an offer after experiencing such suffering? The rich man in Jesus’ story of Lazarus seems open to a change. Still, we might be surprised. Saving faith is not the result of even overwhelming proof. Faith is the gift of God to people who are able to receive it.

Whether Christ was giving the disobedient in Sheol a chance to hear the Gospel and believe is hard to concretely determine. At best, we can say that it is possible. This shouldn’t rob us of any motivation to share the Gospel among the living. People suffer in Sheol. If we care, we would want them to avoid this. If people become disciples while still living they can carry out their God-given purpose and even realize reward for it. We are rewarded for our faithfulness in this regard. Beyond this both love and Christ’s command compels us.

Christ’s Descent into Hell (part 4)

Another likely function of Christ’s descent has to do with the Old Testament people whom God regarded as His elect.  These people were not in Heaven at the time of Jesus’ death.  John 3:13 precludes such an understanding.  Their expectation as expressed in the Old Testament was that they would be in Sheol.  Not necessarily in a position of suffering, but definitely isolated from the visible presence of God.  That is isolated until Jesus did His work.

The case for Christ’s descent for the purpose of releasing the Old Testament righteous who are captives in Sheol is more clear in scripture than any other interpretation. One verse that supports it is Ephesians 4:7-10:

But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high, he lead a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” In saying, “He ascended”, what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions of the earth? He who ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.

Once again, Sheol is referred to as the lowest or lower region.  This passage connects Christ’s descent to eventually leading a “host of captives” on an ascent.  One cannot help but wonder if Jesus is hinting at His descent to Sheol in Matthew 12:29:

Or how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house.

The context of this passage is a discussion of how Jesus can liberate people from demon possession. Jesus plunders Satan’s kingdom by binding the demons and setting the person free. Is Satan bound as Jesus fulfills the Law on the cross? Is Jesus’ descent into Sheol a big-time plundering of Satan’s house?

As mentioned in our discussion about Sheol in the Old Testament, the liberation of the Old Testament redeemed is prophesied in a couple of passages. First Zechariah 9:11-12:

As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.

The context of this passage is established in verse 9:

Behold your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Clearly this whole section is about Jesus and prisoners released during his time. These released captives are the righteous people of the Old Testament. David put himself in that group in Psalm 16:10:

For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.

The ascension of Christ with the captives of Sheol is the most likely explanation for a strange, temporary resurrection of the righteous recorded in Matthew 27:52-53:

The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.

Without the connection to the release from Sheol, this passage is obscure and meaningless.

Christ’s Descent (Part 2)

Last blog, I mentioned that many think “Christ’s descent” merely refers to his death and burial.  This explanation may appeal to modern reason, but it ignores Scripture.

The next theory has at least some plausibility. John Calvin, the father of the Reformed movement, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the recently retired pope, and other esteemed theologians have stated that “descendit ad inferos” refers, at least in part, to what Jesus experienced on the cross rather than where He went after death. Let’s consider this possibility next.

In Matthew 27:45-46 we find this,

Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?”, that is “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Without a doubt, this was a pivotal moment in the history of our salvation. Jesus isn’t just feeling the depth of despair. He is experiencing exactly what He said. He was being forsaken by the Father. What it means for one person of the Trinity to forsake another is beyond our comprehension and appreciation, but this is huge. Jesus, as the representative of all of creation, is experiencing the true penalty for sin and thus is fulfilling the requirements of the Law. “The wages of sin is death”, declares Romans 6:23. “Death” in this context doesn’t just mean the cessation of heartbeat and brainwaves. It means having the presence, help and even thoughts of God completely taken away from you. Eventually, this is what all the damned experience.

Some think of spiritual death as referring to descending to the dead, or in other words, going to Sheol. Therefore, Jesus had to first physically die on the cross and then descend to the dead in Sheol. The book of Revelation is rather explicit in describing what “death” fully entails. It speaks of a “first death”, which is physical, and a “second death”. In Revelation 20, the post-judgment day lake of fire (Hell) is the second or spiritual death, not Sheol.

We often think of Hell as being horrible because of fire and maggots and demons. These things are child’s play in comparison to being forsaken by God. Forsakenness is the termination of all joy and hope. Forsakeness is what makes the final judgment the worst thing of all. The ill effect of being forsaken can been seen in Jesus. Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus is fully aware of the plan. Still, when forsakenness comes upon Jesus, He is wild-eyed desperate and cannot even remember why this is happening to Him. Forsakeness is spiritual death. Often we think of spiritual death as following our physical death. Just about everything else concerning Jesus was unusual, why not also this? Jesus experienced the second death first.   He was forsaken and then He physically died.

Jesus experiences forsakenness so that we never have to experience it directly. Through baptism we die with Christ. We experience our “second death” first by being baptized and later physically dying.

What Jesus experienced on the cross was hellish, the worst thing anyone can experience, but “descendit ad inferos” speaks of going to a place with a purpose not experiencing hellish conditions, as we will see. It sounds bad, but really it is the beginning of good for Jesus. When Jesus descends to the lowest place, He is going there in triumph. The lowest point in His experience is on the cross when He is forsaken, but inferos is low for other reasons.

Lumping Jesus’ forsakenness with His descent into Sheol creates more confusion than clarity. The only reason to group them is misguided use of the word, “Hell”. Our English word “hell” can trace its roots through several languages to the Greek word “Hades”, but in current usage it does not mean the same thing. Jesus is going through “hell” as an adjective, but He doesn’t exactly go to “Hell” the noun. He does eventually go to Sheol. Sheol was the place of both the unrighteous and the redeemed at that point. It is a place of comfort and torment, depending on what side the chasm you are on.  Sheol is referred to as the lowest place in the Old Testament.