Sheol in the Book of Job

The oldest book of the Old Testament is not the first one. It is the book of Job. When Job lived exactly is unclear. That he and friends knew about Sheol is abundantly clear, because they use the word many times.   In discourses like you find in Job or in the poetry that you find in Psalms, a certain degree of translational caution is in order. Some poetic license is used in these books. Also, in Job, several people speak who do not speak the truth. Consequently, determining the meaning of a word like Sheol or deriving doctrinal information about it using these books must be done with caution. The good news is that we can learn the meaning of Sheol from other places. While one might poetically refer to a non-existent place of the dead and call it Sheol, the reality of the place is established by its use in other books. So it is proper to understand Sheol as a place even in Job, Psalms and other poetic passages. You just have to double check what you glean from them.

Job first speaks of Sheol in 7:9

As a cloud vanishes and is gone, so he who goes down to (Sheol) does not return.

Job is despairing of his life, but is even more concerned at this point with his death. He knows that he will eventually go to Sheol and considers it to be a one-way trip. This is not to discount Job’s belief in his eventual salvation. Job does speak of the resurrection at the last day in Job 19:25-27:

I know that my Redeemer lives and that in the end He will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God: I myself will see Him with my own eyes—I and not another. How my heart yearns within me!

Job, a righteous man, speaks of Sheol and the resurrection of the body, but not of Heaven! It makes you wonder that if Job received knowledge of Sheol and the resurrection by revelation from God, why would God withhold information about Heaven?   Gaps like this leads the skeptic to conclude that Heaven is a theological innovation of a later time, but God has His reasons for rolling out information at appropriate times. He doesn’t need to share those reasons with us.

In Job 11:8, Job’s friend Zophar speaks of the mysteries of God. His statement is a metaphor comparing the scope of the mysterious nature of God to the height of the heavens and depth of Sheol. Often when the word heaven is plural it is referring to the universe. Sheol is repeatedly referred to as the lowest place, but does this comparison mean that it is part of this universe? Here the poetic nature of the reading would not justify such a conclusion. Nonetheless, if it were just a grave, a grave would not be considered very deep. Clearly Zophar is referring to something else.

Job 14:13 provides an interesting contrast to what Job said in 7:9. Earlier, he did not wish to die, but as his suffering continues he now begs to be hid in Sheol until God’s wrath is done.  So what is more desirable, to suffer in this world or be in Sheol? The question is pondered further in chapter 17:

If the only home I hope for is Sheol(grave), if I spread out my bed in the darkness, if I say to corruption, “You are my father” and to the worm, “My sister”, where then is my hope? Who can see any hope for me? Will it go down to the gates of Sheol (death)? Will we descend together into the dust?

Truly this is a sad passage. Job grasps for any kind of hope, because suffering stifles hope. It is easy to see why translators might choose “the grave” and “death”, because Job speaks of corruption and the worm. That makes it sound like we are talking about the condition of the body. But Jesus speaks in the terms used in this passage as well. We’ll address these passages later, but for now lets note that Jesus wasn’t speaking about the fate of the earthly body.

Job seems to have a hard time deciding whether Sheol is a desirable or undesirable place. In Job 21:13, he gripes about the injustice that exists in life. He notes that wicked people sometime have a good life, and they go to Sheol peacefully. Since Job’s life is such a horrible trial, it is understandable that he is a bit jaded. To note, he doesn’t seem to see Sheol as a place of justice. In other words, it’s not a place where the evil people get what’s coming to them. To him it is just the common fate of us all. Jesus would paint a significantly different picture. So would Job’s friends. One of his “buddies”, Bildad, describes death and Sheol as a punishment for sin in 24:19. Whether ultimately saved or damned, Sheol exists because of sin.  Bildad is at least correct about this.

The Bible doesn’t paint death as a deliverance from what is undesirable about life. Death is the direct result of sin. It is punishment, and it’s a punishment that every human being has earned through sin. What lies on the other side of death is also the consequence of sin, at least in part. This is true of whether we are talking about Sheol for the righteous or for the unrighteous, or even for that matter in one way, if we are talking about Heaven.

Humans are properly a body and a soul (call it consciousness if you like). Having those two things segregated as they are by death is undesirable, even though one might argue that having soul and body together in a life like Job’s is worse.

Next Time:  There is more to say about Sheol, but lets take a break and look at some of what the Bible says about Heaven

Is Sheol My Destiny?

We have talked about the fact that the Old Testament people did not speak about going to Heaven or Hell exactly, they spoke about going to Sheol.  Sheol was a place for the righteous (like Jacob) and the unrighteous (like Korah).  Scripture that we will cover later reveals that Sheol is a place with two parts separated by a chasm or void.  The one part was relatively pleasant, the other a hellish place of torment.  Before completing what the Bible has to say about Sheol/Hades, I want to address a common question I have heard since teaching about this topic.

Do we go to Sheol?  It is important to note that Jesus’ victory on the cross made a tremendous difference in mankind’s after death destiny.  Jesus stated in John 3:13 that no one had gone to Heaven up to that point.  That would change with Jesus’ victory on the cross.

Ultimately, after Judgment Day, the Bible says that humans will be part of a New Earth or what I would call “Hell” (the Bible uses the terms “lake of fire” or “Gehenna”).  Until Judgment Day, when we die we are either sent to Heaven or the bad neighborhood of Sheol.  This is what theologians call the “Intermediate Period” (The time after our death but before Judgment Day).  Both destinations change with Judgment Day.  The idea that we “sleep” until Judgment Day or that we defy time and immediately move to Judgment Day does not work with Revelation 6:9-10.

I found the picture above on the internet.  It does a decent job of illustrating what I am talking about. (I have a few issues with it.  What it calls Hell present is what the Bible calls Sheol or Hades.   The chasm it shows is not between Heaven and Sheol but rather is a part of Sheol)  So, back to the original question.  If you are connected to Jesus through faith and baptism, then you will not go to Sheol.  But it is good to realize that Sheol is something different than what we normally think of when we say Hell.

Next time:  What Job says about Sheol

Sheol in the Old Testament (part 1)

Most people’s understanding of what the Bible says about existence after death doesn’t go beyond a simple heaven and hell, so I expect that many of you are surprised to know that the Old Testament people didn’t exactly expect to go to either place.  They spoke about Sheol, and that is what I have been explaining in the last several blog entries.

The first time we see the word Sheol used is in the story of Jacob (Gen. 37:35, 42:38, 44:29,31). Moses records this story around 1500 BC. Jacob himself would have lived around 2000 BC. It would be a mistake to assume that either of these men are the inventors of the idea of Sheol. I wouldn’t even conclude that they were the first recipients of revelation about Sheol. We have no definitive idea of how mankind found out about Sheol. The use of the word by these men simply means they knew something about it. But what?

When Jacob finds out the false information that his son, Joseph, is dead, (Actually his brothers had sold him to slave traders); he goes into full-scale mourning. He suggests that his own grief is going to kill him and that he will go down to Sheol (usually translated as “grave” here) to his son. Since there is no body, Jacob doesn’t mean that he will be put into the family tomb with his son. He fully expects to be where his son already is. It is important to note that both Jacob and Joseph are among God’s chosen people. They are reserved for eternal life, even if that promise wasn’t entirely clear to them. Still, Sheol is the place where even the righteous expected to go in Old Testament times.

This is part of the reason why the concept of Sheol is so confounding to us today. We are used to thinking that the righteous go to heaven, and assume that this has always been true. Trying to stay true to this idea, translators have had to come up other ideas of what Sheol meant that didn’t describe a conscious, after death destiny. Hence they equate Sheol with the grave or a nebulous concept of death, whenever a righteous person uses the word. If you let yourself get past this bias, however, you will realize that most people in the Old Testament spoke of going to Sheol after their death and understood it to be a place of conscious existence. The promise of eternal life with God in the Old Testament is more often a reference to the resurrection of the body at Judgment Day.

As Jacob speaks about his death, he refers to going “down” to Sheol. This is reflective of where he believed Sheol to be. In ancient cosmology, Sheol was beneath the earth. The fact that the ancient people didn’t accurately understand the structure of the universe is not grounds for dismissing all of their ideas, but it does weigh on the degree of literalism we would attach to their words.

The fact that the Bible is the Word of God, does not mean that all the words in it are the Word of God. The Bible is not a running monologue where God speaks. Saying that the Bible is God’s Word means that God inspired the recording of these words and that the teachings of these words, sometimes through whole stories or even whole books accurately convey the truth.  Individuals within the stories may express their own understanding, even if that understanding is inaccurate. This is very different from some modern, liberal theories on the Bible that dismiss the Bible as being the product of human editing, cultural bias, and imagination. I am saying that the type of literature that each book of the bible is affects the degree of literalism with which you understand it and whether you can take a verse out of its context.

All we can say is this so far, Jacob’s family believed in a place where the dead went. They may or may not have had a proper understanding of where that was. God may not have given them information on Sheol’s location, and people like Jacob simply filled the void by referring to Sheol as being down.

We might assume that the knowledge of the Old Testament people, if accurate, always came in the form of revelation from God. While this is often true, we will see later that there is another more nefarious way information about Sheol could have come to the broader culture.

The idea of going “down” to Sheol could have also been created by many experiences other than revelation. The most obvious is lowering the body into a grave. Volcanic activity may have led others to assume that Sheol was in the middle of the earth.

The next reference to Sheol comes from the story of the rebellion against Moses by the sons of Korah, which is found in Numbers 16. In the story of the rebellion of Korah, God wanted to assert, for the whole population of Israel to see, that He is in charge and that Moses and Aaron are His representatives. Before it all was over Korah, two of his followers and their families were swallowed up by the ground and “went down alive to Sheol”. Fire also came from God and consumed 250 other men who had sided with the rebels. This judgment brought further rebellion against the leadership of Moses and a plague ended up taking the lives of 14,700 people before it was stopped.

The story illustrates a number of things. First, it is not beyond a God of love to also be a God of justice. God desires the well-being and salvation of people, but He does not tolerate rebellion and people trying to do things their own way. Second, this incident shows Sheol to be the destination of the condemned as well. While the bodies of Korah and his followers definitely went down, the location of their final destination is uncertain.

The next spot we find Sheol is in a monologue given by God in Deuteronomy 32. Earlier in chapter 32 Moses recounts the provocative nature of the behavior of the people of Israel toward God. In verse 20, God speaks Himself of His displeasure and His plans for discipline. Then in verse 22 God says,

For a fire had been kindled by my wrath, one that burns to the realm of Sheol below. It will devour the earth and its harvests and set afire the foundations of the mountains. (NIV, 1984)

Once again, the concept of down is interjected, this time by God. Where “below” refers to is unclear. What is added to this picture of Sheol is the idea of the “fire of God’s wrath”. This wrath currently was burning in Sheol, but would expand to judgment in this world. Given this description should Sheol then be seen as Hell? That would depend on what we understand by “Hell”. If Hell is the place of final, eternal judgment then the answer would be “no”, as we shall see. Also militating against such an interpretation is the fact that the chosen are also seen as going to Sheol.

Next Time: Is Sheol my destiny?

The Process of Dying

Two weeks ago, my mother died.  I have been at the bedside of a number of people as they have died, but this was the first time I held vigil at somebody’s bedside throughout a four day death process.  I would like to share some insights that came to me from this.

The Bible says, “The wages of sin is death”.  I see this passage in a new light after what I experienced.  Technically speaking we are all in the death process.  Everyday our bodies are aging just a bit more and are less able to maintain life.  Without sin entering the human race, we wouldn’t even age.  It is the wages of sin found in our genome.  What is sin?  It is the departure from God’s plan and His Word.  In a way, our genome is the now distorted Word of God–a code of information created by God.  As a result of this distortion we are inclined the resist God and break His commandments.  We also age and eventually die. It is the wages of sin.

Death is more than aging.  It is also the often troubling final moments of our existence.  For my mother, much of her final four days were spent in a type of coma.  She couldn’t swallow.  She labored to breath. The prolongation of this uncomfortable state wasn’t necessarily a comment on her sinfulness relative to other people, but it felt like it to her.  At one point she came out of her coma and tried to speak.  Because of an increasing paralysis she not only couldn’t swallow, she could barely speak.  In a pitiful little whisper she said, “I haven’t done anything wrong”.    She was complaining about the length of the process.  She wanted it to be over.  Once again, the dying process wasn’t a sentence of torture but it was part of the wages of sin.  Without a doubt her statement of innocence wasn’t true.

The final 45 minutes were the worst.  She didn’t slip away in her sleep like many people do.  She was very awake until the morphine settled her down.  With fear in her tiny little voice, she kept saying, “Help me, help me, I’m falling.”  Our hospice nurse (who was an excellent comfort) said that this sensation was common.  I expect that it was a feeling of body and soul separating.  It too was part of the wages of sin.

Finally, her body gave up the fight.  Today her body lies in a mausoleum crypt.  This, too, isn’t what we are meant to be.  We are a body from this universe and a soul; and until we arrive at the resurrection of the dead, we will be experiencing some aspect of the wages of sin.

The worst part of the wages of sin would be the final part–eternal forsakenness by God.  That is Hell.  We will discuss that down the road a bit.  Praise God this can be avoided because Jesus experienced God forsaking Him on the cross.  That is the one aspect of the wages of sin that we just can’t bear to do ourselves.  Aging, dying and lying bodily in the tomb is bad enough.  Jesus walks with us through them all and then takes the very worst part on Himself.

Next time:  We will look at what people in the Old Testament said about Sheol

 

 

Did Jews and Greeks Have a Common Understanding of Life After Death?

I’ve already told you how Sheol typically gets translated into English. In the second century BC the Old Testament was translated into Greek. This translation is referred to as the Septuagint (in Latin, “The Seventy”). The name refers to the tradition that seventy Jewish scholars produced the translation. How this group chose to translate “Sheol” is interesting. They chose the word “Hades”. It is “Hades” that appears several times in the New Testament to refer to Sheol.

Hades, of course, is a name from Greek mythology. At first, the choice seems alarming. Is this an endorsement of Greek myths? Is it syncretism (a combining of religions)? It is neither.   This choice was just a way to help Greek readers understand. Whenever a translation choice like that is made it is an attempt to connect a concept with something the reader already knows about. There is a danger, however. The danger is that the reader bring too much of the word’s baggage with him.

Hades was the Greek god of the underworld, but also was used to refer to the place he ruled, which was the abode of the dead. Hades was a place where people consciously, if unhappily, existed. This much is like at least a part of Sheol.

Hades was also a place with different areas. This seems to be true of Sheol as we will see. The name of one area of Hades, Tartarus, also finds its way into the New Testament. That about ends the points of comparison. There is no god reigning over Sheol. There is no river to cross to get there. The rest of the Greek myth does not apply. Still, it is understandable why the Seventy chose “Hades” as a translation of “Sheol” into Greek, and why it remained the word of choice in the New Testament.

The word choice has proved to be a mixed bag. While the word may have been a bridge to understanding, as we will note in several places, Greek religious ideas have come to taint several Christian teachings over time. Whether a different translation choice could have prevented this is unknowable.

The use of the word Hades does adds some clarity for us. If Sheol simply meant “grave” in context, the translators would never have used “Hades”. Sheol is not a grave. If Sheol meant different things in different contexts, the Seventy, would have used different words in those contexts. With the exception of compound words, they didn’t. Sheol is a place and they translated it with a place name.

Next Time:   We will take a short break from our discussion of Sheol and cover something that has recent personal relevance to me–the process of dying.

A Word You May Not Know: Sheol

As a pastor and a Christian, I have quietly dreamt of going on a field trip to see what lies beyond death. Just think about how life changing it would be. We speak of Heaven and Hell, but we don’t usually see them before we go there. As a result they seem surreal to us at best. Some people in history have seen parts of life beyond the grave via out of body experiences. They all are profoundly affected. While my hope in Christ is to someday be with Christ in Heaven and eventually experience the resurrection of my body and live with God in a New Earth, I think I would like to see even more. While disturbing, I think I would even like to briefly see the fate of the damned. I might change my mind on that if ever given the opportunity.

Normally, we don’t get to see beyond the pall of death. Yet, I can think of no topic more important to each of us. We don’t want any rude surprises when we leave this world. We want to know what will happen, and to some extent we can know.

What I would like to do with you in this series of articles is to take a field trip of sorts. We are going to see what scripture shares about all aspects of life after death. We will give Near Death Experiences (NDE) of both heaven and its counterpart a little consideration.   For me, they don’t hold the weight of inspired scripture as a source of information. There are factors that could make a Near Death Experience imagined or even a deception, but they still need to be addressed. That is why we will be primarily discussing scripture. Using scripture, we will go on a verbal field trip, doing our best to imagine what is described. It will be interesting, but hopefully it will also be life-changing. This information was not given by God to be simply FYI.

 

First Stop: Sheol

 

Lets start at the bottom. The first life-after-death destiny mentioned in the Bible is Sheol. Sheol is the counterpart to heaven. You mean you never heard of Sheol? I wouldn’t blame you if that were true. Apparently my spell-checker hasn’t either. Sheol is a Hebrew word that is often translated away. In English, it is often translated as “the grave” or “hell” or “the pit”. I would contend that these translations are usually wrong or at least confusing. Sheol is a not the hole where we put dead bodies, nor is it a vague concept of where dead people go, nor is it what most of us think of when we hear the word, “hell”.  Sheol is a place. A place with somewhat complicated properties.

Now the conventional wisdom about the translation of the word “Sheol” is that the meaning depends on the context. When you see how it gets used in the original Hebrew, it is easy to understand why this is thought. Sometimes the word gets turned into a compound word. In this case, it expresses a closely related subject, like decay. More often, though, the appearance of slightly different meanings in various contexts is probably created by the individual’s confusion over what Sheol is like.

Confused individual ideas about Sheol need not create confusion for us, because Jesus really did clear up the nature of Sheol, as we shall see. When it comes to the nature of life after death, Jesus is the ultimate authority.

Next Time:  Sheol gets connected with the Greek word/idea:  Hades

Who Do You Trust?

Do you think about life after death? I expect that most of us ignore the topic until it is forced into our attention by the death of somebody or a close call for ourselves. Maybe, we feel like not much can be known, or that the topic is too discouraging.

I disagree with the avoidance of the topic of death. Death is the biggest and most certain event in our lives. We should research what can be known. We should know it well. I have spent some time researching what the Bible says about several topics related to existence after death, and I think it is fascinating and extremely relevant. Knowing what is said changes your life. I am almost certain that you will learn a great deal by reading this series of articles. There is more to know than you think.

Unlike topics such as gardening, sports and health, information about our eternal destiny is not subject to our senses or experimentation. People occasionally do have out-of-body experiences where they see heaven or hell or something like it, and we will consider those; but no other topic is as dependent on revelation as this one. This is a big problem for many people. They don’t see any reason to trust religious revelation.

Most religious revelation comes with little to no corroborating evidence. For that reason, I would dismiss it as well. Jesus, however, is a different story. Jesus can be established as a real person in history by existing ancient texts both favorable and hostile to Him that date to within a few decades of his life. His words and deeds are recorded by those who were eyewitnesses, some of whom who were once hostile converts. His life was not just an ordinary life, especially as it relates to death. Jesus raised the dead and rose Himself from the dead. Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, and both prophecies about Him and miracles done by Him support that claim. Jesus gives us that connection with history that backs up what He has to say about life after death.

It is with great seriousness that I will try to set forth what Jesus and those He endorsed said about our existence after death. Some of it is not going to be what we want to hear. Some of it will not seem rational. You need to remember that God’s ways are not our ways. What happens after death is such a serious topic, I want to know what is said regardless of whether it meets my approval. Therefore, I think it is important to cover the whole scope of what is written about life after death, both good and bad.

Please accept my invitation to look beyond the grave. You will find the following entries to be enlightening, serious, hopeful and motivating. We will all die. That much is sure. What comes next will be either the best or the worst part of our existence, and it is what Jesus has done and our connection to Him that will make the difference.

 

Next Article: We will begin to consider a biblical word that most people don’t recognize or understand—Sheol