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