An Expectation of Sheol

All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” Thus his father wept for him.

Genesis 37:35 (ESV)

The above quote comes from the story of Joseph. His brothers, in spite, had just sold Joseph into slavery and then reported him as dead to their father Jacob. Joseph was the favorite son of Jacob, and he is crushed by the news. He basically says that he will mourn until he dies, and then he will go where Joseph is–Sheol.

Sheol, the place of the dead, is where every Old Testament person expected to go. They are divided as to whether the experience will be a conscious or unconscious experience. None of them really look forward to it.

There is an expectation of bodily resurrection someday. This can be found in the oldest book in the Old Testament, Job, and it is briefly taught at the end of Daniel. Time will elapse between their death and the resurrection, however.

As mentioned in previous blog entries, translators have struggled with what to do with word, “Sheol”, and its Greek counterpart, “Hades”. Some translations have decided to make it “the pit”, “the grave” or even “Hell”. Usually it is marked with a footnote acknowledging that the word is “Sheol”. Basically, an admission that the translators were not sold themselves on the translation. For this reason Sheol is unknown to most Christians.

Is Sheol Hell? I capitalize both, because both are place names. And no, Sheol is not what I mean when I use the word “Hell” as a place name. “Hell”, for me, corresponds to the final place of forsakeness and suffering reserved for the damned. This corresponds with the word “Gehenna” or the description, “Lake of Fire” found in Revelation 20. Sheol/Hades is dumped into the Lake of Fire in Revelation 20:14. Clearly, it is a distinct place.

Does Jacob expect to suffer after death then? Not necessarily. Sheol is spoken of 63 times in the Old Testament. I am not certain how the people of the Old Testament acquired their knowledge of Sheol. It may have been from revelation from God, but not necessarily. Near Death Experiences and even the forbidden occultic arts could have given to society scraps of information about Sheol. It is allowed to remain in inspired works because it serves God’s purpose in telling the stories. At no place, is there a theological treatise on the nature of Sheol.

In general, Sheol is described as either unconsciousness or unawareness. It is always pictured as the wages of sin and bad. That makes it surprising that all, even the righteous, express an expectation to go there. Sheol is spoken of in poetic terms in Isaiah. It becomes a synonym for death, even though it retains the nature of a place name.

The Old Testament holds only a very modest hope for eternal life. The most detailed description of life after death applies to the New Earth described in Isaiah 65. This description itself is problematic as it describes existence more in terms of long, pleasant life rather than eternal life.

The lack of information about eternal life and the complete absence of an expectation to go to Heaven raises some interesting questions about the nature of revelation. If one sees the religion surrounding Yahweh (whether Jewish or Christian) as the product of humans, then you would explain the doctrine of eternal life as a development–something added later either because it was borrowed from somewhere else or imagined by somebody later. If, rather, you understand both Old and New Testaments as an ongoing dialogue between God and humanity, you understand that God can reveal information when He chooses to reveal information. Theological development is people having more information then they had before.

Sheol is “developed” by Jesus in the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man. No one would have better and more information about such a place than Jesus. In the story, Lazarus, a poor beggar, dies and is carried to Abraham’s side. The story does not immediately identify where Abraham is. From the Old Testament we should expect that this is Sheol. The rich man also dies and is take to Hades. Here the place is named. He is conscious. He is tormented by flames. Still, he is able to converse with Abraham. Lazarus, however, is being comforted. His place in Sheol is not a place of suffering.

Many jump to the conclusion that Abraham and Lazarus must be in Heaven. That is where the righteous go. But Jesus blocks that conclusion in John 3:13 by telling us that no one has gone into Heaven, at least not yet. Abraham and Lazarus are in a separate parts of Sheol divided by a chasm from the rest, but not prohibiting some communication between the two parts.

Some church bodies have given names to the pleasant part of Sheol. The Catholic Church refers to it as the “Limbo of the Fathers.” Others just refer to it as Abraham’s Bosom. Most just ignore it.

Sheol as a destiny for the righteous awaited the atonement for sins that Jesus would complete. I expect “Abraham’s Bosom” to still exist as a place. But it is now an empty place. Our expectations are now happily turned to Heaven. That humans should occupy Heaven awaited not only atonement but the expulsion of Satan and his minions as described in Revelation 12.

While I don’t need independent confirmation of God’s revelation, it does exist. Near Death Experiences include both seeing Heaven and Sheol as briefly described by Jesus. The expectation of the resurrection of our bodies still stands as a future promise awaiting Judgment Day.