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.

Go to Hell

We have probably all said this to someone or something in anger.  Or we have said its more profane equivalent.  These words flow easily without understanding their literal meaning.  Hell is not a place I would wish on my worst enemy or on the worst of people.

Is Hell real or was it just a fable to control people with fear?  Without a doubt the fear of Hell has been abused by some, but Jesus clearly speaks of its reality.  If you take Heaven seriously, you have no ground for not taking Hell seriously since Jesus spoke of it often, maybe even more than Heaven as a destination for mankind.

To be specific, I make a contrast between two words that are often rendered as “Hell”.  Jesus speaks of Gehenna and Hades.  These are not synonyms, so they should not be translated as the same word.  Hades is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Sheol.  It is the destiny of those without the forgiveness of sins prior to Judgment Day.  The characteristics of Hades do resemble that of Gehenna, so people have tended to conflate them.  Hades and Sheol constitute the majority of references to Hell in the Bible.

When I, and most people, think about Hell, they are thinking about the final place of judgement, not a temporary one.  Because of this, I prefer to reserve the word Hell for the post-Judgment Day destination of the damned.  That convention would limit the references to Hell to the following passages that I would like to handle a couple at a time over the next few entries.

Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. (Matthew 25:46)

This passage comes at the end of the Sheep and the Goats story which definitely describes Judgment Day.  Just two words describe Hell here: eternal and punishment.  We will have to look elsewhere to find the nature of the punishment.  The disturbing thing here is “eternal”.  There is no end to it.  I would be more comfortable with “permanent destruction” suggesting that the evil people come to an end, or even “long” punishment.  Eternal is tough.  What could be bad enough to deserve eternal punishment?  The gravity of this has caused some to postulate that Hell doesn’t exist, or it doesn’t exist for any human, or it actually is temporary.  I think this passage is pretty clear.  People are going to eternal punishment.

In the same chapter are these words:

And throw that servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 25:30)

Does this refer to the eternal Hell, too?  It doesn’t expressly say, but a couple of things would make me conclude so.  First, Matthew 25 is all about preparation for Judgment Day, so this seems like an outcome of that.  Then the words “outside” and “darkness” imply a separation from God, which is the ultimate judgment.  When Jesus was forsaken by His Father on the cross, it seemed that was far worse than the nails or other torments.  Jesus being forsaken results in our not needing to be forsaken, if we are connected to Jesus.

The other descriptors are “weeping” and “gnashing of teeth”.  Both sound horrible.  They also sound physical.  The final judgment is a punishment of both body and soul.  More about this later.

I would love for Hell to be either fictional or empty, but I would rather know the truth rather than be surprised by it.  I would also prefer to learn about Hell from afar rather than from experience.  Though unpleasant, please follow me as I look at the other references in the Bible.