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.

Respecting the Danger

Imagine this.  It is a beautiful night for a walk in your neighborhood.  It is dark, but in your experience your neighborhood is a safe place for an evening stroll.  But tonight, this is not the case.  Danger is waiting for you.  Would you rather know about the danger or would you prefer to believe what you want to be true is true?

It should be self-evident that if there are a bunch of villanous thugs, or rabid dogs, or a giant sinkhole that is now part of the neighborhood, we would want to know about it.  Danger is bad, but danger we are unprepared for is the worst.  Still, many people approach death with such a wishful and ignorant attitude.  We must take the walk of death someday, but we don’t want to think about it or even hear what could await us.  As a result, many will pass through death expecting something heavenly, or to be non-existent, or to reincarnate; and that won’t happen for them.  It doesn’t matter what you believe, it is what exists.

My point is that it makes sense to think about and study claims about death, because we definitely will do it, and it will prove to be the most important thing in our existence.  I am not saying I expect all to believe the Bible on this topic.  But beware of the bias caused by what you want to be true.  The Bible actually puts forward something that I definitely don’t want to be true.  Jesus says,

Enter through the narrow gate.  For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow is the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. (Matthew 7:13-14)

I would love to deny that this is true.  But I do feel that the Bible, especially Jesus, has credibility.  This comes not only from historical and archeological evidence, but also from reason and, in the end, from the Spirit of God.  This is the giant pothole in the neighborhood.  So I definitely want to be a part of the “few” and I want you to be a part of the few as well, even if I never met you.

This narrow road is Jesus.  Oddly, God would rather this not be the fact either.  God loves people, but people willfully became sinful and this matters.  God is also a being who lives by His Law.  He doesn’t compromise it.  Jesus’ incarnation, life, death and resurrection create a path by which God can both save and fulfill the requirement of the Law.  It’s the only path.

If you don’t believe this yet or don’t understand it, please fully investigate it.  Ask God for help.  Even if you are not sure there is such a being. Understanding death, what comes after it and why, is an existence defining body of knowledge.  It deserves our time and effort. Not only will we avoid a bottomless sinkhole, we will have a redefined life and death will be but the beginning of the best part of our experience.

Living with an Eternal Perspective

I suspect that most people think about their future.  How far out do you think?  I am 56 years old right now.  Sometimes I think about what it will be like when I am 70 something.  My dreams are far more glorious than the reality, I am sure.  Do you ever think farther out?  I am not talking about your 80’s or 90’s.  I am talking a 1000 years out.  You don’t, do you.  Without experience, death creates this impenetrable wall.  For many people’s thoughts, our existence ends.

The Bible flatly denies that this is true.  We have an eternal existence, because we are made that way.  It will be with God or without Him.  Because God loves us and wants us, He has provided the way for our eternal existence to be eternal “life”.  An existence of joy, comfort, abundance, love, fun, relationships and knowing God.  Do you ever try to imagine it?

Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:17-18:

For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.  For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Eyes are for seeing, obviously.  How does one set your eyes on what is unseen?  What Paul is talking about is becoming so certain of the promises of eternal life given in the Bible that we can look forward to our own death as just a milestone and not the end of us.  We can dream about future that is real, exciting, mysterious but comforting.  Such confidence comes with time spent reading the Bible.  It comes with prayer and experience serving God.  It is empowering.

Most people have to deal with their obvious aging by living in denial.  They imagine that they will be healthier and that their physical and mental limits will expand.  This is not realistic in the long-term.  We will become more aged and limited until we die.  That is a fact.  Science may modestly delay the process, but it won’t save us from the inevitable.  Jesus has already saved us from the inevitable.  Jesus makes our death nothing more than the small part of a mandatory sentence for sin, and in effect transforms death into a glorious transition–one you can count on.

Fixing your eyes on what is unseen is not wishful thinking.  It is taking God at His word, understanding our eternal nature, and planning for a glorious eternity that is not that far off.  It does not involve forsaking the here and now.  In fact, having eternal security gives meaning to what we doing now.  We are saved by our connection to Jesus, but our actions today are doing the work of God and are rewardable in Heaven and the New Earth.

Fixing our eyes on what is unseen also gives you power to handle the difficulties of this life.  Every problem is temporary.  Every problem is an opportunity.  God can use anything for an ultimate good.  There is no need to be discouraged, because you can see beyond the current situation.

Fixing your eyes on the unseen is one of the reasons I write this blog.  It is hard to imagine what we have never seen.  So we must rely on the little bit of information that we have been given, and try to create a mental picture.  Our picture may be somewhat inaccurate and our imagination not up to the task, but that will only make our actual arrival in Heaven more breathtaking.

So look to the future–the deep future.  In Christ, you actually have one.

Is Life After Death Real?

I have spent the last couple of years writing about what the Bible says about life after death.  Today I am asking, “why believe any of it?

We are certainly motivated to think that this life isn’t all that there is for us.  The idea of simply disappearing drains any real purpose from our existence.  It also makes our aging an ever worsening scenario for which there is no escape nor hope.

There are plenty of reasons to think that life after death is more than false hope.  Real faith is the gift of God, but a little extra-biblical evidence certainly doesn’t hurt; especially if you are skeptical of the Bible at this point.

I often joke about the value of a field-trip to Heaven.  Of course, this is not something God is offering, but do some people actually have them?  Near Death Experiences are a curious phenomena that are actually quite common. One in seven people come close to death without permanently dying.  Thirty-five percent of those report a NDE (that’s 5% of the population) Skeptics want to dismiss NDE’s as simply a spike in brain activity right at death.  This explanation doesn’t quite fit the evidence.  Many don’t have enough of a brain left for the spike, and still have an NDE.  Most have been in a coma for a prolonged time, lowering their brain activity. A better theory for the brain activity spike is that when our spirit and body divide there is a surge of electrical activity.

NDEs happen to people of all sorts all over the world.  They do not seem to follow only people who expect life after death.  Many aspects are common among those who have experienced NDE’s.  For instance, going down a tunnel toward a light, being greeted by people they know, a sense of peace, and often the experience of being above your body and able to make detailed, accurate observations of things in the room or even down the hall.

Most people who have an NDE don’t want to come back to life.  Most, but not all.  Some people have experienced Hell.  They were eager to back to life.  That experience is life changing, too.  Would the prevalence of positive experiences suggest that most will be saved or that those with positive experiences are going to be saved?  I wouldn’t draw that conclusion at all.  Here I would count on the words of Jesus, who states that “few find life” and “no one comes to the Father accept through Me.”

I expect that NDE’s and their counterpart Out of Body Experiences (OBE) are similar to the experiences of Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1f) and John in Revelation.  They are not exactly tours of Heaven, but rather visions intended for them.  Isaiah certainly experienced Heaven like a field trip, but Jesus states later that no one has gone into Heaven except the One who came from Heaven (John 3:13).  That doesn’t mean that no one can go there now and come back, but it does suggest an out-of-body middle state (Not yet in Heaven and not on Earth).  I would approach the information gained through NDE and OBE’s with caution, because it could be a vision created to deceive.

In the book “Death of a Guru”, Rabi Maharaj talks about the powers of Transcendental Meditation (TM) to take a person out of body and to places perceived as heavenly or at least other-worldly.  His later conversion would convince him that he was in great danger in these states of being deceived by Satan.  Some who have experienced NDE’s, later attempt to repeat the trip through methods similar to TM.  One famous example is neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander who was skeptical of NDEs until he contracted a serious case or meningitis and had one himself.  In a lecture of his that I attended, he announced that he was part of a group investigating the use of certain sound frequencies to liberate spirit from the body.  I think this is a bad idea.

Some NDEs may be legitimate God-given gifts.  They may even be direct experiences of Heaven, but Scripture remains the one safe standard of truth in this matter.  Other methods of experiencing life after death give some credence to dismiss a materialistic philosophy, but do not have God’s approval.  In my next blog entry I will discuss communication with the dead.