Sheol and the afterlife

The Hebrew Bible (the ‘Old Testament’) doesn’t have a hell. At least, it doesn’t have a place where the wicked go to be tormented when they die. There is not even a hint that some people go to heaven at death, while the rest go to ‘the other place’. In fact, according to the Hebrew Bible everyone, good or bad, goes to the same place at death, to Sheol (שְׁאוֹל). The word sheol occurs 65 times in the Hebrew Bible and is usually translated into Greek as hades, and into English as either “hell” or “the grave” (although there is a tendency for more modern translations to leave it untranslated and transliterated as Sheol). However, the way the ancient Israelites thought of sheol was considerably different to the way later Christians often think of hell. 

Everyone goes there. According to the Hebrew Bible everyone goes to the same place at death. When news came to the patriarch Jacob that his son Joseph was dead he refused to be comforted and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning” (Genesis 37: 35). Using parallelism typical of biblical poetry David described his deliverance from death at the hands of his enemies in terms of being rescued from Sheol:

For the waves of death encompassed me,
the torrents of destruction assailed me;
the cords of Sheol entangled me;
the snares of death confronted me. (2 Samuel 22:5-6).

Interestingly, he thinks of death in terms of destruction rather than conscious existence in an afterlife. Perhaps even more surprisingly Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes) even asserts that animals and humans share the same fate: “For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity.  All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.  Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upwards and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?” (Eccl. 3:19-21).

Sheol is not a place of punishment.

In a long speech in which he longs for his own end, Job describes death this way:

But a man dies and is laid low;
man breathes his last, and where is he?
As waters fail from a lake
and a river wastes away and dries up,
so a man lies down and rises not again;
till the heavens are no more he will not awake
or be roused out of his sleep.
Oh that you would hide me in Sheol,
that you would conceal me until your wrath be past,
that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me!
If a man dies, shall he live again?
All the days of my service I would wait,
till my renewal should come. (Job 14:10-14).

There are a few important things we should note from this speech. First, Job describes death as a place where he could hide from God’s anger, not as a place where he would experience wrath or punishment. Second, he describes death as a place of sleep (see more about this below). Third, in the last lines of the extract above there is a possible hint of resurrection (there is a more familiar possible reference to resurrection in Job 19:25-26, although I have explained earlier that I personally don’t see any evidence in this text that Job was expressing his hope in a resurrection, or that his vindication would come after his death). However, the Hebrew word חליפתי (“my renewal” ESV or “change” KJV) could mean that Job is looking for some kind of relief (so ESV footnote).  There isn’t necessarily a sense of “renewal” or resurrection in the Hebrew word, which simply means “change” in the same way we could speak of a change of clothes. The NJPS translates this as “my replacement”, in the sense of a soldier or servant carrying on with their duties until their watch or shift ends when they are replaced by another.

God is there. I sometimes hear people describe hell as a state of being seperated from God, rather than a physical location. But this is not how the writers of the Hebrew Bible understood sheol. A Psalm attributed to David makes the confident assertion that God is everywhere, even in sheol!

Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! (Psalm 138:7-8)

Satan is never associated with Sheol in the Hebrew Bible. In popular culture hell is ruled by Satan. Somewhat surprisingly the Hebrew Bible nevers links Sheol with Satan, and, perhaps even more surprising is the fact that the only time the New Testament mentions hell (hades) and the devil together is when it describes both the devil and hell being destroyed together in a lake of fire: “the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever … Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:10, 14). According to this text the devil does not rule hell: he meets his end, together with hell, in a lake of fire. And hell isn’t a lake of fire: on the contrary, hell is destroyed in a lake of fire. Puzzling imagery indeed, and one which deserves more attention. (There is a similar reference in Matthew 25:41 to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” but see my short post here.)

Sheol is for sleeping. The New Testament refers to death as sleeping and the image is almost certainly drawn from the Hebrew Bible. For example, Bathsheba describes David’s death as the time “when my lord the king sleeps with his fathers” (1 Kings 1:21). The New Testament draws on this terminology in a speech by Paul: “For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption” (Acts 13:36). Earlier in the same book of Acts is a speech by Peter, and both speeches refer to a Psalm attributed to David:

For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol,
or let your holy one see corruption. (Psalm 16:10).

In the speech by Peter he quotes this Psalm and says “David did not ascend into the heavens” (Acts 2:34). He was firmly of the view in the Hebrew Bible that everyone, good and bad, go to the same place at death, to sheol, and that not even King David went to heaven.

4 comments on “Sheol and the afterlife

  1. Peace says:

    Thanks Stephen for very helpful insights.It is interesting also how popular definitions of ” hell and afterlife “are influenced by our understanding of “soul” and what happens to it after death.Many believe that at death, that last breath (life) returns to God. I guess this could be in itself another point for discussion…

  2. […] of the criminal being burned in the valley of Hinnom rather than receiving a dignified burial. In a comment on a previous post Thomas Farrar referred me to a very helpful comment by Alan Bernstein: “throughout the […]

  3. Stephen Cook says:

    Thanks Tom for some excellent and helpful comments. I’ve changed “popular theology” to “popular culture” as you suggest, and I agree with you that contemporary theologians are less likely to make such a claim (well, not in scholarship, although there is still more than a handful of ‘theologians’ being churned out by denominational colleges who use that kind of language. I can’t easily quote any because their books usually don’t make it to my bookshelves).

    Johnston makes some good observations, although I disagree with his conclusions in the excerpt you quoted. It’s true that there appears to be a preponderance of texts where the righteous contemplate Sheol when they are facing unhappy or untimely death, and the word occurs more frequently in Psalms than any other book, precisely because that’s where we read about their contemplations. However, I don’t believe that there is sufficient evidence to assert that they contemplate it ONLY when they face unhappy or untimely death.

    I think Bernstein is correct when he refers to Sheol acquiring “a map” and there certainly seems to be a development in thought in the later biblical texts and the intertestamental literature. Thanks for the quote “throughout the ancient Mediterranean world, improper burial signified great disgrace” – I’ll use that (with acknowledgments) in my next post, which should be up very shortly.

  4. Stephen, thanks for your insights. I’m in agreement with a number of your points but would also offer a couple of caveats to the idea that Sheol in the Hebrew Bible is for everyone and is not a place of punishment.

    Johnston observes that Sheol is predominantly the destiny of the ungodly; the righteous only contemplate it when they face unhappy or untimely death (pp. 80-81)

    He concludes,
    “Sheol cannot be identified simply as the Hebrew term for the underworld which awaits all. It is almost exclusively reserved for those under divine judgment, whether the wicked, the afflicted righteous, or all sinners. It seldom occurs of all humanity, and only in contexts which portray human sinfulness and life’s absurdity. Thus Sheol is not used indiscriminately to describe human destiny as death.” (p. 83)

    Johnston, Philip S. 2002. Shades of Sheol: Death and Afterlife in the Old Testament. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

    Bernstein points out that in some later Old Testament texts, Sheol is no longer morally neutral. Ezekiel 32 “applies moral criteria to the arrangement of the underworld. Sheol is acquiring a map…When it designates a separate part of Sheol, then, the pit signifies denial of honourable burial. It inflicts no punishment but confines those buried there in a place of shame (p. 165).

    Again, in Isaiah 14, Babylon “will be put in a separate part of the netherworld and, in accord with the spirit of Ezekiel 32, it will experience shame…The former oppressors suffer the scorn of the other shades. Unlike the other royal dead, they lack a proper tomb. Indeed, throughout the ancient Mediterranean world, improper burial signified great disgrace…Ezekiel 32.24 and Isaiah 14.15-20 agree that there is more than one fate in death. The wicked suffer ignominy in the deepest recesses of the underworld. Shame in death is the beginning of hell (pp. 166-167)

    Bernstein, Alan E. 1996. The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds. Cornell University Press.

    I’m also not sure about the assertion that “in popular theology hell is ruled by Satan,” In popular culture maybe, and in some circles in historical Christianity, but I haven’t seen contemporary theologians making such a claim.

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