Sheol and the afterlife

Woman is walking towards g

This is the second in a series of articles about the afterlife and the unseen realm.

Is there conscious existence beyond the grave? Where did Old Testament saints go when they died? Do the wicked really suffer forever in hell? Should you believe in ghosts?

These are important questions about the afterlife and the unseen world. Most religions deal in some way with these questions and appeal to a variety of authorities to provide answers.

This series explores the manner in which God’s Word describes life beyond the grave and the unseen world. In this column we examine the Hebrew term Sheol.  In future columns we address Hades, Gehenna, Tartarus, and other terms.

Sheol

Old Testament writers use the Hebrew word Sheol 65 times to describe the abode of the dead. It communicates the reality of human mortality and the impact of people’s lives on their destinies.

Ancient Israelites believed in life beyond the grave, borne out in such passages as Isa. 14:9-12, where Sheol contains “the spirits of the departed;” and 1 Sam. 28:13, where the deceased prophet Samuel temporarily appears as “a spirit form coming up out of the earth.”

While the Old Testament consistently refers to the body as going to the grave, it always refers to the soul or spirit of people as going to Sheol, according to Robert A. Morey in Death and the Afterlife.

One source of confusion is the variety of ways the King James Version translates Sheol, according to Morey: “The KJV translates Sheol as ‘hell’ 31 times, ‘grave’ 31 times, and ‘pit’ three times. Because of this inconsistency of translation, such groups as the Adventists … and Jehovah’s Witnesses have taught that Sheol means the grave.”

Fortunately, he adds, lexicons and rabbinic literature consistently understand Sheol as the place where the souls of persons go at death.

Down to Sheol

In fact, the first occurrence of Sheol in the Old Testament (Gen. 37:35) cannot possibly mean “grave.” As Jacob holds the bloodied remnants of Joseph’s coat, he laments about his deceased boy, “I will go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.”

Whatever else Sheol may mean, in this passage it cannot mean Joseph’s grave, for Jacob believes his son has been devoured by wild animals and thus has no grave. Jacob could not be buried in a common grave with Joseph.

According to the context, Jacob anticipates being reunited with Joseph in the underworld. He speaks of going “down” because it is assumed that Sheol is the place of departed spirits, likely a hollow place in the center of the earth.

There are other factors about Sheol to consider, among them:

(1) When Old Testament writers want to identify the grave, they use the Hebrew word kever, which is contrasted with Sheol. Kever is the fate of the body, while Sheol is the fate of the soul.

(2) In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, Sheol is never translated as mneema, the Greek word for grave.

(3) Sheol is “under the earth” or “the underworld,” while graves were built as sepulchers above the earth, in caves, or holes in the earth.

(4) While bodies are unconscious in the grave, those in Sheol are viewed as conscious.

Progressive revelation

Because God’s revelation in Scripture is progressive, we see the concept of Sheol develop throughout the Old Testament. While it is described as dark (Lam. 3:6), and a place of helplessness (Ps. 88:4), trouble and sorrow (Ps. 116:3), God is both present in Sheol (Ps. 139:8) and able to deliver from it (Ps. 16:10; 49:15).

This leads some commentators to conclude that there are two compartments in Sheol, one for the wicked and another for the righteous. Later Jewish literature, such as the Book of Enoch, describes these divisions, in which people experience a foretaste of their final destiny.

Jesus’ story of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31) seems to expand on this depiction, applying the Greek word Hades to the realm of the dead.

Other scholars contend, however, that Sheol is only for the wicked, while God rescues the righteous from Sheol and takes them to a place of blessedness. The ascensions of Enoch and Elijah to heaven, for example, are cited to support the belief that the righteous under the old covenant could be taken directly into God’s presence at the end of their earthly lives.

Today, we know that the souls/spirits of Christians enter heaven immediately upon death (2 Cor. 5:6-8). Evidently, the souls of unbelievers remain in Sheol where they await resurrection and final judgment.

Next: Hades and the afterlife

 

 

2 comments

  1. Albert Cassar

    What is happening in the USA and other parts of the world?

    I cannot understand the wickedness that is happening like for example the crucifix taken out of school and most courts sodomisem and mirage between same sexes is legalised, adoption. DNA is manipulated to helpless people; and millions of other wicked things. If this is liberty speaking for myself I don’t want to be a part from it
    This is the antichrist and has been in filtering from the beginning
    Thank you Mr C. Pack
    Albert Cassar

  2. albert Cassar

    Life after Dead

    There are three places where one can choose haven purgatory or hell, for God does not fors you too and how to live. It’s up to the indivigwal to decide his future, but He can always guide you that is if you choose to obey his teaching.
    Let’s start with haven Jesus said that the road is narrow to walk throw it but if you try hard in your difficulties at least you done your best and you will get His helping hand.
    Then there is purgatory this is where one have to live in this world but couldn’t be helpful to other that are lower then him even if he led a good life more or less with out harming any one for his egoism so he have to see hardship and can’t do any thing without his body he had his chance.
    Then there is hell these that have sworn against the Holy Spirit in few word do not believe in God.
    Albert

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