This is the second in a series of excerpts from “What Everyone Should Know About the Afterlife,” available through Amazon and other booksellers.
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.
Hades is a Greek god whose name means “The Unseen.” He is depicted as lord of the underworld, or the abode of the dead. So, it should come as no surprise that Jesus and the New Testament writers borrow from the familiar term Hades to describe the realm of departed spirits. What’s more, they cut through the mythology to present a more accurate picture of the afterlife.
The word Hades appears 10 times in the New Testament, forming a linguistic bridge that takes us from the Old Testament view of life beyond the grave (in Sheol) to the New Testament position. In coming to a biblically faithful understanding of Hades, it’s important to state what the word does not mean.
It does not mean death, because the Greek word thanatos is used for death in the New Testament. Further, death (thanatos) and Hades appear together in Rev. 1:18, so they cannot mean the same thing.
Second, it cannot mean grave, because the Greek work mneema depicts the place where the bodies of the deceased are buried.
Third, it cannot mean hell, the place of final punishment for the wicked, because the Greek word Gehenna is used for hell in the New Testament, along with other terms like “outer darkness,” “eternal fire,” and “lake of fire.” Further, Hades is cast into the lake of fire in Rev. 20:14.
Fourth, Hades is not heaven, which is the intermediate state of Christian souls between death and resurrection, because the Greek word ouranos depicts heaven.
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.
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.
Rev. 20:13 – Then the sea gave up its dead, and Death and Hades gave up their dead; all were judged according to their works. (HCSB)
Death and Hades gave up their dead
We should recall that the resurrected Jesus declares in Rev. 1:18, “I was dead, but look – I am alive forever and ever, and I hold the keys of death and Hades.” Even before the cross, Jesus tells Peter that the forces of Hades will not overpower His Church” (Matt. 16:18).
Death is a reality that all people experience as a consequence of sin (Gen. 2:17). Hades is the abode of the dead. Therefore, Death and Hades are tied inextricably to sin. But Jesus, who added to His deity sinless humanity (John 1:14), tasted death for everyone (Heb. 2:9). Through His finished work on the cross, He paid our sin debt and conquered the grave so that Death and Hades have no lasting grip on those who place their faith in Him.
The bottom line of John’s vision of Death and Hades giving up their dead is that ultimately every person will be physically resurrected and spend eternity either in the new heavens and earth or in the lake of fire. A time is coming when there is no longer physical death or an intermediate existence where people wait to put on resurrected bodies and stand in final judgment. Just as Jesus is Judge of all (John 5:22), He is Lord over sin, death, and the realm of the dead.
This is the third in a series of articles on biblical terms that describe the afterlife and the unseen world.
Hades is a Greek god whose name means “The Unseen.” He is depicted as lord of the underworld, the abode of the dead. So it should come as no surprise that Jesus and the New Testament writers borrow from this familiar term to describe the realm of departed spirits.
What’s more, they cut through the mythology to present an accurate picture of the afterlife.
The word Hades appears 10 times in the New Testament, forming a linguistic bridge that takes us from the Old Testament view of life beyond the grave (in Sheol) to the New Testament position.
In coming to a biblically faithful understanding of Hades, it’s important to state what the word does not mean.