WELCOME TO THEOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVES

 

WHAT HAPPENS AFTER DEATH?  PART TWO

 

WHAT/WHERE IS HELL?

         Historically, virtually every culture gives evidence to a belief in there being a place of punishment for the wicked after physical death.  This place of punishment is often portrayed as a fiery caldron where the wicked are constantly tortured and experience  extreme pain, anguish and suffering.  Some cultures believe the location of this place of punishment is somewhere in the depths of the earth.  Some have speculated that volcano's are gateways to the fires of hell.  In Dante's fourteenth century poem entitled. "The Divine Comedy," Dante pictures himself being led through nine circles of torment located in the inner parts of the earth. 

       In much of Christianity, hell is seen as a fiery place of eternal conscious torment where the "unsaved dead" are eternally punished for the sins they committed while physically alive. Other Christians believe the "unsaved dead" will be annihilated (burned up) in hell and not experience eternal conscious torment. In reality, both of these concepts are problematical as they suggest a non-physical (immaterial) soul or spirit can be affected by physical fire.  

       The modern English word hell is derived from an Old English word from about 725 AD and pronounced hel or helle. It was defined as a place of covering and you can find references in old English literature to farmers putting potatoes in hell for the winter.  This word was also used to describe the nether world of the dead.  The English word hell found in the OT is translated from the Hebrew Sheol and in the NT from the Greek Hades, Tartarus, and Gehenna

Sheol :

      Hell is mentioned in both Old and New Testaments. Where the word hell appears in English translations of the Hebrew OT text, it is taken from the Hebrew word Sheol.  This word literally means the grave or pit and is exclusively translated as such in some English Bibles such as the NIV.  It is seen as the place or abode of the dead.  The writer of Ecclesiastes views Sheol as a place of no activity. 

       Ecclesiastes 9:10:  Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, (Sheol) where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.  

       The Hebrew word rendered “grave” in 9:10 is Sheol.  This word appears dozens of times in the Hebrew Scriptures.  While most Bible translations render this word as “grave.”  Some translations, such as the KJV and NKJV render it as “hell.”  Since many in the Christian community believe hell is a place of punishment for the "unsaved dead," Sheol is looked upon as a place of conscious awareness.  Therefore, while Sheol is considered a place of death for the physical body, the soul or spirit of the so called unsaved dead is believed to live on in a conscious state in Sheol.  Those who embrace this view believe Solomon is only referring to the material body being dead in Sheol whereas the immaterial soul or spirit continues to be alive in Sheol.  Is this view Scriptural supportable?

       David consistently associates Sheol with death. He sees Sheol as a place of silence, destruction and decay. David sees Sheol as a place of death, not a place of life. While David appears to use Sheol in a metaphorical sense at times, there is no hint in David's writings that he sees Sheol as an actual location were disembodied souls or spirits reside having conscious awareness and experiencing suffering for the sins they committed while physically alive.

       2 Samuel 22:5-6: The waves of death swirled about me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me. The cords of the grave (Sheol) coiled around me; the snares of death confronted me.

       Psalm 18:4-5:The cords of death entangled me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me. The cords of the grave (Sheol) coiled around me; the snares of death confronted me.

       Psalm 116:3: The cords of death entangled me, the anguish of the grave (Sheol) came upon me; I was overcome by trouble and sorrow.

       Psalm 31;17: Let me not be put to shame, O LORD, for I have cried out to you; but let the wicked be put to shame and lie silent in the grave (Sheol).       

       Psalm 16:9-10: Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body (nehphesh) also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the grave (Sheol), nor will you let your Holy One see decay.         

       Psalm 6:5: No one remembers you when he is dead. Who praises you from the grave (Sheol)?

       Psalm 89:48: What man can live and not see death, or save himself from the power of the grave (Sheol)?   

       Nowhere in the OT is Sheol seen to be a place of conscious existence for the soul or spirit of a physically dead body.  As discussed In Part One of this series, the soul is/is in the blood which when given breath gives life to the physical body.  When the breath leaves the body, both soul and body return to the dust of the ground from which they came. Job reveals the association between Sheol and the dust of the ground.

       Job 17:13-16:  My days have passed, my plans are shattered, and so are the desires of my heart.  These men turn night into day; in the face of darkness they say, `Light is near.' If the only home I hope for is the grave (Sheol), if I spread out my bed in darkness,  if I say to corruption, `You are my father,' and to the worm, `My mother' or `My sister,' where then is my hope? Who can see any hope for me?  Will it go down to the gates of death (Sheol)? Will we descend together into the dust?"

       Job was experiencing great suffering. His three friends were trying to make him believe there was hope. Job sees no hope. He only sees Sheol awaiting him. He places Sheol in the context of corruption and the activity of worms and he associates Sheol with descending into the dust.  For Job, returning to the dust is equated with going to Sheol. As Job was experiencing his great trial, he appears to allude to Sheol as an escape from the conscious awareness of life in wishing he had perished at birth.

       Job 3:11-13: Why did I not perish at birth, and die as I came from the womb?  Why were there knees to receive me and breasts that I might be nursed? For now I would be lying down in peace; I would be asleep.

Do body and soul go to different places?

       Are Sheol and the grave two different places?  Is the soul and body separated at physical death and each goes to a different place?  Does the soul go to Sheol while the body is buried in the grave?  Some see Sheol as a kind of "holding tank" for conscious departed souls awaiting resurrection/judgement.

       Sheol appears 65 times in the OT and, as already discussed, is seen as a place of unconscious abode.  While Sheol is often rendered "grave" in English translations of the Hebrew Sheol, there is another Hebrew word that that is always rendered either grave or sepulcher,  It is the Hebrew word queber (pronunced khe'-ver ).  This word is found some 76 times in the OT, and means "grave" or "sepulcher."   Queber is closely associated with the Hebrew word qubar (kah-var') which simply means to bury someone and is used in this manner several hundred times in the OT.  Some believe Sheol and qubar are two different places.

       In Psalm 88:3-5, the writer says this:  "For my soul (nehphesh) is full of trouble and my life (nehphesh) draws near the grave (Sheol). I am counted among those who go down to the pit... "I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave" (Hebrew (qbuwrah, pronounced keb-oo-raw which means burying place).  The writer goes on to speak of his life (nehphesh) in terms of experiencing many troubles and afflictions and how he won't be able to experience God's love in the grave (verse 11). In verse 11 the word translated grave is not Sheol but queber.  Is the writer speaking of his soul going to the place called Sheol while his body goes to a place called queber?

        The writer of this passage only speaks in terms of his nehphesh.  He doesn't distinguish soul from body when speaking of going to Sheol, qbuwrah and queber. Therefore, this passage appears to be telling us that whether it is Sheol, Qbuwrah or queber to which the nehphesh goes, it is one and the same place. 

       In Isaiah 14 we see the prophet speaking in metaphoric language about the demise of the King of Babylon. In verse 11 Isaiah tells of all this rulers' pomp being brought down to the grave (Sheol).

       Isaiah 14:11: All your pomp has been brought down to the grave (Sheol), along with the noise of your harps; maggots are spread out beneath you and worms cover you.

       Sheol is seen as a place where maggots and worms are present.  This is very descriptive of the environment of the grave where maggots and worms feed on dead bodies.

       In verse 15 Isaiah says, "you are brought down to the grave (Sheol), to the depths of the pit."  In verse 19 Isaiah says this king will be cast out of his tomb (Hebrew queber).  Grave (Sheol) tomb (queber) and pit all appear to be describing the same place. 

       In Psalm 30:3, the writer is rejoicing because God has figuratively raised him our of Sheol which the writer equates with being a pit. "O LORD, you brought me up from the grave (Sheol); you spared me from going down into the pit."  In Isaiah 38:18 we read this: "For the grave (Sheol) cannot praise you, death cannot sing your praise; those who go down to the pit cannot hope for your faithfulness."  Here we see an association between Sheol and a pit.  

       The Hebrew word translated pit is found 71 times in the Hebrew scriptures and in its various contexts can be seen to refer to some kind of hole in the ground such as a cistern, well or dungeon. By equating Sheol with a hole in the ground, we again see Sheol to simply be the place where dead souls are buried. In Psalm 141:7 the writer says: "They will say, "As one plows and breaks up the earth, so our bones have been scattered at the mouth of the grave (Sheol)."   Here Sheol is clearly seen as a place where dead bones of the physical body are scattered. We see the same in Ezekiel 32 where the prophet sees the slain of Egypt with their weapons of war present with them in Sheol.

       Ezekiel 32:27: Do they not lie with the other uncircumcised warriors who have fallen, who went down to the grave (Sheol) with their weapons of war, whose swords were placed under their heads? The punishment for their sins rested on their bones, though the terror of these warriors had stalked through the land of the living. 

       As discussed earlier, both man and animals have soul. While soul isn't mentioned in the following passage, we know from our previous discussion that both the soul and the body die.  Therefore, it is instructive that in Psalm 49 we see both man and animal going to Sheol upon physical death.

       Psalm 49:12-14: But man, despite his riches, does not endure; he is like the beasts that perish.  This is the fate of those who trust in themselves, and of their followers, who approve their sayings. Selah.  Like sheep they are destined for the grave (Sheol), and death will feed on them. The upright will rule over them in the morning; their forms will decay in the grave (Sheol), far from their princely mansions.

       In a polemic against Israel, God prophecies their destruction but also speaks of redeeming them from death which is clearly associated with Sheol.

       Hosea 13:14: "I will ransom them from the power of the grave (Sheol); I will redeem them from death. Where, O death, are your plagues?  Where, O grave (Sheol), is your destruction? 

       When examining all the scriptures where the word Sheol appears, it becomes evident that Sheol is equivalent to the grave.  It is a place where both body and soul of both man and animals decay and return to the dust from which we are made.

Man and animals have the same breath:

       Ecclesiastes 3:19-20:  Man's fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless.  All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. 

       Genesis 3:19: By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return."

       Solomon is affirming what is written in Genesis.  Solomon writes that both man and animals have the same breath. Solomon uses the Hebrew word ruah for breath.  The Theological Word Book of the Old Testament explains that the basic meaning of ruah is “air in motion.”  Both humans and animals are dependent on air in motion.  We inhale air and we exhale air.  In this respect man and animals are the same.  Both man and animals are dependent on respiration for physical life. While Solomon doesn't mention Sheol in this passage, he does speak of Sheol in Ecclesiastics 9:10 as a place where we go upon physical death and where there is no activity.  

         Some have concluded from what Solomon wrote in 3:19-20 that the fate of man is no different from that of animals. Evolutionists will tell you that man is nothing more than an animal that has evolved to the highest level so far possible in the evolutionary process.  Man's superior cognitive capacity over animals is seen as resulting from millions of years of evolutionary development.

      While it is true that the both man and animals experience physical death and return to the dust from which they are made,  the scriptures clearly reveal that man can and does experience resurrection from death. Because of the Christ event, man can be restored to life through resurrection/transformation. While God could resurrect an animal if He wanted to, there is nothing in scripture indicating that animals do or will experience resurrection from the dead.  Resurrection from death is only seen as pertaining to humans.  In addition to the vast difference in cognitive ability between man and animals, resurrection from death presents a distinguishing difference between man and animals. 

HELL IN THE NEW TESTAMENT:

Hades:

       In the NT, there are three different words translated into the English word hell. Hades appears eleven times and is equivalent to the Hebrew Sheol.  In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (Septuagint), Sheol is translated Hades.  In Greek mythology, Hades refers to the underworld which is considered the place of the dead. Since Hades is equivalent in meaning to the Hebrew Sheol, and Sheol has no apparent meaning of being a place of conscious existence, there is no reason to believe it has such meaning in the Greek.  Hades has obvious association with the grave in ten of its eleven occurrences in the NT. Of its eleven occurrences in the Greek text, the NIV translates it as grave or leaves it un-translated as Hades.  In a prophecy about Christ, it is recorded that He would not be left in Hades.

       Acts 2:26-31: Therefore, my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices. My body also will live in hope, because you will not abandon me to the grave, (Hades) nor will you let your Holy One see decay. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence.' "Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day.  But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, (Hades) nor did his body see decay.     

       The first part of this passage is a quote from Psalm 16:10 where the writer speaks of not being abandoned to Sheol.  Since Hades is used to translate Sheol, this shows that Sheol and Hades have equivalent meaning.  Therefore, what is true for Sheol should also be true for Hades and vice versa.

       The language of this passage makes it clear that Sheol/Hades is a place of decay for a physical body and in no way can be construed as a place of conscious torment or conscious anything else. Apostle Paul made it clear that if Christ would not have been raised from the dead His body would have decayed.

       Acts 13:34-37: The fact that God raised him from the dead, never to decay, is stated in these words: "`I will give you the holy and sure blessings promised to David.'  So it is stated elsewhere: "`You will not let your Holy One see decay.'  "For when David had served God's purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep; he was buried with his fathers and his body decayed.  But the one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay.

       Here we see it said that David fell asleep, was buried and his body decayed. Falling asleep is a scriptural metaphor for dying. When Lazarus died Jesus said he had fallen asleep and Jesus was going to awaken him. Jesus' disciples took this to mean Lazarus was experiencing normal sleep and told Jesus to let Lazarus sleep as this would make him better. Jesus then plainly told the disciples Lazarus was dead (John 11:11-14).

       Paul contrasts David dying and decaying to Jesus dying and not decaying. Jesus wasn't dead long enough for decay to set in. Jesus was resurrected shortly after having been placed in the tomb.  As seen in the passage from Acts 2, being in the tomb and being in Sheol/Hades is one and the same. It is a place of decay. 

Lazarus and the rich man:

       Since it is apparent the soul is not intrinsically immortal and Sheol/Hades is not a place of consciousness, what are we to make of the passage in Luke 16, wherein Hades appears to indicate a place of consciousness?  Hades, in this passage, is translated in most English Bibles as "hell." Here we have the well know story of Lazarus and the rich man. In life, Lazarus was a beggar and the rich man is seen as failing to take care of Lazarus’ needs.  Both die and are buried. Lazarus is seen as carried off to be with Abraham while the rich man is seen as being in torment in Hades. Some see this as proof that Hades, or at least part of it, is a place of conscious torment.

       If this is indeed the case, it runs contrary to every other passage in both the Old and New Testaments where Sheol/Hades are seen to simply be the abode of lifeless and decaying dead bodies, in other words, the grave.  As already covered, Sheol is often used in a figurative sense in the OT to signify sorrow, anguish and torment. After all, death for us humans is not a pleasant expectation. Jesus often used figurative language to get a point across.  When read in the entire context of Luke 16, it can be seen that Jesus is once again reprimanding the religious leaders of His day for their hypocrisy and consistent refusal to acknowledge who He was and their failure to respond to his message.

       Jesus is using an illustration to show the religious leaders that even if someone were to rise from the dead to instruct them in the ways of righteousness, they would not listen because of their impertinent hearts.  Jesus is using the rich man to represent the religious leaders of his day in contrast to the beggar Lazarus.  In view of the manner Sheol/Hades is used throughout scripture, it is unwarranted to conclude Jesus was here reflecting on the actual state of the dead.  We will return to this parable in Part seven of this series.

Tartarus:

       This Greek word appears only once in the NT and is generally translated "hell" in English Bibles.  It is defined in Greek as a subterranean region where the wicked dead are being punished.  In Greek mythology it is seen as located below Hades and a place were rebellious supernatural beings were confined.  It is in this sense that Apostle Peter appears to be using this word.

       2 Peter 2:4: For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, (Tartarus) putting them into gloomy dungeons to be held for judgment.

       Since there is nothing in this passage pertaining to humans, there is no reason to believe tartarus is a destination of the unsaved human dead.  It appears Peter may be  using a Greek myth as a metaphor to simply say these sinning angels were being held in a place of restraint until they are judged. 

Gehenna:      

       The Greek word Gehenna appears twelve times in the NT and is generally translated as "hell" in English Bibles.  Gehenna is the Greek rendering of the Hebrew Ge Hinnom, which literally refers to the Valley of Hinnom known in Hebrew as Gai Ben-Hinnom which literally means the Valley of Hinnom's son. In the Hebrew Scriptures, Gai Ben-Hinnom was a valley on the outskirts of Jerusalem.  This valley is located below the southern wall of Jerusalem. It stretches from the foot of Mount Zion eastward to the Kidron valley.  In ancient times children were sacrificed to the pagan god Molech in Gehenna, a practice that was outlawed by King Josiah (See 2 Kings, 23:10).

       Over time, Gehenna became a dump where garbage, dead bodies of criminals and carcasses of dead animals and general debris was burned.  This garbage dump was still being used during the time of Christ and was constantly burning. Today this area is no longer a garbage dump but is a residential area east of the old city of Jerusalem.  When I was in Israel some years ago I walked around in Gehenna.  You might say I spent some time in hell.

       Gehenna is used by Jesus to illustrate the consequences of behavior contrary to righteousness.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus uses the imagery of Gehenna on several occasions to drive home a particular point of instruction.  Nowhere is Gehenna pictured as a place of eternal torment for the unsaved dead.  The very imagery of Gehenna is of a place where things are burned up and no longer exist.  Even if Christ did mean for Gehenna to represent a literal place of punishment of the unsaved dead, it would have to be a place where the unsaved dead are burned up and cease to exist in order to be consistent with the activity associated with the literal Valley of Hinnom. 

       In view of Jesus’ constant use of metaphors, analogies, parables and hyperbole during his ministry, there is no solid reason to believe He was using Gehenna to represent a literal place of continuing punishment for the unrighteous dead.  There is no reference to dying physically and then having your still living soul or spirit relocated in Gehenna.  Jesus appears to be using Gehenna as a metaphor for a place where you are thrown into while still physically alive in order to cause your physical death, not a place you go to after your physical death. Jesus is using Gehenna to highlight the negative consequences associated with the way of unrighteousness. 

       In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus contrasts the narrow road that leads to life as opposed to the wide road that leads to destruction.  He uses the analogy of the good trees versus the bad trees and shows the bad trees being burned in the fire. There is no hint in any of this that Jesus is teaching a doctrine of eternal conscious punishment.  As stated above, if there is any literal application to be derived from Jesus’ use of Gehenna or His other references to being burned in the fire, one would have to conclude He is teaching annihilation of the wicked and not continuing torment. Gehenna was a literal place where things were burned up and that was the end of them.  Gehenna was not a place where things, like the burning bush of Moses day, continued to burn without being burned up. Gehenna was simply of a place of annihilation.

       Will "unsaved" humans be annihilated?  When Christ spoke of humans being thrown into Gehenna was this to be a temporal or an eternal annihilation?

THE CONTEXT FACTOR:

       Reading the scriptures in their context is vital to arriving at an understanding of what is being said.  When we read the sayings of Jesus, Paul, John or any of the NT writers, we must do everything possible to identify the cultural, social, political and religious milieu extant at the time. When Jesus spoke, He spoke to people having a particular frame of reference and holding to particular paradigms of belief.  Jesus was a prophet and had tremendous awareness as to what was going on around Him and what was about to befall Judean society.  What He said must be examined within the context of the time He lived and in the context of what was prophesied to transpire during that time.

       Jesus was keenly aware of the brewing conflict with Rome which would lead to the destruction of the temple and the city of Jerusalem by fire. The religious leaders were expecting the prophesied Messiah to appear and deliver Israel from Roman rule and restore the physical Davidic Kingdom.  Jesus came preaching a different kind of Kingdom.  Jesus preached a spiritual Kingdom.  The Kingdom Jesus preached was how to live life in such a way as to avoid conflict, war and destruction. Jesus knew the nation of Israel would not accept His message. In the Olivet Discourse, Jesus describes what was to befall Jerusalem because of Israel’s rejection of His message. 

       Jesus knew that forty years after His death and resurrection, great destruction would come upon Israel and this would happen because of their failure and unwillingness to recognize who He was and respond to the teaching which could have prevented this destruction. Jesus summed this all up in the following statements:

       Matthew 23:37-38: O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. Look, your house (the temple) is left to you desolate.

      Luke 19:43-44: The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God's coming to you.  

       This prophecy, recorded in Luke, literally came to pass when the Romans built an embankment around Jerusalem preventing escape and ultimately burned the temple to the ground and even removed its stones.

       Throughout His ministry, Jesus used imagery, metaphors and illustrations to show the people of Israel the consequences of behavior contrary to the law of love that He came to preach.  If one carefully examines the imagery, metaphors and illustrations Jesus used in reference to the consequences of sin, it becomes apparent He was using such language to warn of the coming destruction that would befall Israel if they didn’t change the direction they were going. 

       First and foremost, Jesus came to die for the sins of mankind.  Secondly, He came to preach establishment of a spiritual Kingdom that provided for a way of life based on the spiritual law of love. Thirdly, Jesus came to preach a warning message to first century Israel as to the destruction that would befall them if they failed to repent.  It is a misunderstanding and misapplication of this third reason for His coming that has led to a great deal of false teaching within Christianity.  

       While the moral and ethical teachings of Jesus and His message of salvation have application for all peoples throughout time, the specific period in which Jesus lived required He address His contemporaries in a manner relevant to the conditions extant at the time.  He used images such as Gehenna to show the kind of fiery torment and destruction that would befall those who failed to repent.

       A careful reading of the NT in its first century historical context will clearly show Jesus, Paul, Peter, James, John, and other teachers and writers, all spoke and wrote from the perspective of a coming judgement upon Israel. This judgement was seen as facilitated by God the Father through Christ.  The apocalyptic and judgement language used throughout the NT is geared to this judgement upon Israel.  This rhetoric should not be seen as defining the eternal fate of all the wicked who have ever lived. This rhetoric is not defining the destiny of the "unsaved" dead but is describing the temporal fate of those being punished during the destruction of first century Jewish society. 

       The prophetic focus of the NT is the judgement of first century Israel which history records took place in the events associated with the Roman, Jewish war of AD 67 to AD 73.  It was in the midst of that war that the temple was destroyed in AD 70.  For an in-depth look at this issue, please read my multipart series on this website entitled, "When does Christ return?"

PART THREE