What does the Bible say?
Death is said to be a constant in all human societies. It continues to have a perfect record with no signs of slowing down. That is, until it meets the God of Israel. In our journey so far, we have taken a brief look at some of the different ancient understandings that existed back in the ancient world.
Feel free to check out my previous blogs that talk about some of these various perspectives. In this week’s blog we are going to see what the Bible has to say about death and the afterlife.
For Judaism in general and practicing Jews in particular, the Hebrew texts remain sacred and are deemed to be authoritative for everything. For many Christian traditions the Hebrew scriptures have been compiled into what is known as the Bible. Now the Protestant Bible is a collection of 66 ancient ‘books’ that have been put together into two testaments: the Old and the New. The Catholic Bible has 73 books. Regardless, both groups claim that their Bible functions as their authority for matters of doctrine and daily life. For this blog, I will be referencing material from the Protestant Bible and the place known as Sheol.
So what on earth is Sheol? Simply put, Sheol is the Hebrew name for the underworld. This place, or realm of the dead was believed to be located deep below the earth. To go there one ‘descends’ and to escape one ‘ascends’. As a place, it is often qualified by adjectives of depth and is cosmologically opposite to ‘heaven’. This means that one digs downward towards Sheol, or could descend there by being swallowed by the earth. Once there, it is believed to be a cavernous communal tomb that contains worms, maggots and dust. It can also mean the grave.
Oftentimes Sheol is a place associated with the ‘wicked’, but can also be affiliated with the ‘righteous’. A dominant theme for its inhabitants is their separation from Yahweh – the God of Israel. The rare Hebrew term for the dead, or the inhabitants of Sheol is ‘shades’ and are primarily known as the ‘shades of Sheol’. As one writer says, the Biblical concept of the underworld seems to also keep us in the dark!
But what does the Bible say about this place?
We are told that in Sheol, people are unable to remember, praise or thank Yahweh. It is referred to as the ‘land of forgetfulness’, where the inhabitants are cut off from God and forgotten. There is virtually no description of how the dead continued to exist in the underworld, yet Sheol is known by and accessible to Yahweh. Its realm lies open before Him and is within God’s operational power and presence. In other words, Sheol exists within God’s omnipotent reign but its occupants do not have access to Him. In this way, Sheol is likened to be a place of no return and viewed as a prison with gates and bars. It is a realm of darkness, inactivity and silence.
As a uniquely Hebrew concept, Sheol serves as the great leveller for all people. Its most frequent use indicates that it is the fate or destiny for all human beings. However, predominantly in the Bible, Sheol is referenced as the destiny of the ungodly and ill-fate of the wicked.
These ‘wicked’ people are often described in general terms as ‘sinners’, the ‘foolish rich’, ‘scoffers’ and the ‘immoral’. Even national enemies like the king of Babylon, the Egyptians and others pesky people groups are also destined to wind up there. Interestingly, certain ‘righteous’ individuals envision descending into Sheol and speak of its extreme trial, affliction and overall feeling of despair and abandonment. In this way, Sheol can be understood as the destiny of all people regardless of their status on earth. Ecclesiastes instructs readers to enjoy their life of meaninglessness under the sun, since afterwards they will go to Sheol where there is no work, thought, knowledge or wisdom.
The Bible never hints of Sheol being a deity and descriptive details of the place itself are very sparse. There is no elaborate journey through any gates or stages of the underworld itself that appear in Mesopotamian and Egyptian thought. All in all, it appears that the Hebrews did not have a great concern with the ongoing fate and state of the dead. Instead, the majority of instances Sheol is used to describe human fate and destiny. For the righteous, this was often an unwelcome fate.
Here’s the thing: the Old Testament’s silence on the subject of the underworld is almost deafening. There really isn’t much in there apart from some references in the Psalms, Job and the occasional passage from the prophets. In other words, while Sheol is the most common Biblical term in describing the realm of the dead, it only appears sixty-three times. That seems fairly sparse when you think about the vast quantity of material that make up the Hebrew Old Testament. Scholars have noted that the underworld was not a particularly important concept for the Israelite writers. All in all, you could say that Hebrew writers were more concerned about life with Yahweh and the realm of the living. This is perhaps why the concept of a resurrected life beyond death does appear in a few passages.
There are a few isolated passages that do affirm Yahweh’s power and ability to ‘raise the dead’. This is not to be confused with the three instances where the newly dead return to life again via contact with prophets Elijah and Elisha. Those people were indeed brought back to life, but those wild encounters do not speak about being brought back from or resurrected out of Sheol. This is where Israelite culture and tradition offers something unique from other Cannanite traditions of ancient Mesopotamia.
The traditional Hebrew understanding was that the dead went to Sheol, and that the only real hope of being ‘delivered’ from there was Yahweh’s intervention. It was believed that Yahweh could intervene and save someone from a premature death and therefore ‘snatch’ someone from the clutches of Sheol.
But what about life after death?
The Old Testament reflects a least two distinct perspectives. The first one primarily focuses on God’s gift of a long and blessed life in the present world. This is often associated with the ‘righteous’. For them, Sheol and death are something to be avoided for as long as possible.
The second perspective is directed more towards the next world or the age to come. The Hebrews believed that Yahweh’s initial creative power in breathing life into the first human beings would happen once again after death. In a vision given to Ezekiel about the age to come, a valley of dry bones (dead bodies) miraculously comes back to life again under Yahweh’s divine command. This restoration of human life and corpses was credited to Yahweh’s desire to abolish death and bring His nation back to everlasting life.
Now, this is not some sort of a weird zombie thing or scene from the walking dead. No. The Israelites believed that Yahweh had power over death and was able to raise their dead to life everlasting at the end of the age.
This is where I will end for this week.
By New Testament times, belief in a national resurrection was becoming common among the religious leaders in Israel. The Pharisees taught that this was God’s way of restoring their people and their nation. Often presented in a way that would benefit them as a nation, resurrection was believed to happen in the present and bring about a transformed and recreated world. In other words, the Jews believed that God would not only bring back those that had died, but also generate transformation and renewal of the present world too.
But what about those who did not believe in Israel’s God? What would happen to them? If the Old Testament is silent about such a place, then where does the notion of hell and Hades come from?
This is where we will turn to next.