Having seen that the Old Testament is quite silent regarding our modern concept of hell, there yet remains something that I need to clarify. In this series on Hell it is not my intention to argue or prove the non-existence of hell, but rather to clarify many sections of Scripture that are widely mistaken and misunderstood to be a reference to hell.
This present series on Hell will focus on a vast number of Scriptures have been incorrectly interpreted as indicating a place of never ending torment. So, to get right to it; the first one that we should look at is the Hebrew concept of Sheol.
There are probably a lot of people who are not familiar with Sheol. In fact, whenever the topic of hell is being addressed, it is highly likely that Sheol won’t even be mentioned. Sheol is an odd concept, and almost anyone who spends time studying it will probably come away from the study more confused than when they began it! Sheol seems to confuse even the scholars. In my 10 years of studying the Bible and its concepts I have never come across any book, teaching, personal insight or another person’s insight which has defined Sheol in a truly satisfactory way. And that I believe is the issue, the Western mindset needs everything defined, whereas the Hebrew mindset was content to let things remain a mystery.
Jeff Benner who is a self taught expert on ancient Hebrew has this to say about Sheol in his book The Living Words; Volume One,
The verbal root sha’al is used almost 200 times and is usually translated as “asked” such as in Genesis 24:7 – “and I asked her and said…” Why do we ask questions? We are looking for information that is currently unknown to us. This word, “unknown,” is the key to understanding the root sha’al and all the words derived from it.
The word she’ol, derived from sha’al, was understood as the place where one goes when they die. …
The Ancient Hebrews did not know where or even what she’ol was. To them it was an unknown place hence, the use of a word related to sha’al meaning “unknown.” It should also be noted that the Ancient Hebrews never speculated on something unknown, it was simply not known and left at that. It is only the Greek mind that desires to know the unknown. It is our Greco-Roman western mindset that needs to know where and what she’ol is.
Unfortunately this blog will most likely end with Sheol yet remaining a mystery. However, we will be able to clarify a few areas regarding the Hebrew concept of death and Sheol so that we can eliminate certain misconceptions.
The reason Sheol is so confusing is because it is described with language that is extremely vague and at the same time seems to encompass contradictory ideas. The western mindset likes having concepts all wrapped up in a nice, tidy box. Sheol by contrast, in its variety of descriptions, prevents us from putting it into a nice little box. Never-the-less, there are a few aspects of Sheol that we can understand.
Sheol, in it’s primary sense, means the metaphysical grave. You could picture it as a grave for the soul. It is the place where the dead abide (Job 17:16; Psalm 89:48; Isaiah 14:9, 28:15; Ezekiel 31:17). It is actually paralleled with death itself multiple times (death in the sense of ‘the place of death’ rather than death in the sense of ‘dying’ – here a few examples – Psalm 116:3; Isaiah 38:18; Habbakuk 2:5).
Sheol in its secondary sense signifies a state of spiritual death, as if to denote rottenness, decay and corruption inside of one’s own soul (Proverbs 7:27, 9:18, 15:24). It is used to express a state of life that is dead (morally) even though one is still physically alive. In this sense one’s heart can be like Sheol, full of death and darkness.
We will restrict our focus in this study to Sheol’s primary sense. The secondary sense, though not unimportant will certainly be better understood once we have a better idea of its primary sense. With that in mind, let us see what insights we can glean.
The first thing that we need to understand is that our English Bibles do not translate the word Sheol (except for the 1611 King James Version) – instead Sheol is transliterated. Transliteration is basically using a word from one language in a different language without translating it. It is directly borrowing another language’s word, mainly b/c there are no sufficient words to describe it. Thus Sheol is a Hebrew word, and our English language has no word or concept that can adequately compare to it. So in order to maintain some level of integrity in translating scholars simply do not translate this word, they bring the Hebrew word into our English vocabulary.
Now this is important b/c it tells us 2 things. 1 – That our English language does not have a concept like Sheol (as is plainly evident). And 2 – that our concept of hell is therefore incompatible with Sheol. If it was, Bible Scholars and translators would have used “Hell” to translate “Sheol.”
Therefore Sheol must be understood from a Hebrew/biblical cultural mindset. Not our western mindset. In order to do so we must take a small detour to help clarify how they understood death. Once we have a good grasp on this, we will be better able to understand Sheol. Therefore, in the Bible, as well as the Hebrew culture, death was viewed as a state of sleep.
David in Psalm 13:3 spoke of “sleeping the sleep of death.” If you read the books of Kings or Chronicles you will find that each time a king died it says,
“and [so and so] slept with his fathers and was buried with his fathers…” (2 Kings 2:10, 11:43, 15:8, etc…).
We also find this imagery used numerous times in the New Testament. When Jesus rose from the dead it says in Matthew 27:52 that,
“The tombs were opened and the bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.”
Earlier when Jesus’ friend Lazarus had died Jesus told His disciples in John 11:11-13,
“Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I go, so that I may awaken him out of sleep. The disciples then said to Him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.’ Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that He was speaking of literal sleep.”
Later on in Acts 7:60 when Stephen was being stoned to death Luke records that he, “fell asleep.” Paul used this same exact phrase later on in Acts 13:36 to describe King David’s death. In fact, Paul uses this terminology numerous times in his epistles. He uses it to refer to “many” in the church who had died due to some disregard to communion (1 Corinthians 11:30). He uses it to describe some of the 500 who had seen Jesus in His resurrected state who had then passed away by the time of his writing (1 Corinthians 15:6). He uses it to speak of the hope of resurrection for those who had fallen asleep in Christ (1 Corinthians 15:18-20), and to declare that not all of us will “sleep” (1Corinthians 15:51) – meaning that some of us wont experience a physical death b/c we will be transformed at Christ’s Return.
And in 1 Thessalonians 4:13,14 Paul encourages the church about those who have already died saying,
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.”
Peter also uses this vernacular in his epistle saying,
“Know this first of all, that in the last days mockers will come with their mocking, following after their own lusts, and saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation.” (2 Peter 3:3,4).
So we see that sleep was how the ancient Hebrew culture understood death. They believed that when you died your soul slept. But their belief that death was sleep didn’t end there, they also believed that they would eventually “wake up!” In fact, resurrection from death was often described with that language. We see this in Daniel’s vision of the resurrection where he declared that,
“all those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake.” (Daniel 12:2)
And Paul quotes a song in his letter to the Ephesians,
“For this reason it says, ‘Awake, sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.’” (Ephesians 5:14)
All this is very important to understanding what the Bible has to say about death and the afterlife. Without it, a study of Sheol can be quite depressing. This is b/c it’s not so much a concept of ‘when we die we go to heaven or hell,’ depending; but rather that we will all be waiting for the time of the resurrection, which will be a waking up from that state of death (what that waiting time will be like, is a topic for another study). Sheol, death and the grave were all synonymous with each other and were understood in this light.
For instance, Solomon declares in the Book of Ecclesiastes 9:10 that,
“there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol…”
He also says a few verses earlier in 9:5 and 6 that,
“the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything…also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished.”
David states something similar in a few of his Psalms,
“For in death there is no remembrance of thee: in the grave who shall give thee thanks?” (Psalm 6:5)
And again in 88:10-12, speaking of death,
“Shall Your wonders be known in the dark?” (see also Isaiah 38:18; Psalm 30:5, 115:17, 94:17)
So a small picture of Sheol now begins to emerge.
And even though there still remains much that is unclear about Sheol, what we have gleaned so far will help lift some of the fog surrounding it. And as we take a closer look at Sheol in the next blog we will see some glaring anomalies that will certainly disqualify Sheol from being considered synonymous with hell, and/or even being related to the concept of hell at all. And that is exactly what we will look at in the next blog.