Oh. Hell? The Old Testament

In looking at the Christian understanding of hell, a short exploration of the Old Testament concept of Sheol is necessary, though the Old Testament concept is limited in meaning and clarity.

The Hebrews viewed death as ambiguous. Some Old Testament texts declared their fate in non-speculative, somewhat positive terms. The one who dies, for instance, is simply “gathered to his fathers” (Gen. 49:33). The Old Testament commonly used the term Sheol to refer to the place of the dead. Unfortunately, those references only add to the ambiguity of the meaning. Sometimes the term is neutral in tone, describing the “grave” as the place that awaits all persons (Gen 37:35). In other places, it takes a more sinister tone (Hos. 13:14). This more negative aspect of the grave caused the Old Testament saints to wonder about life after death (Job 14:14).

Rather than an ascent to God, as in Greek thought, the Hebrews viewed Sheol as a place of descent. The dead are in the depths, contrasting that to the heights of heaven (Job 11:8). Persons “go down” into Sheol (Job 21:13; Ps. 55:15 for instance). As a result, it is a pit, possibly located beneath the earth. However, despite the spatial imagery, the Hebrews may have conceived of Sheol as more of a state than an actual place (George E. Ladd,‚ The Last Things, 32).

Though at times Sheol was depicted in neutral terms, the Old Testament writers more generally suggested that the experience was negative. It means separation from the presence of God. The dead can’t praise Yahweh (Ps. 6:5). They “go down to silence” (115:17). When discussing his impending death, Hezekiah declared that to die means never again to see God in the land of the living (Is. 38:10-11). Generally, the Old Testament writers spoke of Sheol as a permanent, unalterable fate (Job 7:9).

Despite the negative nature of the situation of the dead, there arose a hope in the face of Sheol. It could be that Sheol was to be the place of the unrighteous alone, not the righteous. The psalmist was confident that “the wicked return to the grave” yet the hope of the afflicted will never perish (Ps. 9:17-18). In Ps. 31:17, the psalmist petitioned God that he not be put to shame, because he cried out to God. The wicked, however, deserve to be shamed and to lie silent in Sheol, and those who trust in themselves are destined to Sheol (Ps 49:13-14).

A source of hope concerning Sheol, namely God himself, also arose in the Old Testament. Sheol is not beyond God’s cognition (Ps. 139:8). As a result, God can save the righteous from its power and bring them into his own presence (Ps. 49:15). The grandest expression of of this hope comes from Hosea. God interrupted his recounting of Israel’s history of unfaithfulness to declare, “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, is your destruction?” (Hos. 13:14)

The Old Testament writers never separated the hope for eventual salvation beyond the grave from bodily existence. Hebrew anthropology did not envision human life in any other form, including existence in some disembodied state. This was clear from the ascension of Elijah into heaven. Elijah escaped Sheol entirely (2 Kings 2:11).

During the exile, the hope for salvation for the righteous led to the expectation of the resurrection.

There fore, when looking at the eternal destiny in the Old Testament, specifically that of Sheol, we need to understand that it was thought of as a vague, shadowy existence there the righteous and the wicked are not separated and there are to be no rewards or punishments, though some sense of the afterlife developed over time as the saints and prophets tried to address the question of life after death.

Intertestamental Era
Among the books of the intertestamental era, 1 Enoch has allusions to a post-mortal punishment of the wicked. In the prelude, humanity is divided into “the elect and righteous” and “the wicked and godless” (1:1) with their destinies contrasted as “live” and “perish,” “joy” and “execration,” and “forgiveness” and “curse” (5:4-9). Also, the fallen angels will have eternal imprisonment in the midst of a burning fire (21:7-10). and the watchers after judgment ill be in “the abyss of the fire” for eternal confinement (10:8-13; 14:1-5), accompanied by the giants, it seems, who are their sons (10:11-15).

In the next post, I will begin to explore the words in the New Testament for Hell and address their application.

David has been a systems thinker most of his life. He has started three businesses as well as designed and developed systems and processes in existing organizations. He has a Doctorate in Leadership and has also done additional post-graduate work in communications.

He has also pastored 3 churches and loves to think about, write about and podcast about scripture, theology, and leadership.

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