Thursday, April 21, 2011

Notes on Hell: Sheol

In beginning to understand what the Scriptures teach about hell, one must start at the beginning. For those that grew up reading the King James Version of the Bible, the word sheol was translated hell. So to understand what we mean by the word hell, we ought to become familiar with the word sheol.

I typed in the word sheol using, selecting Young's Literal Translation. Here's what I found. I used YLT because it is consistently gives us the word sheol in its translation from Hebrew to English. Most other translations give it a variety of words like grave, realm of the dead, or place of the dead.

Using YLT, there are 62 occurrences of the word sheol in the Hebrew Scriptures. By glancing through each verse, you would could conclude that the Hebrews don't believe in an afterlife, that there is no reward or punishment after death. Sheol is not what we typically think of when we use the word hell.

Here's the summary of some of the best Christian scholars on the meaning behind sheol.

In the Torah, Sheol carries with it two general meanings: that of the grave, as well as some kind of netherworld in the "lowest depths of the earth." (Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch - Life, Disease and Death, Cosmology).

Burial is simply recorded as an event, with no religious ceremony. The destiny of the dead is not generally addressed in the Pentateuch. ...the world of the dead was cut off from Yahweh, and it's exploration firmly forbidden. Yahweh is the author of life and the God of the living, and this life is the sphere of obedience and blessing. (536-7)

For the wisdom, poetry and writings of the Hebrew Scriptures, Sheol is the destiny of all people, used as a description for death as well as some kind of place, an underworld of "non-life." (Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings - Afterlife, Chaos & Death).

Poetry in psalms and wisdom is by nature evocative and elusive, and their references to death reveal as much about its emotional impact as its conceptualization. Alternative views of destiny after death emerge in other, nonpoetic texts. The emergence of these views is often dated well into the postexilic period for many reasons, including the possible influence of Persian dualism and the development of apocalyptic. (5)

Ecclesiastes is the only OT book to contain significant reflection on death itself. The Pentateuch prescribes death as a penalty, the Historical Books record it as an event, and the psalms offer prayer against its untimely occurrence. (7)

Together, these books illustrate well the traditional Hebrew focus on this life and its events and the general disinterest in any individual consciousness beyond death. (8)

...Death enlarges its appetite (Habakkuk 2:5), opens its throat wide (Isaiah 5:14), swallows people (Psalm 69:15, Proverbs 1:12) and is never satisfied (Proverbs 27:20, 30:15-16). Death's power over humankind is seen in the fact that all people die (see Psalm 89:48), and that those who go to the grave do not return to life (Job 7:9-10, 10:21). (52)

The imagery of death as voracious swallower meets an ironic reversal when we learn that YHWH will permanently "swallow up death" (Isaiah 25:8). Since death is the ultimate opponent of divine order, the death of death represents the establishment of the ultimate divine order. (53)

To conclude: death and sheol go together. The Hebrews reflected little upon death and sheol, they did not expect to return from it, did not hope for it, did not plan for it. However, there are glimpses here and there of yearnings for the "death of death." It is this glimpse that gets magnified in the New Testament. With this understanding of sheol, we learn that it modifies our traditional understanding of hell. Whatever it is you believe about hell, it must be rooted in what the Scriptures actually teach.

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