Life after Death

How was the concept of ‘hell’ understood in Old Testament times? Was hell a place of torment, that God warned his people to avoid? Did any faithful person ever long to go to hell? Of course not, you might say… but have another look.

Let’s begin by researching the Old Testament word for ‘hell’. In Strong’s Concordance the Hebrew word is ‘sheol’, and Dr. Strong defines it as ‘hades or the world of the dead (as if a subterranean retreat), including its accessories and inmates’. Dr. Strong also tells us that in the KJV ‘sheol’ has been translated into the English words, ‘grave, hell, pit.’ 

In order to find out if Dr. Strong’s personal definition of ‘hell’ is accurate, we need to examine the way ‘sheol’ has been used in the Bible. 

Jacob

The faithful man, Jacob, is the first person to talk about going to ‘sheol’. In Genesis 37:35 it says, And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted; and he said, For I will go down into the grave <sheol> unto my son mourning.” In speaking about the grief he would feel if Benjamin did not return to him, Jacob also said, “if mischief befall him by the way in the which ye go, then shall ye bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave <sheol>. (Genesis 42:38) So, the faithful man Jacob, believed that at death he would go to ‘sheol’. Jacob isn’t the one who longs to go to ‘sheol’, but he certainly believed that he will go there in death.

Jacob’s sons later reported the same belief to Joseph, saying that if they didn’t bring Benjamin back to their father, “that he will die: and thy servants shall bring down the gray hairs of thy servant our father with sorrow to the grave <sheol>.  (Genesis 44:3) Remember, this word ‘sheol’ can be translated into English synonymously as ‘grave, hell or pit’. Jacob’s sons believed their father would go to ‘hell, the grave, or the pit’. 

Wicked Leaders

 Korah, Dathan and Abiram, wicked leaders who challenged Moses’ leadership, were swallowed up by an earthquake and went down alive into the pit <sheol>. (Numbers 16:30-33) So, it’s possible to go to ‘sheol’ alive… although they wouldn’t have stayed alive for long.

Job Asks to Go to ‘Sheol’

In the book of Job, ‘sheol’ features fairly often, as Job in his sufferings, was consumed with dying. His friend, Zophar, talks about hell as being one of the deepest places, in Job 11:8. Job, himself, asks to be hidden in the grave <sheol>, in chapter 14:13! He speaks of ‘sheol’ as a dark place of rest in the dust, surrounded by worms, where bodies corrupt. “If I wait, the grave <sheol> is mine house: I have made my bed in the darkness. I have said to corruption, thou art my father: to the worm, thou art my mother, and my sister. And where is now my hope? As for my hope, who shall see it? They shall go down to the bars of the pit <sheol>, when our rest together is in the dust. (Job 17:13-16) Job certainly didn’t envision hell as a fiery place of torment. In his misery, Job longed to be at peace in the grave.

David

In the Psalms, David and the other psalmists, also refer to ‘sheol’ frequently. David says that no one gives God thanks in the grave <sheol> (Psalm 6:5). The wicked will be turned into hell <sheol> (Psalm 9:17) He speaks of the sorrows of hell <sheol> overwhelming him (Psalm 18:5), and is thankful that God has brought up his soul from the grave <sheol> and kept him from going down to the pit <sheol> (Psalm 30:3) Do any of these passages clearly indicate hell is a fiery place of torment? Or is hell just the place we go at the end of our life – the ‘world’ of the unconscious dead?

We have considered Psalms 16:10 in other blogs, as it is quoted in Acts 2, concerning Christ, “For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell <sheol>; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.” In death, Jesus spent three days in ‘sheol’ – hell, the grave or the pit. If ‘sheol’ is a place reserved for the wicked, why would faithful Jesus be sent there? If ‘sheol’ is simply the grave, this is consistent with the New Testament message – Jesus spent three days in the grave.

In Psalm 89:48, the writer asks, “What man is he that liveth, and shall not see death? shall he deliver his soul from the hand of the grave <sheol>?” We are powerless to escape death and the grave, only God can rescue us through resurrection. From this passage it is clear that all people go to ‘hell’ when they die, not only the wicked.

Psalm 139:8 says, “If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell <sheol>, behold, thou art there.” However, deep and dark ‘sheol’ is, it’s not too deep or dark for God to see us and bring us back to Him.

Proverbs 7:27 refers to a harlot, saying, Her house is the way to hell <sheol>, going down to the chambers of death.” This could potentially sound like a place of punishment for the wicked. However, if this passage is simply saying that the harlot’s house is the way to the grave, eternal death is a sufficient punishment. Proverbs 15:24 is similar, “The way of life is above to the wise, that he may depart from hell <sheol> beneath.”

Unconsciousness and Inactivity

Ecclesiastes 9:10, tells us that there is no work, or devices or knowledge or wisdom in the grave <sheol> where we are going. This passage indicates that ‘sheol’ is a place of unconsciousness and inactivity.

Lucifer – the King of Babylon

One oft-quoted passage in Isaiah 14, has very graphic language about hell. As you read it through, consider if this passage supports the fiery notion that hell is a place of torture, or the grave – a place where human life comes to an end and our bodies corrupt? Just to make it a little easier to read, we will use the ESV translation:

First take notice in Isaiah 14:4, that this passage is a PARABLE – a poetic story. Then, notice, who this proverb is speaking against?

 “…take up this proverb [parable] against the king of Babylon, and say, How hath the oppressor ceased! the golden city ceased!… Hell <sheol> from beneath is moved for thee to meet thee at thy coming: it stirreth up the dead for thee, even all the chief ones of the earth; it hath raised up from their thrones all the kings of the nations. All they shall speak and say unto thee, Art thou also become weak as we? art thou become like unto us? Thy pomp is brought down to the grave <sheol>, and the noise of thy viols: the worm is spread under thee, and the worms cover thee. How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer [day star], son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations! For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God:…Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell <sheol>, to the sides of the pit. They that see thee shall narrowly look upon thee, and consider thee, saying, Is this the man that made the earth to tremble, that did shake kingdoms.”  

In the parable above, poetic language is used to describe the mighty King of Babylon, who thought he was equal to God, and was greatly humbled in death. Lucifer is a Hebrew word meaning ‘day star’. Just as we use ‘stars’ today to describe the rich and famous, so does the Bible. Death is the great equalizer for all mankind – rich and poor, wise and foolish, renown and obscure. Great riches and power cannot deliver us from death – it is the one certainty of life! Once again, the grave and pit are used synonymously with hell, and worms are in abundance! There is no mention of fire or torment.

Hezekiah

When faithful King Hezekiah heard that he was going to die, he cried out to God in Isaiah 38:10-18 and said, “I shall go to the gates of the grave <sheol>: I am deprived of the residue of my years.” In Isaiah 38:18, he says, “For the grave <sheol> cannot praise thee, death can not celebrate thee: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth.” 

Why would a faithful man like Hezekiah think he was going to the gates of ‘sheol’, if it is a place of fire and torment reserved for the wicked? If ‘sheol’ is simply the grave, this makes perfect sense, because all men die.

Pharaoh

Another Old Testament passage that is often quoted in relation to hell, is Ezekiel 31. Again, we will use the ESV for this passage. Rather than choose ‘grave, hell or pit’ for this parable, the ESV translators have used the actual Hebrew word ‘sheol’! Notice that in verse 2, God is specifically giving this parable about Pharaoh King of Egypt. Pharaoh is the cedar tree.

In verse 15 to 18, the passage says, “Thus says the Lord God: On the day the cedar went down to Sheol I caused mourning; I closed the deep over it, and restrained its rivers, and many waters were stopped. I clothed Lebanon in gloom for it, and all the trees of the field fainted because of it. I made the nations quake at the sound of its fall, when I cast it down to Sheol with those who go down to the pit. And all the trees of Eden, the choice and best of Lebanon, all that drink water, were comforted in the world below. They also went down to Sheol with it, to those who are slain by the sword; yes, those who were its arm, who lived under its shadow among the nations. “Whom are you thus like in glory and in greatness among the trees of Eden? You shall be brought down with the trees of Eden to the world below. You shall lie among the uncircumcised, with those who are slain by the sword. “This is Pharaoh and all his multitude, declares the Lord God.”

While this Ezekiel passage talks about ‘the world below’, there is no mention of fire or torment. Instead, there is the idea of rest, and lying among the dead.

Jonah

Our last passage is Jonah 2:2. Jonah was swallowed by a whale, and would have died in its belly, had not he been miraculously rescued by God. In speaking of his experience, he refers to the whale’s belly as ‘sheol’. “I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the LORD, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell <sheol> cried I, and thou heardest my voice.”

So, we can see from this little investigation, that in the Old Testament, hell, the grave and the pit are used synonymously. Never is there any mention of fire or torment. Instead, there are plenty of references to darkness, worms, unconsciousness, dust, corruption and the sorrows of death. For the first 4000 years of history, this was all that God revealed to mankind about hell – it was the place where all men go when they die. If however ‘hell’ was a fiery place of torment to punish the wicked, why wouldn’t God warn everyone that this was the case?

Incidentally,  if you google the definition of hell, you will get this comment on the origin of the word: “the Old English hel, hell, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch hel and German Hölle, from an Indo-European root meaning ‘to cover or hide.’” Hence, “helmet, to hell potatoes, etc.”

In the New Testament, the concept of hell is more complex, as there are four different Greek words that are used. We will investigate the New Testament hell, next blog, God Willing.

Since Jesus was the first to rise from the dead’ (Acts 26), and he will ‘transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body’ (Phil. 3) – it only makes sense to investigate what happened to Jesus’ earthly body? Was it left behind in the tomb to rot and decay? Was Jesus given immortality at his resurrection, or did he already possess an undying spirit before he was crucified? Does it matter? And is the promise of resurrection crucial to the hope of living forever?

Did Jesus’ Body Rot and Decay?

When Mary came to wrap Jesus’ body with spices – the tomb was empty! The body was gone! (John 20) The linen cloths that had bound his body were lying by themselves – Jesus’ body had been unwrapped. While the disciples were perplexed that they could not find his body, the angels explained, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. (Luke 24:5-6 ESV)

Later, the guards were bribed to say that the disciples had stolen Jesus’ body away as they slept. (Matthew 28:11-15) However, Peter clearly lays out the truth of the matter in Acts 2.

Referring to an Old Testament prophecy given to David, Peter says, “… this Jesus… God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. For David says concerning him, ‘my flesh also will dwell in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption...’ Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses.” (Acts 2:22-32 – Quote from Psalm 16:9-10)

“My Flesh Also will Dwell in Hope”

Psalm 16:9-10, the passage quoted above, is a ‘Messianic’ prophecy. After his resurrection, Jesus explained to his disciples that everything about him was clearly prophesied “in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms.” (Luke 24:25-27, 44-46) God had clearly foretold in the Old Testament what would happen to Jesus’ body. As Peter points out, the Psalm says, “my flesh also will dwell in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption...”

The only part of us that can decay is our mortal body – our ‘flesh’. Jesus’ ‘flesh’ was going to rest in hope – hope of what? Hope of being made alive again! He would not see ‘corruption’. This word ‘corruption’ in Strong’s Concordance has the meaning to ‘decay’. Strong’s personal definition is ‘to rot thoroughly’! Only a mortal body can rot. Jesus’ mortal body did not! If you want to investigate this topic more thoroughly – click here for our Discovery Lesson on Resurrection

“Did not see Corruption”

The Apostle Paul made a similar argument in Acts 13, saying, “And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm,“‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you.’ And as for the fact that he raised him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, he has spoken in this way, “‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David.’ Therefore he says also in another Psalm, “‘You will not let your Holy One see corruption.’ For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption, but he whom God raised up did not see corruption.”

The Apostle Paul clearly points out that this Psalm couldn’t be talking about David; they all knew that David ‘fell asleep’ and ‘saw corruption’. But Jesus, did ‘not see corruption’. His mortal body was brought back to life! He is the ‘firstborn from the dead.’ (Colossians 1:18)

The Lineage of Jesus Christ

Why is it important that Jesus’ mortal body be raised? It is very important in order to fulfill the Old Testament prophecies of Jesus. Truly Jesus was conceived miraculously by God’s Holy Spirit power causing an egg in Mary’s womb to become a child without a man’s involvement, (Luke 1:34-35) and was therefore God’s Son. Yet Jesus’ human lineage was also the subject of several Old Testament prophecies and New Testament commentary. For example, the promise to David, “When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son.” (2 Samuel 7:12-14)

Gabriel’s Message

The promise made to David was reiterated in Gabriel’s message to Mary, “And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:30-33)

The New Testament genealogy of Jesus Christ goes through David, Abraham and Adam and Eve – significant individuals who were promised a son that would redeem mankind and bring God’s blessings to the earth. (Luke 3; Genesis 3:15; 12:1-2; 22:15-18; 2 Samuel 7:12-14)

“Descended From David”

After Jesus Christ has gone to heaven, Paul still makes mention of Jesus’ earthly lineage:

“Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel,” (2 Timothy 2:8) and, “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord,” (Romans 1:1-3) The earthly lineage of Jesus Christ is very important as it fulfilled personal promises God made to the forefathers.

“This Mortal Body Must Put on Immortality”

From the passages in Acts we see very clearly that Jesus’ mortal body was raised from the dead before corruption set in (as it would on the 4th day) and that he was GIVEN immortality.  We find no promises in the Bible that our mortal bodies will avoid corruption! However, we are told by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:53, that “this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.” Our bodies will be raised and then we are given immortality – if God is pleased to give us this incredible gift. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)

Perished??

In our investigation of the original Gospel hope, we found that resurrection was the consistent hope of Old and New Testament believers. So much so, that the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, that if Jesus hadn’t risen from the dead, then “Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.” 

PERISHED? A true statement, if all the Old Testament believers are in their graves, ‘fast asleep’ awaiting the hope of resurrection. A very confusing statement if those Old Testament believers never really died and are happily enjoying paradise now.

A Greek Fable

Our next blog will consider a Greek fable that crept into early Christianity after Jesus ascended to heaven and is now such an established and cherished belief that few realize it can be easily shown to be false. Some would say, “A false hope is better than no hope at all” – but is it? And if we hold onto a false hope, what other aspects of the true Gospel message will become distorted? God Willing, we will look into this matter primarily from Scripture but also with reference to the historical development of this teaching.

Life after death is mentioned numerous times in the New Testament. But what about the Old Testament? Did believers before Jesus Christ speak about their hope for the future?

From our consideration of God’s promises to Abraham in the early chapters of Genesis, we have seen in Acts 7 and Hebrews 11 that Abraham didn’t expect to receive God’s promises in his lifetime, although he saw them from a distance, and eagerly looked forward to the city that God will build in the future. Abraham can only inherit these promises if he is brought back to life again, and lives ‘forever’.

What about other Old Testament characters? Did any others express hope for a future existence?

Job

The sufferings of Job are well known, but maybe not so much his outbursts of hope? Yet, one of the famous songs in Handel’s Messiah highlights Job’s earnest desire. Job says, in chapter 19, verses 25-27, “For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: and though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God: whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another…” (all references will be from KJV)

Surely Job believed he would come to life again! In Job 14:13-15, he says, “If a man die, shall he live again? all the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change come. Thou shalt call, and I will answer thee: thou wilt have a desire to the work of thine hands.”

David

Some incredible promises were given to King David, which the angel Gabriel reiterated to Mary, telling her that they were primarily about Jesus Christ! (Luke 1:26-35) Yet, if you look carefully at the promises given to David in 2 Samuel 7, you will also read these words in verse 16, “And thine house and thy kingdom shall be established for ever before thee: thy throne shall be established for ever.”  Surely this indicates David will see these promises fulfilled.

David speaks of his great longing to experience this “forever time” in Psalm 27, “One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to enquire in his temple even life for evermore.”

And in Psalm 61:5-7,  David says, “For thou, O God, hast heard my vows: thou hast given me the heritage of those that fear thy name. Thou wilt prolong the king’s life: and his years as many generations. He shall abide before God for ever:…” (See also Psalm 2; 72; 133:3; 23:6)

This ‘forever’ time is not something which David is now experiencing, as we are told in Acts 2:29 &34, “Men and brethren, let me freely speak unto you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulchre is with us unto this day… For David is not ascended into the heavens…”

Instead, David speaks at length in Psalm 37 about the day when ‘the meek shall inherit the earth’ and the wicked will be ‘cut off’. Jesus even quotes these words of David in the Beatitudes! (Matthew 5:5)

Isaiah

Numerous chapters in Isaiah describe the paradise God has promised for this earth. Isaiah tells us so much about the ‘last days’, the time when flowers will bloom in the desert, the animals will cease killing one another – even a wolf will lie down peacefully with a lamb! He speaks of all nations going up to Jerusalem to worship the King and learn of God’s ways. If you long for an exciting vision of the future age, ponder these details in Isaiah 2:1-4; 9:6-7; chapter 11 and 35, 51:1-6; chapter 60; 65:17-25.

Like other Old Testament believers, Isaiah refers to his hope of resurrection in chapter 26:19, “Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise. Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust: for thy dew is as the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out the dead.”

Daniel

Several visions and dreams are in the book of Daniel. Daniel’s visions are very similar to those given to John in Revelation. Daniel specifically speaks of the resurrection, telling us in chapter 12, that when “Michael” (symbolic name for Jesus) stands up, “… many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever.”

In Daniel chapter 2, the prophet interprets a vision of the great empires of the earth standing up as a metallic man and being broken by a rock. He says in verse 44, “And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever.”

Later on Daniel is given a vision from God in chapter 7.  “I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him… And the kingdom and dominion, and the greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven, shall be given to the people of the saints of the most High, whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him.” (Daniel 7:13-14, 27)

Other Prophets

The prophet Jeremiah speaks of his hope for a paradise on earth in Jeremiah 3:17-18. Zechariah in chapter 14, adds to this vision with details of major topographical changes to the area around Jerusalem. Ezekiel foretells the regathering of Israel, the time when they will finally be at peace, worship God in truth, and have a righteous King (Ezekiel 36-39). Ezekiel also gives extensive plans for the future temple to be built in Jerusalem (Ezekiel 40-48). The prophet Micah speaks of this future time of peace and righteousness (Micah 4:1-8). Habakuk assures us that in the future “… the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”

God’s grand purpose that the whole earth will be filled with His glory was first revealed to Moses in Numbers 14:21.

The Old Testament Hope

In summary, then, the Old Testament believers looked forward to a time when God’s promises will be fulfilled on this earth. They knew they would die and return to dust, but they believed that God would bring them back to life – and that this future life would be FOREVER! After listing many of the Old Testament faithful in Hebrews 11, the chapter ends with the summary message, “And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.”

Will we all be given the promises at the same time??

To stir your vision of this exciting time we have listed some key Old Testament passages  on Paradise in the Passages to Consider section.

In our next blog we will consider the New Testament hope. Is the New Testament hope the same what was revealed to the Old Testament faithful? Or did Jesus offer something different for his followers? We will look in particular at what Jesus and his disciples preached, and the hope that the Apostle Paul openly proclaimed. What could be more exciting than the promises God has made to his followers? Especially when we’ve been invited to share!