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The Afterlife according to the Hebrew Scriptures
Sheol is one word sometimes translated as “Hell” in the Old Testament. In Hebrew, this word is a proper noun that is a name or title, so properly it should not have been translated but simply transliterated, as is done with other names. The literal meaning of this Hebrew word is simply “subterranean retreat”. Sheol was not understood as a physical place since it exists in the spirit world, but it is a spiritual “place” associated with dead people. It was understood that when a person dies, their body is buried, and their soul goes to reside in Sheol. That is the fate for all people who die, both the righteous and the wicked. According to Hebrew scholars, anything more detailed is conjecture and speculation.
Sheol was translated as “hell” in a number of places where it was indicating a place for the wicked, which is consistent with western thought. But it was also translated as “grave” and as “pit” in a number of other places where it was clearly not a place of the wicked. Yet there are other Hebrew words for grave and pit, so why did it not occur to the translators that if the author wanted to mean pit or grave they would have used them? It can been seen that where Sheol fit the translators’ idea of hell as a place of torment, they interpreted it one way, as hell, and simply used the word another way if it did not, confusing those who are trying to understand the Scriptures in translation.
In historic Jewish understanding, it is the perception of the individual in Sheol that makes the difference. This same “place” called Sheol is experienced by the righteous as “gen eiden”, the Garden of Eden or
What is it that causes this same place to be experienced differently by the righteous and the wicked? According to the Jews (and by inheritance, the Christians as well) it is the very presence of God. Since God fills all things and dwells everywhere in the spirit world, there is nowhere apart from Him. Moreover, evil sinners, the enemies of God, experience His presence, His Shechinah glory, as punishment. Yet the righteous bask in that same glory, and experience it as the love and joy of God, as
Consider Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who refused to worship the idol in
It’s also useful to consider the ancient Greco-Roman pagan understanding of the heavens and Hades. Though it was not fundamental to Hebrew theology, the Greek view was still sometimes referenced or borrowed, because these ideas were familiar and prevalent in the culture.
The ancient pagan Greek view, later adopted by the Romans, was that heaven was a physical place up in the sky. The word for heaven is used interchangeably with the location of the objects of the sky, as in “heavenly bodies”, and for the dwelling place of the gods. That is why the Greek word for heaven and sky is the same; there was no distinction made between them in the earliest writings, but eventually they were also understood to be more as a metaphor for the spiritual heaven.
For the ancient pagan Greeks, Hades was a place, but was sometimes also personified in folk mythology. The physical place was where all humans go when they die, a site located at the center of the earth. The Greek word literally means “unseen place”. Like Sheol, it was the final abode of all humans, but unlike Sheol, it was taken to be a geographic site, the literal “underworld” in folk mythology. It was also taken as a metaphor for the place of final rest. Hades was also sometimes taken as the name of the ruler of this place, the pagan god Hades, also known as Pluton by the Romans (after which the plant Pluto was named, the ruler of the dark).
In Greco-Roman mythology Heaven was reserved only for the gods, and after death mere mortals could only hope to find a safe place in Hades to spend eternity. The early Greco-Roman Hades was a very literal and even primitive concept, compared to the Jews’ more spiritual Sheol. If a person was dead, they were in Hades, and there was no other option; only a very rare few heroes challenged the gods of the heavens and were immortalized in the stars.
The pre-Christian Greek language had thus developed in this kind of world view, both heaven and Hades as a physical and literal existence up in the sky, or down under the ground. Although these later became more metaphorical in more developed pagan writings, from this is where the universal concept of “up” for heaven or
For the Jews and early Christians, even Sheol was not separated from God. Translating directly from the Greek of the Septuagint Psalms 139:7 and 8
“Where can I go away from your spirit? And away from your presence, where can I flee? If I go up into heaven, you are there. If I go down into Hades, there is your presence.”
When Jewish scholars translated their scriptures into Greek in the third century BC, they used the Greek word Hades interchangeably for the Hebrew Sheol in the Septuagint. Strictly speaking, the pagan understanding was very different, but Jewish scholars adapted “Hades” for their use. It is one of many examples of changed, allegorical, or metaphorical non-Hebrew words used in the Bible borrowed from Greek pagan mythology. In the New Testament, Hades is used in a number of places as the Greek equivalent to Sheol as well.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, or Old Testament, Sheol is translated 31 times as Hell in the King James Bible, and similarly in the Revised Standard and NRSV. In a number of other places it is translated as “grave” or “pit” and once even as “dust”. It appears the translators did not have a very consistent understanding as to what Sheol means, translating the same word differently in different places. The idea of “Hell” as a physical place of torment, apart from the presence of God, had already taken root, and the translation fit the preconception rather than the original meaning of the word.
Gehennah is another word translated as “hell”. It was known to the Jews as a physical place, a valley outside to the south of
By the time of Jesus this place became a well known metaphor for the fate of those condemned and judged by God. Expressions like “the fiery pit” or the “fires of Gehennah” and “where the worm turns” were equivalent to the unrighteous’ experience of God’s presence. Gehennah was the place where evil and sinful people ended up. In Jewish mystical writings it was believed that this place is where the final destruction of the wicked would occur at Messiah’s arrival. Because this is when the resurrection would occur, all the evil lawbreakers would be resurrected and standing in Gehennah when God reclaims the earth. In the final battle, God’s enemies, the evil ones, would be burned up, “As wax melts before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God” as it says in Psalm 67(68). Jesus affirmed and clarified this teaching and Christians now believe this will occur on Messiah’s return.
This experience of Gehennah was used as an analogy to express what happens to those who oppose the God of the Jews. Yet even it was not a place God “sends” people. The fire itself was understood to be how the wicked experienced the Shechinah glory of God, as a burning judgment fire.
Therefore, usage of this word is interchangeable with “judgment”, and quite different than Sheol. To be forgiven of your offenses was to be rescued from “the fiery pit”, or rescued from judgment. You would still go to Sheol until the resurrection, but in glory rather than in torment.
Notice however that in English, the translators rendered Gehennah as the “valley the sons of Hennah” in some places in the scriptures and in other places as “hell,” rather than just making a direct translation of the words wherever it appears. This confuses the reader, who could get a more consistent understanding of the meaning of the word if it was rendered accurately as “Gehennah” every time, or more properly as “the Valley of the Sons of Hennah”.
There are numerous references to God’s presence being like fire in the Hebrew Scriptures. And before the invention of the electric light, any reference to “light” meant “fire” in one form or another. For example, “The Lord thy God is a consuming fire” (Numbers); God “…appeared to [Moses] in a flame of fire out of the midst of the bush,” (Exodus); “The fire of the Lord burns among them” (Numbers); “the Lord descends upon it in fire” (Exodus); “You have refined us as silver in a fire” (Psalms); and “Who makes His angels spirits, His ministers a flame of fire” (Psalms). These are a few of the many Old Testament references to God being perceived as fire; it was how the Jews understood humans experience God’s Shechinah glory.
No human could bear to look at the blazing holy presence of God: not Moses, who hid his face, not Abraham, not Adam or Eve after they fell from Grace. No human could look at the face of God and live to tell about it.
God is described as fire in the following verses; Gen 19:24, Ex 3:2, 9:23, 13;21-22, 19:18, Num 11:1-3, 4:24, Ne 9:12, Ps 65(66):10, 103(104):4, Is 65(66):15, among others places.
Another interesting word study to examine is the Hebrew words used in the Old Testament when describing how God “punishes” people in the English bibles. Ten different Hebrew words are translated as “punish” in this context, yet none carries our meaning of punishment in English. The most common word “paqad” rendered 31 times as punish, simply means “to visit” or “to remember.” The word “anash” [used 5 times] simply means “to urge” or “compel”, “chasak” [occurs 3 times] means to restrain, “avown” [used 12 times] means sin. This also implies the cost or penalty for being evil or causing offence. One interesting word translated as punish, “yakar” means to chastise, but also means “to add value” as in chastising a child makes him more valuable. There are a few others words rendered as punish, but they occur only once each. As can be seen, none of these words clearly indicates that God does the punishing. Apparently for the translators, every time God visits or remembers His people, he is “punishing” them, but that is not how Jews understand this word. Nor would Jews automatically assume that a visit from God was a bad thing, either.
This kind of translation seems attributable to a presupposition of what these words mean, and intrinsically changes the meanings of these words from the original intent. The translators’ own incorrect ideas have clouded their objectivity, an all-too-frequent occurrence with virtually all western language Bibles.