Sheol and Hades

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Sheol and Hades

 For the waves of death encompassed me, the torrents of perdition assailed me; the cords of Sheol entangled me, the snares of death confronted me. 2 Samuel 22:5-6

The term Sheol is commonly used in the Old Testament as a synonym for what many consider as Hell today. Hades appears a handful of times in the New Testament. As I mentioned last week, our current concept of hell, as a place of eternal misery and punishment, is not necessarily a biblical image. Rather, Sheol and Hades refer to a place of the dead, the place where the souls of those who have died go until they are called to judgement. In most biblical references, both the righteous and unrighteous go to Sheol when they die.

Sheol is mentioned 65 times in the Old Testament but not in the New Testament. We find it 16 times in the Psalms, ten times in Isaiah, nine times in Proverbs, eight times in Job, and five times in Ezekiel, with a smattering of references elsewhere. In the New Testament there are 10 references to Hades, along with 13 to Hell. Even so, when considering the Bible as a whole, the topics of Sheol, Hades, and Hell are minor ones, at best.

One can see similarities between the biblical images of Sheol and contemporary concepts of hell, but there are also significant differences. Sheol is described as a place of darkness and was believed to be located under the earth. Being in Sheol is sometimes said to be a place apart from God, although there are verses that say God is there, too.

Here is a sampling of writings about Sheol:

Numbers 16:30 – “But if the Lord creates something new, and the ground opens up its mouth and swallows them up, with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall know that these men have despised the Lord.”

1 Samuel 2:6 – “The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.”

Psalm 16:9-11 – “Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices, my body also rests secure. For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit. You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”

Psalm 139:8 – “If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.”

Hades is named after the Greek god of the underworld. It is mentioned two times each in Matthew, Luke, and Acts, and four times in Revelation. In addition, there are 23 references to Hades in the Apocrypha, which are books that are excluded from most Protestant bibles. It is not mentioned in the Old Testament. Like Sheol, Hades is the place of the dead.

Here is a sampling of writings about Hades:

Matthew 11:23 – “And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades.”

Wisdom 16:13 – “For you have power over life and death; you lead mortals down to the gates of Hades and back again.”

Revelation 20:13 – “Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done.”

Interestingly, most of the New Testament mentions of Hades are either in reference to cities that misused their power or to the Messiah, over whom Hades held no power.

That said, neither Sheol nor Hades seem like attractive vacation destinations. That the Bible passages are neither consistent nor clearly explanatory is understandable, given that the Bible, even though inspired by God, was written by earthly writers. What can we humans possibly understand with certainty about after-death destinations? Certainly, our images of Hell, Sheol, and Hades today are shaped as much by how we feel those who act poorly should be treated in the afterlife than what the actual reality may be.

Clearly, Sheol and Hades are described as holding places as the dead await judgement for their earthly actions. There is ample evidence in the life and teachings of Jesus that our righteousness for this judgement is attained as a community gathered in Christ as the family of God. Fortunately, it does not appear to be a matter of individual righteousness. Throughout the Bible, people are given many opportunities, perhaps endlessly so, to turn to God, to follow Jesus, and to find their life in Christ – all of which are biblical paths to redemption and salvation.

I will reflect on Purgatory and the Pit next week.

This is the 12th in the series of Life Notes titled, If I Should Die Before I Wake. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at, or through my website, At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning, if you are not receiving them in another manner.

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Images of Hell

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Images of Hell

  Then he will say to those at his left hand, “you that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…And these will go away into eternal punishment. Matthew 25:41,46

I grew up with the image of hell as a hot place where bad people went and were tortured for eternity. Eternity meant forever, and there was no hope of escape or redemption for those so condemned – ever. Perhaps the most uncomfortable thing about hell was the ambiguity about what would send one there. Certainly, bad actions would do it – but how bad? If you hurt someone but didn’t kill them, would you still go to hell? Did thoughts count against you? What if you were sorry and promised never to act poorly again? Could you tell lies? If so, how many? Although there are some images and descriptions in the Bible about eternal punishments, the conclusions we draw are more in line with Dante’s descriptions of hell than anything the biblical authors cited, certainly not when we consider the Bible as a whole, which is all about redemption. In his 14th Century work, The Divine Comedy, Italian writer Dante Alighieri described the nine circles of hell, with the devil held in bondage at the center. Sinners were assigned a level based on the severity of their sin, and the eternal punishments grew worse the closer one got to the center.

Interestingly, hell is not mentioned in the Old Testament, at least not by name. In the New Testament, it is a minor theme at best. The most references to hell are in Matthew (7), with three in Mark (all in one passage), and one in Luke. The books of James and 2 Peter have a single mention each. None of Paul’s letters refer to hell, nor does John.

In Matthew 25, Jesus provides an image of sinners being sent into “the eternal fire” and mentions it as “eternal punishment.” In context, Jesus is referring to those who mistreat the less fortunate, saying that what we do or don’t do for them, we also do or don’t do to him.

In Matthew 23:33, Jesus says, “You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?” His remarks are directed at the scribes and Pharisees, religious leaders whom he accused of greed, hypocrisy, and misleading the people under the guise of piety.

In Matthew 10:28, Jesus says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” In context, Jesus is warning his disciples whom to fear. In the verses that follow, he assures them their Father loves, cares for, and attends to each of them.

 Mark describes hell as the place where the “worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched” (Mark 9:48). In this grotesque teaching, Jesus tells his followers that it is better to cut off a hand or foot that causes them to sin than to have their whole body thrown into hell. James’ reference to hell (3:6) has to do with the firestorm of emotions our words can cause. The reference in 2 Peter (2:4) speaks about fallen angels being sent to hell until a future judgment. That’s pretty much it for hell in the New Testament.

The word translated as hell refers to a place known as Gehenna. It was a small valley outside of Jerusalem that was used as a trash dump. Legend says that the fires there never stopped burning. This imagery reminds me of the city dump in the town where my grandparents lived. There were always fires going there, too, transforming much of the trash to smoke and ash. It was great fun to poke through the stuff that others had thrown out. It was a place of intrigue, but I did not equate it with eternal damnation. Rather, it was where what was no longer wanted or useful was left to be burned or buried. It was a place of decomposition, which is the prerequisite for recomposition or recreation – a place of rebirth. It was what recycling looked like years ago.

It is interesting that the city dump was what Jesus chose as an image of the consequence for less-than-stellar living. It seems to me that if he were referring to a post-death destination, he might have used the more familiar Old Testament term Sheol (not mentioned at all in the New Testament) or the Greek Hades (referenced twice each in Matthew and Luke). One would hope that a place of such eternal consequence might warrant a more comprehensive treatment.

More next week.

This is the 11th in the series of Life Notes titled, If I Should Die Before I Wake. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at, or through my website, At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning, if you are not receiving them in another manner.

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Biblical Resurrection

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Biblical Resurrection

 Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise, O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy! Isaiah 26:19

To wrap up this series of reflections on resurrection, I will consider a few of the biblical references to it. As I mentioned in an earlier Life Note, I do not find the Bible very informative or definitive about issues of the afterlife and resurrection, outside of the resurrection of Jesus. It seems certain that these issues were not as top of mind to the biblical authors as they are for us today. Although I do not know the reason, I suspect it may have to do with our current obsession with ourselves as individuals, as opposed to our membership as part of a larger community. It is easier to see generations of people perpetuating into the future than it is for individuals. Two religious groups that Jesus often challenged, the Pharisees and the Sadducces, held opposite beliefs about the resurrection, with the Sadducces denying there was a resurrection. Clearly, humankind has disagreed about it for quite some time, and nothing I say here will resolve the disagreement.

The Isaiah passage, copied above, says the dead will rise, awaken, and sing for joy. The context of this passage is Isaiah’s message that the long string of defeats and history of oppression experienced by the Israelites will end in victory. God will neither forget nor fail to redeem the people. Taken literally, these words point to a bodily resurrection. Taken metaphorically, the passage might refer to those who have been so beaten down by their life circumstances that they act as if they were dead. God will awaken them from their deathly stupor and restore them to a happier, livelier state of being. Either interpretation indicates a resurrection, with the former pointing to a resurrection after our physical death.

In Psalm 49:15, it is written, “But God will ransom my soul from the powers of Sheol, for he will receive me.” Sheol is a frequent biblical reference to the place of the dead. It is not always referenced in either a positive or negative manner but as a place where the dead go. The context of this Psalm is that we should not trust in riches. The Psalmist seems to be saying that yes, we will go to Sheol, but that God will rescue or resurrect us.

In Hosea 6:2, the prophet writes, “After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him.” This verse is part of a call to repentance. It reminds us of how Jesus said he would be killed and raised on the third day. Later in Hosea, God, speaking through the prophet says, “Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol? Shall I redeem them from Death?” (Hosea 13:14a). The context of this latter verse is God expressing how Israel will be judged. It implies that God may or may not resurrect people from the power of death.

Finally, in the 12th chapter of the book of Daniel, it is written, “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake” (12:2). This part of Daniel seems very much to address the resurrection of at least some of the dead, although not necessarily immediately after physical death. The section that precedes this one refers to “the time of the end” (Daniel 11:40). That “end” might be read as the end of time, the end of humanity, or the end of the reign of the ruling powers in Daniel’s time.

In most of the biblical references to resurrection, as with many passages in the Bible, it is left to the reader to discern whether to interpret the words literally or metaphorically. For me, I usually find the metaphorical readings more informative and helpful. It is further left to the reader to decide if the resurrection is that of individuals or of a collective of people, like a race or a nation.

As threatening and frightening as many of the Bible’s references to the end times and to our individual deaths are, there is good news in the readings. All the Bible’s stories of death, judgement, and various threats of punishment end with God’s assurance of forgiveness. No matter how frustrated or angry God becomes with the Israelites, God always offers a way out, a hand up, a loving acceptance back into the fold. Therein lies our hope for resurrection, regardless of its exact nature. Using the biblical stories of the nation of Israel as a metaphor for our lives today, God eventually rescues us from our trespasses and assures our continuance.

This is the 10th in the series of Life Notes titled, If I Should Die Before I Wake. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at, or through my website, At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning, if you are not receiving them in another manner.

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Resurrection, Part 4

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Resurrection, Part 4

 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. Romans 12:4-5

Last week, I reflected on the possibility that those who have passed before us have been resurrected into a new body that is very near to us. I proposed that our inability to see them may be because their new body vibrates in a range that is imperceptible to us. This week, I want to explore a different theory, perhaps a re-imagining of the last one, that of dimensionality. Basically, when we die, our new body and life may exist in a different dimension, one that we cannot perceive from our current three-dimensional existence. Interestingly, some physicists believe there are at least ten dimensions of spatial reality, in addition to the dimension of time.[1]

As embodied human beings, we perceive a three-dimensional world – height, width, and depth. We experience a fourth dimension, the evolving of our three-dimensional reality, as time. When my children were young, we made markings on the wall to show how they grew from time to time. That growth is a dimension we cannot experience in a single, three-dimensional moment, but it is no less real, influential upon, and important to our lives.

two dimentional creatures

In order to illustrate how imperceptible the next dimension is to us, consider the hypothetical world of a two-dimensional being. This being would only experience height and width. It could only experience depth – forward and backward movement – in time, which it would consider the next, or third dimension. The world of a two-dimensional creature might look something like the illustration to the left, where we see five, two-dimensional creatures. They perceive what is up, down, and beside their bodies, but nothing in front of or behind them.

handWhen they die, assuming they enter a three-dimensional reality, their new world might look like the illustration to the left. Their former two-dimensional world is represented by the line across the fingers. When freed from the perceptual limitations of their two-dimensional existence, they are able to understand that what they perceived as five individual lives are actually parts of five fingers connected in one hand. More than that, the hand is connected to a much larger body. What they thought was their individual, independent life was neither individual nor independent, but one part of a larger whole. Only by dying to their two-dimensional nature are they able to see their connectedness to the lives around them. In their new three-dimensional existence, they are still there, but imperceptible to those they left behind.

In a similar way, when we die to our three-dimensional existence and enter a new dimension, we become imperceptible to our former three-dimensional friends and family. Being freed from our three-dimensional body, our soul experiences life and reality in a dimension that is not yet accessible to our loved ones. This next dimension, which we formerly named as time, allows us to see and experience in a new way, as did the two-dimensional circle now perceiving itself as part of a three-dimensional hand. It is fascinating to me that one of the common reports from those who have had near-death experiences is that of their entire life flashing before them, not as a chronological series of events, but as a single image. This collapsing of time into a single moment allows us a glimpse of a new dimension where much is familiar, but the context is entirely new. What was once mysterious is now clear. I am reminded of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13: 12, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully.”

Our soul exists across all dimensions of space and time but is not limited by any of them. When it separates from this three-dimensional body, it resurrects in a new body in a new dimension. We may experience a sense of this freedom in dreams, where the rules of our physical existence often seem not to apply. The life we identify as our current life is but one part of the larger life of our soul. When we die to this life, that larger life reveals itself, perhaps still only in part, and we find ourselves not annihilated, but reborn into a freer and more inclusive existence. We become more of who we know ourselves to be, not less. In our death and resurrection, the life we have in Christ continues.

This, however, is speculation about the afterlife, which will be considered in future Life Notes.

This is the 9th in the series of Life Notes titled, If I Should Die Before I Wake. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at, or through my website, At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning, if you are not receiving them in another manner.

Prefer to listen? Subscribe to Life Notes Podcasts at


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