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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. 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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