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The Afterlife in the Hebrew Bible: Sheol

When trying to figure out where the Christian ideas of heaven and hell came from, an obvious place to start is with the Hebrew Bible.  Jesus himself held to the authority of the Hebrew Scriptures.   To be sure, there was not a completely fixed canon in his day, which all Jews everywhere agreed to.  But virtually all Jews we know of ascribed to the high authority (and Mosaic authorship) of the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy); and most Jews  – including Jesus – also considered the prophets authoritative; Jesus also accepted the authority of the book of Psalms and a probably number of the other books.  It was not until a century or so after Jesus that most Jews agreed on virtually all the books of what we now think of as the Hebrew Bible – but Jesus and his followers would have accepted most of them.

That means that the views found in these books were highly influential on what Jews like Jesus would have thought about most theological topics.  And so, what does the Hebrew Bible teach about the afterlife?

To start with I can make two very basic points:

  1. There is not just one view about the afterlife in the Hebrew Bible. The Bible contains lots of books written by lots of authors at different periods of time and in different places for different audiences.  Naturally there were various views about many, many things, including the afterlife.
  2. But one view that is NOT represented in the Hebrew Bible is the later Christian notion of heaven and hell, that is, heaven as a place of eternal reward for souls that are faithful to God (or who have lived good lives) and hell as a place of eternal punishment for souls who are not faithful (or good).

Both points, especially the second, may come as a surprise to modern casual readers of the Bible, especially Christians who naturally assume that their own views of the afterlife are the views set forth consistently in the Bible.  But

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Returning from the Dead in the Hebrew Bible
Eternal Life and Damnation

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Duke12  April 6, 2017

    Interesting post, as always! I presume you already know this, but Hades (as in Sheol) and Christ’s descent into Hades (as in the above 1 Peter 3:19-20) are still major components of Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition. For example, do an image search of “Orthodox Easter Icons.”
    See also the “Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom” which is read aloud at every Orthodox Easter service. Here’s an excerpt lifted off the web (some English language parishes may use “Hell” instead of “Hades,” but “Hades” is still the intent):
    “He that was taken by death has annihilated it! He descended into hades and took hades captive! He embittered it when it tasted his flesh! And anticipating this Isaiah exclaimed, “Hades was embittered when it encountered thee in the lower regions.” It was embittered, for it was abolished! It was embittered, for it was mocked! It was embittered, for it was purged! It was embittered, for it was despoiled! It was embittered, for it was bound in chains! It took a body and, face to face, met God! It took earth and encountered heaven! It took what it saw but crumbled before what it had not seen!”

  2. Avatar
    RG959  February 14, 2019

    Bart,

    Psalm 16:10 states: For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, nor will You let Your Holy One see decay. Is King David talking about the future messiah? Who is the Holy one?

    Seems to me this can’t be the messiah/Jesus because clearly Jesus died and his body saw decay (because that’s what happens literally when you die). So if the holy one is the future messiah (as Christians claim) then he shouldn’t die at all and see Sheol as most Jews (in my opinion) believe.

    Know I was gonna take a break but learning is fun and contagious 😀

    • Bart
      Bart  February 15, 2019

      It’s in literary parallel to “my soul,” so, by conventions of Hebrew poetry, he is talking about himself.

      • Avatar
        RG959  February 15, 2019

        Ah very good. Even if he was referring to the messiah, it would make sense that the Jewish messiah would not see Sheol; as so would many other devoted Jews.

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