SPECIAL TOPIC: THE DEAD, WHERE ARE THEY? (SHEOL/HADES, GEHENNA, TARTARUS)

I. Old Testament

A. All humans go to Sheol (etymology uncertain, BDB 1066), which is a way of referring to death or the grave, mostly in Wisdom Literature and Isaiah. In the OT it was a shadowy, conscious, but joyless existence (cf. Job 10:21-22; 38:17)

B. Sheol characterized

1. associated with God's judgment (fire), Deut. 32:22

2. associated with punishment even before Judgment Day, Ps. 18:4-5

3. associated with abaddon (destruction), in which God is also present, Job 26:6; Ps. 139:8; Amos 9:2

4. associated with "the Pit" (grave), Ps.16:10; Isa. 14:15; Ezek. 31:15-17 

5. wicked descend alive into Sheol, Num. 16:30,33; Ps. 55:15

6. personified often as an animal with a large mouth, Num. 16:30; Isa. 5:14; Hab. 2:5

7. people there called Repha'im (i.e., "spirits of the dead"), Isa. 14:9-11)

 

II. New Testament

A. The Hebrew Sheol is translated by the Greek Hades (the unseen world)

B. Hades characterized

1. refers to death, Matt. 16:18

2. linked to death, Rev. 1:18; 6:8; 20:13-14

3. often analogous to the place of permanent punishment (Gehenna), Matt. 11:23 (OT quote); Luke 10:15; 16:23-24

4. often analogous to the grave, Luke 16:23

C. Possibly divided (rabbis)

1. righteous part called Paradise (really another name for heaven, cf. 2 Cor. 12:4; Rev. 2:7), Luke 23:43

2. wicked part called Tartarus, 2 Peter 2:4, where it is a holding place for evil angels (cf. Genesis 6; I Enoch)

D. Gehenna

1. Reflects the OT phrase, "the valley of the sons of Hinnom," (south of Jerusalem). It was the place where the Phoenician fire god, Molech (BDB 574), was worshiped by child sacrifice (cf. 2 Kgs. 16:3; 21:6; 2 Chr. 28:3; 33:6), which was forbidden in Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5.

2. Jeremiah changed it from a place of pagan worship into a site of YHWH's judgment (cf. Jer. 7:32; 19:6-7). It became the place of fiery, eternal judgment in I Enoch 90:26-27 and Sib. 1:103.

3. The Jews of Jesus' day were so appalled by their ancestors' participation in pagan worship by child sacrifice, that they turned this area into the garbage dump for Jerusalem. Many of Jesus' metaphors for eternal judgment came from this landfill (fire, smoke, worms, stench, cf. Mark 9:44,46). The term Gehenna is used only by Jesus (except in James 3:6).

4. Jesus' usage of Gehenna

 a. fire, Matt. 5:22; 18:9; Mark 9:43

 b. permanent, Mark 9:48 (Matt. 25:46)

 c. place of destruction (both soul and body), Matt. 10:28

 d. paralleled to Sheol, Matt. 5:29-30; 18:9

 e. characterizes the wicked as "son of hell," Matt. 23:15

 f. result of judicial sentence, Matt. 23:33; Luke 12:5

 g. the concept of Gehenna is parallel to the second death (cf. Rev. 2:11; 20:6,14) or the lake of fire (cf. Matt. 13:42,50; Rev. 19:20; 20:10,14-15; 21:8). It is possible the lake of fire becomes the permanent dwelling place of humans (from Sheol) and evil angels (from Tartarus, 2 Pet. 2:4; Jude 1:6 or the abyss, cf. Luke 8:31; Rev. 9:1-11; 20:1,3).

 h. it was not designed for humans, but for Satan and his angels, Matt. 25:41

E. It is possible, because of the overlap of Sheol, Hades, and Gehenna that

1. originally all humans went to Sheol/Hades 

2. their experience there (good/bad) is exacerbated after Judgment Day, but the place of the wicked remains the same (this is why the KJV translated hades (grave) as gehenna (hell).

3. the only NT text to mention torment before Judgment is the parable of Luke 16:19-31 (Lazarus and the Rich Man). Sheol is also described as a place of punishment now (cf. Deut. 32:22; Ps. 18:1-5). However, one cannot establish a doctrine on a parable.

 

III. Intermediate state between death and resurrection

A. The NT does not teach the "immortality of the soul," which is one of several ancient views of the after life.

1. human souls exist before their physical life

2. human souls are eternal before and after physical death

3. often the physical body is seen as a prison and death as release back to pre-existent state

B. The NT hints at a disembodied state between death and resurrection

1. Jesus speaks of a division between body and soul, Matt. 10:28

2. Abraham may have a body now, Mark 12:26-27; Luke 16:23

3. Moses and Elijah have a physical body at the transfiguration, Matthew 17

4. Paul asserts that at the Second Coming the souls with Christ will get their new bodies first, 1 Thess. 4:13-18

5. Paul asserts that believers get their new spiritual bodies on Resurrection Day, 1 Cor. 15:23,52

6. Paul asserts that believers do not go to Hades, but at death are with Jesus, 2 Cor. 5:6,8; Phil. 1:23. Jesus overcame death and took the righteous to heaven with Him, 1 Pet. 3:18-22.

 

IV. Heaven

A. This term is used in three senses in the Bible.

1. the atmosphere above the earth, Gen. 1:1,8; Isa. 42:5; 45:18

2. the starry heavens, Gen. 1:14; Deut. 10:14; Ps. 148:4; Heb. 4:14; 7:26

3. the place of God's throne, Deut. 10:14; 1 Kgs. 8:27; Ps. 148:4; Eph. 4:10; Heb. 9:24 (third heaven, 2 Cor. 12:2)

B. The Bible does not reveal much about the afterlife, probably because fallen humans have no way or capacity to understand (cf. 1 Cor. 2:9).

C. Heaven is both a place (cf. John 14:2-3) and a person (cf. 2 Cor. 5:6,8). Heaven may be a restored Garden of Eden (Genesis 1-2; Revelation 21-22). The earth will be cleansed and restored (cf. Acts 3:21; Rom. 8:21; 2 Pet. 3:10). The image of God (Gen. 1:26-27) is restored in Christ. Now the intimate fellowship of the Garden of Eden is possible again.

However, this may be metaphorical (heaven as a huge, cubed city of Rev. 21:9-27) and not literal. 1 Corinthians 15 describes the difference between the physical body and the spiritual body as the seed to the mature plant. Again, 1 Cor. 2:9 (a quote from Isa. 64:4 and 65:17) is a great promise and hope! I know that when we see Him we will be like Him (cf. 1 John 3:2).

 

V. Helpful resources

A. William Hendriksen, The Bible On the Life Hereafter

B. Maurice Rawlings, Beyond Death's Door

 

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