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Do both the good and the bad go to Hades?

Steven Opp has drawn attention to the argument of W.G.T. Shedd in The Doctrine of Endless Punishment that Sheol in the Old Testament (Hades in the Greek Old Testament) is not merely the grave but a place of endless punishment for the wicked, in part, at least, on the grounds that there are passages which suggest an alternative destination for the righteous. The passages in question are Psalms 16:11; 17:15; 49:15; 73:24 and Proverbs 14:32. On a superficial reading of these isolated verses Shedd’s argument looks plausible. But if context and the underlying Hebrew text are taken into consideration, that plausibility disintegrates rather easily.

You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Ps. 16:11 ESV)

It is certainly open to question whether Psalm 16:11 speaks of Israel’s king being in the presence of God after death. The psalmist prays that God will preserve him (16:1). He rejoices because his “flesh also dwells secure” because he knows that God does not abandon his soul to Sheol, nor does he give his godly one to see the pit. He knows the “path of life” and expects to find joy and pleasures at the right hand of God forever. The verbs are imperfect; there is no necessary future reference here. The contrast is with the “sorrows of those who run after another god” (16:4).

As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness. (Ps. 17:15 ESV)

Psalm 17 has no reference to the afterlife, only to the preservation of Israel’s king from his enemies: ” Arise, O LORD! Confront him, subdue him! Deliver my soul from the wicked by your sword, from men by your hand, O LORD, from men of the world whose portion is in this life” (17:13-14). The verbs in verse 15 are again imperfect and, given the context of the Psalm, more likely to have a present than a future meaning: unlike his enemies, who are interested only in material prosperity, the psalmist “sees” or “is seeing” the face of God, “is satisfied” with the form of God.

But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me. (Ps. 49:15 ESV)

Psalm 49 is harder to interpret. The psalmist sets out to “solve” a riddle:

Why should I fear in times of trouble, when the iniquity of those who cheat me surrounds me, those who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches? (49:5–6).

No man can ransom the life of another or pay a sufficient price to ensure that he lives forever and never sees the pit. Both the wise and the foolish inevitably die; their graves then become their homes forever no matter how much wealth they had while alive (cf. 49:10-12, 16-20). They are like sheep “appointed for Sheol; death shall be their shepherd”; the upright “rule over them in the morning”; and their form is “consumed in Sheol” (49:14).1

The psalmist, however, believes that “God redeems my soul from the hand of Sheol, for he takes me” (49:15). The problem here for Shedd’s argument is that every other use of para (redeem”) in the Psalms has reference to redemption in this life, not redemption after death, including Psalm 49:7: there is no ransom that can be paid that will keep a person from ultimately descending into Sheol. Consider, for example, Psalm 119:134-35, which also has the thought of seeing the face of God in this life, as in Psalm 17:

Redeem me from man’s oppression, that I may keep your precepts. Make your face shine upon your servant, and teach me your statutes.

In Hosea 13:14 the image of ransom from Sheol or redemption from death has to do with whether Israel/Ephraim will be destroyed by military invasion. So it seems to me likely that the imperfect verbs in Psalm 49:15 should not be given a future, post mortem reference.

You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory. (Ps. 73:24)

Psalm 73:24 also lends negligible support to the argument that the righteous go to be with God when they die. As in the other Psalms the contrast is between the prosperous wicked, who oppress the righteous, who will perish, and the psalmist, who remains faithful to God, who is guided by divine counsel, who takes refuge in the Lord, and who will tell of all his works. The ESV translation of verse 24b seems tendentious: “and afterward you will receive me to glory.” Literally, the clause reads: “and after glory you take me”. Zechariah 2:8 suggests that “after glory” means something like “for the sake of his glory”, which would suggest a translation of Psalm 73:24 as follows: “You lead (imperfect) me with your counsel, and for the sake of honour you take (imperfect) me.” If this is correct, then the idea of post mortem blessing in the presence of God has disappeared.

The wicked is overthrown through his evildoing, but the righteous finds refuge in his death. (Prov. 14:32 ESV).

Perhaps we may infer from this that the righteous person goes to heaven when he or she dies, but more likely it simply means that the righteous die a good death, in peace, without implying that they expect to go to heaven. The words of the prophetess Huldah to king Josiah provide an analogy:

”’…because your heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the LORD, when you heard how I spoke against this place and against its inhabitants, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and you have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, declares the LORD. Therefore, behold, I will gather you to your fathers, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace, and your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring upon this place.’” (2 Kings 22:19–20)

In any case, this is a very insecure hook on which to hang the doctrine that the righteous go to heaven when they die.

So Shedd does not make a good case for the view that in the Old Testament the righteous do not go down to Sheol when they die but live on in the presence of God. The consistent position seems to me to be, as I said in the post on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, that both the righteous and the wicked go down to Sheol/Hades at death.

By way of positive evidence for this view I note that Jacob expects to go down to Sheol when he dies (Gen. 37:35; 42:38; 44:29, 31; cf. Tob. 3:10); that the psalmist frequently prays to be delivered—or celebrates the fact that he has been delivered—from Sheol, by which he means saved from death, kept alive (cf. Ps. 6:4-5; 18:4-6; 30:2-3; 86:12-13; 88:3; 116:3); and that the martyr Eleazar urges his torturers to send him quickly to Hades (2 Macc. 6:23). The martyrs embraced death because they believed that they would be raised from the dead as reward for their faithfulness, but this is a late development and quite different from the argument that the righteous go to heaven when they die.

The upshot? I see no reason to change my view that scripture does not entertain the notion of “hell” as a place of unending torment after death. The fate of all humanity—with a couple of notable exceptions—is death, to descend to the place of the dead. Jesus was raised from the dead as the firstfruits of the martyr church. The martyrs were raised and vindicated as part of the eschatological transformation of the people of God and the eventual victory over the pagan enemy. And at the end we will all be raised and judged according to what we have done. Those whose names are not written in the book of life will suffer a second death, which is destruction.

  • 1. Psalm 64:7-10 suggests that the rule of the upright over the wicked who have gone down to Sheol is equivalent to the exultation of the righteous over the fate of the wicked.

Comments

Thanks for answering these questions, Andrew. Another one for you:

When arguing against the idea that the soul and body cannot be separated at death, Shedd lists these verses: Eccl. 12:7, Matt. 27:50, Luke 23:46, Acts 7:59, 2 Cor. 5:8, 2 Cor. 12:2, 2 Pet. 1:13-14, Rev. 20:4, Rev. 6:9. He says the assumption that souls remain conscious out of their bodies is so fundamental in the Bible it doesn’t need to be spelled out in the text, like the existence of God, and can be assumed.

If you have time to go on another tour of verses to respond to Shedd, it would be much appreciated. Or better, if you have any support for the idea that Jews did not believe in the immortality of the soul, that could also be helpful.

Thanks!

Ecclesiastes 12:7: this is not the “soul” but the “spirit” or “breath” (rwh, pneuma) that was originally put in man at his creation. It is the life force that animates that body.

Matthew 27:50; Luke 23:46: Jesus “abandoned the spirit (pneuma)”; the quotation from Psalm 31:5 in Luke’s account (“into your hands I commit my spirit”) underlines the point that Jesus entrusts his whole self to God and not merely his “soul”.

Acts 7:59: this is interesting insofar as it is Jesus rather than God who receives Stephen’s “spirit”. Notice too that the person dying gives up his own spirit: he is not the thing that is given. Then Stephen falls asleep, which is not an image that really allows for the separation of soul and spirit.

2 Corinthians 5:8: Paul makes it clear in verses 1-4 that he expects to exchange one embodied existence for another, a corruptible body for an incorruptible body (cf. 1 Cor. 15:42-49). So being “away from the body” cannot mean being a disembodied soul in heaven. Rather he hopes to be raised from the dead (cf. Phil. 3:10-11).

2 Corinthians 12:2: this passage does not describe a post mortem experience but a vision or revelation.

2 Peter 1:13-14: probably similar language to Paul’s in 2 Corinthians 5:8, though “putting off of my body” may simply be idiomatic.

Revelation 6:9; 20:4: I would say that the reference to “souls” crying out for vindication here is simply part of the apocalyptic rhetoric, no more to be taken literally than the four horsemen in 6:1-8. Revelation 20:40 rather suggests that these are not disembodied “souls” but dead people who come to life—that is are raised from the dead and on that basis reign with Christ throughout the thousand years.

I dealt with some of the questions in “Why you won’t go to heaven when you die”. It seems to me that a major argument against the idea that the souls of dead Christians go to be with God is that Paul does not offer this reassurance to the Thessalonians anxious about those who have fallen asleep. He does not say, don’t worry they are already with the Lord. He says, don’t worry, they are asleep until the parousia when they will be resurrected to be with the Lord.

G’day Andrew… really enjoy your articles. :)

And at the end we will all be raised and judged according to what we have done. Those whose names are not written in the book of life will suffer a second death, which is destruction.

Andrew… if sheol/hadēs does not reference a post mortem torturous hell, and I agree it doesn’t, then why assign the second death to what seems to be a similar annihilationist type scenario/interpretation? What you have in effect is simply a Hell MkI being replaced by a Hell MkII – I would suggest this is wrong-headed and ultimately, same house different street.

Surely ‘the second death’ can be understood in the historical context as referencing the end of the old covenant economy circa Ad70. In other words… ‘the lake of fire’ can be seen as a euphemistic metonymy for the conflagration/s that befell Palestine in that Ad66-70 period, culminating with the destruction of Jerusalem, which in Danielic parlance came “with a flood” (Dan 9:26), i.e., a ‘lake’ of fire.

Thus those who “had their place” or “part” in the lake of fire were those who ‘went down with the ship’ so to speak suffering tremendous loss, even to the point of death or deportation, banished from ever again being found in ‘the Presence of the Lord’ (at the Temple) as per 2Thess 1:9; and so had “no place” or “part” in the Book of Life – another way of saying, no longer found in the land of the living (Psa 69:28).

The way I see it is that the second death / lake of fire confirms the final judgment of destruction for the new creation. If death is the existential judgment on human sin in this world, the second death is the existential judgment on sin—and on death itself—in the new heavens and new earth. The need for a second death arises, I presume, because John wanted a final judgment of all the dead—not just of those who lost their lives in the course of the eschatological crisis. If all humanity is raised for a final judgment, then something must be done with those who are judged unworthy of participation in the new heavens and new earth. It is probably a largely symbolic way of saying that there will absolutely be no more evil in the new heavens and new earth.

I don’t myself see any links between the new creation scenario in Revelation 20-21 and the judgment of AD 70. The suggestion that the “flood” of Daniel 9:26 is also the lake of fire is unconvincing: there is no destruction of a city in Revelation 21:5-8; and a lake of fire is not a “flood” (LXX: kataklysmos).

I can see what you’re getting at and I think the argument would work elsewhere, not least in earlier chapters of Revelation, but John’s vision of a new heavens and new earth simply does not conform to the pattern of temporal judgments in scripture.

I think that Revelation narrates judgment on Jerusalem, followed by judgment on Rome, culminating in the resurrection of the martyrs and their reign with Christ for a thousand years. That thousand year period of world history, during which Christ reigns at the right hand of the Father, dissociates the final judgment and renewal of creation from the historical events that John addresses in the bulk of the book. Then the destruction of satan, all evil, and death itself seems to me to introduce a fundamental ontological novelty—we are no longer in the realm of mundane history.

Andrew,

Late to this thread but was wondering some of your thoughts regarding some random theories I’ve come across from time to time regarding the lake of fire and the conclusion of the Scriptures:

1) Is the lake of fire punitive? The lack of ‘apocalyptic language’ (weeping, gnashing of teeth, etc) is an argument from silence but it seems a distinct observation. This combined with the ‘sulphur’/’brimstone’ associated with the lake of fire has led to some speculating that it is restorative. Evidence in support of that is the predeliction of traditional shaman near places with access to sulphur for potions, etc. This is also reflected in the contemporary pharmaceutical industry with the production of sulfa based products to deal with infections. Sulphur is offensive to nostrils and even taste but it certainly isn’t inherently negative or punitive.

2) While chronology in Revelation is always tricky, is there significance that the lake of fire makes no appearance in the final vision of John in Ch 22? Instead he sees a river flowing from the throne watering trees that have leaves ‘for the healing of the nations’ (Rev 22:2). Aren’t these the same nations that were enemies of God in previous chapters? Doesn’t this lend itself toward a universal reconciliation in the end after the judgments?

Thanks for your work and your response if you get a chance.

Richard

Hi, Richard. Thanks for reading!

1. I don’t see this argument working at all, I’m afraid. All that is evil gets thrown into the lake of fire—death, sin, satan. There is no suggestion that these things are restored. Sulphur is closely associated with judgment in the Old Testament (cf. Gen. 19:24; Ps. 11:6; Is. 34:9; Ezek. 38:22). To persuade me otherwise you would have to find examples in (apocalyptic) Judaism, rather than in shamanism or modern medicine, of sulphur used therapeutically.

2. This is more plausible. I would have thought the reason why the lake of fire is not mentioned in Revelation 22 is that by 21:8 everything unworthy of this new creation has been destroyed. There is no longer any need for it. But certainly the political landscape of the new creation is more complex than we usually imagine. But it’s difficult to see how it would amount to universalism if, in John’s view, all workers of evil are to be destroyed in the lake of fire. Perhaps a “limited universalism”?

Andrew,

When you mention a “limited universalism” do you perhaps mean that the majority of humanity will be included in the new creation? I myself do not hold to universalism although that would certainly be something to hope for. There is a reformed postmillennialist who believes that most will eventually be “saved” although he is speaking from a more theological paradigm. Any more thoughts on this?

Hi Tyler,

I don’t think that was a very serious suggestion about a “limited universalism”. I think universalism as meaning “everyone will be saved in the end” is misconceived, at least as a biblical construct. It assumes that “Christianity” is essentially a religion of personal salvation.

I think, rather, that Christianity, as a continuation of Old Testament Judaism, is a “religion” of corporate witness or priestly-prophetic service, in the midst of the nations, under the difficult conditions of human history. Salvation is determined by, is subordinate to, is circumscribed by, that narrative.

A significant part of that story was the salvation by faith of Jews and Gentiles who believed that God had raised his Son from the dead, in the period envisaged by the New Testament.

Whether “saved” is the best word to describe what happens to people today who are baptised into this priestly-prophetic people is debatable.

But as far as participation in the new creation is concerned, it would appear to depend on a judgment according to works (Rev. 20:11-15).