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.