Book Review of: “Shades of Sheol” by Philip S. Johnston
Philip S. Johnston is a senior tutor at Hughes Hall, Cambridge having previously taught at Belfast, St. Andrews and Oxford.
In this book, Johnston takes a deep and detailed dive into the topic and language of death found in the Old Testament scriptures. Johnston begins the book by exploring the general theme of death in the Old Testament along with its definitions along with the scriptures reflections on death as a whole. He then moves on to explore the topic of burial and mourning as it relates to the death and the afterlife. In Part B, Johnston investigates the language of Sheol and how it is described. He explains that for the Israelites, death was something that was feared and was viewed as a threatening enemy. For the Israelites, death and the underworld were associated with the earth and the watery seas of chaos. In the third section of the book, Johnston looks at the naming of the dead. He then looks at the forbidden practice of necromancy and the notorious ‘witch of Endor’ text found in 1 Samuel. Johnston explains that the Israelites did not practice a large-scale veneration of the dead like other cultures did. Finally, Johnston compares and contrasts the Israelite view of the afterlife to other cultures. He shows that the Israelite’s hope was found in the resurrection of the dead which stood in contrast to other nations.
Part A. Death
1. Death in the Old Testament
Johnston begins by recognizing the variety of teaching on the topic of the dead within the Christian tradition. He explains that three of the views that are commonly taught concerning life after death are; soul sleep, purgatory and an intermediate state in heaven. He is careful to remind the reader that the Old Testament employs the use of imagery and metaphor at times so he suggests that we should be careful when examining individual texts by themselves. Johnston says that the Old Testament typically speaks of death as the end of life. He explains this concept is understood through texts that speak of; man’s mortality (Job 14:1), explanations that death means we are no more (Psalm 39:13), that death is an absence of all thought and movement (Ecclesiastes 9:10), death is the loss of breath (Genesis 25:8), and at death we are said to return to the dust (Genesis 3:19 and Ecclesiastes 12:6). Johnston explains that death is understood as the enemy of humanity. Death can be seen as a reunion with one’s ancestors expressed by phrases like ‘gathered to his peoples’, or ‘slept with his Fathers’, but this is not understood to be a conscious reunion rather it is the fate of all humanity which is death. These phrases then express the desire to be corporately buried with ones loved ones. Johnston says that death was also understood through sacrifice seen in Abraham’s testing and the pagan worship of the god Molech.
Johnston is clear when exploring death and creation that “the image of God was not thought to include immortality.” (Genesis 9:6) He explains that humanity was created with potentiality for immortality as represented in the narrative by the tree of life, but it is not something they are inherently born with. Death is the natural end of a good life but someone can meet a premature death, sometimes as a result of punishment. (Genesis 9:6) Johnston explains that death is something that is viewed as making someone unclean and is to be avoided. For the Israelite, the future hope is for the “ultimate disappearance of death itself.” (Isaiah 25:7) Ultimately, death is viewed as a negative experience because it separates created humanity that has been given life by the creator, from life in community and God himself.
2. Death in Ancient Israel
In the second chapter, Johnston explores the burial rituals of the Israelites. He explains that non-burial or death by burning was a terrible fate. Ideally, one was buried in a communal burial ground with their family. Johnston explains that “Israelite life and faith were centred on the present life and relating to Yahweh in the here and now. Death was the end of this life, not the start of the next, so religious ceremony was of little significance.”
Part B. The Underworld
3. The Unwelcome Underworld
Johnston explains that the Ancient Near Eastern cultures all contained literature which included an underworld and a god of the dead. He says, “in marked contrast, Israel’s canonical literature contains no such epics about descent to the underworld or return from it.” In regards to the Hebrew word Sheol, it is clear that the Israelites viewed it to be the fate of all people who died. Johnston explains that “the Hebrew Bible never indicates any form of punishment after death.” Sheol is understood as a place of no return or activity. It is a place of silence, where decay and decomposition take place.
4. The Threatening Underworld
In chapter four, Johnston explains that the poetic and song literature that describes Sheol should be understood as “wherever death exercises rulership.” It is a place that threatens life and is never satisfied. Ultimately says Johnston, “the underworld was certainly not something they looked forward to.”
5. The Pervasive Underworld
In this section, Johnston explores how the sea was often viewed as evil and chaotic. This force was commonly associated with death. These watery forces were viewed as opposing Yahweh and needed to be overcome and conquered. This idea can be seen in narratives such as the creation account itself, and God’s control over the Red Sea.
Part C. The Dead
6. Naming the Dead
In chapter 6 Johnston explores the rare use of the Hebrew word rephaim. He explains that the relevant texts are all poetic in nature and none of the texts describe the rephaim as engaging in any activity. Johnston then moves on to explore 1 Samuel 28, a text in which many dualists use to justify a belief in a spirited underworld and a dualist anthropology. Johnston reveals that God has continually warned his people about the dangers of necromancy.(Isaiah 8:19-22) The term elohim used in the narrative leads the reader to the understanding that the attempt at necromancy was not actually successful but instead was an encounter with a demon or spirit being.
7. Consulting the Dead
In chapter seven, Johnston says that “necromancy is mentioned at the beginning and end of the monarchy, but is unrecorded in other historical narrative.” Texts like Isaiah 28:7-22 reveal that the Israelites “covenant with death” was something that stood in opposition to God.
8. Honouring the Dead
Johnston concludes that the Israelite people did not practice a large-scale veneration of the dead or their ancestors. This practice occurred on occasion as a result of syncretism but it was not understood to be an acceptable practice.
Part D. The Afterlife
9. Communion Beyond Death
When addressing the texts that speak of the Enoch and Elijah, Johnston says, “nowhere is the fate of Enoch and Elijah presented as a paradigm for the righteous. Instead, especially for the Psalmist death is feared. The psalmist says in death; “I will depart and be no more” (Psalm 39:13), I will die and my name will perish. (Psalm 41:5) In Sheol one can “no longer praise Yahweh” (Psalm 6:5, 115:17). The Psalmist declares that no person can escape the common fate of Sheol (Psalm 49:7-9), and the desire is to escape or be ransomed from Sheol (Psalm 49:15). Johnston explains that for the Israelite community, “hope remained firmly anchored in the present life” and not any form of afterlife. At times there are glimmers of hope in bodily resurrection and redemption from Sheol but they are few and far between.
10. Resurrection from the Dead
Finally, escape from Sheol is understood as the reversal of death. 1 Samuel 2:6 says that God “brings down to Sheol and raises up.” Hope for the Israelites was understood to be the reversal of death and victory over the common enemy of death. Texts such as Ezekiel 37:1-14 provide national hope for God to restore his people from death and open their graves restoring them to life. Individual resurrection can also be found in texts such as Isaiah 26:19 and Daniel 12:1-2 Johnston says. Johnston explains that surrounding cultures such as the; Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Ugarit, Persian, and Greco Roman viewed the afterlife as something beyond the body and did not have a concept of bodily resurrection. In fact, Johnston says that “the Greeks maintained a strong antipathy towards bodily resurrection. Greek philosophy dominated by Plato, saw death as a welcomed escape from the prison of the flesh and the continued life of the immortal soul. A key factor for Johnston is the fact that the Israelites did not have any concept of judgement after death as opposed to other Ancient Near Eastern religions. The hope for the Israelite could be found in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “your dead shall live… and sing for joy.” (Isaiah 26:19). Johnston understands the New Testament to affirm this same hope as it asserts “Christ Jesus…abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” (1 Timothy 1:10)
Johnston’s book provides ample support and Biblical evidence for the teaching of conditional immortality. I would highly recommend this book as support for the Biblical teaching of conditional immortality. Here are at least seven strong arguments that I saw as I read the book, that refute arguments for the immortal soul and disembodied afterlife.
1. Imagio Dei
A common dualist argument, is that humanity is triune because we are made in the image of God. Johnston shows that being made in the image and likeness of God was not associated with a trichotomist anthropology.
2. Potentially Immortal
Many dualists who have adopted the idea of the immortal soul contend that humanity possesses immortality as inherent in being human. Johnston shows that the ‘Tree of Life’ reveals that humanity is contingently immortal and has lost access to that luxury when we lost access to the Garden.
For more on that topic you can read a detailed article here.
3. Veneration of the Dead
Another argument for a disembodied afterlife is that the Israelites expressed a belief in an afterlife by the way they buried and mourned for their dead. Instead Johnston shows the contrary to be true. He reveals that the Israelites unlike other cultures, did not go to a great length to honor their dead or see them to be passing on to another state of life.
4. Sheol as the Underworld
Those that adopt a more Greco Roman view of the underworld as understood in light of the term Hades, either anachronistically read that view back into the Hebrew concept of Sheol or punt to the idea of progressive revelation. Johnston shows through exploring the way the Israelites used the term Sheol, that they did not believe in an underworld but rather viewed Sheol as the grave where everyone goes when they die. Sheol is a place of inactivity away from God.
5. The Rephaim
Some biblical scholars have justified a dualist anthropology by appealing to the very limited use of the Hebrew word rephaim sometimes translated shade or shades. What Johnston shows is that this was not a term used to appeal to human life after death but was rather a poetic metaphorical term.
For more on that topic you can read a detailed article here:
6. Necromancy and 1 Samuel 28
By in large the most frequently appealed to text in the Old Testament, is the narrative of the ‘witch of Endor’. It is assumed that the story literally happened and Samuel was raised from the dead as a disembodied spirit. This then is said to prove dualism to be true. Johnston reveals that the language used in this narrative, points the reader to a different understanding by calling Samuel an elohim.
For more on that topic you can read a detailed article here.
7. Afterlife Epics
One of the biggest discrepancies between the Israelites literature and their contemporaries is the fact that they do not contain texts that explore a descent into the underworld. In fact, God explicitly tells his people that he is the God of the living and warns His people against consulting the dead.
8. The Hope of Resurrection
While it is lacking in quantity, the hope of bodily resurrection is expressed in the Old Testament. This idea also stands in contrast to the disembodied afterlife hoped for by many of the Ancient Near Eastern cultures religions.