An extract from “Hell No!” by Michael Bieleski
Hell in the Old Testament
The Old Testament was consistently concerned with the mortality of man. The death of man was generally seen as the complete end of his existence. There was no teaching about an afterlife place of eternal torment. There are no vivid descriptions of unbelieving souls suffering forever and gnashing their teeth. Instead, the writers were concerned about death itself, living in the land of the living and avoiding the corruption that death brought to the body. The hope was not to avoid death, but that God would somehow restore the dead person back to life.
This hope of a rescue from the grave was hinted at in various places. For example, “The Lord kills and makes alive; He brings down to the grave and brings up.”1 (The word grave comes from sheol which is sometimes also translated by the word hell depending on the translator. However, context and usage insist that we should define sheol as the grave.)
This rescue also seemed to involve a return to bodily life, as suggested by Job. His hope was that even after his skin had been destroyed, he would still see God in his flesh.2 This understanding of Job is the typical Hebrew understanding that underpins the principle of the resurrection. Job was a very sick man, and yet even though he realised that he might physically waste away, his hope was the restoration of the person in bodily flesh.
Because of this hope, it would be illogical to believe that Job hoped in immediate life after death as an immortal being. Such an idea would have contradicted his expressed hope. The hope of avoiding corruption in the grave was a common theme throughout the Old Testament and certain passages are even referred to by New Testament writers.
For example, the Psalmist expected that God would not allow his body to become corrupted in the grave.3 This passage is then referred to by Paul and Peter, who saw it as a messianic reference to the future resurrection of Christ.4 The hope of avoiding the corruption of the body in the grave was demonstrated by the resurrection of Christ. Paul and Peter both argued that Jesus experienced no corruption, whereas the Psalmist’s tomb (King David) was still there for all to see, which meant that his body was still corrupted. King David was not an immortal soul in heaven; he was dead, his body corrupted in the grave waiting for the resurrection. To suggest otherwise would have contradicted Paul and Peter’s teaching that the resurrection was God’s answer to this corruption.
This hope of avoiding the corruption of the body in the grave explains why there was no Hebrew expectation of some immediate after life experience and why the grave was the focus of their inquiry. Life was something that was experienced in bodily form; the loss of the body was the fear and the restoration of that body was the hope.
While the hope was to avoid the corruption of the body and to return to life, the Old Testament tells us that the body would ‘sleep in the dust’ until ‘woken up’.5 This was a nice way of explaining the status of man in death until he was restored to life in the resurrection.
While the body was destined for the grave or pit (sheol), the Authorised Version6 sometimes used the word hell instead of grave. In fact, the use of grave and hell is evenly spread throughout this translation. This means that half the time, the translators thought that grave was a better translation than hell. It must be noted that there is a big difference between the grave as a destination for man in death and the concept of hell which is likely to have been influenced by extra biblical material.
However, every single occurrence of hell could be replaced by the word grave or pit without affecting the meaning. The word hell was only used because it suited the assumptions of the translators.
For example, God says that a fire will burn unto the lowest hell.7 Of course, there are other translations that don’t use the word hell. The New Revised Standard Version uses the original Hebrew sheol and the New Living Translation uses grave. The point is that the passage could say God’s anger was so great that a fire would even burn down into the grave. The New Century Version translates it this way…. “My anger has started a fire that burns down to the place of the dead.”
There was no clear indication that the writer was imagining a place of eternal torment. He was idiomatically describing judgment and the impact that the fire of God would have. This passage also goes on to describe how this fire would burn the ground and the crops. The words emphasise the severity and intensity of the judgment.
In another passage the writer said that the sorrows of hell had surrounded him.8 However, the use of grave would make complete sense….the sorrows of the grave had surrounded him. In this case, sheol could also be used as a synonym for death….the sorrows of death had surrounded him, meaning that he was close to death. The writer goes on to describe how he called out to the Lord who heard him and rescued him. The story is about a man who was suffering and close to death and yet the Lord had rescued him.
This idea is repeated elsewhere such as in Psalm 18:5… the sorrows of hell had surrounded the Psalmist and the snares of death had confronted him. The parallelism of ideas suggests that hell should be translated as grave because he was confronted with death. There was no indication that he was facing everlasting torment.
- 1 Samuel 2:6 (NKJV)
- Job 19:25-27
- Psalm 16:9-11
- Acts 2:29-31, Acts 13:36
- Daniel 12.2
- Deuteronomy 32:22 (KJV)
- 2 Samuel 22:6