The meanings of the words Sheol and Hades are major disputes. They refer to the realm of the dead. "Going to Sheol" simply means to die.
Some conditionalists insist Sheol is the same as the grave. This is not quite correct because Sheol is the same for everyone, while people have different graves. Others do not have any graves because their bodies are never found, or are totally destroyed.
Robert Morey goes through elaborate analysis trying to show that Sheol and the grave are different.1 This does not accomplish his goal of proving that consciousness leaves the body, since the Bible shows many similarities between returning to the earth and going to Sheol. We will see some now.
Sheol and the Pit
In most cases, the Old Testament says the soul goes to Sheol. The body either returns to the earth, to dust, or goes to the pit, using the Hebrew word Shachath. Another commonly used Hebrew word for the pit is bowr. Since the body goes to the pit and the soul goes to Sheol, traditionalists insist the soul and body separate.
This argument does not stand up to analysis. Job refers to his soul going to Shachath four times (Job 33:18, 22, 28, 30). Hezekiah also thanked God for delivering his soul from the pit (Shachath) when he recovered from his illness (Isaiah 38:17). Hezekiah then says, "For Sheol cannot thank You, death cannot praise You; those who go down to the pit [bowr] cannot hope for Your truth." (Isaiah 38:18) He uses all three words interchangeably in this passage.
Psalm 30:9 also says dust goes to the pit: "What profit is there in my blood, When I go down to the pit [Shachath]? Will the dust praise you? . . ." Since the body returns to dust, this says the body goes to the pit, along with the soul.
Traditionalists also claim only disembodied souls go to Sheol. This does not hold up because Scripture talks about people going to Sheol alive (Numbers 16:30, 33; Proverbs 1:12). Another problem is Psalm 141:7, which says, "Our bones are scattered at the mouth of the grave [Sheol], as when one plows and breaks up the earth." Psalm 49:14 also says, "Like sheep they are laid in the grave [Sheol]."
No Distinction at First Death
When the Bible talks about spirits returning to God, many assume it is only talking about believers. Similarly, when Scripture talks about souls going to Sheol, many assume it is only talking about nonbelievers suffering in hell. There is no distinction in the Bible; all spirits return to God and all souls go to Sheol.
The translators of the KJV also assumed the unfaithful suffer in the intermediate state. When the passage talks about nonbelievers going to Sheol, they use the word hell. They translate the same word as grave when the passage refers to believers. This confuses many readers.
Most conditionalists believe in soul sleep for all, while most traditionalists believe everyone remains conscious after death. On the other hand, some scholars believe the faithful go immediately to heaven to be with Christ and the unfaithful are unconscious.
They appear to make a case for believers going to heaven, which we will examine in Chapter Seven. The evidence for nonbelievers in torment, however, is almost nonexistent. We cover the main arguments for conscious torment in this chapter.
The Hebrew word rephaim appears eight times in the Old Testament. Traditionalists claim this word means disembodied conscious spirits. They support this with uninspired writings.
The Bible, however, does not support their belief. Four passages use rephaim and the dead interchangeably (Psalm 88:10, Proverbs 2:18, Isaiah 26:14, 19). This does not suggest they are alive.
Scriptures show rephaim are in Sheol (Job 26:5-6, Psalm 88:10-11, Proverb 9:18, Isaiah 14:9-11). Job 26:5-6 says they are under the waters then talks about Sheol. Isaiah 26:19 also says the earth shall cast them out. Since rephaim are clearly associated with both Sheol and with the earth, this shows more similarities between Sheol and the grave.
The best support for rephaim being disembodied conscious spirits is Job 26:5. In many Bibles, this says they tremble. However, the word translated tremble could mean are formed. The KJV says, "Dead things are formed under the waters, and the inhabitants thereof." Job 15:7 uses the same word and says, " . . . Or were you made before the hills?"
Job believed Sheol would relieve his suffering (Job 14:13). His wife also told him to "Curse God and die!" (Job 2:9) Surely she would not want him to curse God and go into torment. This only makes sense if they believed death ended his suffering. Job and his friends (?) believed all would return to dust if God took back the spirit (Job 34:14-15).
Isaiah 14:9-11 and Ezekiel 32:21
Traditionalists use two other passages in the Old Testament to support their belief in conscious torment. One is Isaiah 14:9, which says they [rephaim] are taunting the king of Babylon. This passage is obviously symbolic language, since cypress trees and cedars are talking in verse 8.
When we examine this passage closely, we see more evidence that Sheol resembles the grave. Isaiah 14:11 mentions Sheol, then says, " . . . The maggot is spread under you, And worms cover you." Maggots and worms eat dead bodies in the grave.
Another proof text for traditionalists is Ezekiel 32:21. Since this says they speak from Sheol, it is a proof text for consciousness. This section (Ezekiel 31 and 32) also uses a lot of figurative language. We also see more similarities between Sheol and the grave. Ezekiel 32:21-27, for example, mentions Sheol twice and the grave three times. Their usage shows similar meaning in this passage.
The Mistranslations of Peter
Peter's epistles show cases of biased translating. One example is 1 Peter 3:18-20, which talks about the days before the flood. Christ preached to the spirits in prison at the time of Noah. A spirit in prison is someone who is in darkness (Isaiah 42:6-7), or lost. A similar concept is anyone who sins is a slave to sin (John 8:34, Romans 6:16-18, 2 Peter 2:19).
Earlier, Peter says the Spirit of Christ was speaking through the prophets (1 Peter 1:10-12). In his second letter, Peter refers to Noah as a preacher of righteousness (2 Peter 2:5), which is similar to a prophet. Therefore, we may conclude that the Spirit of Christ was speaking through Noah before the flood.
Peter later says, "For this reason the gospel was preached also for those who are dead." (1 Peter 4:6) Traditionalists claim this passage proves the dead are conscious. Instead of physical death, it is describing spiritual death, similar to Ephesians 2:1, 5. In 1 Peter 4:6, preaching the gospel is an attempt to get them to "live according to God in the spirit." 1 Peter 3:18-20 and 4:6 are both examples of trying to get people to repent.
Although the NASB is a highly accurate translation, there is an error in 1 Peter 3:18-20. As stated before, when translators felt a verse needed clarification, they added words and italicized them. In verse 19, the passage reads, " . . . the spirits now in prison." The translators added the word now to the text, which causes confusion. If Christ preached to them after death, this implies they have a second chance to repent.
2 Peter 2:9 also shows biased translating. God reserves the unjust for punishment until the day of judgment. The NIV says "while continuing their punishment." A concordance of the NIV reveals there is no corresponding Greek for while continuing in this verse. Although it could be interpreted that way, this is not the most probable meaning.
The wording of 2 Peter 2:9 is similar to 2 Peter 3:7, which says, "But the heavens and the earth which are now preserved by the same word, are reserved for fire until the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men." We read about the judgment in 2 Peter 3:10, which says the earth will be burned up. Just as 2 Peter 3:7 foretells future judgment and perdition, 2 Peter 2:9 also foretells future punishment.
Sheol is a Place of Sorrows
Some verses talk about the sorrows of Sheol (2 Samuel 22:6, Psalm 18:5, 116:3), and scholars say they prove consciousness after death. 2 Samuel 22:6 is part of a quotation from David and he also wrote Psalms 18 and 116.
In these cases, Sheol refers to being close to death. There is pain and sadness when a person is near death. If this pain and sadness continue after death, then righteous people like David receive the same fate as nonbelievers. Psalm 16:10 shows David's soul went to Sheol, and he is still there (Acts 2:29, 34).
A good example of Sheol referring to time before death is in Jonah. God called Jonah to preach to the people of Nineveh; he ran away instead (Jonah 1:1-3). Then God prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah (Jonah 1:17). He thought he was dying, so he called the insides of the fish "the belly of Sheol." (Jonah 2:2) Although Jonah was conscious and in pain, he did not die a physical death.
A different example was Jacob. When he thought his son Joseph was dead, he said, "For I shall go down into the grave [Sheol] to my son in mourning." (Genesis 37:35) Morey claims he would be mourning with his son in Sheol after his own death.2 Instead, he was saying he would never be happy the rest of his life; he would mourn until his death, which is going down to Sheol.
The Rich Man and Lazarus
A discussion about death and judgment must include the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). This is one of the strongest arguments against soul sleep, yet it is only a parable. Like in other parables, Jesus tells a story to teach morals.
Christ used examples in their daily life. There were many farmers who heard His parables; He talked about planting seeds, good soil, bad soil, good fruit, and bad fruit. There were also many shepherds in His audience, so He talked about shepherds and sheep.
Jesus directed the theme of the rich man and Lazarus to the Pharisees. They were wealthy and influential, so the rich man represented them. Christ spoke about consciousness after death because they believed in it. Josephus’ Discourse to the Greeks Concerning Hades contains many details of this parable. We must remember that Jesus also warned about the false doctrines of the Pharisees (Matthew 15:14, 16:12).
This is a story to teach principles, not a doctrinal statement. Christ spoke many parables to the crowds, then later explained them privately to His disciples (Mark 4:34). Jesus also made it clear that many misunderstand parables:
And the disciples came and said to Him "Why do You speak to them in Parables?"
He answered and said to them, "Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. And in them the prophecy is fulfilled, which says:
'Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, and seeing you will see and not perceive: For the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, And their eyes they have closed, Lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, So that I should heal them'
But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears for they hear; for assuredly, I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it." Matthew 13:10-17
People miss the lesson of parables by trying to take everything literally. In John 16:25, Jesus says, "These things I have spoken to you in figurative language; but the time is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figurative language, but I will tell you plainly about the Father."
While some insist Luke 16:19-31 is not a parable, it cannot be literal. When we die, our physical bodies lie still in the grave. We decompose and eventually turn to dust. This includes our eyes, fingers, and tongue. Yet the rich man saw Lazarus, and wanted him to put water on his finger and touch the tongue of the rich man (Luke 16:24).
Another reason this is figurative is because Lazarus goes to Abraham's bosom (Luke 16:22). Abraham's bosom is not mentioned anywhere else in the Bible. Since many righteous people died before Abraham, they could not go to his bosom before it existed. This must be symbolic language.
The most important reason this is not literal is because the rich man answers to Abraham. There is one God and one Mediator (1 Timothy 2:5); Abraham is neither.
Using Real Names
Jesus uses the names Lazarus, Abraham, and Moses in this parable. Opponents of soul sleep claim His stories must be true when real names are used. Although scholars admit that some parts of this story cannot be literal, many still insist the rich man being in torment must be literal because Jesus uses real names.
This reasoning has a fatal flaw. The most important character, if they want to prove conscious torment for the unfaithful, is the rich man. Since the rich man is not given a name, their argument crumbles.
Lesson of the Parable
The first part of Luke 16 talks about money, and says the Pharisees loved money (verse 14). In the parable, Abraham reminds the rich man that he had pleasures in his former life and Lazarus had difficulties. Now it is reversed (verse 25). Once we die, it is too late to repent.
Then verses 27-31 show the main reason for this parable. The rich man wanted Lazarus to warn his brothers. Abraham said they did not listen to Moses and the prophets. The rich man replied that they would listen if someone came back from the dead. Abraham concluded by saying they would not even listen to someone who came back from the dead.
This explains why Jesus uses the name Lazarus in this parable. Jesus raised His friend Lazarus from the dead (John 11:38-44) and the church leaders did not listen to him. In fact, the chief priests tried to kill Lazarus because many believed in Jesus when they saw Lazarus alive (John 12:9-11). Jesus also came back from the dead, and the church leaders did not listen to Him either.
A Possible Interpretation
Interpreting prophecy in the Bible is very challenging. End-times prophecy was my favorite Bible subject when I first became a Christian. I read Hal Lindsey’s famous book, The Late Great Planet Earth, and was certain that Christ world return within five or ten years.
That was 24 years ago! Studying end times prophecy is less important to me today. When I read different end-time scenarios of prophecy experts, I find little agreement or consistency.
Although interpreting prophecy is not my expertise, I will offer a possible explanation of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. We should start with the rich man. Since he talked to Abraham, he represented the Jews. Before the time of Christ, they were the fortunate ones who had the Word of God.
Lazarus ate crumbs from the rich man’s table and dogs licked his sores (Luke 16:21). He represented the gentiles, who rarely heard the Word of God before Christ. We see the similarity when we read about a gentile woman who wanted Jesus to heal her daughter. She was called a dog, and she replied that even dogs get crumbs from the master’s table (Matthew 15:22-30, Mark 7:25-30).
In the beginning of the parable, everything was going right for the rich man, while Lazarus was struggling. Then things were reversed when they died. Their death could represent the end of the Old Covenant and the beginning of the New Covenant. Now the gentiles have the gospel, instead of the Jews. Here is a prophecy and fulfillment:
"Behold, the days are coming," says the Lord GOD, "That I will send a famine on the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD, but shall not find it. Amos 8:11-12
Then Paul and Barnabas grew bold and said, "It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you first; but since you reject it, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles. Acts 13:46
Better Case for Talking Trees
If we start with a false premise, we do not interpret the Bible properly. We sometimes take symbolic language literally if it supports our preconceived ideas. In Judges 9:8-15, there is a story about trees talking to each other. Isaiah 14:8 also has trees talking. Other Scriptures say trees rejoice (Psalms 96:12) and clap their hands (Isaiah 55:12).
There is a better case in Scripture for trees talking than there is for humans suffering in the intermediate state. We could also make a case that mountains and hills sing (Isaiah 55:12), and that stones cry out (Luke 19:40). Since Bible scholars do not believe these things, they do not take these passages literally. On the other hand, many take the story of the rich man and Lazarus literally because it supports their assumption.
As we have seen, the case for conscious torment before the resurrection is very weak. The next chapter examines the case for soul sleep, while the following chapter responds to the case for believers being conscious with Christ after death.
1Robert Morey, Death and the Afterlife, p. 74-77
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