~ The Depths of Sheol ~
It is not possible for us to understand the state of the dead from a Scriptural standpoint without coming to understand the meaning of the Hebrew word sheol (she-ohl', Strong's #7585). Sheol corresponds to the Greek word hades (hay'-dees, Strong's #86) and is often translated into the English word "hell." However, sheol has two other English translations as well: "grave," and "pit." Meanwhile, the Greek word hades is translated as "hell" every time it occurs except in I Cor. 15:55, where it is translated as "grave." The early Puritans of America understood that sheol and hades meant a pit or hole in the ground, for they used to talk about putting their potatoes in 'hell' for winter storage.
Thus, the literal meaning of sheol and hades is simply "the grave." This is where the dead physical body is placed so that it can return to dust, just as God had indicated to Adam that it would do.
Because of the finality of death over physical life, sheol becomes a very powerful image in religious teaching. Many writers of Scripture (under inspiration from YHVH) use sheol to create images of the power of death over physical life. For example, the prophet Jonah used the imagery of sheol to aid in explaining his perception of conditions in the belly of the great fish:
"Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the fish's belly. And he said: 'I cried out to the LORD because of my affliction, And He answered me. Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, And You heard y voice, For You cast me into the deep, Into the heart of the seas, And the floods surrounded me; All Your billows and Your waves Passed over me. Then I said, "I have been cast out of Your sight;Yet I will look again toward Your holy temple." The waters encompassed me, even to my soul; The deep closed around me; Weeds were wrapped around my head. I went down to the moorings of he mountains; The earth with its bars closed behind me forever; Yet You have brought up my life from the pit, O LORD my God.'" (Jonah 2:1-6)
It is sometimes debated whether Jonah actually died in the fish's belly and was subsequently resurrected back to life, or whether he was alive and conscious the entire time. We will not know the answer to that question until the day comes when we can ask him. In the meantime, what we have is a powerful poetic image explaining how Jonah was consigned to death, how that experience is likened to being buried in sheol (the grave), and how he was brought up out of sheol having his life returned to him at least in a type of resurrection, if not a literal one.
Further information about sheol can be obtained from Psalm 88, where the psalmist cries out to God from deep affliction:
"O LORD, God of my salvation, I have cried out day and night before You. Let my prayer come before You; Incline Your ear to my cry. For my soul is full of troubles, And my life draws near to the grave (sheol). I am counted with those who go down to the pit (bor = pit); I am like a man who has no strength, Adrift among the dead, Like the slain who lie in the grave (keber = sepulcher), Whom You remember no more, And who are cut off from Your hand." (Psalm 88:1-5)
The psalmist likens his life, of being completely cut off from his friends and family, as similar to the way it is when one dies and is buried in sheol:
"You have laid me in the lowest pit, In darkness, in the depths.Your wrath lies heavy upon me, And You have afflicted me with all Your waves. Selah. You have put away my acquaintances far from me; You have made me an abomination to them; I am shut up, and I cannot get out; My eye wastes away because of affliction." (Psalm 88:6-9a)
In the midst of this very despairing cry, we find the psalmist questioning whether or not there will be a future redemption:
"LORD, I have called daily upon You; I have stretched out my hands to You. Will You work wonders for the dead? Shall the dead arise and praise You? Selah. Shall Your loving kindness be declared in the grave? Or Your faithfulness in the place of destruction? Shall Your wonders be known in the dark? And Your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?" (Psalm 88:9b-12)
The picture of sheol given in Psalm 88 is of a place where one is totally cut off from God. It is a place of destruction where the body disintegrates into dust. It is a place of complete darkness and a 'land of forgetfulness,' where there is no memory or consciousness. Yet in the midst of this bleak picture of sheol, there is still a measure of hope.
A more complete answer to our question, as to whether or not there can be salvation from such a place as sheol, comes in the very next Psalm, which is a companion to Psalm 88, both being titled: A Contemplation of Heman the Ezrahite. Here the same psalmist claims God's promises, even in the midst of great affliction:
"Then You spoke in a vision to Your holy one, And said: 'I have given help to one who is mighty; I have exalted one chosen from the people. I have found My servant David: With My holy oil I have anointed him, With whom My hand shall be established; Also My arm shall strengthen him.' ... "'He shall cry to Me, "You are my Father, My God, and the rock of my salvation," Also I will make him My firstborn, The highest of the kings of the earth. My mercy I will keep for him forever, And My covenant shall stand firm with him. His seed also I will make to endure forever, And his throne as the days of heaven.'" (Psalm 89:19-20,26-29)
Out of total despair comes the cry of hope for a future era when King Messiah (pictured here as one likened to king David) will reign during a time that is described as "forever." Through a veil of suggestions and metaphors, we see hope for an afterlife existing beyond sheol or the grave.
~ The Totality of Death ~
According to Scripture all men must die; death being the complete cessation of life. This includes any type of conscious life separate from the body. Let us establish this principle by looking at several Scriptures:
"Why should I fear in the days of evil, When the iniquity at my heels surrounds me? Those who trust in their wealth And boast in the multitude of their riches, None of them can by any means redeem his brother, Nor give to God a ransom for him -- For the redemption of their souls is costly, And it shall cease forever -- That he should continue to live eternally, And not see the Pit.
"For he sees that wise men die; Likewise the fool and the senseless person perish, And leave their wealth to others. Their inner thought is that their houses will continue forever, And their dwelling places to all generations; They call their lands after their own names. Nevertheless man, though in honor, does not remain; He is like the beasts that perish." (Psalm 49:5-12)
Here we see that nothing we do in this life, whether it be great achievements, or even great riches, can redeem us or our loved ones from sheol, the grave.
The next four passages preclude the possibility that the immortal souls of the 'righteous' go to heaven and live in the light of the Father, praising Him day and night.
"For in death there is no remembrance of You; In the grave who will give You thanks?" (Psalm 6:5)
"The dead do not praise the LORD, Nor any who go down into silence." (Psalm 115:17)
"For Sheol cannot thank You, Death cannot praise You; Those who go down to the pit cannot hope for Your truth. The living, the living man, he shall praise You, As I do this day; ..." (Isa. 38:18-19a)
"I cried out to You, O LORD; And to the LORD I made supplication: 'What profit is there in my blood, When I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise You? Will it declare Your truth?'" (Psalm 30:8-9)
Those of us who are alive can still praise YHVH and teach His truth, but the implication is clear from these verses that those who are dead are incapable of so doing.
Another figure in Scripture who testifies to the finality of death is Job. Here was a righteous man whom God allowed to be tested by HaSatan, the Adversary, to prove that he would continue to love and serve God no matter what terrible things happened to him during his physical life. Since Job is righteous, and he knows he has lived a righteous life and does not deserve the punishment that has befallen him, it would seem that Job would seek for his reward to come in an afterlife. Yet, Job is clear in his understanding that death is the total cessation of life, at least for the time being:
"'Man who is born of woman Is of few days and full of trouble. He comes forth like a flower and fades away; He flees like a shadow and does not continue. And do You open Your eyes on such a one, And bring me to judgment with Yourself? Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? No one!
Since his days are determined, The number of his months is with You; You have appointed his limits, so that he cannot pass. Look away from him that he may rest, Till like a hired man he finishes his days. ... "'But man dies and is laid away; Indeed he breathes his last And where is he? As water disappears from the sea, And a river becomes parched and dries up, So man lies down and does not rise. Till the heavens are no more, They will not awake Nor be roused from their sleep.'" (Job 14:1-6, 10-12)
Job gives us a more complete understanding of sheol in
"'Are not my days few? Cease! Leave me alone, that I may take a little comfort, Before I go to the place from which I shall not return, To the land of darkness and the shadow of death, A land as dark as darkness itself, As the shadow of death, without any order, Where even the light is like darkness.'" (Job 10:20-22)
Death truly is the complete cessation of life. Light turns to darkness, and memory does not exist as long as one is in that state. However, death does not have to be permanent, for there is the Hope of the Resurrection. But for now let us continue with the subject of the totality of death.
~ What Does the New Testament Say? ~
At this point some might argue that while there was no 'afterlife' for those that lived before Y'shua, there is now an afterlife that manifests itself as an immortal soul. Others might claim that the revelation of the Immortality of the Soul took place in a 'progressive' fashion, and that the early writers of the Hebrew Scriptures did not yet understand that the 'soul' was immortal.
Let us examine the words of the Apostle Peter to see if this view is correct. The following statement was made on the day of Pentecost (Shavu'ot) after the ascension of Y'shua into heaven some ten days previous:
"'Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. ... "'For David did not ascend into the heavens ..."(Acts 2:29, 34)
According to Peter, there is no immortal soul for David, despite the fact that God said of him:
"'I have found David the son of Jesse, a man after My own heart, who will do all My will.'" (Acts 13:22)
Y'shua also confirmed that the soul is not immortal:
"'And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell (gehenna or hell fire).'" (Matt. 10:28)
This verse makes it clear that the 'soul' is perishable and can be destroyed by God, even though a casual reading of it might lead one to think just the opposite. However, what Y'shua is saying is that the soul cannot be permanently destroyed by men. God has complete control of something that is called, in our English translations, the 'soul,' and He can destroy that 'soul' if He so chooses.
"'For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?'" (Matt. 16:26)
Once again we see that a 'soul' can be lost. Does this mean that it goes to an ever burning hell for an eternity of torture? If such were the case, that person would still be alive and would never cease to exist, even though his existence would be less than desirable. Or does it mean that the soul can die just like the body?
Y'shua touched on this subject again in the Parable of the Rich Fool. Here was a man who had a huge crop harvest, so he tore down his barns and built bigger ones in which to store all of his grain. Building the barns was not the problem, rather the problem was that the man (not acknowledging God) was only concerned with himself. He thought he had it made for many years, and rather than sharing his blessings with others and growing rich toward God, he stored them for himself:
"'So he said, "I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there I will store all my crops and my goods. And I will say to my soul, 'Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink and be merry.'" "'But God said to him, "You fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?" "'So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.'" (Luke 12:18-21)
Once again, we see that the man's 'soul' was required of him. In other words, he died.
James, or more correctly Jacob, (Ya'akov in Hebrew), the brother of Y'shua had this to say about the soul:
"Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins." (James 5:19-20)
If the soul is immortal there is no need to save it from death, yet here James clearly indicates that the soul can be saved from death.
Finally, we have the following verse from the book of Revelation which also testifies that souls die:
"And the second angel poured out his vial upon the sea; and it became as the blood of a dead man: and every living soul died in the sea." (Rev. 16:3 KJV)
Souls are either living or dead. According to Scripture they are not immortal.
~ The Cause of Death ~
It is important to understand why death exists. Atheists and agnostics often ask;
"If there is a God why would He create a world in which babies are born in total innocence, only to die a premature death?"
It is a difficult question to answer when dealing with a skeptic, for the understanding of it requires a confidence and trust (i.e. faith) in YHVH; that He knows what He is doing and is in complete control. Since skeptics do not operate in the realm of faith, they usually will not accept a faith based answer. However, we as Believers, need to go back once again to the early chapters of Genesis for our answer:
"Then the LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, 'Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.'" (Gen. 2:15-17)
It is important to note that the Tree of Life existed in the garden at this time. It was available to Adam and Eve and if they ate of its fruit it would give them eternal life.
"Then the LORD God said, 'Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever' ... " (Gen. 3:22)
Immortality was available to Adam and Eve through the fruit of the Tree of Life, as long as they dwelt in the Garden of Eden. This is why they had to be expelled from the Garden after they had eaten the fruit of the forbidden tree, for God did not want eternal life to be available to them in their fallen condition.
According to Jewish tradition, the reason Adam and Eve did not know they were naked before they sinned was because when they were created they were clothed with the radiance kevod [keh-vohd'] in Hebrew) of God. The initial outcome from their eating of the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was the loss of the kevod. At that point they became aware of their nakedness before God and each other. It is thought by some that, in this manner, God revealed to them the fact that they had been created mortal.
Most Christian and Orthodox Jewish theologians believe that death is the punishment for the sin of disobedience. This view was also held by the Apostle Paul (Shaul) who wrote to the Romans:
"... that sin reigned in death ..." (Rom. 5:21a)
"For the wages of sin is death ..." (Rom. 6:23a)
"I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died. And the commandment, which was to bring life, I found to bring death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me. Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good.
"Has then what is good become death to me? Certainly not! But sin, that it might appear sin, was producing death in me through what is good, so that sin through the commandment might become exceedingly sinful. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin.'" (Rom. 7:9-14)
Paul is telling us that it is not the law (Torah) which is sin, rather the Torah is "holy, just and good." No, the problem is not with the Torah, it is with man, for man has a sin nature, which is inherited directly from Adam:
"Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned -- (For until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come.)" (Rom. 5:12-14)
From this passage we learn that the sin of Adam was considered by God to be a very great transgression. In fact, it was such a great transgression that death was passed on to all mankind because of it; even to those who were considered righteous before God.
"There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias ... His wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless." (Luke 1:5-6)
The fact is that Zacharias and Elizabeth have both died and their bodies are today buried somewhere in the land of Israel despite their 'righteousness.' "For as in Adam all die ..." (I Cor. 15:22a)
~ Two Deaths ~
The Scriptures clearly indicate that there is not one death but two. The first death comes as a result of Adam's sin, the second comes as a result of our own sins:
"...for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God ..." (Rom. 3:23)
"'He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death.'" (Rev. 2:11)
"Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years." (Rev. 20:6)
"Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire." (Rev. 20:14-15)
When we understand that two separate deaths exist, then everything begins to become clear. We already saw that every human being must die once, not for his own sins but because he has inherited death from his father Adam.
"And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment, so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation." (Heb. 11:27-28)
Yes, all men must die once. That is because we are all descended from Adam. But it is not the first death that need be feared, it is the second death which grasps people and holds them in bondage to sin and death. This second death is the end result of our own individual sins, those transgressions which we have piled upon ourselves. It has nothing to do with Adam's original sin:
"'Behold, all souls are Mine; The soul of the father As well as the soul of the son is Mine; The soul who sins shall die.'" (Ezek. 18:4)
"'The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.'" (Ezek. 18:20)
Each man is held accountable for his own sins, and it is those sins, when left unforgiven, that cause men to die the second death:
"'But if a wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed, keeps all My statutes, and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions which he has committed shall be remembered against him; because of the righteousness which he has done, he shall live.
"'Do I have any pleasure at all that the wicked should die?' says the Lord God, 'and not that he should turn from his ways and live? But when a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity and does according to all the abominations that the wicked man does, shall he live? All the righteousness which he has done shall not be remembered; because of the unfaithfulness of which he is guilty and the sin which he has committed, because of them he shall die. ...
"'... I have no pleasure in the death of one who dies,' says the Lord God. 'Therefore turn and live!'" (Ezek. 18:21-24, 32)
Now Y'shua's statement, quoted previously, comes into focus:
"'And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.'" (Matt. 10:28)
Other humans can kill us, sending us to our first death; into a grave that is total darkness. But God has promised to raise up from their graves everyone who has lived and died; hence, our 'soul' or life is returned to us at that time. Some of those who are resurrected will be given eternal life, but others will have to suffer the second death. This is the death of no return, for there is no record in the Scriptures that anyone dying the second death will ever be resurrected a second time. It is the second death that causes both the body and the soul to be forever destroyed, as Y'shua indicated in Matt. 10:28 above.
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