Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Death and Sheol, Heaven and Hell in the Psalms

My main argument: Beware of inviting people to believe in God so that they go to Heaven. Rather invite people to Heaven so they can be with God.

Most scholars rightly observe that the Psalms (and most of the Old Testament for that matter) do not focus in on heaven and hell.  In fact, the word sometimes translated "hell" is really the Hebrew word sheol, meaning "the place of the dead." The place of the dead appears to be a place of emptiness, shadows, and non-existence. This is reminiscent of what one character says in the season and show finale of the TV show House, "Death is eternal nothingness."

It would be inappropriate, however, to assume that the ancient Jews' final word on the afterlife was nothingness. Rather, their understanding was minimal and so they admittedly spoke of death as nothingness and emptiness because they had nothing better to go on. Later revelation from God in the New Testament gave us a fuller understanding of heaven and hell (and yet admittedly, we only have metaphors to begin grasp the glories of the new heaven and new earth and the agonies of hell).

But a person might go on to ask, why didn't God give the ancient Jews more to go on than sheol? C.S. Lewis gives a worthy answer to this question in his little work, Reflections on the Psalms. Lewis surmises that many of the competing pagan religions of the ancient Jews had overemphasized the state and well-being of the dead to their detriment. Rather than focus on living well in the here and now, the pagan cults stocked up for eternity and performed all kinds of religious acts with a hope to bend the gods to act mercifully beyond the grave.

The God of the Jews (Yahweh) took a different approach. Rather than produce worshippers who strove to find satisfaction in the afterlife, Yahweh invited people to find their satisfaction in Him in the here and now--not a satisfaction in the things of this world (think money, sex, and power), but in the God who is both in and above this world. God invited the Jews to delight in Him now, to see that He was the source of life and joy now, and to love Him now.

Lewis goes on to say, "For then those who love God [now] will desire not only to enjoy Him [now] but to 'enjoy Him forever,' and will fear to lose Him. And it is by that door that the truly religious hope of Heaven and fear of Hell can enter (emphasis added)..."  In other words, if you do not delight in God now, you won't delight in Him in later in Heaven. If you don't fear losing Him now, you won't fear losing Him forever in Hell. People choose Hell because they don't love Him. People choose heaven because they love Him.

My main argument: Beware of inviting people to believe in God so that they go to Heaven. Rather invite people to Heaven so they can be with God.

John 14:6 Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (NIV)


Jeff V said...

Nice little article here Matt. I'm struggling to find it, but I believe that Job talks about dying and resting before the final judgement. When I read that I thought it was pretty amazing to find something in the OT that lined up with Revelation so well. The large gap of knowledge explains how a group like the Sadducees could exist. Alas I cannot find it quick (Jobs a large book). But while I do this, you should consult your pastoral knowledge base to look up the original language for Job 9:9. Just curious if it really says those constellation names or not in the Hebrew.

Matt and Carrie Proctor said...


From what I can tell many scholars do think the Hebrew words relate to the constellations we know of as Orion/Pleiadas. I've copied some thoughts from one set of scholars:

25 sn There is more certainty for the understanding of this word as Orion, even though there is some overlap of the usage of the words in the Bible. In classical literature we have the same stereotypical reference to these three (see E. Dhorme, Job, 131).

26 sn The identification of this as the Pleiades is accepted by most (the Vulgate has "Hyades"). In classical Greek mythology, the seven Pleiades were seven sisters of the Hyades who were pursued by Orion until they were changed into stars by Zeus. The Greek myth is probably derived from an older Semitic myth.