What is Sheol?
We often say that Jesus has defeated death. But what does that mean?
Let’s start with the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead in John 11:1-44. Jesus travels to Bethany and is immediately accosted by Martha, the sister of the dead man. “Lord," Martha said to Jesus, "if You had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever You ask” (John 11:21).
You can almost hear the accusatory tone in Martha’s voice. “You should have been here! If You had been here, Lazarus, my brother. wouldn’t have died!” But then, she softens a bit, still hoping that Jesus will come through for her. “You can still do it, Lord. Won’t You do it? Please?”
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Does Jesus mean now or does He mean at the final resurrection? Martha takes it as the latter.
Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
But Jesus meant the former. Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?’"
Well, the question is, do we believe this? The first part is easy enough for us to believe as Christians. Jesus says that whoever believes in Him will live, even though that person has died. And we think immediately of Jesus’ second coming, when He will come down from Heaven and raise everyone who has died back to life. The Christian Church has always believed that Jesus will do this. We call it the Final Resurrection.
But what about this second part? Jesus says, “and whoever lives and believes in Me will never die.” Do we believe this? That’s a little bit harder to believe, isn’t it? I mean, how many of you have ever known someone who believed in Jesus, but then, they died? We’ve all known Christians, true Christians, who have died, haven’t we? So, how can Jesus say that if someone believes in Him, they will never die?
Well, to answer that question, we need to go back in time and find out what the word death meant to a Jewish person living in the time that Jesus said this.
To start, I wonder if you can think of a place in the Old Testament where it talks about someone dying and going to Heaven.
There is Enoch, who went to Heaven, and Elijah, who was carried up to Heaven in the chariot of fire, but they didn’t die, right? They were taken to Heaven without dying, so they’re kind of an exception to the rule.
The fact is that there is nowhere in the Old Testament where it talks about someone dying and going to Heaven. Neither is there any place where the Old Testament talks about someone dying and going to Hell. In fact, there’s not a place in the Old Testament where God even says that people can go to Heaven or Hell when they die. Why is that?
The reason is that for the Jewish people of the Old Testament, and for some Jewish people today, Heaven and Hell was not a concept that entered their minds. The people in the Old Testament never even dreamed that there was a Heaven or a Hell to go to. They knew God lived in Heaven, of course, but that was where God and the angels lived, not people, and certainly not regular people like you and me.
For the Jewish people of the Old Testament, death was the end. Their spirits didn’t go to Heaven or Hell.
As David writes in Psalm 6:5, No one remembers You [God] when he is dead. Who praises You from the grave? You see, David isn’t imagining singing in any Heavenly choir when he dies. He knows that he will never again praise God once he has passed on.
Similarly, King Hezekiah in Isaiah 38:10-11, 18-19, writes, In the prime of my life must I go through the gates of death and be robbed of the rest of my years? I said, “I will not again see the LORD, the LORD, in the land of the living; no longer will I look on mankind, or be with those who now dwell in this world.” For the grave cannot praise You, death cannot sing Your praise; those who go down to the pit cannot hope for Your faithfulness. The living, the living—they praise You...
The words that have been translated in these verses as “death,” “grave,” and “pit” all come from the Hebrew word, Sheol.
So, we see that the people of the Old Testament had no hope of seeing or being with God when they died. They served God for this life – God rewarded them in this life – and then, they died. That was all they knew.
And they knew why they died. They knew that God had told Adam and Eve that if they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they would die. They ate anyway and died as a consequence. Everyone after them dies because we are all their descendants and we all have Adam and Eve’s sinful nature deep down inside of us. We’ve all done things that God has told us not to do, just like they did.
But yet, we know that there is something beyond death, don’t we? That’s the difference between us and the people of the Old Testament. They died because of sin and thought that was the end. We die because of sin but know that it is not the end. So, what has changed for us? Why do we have this hope of Heaven when they did not?
Romans 5:12, 15-17 reads, Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned….the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God's grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! Again, the gift of God is not like the result of the one man's sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God's abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.
Adam sinned and died as a punishment. We sin and die as a punishment. The difference is that Adam and everyone else in the Old Testament were living before Christ came, and we are living after Christ came. Because Jesus had not yet come in the Old Testament, Adam had to stay dead. That included his spirit. Jesus had not yet died to forgive Adam for his sin, so Adam’s spirit had to stay with his body in the grave. It couldn’t be rewarded by going on to Heaven. It had to stay where it was. But for us, we have been forgiven. Jesus died on the cross, taking the punishment for our sins on Himself. So, when we die, our punishment, our penalty, has already been taken care of. We can’t stay dead because Jesus has already died for us.
It’s kind of like baseball. In the game of baseball, you can’t have two runners on the same base. Either one has to move forward, or the other has to go back. They can’t occupy the same base. It’s the same way with us and Jesus. Jesus has already occupied our place in death, so when we get there, death makes our spirits move on. We can’t stay there. We have to either go to Heaven or to Hell, based on the decision we have made.
So, our souls are free to move past death and go on to Heaven. That’s how Jesus can say that we will never really die. Even though our bodies die, we’re not really dead. Our spirits live on through death and don’t have to stay in death like the spirits of the people of the Old Testament did.
That’s us. But now we have to go back and ask: Well, what happened to the people of the Old Testament who died before Jesus came? Do their spirits ever get to move on past death like ours do? Does Adam ever get to live again?
And the answer to that question is yes. In fact, their spirits have already moved on. Matthew 27:52-53 says, The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus' resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
Everyone who lived before Christ were stuck in death. Once He died and was resurrected, they were free to move past death. Jesus had come to occupy their place and they had to move on. You see, Jesus’ death wasn’t just for us. He wasn’t defeating death just for us. He was dying for Adam and for Cain and Abel and for Noah and for everyone who had died before He came.
1 Peter 3:18-20a says, For Christ died for sins once for all, the Righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.
Jesus went and preached to the people who were dead, all those people who had died in the Flood. His Spirit spoke to their spirits and told them the good news, told them the message of why He had come, and gave them the opportunity to place their trust in Him for salvation. Jesus preached to the dead so that their spirits could live again.
Jesus told His disciples that He was going to wake Lazarus up, as if Lazarus were only sleeping, even though Jesus knew that Lazarus was dead. But for Jesus, death is only a sleep, isn’t it? He did wake Lazarus up, bringing him back from death, and He did the same thing for the rest of the people who had died by going to them in His Spirit, in their own death, and waking them up with the power of His word and preaching to them.
This idea of the Old Testament people being stuck in death for a time and not being able to go to Heaven as soon as they died may have been another concept that gave rise to the doctrines of Purgatory and Limbo.
But the point is that now everyone is able to escape death. Jesus has defeated death so that it no longer has any power. We don’t have to stay dead. Our loved ones don’t have to stay dead. Adam and the rest of the people of the Old Testament don’t have to stay dead. Our spirits can live on, and one day, when Jesus returns, He will even bring our bodies back to life, and we will never die again.
Like, Hell and Heaven, Sheol was temporary. That place of death was emptied when Christ took our place. Now, we bypass it on our way to Heaven or Hell.
This blog post is included in my book, Last Days: A Biblical Guide to the End Times.
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