Question: If Hell is real and if good people go to heaven and bad people go to Hell, why does EVERYONE, good or bad, go to the same place in the Old Testament? They ALL go to Sheol which the King James Version translated ‘Hell’ thirty-0ne times, ‘grave’ thirty-one times and ‘pit’ three times? Are we all destined to go to Hell or did the King’s translators make some gross translation errors? (The Hell Test)
Answer: The question begins poorly because it is based on a false premise. The author asks “if Hell is real” and combines that with “and if good people go to heaven and bad people go to Hell …” The problem with using that as a statement of fact is that Heaven is not for “good people” and Hell is not for “bad people.” All people are bad and “hell” was not made for people.
“The Lord looks down from heaven upon the children of men, To see if there are any who understand, who seek God. They have all turned aside, They have together become corrupt; There is none who does good, No, not one.” Psalm 14:2-3
“As it is written: ‘There is none righteous, no, not one; There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; They have together become unprofitable; There is none who does good, no, not one.” Romans 3:10-12
“Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Matthew 25:41
The second part of the question is also a problem because it goes to the King James Version translation again. We addressed that in a previous study. God did not call His people to defend translations of His Word; He called us to defend what His Spirit inspired the authors of Scripture to write in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek languages.
Stripping away the red herrings and smoke screens the The Hell Test throws at people to distract them from the real issues, we find ourselves looking at what the Holy Spirit says about what happens to human beings after they die. That is a legitimate question, and for the purpose of continuing to test The Hell Test, we’ll look at the part of the question concerning the Hebrew word sheol. What is it, where is it, and who is there?
First, an observation. The family of Israel (Jacob) spent 400 years in Egypt, many of those years as slaves helping the Egyptians build their pyramids, temples and other buildings dedicated to the Egyptian immortality cult. One of the primary Egyptian texts concerning life after death was The Book of the Dead. The Israelites knew what was inside the pyramids and would certainly have understood what the Egyptians believed. Based on what we saw the Hebrew people do during their wilderness wandering, Egyptian beliefs and practices had deeply impacted their spiritual thinking.
God gave Moses what could be called The Book of the Living (Torah) in the wilderness. God was quick to get His Word into the minds and hearts of His people so they would know what was true about life and living, and death and dying. Life was so important to God that He told Israel that the penalty for taking life from someone could be their own death. In fact, God imposed the death penalty on Israelites for even more than taking the life of another person (e.g. cursing mother or father, committing adultery, homosexual sex, man marries woman and her mother, man or woman has sex with an animal, man or woman is a medium or has familiar spirits, working on the Sabbath). God imposed a strong Law on Israel to teach them the difference between the God of Heaven and the gods of Egypt, and to protect them from the pagan wickedness they would encounter as they entered Canaan.
[You can read more about Israel, Egypt and the immortality cult in my book, “A History of Man’s Quest for Immortality,” Fifth Estate Publishing, 2007]
Sheol is used 66 times in the Hebrew Bible. Here’s how several English versions of the Old Testament translate sheol.
NIV – grave, death, realm of death
ASV – lowest Sheol
HCSB – Sheol
NLV – place of the dead
RSV – depths of Sheol
GNT – world below
NLT – depths of the grave
AMP – Sheol (Hades, the place of the dead)
Here are some thoughts about the meaning of sheol from Hebrew scholars.
“Sheol denotes the place where departed souls are gathered after death; it is an infinitive form from sha-al, to demand, the demanding, applied to the place where inexorably summons all men into its shade.” C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. l, p. 338, 1978
“Whatever be the derivation of this word, there can be no doubt of the scriptural application of it to the state and abode of the dead; hence the grave in which the body rests, and the invisible world, to which the souls of men depart in death.” Wilson’s Old Testament Word Studies, 1870 AD, Dr. William Wilson, Queen’s College, Oxford
“It connotes the place where those that had died were believed to be congregated. Jacob, refusing to be comforted at the supposed death of Joseph, exclaims: “I shall go down to my son a mourner unto Sheol” (Gen. xxxvii. 36, Hebr.; comp. ib. xlii. 38; xliv. 29, 31). Sheol is underneath the earth (Isa. vii. 11, lvii. 9; Ezek. xxxi. 14; Ps. lxxxvi. 13; Ecclus. [Sirach] li. 6; comp. Enoch, xvii. 6, “toward the setting of the sun”); hence it is designated as (Deut. xxxii. 22; Ps. lxxxvi. 13) or (Ps. lxxxviii. 7; Lam. iii. 55; Ezek. xxvi. 20, xxxii. 24). It is very deep (Prov. ix. 18; Isa. lvii. 9); and it marks the point at the greatest possible distance from heaven (Job xi. 8; Amos ix. 2; Ps. cxxxix. 8).” 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia
What does the Hebrew Bible teach about who goes to sheol? Living people who die. Human beings have life because God gave them life – “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7) God “formed” (yasar) man using the dust of the ground. That’s the physical aspect of the creation of humanity. Then, God “breathed” (napah) in the man’s nostrils the “breath of life” (nesamah hay). That’s the soul-life aspect of the creation of humanity. God breathed into them with a force that brought about the vital energy of life.
What happens in a hospital delivery room when a baby is born but doesn’t make a sound? Doctors and nurses go into action quickly to get the baby to breathe. That’s because once outside of the mother’s womb the baby must breathe air on his/her own to continue living. The greatest sound to a parent is to hear their newborn breathe. Breath means there is life.
The same is true about death. It is the end of breathing. Interestingly, the Hebrews understood that as a natural part of life – “To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven: A time to be born, And a time to die.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2) The people of the Old Testament were under no illusion that their physical life would go on forever. They knew death was coming and they knew where they were going.
Job, who may have lived during the time of Abraham, said that after his death God would bring him to “the house appointed for all living” (Job 30:23). The Hebrew word translated “house” is bayit and carried the idea of being “within a place.” The word has also been translated as “temple, family, people,” and even “prison.” Job thought of himself going to a designated place after his death. In Job 38 where God revealed His Omnipotence to Job, the Lord spoke to Job about “the gates of death” and “the doors of the shadow of death.” When King Saul tricked the witch into bringing the dead prophet Samuel up from sheol, Samuel asked Saul why the king had disturbed him by bringing him “up,” which gives some credence to the idea of sheol being underground. King David single-handedly killed more people in his lifetime than most ancient armies did with all their soldiers. David had faced death many times and lived, but he knew his time was coming. David spoke about “the gates of death” (Psalm 9:13) and referred to dying as sleeping “the sleep of death” (Psalm 13:3). David’s son, King Solomon, spoke of death as “the assembly of the dead” (Proverbs 21:16).
Did everyone in the world who died during Old Testament times go to sheol? If so, what was it like? Did God divide the righteous from the unrighteous in sheol? Join us next time as we continue to Test The Hell Test.
In Christ’s Love and Grace,
Building Confidence Through Evidence
“Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”