We’re continuing to answer this question from The Hell Test: “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)
Did everyone who died during the Old Testament times go to sheol? If so, what was it like?
Answer: Burial of a dead body was the practice of ancient people. The Hebrew word qeber means “grave, sepulchre, tomb.” It comes from qabar which means “to bury, to be buried.” This is the process of a living person placing the body of a dead person in a grave, sepulchre, tomb, or other physical location. If the body of a dead person was exhumed at a later time (except for bodies that were mummified), only bones would be left. The dead person’s flesh would have decayed. However, is that the end of the person’s existence? What did the Hebrews believe?
When the living soul (nephesh hayah) turned into a dead soul (nephesh met), the person became an empty and weakened “shade” (rephaim) of their former self. We saw in a previous study that King Saul deceived a witch into bringing the dead prophet Samuel from sheol so he could ask him a question. Look at what we learn about a nephesh met from this exchange.
“When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice. And the woman spoke to Saul, saying, ‘Why have you deceived me? For you are Saul!’ And the king said to her, ‘Do not be afraid. What did you see?’ And the woman said to Saul, ‘I saw a spirit ascending out of the earth.’ So he said to her, ‘What is his form?’ And she said, ‘An old man is coming up, and he is covered with a mantle.’ And Saul perceived that it was Samuel, and he stooped with his face to the ground and bowed down. Now Samuel said to Saul, ‘Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?’ And Saul answered, ‘I am deeply distressed; for the Philistines make war against me, and God has departed from me and does not answer me anymore, neither by prophets nor by dreams. Therefore I have called you, that you may reveal to me what I should do.’ Then Samuel said: ‘So why do you ask me, seeing the Lord has departed from you and has become your enemy? And the Lord has done for Himself as He spoke by me. For the Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, David. Because you did not obey the voice of the Lord nor execute His fierce wrath upon Amalek, therefore the Lord has done this thing to you this day. Moreover the Lord will also deliver Israel with you into the hand of the Philistines. And tomorrow you and your sons will be with me. The Lord will also deliver the army of Israel into the hand of the Philistines.’ Immediately Saul fell full length on the ground, and was dreadfully afraid because of the words of Samuel. And there was no strength in him, for he had eaten no food all day or all night.” 1 Samuel 28:12-20
This was an extremely unusual event in Scripture that the soul of a dead person would speak to a living person, but it was something God allowed for His purpose concerning the end of Saul’s rule as the king of Israel. Samuel had been a priest, prophet, and kingmaker. Even though he was dead, Samuel was going “unmake” King Saul. Because of that event in Israel’s history, we have the rare opportunity to look into the afterlife.
- The witch said Samuel appeared as “a spirit ascending out of the earth.”
- Even though Samuel was a “spirit” (elohiym), he looked like “an old man” who was “covered with a mantle.” Saul perceived that it was the spirit of Samuel and showed respect. It’s interesting to see that even as a spirit, Samuel looked something like that of his physical body.
- Samuel’s first words to Saul were, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” Samuel viewed being brought back to the land of the living as a disturbance. The Hebrew word for “disturbed” is ragaz and means “be agitated, be perturbed, be angry, tremble, quake, quiver.” Samuel expressed a human emotion to being brought from sheol to the land of the living.
- Saul answered Samuel because he heard the prophet’s voice. The spirit of Samuel spoke to Saul in a way that Saul’s ears were able to identify and understand.
- Samuel was aware of Saul’s relationship with God – “So why do you ask me, seeing the Lord has departed from you and has become your enemy?” Samuel was also familiar with what he had done as a prophet before his death – “And the Lord has done for Himself as He spoke by me.” Samuel knew what God was doing in Saul’s life that day – “For the Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, David. Because you did not obey the voice of the Lord nor execute His fierce wrath upon Amalek, therefore the Lord has done this thing to you this day.” The spirit of Samuel also knew the Lord’s future plans for King Saul – “Moreover the Lord will also deliver Israel with you into the hand of the Philistines. And tomorrow you and your sons will be with me. The Lord will also deliver the army of Israel into the hand of the Philistines.”
The Book of Samuel does not say what happened to the spirit of Samuel after his encounter with Saul, but we are left with the impression that he returned to sheol.
The Old Testament is clear that both the righteous and unrighteous go to sheol after they die. Jacob said he would go to sheol (Genesis 37:35; 42:38). Moses said that Israelites whom God rejected would go to sheol (Numbers 16:28-34). In Job’s discourse about the wicked he said, “They spend their days in wealth, And in a moment go down to the grave. Yet they say to God, ‘Depart from us, For we do not desire the knowledge of Your ways.” (Job 21:13-14) King David also spoke of the wicked and all nations that forget God going to sheol (Psalm 9:17). The prophets spoke often about sheol being a place the wicked would go after their death (Isaiah 5:14; Ezekiel 32:17-32).
So, what happened to the righteous and wicked who died and their souls went to sheol? A better question might be – what did God do with the righteous and wicked after their deaths? The souls of all people are in the hands of God. It is a matter of His holiness that should concern us. Anyone who thinks God looks at all of the souls of the dead in the same way is dangerously mistaken.
“And He said: ‘I will hide My face from them, I will see what their end will be, For they are a perverse generation, Children in whom is no faith. They have provoked Me to jealousy by what is not God; They have moved Me to anger by their foolish idols. But I will provoke them to jealousy by those who are not a nation; I will move them to anger by a foolish nation. For a fire is kindled in My anger, And shall burn to the lowest hell; It shall consume the earth with her increase, And set on fire the foundations of the mountains. ‘I will heap disasters on them; I will spend My arrows on them.” Deuteronomy 32:20-23
[“hell” is the NKJV translation here for sheol]
In the next part of our test of The Hell Test, we’ll look at an important clue to understanding how God determined the future of the righteous and unrighteous souls of the dead during Old Testament times.
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.”