The Importance of Sheol in a Discussion of Heaven and Hell, and How It Informs the Argument Between Universalism and Particularism

I have written the post Everyone Is Going to Heaven , the book The Biblical Case for Everyone Going to Heaven, and the series of 21 Essays on the Implications of Everyone Going to Heaven.  The traditional evangelical Christian argument is, of course, that some go to heaven and some go to hell (perhaps not coincidentally, the evangelicals think they will comprise the former group and will be absent from the latter).

One of the charges thrown at me by some evangelicals is that I am a universalist.  Since universalism is considered heretical by evangelical standards, this charge, in the mind of the one making it, usually obviates the need for any further discussion.  However, some evangelicals are a little more open-minded.  For example, consider Annoyed Pinoy who interacted with me in this post at Triablogue.  (You can also see other more extended dialogues I’ve had with him on other subjects here, here, and here.)

At a particular point in the interaction, Annoyed Pinoy said:

“Btw, while there are various versions of universalism/apokatastasis (especially in recent times) all of them, to some degree or another encounter the kinds of problems revealed by books like Universalism Not of the Bible (click here).”

My response:

I followed your link and took a look at this book by N.D. George.  He says in the preface that he was familiar with universalists’ teachings having studied them for twenty years, and prior to that having been an avid reader of their materials for two years before becoming a believer in Christ.  I, however, am not familiar with universalists’ teachings.  I have never studied them, nor spent time in universalist circles.  I still don’t.  I came to my conviction that everyone goes to heaven entirely apart from them.

When I decided to search the scriptures for the truth of the matter, I started from the standard evangelical position (which was the only position I knew in any detail, the position I held, and the position I taught others).  I set out with a concordance to study all that the Bible had to teach about hell.  I found that if you searched on “hell” you’d find four different words that were sometimes translated as “hell” in the King James Bible.  Over half of those occurrences were Sheol (Hebrew).  I could see further that Hades (Greek) was a good translation of Sheol, but that Gehenna (Greek, but with Hebrew antecedent “Ben-Hinnom”) was something different.  Both Sheol and Ben-Hinnom are found in the Hebrew Bible but are never used interchangeably.  I also looked to other English translations, mainly the New American Standard Bible.  It took me considerable time to sort out all occurrences of the word involved, but you see the outcome in the book I wrote, to which I referred you: The Biblical Case for Everyone Going to Heaven.

The subtitle of the N.D. George book is in part “An Examination of More Than One Hundred and Twenty Texts of Scriptures in Controversy Between Evangelical Christians and Universalists.”  At 420 pages, the book obviously intends to fully cover the subject.  George has a Scripture Index at the back of the book which catalogs each one of these passages.  Astoundingly, there is not a single passage containing “Sheol” among them.  Not one!  In fact, a Google search of the book indicates that “Sheol” occurs only once, and then in a fleeting and unrevealing mention near the back of the book.  There are several points that can be drawn from this startling omission:

1. George was unaware of my argument, and therefore cannot be offering a counterargument to it.

2. While his book presents itself more a condemnation of universalism than a defense of particularism, it does not commend his doctrine that he fails to address the Hebrew conception of afterlife.

3. Similarly, I have had many evangelicals tell me that they hold to the traditional doctrine of hell in the afterlife because they have searched the Scriptures themselves and found it to be so.  However, when they subsequently indicate no more than a passing acquaintance with the term Sheol I know that they have ignored the Old Testament’s teaching on afterlife and therefore do not understood what the New Testament was saying about it.  In other words, such people are relying on tradition more than Scripture no matter how much they deny it to me or to themselves.

If the traditional evangelical doctrine of hell were biblical it would incorporate the Old Testament’s teaching of Sheol (65 occurrences, not counting its appearances in the New Testament as Hades), and be founded upon it.  Any teaching which ignores over three-fourths of the Bible cannot be considered biblical.

Nevertheless, I do not advocate universalism.  I advocate Jesus Christ our Lord.

4 Replies to “The Importance of Sheol in a Discussion of Heaven and Hell, and How It Informs the Argument Between Universalism and Particularism”

  1. Hey Mike,

    The best overall book on the afterlife that defends the the traditional view of “everlasting punishment” which I personally have read (rather than a recommended one or one I’ve merely browsed) is Robert Morey’s book, “Death and the Afterlife”. As I’ve told you before, I used to hold to annihilationism (and was familiar with the standard defenses for it). Morey’s book conclusively demonstrates the traditional view (IMHO). However, I found some minor problems with the book which Edward Fudge also (independently) noted in his book review. Fudge, is the author of the best book in defense of annihilationism, “The Fire That Consumes”. I pretty much agree with Fudge’s criticisms of Morey’s book here http://www.edwardfudge.com/morey.html. But if you subtract the those problems from Morey’s book, I still think he does an excellent job in arguing for the traditional position.

  2. This quote from the Fudge review of the Morey book is quite telling:

    “Traditionalists admit that they are hard pressed to find their view in the Old Testament. The conditionalist’s expedition into the Old Testament, however, proves more fruitful.”

    It thus, in essence, confirms the point I am making in this post: the traditional view largely ignores what the Old Testament says about afterlife. As for the conditional view, it does glean the notion of “judgment consuming” from the Old Testament, but, alas, like the traditional view, rejects the Old Testament’s cosmology (i.e. heaven above for supernatural beings, earth here for living human beings, Sheol below for all deceased human beings). Any biblical view of the afterlife must use this cosmology as its starting point; otherwise, it has no sound basis for claiming that its end point is biblical.

    The indictment I make against the traditional view (and this applies to the conditionalist view as well, though to a lesser degree) is not just that it is wrong – but that it is unbiblical. To postulate a major doctrine while ignoring three-fourths of the Bible is indefensible.

  3. Hey Mike,
    it was me, Annoyed Pinoy, who posted that first comment. I accidentally forgot to change it from anonymous to my nick.

    “Traditionalists admit that they are hard pressed to find their view in the Old Testament. The conditionalist’s expedition into the Old Testament, however, proves more fruitful.”

    The OT is also mostly silent about the afterlife for the righteous as well. God’s revelation is progressive. Just as the NT says more about the nature of God than the OT, so does the NT say more about the afterlife than the OT. Morey doesn’t a great job demonstrating this. Alhough there are clear passages in the OT that either teach or strongly imply an afterlife for the righteous; if not interpreted correctly the OT could be interpreted in way that suggests there is no afterlife at all (either for the righteous or the unrighteous). So, going primarily to the OT to find teaching on what happens to the righteous and wicked when they die is foolish.

    To postulate a major doctrine while ignoring three-fourths of the Bible is indefensible.

    This statement minimizes or ignores the principle of progressive revelation and other sound interpretative principles. Scripture should interpret Scripture. Less clear passages should be interpreted in light of clearer passages. Implicit inferences should give way to (and be made in light of more) explicit teachings/propositions in Scripture. Interpretations of a passage should be consistent with the rest of Scripture so that interpretations that contradict the rest of Scripture should be rejected. et cetera

    To postulate a major doctrine while ignoring three-fourths of the Bible is indefensible.

    The Bible, in its entirety (tota scriptura), teaches salvation by GRACE *Alone* throughFAITH *Alone* because of CHRIST *Alone* (i.e. on the basis of Christ’s all sufficient work alone). While this salvation is is not by works, but is nevertheless with works. As the saying goes, “Justification is by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone”. You mention three-fourths of Biblical teaching. Yet, if one read only the OT (which by itself is about 3 times as large as the NT), or read (without paying close attention to detail) only the Synoptic Gospels one could conclude that salvation is by meritorious works. That goes to show that the amount of Scripture (percentage wise) doesn’t indicate what Scripture’s actual teaching is concerning a certain subject.

    Again, I would highly recommend Morey’s book. Btw, if possible, could you email me? I typed one of my emails in the email field (trusting that it won’t be published or disclosed). I’d like to send you a file.

  4. The [Old Testament] is also mostly silent about the afterlife for the righteous as well.

    While the OT does not offer extensive details about the afterlife, I think it’s inaccurate and misleading to characterize it as “silent.”  Consider the scores of references to Sheol mentioned in the original post above, as well as reinforcing passages which do not explicitly reference Sheol.  Read them all in context and you will see that the OT presents a clear, simple, and straightforward cosmology: heaven above (for supernatural beings), earth here (for living human beings), and Sheol (aka Hades, for deceased human beings).  The NT  embraces this cosmology as well. In this cosmology, the dead – righteous and wicked alike – descend to Sheol (Hades) at death.  Both testaments also then prophesy of a new cosmology (sans Sheol).  The only thing you could say the OT is relatively silent about with regard to afterlife is details about distinctions between its nature for the righteous as opposed to the wicked.  And that is a point worth noting (that is, if everyone was going to Sheol, we should not be completely surprised to learn that everyone is now going to heaven – there always being but one destination for the dead, even though that destination changes with Christ).

    God’s revelation is progressive.

    Indeed it is, but this is no reason to ignore the Old Testament.

    Just as the NT says more about the nature of God than the OT, so does the NT say more about the afterlife than the OT.

    Again, true, but no reason to ignore the Old Testament.

    Morey doesn’t [do] a great job demonstrating this. Alhough there are clear passages in the OT that either teach or strongly imply an afterlife for the righteous; if not interpreted correctly the OT could be interpreted in way that suggests there is no afterlife at all (either for the righteous or the unrighteous). So, going primarily to the OT to find teaching on what happens to the righteous and wicked when they die is foolish.

    I don’t say that you should primarily go to the OT; I say that you should not ignore it.  And since the NT takes its cosmology from the OT, our understanding ought to be informed by it as well.

    This statement [“To postulate a major doctrine while ignoring three-fourths of the Bible is indefensible.”] minimizes or ignores the principle of progressive revelation and other sound interpretative principles.

    Not true.  On the contrary, you cannot show progress in revelation unless you show what it was and what it became.  The traditional view which Morey and others put forth truncates revelation by ignoring its progress.

    Scripture should interpret Scripture.  Less clear passages should be interpreted in light of clearer passages.  Implicit inferences should give way to (and be made in light of more) explicit teachings/propositions in Scripture. Interpretations of a passage should be consistent with the rest of Scripture so that interpretations that contradict the rest of Scripture should be rejected. et cetera

    Agreed, but none of these principles allow one to ignore the OT’s cosmology and its statements about afterlife.

    The Bible, in its entirety (tota scriptura), teaches salvation by GRACE *Alone* through FAITH *Alone* because of CHRIST *Alone* (i.e. on the basis of Christ’s all sufficient work alone). While this salvation is is not by works, but is nevertheless with works. As the saying goes, “Justification is by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone”. You mention three-fourths of Biblical teaching. Yet, if one read only the OT (which by itself is about 3 times as large as the NT), or read (without paying close attention to detail) only the Synoptic Gospels, one could conclude that salvation is by meritorious works. That goes to show that the amount of Scripture (percentage wise) doesn’t indicate what Scripture’s actual teaching is concerning a certain subject.

    The doctrine of which you speak was written by apostles for whom the Old Testament comprised the entirety of Scripture.  On a smaller scale, see Hebrews 11 to understand the OT as a source for the doctrine of faith.  Your dichotomy exists only for someone who misreads the OT.  The apostles did not use their intimacy with Christ to ignore the OT; rather that intimacy plunged them into the OT.  By contrast, the traditional evangelical doctrine of hell is quite standoffish about the OT.

    Again, I would highly recommend Morey’s book.

    I’m quite familiar with the traditional doctrine.  I used to believe and teach it.  Tell me that Morey understands the OT’s teaching about Sheol and uses it in his exegesis of the Bible’s teaching about afterlife and I will be interested in reading his book.

    By the way, when I say “the OT’s teaching about Sheol” it is a term of convenience.  The fact is that it is the OT’s and the NT’s teaching about Sheol when you consider that Hades is the Greek term for Sheol.  There is no distinction between what the OT teaches about Sheol (Hades) and what the NT teaches about it.  Both prophesy a change to occur and  both agree about what that change will be.  Writers like Morey therefore not only ignore the OT’s teaching about Sheol; they misunderstand the NT’s teaching about it.  In other words, their argument is rooted in confusion.

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