When the Old Testament writers spoke about the afterlife, they referred to it by using the Hebrew word sheol (translated into the Greek as hades). Some early versions of the English Bible translated sheol and hades as ‘hell’, which is unfortunate, for that gives the wrong idea. Hell, as a place of fiery punishment, is the equivalent of the word gehenna. Sheol (or hades), by contrast, is simply the place or state of the dead. More recent English versions either transliterate the words as ‘sheol’ and ‘hades’, or translate them by such expressions as ‘the world of the dead’, ‘the grave’ and ‘the pit’.

The Old Testament writers expressed their view of the afterlife in broad general terms. They saw that all people eventually die and go to sheol, whether they be rich or poor, good or bad (Job 3:13-19; Ps 88:1- 5; Isa 38:18; Ezek 31:17; 32:18-32; cf. Luke 16:19-31). In fact, the writers often used ‘sheol’ simply as another word for ‘death’ (Gen 42:38; Ps 18:5; 86:13; 116:3; cf. Matt 16:18). But by speaking of sheol, they made it clear that death does not end human existence. They may have had very little knowledge concerning the state of the person in the afterlife, but they did not doubt that the person continued to exist. People saw death as an enemy (Ps 6:5; 56:13; Eccles 8:8; cf. Rom 6:23; 1 Cor 15:26; Rev 6:8). The mysterious, silent, shadowy existence that lay beyond it was not something they looked forward to (Job 10:21-22; 17:13-16; Ps 94:17; 115:17; Isa 14:9-11; Ezek 26:19-20). The hope of the Old Testament believers was that God would not desert them in sheol, but would bring them into a new and joyful experience of life in the presence of God (Job 19:26; Ps 16:10-11; 49:15; 73:24; cf. Acts 2:27,31). For the wicked, however, sheol would bring nothing but terror (Deut 32:22; Job 31:11-12; Ps 55:15; Isa 14:19- 20; Ezek 32:18-32). During the latter part of the Old Testament era, believers became more firmly convinced that beyond death lay the resurrection (Dan 12:1-2). This confidence grew into bold assurance through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Once Christ had conquered death and hades (sheol), people had no need to fear them any longer. God had now clearly shown immortal life to be a certainty (Matt 16:18; 2 Tim 1:10; Heb 2:14-15; Rev 1:18).

Since believers now shared Christ’s conquest, they naturally looked upon those who were not believers as still under the power of death. They therefore associated the afterlife of the wicked dead with the unwelcome aspects of hades (Matt 11:23; 1 Pet 3:19-20; Rev 20:13). In relation to themselves, however, believers no longer thought of the afterlife as a gloomy existence in sheol or hades, but as a joyful experience of life with Christ in paradise (Luke 23:42; 2 Cor 5:8; Phil 1:23; see HEAVEN; PARADISE).

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