Several weeks ago, a former university classmate of mine asked my opinion about some aspects of Scripture’s teaching on the afterlife. This is something I’ve spoken to others about, and so I thought I would present his question and (an edited verson of) my answer for discussion.
I have always heard of the rules that were used when making our English translations of the Bible, and one of those is that they wanted to consistently use the same English word to translate the same word from the original text. My question is, why do so many translations have the OT ‘Sheol’ translated as ‘death’ or ‘hell’ or ‘pit’ or just ‘sheol’? It appears to me to mean death, or the place of the dead. Why would they use the other words? Are they just trying to fit it with NT doctrines?
Without commenting on the specific translation philosophies of the various Bible versions, I think what we have in the OT and NT presentations of the afterlife is two distinctions. First, the OT’s cosmology is broadly Ancient Near Eastern, whereas the NT’s cosmology is influenced by Hellenism. Second, the OT’s conception of the afterlife is not as fully developed as the NT’s presentation, which is what we would expect from progressive revelation.
The OT seems to reference only “Sheol,” a place of the dead, where “good” and “bad” people go together. The rewards of obedience/election are experienced in this life and vicariously through offspring. I would venture to say that the first mention of resurrection is in 2 Maccabees 7:23, where the sense is that God would give pious martyrs new life in the same bodies. Only in the NT, with the revelation of Jesus Christ and his own resurrection, do we see the doctrine of resurrection to judgment–the damned to eternal torment, the redeemed to eternal life. It seems to me to be a doctrine like the Trinity: always true, but progressively revealed over time.
I think Scripture teaches that the afterlife involves four “locations” (“statuses” might be a better term, since two are spiritual only). Human beings are body and spirit/soul (dichotomist view), and death separates the two.
1) The souls of the dead in Christ go to the presence of God, while their bodies rot in the ground.
2) Similarly, the dead apart from Christ go to a place of the dead that is separate from the presence of God, not a place of eternal torment–call it Hades, or whatever.
3) At the resurrection, the redeemed receive resurrection bodies and live eternally in a re-created New Jerusalem.
4) At that resurrection, the dead apart from Christ are resurrected (not sure what kind of bodies) and cast into the Lake of Fire (Rev 20) for eternal punishment.
This is a biblical (I flatter myself) presentation that differs from the single-stage, dualistic process that most Christians believe (i.e., the dead go to heaven or hell forever). #2 is an inference from the other three–I don’t know much more to say about it, other than that we haven’t reached the resurrection yet, and Scripture teaches that “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord”–so the souls of dead non-Christians have to be…somewhere.
I try not to speculate too much about the exact nature of these afterlives, but to limit my formulations to the evidence that Scripture chooses to give–which isn’t as much as we would like it to be on this issue.