13 August 2008

Descended into hell? (Pt 2): Death and Afterlife in Hebrew Thought

We saw in part one a basic foundation for thought on what was to be understood by the Apostle's Creed when it says (about Christ), that "he descended into hell." Hopefully you can more of what is NOT being said by this clause.

Let us move on now to lay out some background to the Hebrew thought of death, the grave, Sheol, etc. Though this part, I will be focusing mainly on extra-biblical texts that are of Hebrew origin, in order to show the mindset and teachings around the time of Christ, and their influence ultimately on the Creed's clause.

Before moving to those sources, let me first share this quote from a more modern author. This is directly connected to the passing comment made in the quote from Easton's Revised Bible Dictionary near the end of part one, regarding Luke 23:43. It said:
The blessed dead are in that part of Hades called paradise (Luke 23:43). They are also said to be in Abraham’s bosom (Luke 16:22).
Jesus told the thief on the cross that he would be with him that day in paradise. Most often this is explained as being a promise of the thief being with Christ in heaven that very day, however, we shall see that is not the understanding of paradise or of their destination that day at all.
The fact that Jesus uses the term “paradise” is highly significant. In intertestamental Judaism we have seen that it denotes the Edenic abode of the Lord’s saints, both the final kingdom and the intermediate resting place of the dead. Often it is located in heaven. In can also be in Hades. … All of this must be taken seriously in understanding what Jesus said to the thief. He promised this repentant sinner the fellowship of paradise, the dwelling place of the faithful dead even before the resurrection, that very day.

Jesus could have been in paradise and “hell” at the same time. With respects to “hell,” Acts 2:27 and 31 refer to Psalm 16:10 and actually say that Jesus went to Sheol or Hades, the realm of the dead. Nowhere does it say that he went to Gehenna, the “hell” of final punishment. Great confusion has been caused by the King James translation of both Hades and Gehenna as “hell.” We have seen that intertestamental Judaism pictures Sheol/Hades as containing different locations or compartments in which the dead of different eternal destinies are quartered. Both believers and unbelievers populate the general realm of the dead. Further, we know that the Rabbis thought of paradise as located in Hades. (Cooper, James W. Body, Soul & Life Everlasting. 1st ed. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Company, 1989. 141, 143.)
I suggest you read that part a second time, and listen to what is being said. This train of thought is so alien to most in the church today, that I hope you'll grasp what Cooper is saying before we move on.

Let us now move on to now examine some of the extra-biblical, intertestamental texts Cooper referred to, to see the influence and understandings of the Hebrew people at the time of Christ.

Let us start by looking at a concise definition from one of the most reliable and trustworthy online sources...Wikipedia (ok, you can laugh a little):
Sheol (שאול) is the Hebrew language word denoting the "abode of the dead"; the "underworld", "grave" or "pit". In the Hebrew Bible it is portrayed as a comfortless place beneath the earth, beyond gates, where both the bad and the good, slave and king, pious and wicked must go after death to sleep in silence and oblivion in the dust. (emphasis mine)
Now, for a bit more in depth view and description, let us turn to the Jewish Encyclopedia:
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. 37:36, Hebr.; comp. ib. 42:38; 44:29, 31). Sheol is underneath the earth (Isa. 7:11, 57:9; Ezek. 31:14; Ps. 86:13; Ecclus. [Sirach] 51:6; comp. Enoch, 17:6, "toward the setting of the sun"). It is very deep (Prov. 9:18; Isa. 57:9); and it marks the point at the greatest possible distance from heaven (Job 11:8; Amos 9:2; Ps. 139:8). The dead descend or are made to go down into it; the revived ascend or are brought and lifted up from it (I Sam. 2:6; Job 7:9; Ps. 30:4; Isa. 14: 11, 15). Sometimes the living are hurled into Sheol before they would naturally have been claimed by it (Prov. 1:12; Num. 16:33; Ps. 55:16, 63:10), in which cases the earth is described as "opening her mouth" (Num. 16:30). Sheol is spoken of as a land (Job 10:21, 22); but ordinarily it is a place with gates (ib. 17:16, 38:17; Isa. 38:10; Ps. 9:14), and seems to have been viewed as divided into compartments (Prov. 7:27), with "farthest corners" (Isa. 14:15; Ezek. 32:23, Hebr.; R. V. "uttermost parts of the pit"), one beneath the other (see Jew. Encyc. v. 217, s. v. Eschatology). Here the dead meet (Ezek. 32; Isa. 14; Job 30:23) without distinction of rank or condition — the rich and the poor, the pious and the wicked, the old and the young, the master and the slave — if the description in Job 3 refers, as most likely it does, to Sheol. The dead continue after a fashion their earthly life. Jacob would mourn there (Gen. 37:35, 42:38); David abides there in peace (I Kings 2:6); the warriors have their weapons with them (Ezek. 32:27), yet they are mere shadows ("rephaim"; Isa. 14:9, 26:14; Ps. 88:5, A. V. "a man that hath no strength"). The dead merely exist without knowledge or feeling (Job 14:13; Eccl. 9:5). Silence reigns supreme; and oblivion is the lot of them that enter therein (Ps. 88:13, 94:17; Eccl. ix. 10). Hence it is known also as "Dumah," the abode of silence (Ps. 6:6, 30:10, 94:17, 115:17); and there God is not praised (ib. 115:17; Isa. 38:15). Still, on certain extraordinary occasions the dwellers in Sheol are credited with the gift of making known their feelings of rejoicing at the downfall of the enemy (Isa. 14:9, 10). Sleep is their usual lot (Jer. 51:39; Isa. 26:14; Job xiv. 12). Sheol is a horrible, dreary, dark, disorderly land (Job 10:21, 22); yet it is the appointed house for all the living (ib. 30:23). Return from Sheol is not expected (II Sam. 12:23; Job 7:9, 10; 10:21; 14:7 et seq.; 16:22; Ecclus. [Sirach] 38:21); it is described as man's eternal house (Eccl. 12:5). It is "dust" (Ps. 30:10; hence in the Shemoneh 'Esreh, in benediction No. 2, the dead are described as "sleepers in the dust"). (emphasis mine)
Again, take the time to look up the references to see the language Scripture uses directly. I believe once we regain a better understanding of what the Jews believed, and what the New Testament writers said to them regarding these issues, we will see the importance of the Creed's clause.

Let me move on to other historic writings. These gives a more visual picture to the thought of this place of the dead. I will start first with a more commonly known figure in church history, the first century Jewish historian Josephus. He wrote a writing on the Hadean realm to the Greeks for their understanding. It would be so nice if today's "Greeks" understood this:
Now as to Hades, wherein the souls of the righteous and unrighteous are detained, it is necessary to speak of it. Hades is a place in the world not regularly finished; a subterraneous region, where the light of the world does not shine; from which circumstance, that in this region the light does not shine, it cannot be but there must be in it perpetual darkness. This region is allotted as a place of custody for souls, in which angels are appointed as guardians to them, who distribute to them temporary punishments agreeable to everyone’s behavior and manners.

In this region there is a certain place set apart, as a lake of unquenchable fire, whereinto we suppose no one hath hitherto been cast; but it is prepared for a day aforedetermined by God, in which one righteous sentence shall deservedly be passed upon all men; when the unjust and those that have been disobedient to God, and have given honor to such idols as have been the vain operations of the hands of men, as to God himself, shall be adjudged to this everlasting punishment, as having been the cause of defilement; while the just shall obtain an incorruptible and never-fading kingdom. These are now indeed confined to Hades , but not in the same place wherein the unjust are confined.

For there is one descent into this region, at whose gate we believe there stands an archangel with an host.; whose gate when those pass through that are conducted down by the angels appointed over souls, they do not go the same way; but the just are guided to the right hand, and are led with hymns, sung by the angels appointed over that place, unto a region of light, in which the just have dwelt from the beginning of the world; not constrained by necessity, but ever enjoying the prospect of the good things they see, and rejoice in the expectation of those new enjoyments, which will be peculiar to every one of them, and esteeming those things beyond what we have here. With whom there is no place of toil, no burning heat, no piercing cold, nor are any briers there; but the countenance of the fathers and of the just, which they see always smiles upon them, while they wait for that rest and eternal life in heaven, which is to succeed this region. This place we call The Bosom of Abraham.

But as for the unjust, they are dragged by force to the left hand by the angels allotted for punishment, no longer going with the good will, but as prisoners driven by violence; to whom are sent the angels appointed over them to reproach them and threaten them with terrible looks, and to thrust them still downwards. Now these angels that are set over these souls, drag them into the neighborhood of hell itself; who, when they are hard by it, continually hear the noise of it, and do not stand clear of the hot vapor itself; but when they have a nearer view of this spectacle, as of a terrible and exceeding great prospect of fire, they are struck with a fearful expectation of a future judgment, and in effect punished thereby; and not only so, but where they see the place [or choir] of the fathers and of the just, even hereby are they punished; for a chaos deep and large is fixed between them; insomuch that a just man that hath compassion upon them cannot be admitted, nor can one that is unjust if he were bold enough to attempt it, pass over it.
And while this may sound strange to you, it was not so strange during that time. Here is what we find in the Book of Enoch, which we have mentioned already in my other writings on this book, and its influence on the New Testament and popularity during the early church period. In this book we find:
And thence I went to another place, and the mountain [and] of hard rock. And there was in it four hollow places, deep and wide and very smooth; three of them were dark and one bright; and there was a fountain of water in its midst. How smooth are the hollow places and deep and dark to look at. Then Raphael answered, one of the holy angels who was with me, and said unto me: 'These hollow places have been created for this very purpose, that the spirits of the souls of the dead should assemble therein, yea that all the souls of the children of men should assemble here. And these places have been made to receive them till the day of their judgment and till their appointed period [till the period appointed], till the great judgment (comes) upon them.'

Then I asked regarding it, and regarding all the hollow places: 'Why is one separated from the other?' And he answered me and said unto me: 'These three (dark ones) have been made that the spirits of the dead might be separated. And this division (bright one) has been made for the spirits of the righteous, in which there is the bright spring of water. And such has been made for sinners when they die and are buried in the earth and judgment has not been executed on them in their lifetime. Here their spirits shall be set apart in this great pain till the great day of judgment and punishment and torment of those who curse for ever and retribution for their spirits. There He shall bind them for ever. And such a division has been made for the spirits of those who make their suit, who make disclosures concerning their destruction, when they were slain in the days of the sinners. Such has been made for the spirits of men who were not righteous but sinners, who were complete in transgression, and of the transgressors they shall be companions: but their spirits shall not be slain in the day of judgment nor shall they be raised from thence.' Then I blessed the Lord of glory and said: 'Blessed be my Lord, the Lord of righteousness, who ruleth for ever.' (1 Enoch 22:1-4, 8-13)
The vision of the place here matches exactly to the parable Jesus gave of the Rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16. You have the separation of the two, yet within sight of each other. You have the mention of the Rich man being tormented, as well as the fountain that Lazarus had access to. Interesting indeed!

The Apocalypse of Zephaniah tells this story:
Again I turned back and walked and I saw a great sea. But I thought that it was a sea of water. I discovered that it was entirely a sea of flame like the slime which casts forth much flame and whose waves burn with sulfur and bitumen. They began to approach me.

Then I thought that the Lord Almighty had come to visit me. Then when I saw, I fell down upon my face before him in order that I might worship him. I was very much afraid, and I entreated him that he might save me from my distress. I cried out saying, “Eloe, Lord, Adonia, Sabaoth, I beseech you to save me from this distress because it has befallen me.

The same instant I stood up, and I saw a great angel before me, his hair was spread out like the lionesses. His teeth were outside his mouth like a bear. His hair was spread out like a women’s. His body was like a serpent’s when he wished to swallow me. And when I saw him, I was afraid of him so that all of my parts of my body were loosened and I fell upon my face. I was unable to stand, and I prayed before the Lord God Almighty, “You will save me from my distress. You are the one who saved Israel from the hand of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. You saved Susanna from the hand of the elders of injustice. You saved the three holy men, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, from the furnace of burning fire. I beg you to save me from my distress.

Then I arose and stood, and I saw a great angel standing before me with his face shining like the rays of the sun in glory since his face is like that which is perfected in its glory. And he was girded as if a golden girdle were upon his breast. His feet were like bronze which is melted in a fire. And when I saw him, I rejoiced, for I thought the Lord God Almighty had come to visit me. I fell upon my face, and I worshipped him. He said to me, “Take heed. Don’t worship me. I am no the Lord Almighty, but I am the great angel, Eremiel, who is over the abyss and Hades, the one in which all of the souls are imprisoned from the end of the Flood, which came upon the earth, until this day.”

Then I inquired of the angel, “What is this place to which I have come?” He said unto me, “It is Hades.” Then I asked him “Who is the great angel who stands thus, whom I saw?” He said, “This is the one who accuses men in the presence of the Lord.” (Apocalypse of Zephaniah 6; emphasis mine)
The Fourth Book of Ezra tells us this:
He answered and said “If you are alive, you will see, and if you live long, you will often marvel, because the age is hastening swiftly to its end. For it will not be able to bring the things that have been promised to the righteous in their appointed times, because the age is full of sadness and infirmities. For the evil about which you ask me has been sown, but the harvest of it has not yet come. If therefore that which was sown is not reaped, and if the place where the evil has been sown does not pass away, the field where good has been sown will not come. For a grain of evil seed was sown in Adam’s heart from the beginning, and much ungodliness it has produced until now, and will produce until the time of the threshing comes! Consider now for yourself how much fruit of ungodliness a grain of evil seed has produced. When heads of grain without number are sown, how great a threshing floor they will fill!”

Then I answered and said, “How long and when will these things be? Why are our years few and evil?” He answered me and said, “You do not hasten faster than the Most High, for your haste is for yourself, but the Highest hastens on behalf of many. Did not the souls of the righteous in their chambers ask about these matters, saying “How long are we to remain here? And when will come the harvest of our reward?” And Jeremiel the archangel answered them and said, “When the number of those like yourselves is completed; for he has weighed the age in balance, and measured the times by measure, and numbered the times by number; and he will not move or arouse them until that measure is filled.” (Fourth Book of Ezra 4:26-37; emphasis mine)
The Odes of Solomon are said to have been written sometime around the end of the first century after Christ. So these were written from the perspective of Christ speaking, and describe the happenings during his three days in the earth:
I was not rejected although I was considered to be so
And I did not perish although they thought it of me
Sheol saw me and was scattered
And Death ejected me and many with me
I have been vinegar and bitterness to it
And I went down with it as far as its depth
Then the feet and the head it released
Because it was not able to endure my face
And I made a congregation of living among his dead;
And I spoke with them by living lips;
In order that my word may not fail.
And those who died ran toward me;
And they cried out and said “Son of God, have pity on us.
“And deal with us according to your kindness,
And bring us out from the chains of darkness.
“And open for us the door
By which we may go forth to you,
For we perceive that our death does not approach you.
“May we also be saved with you,
Because you are our savior.”
Then I heard their voice,
And placed their faith in my heart.
And I placed my name upon their head
Because they are free and they are mine.
(Odes of Solomon 42:10-20)
This thought pattern ties in very neatly with what Peter said happened during the three days, that after Christ died in the flesh and became alive in the spirit, he went and preached to those in prison (Hades) (1 Peter 3:18-19), as well as his conquering of death (the place) and having the keys to death and Hades (Rev. 1:18). It also helps us to understand that God did not leave the soul of Jesus (or David) in Sheol (Ps. 16:8-10 and Ps. 49:15).

Well, that is enough of a backdrop to show the point at hand, and hopefully you are starting to see the story line here. Death was understood to be considered more of a place that just a state of being physically without life in the body. Death was the place all mankind went after physical death. It was a prison that held all mankind separate from God. It was considered "down below," under the earth," in the dust," etc. It was a place that was ruled by the "strongman" that Jesus came to bind, plunder and overthrow so He could take the keys to death and Hades to restore fellowship with God.

In the next part, we will begin to tie this all in to what the Scriptures tell us about death, Christ works and accomplishments, and hopefully give you good reason to stand up straight and repeat the "he descended into Hades" clause loudly and proudly.

View the other parts of the topic

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10