A Visit to Sheol: Parsing “Hell” in Scripture
When we talk about hell, there’s a very important question we must ask:
“Hell” is an English word, from the proto-Germanic haljo (“underworld” or “cave”). Its theorized Proto-Indo-European root also gave birth to “cell,” “cellar,” “hole,” “conceal,” the “-calypse” part of “apocalypse,” and much more.
As “underworld,” it can describe two very distinct concepts in Scripture. Neither are literal caverns, of course, but that’s the folk imagery conveyed to best illustrate these spiritual states.
The first is that which most of us immediately think when we hear “hell”: The agonizing torment due the unsaved at the Final Judgment. This “underworld” is described by means of several figures in Scripture:
- “Gehenna,” the notorious valley of flaming garbage in which human sacrifices once took place.
- “Outer darkness,” an area of cutting-off or exclusion.
Note: It is unclear, from passage to passage, whether this refers to the Final Judgment, or merely being excluded from the Kingdom of God under the New Covenant.
- “Lake of Fire.”
- “Second Death.”
But there’s another “underworld” in Scripture. This “underworld” precedes the Final Judgment, and swallows up all who die. The degree to which souls therein are conscious or unconscious is unknown, since the stories thereabout are steeped in figure.
It is “the pit.” It is feared, as “going into it” is equivalent to the first death, i.e., physical death. And yet, one might look forward to ending up near the fallen patriarchs and heroes of old, in the corner nicknamed “Abraham’s Side” or “Abraham’s Bosom.”
The Hebrew word for this “underworld” is Sheol. It is the mysterious “grave” of Hebrew eschatology. The Greek-speaking Jews co-opted the name of the pagan god Hades, likely meaning “the invisible one,” to talk of Sheol when writing and speaking Greek.
So, we have two “underworlds”:
- The First Death. The Pit. Sheol. Hades. Both righteous (Abraham’s Side) and unrighteous.
- The Second Death. God’s wrathful judgment. Gehenna. The Lake of Fire. Only the unrighteous.
And here’s one way of looking at the difference, to borrow some imagery from Minecraft:
Here’s the problem:
The English word “hell,” depending on your Bible translation, might be used interchangeably for both concepts, leaving us completely unaware of which of the two the author was writing.
And the biggest hermeneutical fallout of this conflation is a disastrous misinterpretation of the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man.
This takes a moment to set up, so be patient. It’s worth it!
Jesus’s “Welcome” Discourse
Luke 15 and 16 are a single story, which I’m calling “Jesus’s ‘Welcome’ Discourse,” because it tragically lacks a formal or accepted name. Furthermore, it contains such powerful parables that it is often torn apart across several and disconnected sermons and homilies, which ruins the ability to see the forest for the trees.
The scene at the beginning of Luke 15 is that, as Jesus was teaching with his disciples, “the tax collectors [known at the time as skimmers/thieves] and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus.” Finding fault with this, “the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”
In response, Jesus uses 5 parables to:
- Justify seeking the lost.
- Indict those who would be jealous, demanding charity for the lost.
- Indict the teachers as lost themselves, in need of the Kingdom Gospel.
The first 3 parables are very familiar to most of us Christians:
- Jesus likens the sinners to lost sheep, who need to be rescued and brought back to the fold.
- Jesus likens the sinners to lost coins, who are sought and warrant rejoicing when found.
- Jesus likens the sinners to a prodigal son, who are welcomed back home. Furthermore, a new element is introduced, likening the grumbling teachers to the loyal, but jealous son. Likewise, an element is introduced analogous to the New Covenant Kingdom: a welcoming party for the reconciled son.
That’s when Luke 15 ends, but the story doesn’t end there.
Luke 16 is simply a continuation of the exact same scene: Jesus teaching the group of disciples, sinners, teachers, etc., in response to the teachers’ complaints.
It’s important to recognize this “bad chapter break” because, without it, the next parable makes no sense at all.
The Shrewd Manager
“There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’
The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg. I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’
So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’
‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied.
The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.’ Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’
‘A thousand bushels of wheat,’ he replied.
He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’
The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.”
This parable is completely laughable as a morality lesson. Is Jesus really suggesting that the master would commend his manager for stealing from him?
The solution is to recognize that we’re still talking about the same scene as in Luke 15, and thus should be looking for the same elements as in the previous parables:
- The lost sinners
- The teachers
- The New Covenant Kingdom of God.
And we find these elements.
- The master represents God.
- The master’s debtors represent those sinners and tax collectors.
- The money manager represents those grumbling Pharisees and teachers of the Law, who had been enjoying the blessings and favor of God but who had been “wasting” it, and would soon be “out of a job.”
- So what did the commendable manager do? He began to forgive the master’s debts, using his job to gain friends, since he would soon be among them – no longer “elite” and “privileged,” but a fellow debtor.
Jesus then explained exactly what was happening, and why those grumbling teachers needed to be concerned (Luke 16:16-18):
“The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing their way into it. It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law. Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
Jesus spells it out:
- The Law would forever stand, and indict those under it – even those self-righteous teachers whose behavior had made them adulturers under Jesus’s demanding interpretation.
- But the Law is no longer being preached. It stopped with the arrival of John the Baptist.
- Rather, the Gospel is being preached: The Kingdom of God under the New Covenant.
- With this new Good News, the sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, etc. are all “rushing in” – and those self-righteous ministers would be wise to do the same!
Jesus says much the same thing in Matthew 21:31-32:
“[Jesus asked the chief priests and the elders,] ‘Which of the two did what his father wanted? [The son who refused to work but changed his mind, or the one who promised to work but changed his mind?]’
‘The first,’ they answered.
Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.'”
Notice the very same themes are being repeated. The religious elite “made promises, but changed their minds.” As a result, they’ve squandered their blessings and will soon be “out of a job.” John the Baptist came to introduce the coming Kingdom, and the sinners are all rushing in.
The reason why it’s so important to recognize this context is because the next parable is Lazarus and the Rich Man.
A Visit to Sheol
The Rich Man, dressed in fine cloths and linens, is enjoying a bounteous feast. Meanwhile, Lazarus must eat of the scraps falling off the edge of the Rich Man’s table.
Then, suddenly, both Lazarus and the Rich Man simultaneously die and go to Sheol (Gr. Hades) the Hebrew “Grave Zone.” We know that they die simultaneously, and that the Last Judgment has not yet occurred, because the Rich Man still has “living brethren” (v. 28).
In Sheol, it is Lazarus who is blessed: He winds up in the “Abraham’s Bosom” area of Sheol, alongside the patriarchs, while the Rich Man is separated by a “chasm” within Sheol, and in agony.
If we apply the context of the scene – Jesus is still talking to the Pharisees here, still in response to their sneering and grumbling – then the symbols fall into place here as well.
- The Rich Man represents the grumbling teachers, who were enjoying the bounteous blessings.
- Lazarus represents the sinners, surviving on the scraps of that table.
- Then, suddenly, the New Covenant erupts. Lazarus is the “first brother” of Matthew 21, who now enjoys the company of the patriarchs (v. 29). The Rich Man is like the “second brother” of Matthew 21, the one who now suffers separation from the true, but restructured lineage of God and his people.
- Lazarus means “he whom God helps,” a powerful indication of the means by which all sinners might become reconciled: Grace (God-help).(Is it odd that a parable would have a proper identifier? Not if there’s a meaningful reason behind its use, like with Christ’s use of ‘Samaritan’ earlier in Luke.)
In other words, the situation has now flipped. Before the New Covenant, the grumblers were sitting pretty. Now, their own self-righteousness and lack of repentance and submission to Grace has found them on the wrong side of the Covenantal chasm.
This interpretation, which is in full conformity to the Luke 15-16 narrative and context, is only possible when we recognize that this isn’t about the Last Judgment and any punishments therefrom. Rather, it’s a parable that uses the Hebrew idea of Sheol to vividly illustrate the imminent Covenental “paradigm shift.”
Getting “Quiet” on Hell
If we look in a King James Version and some other versions of the Bible, we’ll see “hell” instead of Gr. Hades or Heb. Sheol in Luke 16. This will give us the distinct and erroneous impression that only the Rich Man went there, and not that both figures went there (Lazarus to the “Abraham’s Bosom” beachfront property of Sheol).
This will in turn give us the distinct and erroneous impression that Lazarus must have gone to heaven, and the agonizing heat of the underworld the Rich Man suffers will be misunderstood as the agony of the post-Judgment hell.
You see how disastrous mere semantic and linguistic confusion can be?
The goal of theological quietude is to embrace the “boring” language problems that underpin debates ongoing for centuries. It’s about getting “excited” about the “boring,” since the “boring” isn’t very exciting on its own — which makes it become neglected. Then, over time, natural selection of thought, debate, and written word will more and more neglect it, concretizing and enshrining old blunders.
As you can see, there’s a big fallout to this neglect. It can make the difference between reading a parable how Jesus intended – using Hebrew folk eschatology to paint a picture of the New Covenant Kingdom – versus mistakenly reading it as a literal account of the Christian kolasin aionion (i.e., the hell of Judgment) and wrongly using it to glean details thereabout.