TEACHINGS IN THE HEBREW SCRIPTURES ABOUT THE AFTERLIFE:
A LIBERAL INTERPRETATION
Topics covered in this essay:
This essay describes a common liberal interpretation of the beliefs of
the ancient Hebrews concerning life after death. A conservative
interpretation is explained elsewhere on this web
|| Judaism before 623 BCE. The ancient Israelites
originally followed a
polytheistic religion; their beliefs were identical to other Semitic peoples. The dead
were believed to have led type of shadowy existence under the earth,
without energy, and separated from God. People worshipped
both their ancestors in the underworld and many Sky Gods in heaven.
|| Judaism from 623 to 586 BCE: from the introduction of monotheism
to the Babylonian captivity. Belief in the gods of the underworld and ancestor worship
ended. Polytheistic belief was abandoned. Yahweh alone is worshiped. They
continued to believe that the dead lead a
shadowy, totally isolated existence under the earth in Sheol, cut off from their relatives
and from God.
|| Judaism from 586 to 332 BCE: from the Babylonian captivity to the
Greek invasion: Zoroastrian religious ideas are incorporated into the Jewish beliefs about
Sheol. The faithful dead are viewed as being resurrected, to live a second life in a cleansed Jerusalem
for 500 years. Then, they die, are annihilated, and are no more.
|| Judaism during and after the Greek occupation.
All the dead will be resurrected. They will be judged by God and sent
either to an eternal reward or never-ending punishment. The Christian
religion, having been founded by Jews, continued much of this belief system.
Beliefs in Israel, up to 623 BCE:
Centuries ago, scholars coined the term "Semitic" to refer to a group of
civilizations in the Middle East which originally shared a similar language, culture and
religion. These included the Assyrians, Babylonians, Canaanites, Hebrews, Phoenicians,
Prior to the official introduction of monotheism in ancient Israel by King Josiah in 623
BCE, Jewish beliefs about their Gods, the universe, and life after death appear to have
paralleled closely those of the other Semitic cultures. The people interacted with the
many "sky gods" in heaven and the "infernal deities"
in the underworld:
||The universe was conceived as consisting of 4 layers: a more or less flat earth
floating on water, large caverns under
the earth, a sky in the form of a dome over earth, and a heaven above the dome. Multiple
"sky gods" resided in heaven. A set of infernal deities lived under the
earth, ruled over by a deity named "Mot".|
||At a person's death, their soul went to live underneath the earth, in a place called Sheol,
or "the Pit" or "Earth." (A person's
"soul" was believed to represent both their body and spirit).|
||Various English Bible version translate the Hebrew word "Sheol" as Grave,
Hell or Pit; some leave it as Sheol.|
||Some of the dead became minor deities in Sheol. Their descendents who placed regular offerings of
food and water on their tombs would reap blessings from these gods. Those who ignored
their ancestors would be ignored or even harmed as punishment.|
||The dead who received regular offerings from their descendents occupied the upper levels
of Sheol, where life was easier. Those who were not remembered sank lower in the depths of
the Pit. Those who had been improperly buried were sent to the lowest, most unpleasant
||The people worshiped multiple sky gods in public rituals. They also communicated
with the gods of the netherworld in private, family rituals in which their ancestors were
||The dead could also be accessed through necromancy. 1
describes how King Saul persuaded a medium at Endor to contact the spirit of the deceased
Samuel in order to predict the future.|
||If some favor was to be asked of the gods by the entire nation or community, the the
priests conducted a public ritual. Adequate rain to grow the crops, or victory over
neighboring tribes were common examples. If a favor for a family or an individual was
sought, then a private ritual was conducted, to seek support from some of the inhabitants
of Sheol. A long life and many children were common examples.|
||The dead of all nations and all walks of life were sent to Sheol. There was no judgment day. All individuals ended up in Sheol after death - both
those who had led a righteous and those who were evil while on earth. See
42:38 and Numbers 16:30-33.|
||They believed that the inhabitants of Sheol were abandoned forever:
||A Psalm for the Sons of Korah petitions God to save the writer from his
expected death. "...my life draws near To Sheol. I am reckoned among those who go
down to the Pit; I am a man who has no strength, like one forsaken among the dead, like
the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom thou dost remember no more, for they are
cutoff from thy hand." Psalms 88:3-5
||"You [God] restored me to health and let me live...In your love you kept me
from the pit of destruction...For...those who go down to the pit cannot hope for your
faithfulness." Isaiah 38:16-18. (NIV)
||Since the plight of the dead was so discouraging, ancient Israelites believed that God
rewarded a righteous man with a long life and many offspring. This is mentioned frequently
in the Hebrew Scriptures, including Psalms 127:3-5.|
||The ancient Hebrews had no concept of heaven. The dead who had led the most righteous lives were not
taken to be with God after death. (Enoch and Elijah were exceptions. They were directly
taken up to heaven to be with God. They never died; they never went to Sheol). See
||Most writers of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) portrayed Sheol as a grim place.
Its inhabitants were seen as living a type of shadowy existence for all eternity. It was
dark. "The dead existed without thought, strength, or even consciousness."
||Sheol is not at all related to the Christian Hell. There is no unending torture of
humans there; just a ghostly existence. In its original form, there was a great deal of
interaction between people living on earth and the inhabitants of Sheol.|
This essay continues below.
Beliefs in Israel, 623 BCE to 586 BCE:
During the 8th century BCE, the Assyrians had reduced Israel to the status of two
vassal kingdoms. Some religious leaders viewed this oppression as an indication that they
were following the wrong spiritual and religious path. They formed a religious reform
movement which scholars now call "Yahweh-alone." This movement raised
the status of Yahweh, then perceived as a wind god -- one of many deities -- to the status of the national God of
Israel. Although the existence of other sky gods were acknowledged, only Yahweh was to be
worshiped. Similarly, interaction with the gods of the underworld was totally
discontinued. Ancestor worship was abandoned. The conquering and subsequent destruction of
the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE by the Assyrians was interpreted by this
movement as proof that Yahweh was displeased. King Hezekiah (728-699 BCE), ruler of the
Southern Kingdom, attempted to reform the Jewish religion by incorporating
"Yahweh-alone" concepts. His "covenant code" appears in
20:23 to 23:19. It starts with a strong declaration of
monotheism. Exodus 22:20 states that anyone found sacrificing to a god
other than Yahweh is to be destroyed. Exodus 22:29-30 in effect repeals
the previous Semitic custom that the eldest son's prime responsibility was to care for his
parents in their old age, see that they are properly buried, and then venerate them after
their death. The son's new responsibility is strictly towards God, from the eight day of
King Hezekiah's reforms were not fully implemented until King Josiah announced in 623
BCE that Yahweh was the only god to be worshiped.
2 Kings 22:8 to 23:28
describes how Hilkiah the high priest found the long lost "book of the law"
in "the house of Jehovah." This was subsequently authenticated by
Huldah the prophetess. The "words of the book of the covenant." were
read to the people. Then followed one of the most dramatic examples of religious
intolerance in the Hebrew Scriptures. The King ordered all of the temple vessels, altars,
idols and other equipment that was used in the worship of Pagan gods and goddesses to be destroyed. The Israelites were worshiping Asherah, Baal, Chemosh, Milcom,
the sun, the moon, the planets etc. at that time, in addition to Yahweh. The Pagan priests
were slaughtered. Houses of prostitution associated with these pagan temples were
Although the Hebrews were permitted to leave food and drink at the tombs of their
ancestors, all other rituals for the dead were abolished.
Sheol continued to be portrayed as a grim place where people went after death. The
belief persisted that its inhabitants lived a type of shadowy existence for all eternity.
Their interaction with the living which was frequent in the earlier polytheistic days was
absolutely terminated. Theirs was:
||A "land of gloom and deep shadow... where even the light is like darkness."
||"...the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no
further reward..." Ecclesiastes 9:5.
||"...in the grave [Sheol] where you are going, there is neither working nor
planning nor knowledge nor wisdom." Ecclesiastes 9:10.
The dead were totally isolated from their living descendents. In the 5th century BCE,
the author of the book of Job wrote how a dead father was unaware whether his sons were
successful or not:
||"His sons come to honor, and he knoweth it not; And they are brought low, but
he perceiveth it not of them." Job 14:21
All spiritual and religious focus was concentrated on the one God, Yahweh.
Beliefs in Israel, 586 BCE to 332 BCE:
The Babylonian army conquered the Southern Kingdom in 586 BCE. Jerusalem was destroyed.
The Israelites were taken into captivity to Babylon. There, they were exposed to Zoroastrianism, a religion based on the teachings of the Persian
prophet and religious reformer, Zoroaster. His date of birth has been variously estimated
from 600 to 6,000 BCE. He was the first known person to conceive of a package of religious
||A final judgment will be held of each individual's soul after death;
||Heaven exists as a place of reward for the soul of those who have led good lives, faithful to
||Hell as a place of mild punishment for the soul of the others;
||An eventual battle between an all-good God and an all-evil Satan in which God wins;
||The earth would be cleansed of all impurities;
||Peoples' bodily resurrection, involving the rejoining of body and soul;
||People living on a cleansed earth, forever.
The first Jewish writer to incorporate some of the ideas of Zoroastrianism was the
prophet Ezekiel. He was a prophet from the Southern Kingdom of Judah whose ministry lasted
from circa 593 to 570 BCE. Ezekiel prophesized doom on the countries surrounding Judah,
and on the eventual restoration of Jerusalem, including the rebuilding of its temple. He
incorporated the Zoroastrian concept of bodily resurrection in which the dead are restored
to life, to live again on a purified earth. In Ezekiel 37, the prophet
describes a typical Zoroastrian funeral ground. (The Zoroastrians did not bury their dead,
but laid the bodies out on the surface of the earth, so that the scavenging animals and
birds will pick the bones clean. The animals left behind a land covered with a scattering
of dried-out human bones.) Ezekiel continues by describing a Zoroastrian vision of the
resurrection: Jehovah reassembles the bones, adds sinews, flesh and skin. Finally God puts
breath in the bodies so that they might live again.
A belief among Jewish writers of the time was that only the faithful would be
resurrected and restored to live in the newly purified Jerusalem. The faithful dead would
be released from Sheol. According to the Book of Enoch, they would live a comfortable life
on earth for 500 years. (Enoch was written during the inter-testamental time between
writing of the
Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.) Whatever difficulties that the resurrected had
experienced before dying would be more than compensated for by half a millennium of
peaceful existence. Eventually they would die, be annihilated, and be no more.
Beliefs in Israel during the Greek occupation:
After the invasion of Palestine by Alexander the Great and his conquest of Israel in
332 BCE, the Hellenization of the Jewish people began. 1 This
process reached a peak about 169 BCE under Antiochus. Jewish thought absorbed many
Greek theological beliefs. One was the belief -- a radical concept to the Jews
at the time -- that all people
would not be treated equally at death. Some would be rewarded while others were punished.
The wicked would be consigned to different locations from the honorable. The blasphemers
would be sent to a cursed and flaming gorge. The selection criteria appears to be
totally based on
the individual's deeds while on earth.
The book of Daniel appears to have been
written approximately 165 BCE, probably as an effort to raise morale among the Jewish
guerrilla fighters during the time of the Maccabean revolt. Some of the books of the
Apocrypha also date from this time, or later. Some passages illustrating this new concept
of eternal life are:
||Daniel 12:2: A description of some of the dead awakening to be judged
and sent to their eternal reward or punishment is found in the book of Daniel: "many
of those who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to everlasting life and some
to the reproach of eternal abhorrence." (REV) Unfortunately, Daniel does
not discuss what happens to the third group of individuals -- those who remain asleep.
||Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9: This is one of the books in the Apocrypha. The
Apocrypha is a collection of books written during in the inter-testament
time between the writing of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. They are recognized as
scripture by the Roman Catholic church and some Orthodox denominations. This book was
written circa 50 BCE, during the period of Hellenistic influence. It
describes that: "...the souls
of the just are in God's hand; no torment will touch them...they are at peace...they have
a sure hope of immortality; and after a little chastisement they will receive great
blessings...They will be judges and rulers over nations and peoples, and the Lord will be
their King forever." H.N. Richardson commented on this passage:
"The death of the righteous is only an illusion. In reality, they will possess
everlasting felicity, share in the government of God's kingdom and enjoy his love."
2 Verse 9 describes how "the godless will meet with
the punishment their evil thoughts deserve, because they took no heed of justice and
rebelled against the Lord."
||Wisdom of Solomon 5:15: "...the just live forever; their
reward is in the Lord's keeping, and the Most High has them in his care." (REV)
||2 Maccabees 7:9-14: This is another Apocrypha book. King Antiochus was
attempting to force the Jews to abandon the Mosaic Code by eating pork, not observing the
Sabbath etc. One man, while being tortured to death said: "...you are setting us
free from this present life, and the King of the universe will raise us up to a life
everlastingly made new, since it is for his laws that we are dying." His brother
said to the king: "Better to be killed by men and to cherish God's promise to
raise us again! But for you there will be no resurrection."
Russell Shorto, "Gospel Truth," Riverhead Books, New York, NY, 1997.
Page 65 to 80
C.M. Laymon, Ed., "The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible,"
Abingdon Press, Nashville TN, (1991), Page 546
Copyright © 1997, 1999 to 2001 incl. and 2004 by Ontario
Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2004-MAR-30
Author: B.A. Robinson