Are the Old Testament Saints in Heaven … (Part 3)

Please review both of them first (in order mind you). First off, I write this at the behest of a friend, whose encouragement for these little articles makes me know at least one person is reading them.

What’s the New Testament say?

One argument that I hear is that Sheol in the OT means grave, because, look at its usage in context. That’s all fine and good, though I don’t think it accounts for the richness of the Hebrew language. But I think it begins to fall apart when one takes into account the New Testament usage of the word Hades.

When the OT was translated in the lingua franca of the day Greek, they made some curious editorial choices. One of those was to translate the word Sheol as Hades. Now if you know your Greek mythology (you can consult Disney’s Hercules if you need a quick refresher), you’ll notice that Hades has a lot of cultural baggage associated with it. It is the god of the underworld and the underworld (both named Hades). In Greek mythology it was the place that disembodied souls went. As an aside Greek has a word for grave tophos, which means the place where you put dead bodied.

It would be like today, translating a word we think means “grave” as “hell.” You’d probably be inclined to say – why don’t we use “grave” instead, since people often associate hell was some incorporeal afterlife motif. I’d agree with you. So when the Greek OT uses Hades for nearly all usages of the Hebrew that makes you wonder.

Well how does the NT use the word Hades? In nearly all cases it doesn’t seem to be “grave.” Matt 11:23; 16:18; Luke 10:15; 16:23; Acts 2:27, 31; Rev. 1:18; 6:8; 20:13–14; and one use of Tartarus in 2 Pet. 2:4 (compare Jude 6). Also there is something “under the earth” (Rev. 5:3, 13; Phil 2:10).

So let’s walk through some of these:

Tartarus is not synonymous with Hades but it’s pretty close (and the ESV actually used the word “hell” when translating it in 2 Pet. 2:4). But the rich man ends up in Hades after he dies in a parable of Jesus (Luke 16). Hades has gates (Matt. 16:18); a key (Rev. 1:18; cf., Rev. 20:1 a key to the bottomless pit), houses the dead (Rev. 20:13-14), and even a personified rider who rides with death (Rev. 6:8).

Heaven is juxtaposed with Hades (Matt. 16:18; Luke 10:15; see also the Apostles’ Creed) and Jesus is “there” in Hades (Acts 2:27, 31) or rather, was there, but unlike David (Ps. 16) is now in heaven (Acts 1; cf., Rom. 10:6-8).

Evil angels are tossed into this bottomless pit called Tartarus (2 Pet. 2:4; Jude 6) and something exists “under the earth” to both bow down at the name of Jesus and not be found to be able to open the scroll of the book of life (Phil. 2:10 and Rev. 5:3, 13; respectively).


So the NT, when read in light of the Pseudepigrapha and the OT, seems to say that Hades is a real place. Hades looks to be very similar to Sheol and people exist there in some form. If the NT has any bearing on the OT, I don’t think it’s acceptable to read every instance of Sheol as grave, but rather a place disembodied souls went to. Now that brings to it a much bigger question – what happened to the OT saints after Jesus came…?

Update: By the way, you should see Hell, Hades, Gehenna and the Realm of the Dead (Acts 2:27) by Bill Mounce which goes into some difference between the Gehenna and Hades. He confirms most of what I think I’ve said above.


Are the Old Testament Saints in heaven… (Part 2)

You’ll need to see Part 1 of the argument. Were I discuss the Old Testament. This time I wanted to cover what Jews though about the intermediary state in the Pseudepigrapha. This is the body of writing from around 200 BC – AD 200. It gives us a window into what they were thinking at the time. It’s not unamious in its theology but there are some consistent strands that I want to highlight.

One of the most fun books of the Pseudepigrapha is 1 Enoch. In 51:1-2 reads:

In those days, Sheol will return all the deposits which she had received and hell will give back all that which it owes. And he shall choose the righteous and the holy ones from among (the risen dead), for the day when they shall be selected and saved has arrived.

This sounds like Revelation 21:13-15, doesn’t it? In 1 Enoch, all the souls, both good and bad, await judgment in Sheol. They are not in heaven but their cries reach up to heaven (1 Enoch 22:3-6). Here, the righteous cannot touch the tree of life (25:4). In chapter 102, we read: “But you, souls of the righteous, fear not; and be hopeful, you souls that died in righteousness! Be not sad because your souls have gone down into Sheol in sorrow, or (because) your flesh fared not well the earthly existence…” (vv.4-5). The righteous souls have “descended into Sheol” (11). The point here is that the righteous await the day of judgment, to be vindicated by God — which they are not presently (103:4, 7-8).

The book of Sirach (190 to 175 BC) treats Hades as the place where the dead go, you can take nothing there (Sir. 14:16). Like the Psalms, no one praises God in Hades (Sir. 17:27; cf., Is 38:18; Ps. 88:10-12). When commenting on Elijah bringing someone back to life (see 1 Kings 17:17-24) it says that he raised the boy “from death and from Hades” (Sir. 48:5 NRSV).

Baruch (somewhere between 150 and 60 BC) in a few places says much the same, that the spirits of the dead are in Hades, where they cannot praise God (Bar. 2:17).

4 Ezra (another composite work, in that it has Christian redaction on top of Jewish). In 2:16 (The Christian redaction) it speaks of resurrection, bringing the righteous out of tombs, God will save them from Gehenna (2:29). In the Jewish original, 4:33-43, The souls wait in chambers in Hades, (42) waiting for the new age. How long do they remain here, “Ezra” asks? Until their number is complete (Rev. 6:9-11) In 7:36 after everyone is brought back, Hell and Paradise (Rev. 9:2) are set before everyone at the final judgment.

There are quite a few works that I haven’t mentioned here, but the gist of the above shows that there is a strand of Judaism that believes in Sheol as a waiting place for both the righteous and the wicked – which is something that the Old Testament *could* confirm. But let’s let one other person speak, Josephus the Jewish Historian (c. 100 AD):

Now, for the Pharisees, … They also believe that souls have an immortal rigor in them, and that under the earth there will be rewards or punishments, according as they have lived virtuously or viciously in this life; and the latter are to be detained in an everlasting prison, but that the former shall have power to revive and live again; … (In Antiquities of the Jews 18.1.3).

Josephus actually says more or less what the New Testament says, that the Pharisees believe in resurrection, against the Sadduccees who don’t (see Matt. 22:23; Acts 23:6, 8). The above works say that at least one strand of Pharisees did believe that.

Some of the Jews during the time Jesus was here on the earth believed that everyone went to Hades-Sheol awaiting resurrection, in fact this was the dominate view, see for instance Charles Hill’s Regnum Caelorum, p. 51 and Everett Ferguson’s Backgrounds of Early Christianity p. 544. (By the way, just head to a search engine and type in any of the works if you’d like to read them, there are freely available English translations. I’m using the revised two volume by Charlesworth that I highly recommend).