A Jewish Perspective on Sheol
Did Jews in the time of Yeshua believe in hell?
Ancient thought about sheol (hell) was quite different from Western (Christian) thought, yet Yeshua was a Jew. What did He think?
sheol, underworld, grave, hell, pit
Sheol-the OT designation for the abode of the dead
place of no return
without praise of God
wicked sent there for punishment
righteous not abandoned to it
of the place of exile (fig)
of extreme degradation in sin
The word sheol, or שְׁאוֹל, in ancient thought meant the world where bad people, or all people, or maybe only some people went after they died. There were so many different thoughts on what happened when you died that you could write a whole book on that subject alone. It has been described as a deep, dark region, as a pit, and as “the Land of Forgetfulness.” Human beings after death, they thought, went to a netherworld called Sheol, cut off from God and man, but still “alive” in some shadowy existence. However, there is no judgment, whether reward or punishment there.
Pessimism was the rule of the day when it came to life after death. Most Jews were “here-and-now” focused and all people came to the same end.
After the destruction of the First Temple, however, the prophets began to speak with more hope about the future.
When the Second Temple was destroyed in 70AD, a theological crisis occurred. It was one thing to claim as the rabbis did—when the Lord’s sanctuary was destroyed and His people were scattered—mi–p’nei hataeinu, “because of our sins” but it was very difficult to give reasons that good, pious, individual Jews should suffer also.
Rabbi Ya’akov said: This world is compared to an ante-chamber that leads to Olam Ha–Ba, (the World-to-Come).” In fact, some rabbis taught that the righteous suffered in this world so that their reward in the next world would be that much greater.
So what did Yeshua teach about sheol?
In the Sermon on the Mount where Yeshua’s message was about love, He emphasized that those who were not more righteous than the Pharisees would never enter heaven (Matthew 5:20). He warned that unrepentant sinners would face the fires of sheol. At the end of His Sermon, the kingdom of God and the horrors of sheol are contrasted. Sheol is described as a place of destruction, where the broad road leads. Even professing to know the Messiah, if one continues in sin, won’t save you from sheol. Everyone who does not find the “narrow way” will end up in sheol. He compares the lives of the wicked to those who build their houses upon sand.
So, in essence, we know three things about sheol from the teaching of the first century Jews and from the Messiah Himself:
1. Sheol is the place for deserved punishment, comprises real suffering, and is eternal.
2. Sheol is the place of destruction, likened to death, second death, ruin, and loss.
3. Sheol is the place of banishment, where unbelievers actually realize what they are missing—their purpose in life and in life eternal: to love and glorify God.