In the New Testament, Christians are called to hope, to hope in seeing God face-to-face in the resurrection. But what about the Old Testament? Did it have a meaningful vision of the afterlife?
Fleming Rutledge answers in the negative. She writes, “There is no meaningful life after death in the Old Testament world” (Rutledge, 2015: 399). She continues to explain that the Israelites were “to relinquish any hope for meaningful individual survival after death. Insubstantial nonexistence in Sheol was the destiny of all” (p. 399).
Is she right?
Answering the Question
In short, my answer is that Rutledge is mostly wrong. The Old Testament clearly presents an eschatological hope in the resurrection and in the new creation (against Rutledge). However (in agreement with her), the Old Testament is less clear on what our existence will be like in the resurrection (or was like in Sheol).
To give this answer (at least in the form it is in now), I considered three biblical terms used for the afterlife, key resurrection passages in the Old Testament, and Jesus’ descent into Hades.
Sheol as Place of the Dead Where All Go
According to the Old Testament, all people are destined to Sheol. It’s the place of the dead, good or evil (See Ps 141:7). For example, David flees from enemies and asks God for salvation in Psalm 6. He appeals to God to save him because, in Sheol, David will be unable to praise God: “For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?” (Ps 6:5). So however David conceives of Sheol, he knows that upon death he will go there. And what’s worse, David will not be able to praise God.
Sheol is apparently a place without activity or thought. The preacher writes, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going” (Ecc 9:10).” I suspect he is engaging in hyperbole since the dead seem to be able to think (see 1 Sam 28:15–19). The point being, however, is that death is not a good destiny. Death is, after all, the result of Adam’s primordial sin (Gen 3).
The dead exist (live?) in Sheol, and no one escapes it: “As the cloud fades and vanishes, so he who goes down to Sheol does not come up” (Job 7:9). So death is a final reality in the Old Testament. And Sheol is the realm of the dead. Still, God’s presence reaches Sheol (Ps 139:8). And hope for rescue lives on.
Sheol as Place of Corruption Where God Rescues the Holy
The hope for rescue, however, is not hope in the avoidance of death (Enoch, Elijah, and perhaps Moses being exceptions). It is hope in rising from the realm of the dead.
Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:6 says that God brings people down to Sheol and brings them up. The implication being that God can lead people out of the realm of the dead. David writes in Psalm 16:10, “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.” While the psalm is about the man Jesus Christ, it nevertheless shows hope in rescue from the corrupting influence of Sheol, of death.
In Psalm 30:3, David writes, “O Lord, you have brought up my soul from Sheol; you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit.” Although metaphorical (as Jerry Shepherd reminded me in a Facebook comment), Psalm 30 still contributes to the Old Testament’s vision of the afterlife. God can rescue from death, the clutches of Sheol. Likewise, so do the Sons of Korah when they sing in Psalm 49:15, “But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me. Selah.”
So, death is the destiny of all but remaining in Sheol forever is not.
Resurrection in the Old Testament
Other passages in the Bible clearly articulate a hope in the resurrection (Isa 24–27 with chs. 65–66; Dan 12; and possibly Job 19). On mount Zion, Isaiah proclaims that death will be swallowed up forever—the end of death (Isa 25). Other passages strongly imply the resurrection from the dead (1 Sam 2:6; Pss 16; 49*; 73).
In the Old Testament, however, the experience of life after death (or life in Sheol) is left unexplained. Hope exists. But what that life resurrection life looks like remains foggy, unclear.**
The New Testament seems to use Hades as the Greek equivalent to the Hebrew word Sheol.*** For example, Acts 2:27 quotes Psalm 16:10 and uses the word Hades in place of Sheol. The Book of Revelation also associated Hades with Death. They become a duo in that book (Rev 1:18; 6:8; 20:13, 14).
So Hades seems to be Sheol, the place of death.
Gehenna is a valley outside of Jerusalem in which people burned waste. The New Testament picks up on that the fiery picture and associates fire with Gehenna, the place where the unjust go when they die. Gehenna is not where everyone ends up. Going to Gehenna means that God sentenced a person there (Matt 23:33).
Jesus’ Descent into Hades
In the New Testament, Death and Hades are personified (Rom 6; Rev 20:14). Satan uses the fear of death to enslave the human race (Heb 2:14–15). Satan uses death to create fear, and fear fosters sin. Yet “the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8), which include sin and death.
Christians historically saw Jesus’ death and burial as part of his redemptive work, part of his triumph over death (which culminates in his resurrection). The Apostles’ Creed, for example, states, “he descended into hell” (descendit ad infernos/inferna).
The Apostles’ Creed possibly draws from the New Testament passage, Ephesians 4:9: “In saying, ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth?” In this passage, Paul explains the meaning of Psalm 68:18. Part of his explanation is that Christ descended into the lower regions or, as the Creed has it, “hell.”
First Peter gives more information in the third chapter: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison” (1 Pet 3:18–19). Christ dies and preaches to the spirits in prison whom Peter identifies as those unrighteous persons during the time of Noah (v. 20).
Rutledge (p. 403) also points to 1 Peter 4:5–6, which reads, “but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.”
Matt Emerson also points to Revelation 1:18 (and this book). The passage reads, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Rev 1:17–18). As I read the passage, Jesus claims that he holds the power to open up death and hades. He has this power because he died and “behold I am alive forevermore.” He conquered death. He earned the keys. And he opens up the gates of Hades.
So assuming that the Bible teaches that part Jesus’ conquering death includes preaching to those held in prison (Sheol) and proclaiming victory over death there, we can understand how the idea of Sheol in the Old Testament corresponds to the idea of Hades/Gehenna in the New Testament (at least partially).
In the Old Testament, all people were destined to Sheol (the place of the dead). While the just may have gone to Abraham’s side (Luke 16:23) and the unjust to the bad place (Gehenna?), the point remains: death is for all. Ethan writes, “What man can live and never see death? Who can deliver his soul from the power of Sheol? Selah” (Ps 89:48).
While the Old Testament gives hope for the resurrection, it does not specify what that life might be like for individuals nor specify what life was like in Sheol. The Old Testament thus presents life as it was before Christ conquered death and gained the keys to Hades. (Put another way, Christ’s death and resurrection changed the way the universe works!)
Because Christ destroyed the power of the devil, death, and because he rose from the grave as the firstborn among many, we know what our resurrection life will be like. We will be like Christ; we will have a spiritual body like his body (1 Cor 15).
And this is previewed at the cross in Matthew’s Gospel. When Jesus dies, the dead rise (Matt 27:52).**** And at the end after the two resurrections, the saints will enter into God’s new creation, the new heavens and the new earth (Rev 21).
 Here are the passages that use the word Sheol: Ge 37:35; 42:38; 44:29, 31; Nu 16:30, 33; Dt 32:22; 1 Sa 2:6; 2 Sa 22:6; 1 Ki 2:6, 9; Is 5:14; 14:9, 11, 15; 28:15, 18; 38:10, 18; 57:9; Eze 31:15, 16, 17; 32:21, 27; Ho 13:14; Am 9:2; Jon 2:3; Hab 2:5; Ps 6:6; 9:18; 16:10; 18:6; 30:4; 31:18; 49:15, 16; 55:16; 86:13; 88:4; 89:49; 116:3; 139:8; 141:7; Job 7:9; 11:8; 14:13; 17:13, 16; 21:13; 24:19; 26:6; Pr 1:12; 5:5; 7:27; 9:18; 15:11, 24; 23:14; 27:20; 30:16; So 8:6; Ec 9:10.
*Thanks to Andrew Smith for pointing me to this psalm. I should not too that Bob Kirk pointed out how Hebrews 11 shows Abraham’s advanced understanding of the future. I agree. I believe that Abraham looked forward to the city of God, which is the Zion above in Hebrews 12.
**Jerry Shepherd commented on a Facebook post (March 3, 2018): “Wyatt, I would agree with Rutledge to this extent: Apart from the resurrection texts, which have already been referred to above, there is no hope of any kind of meaningful existence following death, in terms of what that existence would have looked like in sheol. I think Jon Levenson has shown in his Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son, that there was the hope of the resurrection, but that there was no portrayal of any kind of meaningful existence prior to that resurrection.” Shepherd helped me to specify what is unclear in the Old Testament’s portrayel of life after death, namely, “what that existence would have looked like in sheol.”
***Rutledge speaks of the New Testament conflating Hades and Sheol (p. 400).
****An observation that my wife made on March 3, 2018.