State of Dead

DEAD, STATE OF. On the subject of the condition of those who have departed this life, divine revelation is progressive. By this is meant that there is development, not from error to truth, but from a little truth to more truth, although even in the NT there is little said by comparison with what is revealed on other subjects.

Old Testament.

The revelation given by God on this matter in the OT is extremely meager. In the early chs. of Genesis man is threatened with death if he disobeys (Gen 2:17), and when he does sin he is told that eventually he will die: “You are dust and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19). The fact of man’s death is recorded at the beginning of the genealogy in Genesis 5, but no more is said. The genealogy itself emphasizes the universality of death with its monotonous repetition “...and he died”; but on the other hand, an intimation of more glorious possibilities is given in the account of Enoch (vv. 21-24) “Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him.” Further hints of some form of life after death have also been seen in the expression “gathered to his people” (e.g. 25:8) and in the words of the dying Jacob (47:30). In the NT (Heb 11:11-16), it is suggested that Abraham grasped the truth of a life beyond the grave, but this is never positively stated in the patriarchal narrative itself.

Genesis 37:35; 42:38; 44:29, 31 mark the first occurrences in the OT of the word Sheol (Heb. שְׁאוֹל, H8619), the exegesis of which normally figures largely in discussions on the OT view of life after death. This word occurs sixty-five times in the OT, and its etymology is in doubt. Most OT scholars, however, are in no doubt as to the derivation of the idea. They feel that Israel took over from her neighbors the ideas of the underworld and the afterlife which were fairly widespread in the ancient Near E.

According to this view, Sheol (cf. also Abaddon) is a deep pit far down in the earth, a place of darkness, where the “shades” of men (the Heb. word is ֝רְפָאִ֗ים, which is not equivalent to “soul,” as the Hebrews psychology thought of man as a unity, not as composed of two “parts.” It is the whole man that goes down to Sheol, although the “shade” is only a thin weak replica of the man as he was on earth) have a vague shadowy existence, cut off from the land of the living, from all joys and from communion with God. Sheol is therefore something to be dreaded and avoided for as long as possible. There are no moral distinctions in Sheol, good and bad are there together.

Various Scriptures are used to substantiate this reconstruction, and these may be referred to in any of the numerous works which give this kind of account. A number of passages which express belief in some kind of moral distinctions in Sheol, or where believers look for deliverance from Sheol, or even resurrection, are either explained in other ways or are said to be among the latest parts of the OT and so to prepare the way for the development which is found in lit. of the intertestamental period.

Some evangelical scholars, however, are unhappy about this account of the OT teaching. They feel that too much from the beliefs of Israel’s neighbors is read into the OT, and while they in turn may be accused by others of attempting to read too much of the NT teaching into the OT, they believe that the OT and NT revelation in the afterlife is consistent. The following points need to be considered: (1) A distinction should be made between what is felt, feared or even believed, by godly men, and what is positively revealed by God in His Word. This principle needs to be treated with caution, but it is relevant. (2) The fear of death is sometimes to be explained in terms of fear of the unknown, about which nothing has been revealed, and/or fear of exclusion from the blessings of the covenant, which in the OT were given exclusively in terms of this life. (3) The word “Sheol” may not always have the same meaning. In some passages it is used abstractly to signify the state of death (e.g., 1 Sam 2:6). In others it apparently has the meaning “the grave” (Gen 35:20). In others it has the idea of “hell,” the place of punishment (Deut 32:22; Ps 9:17) which speaks of God’s anger burning to the depths of Sheol. The reader is referred to the sections in L. Berkhof and J. Barton Payne for fuller statements.

Apocryphal and apocalyptic writings of inter-testamental period.

There are certain developments of belief in these writings, and while there is no complete agreement among the various writers, there are a number of trends, some of which may have been influenced by Pers. or Gr. ideas. Belief in the resurrection of the bodies of the righteous becomes more clear-cut, possibly due to the terrible sufferings and martyrdom during the time of the Maccabees. More attention is also given to the intermediate state. Sheol (and its Gr. equivalent Hades, ἅδης) largely refers to the place to which the ungodly go at death while awaiting judgment, while Paradise (παράδεισος, G4137, from a Pers. word for a garden or pleasure ground, sometimes thought of as the “upper compartment” of Sheol) is used to denote the state of blessedness enjoyed by the souls of the righteous between death and resurrection. At the resurrection, the wicked are consigned to Gehenna (q.v.), the righteous are raised to enjoy more fully the blessings of Paradise in terms of a new earthly Garden of Eden or a more transcendent, heavenly hope.

New Testament.

On the matter of the state of the dead between death and resurrection there is more reticence. From the point of view of those remaining on earth, it is a sleep (Acts 7:60; 1 Thess 4:13, 15), and although compared with the resurrection, it is a time of “nakedness” in the disembodied state (2 Cor 5:1-5). It means, nevertheless, being “at home with the Lord” (2 Cor 5:8), being “with Christ,” which is “far better” and “gain” (Phil 1:21, 23). In Revelation 6:9-11 there is a vision of the souls of the martyrs “under the altar,” who ask how long it will be before their blood will be avenged. They are given a white robe, and told to rest until the full number of their brethren is complete.

Jesus told the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) and many have seen here further revelation on the intermediate state. However, most scholars point out that the terms and ideas are all familiar Jewish ones and the general theme is one which appears many times in the rabbis; consequently, while it may be said in this sense to be a “true life story,” it is not necessarily a “true after-life story” (E. Earle Ellis, Comm. in loc.). Plummer says (in loc.) “It is no purpose of the parable to give information about the unseen world.” The purpose seems to be that of showing the reversal of men’s status in the Messianic age, and the impossibility of altering that status once death has intervened. However, it might still be argued that the parable does teach the general truth that at death men have a foretaste (good or ill) of the state which will be eternally theirs at the Last Judgment.

Also relevant to the discussion is a study of several passages (Luke 23:43; Acts 2:27, 28; Eph 4:8; 1 Pet 3:18-20; 4:6). These have led some to believe that between His death and resurrection, the Lord visited Paradise (the upper half of Sheol) and removed it and its inhabitants—the OT saints—into the presence of God. Some indeed have felt that the last two references justify saying that He went to hell and gave a second chance to certain lost souls by preaching the Gospel to them. However, this has not been the position of historic Christianity, and the reader is referred to a detailed discussion in the commentaries on the passages.


S. D. F. Salmond, The Christian Doctrine of Immortality (1901); S. Zandstra “Sheol and the Pit in the OT,” PTR V (1907), 631-641; J. D. Davis “The Future Life in Hebrew Thought During the Pre-Persian Period,” PTR VI (1908), 246-268; L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (1941), 679-693; H. H. Rowley, The Faith of Israel (1956), 150-176; L. Boettner, Immortality (1956); C. R. Smith, The Bible Doctrine of the Hereafter (1958); W. Strawson, Jesus and the Future Life (1959); J. B. Payne, The Theology of the Older Testament (1962), 443-463; D. S. Russell, The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic (1964), 353-390; J. Jeremias TDNT I (1964), 146-149; S. H. Hooke “Life after death: Israel and the After-Life,” Expt LXXVI (1965), 236-239; ibid. “Life after Death: the Extra-Canonical Literature,” Expt LXXVI (1965), 273-276; C. L. Mitton, “The After-Life in the NT” Expt LXXVI (1965), 332-337; W. Eichrodt, Theology of the OT II (1967), 210-223.