I blogged more than once this week about the Hebrew Bible’s conceptions of the afterlife: see Rephaim, Undeceptive Deception, Suffering and The Dead, and the Rising. My assumption was that all of the dead went to the Underworld, known in the Hebrew Bible as Sheol.
I thought about that today. First of all, it entered my mind when I read former fundamentalist Ken Pulliam’s post, The Movie–The Invention of Lying. (Speaking of the dying and the rising, Ken has returned to his blog after a month-and-a-half hiatus!) Ken states the following about a movie that he saw:
I think it illustrates why religion is so popular with people.
1. People desperately want to believe that there is something after death. They want to believe that they will be reunited with their loved ones.
2. People want to believe that there is some purpose in life.
3. People want to believe that there is someone in control of this universe and that this someone will eventually make all wrongs right.
For these reasons, religions are very popular and will probably never cease to exist.
I have to admire Ken’s humility. Some atheists I read on the blogosphere act as if they can single-handedly overthrow religion with their clever arguments. At least here, however, Ken Pulliam acknowledges that religion ministers to people’s concerns in some way and will probably remain with us for a very long time.
But a thought entered my mind about religion and the afterlife. Actually, it’s been in my mind before, so it’s more the case that Ken Pulliam’s post drew it out of the inner recesses of my mind. What about the ancient Israelite religion that entered the Hebrew Bible? It didn’t have a rigorous conception of the afterlife. People just went to Sheol and hung out! How can one say that, in this case, religion emerged out of people’s fear of death and desire for an afterlife? One purpose behind Levirate marriage was to prevent a dead person’s name from being cut off (Deuteronomy 25:6). A man’s name was also preserved after death through the passing on of his property to his offspring (Numbers 27:4). In my opinion, the ancient Israelites were concerned about keeping their name alive because that was the closest to immortality that they could get, since their afterlife in Sheol wasn’t much to brag about.
But Ken’s post got me thinking: they still believed that they’d see their loved ones in Sheol. Even in their belief about the afterlife, they’d never truly lose a person they care about. So maybe Ken’s statement about why religion is popular would apply to the ancient Israelite religion that entered the Hebrew Bible.
But then another experience in the blogosphere screamed “Wait a minute! Not so fast!” I was reading Chris Smith’s post, My Parents’ Dissertations Are on ProQuest, in which he talks about his parents’ dissertations. His mom wrote hers on Sheol in Psalm 49. I expressed my interest, and Chris replied:
In addition to my mom’s dissertation, you might be interested in the book, Shades of Sheol. The author makes a [s]urprisingly convincing case that only bad people go to Sheol in most of the OT passages on the subject, whereas good people go to “rest with their fathers”.
I vaguely recall reading about this book on one of James McGrath’s links. I’d be interested in reading Philip Johnston’s (the author of Shades of Sheol) case. One the one hand, I’m not sure that good people were the only ones who slept with their fathers, for the Hebrew Bible uses such a phrase for such wicked characters as Jeroboam (I Kings 14:20), Omri (I Kings 16:28), and Ahab (I Kings 22:40). I wonder how Johnston interacts with such passages.
One the other hand, Sheol does seem to be a place for the wicked. In Isaiah 14, the Rephaim are there. Moreover, Sheol is often a threat for the wicked in the Hebrew Bible. If both the righteous and the wicked went there after death, would that make sense, for everyone gets the same end? Some would say “yes,” since the threat of death and Sheol entails that the wicked will enter Sheol prematurely, whereas the righteous will enjoy a long and happy life before going there. But is there another way to see the issue?
I read some Amazon reviews of the book (see Shades of Sheol: Death and Afterlife in the Old Testament), and one of the reviewers wrote something that struck me: “Johnston criticizes studies by Pedersen and Barth that suggested that the Israelite sufferer actually experienced Sheol in this life.” There are people who say that one can experience Sheol in this life? That’s an interesting statement, and I wonder if it can harmonize apparent contradictions in what the Hebrew Bible says about Sheol. Psalm 139:8 says that God is in Sheol. Psalm 6:5, however, states that there’s no remembrance of God there. Could God be present in Sheol in the sense that he’s with the sufferer in this life? I’ve often heard that, in the Psalms, deliverance from Sheol is God saving a person from a near-death experience, not God resurrecting him. In a sense, the person who almost died was in Sheol, even though his death was not a done deal!
But I could be off-base, since Psalm 139:8 contrasts Sheol with heaven; its argument seems to be that God is in the highest and the lowest realms of creation, not that Sheol is a state in this life. And deliverance from a near-death experience may not mean that the person who almost died was literally in Sheol, but rather that Sheol was grasping her with its clutches, pulling her in its direction. I don’t know. In any case, Johnston’s book looks like an encyclopedia on the subject, so I’ll take a look at it!