Psalm 139:8 states: “If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there” (King James Version).
The Hebrew word that the KJV translates as “hell” is Sheol. In the LXX, the word is Hades.
Matthew Henry offers an interpretation of Psalm 139:8 that refers to hell. Henry states that God is in hell in God’s “power and justice”, and that “God’s wrath is the fire which will there burn everlastingly, Rev. 14:10.” St. Augustine makes a similar point.
Here are some thoughts:
1. Can hell be a place of separation from God, when God is actually there? The only biblical reference I could think of that may depict hell as a place of separation from God is II Thessalonians 1:9, and there are two ways to understand that verse. The New Revised Standard Version translates it as: “These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might”. The King James Version, however, translates it as: “Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power”. The difference revolves around how to understand the Greek preposition apo in this verse. As I can see in the Gingrich lexicon on my BibleWorks, apo can occur within the context of separation from, but it can also mean “from” in the sense of cause: something is coming from something else, or someone. Does II Thessalonians 1:9 mean that the sinner is separated from God’s presence and the glory of God’s power, or rather that the everlasting destruction is coming from God’s presence and power? Interestingly, Matthew Henry cites Revelation 14:10, and that affirms that the recipients of God’s wrath will be tormented in the Lamb’s presence.
2. Would interpreting Sheol in Psalm 139:8 as hell make sense within the context of Psalm 139? According to Theodore Lewis’ article about the abode of the dead (entitled “Dead, Abode of the”) in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, there is scholarly debate about whether Sheol is the realm of all of the dead, or rather the realm of the wicked dead or those who die prematurely. On the one hand, there is a statement in the Hebrew Bible that connects Jacob with Sheol (Genesis 37:35), and the deceased Samuel in I Samuel 28 appears to be ascending from the underworld. These were righteous men. On the other hand, Lewis quotes A. Heidel, who states that “there is no passage which proves that [Sheol] was ever employed as a designation for the gathering-place of the departed spirits of the godly.” Lewis also quotes R. Rosenberg, who thinks that Sheol in the Hebrew Bible relates to premature death or the death of the wicked, and who notes that Sheol is never mentioned as a place where ancestors meet after they die. (Lewis goes on to say that Rosenberg acknowledges that there are some contexts in which Sheol can be a place where all of the dead meet.) As I wrote in my post here, however, I am not convinced by the argument that Sheol is where the wicked go, whereas the righteous are said to be gathered to their fathers after death, for there are passages in which the wicked are said to be gathered to their fathers after death (I Kings 14:20; 16:28; 22:40). At the same time, I don’t thoroughly dismiss the idea that Sheol may be a place where the wicked or those who die prematurely go after they die, and the reason is that the Book of Psalms often presents death as God’s punishment of the wicked, and the Psalmist exults in God’s salvation of his life. Would this make sense, if everyone got the same fate in the end—-if everyone ended up in Sheol, sooner or later?
I should also note that the Greek word Hades is ambiguous. Josephus in Antiquities 6:332, 336 affirms that Samuel was in Hades, for example, and yet Josephus also presents Hades as a place of punishment. In Jewish Wars 2:155-157, he says that the Greeks stated that the righteous went beyond the ocean after death, whereas the wicked went to Hades. In Jewish Wars 3:375, he says that the righteous go to heaven, whereas the wicked go to the darkest parts of Hades. Could the LXX of Psalm 139 mean that God is even in hell, the place where the wicked are punished after death? Could even the Hebrew of Psalm 139 be about God being in Sheol, while seeing Sheol as a place where the wicked go after death? That brings me to item 3.
3. The Psalmist in Psalm 139 could simply be making the point that God is everywhere (even in Sheol) as a way to comfort himself. That’s how a number of Christians treat God’s omnipresence in Psalm 139. But perhaps the Psalmist is not only comforting himself, but is also warning himself: God’s omnipresence can be comforting, but it can also coincide with God’s power, and even God’s judgment. The Psalmist could be encouraging himself to stay on the straight and narrow by reminding himself that God not only sees all, but also that God is in Sheol, where the wicked and premature dead go. In v 19, the Psalmist talks about God killing the wicked. In vv 23-24, the Psalmist asks God to search for any wicked thing within him (the Psalmist), and to lead him in the everlasting way. Many scholars would deny that the everlasting way in Psalm 139:24 pertains to an afterlife, or eternal life. But, as Peake’s Commentary states, how do we know? Maybe this Psalm was written in a time when Hebrew religion had a concept of eternal bliss for the righteous. Could the Psalmist in Psalm 139 be desiring eternal bliss rather than Sheol?
All of this said, the Christian concept of hell as a place of everlasting torment disturbs me, and I have a hard time believing that a God of love would operate in that manner. At the same time, I am somewhat attracted to the notion that even God’s wrath and justice are good, and that we see something of God’s righteous character even in hell, where the wicked are punished. Maybe there is a way to embrace that sentiment, without committing to a traditional Christian concept of hell as a place of eternal torment.