When one considers the Biblical teaching of Luke 16:19-31 and factors into this the words of Jesus to the thief on the cross (Luke 23:42,43), then he knows there is an intermediate, ethereal place of the dead. By “intermediate” is meant a place of existence between physical life and the resurrection. By “ethereal place” is meant a location other than this plane. By “dead” I mean discarnate or disembodied spirits. The Bible calls this place “Sheol” in the Old Testament and “Hades” in the New Testament. Although the details and circumstances of the NT Testament Hades are much more developed than the OT Sheol, it can be safely said that these are, in essence, one and the same. Although it is true that both of these terms are sometimes used to denote just the grave, they both generally had the broader meaning of the intermediate dwelling place of discarnate spirits.
The Hebrews did not use the term “spirit” to refer to the entities dwelling in Sheol. Instead, they used the term rephaim or “shades.” To conclude, as some do, that the Hebrews did not believe that man’s personality survived beyond the grave because they did not use the term “spirit” is to commit the “fallacy of non sequitur” (i.e., the conclusion does not follow). Instead, the Hebrews usually just used different terms to refer to disembodied spirits. For example, when the witch of Endor spoke of Samuel, who had clearly been dead for some time, she said, “I saw a spirit [elohim] ascending out of the earth” (1 Sam. 28:13). That Samuel was quite comfortable in Sheol or Hades is demonstrated by his question in verse 15, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” Furthermore, the historical narrative is clear in pointing out (see v. 19) that Saul and his sons, who were going to die the following day, and therefore go to Sheol/Hades, would join Samuel where he was.
This demonstrates that the Hebrews recognized a continuity of existence between the living and the dead. In other words, even though Samuel is dead, he is still Samuel, not someone or something else. It also demonstrates that the Hebrews did not believe that death was just some sort of suspended animation. Although the occurrence mentioned above is especially unique, Samuel had already experienced death, but nevertheless was able to engage in a number of acts of conscious communication, and all this while his body, which included his brain (but not his mind), remained buried at Ramah (cf. 1 Sam. 28:3). (In further consideration of the Hebrews’ belief in life after death, consider Psalms 16:10, 49:15, and 139:8, and also the teaching found in Acts 23:8 concerning the resurrection.)
Therefore, Sheol/Hades is not, as some suppose, the Gehenna/Hell to which the wicked are condemned, and from which the Lord’s faithful are spared (cf. Matt. 10:28). It is unfortunate that the King James translators decided to render Hades, Gehenna, and Tartarus as “Hell.” Sheol/Hades is the dwelling place of the disembodied spirits of the dead, whether good or evil. Those who died in covenant relationship with God are in a comfortable place called “Abraham’s bosom” (Lk. 16:22) and “Paradise” (Lk. 23:43). On the other hand, those who died outside covenant relationship with God exist in a place of “torments” (Lk. 16:23) called “Tartarus” (2 Pet. 2:4), if angels, who are spirits, go to the same place that discarnate spirits go. Within the confines of Sheol/Hades is a “great gulf” (megas chasma = “very large void”) that prevents those who occupy either compartment from going to the other side (Lk. 16:26).
When one passes from the state of being alive to the state of being dead, he has arrived in Hades, and although he has yet to experience the judgment, nevertheless, his fate is now sealed. Whether one will eventually spend an eternity in “Heaven” or “Hell” is now a foregone conclusion. In their disembodied state, these discarnate or incorporeal spirits are experiencing either comfort or torment. Someone is tempted to ask, “Are these not already in Heaven or Hell?” Absolutely not! “Well,” he continues, “What’s the difference?” The difference is that Hades is neither Heaven nor Hell. Instead, it is an intermediate place between this world and the next. Man, who is both body and soul, is not complete or whole in Hades. Remember, sin affects the whole man, both body and soul. Spiritual and physical death are both a result of sin. Without the washing away of one’s sins through the blood of Christ, one will spend an eternity, body and soul, in a devil’s Hell (cf. Matt. 10:28, 25:46; 2 Thess. 1:7-10; Rev 21:8). On the other hand, redemption also affects the whole man and those who have been redeemed by the precious blood of Jesus Christ will spend an eternity, both body and soul, in Heaven (cf. Matt. 25:46; Rom. 8:23).
This brings us, quite naturally, to the subject of the resurrection, which will occur at the second coming of Jesus Christ. We’ll be discussing this in the next post.