I am about a third of the way into writing my book about hell, tentatively entitled, Final Punishment: A Biblical Case for Conscious Eternal Torment. I’m hoping to finish by the 2019 National Conference.
There is so much interesting Biblical information about death and the afterlife in the Bible. The picture is far more complicated than most people assume.
For example, two important Hebrew words in this debate are qeber and Sheol.
A qeber is a physical grave, sepulcher, or tomb. It’s where you place a corpse.
Sheol seems to mean something more. It can refer to “the grave” in the sense of being the place where you might find bones (e.g., Ps 141:7), but it generally has a wider, more abstract, meaning. The Biblical uses of Sheol are varied: it is portrayed as an enemy, a power, or as a shadowy underworld located someplace beneath the earth.
The two uses are so very different. You have many qebers, but there’s only one Sheol.
I believe the two words refer to two different “places” where people went after they died. Before the cross, when you died, your body ended up in a qeber and your soul went to Sheol.
Knowing there are two places makes sense of Gen 25:8 and Luke 16:19-31.
In Genesis we read:
Abraham breathed his last and died in a ripe old age, an old man and satisfied with life; and he was gathered to his people. Then his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, facing Mamre (Gen 25:8-9).
When he died, Abraham was “gathered to his people,” and later he was “buried” in the cave of Machpelah. Is that the same event or two separate events?
Notice that the timing seems to be different. Abraham was gathered to his people when he died; then he was buried. Those events are sequential, not simultaneous.
So what would it mean for Abraham to be gathered to his people if it does not mean he was buried? That brings us to Luke 16:22-23:
Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom (Luke 16:22-23).
Where was Abraham? His spirit was in the underworld, what the OT called Sheol and what the NT calls Hades.
Specifically, based on this passage in Luke, I believe the Bible teaches the underworld has two compartments: a fiery one and a paradisaical one called “Abraham’s bosom.” A gulf separates the two.
To return to our original question: where did Abraham go when he died? The answer is twofold: his body was buried in a cave in Machpelah, but his soul was gathered to his people in Sheol.
How does this apply to the debates over hell? To put it simply, when you understand that your body and your soul experience different outcomes after you die, it sheds light on many final punishment passages.