Belief in life after death seems to have come back from the grave. News weekly covers it. Talk-show hosts discuss it. Popular books such as Moody and KŁbler-Ross' Life After Life and Maurice Rawlings' Beyond Death's Door examine case histories of out-of-body experiences. Even a few pastors have begun preaching it again.
Once regarded by the secular community as a relic of a superstitious past and by believers as something too difficult to comprehend, belief in life after death is regaining popularity. In spite of a significant decline in religious beliefs, according to a recent Gallup Poll, 71 percent of Americans believe in some form of life after death.1 "Even many who claim no religious belief expect life to go on after death: 46 percent believe in heaven, 34 percent in hell."2
The elaborate funeral arrangements which are intended to preserve the corporeal remains of the
deceased reflect the conscious or subconscious belief in life after death. In the ancient world, the dead were provided for the next life with food, liquids, eating utensils, and clothes. Sometimes even servants and animals were buried with the corpse to provide the necessary conveniences in the next life.
Today, the mortuary rituals are different, but they still reveal a conscious or subconscious belief in life after death. The corpse is embalmed and hermetically sealed in a galvanized metal casket to retard decay. It is dressed in the finest clothes and placed on plush satin lining and soft pillows. It is sent on its way accompanied with items cherished in life, such as rings and family pictures. It is sacredly and silently interred in a cemetery, which is expertly manicured, surrounded by flowers, gates, and guards. The dead are surrendered to the "perpetual care" of the Lord in a professionally maintained and landscaped cemetery where no children play and no visitors disturb them.
The concern of people to send their deceased loved ones to the world of the dead with dignity and elegance reveals a desire to ensure their comfort in the afterlife. But, is there life after death? Are the dead conscious or unconscious? If conscious, are they able to communicate with the living? Are they enjoying the bliss of paradise or the torments of hell?
In chapter 4, we noted that belief in the afterlife is promoted today through the polished image of mediums and psychics who claim to place the living in contact with the spirits of their deceased loved ones, the sophisticated "scientific" research into near-death experiences, and the popular New Age channeling with the spirits of the past. In spite of renewed attempts to prove conscious existence in the afterlife, we found that the Bible clearly defines death as the cessation of life for the whole person, body and soul.
Objectives of This Chapter. This chapter continues our investigation of the nature of death by focusing on the condition of the dead during the period between death and the resurrection. This period is commonly known as "the intermediate state." The fundamental question we pursue in this chapter is: Do the dead sleep in an unconscious state until the resurrection morning? Or, Is the soul of the saved experiencing the bliss of paradise, while that of the unsaved writhing in the torment of hell?
This chapter is divided into two parts. The first part examines the Old Testament teaching regarding the state of the dead. The study focuses especially on the meaning and use of the word sheol, commonly used in the Old Testament to designate the resting place of the dead. We shall learn that, contrary to prevailing beliefs, none of the references suggest that sheol is the place of punishment for the ungodly (hell) or a place of conscious existence for the souls or spirits of the dead. In the Old Testament, sheol is the underground depository of the dead. There are no immaterial, immortal souls in sheol, simply because the soul does not survive the death of the body.
The second part investigates the New Testament teaching regarding the state of the dead. The study looks first at the eleven references to hades, which is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew sheol. We shall see that hades is used like sheol in the Old Testament-to denote the grave or the realm of the dead, and not the place of punishment of the ungodly.
Next, we examine the five passages commonly cited in support of the belief in the conscious existence of the soul after death (Luke 16:19-31; 23:42-43; Phil 1:23; 2 Cor 5:1-10; Rev 6:9-11). None of these texts contradict the overall Biblical teaching on the unconscious state of the dead during the intermediate period.
PART 1: THE STATE OF THE DEAD IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
A major challenge to the conclusion of chapter 4-that death in the Bible is the cessation of life for the whole person-comes from unwarranted interpretations given to two words used in the Bible to describe the dwelling place of the dead. The two words are sheol in the Old Testament and hades in the New Testament. They often are interpreted to represent the place where disembodied souls continue to exist after the death and the place of punishment of the ungodly (hell). Thus, it is imperative for us to study the Biblical meaning and usage of these two terms .
Translations and Interpretations of Sheol. The Hebrew word sheol occurs 65 times in the Old Testament and is translated variously as "grave," "hell," "pit," or "death." These variant translations make it difficult for the English reader to understand the basic meaning of sheol. For example, The King James Version (KJV) renders sheol "grave" 31 times, "hell" 31 times, and "pit" 3 times. This means that readers of the KJV are often led to believe that the Old Testament teaches the existence of hell where the wicked are tormented for their sins.
For example, in the KJV, Psalm 16:10 reads: "For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell." An uninformed reader will assume that the text means, "For thou wilt not leave my soul to be tormented in hell." Such a reading is an obvious misinterpretation of the text which simply says, as rendered in the RSV, "For thou does not give me up to Sheol," that is, the grave. The Psalmist here expresses confidence that God would not abandon him in the grave. In fact, this is the way the text is applied in Acts 2:27 to Christ, who was not left in the grave by the Father. The text has nothing to say about hell.
To avoid such misleading interpretations, the Revised Standard Version and The New American Standard Bible simply transliterate the Hebrew word into English letters as sheol. The New International Version usually translates it as "grave" (occasionally as "death"), with a footnote "sheol." This translation accurately reflects the basic meaning of sheol as the grave or, even better, the collective realm of the dead.
Different translations often reflect the different theological convictions of the translators. For example, the translators of the KJV believed that at death the righteous go to Heaven and the wicked to hell. Consequently, they translated sheol "grave" when referring to the righteous, whose bodies rested in the grave, and "hell" when referring to the wicked whose souls are supposedly tormented in hell. A similar approach has been adopted by Old Testament scholar Alexander Heidel,3 who has been criticized for arbitrarily handling the Biblical data.4
Several evangelical authors concur with the view of the KJV's translators in defining sheol as the abode of the soul, in contradistinction to the grave, which is the dwelling place of the body. In his book Death and the Afterlife, Robert Morey explicitly states: "The Hebrew word sheol is found 66 times in the Old Testament. While the Old Testament consistently refers to the body as going to the grave, it always refer to the soul or spirit of man as going to sheol."5 To support this contention, Morey cites Princeton scholar B. B. Warfield who wrote: "Israel, from the beginning of its recorded history, cherished the most settled convictions of the persistence of the soul after death. . . . The body is laid in the grave and the soul departs to sheol."6
Another scholar cited by Morey is George Eldon Ladd who writes in The New Bible Dictionary: "In the Old Testament, man does not cease to exist at death, but his soul descends to sheol."7 The same view is expressed by J. Thomson, who writes with reference to death in the Old Testament: "At death, the body remained on earth; nephesh [the soul] passed into sheol; but the breath, spirit, or ruach, returned to God, not sheol. But in sheol, a place of darkness, silence, and forgetfulness, life was foreboding and shadowy."8
On the basis of testimonies such as these, Morey concludes: "Modern scholarship understands the word sheol to refer to the place where the soul or spirit of man goes at death. None of the lexicographical literature defines sheol as referring to the grave or to passing into nonexistence."9 Some scholars propose a modified view by holding that sheol is exclusively the place of punishment of the ungodly and has "the same meaning as the modern hell."10
These interpretations of sheol as the dwelling place of souls (rather than the resting place of the body in the grave) or the place of punishment for the wicked, known as hell, do not stand up under the light of the Biblical usage of sheol. This fact is recognized even by John W. Cooper who has produced what is perhaps the most scholarly attempt to salvage the traditional dualistic view of human nature from the massive attacks of modern scholarship against it. Cooper states: "Perhaps most interesting for traditional Christians to note is the fact that it [sheol] is the resting place of the dead irrespective of their religion during life. Sheol is not the 'hell' to which the wicked are condemned and from which the Lord's faithful are spared in glory. Although the Old Testament has a few hints that even in death the Lord spares and communes with his righteous ones, as we shall see, there is no doubt that believers and unbelievers all were thought to go to sheol when they die."11
The liberal The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible states even more emphatically that "Nowhere in the Old Testament is the abode of the dead regarded as a place of punishment or torment. The concept of an infernal 'hell' developed in Israel only during the Hellenistic period."12
The attempt of Morey and others to differentiate between sheol as the abode of the soul and the grave as the resting place of the body is based on a dualistic view of human nature which is foreign to the Bible. In his classic study on Israel: Its Life and Culture, Johannes Pedersen flatly states: "Sheol is the entirety into which all graves are merged; . . . Where there is grave, there is sheol, and where there is sheol, there is grave."13 Pedersen explains at great length that sheol is the collective realm of the dead where all the deceased go, whether buried or unburied.
In his doctoral dissertation on "Sheol in the Old Testament," Ralph Walter Doermann reaches the same conclusion. He writes: "The dead were conceived as being in sheol and in the grave at the same time, yet not in two different places. All the deceased, because they were subject to the same conditions, were thought to be in a common realm."14 This conclusion becomes self-evident when we look at some usages of sheol.
Etymology and Location of Sheol. The etymology of sheol is uncertain. The derivations most frequently mentioned are from such root meanings as "to ask," "to inquire," and "to bury one's self."15 Doermann proposes a derivation from the stem shilah, which has the primary meaning "to be quiet," "at ease." He concludes that "if a connection between sheol and shilah is feasible, it would appear that the name is not connected with the location of the realm of the dead, but rather with the character of its occupants, who are primarily 'at rest.'"16 The difference between the two words is relative. More important is the fact that sheol denotes a place where the dead are at rest.
Sheol is located deep beneath the surface of the earth, because it is often mentioned in connection with heaven to denote the uttermost limits of the universe. Sheol is the deepest place in the universe, just as the heaven is the highest. Amos describes the inescapable wrath of God in these terms: "Though they dig into Sheol, from there shall my hand take them; though they climb up to heaven, from there I will bring them down" (Amos 9:2-3). Similarly, the Psalmist exclaims: "Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend to heaven, thou art there! If I make my bed in Sheol, thou are there!" (Ps 139:7-8; cf. Job 11:7-9).
Being situated beneath the earth, the dead reach sheol by "going down," a euphemism for being buried in the earth. Thus, when Jacob was informed of the death of his son Joseph, he said: "I shall go down to Sheol to my son mourning" (Gen 37:35). Perhaps the clearest example of the location of sheol beneath the earth is the account of the punishment of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, who had revolted against the authority of Moses. "The ground under them split asunder; and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their household and all the men that belonged to Korah and all their goods. So they and all that belonged to them went down alive to Sheol; and the earth closed over them" (Num 16:31-33). This episode clearly shows that the whole person, and not just the soul, goes down to sheol, to the realm of the dead.
Characteristics of Sheol. The characteristics of sheol are essentially those of the realm of the dead, or the grave. In numerous passages, sheol is found in parallelism with the Hebrew word bor, which denotes "a pit" or any kind of subterranean hole, such as a grave. For example, the Psalmist writes: "For my soul is full of troubles and my life draws near to Sheol. I am reckoned among those who go down to the Pit [bor]" (Ps 88:3-4).17 Here the parallelism identifies sheol with the pit, that is, the burial place of the dead.
Several times Sheol appears together with abaddon, which means "destruction," or "ruin."18 Abaddon appears in parallelism with the grave: "Is thy covenant loyalty declared in the grave, or thy faithfulness in Abaddon" (Ps 88:12); and with sheol: "Sheol is naked before the Lord and Abaddon has no covering" (Job 26:6; cf. Prov 15:11); "Sheol and Abaddon lie open before the Lord" (Prov 15:11; cf. 27:20). The fact that sheol is associated with abaddon, the place of destruction, shows that the realm of the dead was seen as the place of destruction, and not as the place of eternal suffering for the wicked.
Sheol is also characterized as "the land of darkness and deep darkness" (Job 10:21), where the dead never see light again (Ps 49:20; 88:13). It is also "the land of silence" (Ps 94:17; cf. 115:17) and the land of no-return: "As the cloud fades and vanishes, so he who goes down to Sheol does not come up; he returns no more to his house, nor does his place know him any more" (Job 7:10).
Sheol and the Realm of the Dead. All the above characterists of sheol describe accurately the realm of the dead. The pit, the place of destruction, the land of darkness, the land of silence, the land of no-return are all descriptive of the realm of the dead. Furthermore we have some instances where sheol occurs in parallelism with death and the grave: "Let death come upon them; let them go down to Sheol alive; let them go away in terror to their grave" (Ps 55:16). By virtue of the parallelism, here sheol is identified with death and the grave.
Another example where sheol is associated with the grave is found in Psalms 141:7: "As a rock which one cleaves and shatters on the land, so shall their bones be strewn at the mouth of Sheol." Here the mouth of sheol is the opening of the grave where the bones are placed.
The various figures used to describe sheol all serve to show that it is not the locality of departed spirits, but the realm of the dead. Anthony Hoekema, a Calvinistic scholar, reaches essentially the same conclusion in his book The Bible and the Future. He writes: "The various figures which are applied to sheol can all be understood as referring to the realm of the dead: Sheol is said to have bars (Job 17:16), to be a dark and gloomy place (Job 17:13), to be a monster with insatiable appetite (Prov 27:20; 30:15-16; Is 5:14; Hab 2:5). When we think of sheol in this way, we must remember that both the godly and the ungodly go down into sheol at death, since both enter the realm of the dead."19
In his classic study, Anthropology of the Old Testament, Hans Walter Wolff notes that, contrary to the ancient Near East religions where the dead were glorified or even deified, "in the Old Testament anything similar is unthinkable. Usually, talk about the descent into sheol as the world of the dead means no more than an indication of burial as the end of life (Gen 42:38; 44:29, 31; Is 38:10, 17; Ps 9:15, 17; 16:10; 49:9, 15; 88:3-6, 11; Prov 1:12)."20 Any attempt to turn sheol into the place of torment of the wicked or into the abode of spirits/souls clearly contradicts the Biblical characterization of sheol as the underground depository of the dead.
The Condition of the Dead in Sheol. Since death is the cessation of life and vitality, the state of the dead in sheol is described in terms antithetical to the concept of life on earth. Life means vitality and activity; death means weakness and inactivity. This is true for all, the righteous and the wicked. "One fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean" (Eccl 9:2). They all go to the same place, sheol, the realm of the dead.
The wise man offers a graphic description of the condition of the dead in sheol: "There is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going" (Eccl 9:10). It is evident that sheol, the realm of the dead, is the place of unconscious non-existence. "For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward; but the memory of them is lost. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and they have no more for ever any share in all that is done under the sun" (Eccl 9:5-6). The main argument here is that death puts an abrupt end to all activity "under the sun," and what follows death is sheol, the realm of the dead where there is a state of inactivity, without knowledge or consciousness. Such a state is best described as "sleep."
The phrase "and he slept with his father" (cf. 1 Kings 1:21; 2:10; 11:43) reflects the idea that the dead join their predecessors in sheol in a somnolent, unconscious state. The idea of rest or sleep in sheol is prominent in Job, who cries in the midst of his sufferings: "Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire? . . . For then I should have lain down and been quiet; I should have slept; then I should have been at rest. . . . There the wicked cease from troubling and there the weary are at rest" (Job 3:11,13, 17).
Rest in sheol is not the rest of souls enjoying the bliss of paradise or the torments of hell, but the rest of dead bodies sleeping in their dusty, worm-covered graves. "If I wait for the grave [sheol] as my house, if I make my bed in the darkness, if I say to corruption, 'You are my father,' and to the worm, 'you are my mother and my sister,' where then is my hope? . . . Will they go down to the gates of Sheol? Shall we rest together in the dust?" (Job 17:13-16, NKJV).
The dead sleep in sheol until the End. "A man lies down and rises not again; till the heavens are no more he will not awake, or be roused out of his sleep" (Job 14:12). "Till the heavens are no more" is possibly an allusion to the coming of the Lord at the end of time to resurrect the saints. In all his trials, Job never gave up his hope of seeing the Lord even after the decay of his body. "For I know that my Redeemer lives, and He shall stand at last on the earth; and after my skin is destroyed, this I know that in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!" (Job 19:25-27; NKJV).
In summation, the condition of the dead in sheol, the realm of the dead, is one of unconsciousness, inactivity, a rest or sleep that will continue until the day of the resurrection. None of the texts we have examined suggests that sheol is the place of punishment for the ungodly (hell) or a place of conscious existence for the souls or spirits of the dead. No souls are in sheol simply because in the Old Testament the soul does not survive the death of the body. As N. H. Snaith flatly states it: "A dead body, whether of man, or bird, or beast is without nephesh [soul]. In sheol, the abode of the dead, there is no nephesh [soul]."21
The Taunting Ode on the King of Babylon. The conclusion we have reached regarding sheol as the unconscious realm of the dead is challenged by those who appeal to two major passages that allegedly support the notion of conscious existence in sheol. The first passage is Isaiah 14:4-11, which is a taunting ode against the king of Babylon. The second is Ezekiel 31 and 32, which contain a parabolic dirge over the Pharoah of Egypt. On the basis of these passages, Robert Morey concludes: "Those in Sheol are pictured as conversing with each other and even making moral judgments on the life-style of new arrivals (Is 14:9-20; 44:23; Ez 32:21). They are thus conscious entities while in Sheol."22 In view of the probative value attributed to these passages for conscious existence in sheol, we need to briefly examine each of them.
The oracle in Isaiah 14 is a taunt song against the king of Babylon, in which the "shades" of the dead, mostly kings subdued by the conquering arms of Nebuchadnezzar, are personified in order to utter God's doom upon the tyrannical king. When the king joins them in sheol, these departed monarchs are portrayed as "shades-rephaim" (a term to be examined shortly) rising up from the shadowy thrones to mock the fallen tyrant, saying: "You too have become as weak as we! You have become like us! Your pomp is brought down to Sheol, the sound of your harps; maggots are the bed beneath you, and worms are your covering" (Is 14:10-11).
Here we have a graphic description of the corpse of the king in the grave being eaten up by maggots and worms; not of the soul enjoying the bliss of heaven or the torments of hell. The language of the passage fits, not the image of "departed spirits," but the portrayal of buried dead. It is evident that if the kings were "departed spirits,' in sheol, they would not be sitting on thrones.
In this impressive parable, even the fir trees and the cedar of Lebanon are personified (Is 14:8) and utter a derisive taunt against the fallen tyrant. It is evident that all the characters of this parable, both personified trees and fallen monarchs, are fictitious. They serve not to reveal the conscious existence of souls in sheol, but to forecast in striking pictorial language God's judgment upon Israel's oppressor, and his final ignominious destiny in a dusty grave, to be eaten by worms. To interpret this parable as a literal description of the afterlife means to ignore the highly figurative, parabolic nature of the passage, which is simply designed to depict the doom of a self-exalting tyrant. Time and again in the course of this research, I have been surprised by the fact that even reputable scholars often ignore a fundamental hermeneutical principle that symbolic, parabolic language cannot and should not be interpreted literally.
Parabolic Dirge over Pharaoh of Egypt. In Ezekiel 31 and 32, we find a parabolic dirge over the Pharoah of Egypt, very similar to the one in Isaiah over the King of Babylon. The same personification of nature is used to describe the overthrow of Pharaoh by the king of Babylon. "When it goes down to Sheol I will make the deep mourn for it, and restrain its river, and many waters shall be stopped; I will clothe Lebanon in gloom for it and all the trees of the field shall faint because of it" (Ez 31:15).
The portrayal is highly figurative. The various rulers that in this life caused great terror, now lie in sheol, with "their graves round about them" (Ez 32:26). "They do not lie with the fallen mighty men of old who went down to Sheol with their weapons of war, whose swords were laid under their heads, and whose shields are upon their bones" (Ez 32:27). In this figurative language, the mighty are portrayed as buried in sheol with their swords as a pillow under their heads and their shields as a blanket over their bones. This is hardly a description of souls enjoying the bliss of paradise or the torment of hell. It is rather a figurative representation of the humiliation of the grave that awaits those who abuse their power in this life.
In his book Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment, Robert A. Peterson, a Presbyterian scholar, acknowledges that "Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 31 and 32, chapters traditionally understood as referring to hell, make better sense if we take them as speaking of the tomb. The pictures of the king of Babylon with maggots and worms covering him (Is 14:11) and of Pharoah lying among the fallen warriors with their swords placed under their heads (Ez 32:27) speak not of hell but of the humiliation of the grave."23
We conclude that sheol is not the place of punishment for the ungodly or the abode of spirits, but the realm of the dead-the silent, dusty, and dark place to which God told Adam he and his descendents must go: "dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return" (Gen 3:19; KJV).
The Inhabitants of Sheol. Eight texts in the Old Testament refer to the inhabitants of sheol as rephaim,24 a word that is usually translated as "shades." This translation is misleading, because it gives the impression that the inhabitants of sheol, the realm of the dead, are ghosts or disembodied spirits. In fact, dualists capitalize on this misleading translation to argue for the existence of disembodied spirits or souls in sheol. For example, Robert Morey boldly affirms: "At death man becomes a rephaim, i.e. a 'ghost,' 'shade,' or 'disembodied spirit' according to Job 26:5; Ps 88:10; Prov 2:18; 9:18; 21:16; Is 14:9; 26:14, 19. Instead of describing man as passing into nonexistence, the Old Testament states that man becomes a disembodied spirit. The usage of the word rephaim irrefutably establishes this truth."25 Such a bold conclusion is based on gratuitous assumptions that hardly can be supported by the usage of rephaim in the texts cited.
The etymology of rephaim is uncertain. It is generally derived from the stem meaning "to sink," "to relax," thus meaning "weak," "flaccid." In a scholarly article on the derivation and meaning of rephaim published in the American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literature, Paul Haupt writes: "The Hebrew rephaim denotes those who have 'sunk' to their unseen abode, descending into Hades as the sun goes down to a fiery death in the west; the rephaim are those who 'sank,' vanished, disappeared, passed away, departed. The best translation would be 'the departed.'"26
The translation of rephaim proposed by Haupt as "the departed" or "the dead" fits well with the usage of the term in the eight texts where the word occurs. Let us take a brief look at each of them. In Isaiah 14:9, we read that the descent to sheol by the king of Babylon caused a stir: "Sheol beneath is stirred up to meet you when you come, it rouses the shades [rephaim] to greet you." Here rephaim could well be translated as "the departed" or "the dead," since we are told that they are "roused" to meet the king. The implication is that they were asleep, a common euphemism for death in the Bible. Disembodied spirits do not need to be "roused" from sleep. The taunt "You have become as weak as we!" (Is 14:10) does not necessarily mean "You have become a disembodied spirit as we." Most likely, "You are dead like us."
This verse is commonly used to define the meaning of rephaim as weak "shades" because they are supposed to be only disembodied spirits. But their weakness derives from the fact that they are dead, not disembodied. In the Old Testament, the dead are weak because their soul or vitality is gone. As Johannes Pedersen concisely states, "The dead is a soul bereft of strength. Therefore the dead are called 'the weak'-rephaim (Is 14:10)."27
Rephaim and the Dead. The connection between the dead and the rephaim is explicit in Isaiah 26:14, where the prophet contrasts the eternal God with earthly rulers, saying of the latter: "They are dead, they will not live; they are shades [rephaim], they will not arise." The parallelism suggests that the rephaim and the dead are the same. Furthermore, it says that the rephaim "will not arise." The implication is that these rephaim, namely, wicked dead rulers, will not be resurrected to life.
The rephaim are mentioned again in verse 19, where the prophet speaks of the resurrection of God's people: "Thy dead shall live, their bodies shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For thy dew is a dew of light, and on the land of the shades [rephaim] thou wilt let it fall" (Is 26:19). John Cooper uses this text to argue that the rephaim are the spirits of the dead who will be reunited with their bodies at the resurrection.28 Cooper writes: "Highly significant for our inquiry is the fact that the term for the deceased both in v. 14b and v. 19d is rephaim, the word used in Isaiah 14 and throughout the Old Testament to designate the dwellers in Sheol. So here we have an unequivocal link between the future bodily resurrection and the inhabitants of the underworld realm of the dead. On the great day of the Lord, the rephaim will be reunited with their bodies, reconstituted from the dust, and they will live as the Lord's people again."29
There are three major problems with this categorical interpretation. First, it ignores that the Hebrew text is problematic as indicated by the conflicting translations. Cooper uses the NIV translation which reads: "The earth will give birth to her dead [rephaim]." (Incidentally, "giving birth" to the rephaim hardly supports the notion that these are living, conscious, disembodied spirits.) Furthermore, other translations render the verse differently. For example, the KJV reads: "The earth shall cast out the dead [rephaim]." The casting out of the dead from the earth hardly suggests the reunification of disembodied spirits with their resurrected bodies. The RSV reads: "On the land of the shades [rephaim] thou wilt let it fall." The falling of the dew on the rephaim can hardly be construed to represent the spirits being reunited with their bodies.
Second, even if the verse refers to the resurrection of the rephaim by virtue of the parallelism with the dead who "shall arise," there are no indications in the whole passage that the rephaim are disembodied spirits who will be reunited to their bodies at the resurrection. Nowhere, does the Bible speak of the resurrection as the reunification of the body with the spirit or the soul. This scenario derives from Platonic dualism, not from Biblical wholism. In the Bible, the resurrection, as brought out in chapter 7, is the restoration to life of the whole person, body and soul.
Third, the structural parallelism of the verse where the "dead," the "dwellers of the dust," and the rephaim are used as synonyms, suggests that the three are essentially the same, namely, the dead. Thus, the rephaim are the dead who dwell in the dust, not disembodied spirits who float in the underworld.
The same parallelism between death and rephaim occurs in Psalm 88:10: "Does thou work wonders for the dead? Do the shades [rephaim] rise up to praise thee?" Here the rephaim are parallelled with the dead and declared to be unable to praise God. Why? Simply because "the dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any that go down into silence" (Ps 115:17). The parallelism between death and rephaim occurs again in Proverbs 2:18 and 9:18. Speaking of the harlot, the wise man says: "Her house sinks down to death, and her paths to the shades [rephaim]" (Prov 2:18). It is evident that the house of the harlot does not lead to the world of the spirits, but to death, as indicated by the parallelism.
Lastly, Job 26:5 personifies the rephaim, saying that before God "The shades [rephaim] below tremble, the water and their inhabitants." Here we are dealing with highly figurative language where both the living and the dead tremble before God. This is also evident from the following verse which says: "Sheol is naked before God and Abbadon [destruction] has no covering." The purpose of all these images is simply to convey the thought that no living or dead creature can escape the omnipresence and omnipotence of God.
In the light of the foregoing analysis we can conclude with Basil Atkinson that "there is nothing in any of the occurrences that obliges us to put the meaning 'shades' upon the word [rephaim], and it seems unreasonable to force it upon it in the face of the combined and consistent testimony of the rest of Scripture."30
The Medium of Endor. The preceding discussion of sheol provides a fitting background for discussing the only full description to be found in the Bible of communicating with a spirit in sheol. In brief, this is the story. When Saul failed to receive guidance for the future from God through the channels of dreams, Urim, and the prophets (1 Sam 28:6), he sought out in desperation a woman medium at Endor, to call up for him the spirit of the deceased Samuel (1 Sam 28:7).
Disguising himself to avoid recognition, Saul came to the woman by night and asked her to bring up the deceased prophet and to elicit information for him (1 Sam 28:8). When she demurred on the ground of the royal ban against necromancy (1 Sam 28:3), Saul swore that no harm would come to her and insisted that she bring up Samuel (1 Sam 28:9-10). She obeyed and said to Saul: "I see a god [elohim] coming up out of the earth" (1 Sam 28:13). She described to Saul what she saw, namely, an old man "wrapped in a robe" (1 Sam 28:14).
From the medium's description, Saul concluded that it was Samuel and proceeded to ask him what he should do in the face of impending defeat by the Philistines. The spirit, impersonating Samuel, first chided Saul for disquieting him when the Lord had departed from the king. Then he prophesied against Saul as from the Lord. Grimly, the spirit foretold Saul's doom: "Tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me" (1 Sam 28:19; 1 Chron 10:13-14). Then the spirit returned to where he had come from.
Importance of the Story. Dualists find in this story one of the clearest Biblical proofs of the survival of the soul at death. John Cooper, for examples derives from this story four major conclusions about the Old Testament view of the state of the dead. He writes: "First, it is clear that there is continuity of personal identity between the living and the dead. In other words, dead Samuel is still Samuel, not someone or something else. . . . Second, although this is a highly unusual occurrence, Samuel is nonetheless a typical resident of Sheol. For he expects Saul and his sons to be joining him. . . . Third, although he implies that he was resting, it was still possible for him to 'wake up' and engage in a number of acts of conscious communication. . . .Fourth, Samuel is a 'ghost' or 'shade,' not a Platonic soul or Cartesian mind. . . . His corpse was buried at Ramah (1 Sam 28:3), yet he was in Sheol and appeared at Endor in bodily form."31 Along the same lines, Robert Morey maintains that this story shows that "Israel did believe in a conscious afterlife. While they were forbidden to be engaged in sťances, they did not believe that man was extinguished at death."32
These attempts to utilize the "ghostly" appearance of "Samuel" at the beck and call of a medium to prove the conscious existence of disembodied souls after death ignore five important considerations. First, it ignores the definite teaching of Scripture on the nature of man and the nature of death which we have already examined thoroughly. The Biblical wholistic view of human nature envisages the cessation of life for the whole person at death and, thus precludes the conscious existence of disembodied souls.
Second, it ignores the solemn warning against consulting "familiar spirits" (Lev 19:31; Is 8:19), a transgression that was punished by death (Lev 20:6, 27). In fact, Saul himself died because "he was unfaithful to the Lord . . . and also consulted a medium, seeking guidance, and did not seek guidance from the Lord" (1 Chron 10:13-14). The reason the death penalty was inflicted for consulting "familiar spirits" is that these were "evil spirits," or fallen angels impersonating the dead. Such a practice would eventually lead the people to worship the devil rather than God.
God hardly could have prescribed the death penalty for communicating with the spirits of deceased loved ones if such spirits existed and if such a communication were possible. There is no moral reason for God to outlaw on the pain of death, the human desire to communicate with deceased loved ones. The problem is that such communication is impossible, because the dead are unconscious and do not communicate with the living. Any communication that occurs is not with the spirit of the dead, but with evil spirits. This is suggested also by the medium's statement, "I see a god [elohim] coming up out of the earth" (1 Sam 28:13). The plural word elohim is used in the Bible not only for the true God but also for false gods (Gen 35:2; Ex 12:12; 20:3). What the medium saw was a false god or evil spirit impersonating Samuel.
Third, such an interpretation assumes that the Lord would speak to Saul by a medium, a practice He had outlawed on the pain of death, after He had refused to communicate with Saul by legitimate means (1 Sam 28:6). A communication from Samuel, speaking as a prophet, indirectly would be a communication from God. Yet the Bible expressly states that the Lord refused to communicate with Saul (1 Sam 28:6).
Fourth, it ignores the fantastic difficulty of supposing that a spirit from the dead could appear as "an old man . . . wrapped in a robe" (1 Sam 28:14). If the spirits of the dead were disembodied souls, they obviously would not need to be wrapped around with clothes.
Fifth, it ignores the implications of the grim prediction "Tomorrow you and your son shall be with me" (1 Sam 28:19). Where was this rendezvous to take place between the king and the simulator of Samuel? Was it in sheol, as Cooper suggests? If that were true, it would mean that God's prophets and apostate kings share the same living quarters after death. This runs contrary to the popular belief that at death the saved go up to heaven and the unsaved down to sheol-hell. Furthermore, if Samuel had been in Heaven, the spirit-impersonator of Samuel would have said: "Why have you brought me down?" But he said: "Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?" (1 Sam 28:15). Had the location of the saved changed in the course of time from sheol beneath the earth to Heaven above the earth?
Reflections such as these give us reason to believe that the sťance which occurred at Endor does not support in any way the notion of conscious existence for disembodied souls after death. It is evident that it was not the spirit of Samuel that communicated with Saul. Most likely, a demon impersonated the dead Samuel, as happens in many sťances today.
The Scriptures reveal that Satan and his angels have the ability to change their appearance and to communicate with human beings (see Matt 4:1-11; 2 Cor 11:13,14). The story of the "ghostly" appearance of Samuel at Endor tells us very little about conscious existence after death, but it does reveals a great deal about the clever deceptions of Satan. It shows us that Satan has been very successful in promoting the lie, "You will not die," by using sophisticated means such as the impersonification of the dead by his evil spirits.
Conclusion. Our study of the Hebrew word for "the realm of the dead-sheol" shows that none of the texts we have examined suggests that sheol is the place of punishment for the ungodly (hell) or a place of conscious existence for the souls or spirits of the dead. The realm of the dead is one of unconsciousness, inactivity, and sleep that continues until the day of the resurrection.
Similarly, the word rephaim, which is generally translated "weak" or "shades," denotes not disembodied spirits who float in the underworld, but the dead who dwell in the dust. We have found that the dead are called "the weak-rephaim" (Is 14:10) because they are bereft of strength. The story of the "ghostly" appearance of Samuel at Endor tells us very little about conscious existence after death, because what the medium saw was a false god (elohim-a god-1 Sam 28:13) or evil spirit impersonating Samuel, and not the soul of the prophet.