In the last post I sketched out how the OT does indeed contain the idea of some sort of afterlife with God beyond and external to Sheol for the righteous. In this post, we’ll look at the unrighteous who are left in Sheol. Does the OT have any sort of view of the afterlife for the unrighteous that approximates later NT ideas of hell? The answer is “it depends” or “yes and no.”
First, since no one escapes the grave (Sheol) unless God raises them, Sheol is conceived of as never ending. The unrighteous who are not raised from Sheol are therefore in a never ending situation.
Second, Sheol for the unrighteous may indeed be a frightening place in Israelite thought depending on one factor: how did Israelites think of the Rephaim in Sheol?
The Rephaim are described as being in Sheol (Job 26:5-6; Prov 9:18) and are conceived of in two ways in the Hebrew Bible: deceased great kings / rulers of old (e.g., Isa 14:9) and a giant clan (cf. Deut 2:11; 1 Chron 20:4). Outside the Hebrew Bible, the Rephaim are known in Ugaritic literature, but only as olden kings, not giants. For this reason, scholars typically look at the biblical Rephaim descriptions as coming from two divergent traditions. This is certainly possible, but it is also possible that the reason for the two types of descriptions is that the Israelites conceived of the Rephaim both ways, and those two ways are related. In my view, it is possible to consider the Rephaim as a giant clan who produced notable rulers / kings in Canaan. I don’t see a necessary incompatibility.
Given this notion, the Rephaim inhabitants of Sheol represented the ancient ruler-giant clans who were Israel’s great historica enemies. These enemies are specifically traced back to the Nephilim (compare Deut. 2:11 and Numbers 13:32-33). Adding 1 Chron 20:4 to that mix shows that the Rephaim were considered a giant clan that traced its roots back to the Nephilim.
The Nephilim are important in this equation because Second Temple Jewish texts (“intertestamental”) like 1 Enoch trace the origin of demons to the Nephilim. Without going into great detail, when a Nephilim giant was killed, the immaterial spirit of that Nephilim was considered a demon. This is the Second Temple explanation for the origin of demons. The disconnect here, though, is that the shedim of 1 Enoch were sentenced to roam the earth to harass humans. It is not clear they reside in the Abyss, but it does seem they can be there (but are not imprisoned there, like the original offending Watchers (sons of God) of Genesis 6 (they are imprisoned in all the OT, NT and 2nd temple Jewish traditions).
Here is the key point. It may be that the Rephaim in Sheol were considered demonic as well as great warrior kings of old (six of one, half dozen of another) based on:
Ezekiel 32:21 (very literal): The gibborim (“mighty chiefs” in ESV) shall speak of them with their helpers out of the midst of Sheol; They have come down, they lie still, the uncircumcised, slain by the sword. The thing to note here is the term gibborim, which of course shows up in Genesis 6:4 in connection with the nephilim. Granted gibborim does NOT mean “giant” in general; the context must point that way. The point here is that gibborim could be viewed as the same as the Rephaim (synonyms) since the description of the gibborim that are in Sheol in Ezek 32 is basically the same as the warrior kings who are the Rephaim in Sheol in other passages. Since the Rephaim in Sheol can still be conceived of as dead giant clan kings, and since those dead Rephaim *may* be conceived as well as the departed spirits of those giants (which would be a parallel to the departed spirits of the nephilim being the demons), we could argue that the OT Sheol includes the idea that demonic spirits are in Sheol. This is not secure, but it is possible. It would give us some sort of clue as to where later Second Temple and NT writers get some of their theology.
It should be noted that many commentators think the nephilim are in Sheol via Ezekiel 32. There are often comments or textual notes on Ezek 32:27, where the “fallen” (n-p-l-m; nophelim) are in Sheol. Some argue that the Hebrew there should be repointed as nephilim. I do not believe this is coherent since “fallen” (n-p-l-m) occurs in 32:22 where we read the “fallen” are “fallen by the sword.” It would make no sense to have “nephilim by the sword.” The same issue applies to 32:23 and 32:24.
So, what we have is that there is a possibility that an Israelite would have view Sheol with fear, not just because it meant death, but because the unrighteous would be forced to spend the afterlife with Israel’s ancient enemies, the giant clans of old, who were perhaps also conceived of as demons. This is possible, but not certain.
What about the element of fiery punishment? Well, if the above holds true, that wouldn’t be viewed as any sort of reward. There is also fire in Sheol according to Prov. 30:16. Job 31:12 *may* suggest there is fire in Sheol (cf. Abaddon in Job 26:6). (See also Psalm 140:8-10). Granted, we do not have descriptions of sinners being burned in torment, but the essential elements are there. I think it is fair to say that the kernel elements of the fiery hell of the NT and Second Temple Judaism are present in the OT.
My conclusion is that it is incorrect to say that the OT does not have any sort of conept of a “bad” afterlife that resembles hell. That is an extreme conclusion that simply refuses to triangulate the range of OT material. It also goes too far to say that the concepts are identical between the testaments. There is a progression of the ideas from the OT to the NT.