Hell in the Old Testament

Category: The End Times 98 2

When studying the topic of hell in the Bible, one will naturally go straight to the New Testament. However, for a study about hell to be complete, we also need to examine Hell in the Old Testament. The reason, however, why most of our studies about the fate of the wicked gravitate toward the New Testament is very simple: the Old Testament gives us very little about hell (or heaven as well). In fact, the place of the dead is often only referred to as “the grave.” Besides using “the grave,” the Old Testament uses other words to describe the place where the dead go: the pit (Hebrew bor), the trap (sahat), the netherworld (eres), sheol, death/the place of death (mawet/mot), and Abaddon.[1]

A lot of the time these words refer only to death itself and the grave where people are buried. For instance, “the pit” (which was a manmade hole in the ground to trap and store rainwater) sometimes refers to the grave and sometimes to the realm of the dead. “The trap” (which denotes a pit where game was trapped) can be used in reference to the dead as “to go down to the pit” (see for example Job 33:24; Psalm 30:10). The Hebrew word for netherworld usually means “earth” or “land” but sometimes has the meaning of the place of the dead.[2]

These words can refer to only the grave where someone is buried or can refer to life after death. “The Old Testament offers only limited information on the status of the dead. Often their abode is described in phenomenological language, derived from ancient burial practices. One must decide in each case whether Sheol or the “Pit” refers to the grave or the abode of the dead.”[3] Another problem is that the Old Testament also does not give any clear distinctions between the righteous and the wicked after death.[4] To put it simply, the Old Testament gives us very little information about the afterlife.

Isaiah 66:24

However, there are two passages in the Old Testament that give us a glimpse of the punishment that will come upon the wicked in the end times. The first is Isaiah 66:24: “And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.”

The 65th and 66th chapters of Isaiah discuss the new heavens and new earth, and how God will bring all the nations to Jerusalem. However, at the end of chapter 66, God says of those who had rebelled against him that their worms will not die, and the fire that burns them will never be quenched. This is consistent with the imagery that is used in the New Testament (click here).

This passage reflects the condition of those who are not a part of the new heavens and new earth. The implication is that these are the people who will be banished and punished by God and not be given a place among those in heaven.

Daniel 12:1-3

The second passage is Daniel 12:1-3. “At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people—everyone whose name is found written in the book—will be delivered. Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.”

There are some very interesting things about these verses. First, they come after 11:36-45 which is speaking about the Antichrist. Second, the people whose names are found in the book are delivered. This sounds a lot like the Book of Life that is described in the book of Revelation. Third, this is the only place in the Old Testament that speaks about both the righteous and the wicked having a bodily resurrection. And fourth, the righteous will be given eternal life while the wicked will be given eternal shame and contempt.

This is very similar to what Jesus teaches in Matthew 25:46 where the righteous receive eternal life and the wicked receive eternal punishment. Some like to argue that eternal punishment does not last forever, but if hell is not eternal, then heaven will not be eternal either (click here for more on that topic). Scholar Daniel Block says about Daniel 12:1-3:

“Life [referring to eternal life] in this context means the recovery of that for which humankind was created in the beginning – free and open fellowship with God and a restoration of all the privileges and responsibilities involved with being the image of God, namely, once more governing the world as God’s representative and deputy. The fate of the wicked is the opposite. They are sentenced to perpetual disgrace…and shame…The former expression refers to the taunts and reviling of all who pass by, the latter to the revulsion and loathing that passers-by feel toward the sight. This interpretation of this rare word is confirmed by Isaiah 66:24 [our first passage above], the only other occurrence of [the Hebrew word for shame]. It describes the disposition one has toward the putrid and malodorous carcass of a dead animal infested with maggots and in an advanced stage of decay.”[5]

Conclusion

The Old Testament does not give us a lot of information about hell. However, the passages in Isaiah and Daniel do give us details that are consistent with the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament. Hell is eternal punishment for those who reject the one true God.

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[1] Daniel I. Block. “The Old Testament on Hell.” In Hell Under Fire. Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson eds. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004. Pgs. 44-46.

[2] Block,  44-45.

[3] Ibid. 53.

[4] Ibid, 58.

[5][5] Ibid. 63-64.

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2 thoughts on “Hell in the Old Testament

  1. Pete

    Thank you. I just watched a video on youtube where the guy was saying that hell doesn’t even exist and since it is only in the New Testament “they are making this stuff as they go.” Immediately I searched for the truth. Very valuable information. God bless you.

    Reply
  2. Shanda

    Thanks for this clear and concise treatment of a topic I have been wondering about for some time. May the Lord bless you.

    Reply

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