Before we can even begin to answer the question – do Jews believe in Hell? We have to explore the earliest occurrences of a hell-like place in Torah. And that means we must explore the concept of Sheol. Sheol is the place where one goes when one dies.
For instance, an example of Sheol in Torah comes during the story of Joseph and his brothers. After Joseph’s brothers sold Joseph into slavery, they told Jacob the sad news that Joseph had died. Then, Jacob rent his clothes and said, “I will go down mourning to my son in Sheol.” (Genesis 37:35)
Sheol is mentioned many times in the Tanakh. We read about Sheol in places such as the Proverbs, Psalms, Deuteronomy, Ecclesiastes, Job and Isaiah. It was a neutral place, where there is no light, no love, envy, hate, thought, knowledge nor wisdom. Everyone had to go down to Sheol, which meant everything that lived had to die.
Sheol was a place that developed conceptually throughout Tanakh:
In Psalms 88:4-5, we learn that Sheol is a pit. It is a place where you descend to after you die. Unfortunately, No one can avoid Sheol. In Psalm 89:49, we read, “What man can live and not see death, can save himself from the clutches of Sheol?” We know that everyone who lives, must die. And when they die, they must go to Sheol. According to Psalms 49:15-20, we read, “Sheeplike they head for Sheol, with Death as their shepherd. The upright shall rule over them at daybreak, and their form shall waste away in Sheol till its nobility be gone…But God will redeem my life from the clutches of Sheol, for He will take me.” Yet he must join the company of his ancestors, who will never see daylight again.”
Notice, however, in Sheol, he joins his ancestors. Everyone who dies, is gathered to his kin! Where they go from there develops in later conceptualizations about Sheol. Let’s take a look at a few more:
No matter who you are, and how righteous you have been, you have to go down to Sheol when you die. Ezekiel 32:21 reminds us, “From the depths of Sheol the mightiest of warriors speak to him and his allies; the uncircumcised, the slain by the sword, have gone down and lie there.”
Some believed that the dead were cut off from God, Psalm 88:5, “I am abandoned among the dead, like bodies lying in the grave of whom You are mindful no more, and who are cut off from Your care.”
Other depict that God is in Sheol as well. Psalm 139:8, “If I ascend to heaven, You are there; if I descend to Sheol, You are there too.”
Then there was a conception that God could make someone come back to life again. Undoubtably this came from neighboring cultures, such as the Persians or the Caananites. They believed their gods were strong enough to make the dead rise again. This became apparent in Isaiah where he claimed, “Oh, let Your dead revive! Let corpses arise! Awake and shout for joy, You who dwell in the dust!— For Your dew is like the dew on fresh growth; You make the land of the shades come to life.” (Isaiah 26:19)
But who got to be raised up again?
In The Book of Daniel, we begin to see a theology emerge, about the faithful vs. the unfaithful. In Daniel 12:2, we read, “Many of those that sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to eternal life, others to reproaches, to everlasting abhorrence.” Aha! The moment where we understand that to get out of Sheol meant you had to be righteous in life. If you were not, you had to stay down there awhile longer and wait…
Okay, what are we waiting for?
Well, that is where Jewish thought began to develop. Sheol was a place where if you were righteous, you got to hang out. You stayed in Sheol and waited for the rest of your family to come down to you. However, if you were not righteous, oy.
Gehenna – the concept of a punishing place where the wicked are punished after death, is based on an actual place. Gehinom (the Valley of Hinnom) was a real place near Jerusalem, first mentioned in the Book of Joshua 15:8. It was a valley, located outside the walls of Jerusalem in order to burn garbage and keep out the offensive odor. What other offensive acts that occurred there? The execution of thieves, for one. It was also a dumping ground for those who did not merit a proper burial. But worst of all, it was a place where pagan children were sacrificed to the idol of Moloch. Gehenna was not a pleasant place for sure! (By the way, it is also mentioned in Nehemiah, 2 Chronicles, 2 Kings and Jeremiah.)
The concept of Hell as a place of punishment was a later development. But it could have very well come from this place of burning, torture and fiery abomination.
The idea of righteous vs. evil answered the question of why the wicked prospered here on earth. Their punishment would come later, after their death. So for the righteous, if they didn’t get their reward here on earth, they would come to know it in the next world. The concept of Sheol was neutral in the Tanakh. However, – there was a period of development which set up a reward/punishment system for after death.
In later blogs, we will explore how the recitation of the Mourners Kaddish came to answer how someone could still make it into the Olam Ha Bah, (or “world to come.”)
The answer was, have a son who will say Kaddish for your soul, and you’ll be assured to get out of that nebulous, holding place, and make sure you don’t have to live in eternal torture in Gehenna!