Sheol In the Bible: Psalms Part 1
The book of Psalms consists of 150 songs called psalms. Half of the psalms were written by Solomon’s father, King David, and some anonymous ones were likely written by him as well. Other psalmists include Moses, Solomon, Asaph, Ethan and Heman. Regardless of who wrote each psalm, one fact is certain: All the psalms are “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16) since all the psalmists “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). For more proof of this, notice what Jesus said about David in a discussion with the Pharisees:
[Jesus] said to them, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says,
(44) “ ‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.” ’
Verse 44 is a quote of Psalm 110:1, written by David. Notice how Jesus emphasizes that David was “speaking by the Spirit” when he wrote this verse, which implies all the psalms he wrote. In other words, David’s statements in the Psalms were given by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit is God. As such, David’s exposition on the nature of Sheol contained in the Psalms, as well as commentary by other psalmists, shouldn’t be considered just “their view” of Sheol. No, it’s God’s view too because they were “speaking by the Spirit,” as Jesus put it.
The book of Psalms contains a wealth of information on the nature of Sheol. Despite the fact that there were several authors, the psalmists are in complete agreement. This is unsurprising since they all “spoke from God… by the Holy Spirit.” Their many revealing statements about Sheol are also in harmony with the views of Jacob, Job and Solomon, covered last chapter.
Sheol: Where You Cannot Remember or Praise God
Let’s examine the very first text in the book of Psalms where the Hebrew word Sheol appears:
PSALM 6:5 (NRSV)
For in death there is no remembrance of you [God]; in Sheol who can give you praise?
In this verse David is praying for God to save his life because his enemies were trying to kill him (as indicated in verse 10). Despite his anguish, David didn’t want to die; he was “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22) and thus wanted to live, serve God and worship Him. He knew that if he died and went to Sheol he wouldn’t be able to do this.
This simple passage completely contradicts the prominent religious position on Sheol, which suggests that when Old Testament saints died their souls would go to a supposed “paradise” section of Sheol. They would be conscious there and supremely comforted as they fellowshipped with father Abraham. Yet, if this were so, wouldn’t they be able to remember God? Would they not be praising Him and thanking Him as the righteous are always ever ready to do, that is, as long as it were possible?
However, David makes it clear in this passage that souls in Sheol do not and cannot remember God and consequently cannot praise Him either. This suggests that those in Sheol are unconscious—“asleep” in death until their resurrection.
The notion that Sheol is a condition where a person cannot remember or praise God is corroborated by other biblical texts. For instance:
PSALM 115:17-18 (NRSV)
The dead do not praise the LORD, nor do any that go down into silence, but we [the living] will bless the LORD
This passage shows that those who die “go down into silence.” Sheol is a place of silence because those who go there are unconscious, that is, dead. There’s no praising and worshipping of God there nor are there horrible screams of torment. It is a condition of silence. It is the living who bless the Lord, the Psalmist plainly states, not the dead.
Righteous King Hezekiah’s prayer from the book of Isaiah is another coinciding passage:
ISAIAH 38:18-19 (NRSV)
“For Sheol cannot thank you, death cannot praise you; those who go down to the Pit cannot hope for your faithfulness. (19) The living, the living, they thank you as I do this day.”
First, notice in this passage, as well as Psalm 6:5 above, that Sheol and death are spoken of synonymously (we’ll look at this in more detail in the next chapter). Secondly, witness how Hezekiah makes it clear, just as David and the other psalmist did, that those in Sheol are unable to thank or praise God.
The obvious conclusion we must draw is that, if the righteous are unable to remember God and cannot praise or thank Him, then they must be unable to do so; that is, they must be either unconscious or dead — no longer alive. This is supported by Hezekiah’s statement in verse 19 where he stresses that only “the living, the living” can thank and praise God, not those who go to Sheol, the world of the dead.
Let’s examine one other passage that corresponds to the three just looked at:
PSALM 88:3, 10-12
(3) For my soul is full of trouble and my life draws near the grave (Sheol).
(10) Do you show your wonders to the dead? Do those who are dead rise up and praise you? (11) Is your love declared in the grave (qeber), your faithfulness in destruction. (12) Are your wonders known in the place of darkness, or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?
Here is further proof that those in Sheol are dead and therefore unable to rise up and praise God. Moreover, Sheol is equated to the literal grave (qeber) and destruction, and is also spoken of as “the place of darkness” and “land of oblivion.” The Psalmist makes it clear that God does not show His wonders to the dead in Sheol, that the dead cannot praise Him there and that God’s love, faithfulness and righteous deeds are all unknown there. What unmistakable proof that souls in Sheol are dead and conscious of nothing!
This Psalm, written by Heman the Ezrahite when his life was in mortal danger, is a prayer to God for deliverance from death. Note in verse 3 that Heman clearly expected to go to Sheol when he died just as Jacob, Job, Solomon, David and Hezekiah did. In the King James Version is kept from the general reader by the use of the word “grave” as a translation of sheol; this is likewise the case with the NIV rendering of the verse as shown above, although there’s a footnote properly indicating that the verse is indeed referring specifically to Sheol. Because of this mistranslation the average reader is misled into believing that the psalmist is talking about the condition of the literal grave where the body is buried and not to Sheol where the soul goes. The problem with this is that it obscures the truth about the nature of Sheol to the average reader and consequently perpetuates false religious ideas.
Let’s recap: The writers of the four passages examined in this section — David, Hezekiah, Heman and the anonymous psalmist — are all in perfect agreement that Sheol is not a place of consciousness. According to these inspired biblical writers, Sheol is synonymous with death and is thus a condition of silence where it is impossible to even remember God, let alone praise & thank Him.
Sheol: “The Land of Silence”
Let’s examine another enlightening Psalm text by David from both the New International Version and the King James:
let the wicked be put to shame and lie silent in the grave (Sheol). (18) Let their lying lips be silenced,
PSALM 31:17-18 (KJV)
let the wicked be ashamed, and let them be silent in the grave (Sheol). (18) Let their lying lips be put to silence;
Notice that this passage is solely referring to “the wicked” — people who are in outright rebellion against God, living after the desires of the sin nature. These are David’s enemies; they have rejected his God-appointed kingship and are trying to kill him. David is actually praying for their death for that is the only way their lying lips will be silenced.
With this understanding, observe how David describes the condition these wicked souls will experience if they die: He plainly says that they will lie silent in Sheol.
According to David — the great godly king, inspired biblical writer and “man after God’s own heart” — the wicked do not constantly scream in torment in Sheol, but simply lie silent! This description is in perfect harmony with the view that Sheol is a condition of unconsciousness where souls lie “asleep” in death “awaiting” their resurrection.
This is not the only biblical text that makes it clear that souls lie silent in Sheol. We saw this same thought expressed in Psalm 115:17 in the previous section. Here’s another coinciding Psalm text:
PSALM 94:17 (NRSV)
If the LORD had not been my help, my soul would soon have lived in the land of silence.
The psalmist is simply testifying that, if the Lord had not delivered him from his wicked enemies (referred to verse 16), they would have killed him and, as a result, his soul would have gone to “the land of silence.” What is “the land of silence”? Since he’s addressing the place his soul would go to after death we know he’s referring to Sheol.
With this understanding, notice that the psalmist does not describe Sheol as “the land of shrieking in torment” or as “the land of comforts with Father Abraham” (religionists would have us believe Sheol is one or the other, depending on whether the soul is wicked or righteous respectively). That’s because neither of these descriptions is true; Sheol is, in reality, the land of dead souls where there’s no consciousness of anything and thus only silence.
Take another look at the King James rendition of Psalm 31:17-18 above and notice that the passage deviates from the King James standard practice of rendering sheol as “hell” whenever the text referred to the wicked (and as “the grave” when it referred to righteous people). Why did the translators fail to render sheol as “hell” in this particular case since it clearly refers to “the wicked”? Obviously because the passage portrays the wicked in Sheol as lying in silence and this contradicted their belief that wicked souls in Sheol suffer a constant state of screeching torment. What hypocrisy!
This reveals the dishonest extents religious people will go to cover up the scriptural truth and perpetuate their false religious beliefs.
Sheol: “The Pit” or “Well of Souls”
The fact that Sheol is a condition of silence is also pointed out in Psalm 30. In this psalm David is simply expressing thanks because God delivered him from death. He knew that, if he died, his soul would go to Sheol, as indicated in verse 3:
PSALM 30:3 (NRSV)
O LORD, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.
The text showcases a form of Hebrew poetry called synonymous parallelism where the second part of the verse simply repeats and enforces the thought of the first. We’ve already seen examples of this type of poetry (Psalm 6:5 & Isaiah 38:18) and will continue.
With this understanding, notice that Sheol is spoken of as synonymous with “the Pit.” Since Sheol is described as “the Pit” we will gain better insight into the nature of Sheol by simply deciphering what “the Pit” means.
The Hebrew word for “the Pit” is bowr (borr) which literally refers to a hole or pit in the ground and is used 71 times in the Bible. The setting in which bowr is used determines, of course, what specific type of hole or pit and, consequently, which English word is used to translate it. For instance, 26 times bowr is used in reference to a ‘cistern’ (e.g. Genesis 37:22,24,28,29), nine times in reference to a ‘well’ (e.g. 1 Chronicles 11:17-18), five times in reference to a ‘dungeon’ (e.g. Genesis 40:15; 41:14), once to a ‘quarry’ (Isaiah 51:1) and once it’s even translated as ‘death’ (Proverbs 28:17).
NOTE: These figures are from the New International Version.
Why “death”? No doubt because bowr, a hole in the ground, is what a grave actually is; and grave, of course, signifies death — the utter absence of life.
What is God trying to tell us in His Word by likening Sheol to bowr, a pit? Obviously that Sheol is like a vast common pit or grave where un-regenerated souls are held after physical death and before resurrection.
Interestingly, since one of the definitions of bowr is ‘well,’ Sheol could properly be described as “the well of souls.”
Most of us have probably heard this phrase. “The Well of Souls” is an actual subterranean chamber beneath the Dome of the Rock in the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Jews believe it is where Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac. The popular 1981 film Raiders of the Lost Ark depicted the Well of Souls as the hiding spot of the Ark of the Covenant but placed it as a lost chamber in Tanis, Egypt, rather than in a cave in the Temple Mount.
Yet, from a purely biblical standpoint, the Well of Souls is Sheol, the pit where un-regenerated souls are held intermediate between physical death and resurrection. Like the subterranean chamber beneath the Dome of the Rock, Sheol is a dungeon – a dungeon where souls are held captive to death after physical decease. This explains why bowr is translated as “dungeon” in reference to Sheol in this passage from Isaiah:
ISAIAH 24:21-22 (NASB)
So it will happen in that day, that the LORD will punish the host of heaven, on high, and the kings of the earth, on earth. (22) And they will be gathered together like prisoners in the dungeon (bowr), and will be confined in prison; and after many days they will be punished.
The passage is referring to the day when God’s cataclysmic wrath will be poured out upon the whole earth; this occurs right before the establishment of the millennial reign of Christ. Because of God’s judgments billions of people will die and every unsaved soul will be confined to Sheol “like prisoners in the dungeon.” Only “after many days,” that is, after the thousand-year reign of Christ, will these souls be resurrected to face judgment and suffer the eternal punishment of the second death (see Revelation 20:5,13-15).
Incidentally, observe how verse 22 makes it clear that these unsaved souls will not be punished until after they are resurrected from Sheol and judged; this is further evidence which disproves the view that unsaved souls are punished with conscious torment while captive in Sheol. The only punishment experienced in Sheol is death itself, the utter absence of life or being. This stands to reason since it is in harmony with the biblical axiom that death is the wages of sin.
The point I want to stress from this passage is that verse 22 likens Sheol to a gloomy dungeon or prison where souls are confined. No wonder David praised and thanked God for delivering him from this death condition. Obviously David didn’t share the view of some people today that righteous souls in Sheol are (or were) in some type of “paradise” hanging out with Father Abraham. No, this is a false religious myth! Sheol is a dungeon, a prison — a common pit of death where all un-regenerated souls are confined until their appointed resurrection.
The only soul who can escape this dungeon-like pit of death is the soul that is born-again and thus possesses eternal life (John 3:36; 5:24 & 1 John 3:14,14). This is only possible because “Christ Jesus… has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10). The gospel or “good news” refers to all the benefits available to humankind as a result of Jesus’ sacrificial death, burial and resurrection (1 Corinthian 15:1-3). Aside from reconciliation with God, the main benefit of this gospel is, of course, eternal life. Until Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection, eternal life or immortality was not available and that’s why in Old Testament times, before the ascension of Christ, both righteous and unrighteous souls had to go to Sheol after physical decease.
It was necessary to go into detail here about bowr — “the Pit” — so now whenever it pops up in our study we’ll understand precisely what it means.
Incidentally, I find it interesting that the original definition of ‘hell’ — “to conceal or cover” — is in harmony with the biblical description of Sheol as “the Pit.” This is evidence that the Old English ‘hell’ was originally used as a translation of Sheol because it properly gave the image of souls consigned and concealed in a pit in the netherworld until their resurrection on judgment day. Unfortunately, the definition of ‘hell’ has taken on a completely different meaning since that time, i.e. perpetually writhing in roasting torment in some devil-ruled torture chamber.
Let’s now return our attention to Psalm 30: At the end of this psalm David plainly reveals the state that his soul would have been in if God had not delivered him from death:
PSALM 30:11-12 (NRSV)
You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, (12) so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.
David is just praising God here because he knew that, had he died, his soul would have been silent in Sheol. He well knew that a person cannot praise God or tell of His faithfulness in Sheol, as indicated in verse 9, because Sheol is a “land of silence.”
Sheol: A Condition of the Soul (Mind)
Let’s return to Psalm 30:3 to observe another important fact about Sheol:
PSALM 30:3 (NRSV)
O LORD, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.
David was so close to death that God figuratively “restored” him to life by saving him from Sheol, which is where his soul would have gone had he physically died.
“Soul” in this context refers to his very being or mind, the actual essence or qualities that mark him as an individual human creation of God. This is supported by the second part of the verse that speaks of “those” who actually died and consequently went to Sheol, the Pit. Notice that he doesn’t say “those whose bodies have gone down to the Pit” or “those whose breath of life has gone down to the Pit.” That’s because a person’s body does not go to Sheol when s/he dies; a lifeless body is placed in a grave or tomb. Neither does the breath of life, the spirit, go to Sheol when a person dies; this animating life-force simply returns to God from whence it came, as detailed in the second appendix of Hell Know: Understanding Human Nature: Spirit, Mind & Body. No, Sheol is the holding place of a person’s very life essence or being, the part of human nature that possesses volition, emotion and intellect; in other words, Sheol is the condition to which the human soul or mind (not brain) enters after physical death.
This is supported by a verse examined in the previous chapter:
ECCLESIASTES 9:10 (NRSV)
Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge in Sheol, to which you are going.
Notice how the text plainly states that “you” are going to Sheol; that is, anyone who has not been spiritually regenerated through Christ, which included everyone in Old Testament times when Ecclesiastes was written. Sheol is the housing place of people’s very being after physical death, the part that marks them as an individual creation of God, the part of them that thinks, reasons, chooses and feels; hence, Sheol is the condition that the mind enters when the body dies. As shown in the appendix on human nature, “mind” is the Greek word nous (noos) and refers to that central part of human nature that decides, thinks and feels. We could put it this way: Your mind is you and you are your mind.
The human body separate from mind and spirit is just a slab of flesh; it goes to the grave at the time of death. The human spirit separate from mind and body is simply a breath of life, an animating life-force, not a personality. This breath of life comes from the Creator and gives life to our very being, our soul, our mind — our personhood. When a person dies this breath of life, or spirit, merely returns to God who gave it. (I’m not talking about believers who have spiritual regeneration through Christ here, but rather un-regenerated people, which includes Old Testament saints). The unredeemed soul separate from body and spirit goes to Sheol.
Simply put, Sheol is a condition of the unregenerate human soul, the disembodied mind.
If any of this is difficult to understand, please see the aforementioned appendix on human nature, which addresses the subject in detail.
Sheol: A Place Where Sheep Go?
Let’s now turn to another very enlightening psalm passage written by the sons of Korah:
PSALM 49:13-15 (NRSV)
Such is the fate of the foolhardy, the end of those who are pleased with their lot. (14) Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol; death shall be their shepherd; straight to the grave they descend, and their form shall waste away; Sheol shall be their home. (15) But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me.
Verse 14 refers to those who trust in themselves rather than God; verse 13 describes these people as the “foolhardy.” A ‘fool’ in the Bible is synonymous with a wicked person since the term “fool” denotes someone who is morally deficient; that is, someone who rejects God’s existence, authority, wisdom & discipline and embraces evil desires (see Proverbs 1:7; 5:22-23 and Psalm 14:1).
Since this text is definitely referring to ungodly people you would think that the King James translators would have translated sheol as “hell,” which would be in line with their policy of translating he word as “hell” when the passage referred to wicked people and as “grave” when it referred to righteous people. Yet, notice how the King James bible renders verse 14:
PSALM 49:14 (KJV)
Like sheep they are laid in the grave (Sheol); death shall feed on them; and the upright shall have dominion over them in the morning; and their beauty shall consume in the grave from their dwelling.
The passage is contextually referring to ungodly people yet the King James translators chose not to render sheol as “hell” as was their usual practice. Why? Obviously because it was impossible for them to do so since the verse plainly says that wicked people are appointed for Sheol LIKE SHEEP! And everyone knows that sheep don’t go to a place of conscious torture when they die; the very idea is absurd. You don’t have to be a scholar to realize this. Hence, despite the translators desire to render Sheol as “hell,” as was their standard practice, they had no choice but to translate it as “the grave” in this particular case.
This text coincides with Jeremiah 12:3, which also likens ungodly people to sheep that are to be slaughtered: “Drag them off like sheep to be butchered! Set them apart for the day of slaughter.” Note clearly that it says they are to be butchered and slaughtered (which is in harmony with the biblical axiom that “the wages of sin is death”), not tortured in some fiery nether realm until their resurrection thousands of years hence, as religionists ludicrously teach.
At this point, two questions crop up: Do sheep really go to Sheol as Psalm 49:14 implies? And, if so, does this mean they have souls since, biblically speaking, Sheol is the “world of the dead” where dead souls are specifically laid to rest after physical death?
Do Animals Have Souls? Do They Go to Sheol When They Die?
The answer to both these questions, believe it or not, is yes. Sheep and other animals are described in terms of being “living souls” in the Bible and, when they die, their non-physical essence is indeed laid to rest in Sheol. This may, admittedly, sound odd at first but let’s observe what the God-breathed scriptures have to say on the subject. Some of the following biblical information has already been offered in Hell Know and, in detail, in the appendix on Understanding Human Nature, but it’s necessary here for us to brush up on this material in order to properly address these questions.
The word “soul” in the Bible is translated from the Hebrew word nephesh (neh-FESH), which corresponds to the Greek psuche (soo-KHAY).
NOTE: Compare Genesis 2:7 with 1 Corinthians 15:45 for verification.
The creation text, Genesis 2:7, states that God breathed into the body of the first man the breath of life and he “became a living soul.” As such, the passage plainly shows that human beings are “living souls.” This explains why redeemed people who physically die during the future tribulation period are described as conscious living “souls” in heaven in Revelation 6:9-10. It’s obvious in Genesis 2:7 that what makes people living souls as opposed to dead souls is God’s breath of life. Without this breath of life the human soul is a dead soul. This is where the concept of Sheol comes into play: When a person physically dies the Bible teaches that the breath of life (i.e. spirit) returns to God who gave it (Ecclesiastes 12:6-7; Job 34:14-15; Psalm 146:3-4). What happens to a soul when God’s breath of life returns to Him and the soul is no longer a living soul? In other words, where are dead souls laid to rest? In Sheol, of course! Remember, as Greek and Hebrew scholar James Strong defined it, Sheol is “the world of the dead.” It’s not the world of the living, the world of conscious beings; no, it’s the world of the dead. And souls who are no longer animated by God’s spiritual breath of life are dead. That’s why they are placed in Sheol, because Sheol is the world of the dead.
We know from the Scriptures that every human soul will ultimately be resurrected from Sheol. Old Testament saints will be resurrected at the time of Christ’s second coming at the end of the Tribulation (although some suggest that their souls were resurrected when Jesus ascended, as shown in Ephesians 4:8). Everyone else will ultimately be resurrected at the time of the Great White Throne judgment, which will take place immediately following the millennial reign of Christ on earth; this resurrection includes every unredeemed soul that’s ever existed throughout history. Christians don’t have to worry about going to Sheol, of course, because they’ve been spiritually born-again of the imperishable seed of Christ and possess eternal life in their spirits; hence, when authentic Christians physically die they are ushered into the presence of the LORD as shown in the aforementioned Revelation 6:9-10, as well as Philippians 1:20-24 and other passages—death holds no black pall over the blood-washed, spiritually reborn Christian for to “be with Christ… is better by far”! This is covered in Chapter Ten.
Why am I emphasizing all this? Because it’s important here to understand that Sheol is the holding place of dead souls. It is where God stores the soulish remains of every human being that has ever existed, their immaterial DNA, if you will. This is perhaps necessary so that every person can be resurrected at the appropriate time. Incidentally, this is what makes the “second death” so horrifying: Everyone will ultimately be resurrected from Sheol but no one will ever be resurrected from the lake of fire, which is the second death according to Revelation 20:14-15. This “second death,” as shown in Hell Know, is an “everlasting destruction” so utterly complete and final that no one will ever be resurrected from it; it is literally a total obliteration of soul and body where one’s spiritual DNA is wiped out of existence.
By the way, the fact that everyone will ultimately be resurrected from Sheol, which is the first death, but no one will ever be resurrected from the second death explains why souls in Sheol are repeatedly described as “sleeping.” People who suffer the first death are, in a sense, “sleeping” because they will one day be “awoken,” that is, resurrected. By contrast, those who suffer the second death are never described as sleeping because they will never be “awoken” or resurrected. In other words, the first death is temporary, but the second death is everlasting — there is no hope of resurrection from the second death. We’ll look at this matter further in the next chapter.
With the understanding of the above scriptural facts, let’s return to the question of whether or not animals have souls and whether or not they go to Sheol when they physically die. The Bible describes animals in terms of being “living souls” just as well as humans. The Hebrew and Greek words for soul – nephesh and psuche – are repeatedly used in reference to animals in the bible. For example:
GENESIS 2:19 (NRSV)
So out of the ground the LORD God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature (nephesh), that was it’s name.
As you can see, land animals and birds are described in the Bible as “living creatures.” The word “creature” in this verse is nephesh, the Hebrew word for “soul.” Water animals are also described in the Bible as “living creatures” (Genesis 1:20-21); this includes Revelation 8:9 where the Greek word for “soul” – psuche – is used. My point is that animals are described in the God-breathed scriptures as “living souls” just as people are. The reason most people don’t realize this is because English translations generally don’t translate nephesh and psuche as “soul” when the text refers to animals, as shown above in Genesis 2:19.
Why would Bible translators refuse to translate nephesh and psuche as “soul” when the terms apply to animals? No doubt because they wanted to draw a distinction between animals and human beings; after all, people are created in the image of God, beasts are not. Yet the original God-breathed Scriptures used the very same Hebrew and Greek word for both, shouldn’t we? If God Himself doesn’t have a problem with this, why should we?
I suspect the real reason translators refrain from translating nephesh and psuche as “soul” when these words apply to animals is that doing such would not be supportive of the doctrine of the “immortal soul.” As detailed in Chapter Four of Hell Know, this doctrine maintains that souls, once created, can never be de-created — even incorrigibly sinful souls worthy of eternal death. Hence, the immortal soul doctrine is one of the chief support pillars for the eternal torture doctrine. This pillar would be severely damaged, of course, if people discovered that animals are described in the Bible as “living souls” just as well as people; after all, even the uneducated public might question the notion that animals possess immortal souls. To solve this dilemma, English Bible translators decided to translate nephesh and psuche as “creature(s)” or “thing(s)” when the terms applied to beasts. This is another prime example of religionists attempting to cover-up the scriptural truth in order to perpetuate false beliefs.
The King James translators were so careful in this matter that only in one passage is nephesh translated as “soul” in reference to animals; and the only reason they did so in this specific case was because of the unique wording of the passage. Witness for yourself:
NUMBERS 31:28 (KJV)
And levy a tribute unto the LORD of the men of war which went out to battle: one soul (nephesh) of five hundred, both of the persons, and of the beeves (oxen), and of the asses, and of the sheep.”
As you can see, “soul” (nephesh) in this verse applies equally to people, oxen, donkeys and sheep; the translators couldn’t very well render it as “creatures” or “things” since the list includes people as well as animals. They therefore had no other choice but to translate nephesh as “soul.” (Let’s remember that the King James Version is a word-for-word translation so the translators couldn’t very well omit the word).
At this point an obvious question crops up: If both humans and animals are described as “living souls” in the Bible, what is the essential difference between them? The difference is that human beings are created in the very image of God (Genesis 1:27), whereas animals are not. This not only means that people have the same general form of God (head, face, torso, legs, arms*), but that human beings possess a spiritual dimension to their make-up that is aware of God & the spiritual realm, and Christians even possess the capacity to know and commune with God because of spiritual rebirth through Christ.
*Don’t believe for a second that God is some formless cloud being. Yes, He is spiritual in nature, as Jesus said (John 4:24), but the Bible indicates that He definitely has a central presence that is human-like in form (e.g. Ezekiel 1:25-28 & Revelation 1:14-16). Some may respond: “But isn’t He omnipresent?” Yes, He’s omnipresent in the sense that he knows what’s going on everywhere at the same time and can do innumerable things simultaneously, but this does not mean His being lacks a central presence and form.
Animals, of course, lack these characteristics. Yes, they have a spirit but only in the sense of a “breath of life,” an animating spiritual life-force of the Almighty. Animals are, of course, awesome creations of God, but they are on a far lower spiritual plane than people. They are instinct-oriented and therefore lack any consciousness of good or evil and have very limited reasoning capabilities. They don’t have a God-consciousness (spirit) or a sin-consciousness (flesh). Many of them can be trained to respond to certain words and do various tasks or tricks, but that’s about it. Animals cannot build cities, learn languages, understand algebra, create and appreciate art or worship God. Human beings, on the other hand, are souls of the highest order and that’s why God gave humankind authority over all animals (see Genesis 1:28 and 9:2-3). This is evidenced by the fact that people have zoos for animals and not vice versa.
Okay, so it is clear in the Bible that animals are “souls,” but does this mean that their soulish essence goes to Sheol when they die? Evidently, according to Psalm 49:14:
PSALM 49:14 (NRSV)
Like sheep they [the foolhardy] are appointed for Sheol;
The Psalmist is essentially saying that fools under Old Covenant law will prematurely die just as surely as sheep slated to be slaughtered. Note that the Psalmist plainly states that sheep “are appointed for Sheol.” There’s no reason we shouldn’t take this statement literally: When sheep die their souls go to Sheol. Remember, Sheol is simply “the world of the dead” or the “well of souls”—the space in the spiritual realm where dead souls are stored. Is there any reason why God wouldn’t store the soulish remains of animals there as well as humans? After all, where else would He store them? Especially considering the strong possibility that God will resurrect some or all of them in the age to come. (See the last three sections of the Epilogue). We assume, of course, that there’s a separate compartment in Sheol for animal souls, just as pet cemeteries are separate from human cemeteries in the physical world.
Incidentally, the fact the Bible teaches that dead animal souls go to Sheol when they die is further proof that Sheol is not a burial plot in the ground because sheep and other animals are not ordinarily thus buried. The Hebrew word qeber denotes the physical grave where bodies are buried; whereas Sheol, again, refers to the ‘graveyard’ in the spirit realm where dead souls are housed.
“God Will Ransom My Soul from the Power of Sheol”
Let’s look again at the very last verse of the Psalm 49 passage quoted earlier:
But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me.”
Firstly, notice that Sheol is spoken of as a condition of the soul, which was emphasized earlier. A person’s body doesn’t go to Sheol when s/he dies, nor does the breath of life (spirit), which simply returns to God who gave it; no, Sheol refers exclusively to the condition of unregenerated souls after physical death.
Secondly, like Job, the Psalmist believed that his non-physical essence would go to Sheol when he died, but, also like Job, he believed God would ultimately ransom his soul from there. ‘Ransom’ literally means “the redeeming of a captive.” When did God eventually redeem the souls of righteous Old Testament saints, including the writer of this psalm, from captivity to Sheol? And with what did He redeem them? The answer to the second question is obvious: God redeemed them by the blood of Jesus Christ when he was crucified for the sins of humanity. The answer to the first question is: Old Testament saints will be resurrected at the time of Jesus’ second advent, as shown in Matthew 19:28-30 (although, again, some maintain that captive righteous souls were resurrected when Jesus ascended to heaven, citing Ephesians 4:8). This is when they will be “received” by the Father, as Psalm 49:15 puts it. See Chapter Eleven for details.
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