Is There Consciousness in Sheol? By Dr. Nicholas J. Schaser
According to the Hebrew Scriptures, those who die go to a post-mortem realm called Sheol (שאול).
Based on certain interpretations of biblical verses, some readers assume that those in Sheol lack consciousness and are in a state of cognitive suspension prior to resurrection—sometimes called “soul sleep.” Yet, the conclusion that Sheol is a place of unconsciousness comes from a misunderstanding of isolated verses read apart from their contexts. A holistic reading of the pertinent data shows that the Bible does not preclude consciousness after death.
Qohelet (known in Christian tradition as Ecclesiastes) speaks as though existence in Sheol is bereft of consciousness: “Whatever you find is in your ability to do, do it with [all] your might because there is not labor (מעשה; ma’aseh) or reasoning (חשבון; heshbon) or knowledge (דעת; da’at) or wisdom (חכמה; hokhmah) in Sheol, to which you are going” (Eccl 9:10).
Based on this apparent disqualification of physical or cognitive abilities in the afterlife, it’s understandable for readers to conclude that the dead are as good as asleep in Sheol. However, the terms that Qohelet uses appear throughout the book as activities that people pursue during their lifetimes for the sake of personal and mental development. Once earthly life is over, Qohelet argues, those in Sheol will not occupy their time with such developmental pursuits.
For instance, Ecclesiastes begins by noting that “wisdom” (חכמה; hokhmah) and “labor” (or “work,” “deed;” מעשה) are done while one lives on earth: “I dedicated my heart to search out and to seek by wisdom (חכמה) concerning all that is done under the skies (תחת השמים; tahat ha’shamayim). This is a regretful job (lit., “bad occupation”: ענין רע; inyan ra) that God has given to the children of humanity (livnei ha’adam; לבני האדם)…. I have seen all the labors (המעשים; ha’ma’asim) that are done under the sun (תחת השמש; tahat ha’shemesh) and, behold, all is vapor and striving after wind” (Eccl 1:13-14).
Living human beings pursue wisdom and labor for the purpose of learning and security, but there is no longer any need for personal acquisition or intellectual growth in Sheol. Just as death precludes one’s ability to repent, the time for gaining new wisdom or performing labor has passed once we’ve passed on. However, this fact does nothing to preclude the notion of one’s ongoing awareness in Sheol.
Ecclesiastes is equally clear that “reasoning” (חשבון; heshbon) and “knowledge” (דעת; da’at) are activities meant to sustain the living, not the dead: “For the protection of wisdom is like the protection money, and the advantage of knowledge (דעת) is that wisdom preserves the life of the one who has it…. I dedicated my heart to know and to search out and to seek wisdom and
reasoning (חשבון)” (Eccl 7:12, 25).
As with wisdom and labor, Qohelet engages in “reasoning” on earth for the purposes of finding new knowledge, which serves as a bulwark against the vicissitudes of life. In Sheol, there is no need for these protective measures since its inhabitants have no earthly life to preserve. Yet this reality in the post-mortem realm is not a denial of acuity or alertness in the afterlife.
On the contrary, several biblical verses describe the ongoing activity of those who pass on. For example, Ezekiel portrays the deceased leaders of nations greeting others as they reach Sheol: “The mighty chiefs with their helpers shall speak of them out of the midst of Sheol [saying], ‘They have come down, they lie still, the uncircumcised slain by the sword” (Ezek 32:21). Similarly, Isaiah says of the king of Babylon, “Sheol beneath is stirred to meet you when you come; it rouses the Rephaim to greet you; all who were leaders of the earth; it raises from their thrones all who were kings of the nations” (Isa 14:9). In these instances (and others), Scripture speaks of the dead anticipating arrivals to Sheol, speaking from their post-mortem abode, and interacting with the new intake.
Although the Bible may appear to designate Sheol as a place where existence is suspended, a contextual reading of Israel’s Scriptures does not support this conclusion. Scripture holds that the dead cannot expand their intellect or industry through learning and labor, but it does not foresee a sleep-state after death.
Paul reaffirms this distinction when he tells the Philippians, “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me… [but] my desire is to depart [from this life] and be with Messiah” (Phil 1:22-23). Paul knew that labor would end after his earthly life, but he also looked forward to ongoing relationship with Jesus in the life to come.