“The chords of death encompassed me and the terrors of Sheol came upon me” Psalm 116:3
Sheol – I’ve already been to hell. I didn’t have to travel far and I didn’t have to lay down six feet under. All I had to do was live my life in total rebellion and separation from God. At first I thought things were going fine. I was getting what I wanted (almost). Then I noticed that other people weren’t submitting to my plans. I discovered that I didn’t have everything I wanted. Life turned sour. Then it curdled. I had to keep up images. Lying became an impossible maze of keeping track of who knew what. People betrayed me (just like I did to them). Bad things happened. One day I woke up a realized that life sucked. I was in hell on earth. Things were in chaos. Stress affected my health. Lying killed my relationships. I was turning into a selfish bastard. I had enemies. I had issues. I had problems.
C. S. Lewis once observed that hell is nothing more than God allowing selfish people to have what they ultimately wanted: lives totally dedicated to themselves. Of course, there are a lot of very nasty consequences to total selfishness. God is gracious enough to allow us to get a taste of those consequences in “hell on earth”. If you’ve ever been there, you know what agony it brings.
Sheol, the Hebrew word translated “hell”, “grave” and “pit”, is a very strange word. First, it never occurs outside of the Hebrew Bible. There just aren’t any words like it in other languages. You might draw the conclusion that it was made up by the Hebrews (or by God) for just this one purpose: to give us a picture of consequences. Secondly, this strange word doesn’t seem to have a closely defined imagery. In fact, in some verses, like this one, it seems possible to experience sheol while you are still alive. When we aren’t being so properly religious, we have the same kinds of expressions today. “That was hell!” or “My life is hell” seem to say something about what life can be like before we take up residence in the graveyard. No matter what the real doctrine of sheol is, we all know something about how it feels. And that should scare the hell out of us.
Can you imagine what life would be if you had to live in those hellish moments forever? Can you even conceive of what it would be like to feel that terrifying, debilitating, nauseating agony every single second from now on? I’ve had a close encounter of the third kind with that stuff and I don’t want any more of it. But I’m glad about my brush with sheol for two reasons: first, I learned that there are terrible consequences for sin and second, I am eternally grateful for grace. Life as hell was a necessary step for me to understand life as grace. Thank You Lord for not leaving me there.