The title character of Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Illych is a government lawyer who devotes himself to his career. He lives and thinks conventionally, saying just what’s expected, doing whatever he’s supposed to do.
It doesn’t make him happy. He married to advance socially and vocationally but soon abandoned his wife for his work. As his wife became irritable and demanding, he escaped even further into the office. Shriveled and alone, he still believes he is doing just what he should—working, pursuing a prestigious transfer to St. Petersburg, periodically redecorating his home.
The minor ambition of redecorating is his undoing. Standing on a ladder to hang draperies, “he missed a step and fell, but being a strong and agile man, he held on to the ladder and merely banged his side against the knob of the window frame. The bruise hurt for a while, but the pain soon disappeared.” The fall is more serious than he realizes, though, and a doctor tells him he is suffering from a “floating kidney.” There is no cure. Ivan spends the last week of his life shrieking from his bed, terrorized by the growing realization that his death ends an existence that was never life in the first place. Tolstoy’s title refers to Ivan’s life as much as to his death. His death is stupid, and it exposes his whole life as an absurdity.
In the Bible, the Hebrew word “Sheol” sometimes refers to the place of the dead, regardless of the manner of death or the character of the dead. But as Jon Levenson has pointed out, “Sheol” often refers to the experience and destination of those whose deaths are violent, premature, and fruitless. Ivan Illych’s were the screams of a man descending to Sheol.
Sheol is grim, dim, gloomy, hopeless—a place of silence and shame (Psalm 31:17). When Sheol swallows the living, it destroys all merriment and joy. Because of Israel’s sins, Isaiah says, Sheol has “enlarged its throat and opened its mouth without measure; and Jerusalem’s splendor, her multitude, her din of revelry, and the jubilant within her, descend into it” (Isaiah 5:14).
Sheol doesn’t wait until we stop breathing. For the biblical writers, distress, affliction, sickness, friendlessness, exile, childlessness, infertility, separation from Yahweh or his house, famine, persecution, and defeat in battle are proleptic deaths. Separated from God in his temple, alienated from friends, surrounded by enemies, one is on the verge of Sheol or already there.
Not every death is a descent to Sheol. The patriarchs die ripe in years, surrounded by family and troops of friends, satisfied that their life is complete and their work finished. They do not “descend to Sheol.” They are “gathered to their people” (Genesis 25:8, 17; 35:29; 49:29, 33).
Everyone knows things are not so tidy. My eighty-year-old aunt died several years ago when her truck ran over her in her own driveway. She had forgotten to put the truck into park and was reaching into the door to stop it from rolling into the street. Christians can die as senselessly as Ivan Illych.
And the faithful are threatened by Sheol in life. Though alive enough to talk and pray, the psalmist of Psalm 88 is “at the bottom of the pit,” “drawn near to Sheol.” To his friends, he is “among the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave.” Above all, he feels the pain of the Lord’s anger: “You have put me in the lowest pit, in dark places, in the depths. Your wrath has rested upon me, and you have afflicted me with all your waves. You have removed my acquaintances far from me; you have made me an object of loathing to them; I am shut up and cannot go out.” Darkness, he concludes, “is my only companion.”
The Bible’s answer to Sheol is not a theory or an argument but a person. It is a truism of patristic reading that the Psalms record the voice of Christ, and Psalm 88 is no exception. That is Jesus in the lowest pit, in the dark place, in the depth. Jesus is surrounded by enemies who rage at him like monstrous lion-bulls (Psalm 22), abandoned by every friend but darkness. For Christians, that means that we are never alone. Though we make our bed in Sheol, behold the Lord is there (Psalm 139). In Jesus, God does the impossible—God inhabits our God-forsakenness.
Cut down in his prime, faceless, despised, scourged, rejected by his own, and unjustly condemned to a shameful criminal death, Jesus experiences the full weight of Sheol. Yet Sheol is not his end: “He will see his seed, he will prolong his days and the good pleasure of the Lord will prosper in his hand” (Isaiah 53). In Jesus, God makes our God-forsakenness fruitful. Pierced by the soldier’s spear, Jesus’s side flows with blood and water. He is a rock in the wilderness, whose Spirit makes the barren waste of Sheol bloom like a rose.
The Gospel gives hope to the Ivan Illychs of the world. As another Psalm puts it, “You will not abandon my soul to Sheol” (Psalm 16).