Salvation and Judgment Through Water

The Judgment of Sheol and the Promise of Land

Beginning in Genesis and ending in Revelation, there is an ongoing pattern of God making a new creation by judgment and salvation through water. The theme of water escalates from its presence in the creation of the world to being an image of God’s wrath, and, ultimately, an image of the salvation of God’s people and the destruction of his enemies in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.



From the very first, water is used in God’s discernment, judgment, and division. Genesis 1 describes how God brings land out of the formless waters: “The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters” (Gen 1:2 NASB). There is a continual occurrence of separation that happens in the days of the creation narrative. First, God creates something that is not himself, the world, from which he is distinct. God separates light and dark; heaven and earth; water and land; vegetation and earth; male and female; man and animal; and birds, land animals, and fish from one another. In the creation narrative and throughout Scripture, land is an essential counterpart to water. “Then God said, ‘Let the waters below the heavens be gathered into one place, and let the dry land appear’; and it was so. God called the dry land earth, and the gathering of the waters He called seas; and God saw that it was good” (Gen 1:6–10). Out of each division, the earth becomes more inhabitable.[1]


Out of the first water, the world became inhabitable, but the second water reversed this pattern. God undoes his creation in Genesis 6. God created the world and called it good, but man fell and became increasingly wicked. In a reversal of his creative work, God brought one family along with groups of animals out of the sky and land into an ark which saved them when there was no land and only water from the great flood; a return to the formlessness of the world in Genesis 1:2 (Gen 6:19–22).

God instructed Noah to build an ark because he wanted to make Noah and his family his covenant people. God brought his covenant people through the waters of his judgment (Gen 6:18). Everyone and everything that was not part of the covenant with God was destroyed. In a single act of judgment and separation, as in creation, God used water to deliver the earth, animals, and humans from wickedness, while also judging and destroying many humans, animals, and plants. God identified the flood as cursing the ground, and his judgment was complete. The water rises above the mountains and, in parallel language to Genesis 1, creatures from the land and sky that were given the breath of God are destroyed,

 The water prevailed more and more upon the earth, so that all the high mountains everywhere under the       heavens were covered. The water prevailed fifteen cubits higher, and the mountains were covered. All   flesh that moved on the earth perished, birds and cattle and beasts and every swarming thing that swarms     upon the earth, and all mankind; of all that was on the dry land, all in whose nostrils was the breath of           the spirit of life, died. Thus He blotted out every living thing that was upon the face of the land, from      man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky, and they were blotted out from the earth; and only Noah was left, together with those that were with him in the ark (Gen. 23–7:19).

 Yoshikawa also sees a connection to the ark floating on the water in Genesis 7:18 and the Spirit hovering above the waters in Genesis 1:2. The word used to describe the deep water is ְתהוֹם[2] and it appears in the creation account and does not appear again until the account of the flood. There are many similarities linguistically between the events of creation and the flood. A short list includes God “seeing” either good or evil, the blessing of man and animals to multiply and fill the earth, and the wind blowing as the waters receded is reminiscent of the Spirit hovering over the waters.

 After the rain stopped and the waters began to retreat, God delivered Noah and his family by bringing the land of the earth back to them (Gen 8:11). The appearance of land echoes the original creation. Out of the formlessness God brought a habitable land that Noah and his family were meant to populate and rule over.


As God saved Noah through water, he again saved through water at the parting of the Red Sea. There is a direct link to both creation and the flood in the word תהוֹם used in Exodus 15 to refer to the waters God used to drown Pharaoh's armies. Israel’s exodus from Egypt can be clearly seen as both judgment and salvation as well. When the Israelites fled from Pharaoh and his army, God parted the Red Sea in order to bring his people to safety: “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Why are you crying out to Me? Tell the sons of Israel to go forward. As for you, lift up your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, and the sons of Israel shall go through the midst of the sea on dry land’” (Exod. 14:15–16). Similarly to the creation story and the deliverance of Noah and his family through the ark, God brought dry land as a means of providing life and safe passage to his chosen people.[3]

 The events of the Exodus are seen by Isaiah as a type of the ultimate eschatological judgment of the world. In Isaiah 51:10–11, Isaiah speaks of the Lord making a path in the depths of the sea for his redeemed whom he will bring to Zion in a depiction of the ultimate promised land.[4]

Promised Land and Sheol

Both at the Red Sea and the Jordan River waters were parted for the Israelites to provide entrance into the promised land. In a similar way, creation and the flood prepared the way to the garden and the “new” earth post-flood. All of these places are given in accordance with God's promise of a place that either is or will become “good.” The people of God inherit the land when they are faithful and rely on him to deliver them from their sinfulness. Those who do not trust in God are drowned in the depths and forgotten by God. The increase of the borders of the land for the faithful is in tension with the increase of the borders of the watery depths for the wicked. When the word ָרַחב appears in Scripture it is almost always associated with expanding the borders of land, land in relation to Sheol or water, or expanding the borders of Sheol (watery depths). Isaiah 44:26-28 speaks in terms of a Second Exodus where the waters will finally be dried up so that all of God’s people my return to the promised land.


The psalmist only hints at what the afterlife is like, but there are plenty of images of the type of judgment that God renders to both the righteous and the wicked. Psalm 18 describes being encompassed by “the cords of Sheol.” The term “cords” is similar to ָרַחב in marking the boundaries of a territory. The psalmist pictures Sheol as the sea, which entangles men and pulls them down in waves. The only one who can help in this kind of danger is God (Ps 18:4–6). In Psalm 18:15–19 David says that the Lord saved him from “many waters.” David also says that God brought him to land and saved him from his enemies which is similar to the previous events of the flood and Exodus. God hears the cries of his people, brings them through waters, and makes his judgment known by destroying the enemies of his servants, and bringing his people to habitable land (Ps 18:15–19).

 Entrance into Sheol is always a downward movement. Indeed, Sheol is often described as a pit. The “deep” and the “pit” often describe death or the grave throughout the Psalms (Ps 30:4; 86:13; Prov 9:18). The depth of Sheol is juxtaposed with the height of heaven in Psalm 139:8, “If I ascend to heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.” The sea and the sky are the separated waters in the creation narrative, which may indicate that they are two extremes on the spectrum of water.


The story of Jonah includes salvation, judgment, and water in significant ways. First, when Jonah flees from the presence of God he goes out to sea on a ship, there is a play on words. Jonah is repeatedly said to be going “down” in a play on the word יַָרד twice in Jonah 1:3, once in 1:5, and once in 2:7. Jonah goes “down” to Joppa, “down” into the ship, and he says he went “down” into the ocean. The various uses of going down foreshadow the deepest depth that Jonah will find himself within the ocean.

 When Jonah prays to the Lord, he calls the deeps of the sea “Sheol”: “Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the stomach of the fish, and he said, ‘I called out of my distress to the LORD, And He answered me. I cried for help from the depth of Sheol; You heard my voice. For You had cast me into the deep, Into the heart of the seas, And the current engulfed me.’” (Jonah 2:1–3). The language is very similar to that of Psalm 18. Jonah echoing this Psalm in the ocean leads me to believe that the best description for Sheol of the Old Testament is a watery grave in the sea.

Jonah is in the depths of the sea, but God chooses to deliver him to land after three days and three nights in the belly of a fish (Jonah 1:17; 2:10). The pattern continues, as in the flood, Exodus, and Psalms, of God both judging sin and bringing salvation followed by an in-between-period where there is a transition from the water to the land and then a journey through the land to God’s intended destination.


Christ as the Fulfillment

Christ’s baptism intentionally follows Old Testament patterns of water. As Jesus comes to his baptism, John cries, “‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’” (John 1:29). In the waters of baptism, Jesus begins his ministry and starts anew the old pattern of God’s salvation and renewal.

 The pattern of the Old Testament is water of salvation and judgment, dry land, and then, after a time, the promise of God fulfilled. The events in Christ’s life seem to parallel the patterns identified in that 1) he passes through the waters in his baptism (Matt 3:16); 2) the Spirit descends on him in the form of a dove, which parallels the Spirit hovering over the water and the dove that finds the olive branch in the story of Noah (Matt 3:16); 3) God saying that he is “well pleased” in Christ may be echoing the “good” statements of the creation narrative (Matt 3:17); 4) Jesus enters the wilderness for forty days and forty nights similar to the Israelites wandering in the wilderness for forty years, as well as the flood lasting for forty days and forty nights; 5) Jesus is tempted to sin by Satan like Adam and Eve. However, where Adam and Eve sinned, Jesus fulfills all righteousness (Matt 3:15) for fallen humanity by never sinning.

Going through water leads to dry land and temptation. Both Noah and the Israelites sinned after passing through the watery judgment of God to safety. Noah became drunk and sinned in baring his body and the Israelites were tempted by idolatry and fell. However, when Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness after passing through the waters of baptism, he does not sin. However, Adam, Noah, and Israel sinned, and the cycle of sin, repentance, and redemption continued. In their case there are curses and blessings related to land. God tells Adam and Eve that the ground will be cursed. Noah blessed Shem and Japheth with blessings related to land and dwelling places, but cursed Canaan because of the sinfulness of Ham (Gen 9:24–27). Not only are there covenant stipulations for Israel staying in the land, but they are not even allowed to enter the land for forty years because of their sinfulness. They must live in the wilderness and rely on God to provide manna. Jesus is tempted by Satan and does not sin. Including the final temptation which is Satan’s offer to give Jesus the kingdoms of the world (Matt 4:8–9). The kingdoms of the world belong to Jesus already, but he knows that he must complete his work on earth before he takes his reign as king.

Following his temptation, Jesus begins his preaching ministry, which Isaiah prophesied about in imagery of watery judgment. Jesus first quotes Isaiah 9:12: “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” In the previous chapter of Isaiah God says,

 Because this people has rejected the gently flowing waters of Shiloah and rejoices over Rezin and the son of Remaliah, therefore the Lord is about to bring against them the mighty floodwaters of the Euphrates—the king of Assyria with all his pomp. It will overflow all its channels, run over all its banks           and sweep on into Judah, swirling over it, passing through it and reaching up to the neck. Its outspread wings will cover the breadth of your land, Immanuel (Isa 8:6–8)!

After building on the imagery of darkness, gloom, and water, Isaiah 10:26 says, “The LORD Almighty will lash them with a whip, as when he struck down Midian at the rock of Oreb; and he will raise his staff over the waters, as he did in Egypt.” The waters and judgment that is being looked forward to in Isaiah is the same kind that God judged the Egyptians within the Red Sea.

Isaiah’s Messianic imagery of water leads into safe passageway on land. In 11:16, “There will be a highway for the remnant of his people that is left from Assyria, as there was for Israel when they came up from Egypt.” And later in Isaiah 43:14–21 a very similar fate is proclaimed for Babylon.[5] This “highway” is what will be provided to the people by the shoot from Jesse, Jesus Christ. This highway is leading to the new promised land, the new heavens, and new earth. And what does Jesus say after quoting Isaiah? “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt 4:17). Jesus then begins to gather his twelve disciples who are like the tribes of Israel (Matt. 19:28), and he begins to heal, teach, and drive out demons. If we continue with the parallel between Jesus and Israel, this could be seen as beginning to take possession of the land. Israel failed to completely destroy the Canaanites, but Jesus has complete authority to heal and cast out demons. He will ultimately claim his throne and defeat the control that death has over the land by sacrificing himself on the cross.

Predicting his death, Jesus says in Matthew 12:39–40, “An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as JONAH WAS THREE DAYS AND THREE NIGHTS IN THE BELLY OF THE SEA MONSTER, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” This is the part where Jonah is more comparable to Jesus. After Jesus endured the wrath of God, passing through the judgment of God that we deserved, he died and was buried for three days. Three days in the tomb that were like the three days of Jonah in the belly of the fish, according to Jesus. Jonah went down to Sheol, and so did Jesus. 1 Peter 3:18–20 says,

For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having       been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which also He went and made proclamation            to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought       safely through the water.

Although it is unclear exactly what this passage means, and who or what these spirits are, it does seem apparent that they were imprisoned during the time of Noah, presumably taken prison by the waters of the flood, while Noah and his family were kept safe. 1 Peter 3:21–22 then compares Christ’s death and time in the grave to our baptism. We go down to the watery grave with Christ and are raised again based on his resurrection. We pass through the waters safely while all those who don’t, like the men in the time of Noah, will be judged and destroyed. N.T. Wright says, “[Paul] understood baptism in terms of dying and rising with Christ, so that the Christian ethic consists not of rule-keeping from within the old creation, but of learning in the present to live the life that will characterize God’s new creation (6:1–11; 1 Cor. 6:12–20).”[6] Christ the king makes us into new creations. Christ is the second Adam (1 Cor 15:45), and he is leading the people re-created in his image through the wilderness and back into the eschatological promised land.[7]

Sheol and the Promised Land

It is not very clear what Sheol was like in the Old Testament, but it becomes increasingly clear in the New Testament. T. Desmond Alexander notes that it is difficult to determine from the Old Testament what Sheol is, if there are various compartments to it, and whether or not both the righteous and the wicked are sent there when they die.[8] Although perhaps allegorical, Jesus affirms a more complex understanding of Sheol in Luke 16:19–31, the story of the rich man and Lazarus. There are two sides depicted — “Abraham’s bosom” and “Hades.” The rich man is in Hades in torment, and Lazarus is in Abraham’s bosom. Jesus also tells the thief on the cross, “today you shall be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). It seems that Jesus descended into the compartment of Abraham’s bosom, one side of Sheol, and brought out all those who belonged to God, while leaving Hades for the final day of judgment (1 Peter 3:18–20: Ephesians 4:8–10).

Revelation 20:13–15 describes the final judgment: “And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” The first verse of the next chapter says, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea” (Rev 21:1). Here again the grave, or death, Hades, and sea, are all comparable. ְשׁאוֹל (Sheol) of the Old Testament is rendered as ᾅδης (Hades) by the LXX (see Jonah 2:3). The biblical writers consider “Hades” and “Sheol” to be the same place, both picturing watery depths. Those who do not inherit eternal life are raised up from the depth of their watery grave to now be turned over to a lake of fire. The imagery of there being no more sea in Rev 21:1 is because the borders of Sheol are no longer needed, and the Lord is fulfilling his ultimate promise that he has always made to his people, a new world with a city built by God, the promise of an inheritance awaited by Abraham (Heb 11:8–10). God is making a new heavens and new earth where there will be no more need for the grave to consume the enemies of God. There only awaits a new and better form of the garden, the land that Christ has brought us to from the grave, through the wilderness, and even through the final judgment because of his work on the cross (Revelation 21:5).

[1] Yoshikawa, Scott T. The Prototypical Use of the Noahic Flood in the New Testament. PhD diss.,Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 2004., 92

[2] Yoshikawa, “Use of the Noahic Flood, ” 90

[3] Köstenberger, Andreas J., and Peter T. O’Brien.  Salvation to the Ends of the Earth: A Biblical Theology of Mission. New Studies in Biblical Theology 11. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001., 32

[4] Achtemeier, Elizabeth. “Typology.” Pages 926–27 in  Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: An Illustrated Encyclopedia: Supplementary Volume. Edited by Keith Crim. Nashville: Abingdon, 1976., 927

[5] Foulkes, Francis. T he Acts of God: A Study of the Basis of Typology in the Old Testament . Tyndale Old Testament Lecture. London: Tyndale, 1958., 22

[6] Wright, N. T. “Resurrection of the Dead” Pages 676–78 in  Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible. Edited by Kevin J. Vanhoozer. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005., 676

[7] Köstenberger, Andreas J., and Peter T. O’Brien.  Salvation to the Ends of the Earth., 43

[8] Alexander,T.Desmond.The Old Testament View of Life after Death. Them 11,no.2(1986).,12