Examining “Sheol”

Posted on March 22, 2019

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By David Ettinger

A Confusing Term
In the Old Testament (OT), the Hebrew word Sheol is frequently used in both the NASB and ESV versions. Neither the NIV nor King James uses the term Sheol. In the KJV, Sheol is translated “grave” 31 times; “hell” 31 times; and “the pit” 3 times.

But no matter which phrase is used, this reference to death causes much confusion among Bible readers. Let’s see if we can gain some clarity.

Sheol Translated
As mentioned above, Sheol can be translated as “grave,” “hell,” and “the pit,” as well as “the underworld.” Sheol is the OT designation for the abode of the dead. Sheol is a place without praise of God; where the wicked are sent for punishment; but also where the righteous are NOT abandoned.

Sheol is the place to which all people – righteous or wicked – go after death (Genesis 37:35; Numbers 16:30-31; Psalms 9:17; 16:10; 49:14; 55:15; Proverbs 23:14; Ezekiel 31:16). This has led to some early Church fathers developing the “two compartment” view of Sheol in which the wicked suffer, but the righteous reside in Abraham’s bosom until Christ’s resurrection when the righteous are led by Him into Heaven.

However, the biblical evidence points to a SINGULAR place where ALL the dead go.  

Sheol Confusion
It is difficult to get a precise handle on Sheol since references to it are both negative AND hopeful. For instance, in Job 17:13-16, Sheol denotes a place that is dusty, infested with worms, and typified by decay – an apt description of a grave.

On the other hand, Psalm 49:15 reads: “But God will redeem my soul from the power of Sheol, For He will receive me.” It seems here that whatever Sheol is, it will not be the final resting place for the righteous.

Awareness in Sheol
Ezekiel 32:21-27 is a key Sheol passage. Keep in mind that the language is poetic, thus it was not Ezekiel’s purpose to give a precise description of the afterlife. However, this passage indicates there is individual conscience, consciousness, and identity after death.

Perhaps the most famous Sheol passage in the New Testament (NT) is Luke 16:19-31, Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Indicated here is that the afterlife is a place of consciousness and awareness, which corroborates the OT teaching. However, remember that this is a parable and, as the Ezekiel passage, not intended as a precise description of the afterlife.

In other NT references to the afterlife (Hades) (Matthew 11:23; 16:18; Revelation 20:13-14), Hades is understood as a real but otherwise shadowy place for the wicked dead until the time of judgment, and there are no indications that people there can see – much less communicate with ­– the righteous dead as in the Rich Man-Lazarus parable. The conversations in this parable are simply part of the story’s literary means to depict the great chasm in the afterlife between those in Paradise and those in Hades.

The “Afterlife Disparity”
If you are familiar with the NT’s teaching on the afterlife, you know glory awaits the believer in the Lord Jesus. This knowledge, however, was only hinted at in the OT, producing an “Afterlife Disparity” between the two books.

It was not until the latter part of the Old Testament that God revealed there will be a resurrection of the dead (Isaiah 25:8; 26:19). Daniel 12:2 teaches that the faithful will be rewarded with everlasting life while the wicked will experience eternal contempt. This theology developed further in the intertestamental period (the 400 years between the Old and New Testaments).

By the time of Jesus, Jews commonly believed that the righteous dead go to a place of comfort while the wicked go to Hades, a place of torment. Similarly, in Christianity, believers who die go immediately to be with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8; Philippians 1:23).

Why the Disparity?
Why didn’t the Holy Spirit, the “author” of the Bible, simply reveal the nature of the afterlife from the beginning?

We don’t know the reason, but we should realize that because theology develops within the OT and between the Old and New does not mean the Bible is contradictory or in error. It only indicates progressive revelation; that God revealed more of Himself and His plan of salvation as time went on.

That Bottom Line
That it took centuries for God to reveal the complete afterlife picture has no bearing on the fact that OT saints who worshiped God in faith are now in the same Paradise as NT saints.

God is faithful, His promises stand, and He promises ALL who believe in Him that: “In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:2-3). And that’s a promise for the ages!