a Hebrew term simply describing “the grave” or “death” – Does not refer to “hell” specifically

Rich man and Lazarus

The account of the Rich man and Lazarus depicting the rich man in hell asking Abraham for help, by James Tissot

She’ol (/ˈʃl/ shee-ohl or /ˈʃəl/ shee-əl; Hebrew שְׁאוֹל Šʾôl): in the Hebrew Bible, is a place of darkness to which all the dead go, both the righteous and the unrighteous, regardless of the moral choices made in life, a place of stillness and darkness cut off from life and from the Hebrew God.

The inhabitants of Sheol are the “shades” (rephaim), entities without personality or strength. Under some circumstances they are thought to be able to be contacted by the living, as the Witch of Endor contacts the shade of Samuel for Saul, but such practices are forbidden (Deuteronomy 18:10).

While the Old Testament writings describe Sheol as the permanent place of the dead, in the Second Temple period (roughly 500 BC–70 AD) a more diverse set of ideas developed. In some texts, Sheol is considered to be the home of both the righteous and the wicked, separated into respective compartments; in others, it was considered a place of punishment, meant for the wicked dead alone. When the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek in ancient Alexandria around 200 BC, the word “Hades” (the Greek underworld) was substituted for Sheol, and this is reflected in the New Testament where Hades is both the underworld of the dead and the personification of the evil it represents.


According to Herbert C. Brichto, writing in Hebrew Union College Annual, the family tomb is the central concept in understanding biblical views of the afterlife. Brichto states that it is “not mere sentimental respect for the physical remains that is…the motivation for the practice, but rather an assumed connection between proper sepulture and the condition of happiness of the deceased in the afterlife”.

According to Brichto, the early Israelites apparently believed that the graves of family, or tribe, united into one, and that this unified collectivity is to what the Biblical Hebrew term Sheol refers, the common Grave of humans. Although not well defined in the Tanakh, Sheol in this view was a subterranean underworld where the souls of the dead went after the body died.

The Babylonians had a similar underworld called Aralu, and the Greeks had one known as Hades.

According to Brichto, the early Israelites apparently believed that the graves of family, or tribe, united into one, and that this unified collectivity is to what the Biblical Hebrew term Sheol refers, the common Grave of humans. Although not well defined in the Tanakh, Sheol in this view was a subterranean underworld where the souls of the dead went after the body died.

The Babylonians had a similar underworld called Aralu, and the Greeks had one known as Hades.


Genesis 42:38

Isaiah 14:11

Psalm 141:7

Daniel 12:2

Proverbs 7:27

Job 10:21-22

Job 17:16

For biblical references to Sheol see

Abaddon (ruin), found in

Psalm 88:11

Job 28:22

Proverbs 15:11

Bor (the pit), found in

Isaiah 14:15

Isaiah 24:22

Ezekiel 26:20

Shakhat (corruption), found in

Isaiah 38:17

Ezekiel 28:8

The Hebrew Scriptures themselves have few references to existence after death. The notion of resurrection appears in two late biblical sources, Daniel 12 and Isaiah 25-26.


The traditional biblical interpretations explain that Sheol is a grim and desolated land below, occupied by the dead who continue their colorless existence irrespective of their earthly conduct. Contrary to this exposition however, the Hebrew Bible supports the descriptions of Sheol which suggest that it is something more than just a place. In terms of sheer numbers the amount of anthropomorphic descriptions is significant.

Sheol is either portrayed by means of human qualities (ערום, Job 26:6; קשה , Canticles 8:6)[1]Song of Solomon – Canticles or attributed with the elements of human anatomy: womb (בטן, Jonah 2:3), hand (יד, Psalms 49:15; Psalms 89:48; Hosea 13:14) or throat (נפש, Isaiah 5:14) and mouth (פה, Psalms 141:7; Isaiah 5:14).

In addition, Psalm 49:15 praises the Elohim, who are said to ransom one’s soul from the hand of Sheol, Proverbs 27:20 acknowledges Sheol’s insatiability, whereas Isaiah 5:14 depicts Sheol as a gargantuan monster.

Some additional support for this hypothesis comes from the ancient Near Eastern literary materials.

For example, the Akkadian plates mention the name ‘shuwalu’ or ‘suwala’ in reference to a deity responsible for ruling the abode of the dead. As such it might have been borrowed by the Hebrews and incorporated into their early belief system. What is more, some scholars argue that Sheol understood anthropomorphically fits the semantic complex of the other ancient Near Eastern death deities such as NergalEreshkigal or Mot.


sheol: underworld (place to which people descend at death)[2]

Original Word: שְׁאוֹל

Part of Speech: Noun Feminine

Transliteration: sheol

Phonetic Spelling: (sheh-ole’)

Short Definition: Sheol

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia[3]

SHEOLshe’-ol (she’ol):

1. The Name

2. The Abode of the Dead

(i) Not a State of Unconsciousness

(ii) Not Removed from God’s Jurisdiction

(iii) Relation to Immortality

3. Post-canonical Period


grave” (e.g. Genesis 37:35 1 Samuel 2:6; Job 7:9; Job 14:13 Psalm 6:5; Psalm 49:14 Isaiah 14:11, etc.)

hell” (e.g. Deuteronomy 32:22 Psalm 9:17; Psalm 18:5 Isaiah 14:9 Amos 9:2, etc.)

pit” (Numbers 16:30, 33 Job 17:16) “in 3 places”

This word is often translated in the King James Version

It means really the unseen world, the state or abode of the dead, and is the equivalent of the Greek Haides, by which word it is translated in Septuagint.

The English Revisers have acted somewhat inconsistently in leaving “grave” or “pit” in the historical books and putting “Sheol” in the margin, while substituting “Sheol” in the poetical writings, and putting “grave” in the margin (“hell” is retained in Isaiah 14).

Compare their “Preface.” The American Revisers more properly use “Sheol” throughout. The etymology of the word is uncertain. A favorite derivation is from sha’al, “to ask” (compare Proverbs 1:12; Proverbs 27:20; Proverbs 30:15, 16 Isaiah 5:14 Habakkuk 2:5); others prefer the sha’al, “to be hollow.” The Babylonians are said to have a similar word Sualu, though this is questioned by some.


Into Sheol, when life is ended, the dead are gathered in their tribes and families.

Hence, the expression frequently occurring in the Pentateuch, “to be gathered to one’s people,” “to go to one’s fathers,” etc.

(Genesis 15:15; Genesis 25:8, 17; 49:33 Numbers 20:24, 28; Numbers 31:2 Deuteronomy 32:50; Deuteronomy 34:5).

It is figured as an under-world (Isaiah 44:23 Ezekiel 26:20, etc.), and is described by other terms, as “the pit” (Job 33:24 Psalm 28:1; Psalm 30:3 Proverbs 1:12 Isaiah 38:18, etc.), ABADDON (which see) or Destruction (Job 26:6; Job 28:22 Proverbs 15:11), the place of “silence” (Psalm 94:17; Psalm 115:17), “the land of darkness and the shadow of death” (Job 10:21 f).

It is, as the antithesis of the living condition, the synonym for everything that is gloomy, inert, insubstantial (the abode of Rephaim, “shades,” Job 26:5 Proverbs 2:18; Proverbs 21:16 Isaiah 14:9; Isaiah 26:14).

It is a “land of forgetfulness,” where God’s “wonders” are unknown (Psalm 88:10-12).

There is no remembrance or praise of God (Psalm 6:5; Psalm 88:12; Psalm 115:17, etc.).

In its darkness, stillness, powerlessness, lack of knowledge and inactivity, it is a true abode of death (see DEATH); hence, is regarded by the living with shrinking, horror and dismay (Psalm 39:13 Isaiah 38:17-19), though to the weary and troubled it may present the aspect of a welcome rest or sleep (Job 3:17-22; Job 14:12 f). The Greek idea of Hades was not dissimilar.

(i) Not a State of Unconsciousness.

Yet it would be a mistake to infer, because of these strong and sometimes poetically heightened contrasts to the world of the living, that Sheol was conceived of as absolutely a place without consciousness, or some dim remembrance of the world above.

This is not the case. Necromancy rested on the idea that there was some communication between the world above and the world below (Deuteronomy 18:11); a Samuel could be summoned from the dead (1 Samuel 28:11-15); Sheol from beneath was stirred at the descent of the king of Babylon (Isaiah 14:9). The state is rather that of slumbrous semi-consciousness and enfeebled existence from which in a partial way the spirit might temporarily be aroused. Such conceptions, it need hardly be said, did not rest on revelation, but were rather the natural ideas formed of the future state, in contrast with life in the body, in the absence of revelation.

(ii) Not Removed from God’s Jurisdiction.

It would be yet more erroneous to speak with Dr. Charles (Eschatology, 35;) of Sheol as a region “quite independent of Yahwe, and outside the sphere of His rule.” “Sheol is naked before God,” says Job, “and Abaddon hath no covering” (Job 26:6). “If I make my bed in Sheol,” says the Psalmist, “behold thou art there” (Psalm 139:8). The wrath of Yahweh burns unto the lowest Sheol (Deuteronomy 32:22). As a rule there is little sense of moral distinctions in the Old Testament representations of Sheol, yet possibly these are not altogether wanting (on the above and others points in theology of Sheol).

(iii) Relation to Immortality.

To apprehend fully the Old Testament conception of Sheol one must view it in its relation to the idea of death as something unnatural and abnormal for man; a result of sin.

The believer’s hope for the future, so far as this had place, was not prolonged existence in Sheol, but deliverance from it and restoration to new life in God’s presence (Job 14:13-15; Job 19:25-27 Psalm 16:10, 11; Psalm 17:15; Psalm 49:15; Psalm 73:24-26; Dr. Charles probably goes too far in thinking of Sheol in Psalms 49 and 73 as “the future abode of the wicked only; heaven as that of the righteous” (op. cit., 74); but different destinies are clearly indicated.


There is no doubt, at all events, that in the post-canonical Jewish literature (the Apocrypha and apocalyptic writings) a very considerable development is manifest in the idea of Sheol. Distinction between good and bad in Israel is emphasized; Sheol becomes for certain classes an intermediate state between death and resurrection; for the wicked and for Gentiles it is nearly a synonym for Gehenna (hell). For the various views, with relevant literature on the whole subject.

The unedited full-text of the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia[4]


By: Emil G. Hirsch

Position and Form.

Hebrew word of uncertain etymology (see Sheol, Critical View), synonym of “bor” (pit), “abaddon” and “shaḥat” (pit or destruction), and perhaps also of “tehom” (abyss).

—Biblical Data:

It connotes the place where those that had died were believed to be congregated. Jacob, refusing to be comforted at the supposed death of Joseph, exclaims: “I shall go down to my son a mourner unto Sheol” (Gen. xxxvii. 36, Hebr.; comp. ib. xlii. 38; xliv. 29, 31). Sheol is underneath the earth (Isa. vii. 11, lvii. 9; Ezek. xxxi. 14; Ps. lxxxvi. 13; Ecclus. [Sirach] li. 6; comp. Enoch, xvii. 6, “toward the setting of the sun”); hence it is designated as (Deut. xxxii. 22; Ps. lxxxvi. 13) or (Ps. lxxxviii. 7; Lam. iii. 55; Ezek. xxvi. 20, xxxii. 24).

It is very deep (Prov. ix. 18; Isa. lvii. 9); and it marks the point at the greatest possible distance from heaven (Job xi. 8; Amos ix. 2; Ps. cxxxix. 8). The dead descend or are made to go down into it; the revived ascend or are brought and lifted up from it (I Sam. ii. 6; Job vii. 9; Ps. xxx. 4; Isa. xiv. 11, 15).

Sometimes the living are hurled into Sheol before they would naturally have been claimed by it (Prov. i. 12; Num. xvi. 33; Ps. lv. 16, lxiii. 10), in which cases the earth is described as “opening her mouth” (Num. xvi. 30).

Sheol is spoken of as a land (Job x. 21, 22); but ordinarily it is a place with gates (ib. xvii. 16, xxxviii. 17; Isa. xxxviii. 10; Ps. ix. 14), and seems to have been viewed as divided into compartments (Prov. vii. 27), with “farthest corners” (Isa. xiv. 15; Ezek. xxxii. 23, Hebr.; R. V. “uttermost parts of the pit”), one beneath the other (see Jew. Encyc. v. 217, s. v. Eschatology).

Here the dead meet (Ezek. xxxii.; Isa. xiv.; Job xxx. 23) without distinction of rank or condition—the rich and the poor, the pious and the wicked, the old and the young, the master and the slave—if the description in Job iii. refers, as most likely it does, to Sheol. The dead continue after a fashion their earthly life. Jacob would mourn there (Gen. xxxvii. 35, xlii. 38); David abides there in peace (I Kings ii. 6); the warriors have their weapons with them (Ezek. xxxii. 27), yet they are mere shadows (“rephaim”; Isa. xiv. 9, xxvi. 14; Ps. lxxxviii. 5, A. V. “a man that hath no strength”).

The dead merely exist without knowledge or feeling (Job xiv. 13; Eccl. ix. 5). Silence reigns supreme; and oblivion is the lot of them that enter therein (Ps. lxxxviii. 13, xciv. 17; Eccl. ix. 10). Hence it is known also as “Dumah,” the abode of silence (Ps. vi. 6, xxx. 10, xciv. 17, cxv. 17); and there God is not praised (ib. cxv. 17; Isa. xxxviii. 15). Still, on certain extraordinary occasions the dwellers in Sheol are credited with the gift of making known their feelings of rejoicing at the downfall of the enemy (Isa. xiv. 9, 10).

Sleep is their usual lot (Jer. li. 39; Isa. xxvi. 14; Job xiv. 12). Sheol is a horrible, dreary, dark, disorderly land (Job x. 21, 22); yet it is the appointed house for all the living (ib. xxx. 23). Return from Sheol is not expected (II Sam. xii. 23; Job vii. 9, 10; x. 21; xiv. 7 et seq.; xvi. 22; Ecclus. [Sirach] xxxviii. 21); it is described as man’s eternal house (Eccl. xii. 5). It is “dust” (Ps. xxx. 10; hence in the Shemoneh ‘Esreh, in benediction No. ii., the dead are described as “sleepers in the dust”).

God Its Ruler.

God’s rulership over it is recognized (Amos ix. 2; Hos. xiii. 14; Deut. xxxii. 22; I Sam. ii. 6 [Isa. vii. 11?]; Prov. xv. 11). Hence He has the power to save the pious therefrom (Ps. xvi. 10, xlix. 16, the text of which latter passage, however, is recognized as corrupt).

Yet Sheol is never satiated (Prov. xxx. 20); she “makes wide her soul,” i.e., increases her desire (Isa. v. 14) and capacity. In these passages Sheol is personified; it is described also as a pasture for sheep with death as the shepherd (Ps. xlix. 15). From Sheol Samuel is cited by the witch of En-dor (I Sam. xxviii. 3 et seq.). As a rule Sheol will not give up its own.

They are held captive with ropes. This seems to be the original idea underlying the phrase (II Sam. xxii. 6; Ps. xviii. 6; R. V., verse 5, “the cords of Sheol”) and of the other expression, (Ps. cxvi. 3; R. V. “and the pains of Sheol”); for they certainly imply restraint or capture. Sheol is used as a simile for “jealousy” (Cant. viii. 7). For the post-Biblical development of the ideas involved see Eschatology.

Etymology. —Critical View:

The word “Sheol” was for some time regarded as an Assyro-Babylonian loan-word, “Shu’alu,” having the assumed meaning “the place whither the dead are cited or bidden,” or “the place where the dead are ingathered.” Delitzsch, who in his earlier works advanced this view, has now abandoned it; at least in his dictionary the word is not given.

The non-existence of “Shu’alu” has been all along maintained by Jensen (“Kosmologie,” p. 223), and recently again by Zimmern (in Schrader,” K. A. T.” 3d ed., p. 636, note 4) even against Jastrow’s explanation (in “Am. Jour. Semit. Lang.” xiv. 165-170) that “sha’al” = “to consult an oracle,” or “to cite the dead” for this purpose, whence the name of the place where the dead are.

The connection between the Hebrew “Sheol” and the Assyro – Babylonian “shillan” (west), which Jensen proposed instead (in “Zeitschrift für Assyriologie,” v. 131, xv. 243), does not appear to be acceptable. Zimmern (l.c.) suggests “shilu” (= “a sort of chamber”) as the proper Assyrian source of the Hebrew word.

On the other hand, it is certain that most of the ideas covered by the Hebrew “Sheol” are expressed also in the Assyro-Babylonian descriptions of the state of the dead, found in the myths concerning Ishtar’s descent into Hades, concerning Nergal and Ereshkigal (see Jensen in Schrader, “K. B.” vi., part 1, pp. 74-79) and in the Gilgamesh epic (tablets ii. and xii.; comp. also Craig, “Religious Texts,” i. 79; King, Magic,” No. 53).

This realm of the dead is in the earth (“erẓitu” = ; comp. Job, x. 21, 22), the gateway being in the west. It is the “land without return.” It is a dark place filled with dust (see Sheol, Biblical Data); but it contains a palace for the divine ruler of this shadow-realm (comp. Job xviii. 13, 14). Seven gates guard successively the approach to this land, at the first of which is a watchman. A stream of water flows through Sheol (comp. Enoch, xvii. 6, xxii. 9; Luke xvi. 24; Ps. xviii. 5; II Sam. xxii. 5).

Origin of Biblical Concept.

The question arises whether the Biblical concept is borrowed from the Assyrians or is an independent development from elements common to both and found in many primitive religions.

Though most of the passages in which mention is made of Sheol or its synonyms are of exilic or post-exilic times, the latter view, according to which the Biblical concept of Sheol represents an independent evolution, is the more probable.

It reverts to primitive animistic conceits. With the body in the grave remains connected the soul (as in dreams): the dead buried in family graves continue to have communion (comp. Jer. xxxi. 15).

Sheol is practically a family grave on a large scale. Graves were protected by gates and bolts; therefore Sheol was likewise similarly guarded. The separate compartments are devised for the separate clans, septs, and families, national and blood distinctions continuing in effect after death.

That Sheol is described as subterranean is but an application of the custom of hewing out of the rocks passages, leading downward, for burial purposes.


  • Stade, Ueber die A. T. Vorstellungen vom Zustande nach dem Tode, Leipsic, 1877;
  • idem, Gesch. des Volkes Israel, i. 418 et seq.;
  • idem, Biblische Theologie des A. T. pp. 183 et seq., Tübingen, 1905;
  • F. Schwally, Das Leben nach dem Tode, Giessen, 1892;
  • A. Bertholet, Die Israelitischen Vorstellungen vom Zustande nach dem Tode, Freiburg, 1899;
  • G. Beer, Der Biblische Hades, Tübingen, 1902;
  • idem, in Guthe, Kurzes Bibelwörterbuch, s.v. Hölle;
  • Zimmern, in K. A. T. 3d ed., ii. 641, 642, Berlin, 1903 (where the Assyrian literature is given).

EXAMPLES Showing that Sheol is Not a Burial Place[5]

Sheol, the abode of the souls of those who have died.

1. After selling Joseph into slavery, his brothers stained his coat with blood and used it to convince their father that he had been killed by a wild animal (Gen. 37:26-36). Jacob’s sons and daughters tried to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted; and he said, `for I will go down into the grave (Sheol) unto my son mourning’. Thus his father wept for him (v. 35).

From Jacob’s words it is clear that he fully intended to eventually be reunited with his son in a tangible way. Obviously then, he did not simply have in mind the idea of joining him in burial as he believed that Joseph’s body had not been buried at all, but was eaten by an animal (v. 33). This being the case, it was impossible for Jacob to think he would join Joseph in burial. Obviously, he looked forward to being reunited with him in the place of the departed dead, not in burial. The word rendered grave in this passage is Sheol, the abode of the souls of those who have died.

Sheol, the place where the souls of the departed reside.

2. After Jacob died, Joseph had his body mummified, a process that took forty days, then took him back to Canaan for burial (Gen. 50:1-14). When we add to that the thirty days of mourning (Gen. 50:2-4), and the time it took to travel to Canaan for the funeral (Gen. 50:5-13), we see that it was several weeks after Jacob was gathered unto his people (Gen. 49:33) before his body was placed in the cave that served as his burial place. Considering that he had been dead for well over two months before his body was buried and that the Scriptures state that at the time he died he was “gathered to his people” (Gen. 49:33) is telling. This shows that at the time of physical death, when “he yielded up the spirit,” his soul immediately departed his body to be with Isaac and Abraham. This cannot be a reference to his body being gathered together with their bodies, as that did not take place for over ten weeks. This is strong proof that Sheol does not mean a burial place for the body, but is the place where the souls of the departed reside.

Sheol, and the grave are to be regarded as different places

3. That communication takes place in Sheol/Hades tells us that something other than a burial place is in view. In Isaiah 14:4-20, we find the prophet foretelling the eventual defeat and death of the king of Babylon. The nation that would eventually send Judah into captivity will itself be defeated and its mighty king will find himself among the chief ones of the earth…the kings of the nations (Isa. 14:9) who preceded him in death. These are the kings of nations that he had conquered with the sword and ruled over with a cruel hand (Isa. 14:6). These same men will serve as a welcoming committee for this once great “world ruler” when he arrives in Sheol/Hades. In mock surprise, they will ask this once powerful king, Art thou also become weak as we? Are thou become like unto us? (Isa. 14:10). They then taunt him by pointing out that the pretentious display of magnificence that he had demonstrated as the king of Babylon now meant nothing (Isa. 14:11).

All of those who find themselves in this section of Sheol/Hades, like the king of Babylon and the kings who greeted him, will be faced with the reality of how helpless and hopeless they are. One of the boasts these kings make against him is that, while their bodies have been placed in their respective tombs, or graves, he was not honored by a respectable burial, But thou are cast out of the grave (queber) like an abominable (despised) branch…thou shalt not be joined with them in burial(Isa. 14:18-20). Obviously, if his body was not in any grave at all, he was not simply joining them in burial.

What we see here is this man going into Sheol, while at the same time his body is cast out of its grave. Obviously then, Sheol cannot be the grave here as the body and soul are in different places, the soul going to Sheol while the body remains unburied, or outside of the grave (vs. 20) to be infested by maggots (vs. 11). It is true that this is a prophetic passage; and there are various opinions as to the identity of the person in view here (verses 12-15 are commonly thought to refer to Satan, the power behind the Gentile kings). But, regardless of who this prophecy is about, or whether it has already been fulfilled or not, does not change the fact that Sheol and the grave are to be regarded as different places in this passage of Scripture.

Sheol/Hades and the grave are not the same thing, nor are they in the same place.

4. In the case of Samuel and Saul, we find another example of the Scriptures making a distinction between Sheol/Hades and the grave. In his conversation with King Saul, Samuel, whom the Lord had sent back from the dead to deliver a message to Saul, said that Saul and his sons would be with him the next day (see I Sam. 28:15-19). As foretold, Saul and his sons did die the next day while in battle with the Philistines (see I Sam. 31:1-6). However, their bodies were not buried the next day, so they did not join Samuel in the grave but their souls went down to Sheol/Hades where the person, or soul, of Samuel was. As it is said that Samuel “came up” it seems obvious that he went back down after speaking with Saul (I Sam. 28:8,11,14). As for the bodies of Saul and his sons, their remains were not buried for several days. As Samuel had said, they died the next day (I Sam. 31:1-6). But it was the day after they died that their bodies were taken by the Philistines and hung on the wall of Beth-Shan (I Sam. 31:7-10). After hearing of this, valiant men from Jabesh-Gilead went by night and removed their bodies, took them to Jabesh, burned them, and then buried their bones. All this took place at least three days after Saul had died, and probably longer. Saul and his sons joined Samuel in Sheol/Hades the day they died and the flesh of their bodies was burned with only their bones being placed in a grave several days later. Obviously Sheol/Hades and the grave are not the same thing, nor are they in the same place.

The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus that is found in Luke 16:19-31 gives us the record of a remarkable conversation that took place in Hades between the Rich Man and Abraham. Obviously, these two men could not have had this conversation at all if Sheol/Hades is only a place where dead bodies are buried. First, there could be no communication between lifeless, decaying corpses and second, Abraham’s body, which was buried in the cave of Machpelah over 1800 years earlier, had long since decayed. Also, the rich man’s body, regardless of whether it had decayed or not, would not have been buried in the burial cave of Abraham. From the context, it is obvious that these men were in the place of departed souls rather than a burial place.

There are some that contend that this is a parable that never actually took place and deny that it could have ever taken place. To these, who usually hold to a position of soul-sleep or the eradication of the soul at death, we answer; the Lord said that it did take place. Besides, as we have already pointed out, a parable by definition is a “true to life” story. To have meaning, it must be a story that could have actually taken place whether it ever did or not.


Sheol/Hades are not in an unconscious state of existence but are quite aware of what is going on around them. There is memory, recognition, and communication there.

Sheol is not simply the grave but is located at the center of the earth

Death and Sheol/Hades are linked together at least thirty-three times in the Scriptures. In these, we see a general distinction between the “outward man,” which is the body and the “inward man,” which is the soul (cf. II Cor. 4:16). In this sense, death, or the grave, claims the physical part of man, the body, while Sheol/Hades claims the separated, spiritual part of man, the soul. This is exactly the meaning of Psalm 16:10: For Thou wilt not leave my soul in Hell (Sheol); neither will Thou suffer Thine Holy One to see corruption. In his Pentecostal address, Peter left no room for doubt that this was a prophetic pronouncement concerning the time between the Lord Jesus Christ’s death on the Cross and His resurrection. First, he quoted Psalm 16:8-11 (Acts 2:25-28) and then made direct application of verse 10 to Christ (Acts 2:31). Not only was the Lord Jesus’ soul not left in Sheol/Hades, but neither was His body left to rot in the grave. That Peter used Hades, the place of Sheol, in this quotation shows that they are identical in meaning.

Of course, the Lord Jesus Christ is exceptional because He had the power not only to lay down His life on our behalf, but also to take it up again (Jn. 10:17,18). This is not so of any other man, as the Psalmist points out when he asks, rhetorically, What man is he that liveth and shall not see death? Shall he deliver his soul from the hand of the grave (Sheol)?” (Ps. 89:48). Because of the curse of sin, all of mankind faces the reality of physical death. None can evade it by their own power, nor can any man or woman escape from Sheol/Hades on their own. We know that since the Cross the souls of those who die “in Christ” do not go to Sheol/Hades, but to heaven. However, this is through the merit of Jesus Christ and His power, not their own. For those “in Christ,” death has no sting and Sheol/Hades has no victory because their body and soul will be united in a resurrection unto life (see I Cor. 15:19,20,51-57). This is as certain as the fact of Jesus Christ’s resurrection. This is not so for those who die without Christ for they face a resurrection unto judgment, which is referred to as the second death (Rev. 20:13,14; 21:8).

Sheol is the abode of the souls of the unrighteous dead who are awaiting their resurrection unto condemnation.

Psalm 89:48 speaks of the time when the soul is separated from the body. The body is given over to death where it will decay, while the soul is assigned to Sheol/Hades to await the final judgment. It is clear that the body and soul of the lost will be reunited at the time of the Great White Throne Judgment of the unsaved dead, when death and Hades will deliver up the dead that are in them. That is, their bodies will be raised from the grave, or death, and reunited with the soul, which will come out of Sheol/Hades to be judged by Jesus Christ at the Great White Throne (see Rev. 20:11-15; cf. Jn. 5:28,29).

When the Lord Jesus said that as Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth(Mat. 12:40), He was saying that He would spend the time between His death and resurrection in Sheol/Hades. We know from Psalm 16:10 and Acts 2:25-32 that the Lord’s soul, which was made an offering for sin (Isa. 53:10), was in Sheol/Hades, and we know from Matthew 12:40 that He was in the heart of the earth, which is where we believe that Sheol/Hades is located.

When we speak of the heart of something, we are not referring to that which is superficial or only skin-deep. Symbolically, the heart signifies the innermost character, feelings, or inclinations of a man. The heart is also used when referring to the center, or core, of something. For example; it is sometimes said, “the heart of a watermelon is the best part,” meaning that the center part of the watermelon tastes better than the part closer to the rind. If we say that we have a “heart-felt desire” for a particular area of ministry, we would be speaking of a yearning to do the Lord’s work that comes from our innermost being as opposed to a superficial desire based on the emotions of the moment. When used figuratively in the Scriptures, the word “heart” is used in a similar fashion, thus the heart of the earth gives reference to something much deeper than a simple place of burial for a man’s body barely under the surface of the earth. That it is said that before His ascension the Lord Jesus first descended into the lower parts of the earth (Eph. 4:9) affirms this. In a Psalm of thanksgiving for being delivered from death, David makes reference to this by distinguishing between Sheol/Hades (rendered grave in the KJV) and Queber (rendered pit in this passage) (Ps. 30:1-3).

Sheol/Hades are not in an unconscious state of existence

In Ezekiel we find prophecies against the kings of Assyria (Ezek. 31) and Egypt (Ezek. 32) that indicate that Sheol/Hades is in the center of the earth. In these two chapters it speaks of the fall of these mighty kings, who in death ended up in the underworld with those who have gone before them. We do not have the space here to give extensive commentary on these two chapters. But we do want to point out that in regard to both kings it is said that in death they would go to the nether parts of the earth…with them that go down into the pit (see Ezek. 31:14,16,18; 32:18,24), the “nether parts” being the lower regions of the earth. We should take note that in chapter thirty-one it is being pointed out to Pharaoh that just as the king of Assyria, who was greater than he was, had died and gone into the underworld, so would he.

In chapter thirty-two we find a prophecy, given in the form of a lamentation, foretelling Pharaoh’s defeat by the king of Babylon (Ezek. 32:1-16). This is followed by a lamentation over the multitude of Egyptians who would be slain by the Babylonians (Ezek. 31:17-31). We have pictured for us those of the nations who preceded them, welcoming Pharaoh and his host as they arrived in Sheol/Hades by taunting them. They point out that the Egyptians had thought themselves to be invincible because of their strength and fame among the nations. But now they were just like the great nations who had gone before them, their individual souls being confined to Sheol/Hades while their bodies decay in the grave.

The strong among the mighty shall speak to him out of the midst of hell (Sheol)…” (Ezek. 32:21). The “strong among the mighty” spoken of here refers to the men who had been the kings and leaders of the different nations that are mentioned in this passage: Asshor, or Assyria (v. 22), Elam (v. 24), Meshech and Tubal (v. 26), Edom, her kings and her princes (v. 29), the princes of the north and the Zidonians (v. 30). This passage shows that while those of each group mentioned are in their respective burial places, their quebers, they are at the same time all together in “the pit,” which is an expression that is sometimes used for Sheol/Hades (vv. 18,25,29). These are similar examples as that found in Isaiah 14, which we have previously looked at.

While we have not exhausted the subject by looking at every passage that Sheol is found in, it is clear from these examples that:

Sheol is not simply the grave but is located at the center of the earth and is the abode of the souls of the unrighteous dead who are awaiting their resurrection unto condemnation. It is equally clear that those in Sheol/Hades are not in an unconscious state of existence but are quite aware of what is going on around them. There is memory, recognition, and communication there.



1 Song of Solomon – Canticles
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