What is Sheol and its meaning in the Bible?

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What is the meaning of Sheol according to the Bible?

In this study you will learn what Sheol is, we analyze the word Sheol.

The Hebrew word Sheol is the most common word in the Old Testament used in reference to the state of the dead.

Curiously, however, the term appears only once outside of the Old Testament, where it means “grave.”

So when it comes to understanding what the Old Testament authors meant by the word Sheol, we are limited to its use within Scripture.

Fortunately, there are numerous passages that guide our definition of this word. Throughout the article, we will study them.

What is Sheol in the bible and its meaning?

The word Sheol appears sixty-six times in the Hebrew Scriptures, and some of them are occasionally translated as “hell” depending on the translation of the Bible you are reading.

However, “hell” is not a good translation of any of the instances of Sheol in the Bible. The Hebrew Bible never indicates any form of punishment after death, so this translation is inappropriate. This is seen in various ways.

Old Testament

For example, both good men and bad men go to Sheol ( Genesis 37:35; Numbers 16:30; Jon 2:2 ). Since it is not a place for wicked people only, as even the righteous go to Sheol, it cannot be equivalent to the modern concept of hell.

Some teach, therefore, that Sheol was a special “storage tank” or “intermediate state” for all the people who lived and died before Jesus’ death and resurrection, and that after Jesus’ resurrection, the people no longer go to Sheol, but are immediately sent to heaven or hell.

Texts such as Matthew 27:52, Ephesians 4:8-10, and 1 Peter 3:19 are used to defend this idea. However, when all the references to Sheol are considered together, it seems that the most likely definition of the word is also the most literal translation.

But then what is Sheol. The word Sheol means “grave” or “pit “. When the Hebrew authors wrote about Sheol, they were thinking of a hole in the ground where corpses were deposited. It does not represent any kind of afterlife experience.

When adjectives are used to describe Sheol, it is described as a damp, dark, dusty, moldy hole. Support for this understanding is found in the fact that the Hebrew word bor is often used as a synonym for Sheol, and bor is literally a hole dug in the ground ( Isaiah 14:11-20 ).

And like any tomb, Sheol is characterized by the presence of worms and decay ( Job 17:13-16; 24:19-20 ). There is not a single Old Testament text that speaks of Sheol as an eternal place of suffering and torment for the unregenerate dead.


Sheol in the New Testament

Even when New Testament authors cite Old Testament texts that speak of Sheol, they do so in connection with the bodily resurrection of people from the grave (Psa 16:10; Hos 13:14; Acts 2:27; 13:35; 1Co 15.55 ).

The idea is that their bodies sank into the earth, and at the resurrection, their bodies will come out of the earth and be healed and whole once more. So even the New Testament supports the idea that Sheol is simply “the grave”.

And since all people die and go to the grave, it makes sense that the Old Testament texts speak of all people going to Sheol. 

The Old Testament, therefore, does not have much to say about the afterlife for either the righteous or the wicked. All he knows is that when all people die, they are placed in a tomb, in Sheol, where worms and decay destroy their bodies.

As such, the word Sheol has nothing to say about “hell” and should not be translated as “hell” in any of its uses (contrary to KJV texts such as Deut 32:22; Ps 16:10; Prov 9). :18; Isa 14:9-10 ).

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So what is the correct translation?

The best way to translate all uses of Sheol is “grave”, and it refers to a hole dug in the ground in which dead bodies are placed. When used metaphorically, it can refer to depression, grief, or loneliness, which are emotions often associated with death and burial.


So, for Christians, what is Sheol?

The term Sheol, therefore, is the theological opposite of the life that God wants and desires for his people. Since our Lord is a God of the living, not of the dead, then Sheol represents the experience of those who are not functioning as God intended.

Either because they are dead and buried in the ground, or because they are cut off from the community due to loneliness and depression. There is not a single text that describes Sheol as a place of suffering and torment in the afterlife for the unregenerate dead.

Old Testament teachings say nothing about hell

The word Sheol is the only possible Old Testament term that can refer to hell, and since it does not, this means that the Old Testament does not teach anything about hell.

This helps us realize that if the doctrine of hell as a place of suffering and torment is correct, then God left humanity completely ignorant and blind to this idea for most of human history.

If it is true that the vast majority of people from the days of Adam to the days of John the Baptist will end up in a place of fiery torment forever, wouldn’t it have been loving of God to at least warn people of such a potential fate?


So does hell exist?

There is not a single such warning in all of the Hebrew Scriptures. Yet despite the complete silence in the Hebrew Scriptures about conscious eternal torment in hell, people today continue to cling to the doctrine, primarily because they believe it is taught in the New Testament.

Almost all of the evidence provided for the doctrine of eternal torment in a fiery hell comes from the New Testament. But again, if this is indeed the case, then was it just and right that God did not warn a single person before the birth of Jesus about the eternal torment that awaited them in eternity?

Was it right that God didn’t warn billions of people about hell? Is it conceivable that the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ could see billions of humans fall into a pit of eternal suffering and torment without saying a single word of warning about it to those who were alive?

If the traditional doctrine of hell is true, how could God have overlooked or neglected to mention it in his revelation to mankind for most of human history?


If God loves us, why didn’t he warn us about hell?

People often say that it is loving to warn people about hell, just as it is loving to warn people about driving off a cliff. But if this is so, why didn’t God warn people about hell for most of human history?

Does God not love? To ask the question is to answer it. God is infinitely loving and would not have failed to warn the objects of his love about such a potential disaster. 

Therefore, the only other rational conclusion is that such a disaster does not exist. God did not warn the people because the warning was not necessary.

Yet despite the complete silence in the Hebrew Scriptures about eternal conscious torment in hell, people today continue to cling to the doctrine, primarily because they believe it is taught in the New Testament.

Almost all of the evidence provided for the doctrine of eternal torment in hellfire comes from the New Testament. But if the Hebrew Scriptures do not teach the concept of eternal torment in hellfire, it is legitimate to wonder if the New Testament does. Perhaps we have also misunderstood what the New Testament teaches about hell.

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Characteristics, meaning, and use of the word Sheol in the Bible

Contrary to much of modern biblical scholarship, the Old Testament also has more positive things to say about life after death. Yes, Sheol is a place of darkness, but it is also a place where God still reminds the people of him and where he is still King.

Sheol is the enemy’s bunker

In the Old Testament, the most common way of describing Sheol is as the house of death. It is the realm of the dead, where everyone goes when they have finished their life in this world. The accuser of mankind, Satan, is the prince of this house of the dead.

Death is the executioner and the jailer. The dragon, the great serpent, has been cast out to eat earth for the rest of his days, and the earth he eats is that of his kingdom, the grave ( Genesis 3:14 ). The place of the dead is enemy territory, ruled by the first and greatest enemy of humanity, the accuser.

The Old Testament speaks of Sheol as someone who is never satisfied, who always tries to fill his stomach but never achieves his goal. Something that all mankind will attempt ( Proverbs 30:15; Habakkuk 2:5 ).

His mouth is an open pit, eventually swallowing everything. This insatiable gluttony is one of the reasons why it is often characterized as the abode of mankind’s final enemy, death itself, and why death is even called the shepherd of mankind ( Psalm 49:14 ).

Seol is a place from which there is no escape. The doors are locked, the windows barred, and the prison guard, death, is invincible through human effort ( Job 10:21; 17:13-16; Isaiah 38:10 ).

Human beings alone cannot escape. Only someone, by entering the realm of the dead and breaking down the gates from within, could hope to defeat both the gates of Sheol and its master, and this is God. Breaking into doors, for mere humans, is useless.


Sheol is the desert of exile

Sheol is also symbolically characterized in the Old Testament as the opposite of the Promised Land.
To put it geographically, it is the ultimate place of the exilic desert, a place from which one cannot return to the land that flows with milk and honey. Instead, the only food one can eat in Seol is dust and ash.

Furthermore, instead of God being praised in the sanctuary, a necessarily corporeal act, there is no praise of God in Sheol, and the dead do not remember it.

Most surprising is Psalm 6:5: “In death, there is no memory of you; in Sheol, who will praise you? Likewise, Isaiah 38:18 says: “Sheol gives you no thanks; death does not praise you; those who go down to the pit do not expect your faithfulness.”

Is it a place of darkness?

Glory to God in the Highest

Are the dead, and especially the dead who die with faith in the true God, now experiencing torment or completely separated from God? 

We must begin by noting that these are liturgical and covenantal statements, first and foremost.

Psalm 6:5 is a book made up of material originally written for liturgical contexts. 

The acts of praise, lament, thanksgiving, celebration, and remembrance were, for Israel, primarily acts that took place in the tabernacle and, later, in the temple.

Similar characterizations about Sheol, such as its being a place of darkness and dust, could also be contrasted with statements about the Promised Land and specifically the tabernacle/temple, both of which are characterized by the light of God’s presence in the assembly. of Israel and the flowing water of his Spirit.

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Alternatively, instead of dusty tombs, Sheol is sometimes equated with the abyss, a place at the bottom of the sea ( Jonah 2:2-9; Job 26:5 ). 

In the Old Testament, a sea is often described as a place of chaos and disorder, a place that opposes the solid ground of the Promised Land.

To go to the sea, and especially to its depths, is to walk away from the presence of God as Israel knew him through the tabernacle/temple in the Promised Land. 

Whether Sheol is described as the desert where wild beasts live or the abyss, where chaos monsters swim, Israel conceived of it symbolically as the opposite of Canaan.

This is because, for Israel, to live meant to live embodied within the assembly in the presence of God and especially through worshiping him in the tabernacle/temple at liturgical intervals. 

These two images, of Sheol as the enemy’s bunker and Sheol as the desert of exile, are truly grim. Death takes everyone, just and unjust alike, and no one returns from the realm of the dead.


Sheol is under the authority of the king

Power of Christ

In the Old Testament, God has no rival. There is no place in heaven, on earth, or under the earth where the Lord Almighty does not reign. Of course, his chosen people, Israel, dwell in a specific place, the place that he prepared and earned for them, the Promised Land.

But God’s rule does not stop at Israel’s borders and is not limited to his throne room in heaven. It extends even over the territory of Israel’s enemies on earth and to the depths of Sheol in the underworld.


This means that, despite Seol’s gluttony, despite his characterization as the enemy’s bunker and the entire exiled desert of humanity, God still has authority in this darkest place, this unnatural habitat for those who have received the wages of sin ( Isaiah 25:8 ).

Ancient Israel shared the conviction of the peoples of Mesopotamia that “he who goes down to Sheol [the underworld] does not go up” ( Job 7:9;  10:21; 16:22; 2 Sam 12:23 ). No exceptions were known; There is no instance in the Old Testament of a true descent and return from the underworld by a living human being.

However, the idea of ​​going down to Sheol and returning alive to the land of the living occurs as a way of talking about the experience of coming very close to death and escaping. The image of descent and return is more than a poetic fantasy.

Both the righteous and the unrighteous will be in Sheol

If the Lord, who is the only righteous one and remembers his people, is somehow still present in Sheol, then surely there is still, in a sense, justice, and righteousness even in this dark land.

In other words, it would not make sense for the righteous to be punished in Sheol; that would be contrary to the justice of God, and it would also be contrary to his blessed state in the resurrection. Likewise, it would not make sense for the unrighteous to rest in Sheol; that would be contrary to the justice of God and would be contradictory to his expulsion in the resurrection.

Thus, the explicit depiction of different definitions of Sheol (or, in Greek, Hades) began to be widely used to communicate these realities about God’s justice and ultimately foreshadow the fate of the dead in the general resurrection.

All who die in Christ die knowing that death has already been overcome. We are still waiting for the Messiah, but now we are waiting for his second coming, not the first. 

This may be why the New Testament uses the terms “third heaven” and “sleeping” to refer to the resting place of the Lord’s saints, rather than Sheol. An intermediate state is no longer a place of only darkness and gloom because light has entered it.