What Is Sheol?
The Intermediate State
The great white throne judgment is when God will resurrect every un-regenerated soul from Hades (HAY-deez) to be judged as shown in this passage:
The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
We see plain evidence here that unredeemed people are held in a place called Hades after their physical death. This place is called Sheol (she-OHL) in the original Hebrew of the Old Testament. These disembodied souls are kept in Hades until judgment day when, as you can see, they are resurrected for the purpose of divine judgment. What is the precise nature of these people’s condition in Hades during this intermediate period between physical death and resurrection? The traditional religious view is that they will be in a state of conscious torment the entire span or, if they’re righteous, they’ll hang out in bliss with father Abraham. Although this has been the common evangelical position of the “intermediate state,” it’s rarely mentioned or elaborated on in Christian circles.
Is this what the Bible really teaches? That people who are spiritually dead will suffer hundreds or thousands of years of torment in captivity immediately after they die merely waiting for God to judge them? (As shown in Hell Know, the people who believe this also believe the damned will then spend all eternity in roasting torture in the lake of fire after they’re judged).
Our purpose in this study is to thoroughly search the Holy Scriptures to find out the truth about Sheol/Hades, the intermediate state. If Sheol/Hades is indeed a place and condition of conscious torment, then God’s Word will clearly support this from Genesis to Revelation. If the Scriptures don’t reinforce this then we need to expose it as a false doctrine, eliminate it from our belief system and proclaim what the Bible actually teaches on the subject. This is the only way “the truth will set us free.”
Seven Important Facts About Sheol/Hades
Before we turn to the God-breathed scriptures to discover the precise nature of the intermediate state of unredeemed people, let’s go over seven important facts about Sheol/Hades, some of which are obvious and some not.
1. Sheol and Hades are synonymous terms, that is, they refer to the same condition or place. Sheol is the Hebrew term and Hades is the Greek. For proof of this, note the following Psalm passage, which speaks of Sheol, then observe how the Hebrew Sheol is supplanted by the Greek Hades when the text is quoted in the New Testament:
PSALM 16:10 (NASB)
For Thou wilt not abandon my soul to Sheol; neither wilt Thou allow Thy Holy One to undergo decay.
ACTS 2:27 (NASB)
Because Thou wilt not abandon my soul to Hades, nor allow Thy Holy One to undergo decay.
We observe here that the Hebrew Sheol and the Greek Hades are synonymous terms in the Bible.
Since using both words could be confusing and overly wordy we will simply use the term Sheol in reference to the intermediate state throughout the rest of this study. The main reason for this decision is that the Hebrew Sheol appears much more often in the Scriptures than the Greek Hades; the former appears 66 times in the Old Testament and the latter 10 times in the New Testament. A secondary reason is that the word Hades is apt to conjure fantastical images of Greek mythology rather than biblical truth; the Hebrew Sheol, by contrast, offers no such misleading images.
2. Since this is a study on Sheol, what precisely is it? Sheol is defined as “the world of the dead” by the popular Hebrew & Greek scholar James strong, which corresponds to the biblical description of it as “the assembly of the dead,” as observed in Proverbs 21:16 (NRSV & NASB). Sheol simply refers to the place and condition of dead souls after their physical decease and before their resurrection to face God’s judgment. In other words, if people are spiritually dead to God, that is, they’ve never experienced spiritual regeneration through Jesus Christ, their disembodied souls will go straight to Sheol when they physically die to be held until judgment day, at which time they will be resurrected for the purpose of judgment. Since this time period in Sheol is after physical death and before resurrection it is commonly referred to as the “intermediate state” by theologians.
3. Where exactly is Sheol? In our study we shall see clear evidence that Sheol is located in the heart of the earth, not in the physical realm, but in the dark spiritual realm. You see, the Bible speaks of three existing worlds or realms: (1.) The earth and the physical universe, (2.) the underworld, which is the dark heavenly realm that parallels or underpins the earth and universe, and (3.) God’s heaven, called the “third heaven” in Scripture. For scriptural support of this go here.
It should be understood that Sheol is not the underworld itself, it is a compartment or pit in the underworld. This will become evident as our study progresses.
4. Sheol must be distinguished from the grave or tomb where dead bodies are put to rest. This must be emphasized because translations often render Sheol as “the grave,” for example Psalm 16:10 in the New International Version. Yet scholar W.E. Vine properly points out that Sheol never refers to the literal grave or tomb where the body is lain to rest (286). There’s a separate Hebrew term for the physical grave or tomb, the Hebrew word qeber (KEH-ber).
Even though it’s true that Sheol does not refer to the physical grave or tomb, it should be pointed out that since it is defined as “the world of the dead” where souls enter after physical death, Sheol could arguably be described as the graveyard of souls. In light of this, translations that render Sheol as “the grave” are not necessarily inaccurate, as long as the reader understands that the text is not referring to the physical grave or tomb where dead bodies are placed.
5. Another important fact, which I think is obvious, is that Sheol is a temporary condition, regardless of its nature. This is important to keep in mind – Sheol only applies to the intermediate state of the disembodied souls of spiritually dead people after their physical death and before their resurrection on judgment day. Why is this so significant to understand? Because, regardless of what anyone ultimately believes about Sheol, we can all agree that it’s a temporary state; it’s not something that lasts forever. Because of this, it’s obvious that the subject of Sheol is not as important as the subject of the second death, i.e. damnation in the lake of fire. Why? Simply because the second death is eternal while Sheol is not. As such, the nature of Sheol is without question a secondary issue on the topic of human damnation.
Consequently, even though the Bible is very clear on the issue of Sheol, which we’ll see in our thorough study of the Scriptures, no matter what conclusion we each personally come to, it has no bearing on the biblical truths thoroughly established in Hell Know. This is important to keep in mind.
6. Sheol is not hell; the lake of fire is hell. We see in the Scriptures that Sheol and the lake of fire (i.e. Gehenna) are two separate places and states. Revelation 20:13-15, quoted at the beginning of this chapter, plainly shows this distinction: After people are resurrected from Sheol (“Hades”) to face judgment, Sheol itself will then be cast into the lake of fire. Since Sheol and the lake of fire are plainly shown to be two separate places/states in this passage, only one can rightly be designated as “hell”; and since “hell” commonly refers to a fiery, dark netherworld where people suffer eternal damnation then it is the lake of fire (or Gehenna) that should properly be labeled hell. In light of this, if a person refers to Sheol as hell, they’re simply not being scriptural; the lake of fire is the true hell.
Yet, those of us who understand this should extend grace toward those who mix-up the two terms because most of the confusion over this issue is simply the result of bad translating practices; for instance, the King James Version often renders both Sheol (Hades) and Gehenna as “hell,” giving the impression to English readers that they’re one-and-the-same. They’re not. Thankfully, more recent translations have helped correct this mistake.
It’s interesting to note, incidentally, that the word “hell” is derived from the Old English ‘helan,’ which means “to conceal or cover;” hence in Old English literature you may find references to the helling of potatoes — that is, putting them into pits in the ground — and the helling of a house, meaning to cover it with a thatched roof. “Hell” therefore was originally an accurate description of Sheol because it properly gave the image of souls concealed in a pit in the netherworld until their resurrection on judgment day. Of course, “hell” has taken on a radical change in meaning in the centuries since.
An alternative way of looking at the distinction between Sheol and the lake of fire is to simply regard Sheol as temporary hell and the lake of fire as eternal hell. This is good for those who, for whatever reason, insist on referring to both Sheol and the lake of fire as “hell.”
7. Righteous souls went to Sheol before the ascension of Christ. This significant fact about Sheol is not widely known amongst Christians even though it’s obvious in the Scriptures and Christian scholars readily acknowledge it. Before Jesus’ death and subsequent resurrection from Sheol (Acts 2:27,31-32) the souls of Old Testament saints had to go to Sheol just as well as the souls of people not in covenant with God. Why? Because spiritual regeneration was not available in Old Testament times since Jesus had not yet spilled his blood for the forgiveness of our sins and was not subsequently raised to life for our justification. The blood of animals shed in Hebrew ceremonies only temporarily covered their sins; it was not able to wash them from sin. Only the blood of Christ can do this. As it is written: “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4).
In our study we’ll observe that death and Sheol are often spoken of together; they go hand-in-hand and are arguably one-in-the-same: death is Sheol and Sheol is death. With this in mind, what is the wages of sin? According to the Bible “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). My point is that the souls of Old Testament saints had to go to Sheol just as heathen people because in order for them to be redeemed from death a person innocent of sin would have to die in their place. The good news is that Jesus Christ did this very thing for all those who believe on him and accept him as Lord.
Some believe that when Jesus Christ was raised from the dead as the “firstfruits” (see 1 Corinthians 15:20-23) and later ascended to heaven the souls of Old Testament saints were raised from Sheol as well. This is the passage they cite to support this:
When he [Jesus] ascended on high, he led captives in his train
Who were the “captives” who ascended to heaven with Jesus? Some suggest that they were the Old Testament saints who were subject to death and Sheol just as well as heathen people. It is true that Old Testament saints were captives to Sheol—death—until God’s ultimate sacrifice for humanity’s sins was made. When Jesus died he destroyed “him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14) and, by his resurrection, set free those who were captive to death. As such, their souls were either resurrected from Sheol when Christ ascended or they will be at the time of their bodily resurrection, which takes place after the Tribulation and before the Millennium. We’ll look at this further in the chapter on Resurrections: Firstfruits, Harvest & Gleanings.
Whatever the case, now that Jesus Christ has destroyed death and brought eternal life and immortality to light through his death and resurrection (2 Timothy 1:10), no soul that is spiritually born-again and blessed with God’s gift of eternal life has to go to Sheol. Now, when a spiritually-regenerated believer physically dies, his or her soul goes straight to heaven, not Sheol. This is plainly evident in such clear passages as Revelation 6:9-11 and 7:9-17, as well as Philippians 1:23 and 2 Corinthians 5:8.
There are, incidentally, many adherents of everlasting destruction who reject this notion that spiritually-rebirthed believers go to heaven when they die; they believe that both heathen and Christian souls alike go to Sheol. I have open-mindedly and thoroughly researched their position but am persuaded by Scripture to embrace the above view. We’ll look at this subject in detail in Chapter Ten The Believer’s Intermediate State and honestly consider arguments for and against; you are welcome to draw your own conclusion. Regardless, even though this is an important issue it’s a detail matter in the grand scheme of things and actually has no bearing on the nature of Sheol, which is the subject of this study. Hence, whatever your conclusion after an honest appraisal of the biblical facts, let’s strive for unity and loathe division. Amen?
The above notion that death and Sheol are parallel terms and essentially synonymous may sound strange to those of a religiously-indoctrinated mindset; yet, if such a person patiently and honestly seeks the scriptural truth, it will all make sense as we examine the Holy Scriptures on the subject. God’s Word is perfectly able to wash our minds of false religious indoctrination.
One last point regarding this seventh fact of Sheol: If Sheol is a condition of conscious torment as religious traditionalists advocate, how do they explain the biblical fact that righteous people went to Sheol in Old Testament times? Their answer is that there was a separate chamber in Sheol for righteous souls with a chasm separating the two sections, which they base on a literal reading of Jesus’ story of The Rich Man and Lazarus from Luke 16:19-31. We will honestly analyze this passage in the Chapter Eight The Rich Man and Lazarus to find out if this is true.
Confusion Due to Inconsistent Translating of Sheol
Centuries ago theologians evidently did not believe there was a separate compartment to Sheol for righteous souls in Old Testament times; they simply believed Sheol was a place of torment for those damned of God in the heart of the earth. This caused some obvious problems: If Sheol is a condition of conscious torment, how does one explain the many passages that plainly show that righteous souls as well as heathen souls went to Sheol in Old Testament times?
The solution for the translators of the 1611 King James Version, believe it or not, was to translate Sheol as “hell” when it applied to unrighteous people and as “the grave” when applied to the righteous. In other words, they did not uniformly translate Sheol; in fact, their definition was determined purely by whether the passage referred to the wicked or the righteous. The translators of the King James — also known as the Authorized Version — adhered to this as a general rule, so anyone reading this version would understandably come to the conclusion that heathen people went to a horrible netherworld of torments when they died while righteous people like Job and David merely went to “the grave.”
Let’s observe evidence of this:
PSALM 9:17 (KJV)
The wicked shall be turned into hell (Sheol), and all the nations that forget God.
Since the passage is referring to “the wicked” the King James translators chose to translate Sheol as “hell;” yet notice how they render Sheol when the scriptural passage applies to righteous King Hezekiah:
ISAIAH 38:10 (KJV)
I said in the cutting off of my days, I shall go to the gates of the grave (Sheol): I am deprived of the residue of my years.
Hezekiah, a godly king of Judah, is speaking in this passage; he has a fatal illness and clearly doesn’t want to die. Unfortunately, the King James rendering isn’t very clear to modern readers so let’s read the same passage from the New International Version:
I said, “In the prime of my life must I go through the gates of death (Sheol) and be robbed of the rest of my years?”
It’s obvious here that Hezekiah expected to go to Sheol when he died. Since this passage is plainly referring to a righteous man of God, the King James translators decided not to translate Sheol as “hell” as that would give the impression to any English reader that godly King Hezekiah would go to a place of conscious torment when he died. This contradicted their theology so they simply rendered Sheol as “the grave.”
The Hebrew word Sheol appears 66 times in the Old Testament and is translated in the King James Version 32 times as “hell,” 31 times as “the grave” and 3 times as “the Pit.” How the King James translators translated Sheol was determined purely by whether the passage referred to the wicked or the righteous. We see evidence of this above and we’ll see much more evidence as our study progresses. Scholars agree that there is simply no justification for this lack of uniformity in translating Sheol.
Before I say anything more, I’d like to stress that I’m not a hater of the King James bible; I have at least three editions of this fine version in my household and enjoy them greatly. Overall, it’s been a great blessing to English speaking people for many centuries now (although to most modern readers the language is decidedly archaic and hard-to-understand and understandably so). However, its translation error on this specific issue cannot be condoned.
Needless to say, due to the King James Version’s extreme popularity in the English world in the centuries following its publication in 1611, it’s lack of uniformity in translating Sheol has not helped the cause of truth regarding the nature of the intermediate state.
Today, the King James is no longer the most popular English version of the Bible and more recent translations have, thankfully, corrected this translation error. For instance, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) and The New American Standard Bible (NASB) adhere to the policy of not translating either Sheol or Hades. It is for this reason that we shall regularly use these translations in our study on Sheol.
As for the popular New International Version, Sheol and Hades are rendered variously as “grave,” “death,” “depths,” and once as “hell.” Yet, regardless of how this version translates Sheol and Hades, it very conveniently reveals the original Hebrew or Greek term in the footnotes, which is a commendable.
Understanding the Two Views of Sheol
Before we begin our thorough scriptural study on the nature of Sheol, let’s look at the two possible views. Although there are variations, they all fall within the parameters of the following two definitions:
1. Sheol is a place where unrighteous souls go to immediately after death where they suffer constant flaming torment hoping for less than a drop of water for relief until their resurrection on Judgment Day. Sheol also contains (or contained) a separate compartment for righteous souls from periods preceding the ascension of Christ where they are (or were) comforted and enjoy father Abraham’s company. According to this view, the disembodied souls of pagans who died hundreds or thousands of years ago have been in a constant state of fiery torture ever since even though they haven’t even been judged yet. The only legitimate proof text for this position is Jesus’ story about the rich man and Lazarus from Luke 16:19-31. This tale is about a wealthy man and poor beggar who die and go to Sheol (Hades) where they experience highly contrasting conscious states—the rich man suffers constant torment while Lazarus enjoys comfort in “Abraham’s bosom.” Adherents of this position insist that the story should be taken literally and, in some cases, that the rich man and beggar are actual historical figures. In short, they believe it’s a literal accounting of what souls experience in Sheol. They further insist that the numerous other references to Sheol in the Bible must be interpreted or ignored in light of this literal interpretation of Jesus’ story.
Initially I adhered to the first view above solely due to Jesus’ story of The Rich Man and Lazarus, which was the only passage I ever seriously considered on the topic. This is the case with the majority of believers as well. I have since come to accept the second position after much thorough and honest biblical research — prayerfully analyzing literally hundreds of passages on the subject.
The scriptural evidence for the second position, believe it or not, is overwhelming. Jesus is the living Word of God, so it’s hardly likely that he would disagree with the written Word of God; hence his story of the rich man and Lazarus is likely a parable, a symbolic story intended to convey important truths, not a literal account. This is supported by three facts: 1. The Bible teaches that Jesus “did not say anything to them without using a parable” (Matthew 13:34), 2. Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus is contained within a string of parables (beginning with the exact same words as the previous parable), and 3. Jesus clearly implemented fantastical elements in the story, such as the roasting rich man crying out for Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and touch his tongue, like that’s going to offer any significant amount of relief! And then there’s the reference to Lazarus going to “Abraham’s bosom,” literally his chest cavity, which obviously turned to dust centuries earlier, not to mention there would hardly be enough room in his chest cavity to contain Lazarus. Such fantastical and symbolic imagery points to a fantastical, symbolic story, not a literal accounting of life after death during the Old Testament period.
The fact that the first position remains in the doctrinal books despite the incredible scriptural support for the latter is potent testimony to the formidable force of religious tradition and sectarian bias.
If you find my words hard to believe and doubt the colossal evidence for the second position, judge for yourself as we now journey through the God-breathed Scriptures to discover the truth about the nature of Sheol. God’s Word speaks for itself.
NOTE: You can purchase a low-priced book version of Sheol Know, which is freshly edited and contains additional material (14 chapters, 339 pages), here.