Sheol, the place of the dead

The question of what sort of place “Sheol” is and who goes there often gets brought up when hell is being discussed. Alex Jordan, for example, made this comment a few days back:

I believe there are warnings about hell in the Old Testament. Sheol is not a neutral place, but the place where the wicked are sent. The warnings about Sheol would not be warnings if Sheol was simply a neutral place where all dead souls go.

I’ve probably argued before that Sheol is merely the place of the dead, but having looked through the Old Testament texts again, I think that Alex may have half a point. Here I have roughly sorted much of the Old Testament data under what seem to me to be the most useful headings and then added a summary definition. My suggestion, briefly, is that while Sheol is in principle the place of the dead, the imagery of going down to Sheol carries the particular connotation of an unfortunate, wretched or god-forsaken death.

Sheol is the place of the dead

Korah and his family do not suffer the fate of all humanity; they are swallowed up by the earth on account of their rebellion and “go down into Sheol” (Num. 16:29-30). But the novelty is not that they go to Sheol; it is that they go down to Sheol alive. This passage effectively excludes the possibility that Sheol is reserved for the wicked. ;Ecclesiastes assumes that all people go to Sheol and argues only that they should make the most of life while they can (Eccl. 9:10).

The identification of Sheol with death and the grave is often reinforced by synonymous parallelism. For example, David says:

The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of destruction assailed me; the cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me. (Ps. 18:4–5; 2 Sam. 22:5-6; cf. Ps. 116:3)

Not to be abandoned to Sheol is not to see corruption (Ps. 16:10). Those who have “foolish confidence” in wealth are like sheep “appointed for Sheol”; “death shall be their shepherd”, and their “form shall be consumed in Sheol” (Ps. 49:13-14). For Job to descend into Sheol is to descend into the dust (Job 17:16). The person who enters the house of the “woman Folly” does not “know that the dead are there, that her guests are in the depths of Sheol” (Prov. 9:18). Isaiah accuses the leadership in Jerusalem of having made a “covenant with death”, an “agreement with Sheol” (Is. 28:15, 18). Hosea has God ask:

Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol? Shall I redeem them from Death? O Death, where are your plagues? O Sheol, where is your sting? (Hos. 13:14)

Sheol is equivalent to death and physical decay in these statements; it is never more than death.

The opposite of Sheol is life

Sheol is never contrasted with an alternative blessed home for the righteous dead. The antithesis to Sheol is life. Hannah proclaims, “The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up” (1 Sam. 2:6). David celebrates the fact that he has been saved from his enemies and from death and has been restored to life (Ps. 30:3). The soteriology is straightforward: he might have died but instead he is alive. Jonah calls for help “out of the belly of Sheol” (Jon. 2:2): his desire is not to escape hell but to escape death and live. The feet of the “forbidden woman” or adulteress “go down to death; her steps follow the path to Sheol; she does not  ponder the path of life; her ways wander, and she does not know it” (Prov. 5:5-6). Sexual immorality leads to death rather than to life.

Going down to Sheol as a wretched death

Jacob fears that he will go down to Sheol mourning the death of his son (Gen. 37:35; 42:38; 44:29, 31). He clearly does not expect to go to hell to suffer eternal conscious torment, but he views such a death as unfortunate, perhaps even as a sign of divine judgment: a righteous man should be gathered to his fathers (Gen. 47:30; 49:29, 33), or gathered to his grave in peace (cf. 2 Kgs. 22:20). David tells Solomon that Joab should not be allowed to go down to Sheol in peace—that is, he should suffer the death of the wicked, not the righteous (1 Kgs. 2:6, 9). Job, however, regrets the fact that the wicked “spend their days in prosperity, and in peace they go down to Sheol” (Job 21:13). When the righteous pray that God will keep them from Sheol, it is typically when their lives are threatened by an enemy or illness.

There is no relationship with God in Sheol

David prays to be kept alive because “in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?” (Ps. 6:5; cf. 88:10). Hezekiah believed that he was about to leave the land of the living and was “consigned to the gates of Sheol” (Is. 38:10). Death is to be avoided because there is no praise of God in Sheol, and those who go down to the pit do not hope for God’s faithfulness; but the two options open to Hezekiah are simply life and death, not heaven and hell. “The living, the living, he thanks you, as I do this day; the father makes known to the children your faithfulness” (Is. 38:18-19).

The wicked go down to Sheol

The hope of the righteous is that the wicked will go down to Sheol: “Let death steal over them; let them go down to Sheol alive” (Ps. 55:15; cf. 31:17). When Judah is invaded, Sheol will enlarge its appetite and the greedy, unjust “nobility of Jerusalem and her multitude will go down” (Is. 5:14). The king of Babylon will be greeted by the “shades” of dead kings when he is brought down to Sheol (Is, 14:9, 11, 15). Whole nations will be defeated by God and brought down to Sheol because of their antipathy towards Israel (Ps. 9:17; Ezek. 31:15-17; 32:21). The basic argument is not that the wicked will suffer a punishment beyond death but that their wealth and political strength in this life will ultimately be of no avail. No mention is made of eternal conscious torment.

In sum…

Sheol is the underworld, the place where all the dead go. But the language of “going down to Sheol” in the Old Testament appears to carry the specific negative connotation of suffering an unfortunate, wretched or god-forsaken death. So on the one hand, the righteous hope to avoid the sort of death that might be described in these terms, not least because there is no further relationship with God in Sheol; and on the other, the hope is frequently expressed that the wicked will go down to Sheol as a matter of moral justice. The existence of the dead in Sheol, however, is shadowy and largely poetic, and there is no suggestion that the “shades” of the dead are being actively punished there.

Alex argues that “there is continuity between Old and New Testament doctrine”. He is right. But it seems to me an unavoidable conclusion exegetically that both the Jewish scriptures and Jesus teach that the final end of sinful humanity is death. 

Doug in CO | Tue, 08/21/2012 - 00:57 | Permalink

If the end of sinful humanity is simply death then what is the point of Paul warning the Roman governor about a judgment that is about to come (presumably he would simply die just like everyone else always has), and why would that shake the hearers?

As a partial answer to my own question I think you should consider that the teaching of Jesus and Paul on the matter was meant to correct the pollution of the term Hades in the few hundred years running up to the NT period.  When the Septuagint was begun Hades was much closer to the Hebrew understanding of Sheol, but by that point Hades had become somewhat similar to our concept of hell.  There was no real escape and no final judgment.  The NT seems to declare both in Rev. 20 (assuming you differentiate between sheol/hades/gehenna and the Lake of Fire).

@Doug in CO:

It’s possible that Paul was speaking about a final judgment and that Felix took it that way. But according to Revelation 20 the final judgment comes after a resurrection of the all the dead. So it doesn’t alter the fact that Felix will go to the grave or to Hades—not being a Jew he will not suffer the judgment of Gehenna.

But it’s more likely, in my view, that Paul is speaking of a “coming judgment” (tou krimatos tou mellontos) either on Israel or on Rome. Felix would then have been “alarmed” by the political implications of Paul’s words.

@Andrew Perriman:

The following two passages are from Acts 24 and represent the material on Felix:

14 However, I admit that I worship the God of our ancestors as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets, 15 and I have the same hope in God as these men themselves have, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. 16 So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.

24 Several days later Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish. He sent for Paul and listened to him as he spoke about faith in Christ Jesus. 25 As Paul talked about righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and said, “That’s enough for now! You may leave. When I find it convenient, I will send for you.”

I don’t see any implication of a national judgment or any material other than that there is about to be a resurrection and judgment of individuals according to their works.  This was personally biting to Felix because of his relationship with Drusilla. 

It seems to me that your eschatological paradigm needs there to be more to the story but I don’t see it in this text.  Keep in mind that Wright in RSG and RFE stipulates that there is no precident for two resurrections in Jewish or Christian writings at the time of the writing of Acts.  All writings up to that time propose a single resurrection.  The only Biblical text that proposes two resurrections is Rev. 20:5a, in which the two resurrection phrase is part of a textual variant.  I contend that it was probably a scribal note of interpretation and that there was only one resurrection proposed throughout Jewish literature and the scripture.


@Doug in CO:

The way I see it, there is indeed only one resurrection proposed in Jewish literature, but I would say:

1. that this is not a final resurrection of all the dead but a resurrection in conjunction with the judgment and restoration of Israel—notice that he speaks to Agrippa of his “hope in the promise made by God to our fathers, to which our twelve tribes hope to attain” (Acts 26:6-7), which sounds distinctly political;

2. that both the resurrection of Jesus in anticipation of this eschatological resurrection and the final resurrection of all the dead are novel developments.

@Andrew Perriman:

On point 1, I think we disagree with the point Paul’s trying to make.  It seems to me that he is talking about the resurrection of the just and unjust to be judged according to their works.

On point 2, I would really appreciate it if you would expand what you mean by this.  It sounds to me like you’re saying that there is no Biblical precident (or at least it would be very helpful to know what predicent) for either Christ’s resurrection or the final judgment of the just and the unjust.  Most theologians I’m aware of will stipulate that other than Daniel 12:2 there is no mention of this final resurrection and judgment of works in the OT.  So, are you limiting your comments to the OT or do you include NT scripture in your comment on the novelty?

@Doug in CO:

I think that Daniel 12:2 has in view not a final resurrection of all the dead but a resurrection of righteous and unrighteous Jews following the crisis depicted in chapters 7-11. This seems to me some sort of development of the metaphorical resurection of Israel that we find in Ezekiel 37 and Hosea 6:1-2. Jesus’ resurrection “on third day” is an unexpected anticipation of the “resurrection” of the people of God following the judgment of AD 70. It seems to me more likely that Paul is drawing on this specific Jewish tradition in the Acts speeches than proclaiming a general resurrection of Jews and Gentiles, which is not found in the scriptures.

don sands | Tue, 08/21/2012 - 01:13 | Permalink

 “And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’”-Dr. Luke 16:24

Paul D. | Tue, 08/21/2012 - 02:03 | Permalink

Though the concept is foreign to us, it seems clear that what the Jews and other Mesopotamian peoples really dreaded was the lack of a proper burial, which would make them suffer ignominy upon their arrival in Sheol (assuming some kind of conscious existence, which is definitely not the case in all biblical passages about death and Sheol).

Perhaps nowhere is this clearer than in Isaiah’s oracle against the king of Babylon. What is the terrible doom Isaiah predicts? Dying without a proper burial.

All the kings of the nations lie down honored,

all of them, each in his own tomb.

19 But you are cast away from your own grave

like a rejected branch,

covered by the dead

and those pierced by the sword—

who go down to the stony pit—

like a trampled corpse.

20 You won’t join them in burial,

for you destroyed your own land;

you killed your own people.

I believe that might have been the primary threat of Gehenna as well — to die the shameful death of a common criminal whose body is thrown into the valley of Hinnom for worms and vultures to eat, instead of receiving a proper and respectful burial. It had nothing to do with Heaven or Hell as modern folk Christianity imagines it.

@Paul D.:

Paul, that’s likely to be part of it, indeed. Isaiah’s description of the corpses of those who rebelled against YHWH lying unburied outside Jerusalem, perhaps in the valleys, also belongs here (Is. 66:24).


“If Hebraic thought forms were the “be all and end all” that some folks are claiming, then why did God switch to Greek for the New Testament?”


As I’ve challenged before, what if the NT wasn’t written originally in Greek (we know at least that very little of the conversation and probably none of Jesus’ teaching was)?  In addition, I wish Wilson had actively engaged the connection between Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Jesus’ use of the term Gehenna in the NT.

Given that you have rightly described Sheol as the place, according to the Old Testament, to which all the dead (that is, good and bad) go, does anyone in evangelical Christianity have an explanation as to when and how that changed?

I have heard the traditional heaven-or-hell scenario (i.e., with hell being the place of eternal conscious torment) expounded many times, but never with an explanation of when and how the OT-defined arrangement was re-arranged.

@Mike Gantt:

It seems to me that it was a gradual change starting in the intertestamental period.  When the Septuagint was begun the Greek term Hades meant essentially what the Hebrew term Sheol meant per Andrew’s description.  By the time of Christ Greek religious lore had pushed Hades towards a multilevel place of torment.  As state/churches became powerful after the early church they tended to heavily emphasize the idea of eternal conscious torment in order to extend the reach of the state’s power into the afterlife.  In the west you eventually have works such as Dante’s Inferno which picked up on the newer Greek Hades definition.  When the English term “hell” was adopted six hundred years ago it meant a dark and secluded placed (like a foot locker).  It has come to mean something totally different today, not to mention that it has been used to translate two totally different concepts (Sheol/Hades as death generically and Gehenna as the place of unmarked graves and humiliation after military judgment by God).  As Fudge pointed out in his book the doctrine of final judgment is one of the few areas that the Reformers never to

@Doug in CO:

Hey Doug,

Do you know if anyone’s ever done a study to check whether state churches historically emphasived hell more than churches that are not state churches?

It’s an interesting claim, and it’s got a certain plausibility to it (people do tend to adopt the belief structure they find most convenient), but then again, I don’t want to accept the claim just because I would find it convenient.

Steven Opp | Tue, 08/28/2012 - 22:48 | Permalink

Hi Andrew,

I would really be interested in hearing your response to Doug Wilson’s post, cited by Daniel above. Any chance you could make that your next post?


@Andrew Perriman:

Thanks Andrew. Wilson is one of my teachers here in Moscow, I’ll send this his way and see what he thinks.

YOU: There is no relationship with God in Sheol

ME: Not correct, Sir. Note the following Scriptures:

THE LORD IS EVERYWHERE, INCLUDING THE SHEOL: Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there. If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there. (Psalm 139:7-8)

THE LORD SEES AND OBSERVES THE SOULS OF THE DEAD IN THE SHEOL: The departed spirits tremble under the waters and their inhabitants. Naked is Sheol before Him, and Abaddon has no covering. (Job 26:5-6)

THE HAND OF THE LORD CAN AND WILL REACH DOWN INTO THE SHEOL: Though they dig into Sheol, From there will My hand take them; And though they ascend to heaven, From there will I bring them down. (Amos 9:2)

THE LORD EASILY RULES OVER THE SHEOL FROM HEAVEN: Sheol and Abaddon lie open before the LORD, How much more the hearts of men! (Proverbs 15:11)

THE LORD PUNISHES SOME AND COMFORTS OTHERS THAT HE HAS SENT DOWN INTO THE SHEOL: I made the nations quake at the sound of its fall when I made it go down to Sheol with those who go down to the pit; and all the well-watered trees of Eden, the choicest and best of Lebanon, were comforted in the earth beneath. (Ezekiel 31:15-16)

THE LORD WILL LISTEN TO THOSE WHO CRY OUT FOR HIM FROM THE SHEOL: 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. (Jonah 2:2)

THE LORD CAN REDEEM THE DEAD FROM THE SHEOL AND MAKE THEM ALIVE AGAIN IN HEAVEN: Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol? Shall I redeem them from death? O Death, where are your thorns? O Sheol, where is your sting? Compassion will be hidden from My sight. (Hosea 13:14)

THE LORD EVENTUALLY REDEEMS THE RIGHTEOUS FROM THE SHEOL: O Lord my God, I cried to You for help, and You healed me. O Lord, You have brought up my soul from Sheol. (Psalm 30:2-3)

AVOIDING SIN IN LIFE LEADS TO FASTER REDEMPTION FROM THE SHEOL AFTER DEATH: You shall strike him with the rod and rescue his soul from Sheol. (Proverbs 23:14)

@Judas Maccabaeus:

Thanks of your comments, but I really don’t agree.

Some of these passages are poetic. Sheol is a metaphor for the extremes that people will go to to escape God: Ps. 139:7-8; Amos 9:2. Ezekiel 31:16-17 speaks of the “comfort” experienced by defeated nations when Assyria was destroyed. This is figurative; it provides no basis for the belief that the souls of the righteous are in relationship with God. Jonah is not in Sheol; he is in the belly of fish (as I pointed out to Douglas Wilson), which he poetically compares to Sheol.

David is not saying in Psalm 30:2-3 that he had literally died and been brought back to life. He means that he was saved from death. He goes on to say:

What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness? (Ps. 30:9)

He makes exactly my point: the dead are as dust, there is no praise of God in Sheol.

The fact that God “sees” into Sheol does not mean that the righteous have a continuing relationship with God in Sheol (Job 26:5-6; Prov. 15:11). The meaning of Job 25:5 is unclear, in any case: “The Rephaim (?) tremble under the waters and they dwell.”

Hosea 13:14 suggests no hope at all for the dead. The answer to the questions “Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol?” and “Shall I redeem them from Death? is “No”. Compassion is hidden from God’s eyes. The passage speaks of relentless judgment against Ephraim.

Proverbs 23:14 says no more that parental discipline will help keep a child alive. Long life is a reward for the righteous.

This was excellent! Thank you! I’m going to save this for my notes. So good.

Read time: 6 minutes