Old Testament writers use the Hebrew word Sheol 65 times to describe the abode of the dead. It communicates the reality of human mortality and the impact of people’s lives on their destinies.
Ancient Israelites believed in life beyond the grave, borne out in such passages as Isa. 14:9-12, where Sheol contains “the spirits of the departed;” and 1 Sam. 28:13, where the deceased prophet Samuel temporarily appears as “a spirit form coming up out of the earth.”
While the Old Testament consistently refers to the body as going to the grave, it always refers to the soul or spirit of people as going to Sheol, according to Robert A. Morey in Death and the Afterlife.
One source of confusion is the variety of ways the King James Version translates Sheol, according to Morey: “The KJV translates Sheol as ‘hell’ 31 times, ‘grave’ 31 times, and ‘pit’ three times. Because of this inconsistency of translation, such groups as the Adventists … and Jehovah’s Witnesses have taught that Sheol means the grave.”
Fortunately, he adds, lexicons and rabbinic literature consistently understand Sheol as the place where the souls of persons go at death.
Down to Sheol
In fact, the first occurrence of Sheol in the Old Testament (Gen. 37:35) cannot possibly mean “grave.” As Jacob holds the bloodied remnants of Joseph’s coat, he laments about his deceased boy, “I will go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.”
Whatever else Sheol may mean, in this passage it cannot mean Joseph’s grave, for Jacob believes his son has been devoured by wild animals and thus has no grave. Jacob could not be buried in a common grave with Joseph.
According to the context, Jacob anticipates being reunited with Joseph in the underworld. He speaks of going “down” because it is assumed that Sheol is the place of departed spirits, likely a hollow place in the center of the earth.
There are other factors about Sheol to consider, among them:
(1) When Old Testament writers want to identify the grave, they use the Hebrew word kever, which is contrasted with Sheol. Kever is the fate of the body, while Sheol is the fate of the soul.
(2) In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, Sheol is never translated as mneema, the Greek word for grave.
(3) Sheol is “under the earth” or “the underworld,” while graves were built as sepulchers above the earth, in caves, or holes in the earth.
(4) While bodies are unconscious in the grave, those in Sheol are viewed as conscious.
Because God’s revelation in Scripture is progressive, we see the concept of Sheol develop throughout the Old Testament. While it is described as dark (Lam. 3:6), and a place of helplessness (Ps. 88:4), trouble and sorrow (Ps. 116:3), God is both present in Sheol (Ps. 139:8) and able to deliver from it (Ps. 16:10; 49:15).
This leads some commentators to conclude that there are two compartments in Sheol, one for the wicked and another for the righteous. Later Jewish literature, such as the Book of Enoch, describes these divisions, in which people experience a foretaste of their final destiny.
Jesus’ story of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31) seems to expand on this depiction, applying the Greek word Hades to the realm of the dead.
Other scholars contend, however, that Sheol is only for the wicked, while God rescues the righteous from Sheol and takes them to a place of blessedness. The ascensions of Enoch and Elijah to heaven, for example, are cited to support the belief that the righteous under the old covenant could be taken directly into God’s presence at the end of their earthly lives.
Today, we know that the souls/spirits of Christians enter heaven immediately upon death (2 Cor. 5:6-8). Evidently, the souls of unbelievers remain in Sheol where they await resurrection and final judgment.
Rev. 20:13 – Then the sea gave up its dead, and Death and Hades gave up their dead; all were judged according to their works. (HCSB)
Death and Hades gave up their dead
We should recall that the resurrected Jesus declares in Rev. 1:18, “I was dead, but look – I am alive forever and ever, and I hold the keys of death and Hades.” Even before the cross, Jesus tells Peter that the forces of Hades will not overpower His Church” (Matt. 16:18).
Death is a reality that all people experience as a consequence of sin (Gen. 2:17). Hades is the abode of the dead. Therefore, Death and Hades are tied inextricably to sin. But Jesus, who added to His deity sinless humanity (John 1:14), tasted death for everyone (Heb. 2:9). Through His finished work on the cross, He paid our sin debt and conquered the grave so that Death and Hades have no lasting grip on those who place their faith in Him.
The bottom line of John’s vision of Death and Hades giving up their dead is that ultimately every person will be physically resurrected and spend eternity either in the new heavens and earth or in the lake of fire. A time is coming when there is no longer physical death or an intermediate existence where people wait to put on resurrected bodies and stand in final judgment. Just as Jesus is Judge of all (John 5:22), He is Lord over sin, death, and the realm of the dead.
This is the third in a series of articles on biblical terms that describe the afterlife and the unseen world.
Hades is a Greek god whose name means “The Unseen.” He is depicted as lord of the underworld, the abode of the dead. So it should come as no surprise that Jesus and the New Testament writers borrow from this familiar term to describe the realm of departed spirits.
What’s more, they cut through the mythology to present an accurate picture of the afterlife.
The word Hades appears 10 times in the New Testament, forming a linguistic bridge that takes us from the Old Testament view of life beyond the grave (in Sheol) to the New Testament position.
In coming to a biblically faithful understanding of Hades, it’s important to state what the word does not mean.
This is the second in a series of articles about the afterlife and the unseen realm.
Is there conscious existence beyond the grave? Where did Old Testament saints go when they died? Do the wicked really suffer forever in hell? Should you believe in ghosts?
These are important questions about the afterlife and the unseen world. Most religions deal in some way with these questions and appeal to a variety of authorities to provide answers.
This series explores the manner in which God’s Word describes life beyond the grave and the unseen world. In this column we examine the Hebrew term Sheol. In future columns we address Hades, Gehenna, Tartarus, and other terms.
Rev. 9:1 – The fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star that had fallen from heaven to earth. The key to the shaft of the abyss was given to him. 2He opened the shaft of the abyss, and smoke came up out of the shaft like smoke from a great furnace so that the sun and the air were darkened by the smoke from the shaft. 3Then out of the smoke locusts came to the earth, and power was given to them like the power that scorpions have on the earth. 4They were told not to harm the grass of the earth, or any green plant, or any tree, but only people who do not have God’s seal on their foreheads. 5They were not permitted to kill them, but were to torment [them] for five months; their torment is like the torment caused by a scorpion when it strikes a man. 6In those days people will seek death and will not find it; they will long to die, but death will flee from them.
7The appearance of the locusts was like horses equipped for battle. On their heads were something like gold crowns; their faces were like men’s faces; 8they had hair like women’s hair; their teeth were like lions’ teeth; 9they had chests like iron breastplates; the sound of their wings was like the sound of chariots with many horses rushing into battle; 10and they had tails with stingers, like scorpions, so that with their tails they had the power to harm people for five months. 11They had as their king the angel of the abyss; his name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek he has the name Apollyon. 12The first woe has passed. There are still two more woes to come after this. (HCSB)
Smoke came up out of the shaft
When Abaddon opens the shaft of the abyss, John records that “smoke came up out of the shaft like smoke from a great furnace so that the sun and the air were darkened by the smoke from the shaft” (v. 2). Some commentators, like Matthew Henry, see the smoke symbolically: “The devils are the powers of darkness; hell is the place of darkness. The devil carries on his designs by blinding the eyes of men, by extinguishing light and knowledge, and promoting ignorance and error. He first deceives men, and then destroys them; wretched souls follow him in the dark, or they durst not follow him” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, Rev. Rev. 9:1–12).
Others who take this passage figuratively describe the smoke as heresy, or the obscuring of human civility and common decency. While Satan and his demons are behind these dark deeds, they do their work through human agents, who disguise themselves as ministers of righteousness (see 2 Cor. 11:13-15). Satan works tirelessly to blind the minds of unbelievers so they cannot see the light of the gospel (2 Cor. 4:3-4). His kingdom is darkness and his citizens follow him blindly. Like the smoke that ascends from the shaft of the abyss, false teachings obscure the light that reveals our sin and leads us to the truth of God’s Word. There is no doubt that the thick smoke rising up from the pit may accurately depict spiritual darkness.
There are some interpreters, however, who see the smoke as a literal judgment, rising up from the earth due to a volcano or an earthquake. Just as the plagues of Egypt impacted earthly elements – water, earth, vegetation and sky – the judgments of Revelation are God’s ways of using His fallen creation to illustrate the depths of human depravity, the heights of His holiness, and the severity of His wrath.
Warren Wiersbe comments: “Jesus compared hell to a furnace of fire (Matt. 13:42, 50), an image that ought to make people stop and think before they jest about it. The smoke polluted the air and darkened the sun, which had already been darkened when the fourth trumpet sounded” (The Bible Exposition Commentary, Rev. 9:1).
One final thought: The imagery of thick, dark smoke is used in several ways in the Old Testament to illustrate God’s dealings with sinful people. Smoke accompanies the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:28). It attends God’s judgment of the nations (Isa. 34:10). And it envelopes the Lord on Mt. Sinai (Ex. 19:18). In each case, smoke is a visible manifestation of God’s power and divine purpose. He destroys wicked cities with fire and sulfur so the wicked can experience it and the righteous can witness it. He judges the nations in such a way that there can be no mistaking He is angry with sinners who rebel against Him and reject His gracious offer of forgiveness. And He delivers the law to His chosen people in such a way that they respond in terror to His holiness.
To the eye of the unbeliever, there may be no distinguishable difference between the smoke of the abyss and the smoke of Mt. Sinai. Smoke is smoke. But to the one who trusts in God’s Word, there is a distinct difference between the two. Satan uses darkness to hide his evil ways. The Lord uses it to reveal His wrath and keep sinful people from seeing Him directly, which would lead to their instant death (Ex. 33:20).
Next: Locusts came to the earth — Revelation 9:1-12