Sheol: The Old Testament Consensus (Part 1)

There were 400 silent years – a gap between the closing of the Old Testament prophets and the writing of the New Testament. During this time, the doctrine of the intermediate state (that state between death and the resurrection) underwent a sort of evolution. Jews became immersed in pagan communities which held to the doctrine made popular by Greek philosophy: the immortality of the soul.

The Judaism that emerged from this period was not consistent on the issue of the intermediate state. Some Jews adapted the Greek concept almost whole cloth. They conceded that all human souls are immortal, and understood “that the souls of the righteous proceeded immediately to heaven at their deaths, there to await the resurrection of their bodies, while the souls of the wicked remained in Sheol.”[1] For them, sheol (שְׁאוֹל) became a place entirely associated with the punishment of the wicked, although their own Scriptures insist that Sheol contains the righteous as well.[2]

Other Jews were not willing to concede that Sheol was exclusively for the wicked. Instead, they imagined “that there was a spatial separation in the underworld between the godly and the ungodly.”[3] These retained the Old Testament idea that all souls go to Sheol at death, adding only the Greek concept that these souls are immortal and conscious of being in Sheol or — as the Greeks called it — Hades.

By the New Testament era, a third view (or a variation of the second) apparently became popular among the Jewish sect known as the Pharisees. Jesus must have accommodated one of their own stories when he told the Pharisees about the rich man and Lazarus.[4] In that story, the rich man dies and ends up in Hades, while Lazarus is carried bodily to a place called “Abraham’s side.” The irony was not lost on the Pharisees, who would have expected just the opposite. For them, riches were a sign of the Lord’s blessing, while poverty was viewed as a curse. Jesus used the story to warn the Pharisees that their godless greed was disobedience to the very laws they were trusting in for their salvation.

By using that story, Jesus was by no means condoning its theology. After all, he was not declaring doctrine to his disciples. He was speaking to a group who stood in opposition to his teachings. If Jesus were teaching his disciples about the intermediate state, his words would have conformed to the Old Testament consensus.

The best place to look for answers about the intermediate state is in the Old Testament. God’s people struggled with this question for millennia before Plato was born. One has every right to expect God’s Word to provide answers, and for those answers to be consistent. The vast majority of biblical references to the intermediate state are in the Old Testament.[5] By the time the Old Testament was completed, a theological consensus was clearly revealed. This Old Testament consensus shows that Sheol is a much different place from that imagined by syncretistic Second Temple Judaism.

Sheol Is Down There

When Jacob was told that his son Joseph had been killed by some wild animal, he was distraught. He imagined that Joseph was dead, down underneath the earth somewhere. Jacob was so upset that he thought he would die of grief. He tells his children who are trying to comfort him, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.”[6] This first reference to Sheol in the Bible reveals that the intermediate state is not a mystery that no one knows about. Jacob apparently knew that all people go there at death.

Jacob also knew that, in some way, Sheol is “down there.” The rest of the Old Testament has a number of references to Sheol that utilize the verb root that Jacob used: yarad (to go down or descend).[7] Other verb roots used with Sheol portray the same idea: nachat (to go down)[8] and shafel (to be or become low).[9] Both people from within the covenant community and those without went in the same direction at death.

Some have suggested that these are all references to being buried in the grave, and that sheol is merely a reference to what happens to the body. Thus, Sheol would be taken as a synonym for Qever: “the grave” or “tomb.” But Jacob could not have been referring to a literal grave, since Joseph’s body was not found to bury.

Also, Sheol is normally associated with death in poetic parallels, not the grave. Of all the references to Sheol in the Old Testament, none directly parallel with Qever. However, the term sheol is often paralleled with synonyms for the grave like bor (the pit)[10] and Abaddon (destruction).[11] This leads to the conclusion that the term sheol has something in common with the grave, but cannot be equated with the actual grave itself. Although Sheol is often described as if it were a location, its Old Testament use leads to the conclusion that it more specifically refers to the human state after death. The location for the dead (at least those who are buried) is the grave. Their condition is Sheol.

This was the conclusion of Eric Lewis, whose examination of the 65 references to Sheol in the Old Testament led him to the conclusion that the term specified “not the place of interment, nor a presumed locality of departed spirits, but the condition of death, the death-state.”[12] Lewis suggested that a synonym for Sheol emphasizing this connotation is Gravedom. But how does one reconcile the idea that Sheol is a state with all these references to a direction (i.e., down there)?

Sheol Is of Extreme Depth

Sheol is to down as heaven is to up. It is not simply six feet under. Moses spoke of the fire of God’s anger burning to the depths of Sheol.[13] Zophar said that God’s limit is higher than heaven and deeper than Sheol.[14] David described the Lord’s deliverance as being “from the depths of Sheol.”[15] When describing God’s omnipresence, he said, “If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!”[16] The Lord complained through Isaiah that Israel prostituted herself by sending envoys to all far-off lands, even sending them down to Sheol.[17]

His words through Amos describe the extent to which God was determined to go to bring punishment upon his own disobedient people:

“If they dig into Sheol, from there shall my hand take them; if they climb up to heaven, from there I will bring them down. If they hide themselves on the top of Carmel, from there I will search them out and take them; and if they hide from my sight at the bottom of the sea, there I will command the serpent, and it shall bite them. And if they go into captivity before their enemies, there I will command the sword, and it shall kill them; and I will fix my eyes upon them for evil and not for good.”[18]

Here again, Sheol is contrasted with heaven — not because it is a place of suffering and heaven a place of pleasure. Heaven is listed because it is a high place — like the top of Mt. Carmel. Sheol is mentioned because it is a low place, like the bottom of the sea.

Perhaps the ancient Hebrews imagined Sheol as an extremely deep place because of the mystery surrounding it. Perhaps it was thought so because people went there and did not come back. Perhaps it was regarded so because it was a mystery — hidden to everyone except God himself.[19] Regardless, when the Old Testament saints spoke of Sheol, it was obviously not synonymous with heaven. It was the exact opposite. Yet this is the place that all souls entered at death.

By Rev. Jefferson Vann

(Rev. Jefferson Vann is a graduate of Berkshire Christian College, Columbia International University and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He and his wife Penny have been involved in Advent Christian ministry since 1984, serving as missionaries in the Philippines and New Zealand. Jeff is the author of “An Advent Christian Systematic Theology” and “Another Bible Commentary” and is a contributing editor to “Henceforth …”)


[1] Richard N. Longenecker, “Grave, Sheol, Pit, Hades, Gehenna, Abaddon, Hell” in Donald E. Gowan, ed. The Westminster Theological Wordbook of the Bible (Louisville, Ky.: John Knox Press, 2003), 189.

[2] Hezekiah, for example, lamented that at the age of 39 he must walk through the gates of Sheol, being deprived of the rest of his years (Isa. 38:10). And David spoke of his hope that God would rescue him from death by saying confidently that God would not abandon him to Sheol (Ps. 16:10). Both of these men of God understood entering Sheol as synonymous with dying.

[3] Anthony A. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1994), 99.

[4] Luke 16:19-31.

[5] References to Sheol in the Old Testament outnumber those of Hades in the New Testament over six to one. Also, most of the New Testament references merely use the term Hades without explaining it.

[6] Genesis 37:35.

[7] Genesis 42:38; 44:29, 31; Numbers 16:30, 33; 1 Samuel 2:6; 1 Kings 2:6, 9; Job 7:9; 17:16; Psalm 55:15; Proverbs 1:12; 5:5; 7:27; Isaiah 14:11, 15; Ezekiel 31:15, 16, 17; 32:21, 27.

[8] Job 21:13.

[9] Isaiah 57:9.

[10] Psalm 30:3; Proverbs 1:12; Isaiah 14:15; 38:18; Ezekiel 31:16.

[11] Job 26:6; Proverbs 15:11; 27:20.

[12] Eric Lewis, Christ, The First Fruits (Boston: Warren Press, 1949), 48.

[13] Deuteronomy 32:22.

[14] Job 11:8.

[15] Psalm 86:13.

[16] Psalm 139:8.

[17] Isaiah 57:9.

[18] Amos 9:2-4.

[19] Job 26:6; Proverbs 15:11.

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