Sheol / Hades: The “Intermediate State” of the Unsaved Dead
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. Hades 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 period between physical death and resurrection on Judgment Day? 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? (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 of the unsaved dead. If Sheol/Hades is indeed a place and condition of conscious torment, then God’s Word will clearly support it from Genesis to Revelation. However, 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.”
Before starting our study, it needs to be established that…
Sheol and Hades are Synonymous Terms
Sheol and Hades are one-and-the-same; 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:
For Thou wilt not abandon my soul to Sheol; neither wilt Thou allow Thy Holy One to undergo decay.
Psalm 16:10 (NASB)
“Because Thou wilt not abandon my soul to Hades, nor allow Thy Holy One to undergo decay.”
Acts 2:27 (NASB)
As you can see, Sheol and Hades are synonymous terms in the Bible.
Since using both words could be overly wordy and confusing we will simply use the term Sheol throughout this article. 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.
Sheol/Hades Only Concerns the Spiritually Un-Regenerated
One other vital point needs to be established before we start our study and that is: Only unredeemed souls go to Sheol/Hades, which would include Old Testament saints because redemption and spiritual rebirth were not available until the death & resurrection of Christ.
New Covenant believers, by contrast, are reborn inwardly of the imperishable seed of Christ and thus possess immortality and eternal life (1 Peter 1:23, Titus 3:5 & 2 Timothy 1:10). Hence death & Sheol have no power over the blood-bought, spiritually regenerated believer in Christ!
For clear scriptural support of this see this article.
Jacob, Job and Solomon’s View of Sheol
We’ll begin our scriptural study by observing how Jacob, Job and Solomon viewed Sheol. All three were godly men of the Old Testament era. Jacob was the grandson of Abraham, the father of faith, and the patriarch of the twelve tribes of Israel. In fact, his name was changed to “Israel.” Job was regarded so highly by God that He boasted there was no one on earth as great as him (Job 1:8). As for Solomon, the Bible says “King Solomon was greater in riches and wisdom than all the other kings of the earth. The whole world sought audience with Solomon to hear the wisdom that God had put in his heart” (1 Kings 10:23-24).
These scriptural facts reveal that, although far from perfect, Jacob, Job and Solomon were great and mighty men of the Old Testament period. Hence, there’s no reason not to assume that their recorded statements about Sheol are sound and particularly so if they’re in harmony with what the rest of the Bible teaches.
With this understanding, let’s consider the very first passage in the Bible where the Hebrew word sheol appears…
What Jacob Said
Sheol first appears in Genesis 37:35. This was the occasion where Jacob’s sons treacherously sold their brother Joseph into slavery and then lied to their father by telling him that Joseph was slain by a wild beast. Jacob believed the lie and was understandably heartbroken:
All his sons and daughters sought to comfort him [Jacob]; but he refused to be comforted, and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son [Joseph], mourning.” Thus his father bewailed him.
Genesis 37:35 (NRSV)
Two simple facts can be derived from Jacob’s brief expression of grief in this passage: 1. Jacob very much expected to go to Sheol when he died, and 2. Jacob believed that Joseph was already in Sheol, that he would remain there, and that he would himself join him when he eventually died.
The King James Version translates sheol in this passage as “the grave.” Why? Obviously because the verse refers to Jacob and Joseph, both righteous men of God (righteous, that is, in the sense that they were in-right-standing with God via their covenant, not that they were unflawed individuals). This is in harmony with the King James translators’ policy of rendering sheol as “hell” when it applied to unrighteous people and as “the grave” when it applied to the righteous. There’s absolutely no justification for this practice; the meaning of the word sheol does not change depending on the character of the person going there.
We thus find evidence in the very first appearance of sheol in the Bible that religious people have tried to mislead the populace about its nature and who exactly went there.
As for the KJV and other translations rendering sheol as “the grave,” Sheol never denotes the physical grave or tomb where bodies are laid to rest; there’s a separate Hebrew word for this. Sheol should only be understood as “the grave” in the sense that it is the graveyard of souls in the spiritual realm, where dead souls are held and “awaiting” resurrection to be judged by God. This will become more evident as our study progresses.
Another important point concerning Jacob’s view of Sheol: Although Jacob doesn’t state anything about the nature of Sheol, it’s obvious that he didn’t regard it as some sort of nether paradise where his son was hanging out with father Abraham, which is what many ministers today advocate. If this were the case, would Jacob be “mourning” and “bewailing” Joseph so grievously? Of course not. It might be argued that Jacob was grieving over his own personal loss and not the destination of his son’s disembodied soul. If this were so, wouldn’t Jacob likely exclaim something to the effect of, “Praise you LORD that my son is now in the blissful presence of father Abraham, and I will one day go down to this same paradise rejoicing.” Yet Jacob says nothing of the kind; in fact, his reaction is completely opposite to this.
“So that We May Live and Not Die”
Further insight concerning Jacob’s view of Sheol can be derived from what he later exclaimed to his sons during a widespread famine:
“I have heard that there is grain in Egypt. Go down there and buy some for us, so that we may live and not die.”
Jacob’s son, Judah, made a similar statement in the following chapter of Genesis:
Then Judah said to Israel his father, “Send the boy along with me and we will go [to Egypt] at once, so that we and you and our children may live and not die.
Both quotes are in reference to Jacob’s sons traveling to Egypt to apprehend food so that their clan “may live and not die.” Obviously Jacob and his family were in no hurry to go to Sheol to commune with father Abraham in some nether-paradise. Please notice that there’s mysteriously no accompanying statement like, “…but—thankfully—if we die we’ll be in bliss with our forefathers in Sheol.” Why? Because this is an unbiblical doctrine.
This same point can be made from similar passages all over the Bible. Notice what the Israelites say to Moses when the army of Pharaoh was threatening them:
They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? 12 Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!”
Just as with Jacob and Judah in the two verses above, the Israelites were obviously in no hurry to die and go to a paradise in the heart of the earth to party with their forefathers. That’s because this supposed paradise in Sheol never existed. It’s a false doctrine and I find it puzzling that ministers have gotten away with peddling such blatant error for so long, not that they talk about it much, of course.
In all three of these passages the Hebrew word for “die” is muwth (mooth), which simply means “to die” and is used in reference to the death of animals as well as humans (Exodus 7:18). It does not mean “to separate” or, more specifically, “to separate and go to either bliss or torment in Sheol.” The Hebrew for ‘separate’ is badal (baw-DAL), which is used in Genesis 1:4: “God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness.”
Needless to say, statements like “so we may live and not die” and “It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert” only make sense if Sheol is the graveyard of dead souls in the underworld where souls ‘rest’ in death until their resurrection.
Job’s View of Sheol
Let us now consider Job’s view of the intermediate state. Job was the greatest man of his time and God bragged of his integrity, godliness and hatred of evil (Job 1:1,3,8). Furthermore, in the book of Ezekiel God spoke of Job in the same breath as Noah and Daniel, two other great men of God (Ezekiel 14:14-20). The LORD obviously has a very high opinion of Job. We can therefore regard Job’s views on Sheol as very reliable. *
* Some may understandably argue that, since the LORD later accused Job of speaking “words without knowledge” (Job 38:2), his statements concerning the nature of Sheol are unreliable. But which of Job’s words did God mean were “without knowledge”? Obviously his erroneous belief that it was God Himself who was afflicting him, not the devil; which naturally provoked Job to rail against the LORD throughout the book, e.g. Job 10:1-3. This is what God understandably took issue with, not his theological insights concerning the intermediate state.
As we shall see, Job goes into quite a bit of detail on the nature of Sheol. Did he just dream up all this information or did he have divine revelation on the subject? No doubt God revealed these truths to him. We can confidently draw this conclusion because what Job says about Sheol is in complete agreement with what the rest of the Bible teaches on the subject; only if Job’s position contradicted the rest of Scripture should we question its validity.
For those unfamiliar with the book of Job, let me briefly explain its contents: Satan argues to God that Job is devoted to Him merely because the LORD blessed him so greatly and contends that Job will curse Him to His face if his blessings were removed. God therefore permits Satan to attack Job to find out. As a result of Satan’s attacks, Job loses his ten children, hundreds of his employees (with only four survivors), all his great wealth and even his health as he is afflicted with painful sores from head to toe.
After many months of suffering, three of Job’s friends go to “comfort” him, but end up judging & accusing him of some great hidden sin, which they presume brought about all his horrible suffering. Most of the book consists of Job, in great anguish, profoundly debating with these “friends.” It should be noted, however, that much of what Job says is directed at God Himself. Such is the case with this passage:
“But mortals die, and are laid low;
humans expire and where are they?
11 As waters fail from a lake,
and a river wastes away and dries up,
12 so mortals lie down and do not rise again;
until the heavens are no more, they will not
or be aroused out of their sleep.
13 Oh that you [God] would hide me in Sheol,
that you would conceal me until your wrath is
that you would appoint me a set time,
and remember me!
14 If mortals die, will they live again?
All of the days of my service
I would wait until my release should come.
15 You would call, and I would answer you;
you would long for the works of your hands.”
Job 14:10-15 (NRSV)
Much is said in this passage so let’s take it point by point.
Firstly, in verse 10 Job declares that “mortals die” and then asks “where are they?” He partially answers his own question in verse 12 by likening death to “sleep” which humans will not “awake” from until “the heavens are no more,” or, we could say, a very long time. What needs to be emphasized from these words is that Job describes the condition of death as “sleep” from which all human beings will one day “awake” or be resurrected.
Yet he still hasn’t really answered the question of where people go after they die. The very next verse answers this (verse 13): In his great anguish he cries out to God to hide him in Sheol. Why does Job pray this? Because his suffering was so great he wanted to escape it through death; and obviously when a person died—Job believed—his or her soul would go to Sheol.
One may argue that, in verse 12, Job is perhaps referring to the body “sleeping” in the grave, but the obvious focus of his words is the death condition of the soul in Sheol because in the very same breath he prays to God to go specifically there: “Oh that you would hide me in Sheol, that you would conceal me until your wrath is past, that you would appoint a set time and remember me!” (Verse 13).
Job erroneously believed that God Himself was causing his great afflictions because he was unaware of the devil’s hand in the situation. In truth, God only permitted Job’s afflictions by allowing Satan to attack him. Nevertheless, the fact is that Job believed that by dying and going to Sheol he would escape his intense suffering.
Yes, as amazing as it may seem, Job was actually hoping and praying to die and go to Sheol, a place traditionally considered “hell” and viewed as a horrible, devil-ruled torture chamber! Obviously Job’s view of Sheol was quite different from what religious tradition has taught us. He prayed to go to Sheol because, being one of God’s inspired servants, he knew that Sheol was a condition of unconsciousness, which he described as sleep. Job was understandably weary of his intense suffering and wanted it to end. He knew that in death, in Sheol, he would find relief from his misery, not an increase of it.
A vital fact that needs to be stressed from the above passage is that, regardless of the nature of Sheol, Job definitely believed that everyone would ultimately be resurrected from there. In verse 12 he makes it clear that all mortals who lie down in the sleep of death will one day awaken, that is, be resurrected when “the heavens are no more.” And, while Job prayed to go to Sheol in verse 13, it was not with the expectation that he would remain there forever. Job obviously believed that if God “hid” him in Sheol He would “appoint a set time and remember” him, which is when his “release” would come (verse 14). Release from what? Obviously his release from captivity to Sheol, “the world of the dead” as scholar James Strong defined it. So God “remembering” him and “releasing” him are references to a future resurrection from Sheol, which is in harmony with what the rest of the Bible teaches.
“There the Wicked Cease from Turmoil, and the Weary are at Rest”
Job elaborates greatly on the nature of Sheol in an earlier chapter. In Job 3 he curses the day of his birth because his suffering was so great. In essence, Job was wishing that he were never born because then he would never have had to experience such incredible agony. He then details what it would’ve been like for him if this were so:
“Why did I not perish at birth
and die as I came from the womb?
12 Why were there knees to receive me
and breasts that I might be nursed?
13 For now I would be lying down in peace;
I would be asleep and at rest
14 with kings and counselors of the earth
who built for themselves places now lying in
15 with rulers who had gold,
who filled their houses with silver.
16 Or why was I not hidden in the ground like a
like an infant who never saw the light of day?
17 There the wicked cease from turmoil,
and there the weary are at rest.
18 Captives also enjoy their ease;
they no longer hear the slave driver’s shout.
19 The small and great are there,
and the slave is freed from his master.”
Job starts off this passage by asking why he didn’t die as an infant. He says that, in that event, he would not be enduring all the great suffering that he was experiencing. He explains in verse 13 that, had he died in infancy he would be peacefully “lying down… asleep and at rest.”
Job then further explains that he would have shared this condition of sleep and rest with kings and counselors of the earth, with the small and the great, with rulers and slaves, with captives and weary people and, yes, even with the wicked! In this state of death, Job declares in verse 17 that “there the wicked cease from turmoil, and there the weary are at rest,” and in verse 18 he makes it plain that there’s no “slave driver’s shout” as well.
This coincides with what Job later says concerning the wicked:
“They [the wicked] spend their days in prosperity
and in peace they go down to Sheol.”
Job 21:13 (NRSV)
Notice that Job doesn’t say the wicked go down to Sheol in torment; no, they go down to Sheol in peace. This completely contradicts the religious traditional belief that the unredeemed go to some horrible devil-ruled nether realm immediately after physical death to suffer torments as they are goaded on by slave-driving demons in fiery pits with not a single drop of water for relief. Instead Job makes it clear that there is no turmoil or torment for the wicked in Sheol.
If Job’s view of Sheol is divinely inspired and therefore coincides with the rest of the God-breathed Scriptures, these are potent facts indeed! They reveal that at death kings, counselors, rulers, infants, the wicked, the weary, captives, the small, the great and slaves all share the same condition, a condition of peaceful “sleep” and “rest,” which are obvious references to unconsciousness. No wonder Job, stripped of all his possessions, forsaken by his wife and friends, tortured by painful sores from head to toe, mocked and made a byword by everyone and mourning for his ten children & hundreds of servants, prayed to go to such a place. Needless to say, Job’s understanding of Sheol was quite different from that held by so many misguided religious people today.
Some may wonder if perhaps Job was referring to the literal grave or tomb where the body is laid to rest since there is no specific mention of Sheol in chapter 3. This idea is ruled out because Job makes it clear in verses 13-15 that, if he died, he’d be lying down asleep with kings, counselors and rulers. So Job is plainly referring to a common place or condition that all people shared together. Biblically speaking, this would be Sheol, the realm of dead souls, as verified in Ecclesiastes 9:10, a passage we will examine momentarily. In addition, Job would not be referring to the literal grave or tomb for the body because it is not acceptable or usual practice to bury people together in mass graves or tombs, then or now.
Before we continue let’s remember that this was well before the death and resurrection of Christ, hence spiritual rebirth and the consequent attainment of eternal life were yet to be manifested. For this reason, the souls of Old Testament saints could not be ushered into God’s presence when they physically died; the souls of both the righteous and unrighteous went to Sheol at this time because redemption was not yet available.
Amazingly, some righteous captives to Sheol—death—were set free when Jesus was resurrected:
And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.
51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split 52 and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. 53 They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
Notice how verse 52 says that these “holy people who had died were raised to life” and not these “holy people who had died physically, but were still very much alive in the paradise section of Sheol fellowshipping with father Abraham, were raised to life physically.” With passages like this it’s important to note what the Bible actually says and also what it doesn’t say. Interestingly, there’s no account of these resurrected people lamenting that they had to leave paradise with Abraham to come back to this lost world. Why not? Because it’s a false doctrine.
What about the rest of the Old Testament saints? They were possibly released from Sheol when Jesus ascended (Ephesians 4:7-10); if not, we can be sure that they’ll be resurrected at the time of their bodily resurrection when Jesus Christ returns to the earth, which takes place at the end of the Tribulation period and before Jesus’ millennial reign (Daniel 12:1-2 & Matthew 19:28-30). This is addressed here.
Solomon’s View of Sheol
Solomon was the wisest man on earth in his time (1 Kings 4:29-34) and this explains why God utilized his great knowledge and wisdom in three books of the God-breathed Scriptures. Notice what it says about Solomon when the Queen of Sheba came to visit him:
Now when the queen of Sheba heard about the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the LORD, she came to test him with difficult questions… 3 Solomon answered all her questions; nothing was hidden from the king which he did not explain to her.
1 Kings 10:1,3
The king’s wisdom was renowned and so the Queen came to test him with hard questions and verse 3 shows that “nothing was hidden from the king which he did not explain to her.” Do you think that one of the questions she asked was what happens to people when the die? That is, where they go and what will it be like? Of course she did; after all, it’s one of the most common “difficult questions” people ask in life. With this in mind, it says that “Solomon answered all her questions” and that there was literally “nothing” he did not explain to her.
Furthermore, we know that Solomon had divine revelation on Sheol, the realm of the dead, because he commented on it quite a bit in the book of Proverbs, as we’ll see later. He also elaborates on it in Ecclesiastes, witness:
Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.
Ecclesiastes 9:10 (NRSV)
The language in this passage describes beyond any question of doubt that Sheol is a condition of unconsciousness. Notice that, in Sheol, there’s neither good work nor bad work; there’s neither positive, hopeful thoughts nor anguished, hopeless thoughts; there’s neither knowledge of what’s good and holy nor knowledge of what’s evil and impure.
This is further verified in verse 5:
The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing.
Ecclesiastes 9:5 (NRSV)
The obvious reason the dead “know nothing” is because they’re no longer alive and conscious—they’re dead. This coincides with this passage from the Psalms:
His breath goeth forth, he [his body] returneth to his
in that very day his thoughts perish.
Psalm 146:4 (KJV)
The Psalmist makes it clear that when a person physically dies his or her thoughts perish. Note that there is no mention whatsoever of a person’s thoughts continuing to live on in some devil-ruled chamber of horrors. This is obviously because a dead person is no longer conscious of anything.
Take another look at Ecclesiastes 9:10 above and notice that Solomon doesn’t make a distinction between righteous or unrighteous people. Like Job, he plainly says that everyone would go to Sheol during this period of time, whether righteous or wicked, rich or poor, small or great. In fact, Solomon’s major point in Ecclesiastes 9 is that death or Sheol is the common destiny of all people before redemption was made available through Christ’s death and resurrection. He plainly states in verse 3 that “the same destiny overtakes all.” What destiny? The destiny of Sheol, the state of death, where—he goes on to say—there is neither work nor thought nor knowledge nor wisdom.
Jacob, Job and Solomon’s views of Sheol can be summarized as follows:
- Sheol is a condition that every spiritually un-regenerated person will experience immediately following physical decease, which includes godly men and women in Old Testament periods preceding the ascension of Christ. It includes the rich and the poor, the small and the great, the pure and the profane. In other words, Sheol is the common destiny of anyone who is spiritually dead to God and therefore unredeemed.
- Sheol is a condition of unconsciousness, likened unto sleep, where there is no work, thought or knowledge of any kind. It is not a place or state of conscious suffering and misery.
Sheol is a temporary condition and all consigned to Sheol will ultimately be resurrected.
SHEOL IN THE PSALMS
The book of Psalms consists of 150 songs called psalms. Half of the psalms were written by Solomon’s father, King David, and some anonymous ones were likely written by him as well. Other psalmists include Moses, Solomon, Asaph, Ethan and Heman. Regardless of who wrote each psalm, one fact is certain: All the psalms are “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16) since all the psalmists “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). For more proof of this, notice what Jesus said about David in a discussion with the Pharisees:
[Jesus] said to them, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says,
44 “ ‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand
until I put your enemies under your feet.” ’
Verse 44 is a quote of Psalm 110:1, written by David. Notice how Jesus emphasizes that David was “speaking by the Spirit” when he wrote this verse, which implies all the psalms he wrote. In other words, David’s statements in the Psalms were given by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit is God. As such, David’s exposition on the nature of Sheol contained in the Psalms, as well as commentary by other psalmists, shouldn’t be considered just “their view” of Sheol. No, it’s God’s view too because they were “speaking by the Spirit,” as Jesus put it.
The book of Psalms contains a wealth of information on the nature of Sheol. Despite the fact that there were several authors, the psalmists are in complete agreement. This is unsurprising since they all “spoke from God… by the Holy Spirit.” Their many revealing statements about Sheol are also in harmony with the views of Jacob, Job and Solomon, covered above.
Sheol: Where You Cannot Remember or Praise God
Let’s examine the very first text in the Psalms where the Hebrew word sheol appears:
For in death there is no remembrance of you [God];
in Sheol who can give you praise?
Psalm 6:5 (NRSV)
In this verse David is praying for God to save his life because his enemies were trying to kill him (as indicated in verse 10). Despite his anguish David didn’t want to die; he was “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14 & Acts 13:22) and thus wanted to live, serve God and worship Him. He knew that if he died and went to Sheol he wouldn’t be able to do this.
This simple passage completely contradicts the prominent religious position on Sheol, which suggests that when Old Testament saints died their souls would go to a supposed “paradise” section of Sheol. They would be conscious there and supremely comforted as they fellowshipped with father Abraham. If this were so, wouldn’t they be able to remember God? Would they not be praising Him and thanking Him as the righteous are always ever ready to do, that is, as long as it were possible?
However, David makes it clear in this passage that souls in Sheol do not and cannot remember God and consequently cannot praise Him either. This suggests that those in Sheol are unconscious—“asleep” in death until their resurrection.
The notion that Sheol is a condition where a person cannot remember or praise God is corroborated by other biblical texts. For instance:
The dead do not praise the LORD,
nor do any that go down into silence,
but we [the living] will bless the LORD
Psalm 115:17-18 (NRSV)
This passage shows that those who die “go down into silence.” Sheol is a place of silence because those who go there are unconscious, that is, dead. There’s no praising and worshipping of God there nor are there horrible screams of torment. It is a condition of silence. It is the living who bless the Lord, the psalmist plainly states, not the dead.
Righteous King Hezekiah’s prayer from the book of Isaiah also coincides:
“For Sheol cannot thank you,
death cannot praise you;
those who go down to the Pit
cannot hope for your faithfulness.
19 The living, the living, they thank you
as I do this day.”
Isaiah 38:18-19 (NRSV)
First, notice in this passage, as well as Psalm 6:5 above, that Sheol and death are spoken of synonymously (we’ll look at this in more detail shortly). Secondly, witness how Hezekiah makes it clear that those in Sheol are unable to thank or praise God, just as David and the other psalmist did.
The obvious conclusion we must draw is that, if the righteous are unable to remember God and cannot praise or thank Him, then they must be unable to do so; that is, they must be either unconscious or dead—no longer alive. This is supported by Hezekiah’s statement in verse 19 where he stresses that only “the living, the living” can thank and praise God, not those who go to Sheol, the world of the dead.
Let’s examine one other passage that corresponds to the three just looked at:
3 For my soul is full of trouble
and my life draws near the grave (sheol)…
10 Do you show your wonders to the dead?
Do those who are dead rise up and praise you?
11 Is your love declared in the grave (qeber),
your faithfulness in destruction.
12 Are your wonders known in the place of darkness,
or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?
Here is further proof that those in Sheol are dead and therefore unable to rise up and praise God. Moreover, Sheol is likened to the literal grave (qeber) and destruction, and is also spoken of as “the place of darkness” and “land of oblivion.” The psalmist makes it clear that God does not show His wonders to the dead in Sheol; that the dead cannot praise Him there and that God’s love, faithfulness and righteous deeds are all unknown there. What unmistakable proof that souls in Sheol are dead and conscious of nothing!
This Psalm, written by Heman the Ezrahite when his life was in mortal danger, is a prayer to God for deliverance from death. Note in verse 3 that Heman clearly expected to go to Sheol when he died just as Jacob, Job, Solomon, David and Hezekiah did. In the King James Version this is kept from the general reader by the use of the word “grave” as a translation of sheol, which is likewise the case with the NIV rendering, as shown above, although there’s a footnote indicating that the verse is referring to Sheol. Because of this mistranslation the average reader is misled into believing that the psalmist is talking about the condition of the literal grave where the body is buried and not to Sheol where the soul goes. The problem with this is that it obscures the truth about the nature of Sheol to the common person and consequently perpetuates false religious ideas.
Let’s recap: The writers of the four passages examined in this section—David, Hezekiah, Heman and the anonymous psalmist—are in perfect agreement that Sheol is not a place of consciousness. According to these inspired biblical writers, Sheol is synonymous with death and is thus a condition of silence where it is impossible to even remember God, let alone praise and thank Him.
Sheol: “The Land of Silence”
Let’s examine another enlightening Psalm text by David from both the New International Version and the King James:
…let the wicked be put to shame
and lie silent in the grave (sheol).
18 Let their lying lips be silenced,
…let the wicked be ashamed,
and let them be silent in the grave (sheol).
18 Let their lying lips be put to silence;
Psalm 31:17-18 (KJV)
Notice that this passage is solely referring to “the wicked”—people who are in outright rebellion against God, living after the desires of the sin nature. These are David’s enemies; they have rejected his God-appointed kingship and are trying to kill him. David is actually praying for their death for that is the only way their lying lips will be silenced.
With this understanding, observe how David describes the condition these wicked souls will experience if they die: He plainly says that they will lie silent in Sheol.
According to David—the godly king, biblical writer and “man after God’s own heart”—the wicked do not constantly scream in torment in Sheol, but rather lie silent! This description is in perfect harmony with the view that Sheol is a condition of unconsciousness where souls lie “asleep” in death “awaiting” their resurrection.
This is not the only biblical text that shows that souls lie silent in Sheol. This same thought is expressed in Psalm 115:17, as seen in the previous section. Here’s another coinciding verse from the Psalms:
If the LORD had not been my help,
my soul would soon have lived in the land of silence.
Psalm 94:17 (NRSV)
The psalmist is simply testifying that, if the Lord had not delivered him from his wicked enemies (referred to in verse 16), they would have killed him and his soul would have gone to “the land of silence.” What is “the land of silence”? Since he’s addressing the place his soul would go to after death we know he’s referring to Sheol.
With this in mind, notice that the psalmist does not describe Sheol as “the land of shrieking in torment” or as “the land of comforts with father Abraham” (religionists would have us believe Sheol is one or the other, depending on whether the soul is wicked or righteous respectively). That’s because neither of these descriptions is true; Sheol is, in reality, the land of dead souls where there’s no consciousness of anything and thus only silence.
Take another look at the King James rendition of Psalm 31:17-18 above and notice that the passage deviates from the King James standard practice of rendering sheol as “hell” whenever the text referred to the wicked (and as “the grave” when it referred to righteous people). Why did the translators fail to render sheol as “hell” in this particular case since it clearly refers to “the wicked”? Obviously because the passage portrays the wicked in Sheol as lying in silence and this contradicted their belief that wicked souls in Sheol suffer a constant state of screeching torment. What hypocrisy!
This reveals the dishonest extents religious people will go to cover up the scriptural truth and perpetuate their false religious beliefs.
Sheol: “The Pit” or “Well of Souls”
The fact that Sheol is a condition of silence is also pointed out in Psalm 30. This psalm shows David expressing thanks because God delivered him from death. He knew that, if he died, his soul would go to Sheol, as indicated in verse 3:
O LORD, you brought up my soul from Sheol,
restored me to life from among those gone down to
Psalm 30:3 (NRSV)
The text showcases a form of Hebrew poetry called synonymous parallelism where the second part of the verse simply repeats and reinforces the thought of the first, but in
different words. We’ve already seen examples of this type of poetry (Psalm 6:5 & Isaiah 38:18) and will continue.
With this understanding, notice that Sheol is spoken of as synonymous with “the Pit.” Since Sheol is described as “the Pit” we will gain better insight into Sheol by deciphering what “the Pit” means.
The Hebrew word for “the Pit” is bowr (borr) which literally refers to a hole or pit in the ground and is used 71 times in the Bible. The setting in which bowr is used determines what specific type of hole or pit and, consequently, which English word is used to translate it. For instance, bowr is used 26 times in reference to a ‘cistern’ (e.g. Genesis 37:22,24,28,29), nine times in reference to a ‘well’ (e.g. 1 Chronicles 11:17-18), five times in reference to a ‘dungeon’ (e.g. Genesis 40:15; 41:14), once to a ‘quarry’ (Isaiah 51:1) and once it’s even translated as ‘death’ (Proverbs 28:17). *
* These figures are from the New International Version.
Why “death”? No doubt because bowr, a hole in the ground, is what a grave actually is; and grave, of course, signifies death—the utter absence of life.
What is God trying to tell us in His Word by likening Sheol to bowr, a pit? Obviously that Sheol is like a vast common pit or grave where unregenerated souls are held after physical death and before resurrection.
Interestingly, since one of the definitions of bowr is ‘well,’ Sheol could be described as “the well of souls.”
Most of us have probably heard this phrase. “The Well of Souls” is an actual subterranean chamber beneath the Dome of the Rock in the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Jews believe it is where Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac. The popular 1981 film Raiders of the Lost Ark depicts the Well of Souls as the hiding spot of the Ark of the Covenant, but placed it in a lost chamber in Tanis, Egypt, rather than in a cave in the Temple Mount.
From a purely biblical standpoint, however, the Well of Souls is Sheol, the pit where unregenerated souls are held between physical death and resurrection. Like the subterranean chamber beneath the Dome of the Rock, Sheol is a dungeon—a dungeon where souls are held captive to death after physical decease. This explains why bowr is translated as “dungeon” in reference to Sheol in this passage from Isaiah:
21 So it will happen in that day, that the LORD will
the host of heaven, on high,
and the kings of the earth, on earth.
22 And they will be gathered together
like prisoners in the dungeon (bowr),
and will be confined in prison;
and after many days they will be punished.
Isaiah 24:21-22 (NASB)
The passage is referring to the day when God’s cataclysmic wrath will be poured out upon the whole earth; this occurs right before the establishment of the millennial reign of Christ. Because of God’s judgments billions of people will die and every unsaved soul will be confined to Sheol “like prisoners in the dungeon.” Only “after many days,” that is, after the thousand-year reign of Christ, will these souls be resurrected to face judgment and suffer the eternal punishment of the second death (see Revelation 20:5,13-15).
Incidentally, observe how verse 22 makes it clear that these unsaved souls will not be punished until after they are resurrected from Sheol and judged; this is further evidence disproving the view that unsaved souls are punished with conscious torment while captive in Sheol. The only punishment experienced in Sheol is death itself, the utter absence of life or being. This stands to reason since it is in harmony with the biblical axiom that death is the wages of sin.
The point I want to stress from this passage is that verse 22 likens Sheol to a gloomy dungeon or prison where souls are confined. No wonder David praised and thanked God for delivering him from this death condition. Obviously David didn’t share the view of some people today that righteous souls in Sheol are (or were) in some type of “paradise” chummin’ around with father Abraham. No, this is a religious myth! Sheol is a dungeon, a prison, a common pit of death where unregenerated souls are confined until their appointed resurrection.
The only soul who can escape this dungeon-like pit of death is the soul that is born-again and thus possesses eternal life (John 3:36, 5:24 & 1 John 3:14). This is only possible because “Christ Jesus… has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10). The gospel or “good news” refers to all the benefits available to humankind as a result of Jesus’ sacrificial death, burial and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-4). Aside from reconciliation with God, the main benefit of this gospel is, of course, eternal life. Until Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection, eternal life or immortality was not available and that’s why in Old Testament times, before the ascension of Christ, both righteous and unrighteous souls had to go to Sheol after physical decease.
It was necessary to go into detail here about bowr—“the Pit”—so now whenever it pops up in our study we’ll understand what it means.
Incidentally, I find it interesting that the original definition of the English word ‘hell’—“to conceal or cover”—is in harmony with the biblical description of Sheol as “the Pit.” This is evidence that the Old English ‘hell’ was originally used as a translation of Sheol because it properly gave the image of souls consigned and concealed in a pit in the netherworld until their resurrection on judgment day. Unfortunately, the definition of ‘hell’ has taken on a completely different meaning since that time, i.e. perpetually writhing in roasting torment in some devil-ruled torture chamber.
Let’s now return our attention to Psalm 30: At the end of this psalm David plainly reveals the state that his soul would have been in if God had not delivered him from death:
11 You have turned my mourning into dancing;
you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me
12 so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.
Psalm 30:11-12 (NRSV)
David is just praising God here because he knew that, had he died, his soul would have been silent in Sheol. He well knew that a person cannot praise God or tell of His faithfulness in Sheol, as indicated in verse 9, because Sheol is a “land of silence.”
Sheol: A Condition of the Soul (Mind)
Let’s return to Psalm 30:3 to observe another important fact about Sheol:
O LORD, you brought up my soul from Sheol,
restored me to life from among those gone down to
Psalm 30:3 (NRSV)
David was so close to death that God figuratively “restored” him to life by saving him from Sheol, which is where his soul would have gone had he physically died.
“Soul” in this context refers to his very being or mind, the actual essence or qualities that mark him as an individual human creation of God. This is supported by the second part of the verse, which speaks of “those” who actually died and consequently went to Sheol, the Pit. Notice that he doesn’t say “those whose bodies have gone down to the Pit” or “those whose breath of life has gone down to the Pit.” That’s because a person’s body does not go to Sheol when s/he dies; a lifeless body is placed in a grave or tomb. Neither does the breath of life, the spirit, go to Sheol when a person dies; this animating life-force simply returns to God from whence it came, as detailed in this article. No, Sheol is the holding place of a person’s very life essence or being, the part of human nature that possesses volition, emotion and intellect. In other words, Sheol is the condition to which the human soul or mind (not brain) enters after physical death.
This is supported by a verse examined earlier:
Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge in Sheol, to which you are going.
Ecclesiastes 9:10 (NRSV)
Notice how the text plainly states that “you” are going to Sheol; that is, anyone who has not been spiritually regenerated through Christ, which included everyone in Old Testament times when Ecclesiastes was written. Sheol is the housing place of people’s very being after physical death, the part that marks them as an individual creation of God, the part of them that thinks, reasons, chooses and feels. Hence, Sheol is the condition that the mind enters when the body dies. As shown in the Appendix, “mind” is the Greek word nous (noos) and refers to that central part of human nature that decides, thinks and feels. We could put it this way: Your mind is you and you are your mind.
The human body separate from mind and spirit is just a slab of flesh that goes to the grave at death. The human spirit separate from mind and body is simply a breath of life, an animating life-force, not a personality. This breath of life comes from the Creator and gives life to our very being, our soul, our mind—our personhood. When a person dies this breath of life, or spirit, merely returns to God who gave it. (I’m not talking about believers who have spiritual regeneration through Christ here, but rather un-regenerated people, which includes Old Testament saints). The unredeemed soul separate from body and spirit goes to Sheol.
Simply put, Sheol is a condition of the unregenerate human soul, the disembodied mind.
If any of this is difficult to understand, please see the aforementioned article, which addresses the subject in detail
Sheol: A Place Where Sheep Go?
Let’s now turn to another very enlightening passage from the Psalms written by the sons of Korah:
13 Such is the fate of the foolhardy,
the end of those who are pleased with their lot.
14 Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol;
death shall be their shepherd;
straight to the grave they descend,
and their form shall waste away;
Sheol shall be their home.
15 But God will ransom my soul from the power of
for he will receive me.
Psalm 49:13-15 (NRSV)
The text refers to those who trust in themselves rather than God; verse 13 describes them as the “foolhardy.” A ‘fool’ in the Bible is synonymous with a wicked person since “fool” denotes someone who is morally deficient; that is, someone who rejects God’s existence, authority, wisdom & discipline and embraces evil desires (see Proverbs 1:7, 5:22-23 and Psalm 14:1).
Since this passage is definitely referring to ungodly people you would think that the King James translators would have translated sheol as “hell,” which would be in line with their policy of translating the word as “hell” when the passage referred to wicked people, and as “grave” when it referred to righteous people. Yet, notice how the King James Bible renders verse 14:
Like sheep they are laid in the grave (sheol);
death shall feed on them;
and the upright shall have dominion over them in the
and their beauty shall consume in the grave
from their dwelling.
Psalm 49:14 (KJV)
The passage is contextually referring to ungodly people yet the King James translators mysteriously chose not to render sheol as “hell,” which was their usual practice. Why? Obviously because the verse plainly says that wicked people are appointed for Sheol LIKE SHEEP! And everyone knows that sheep don’t go to a place of conscious torture when they die; the very idea is absurd. You don’t have to be a scholar to realize this. Hence, despite their desire to render sheol as “hell” in line with their standard practice they had no choice but to translate it as “the grave” in this case.
This passage coincides with Jeremiah 12:3, which also likens ungodly people to sheep that are to be slaughtered: “Drag them off like sheep to be butchered! Set them apart for the day of slaughter.” Note clearly that it says they are to be butchered and slaughtered (which is in harmony with the biblical axiom that “the wages of sin is death”), not tortured in some fiery nether realm until their resurrection thousands of years hence, as some ludicrously teach.
At this point, two questions crop up: Do sheep really go to Sheol as Psalm 49:14 implies? And, if so, does this mean they have souls since, biblically speaking, Sheol is the “world of the dead” where dead souls are specifically laid to rest after physical death?
“God Will Ransom My Soul from the Power of Sheol”
Let’s look again at a verse from Psalm 49:
But God will ransom my soul from the power of
for he will receive me.”
Psalm 49:15 (NRSV)
Firstly, notice that Sheol is spoken of as a condition of the soul, which was emphasized earlier. A person’s body doesn’t go to Sheol when s/he dies, nor does the breath of life (spirit), which simply returns to God who gave it; no, Sheol refers exclusively to the condition of unregenerated souls after physical death.
Secondly, like Job, the psalmist believed that his non-physical essence would go to Sheol when he died, but, also like Job, he believed God would ultimately ransom his soul from there. ‘Ransom’ literally means “the redeeming of a captive.” When did God eventually redeem the souls of righteous Old Testament saints, including the writer of this psalm, from captivity to Sheol? And with what did He redeem them? The answer to the second question is obvious: God redeemed them by the blood of Jesus Christ when he was crucified for the sins of humanity. The answer to the first question is: Old Testament saints will be resurrected at the time of Jesus’ second advent, as shown in Matthew 19:28-30 (although, again, some maintain that captive righteous souls were resurrected when Jesus ascended to heaven, citing Ephesians 4:8). This is when they will be “received” by the Father, as Psalm 49:15 puts it. See this article for details.
Did David Pray for His Ex-Friend to Go to a Hellish Torture Chamber?
Notice David’s statement in this passage:
Let death seize upon them,
and let them go down quick into hell (sheol):
for wickedness is in their dwellings, and among
Psalm 55:15 (KJV)
David is obviously referring to his enemies in this verse, yet one of these enemies was once a close friend. This is revealed in the preceding lines, verses 12-14 (as well as verses 20-21). At one time David shared “sweet fellowship” with this person, but by the time of this writing his friend had turned against him.
As you can see, sheol is translated as “hell” in the King James Version and most English readers automatically picture “hell” as a devil-ruled torture chamber for wicked human beings. This presents a problem for these readers: How could David, “a man after God’s own heart,” pray for his enemies—including a former close friend—to go to such a place? The problem is resolved when we realize that Sheol refers to the graveyard of dead souls and, hence, the state of death itself. As such, David’s prayer is in harmony with the law of God, which plainly states that the “wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).
As a godly king of Judah, David knew that God’s Word promised his enemies would be defeated and destroyed (Leviticus 26:8 & Deuteronomy 28:7) and he was merely praying in accordance with these promises. True, he was obviously torn-up inside because one of these enemies was once a dear friend, but this ex-friend and his colleagues were trying to assassinate him, the righteous king of Judah. David felt he had no other recourse.
This verse illustrates that a proper, biblical understanding of Sheol clears up passages that present serious problems for those who view Sheol as a nether torture chamber.
“My Life Draws Near to Sheol”
Heman the Ezrahite was facing a grave situation with the possibility of death in this psalm:
3 For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
4 I am counted among those who go down to the Pit;
I am like those who have no help,
Psalm 88:3-4 (NRSV)
While this passage isn’t that notable it conveys several things detailed in other areas of this article: 1. Heman links the destiny of his soul to Sheol, which verifies that (1.) Sheol is a condition of the soul and (2.) that the righteous as well as the unrighteous went there during Old Testament times (because Jesus hadn’t yet paid for human redemption and therefore spiritual regeneration wasn’t available). 2. Sheol and “the Pit” are synonymous. 3. Heman describes the location of Sheol in terms of “going down to the pit,” which coincides with other passages that show that Sheol is located in the “heart of the earth,” not in the physical realm, but in the spiritual realm. We’ll address this later. 4. Heman says that his life was drawing near to Sheol, the Pit; and since Sheol is essentially synonymous with death (as shown in the next section) his life was drawing near to death.
“Who Can Live and Never See Death? Who Can Escape the Power of Sheol?”
Let’s observe what Ethan the Ezrahite had to say about Sheol:
Who can live and never see death?
Who can escape the power of Sheol?
Psalm 89:48 (NRSV)
Here it is as plain as language can convey that death and Sheol are essentially synonymous terms; in other words, the only thing souls going to Sheol will experience is death itself, the utter absence of conscious existence. The obvious implication of both rhetorical questions is that, apart from Christ’s redemption, everyone who lives will ultimately die and go to Sheol, the death state of the soul. Solomon also declared this:
…for death is the destiny of everyman;
the living should take this to heart.
Both of these verses were written during the Old Testament era before Jesus’ sacrifice for humanity was made; hence, no one living at this time had redemption from sin, regardless of whether or not they had a covenant with God, like the Israelites. Before Christ’s death and resurrection no one could escape the power of Sheol, whether moral, immoral or anywhere in between.
The good news is that this is no longer the case ever since Christ died for our sins and was raised to life for our justification (Romans 4:25). Jesus “poured out his soul unto death” (Isaiah 53:12 KJV) so that we don’t have to. As it is written: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16 NRSV). You see, in order for the world—that is, all humankind—to be set free from death, someone innocent of sin and thus not worthy of death had to die in our place. This is exactly what Jesus Christ did. So now when a born-again believer in Christ physically dies, his or her soul does not die, that is, go to Sheol, but rather goes straight to heaven. As it is written: “…to be absent from the body [is] to be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8 KJV). Of course, this is only the intermediate state of the Christian soul; ultimately, the believer will receive a new glorified, spiritual, imperishable body at the bodily resurrection of the saints, called the first resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:42-43 & Revelation 20:4-6).
We’ve already gone over much of this information so why am I re-emphasizing it here? Simply to answer Ethan’s question: “Who can live and not see death? Who can escape the power of Sheol?” The answer is the believer who has accepted God’s sacrifice for humanity’s sins, Jesus Christ. Genuine Christians literally possess eternal life in their spirits through spiritual rebirth (John 3:3,6,36), so even when they physically die Sheol has no power over them—Hallelujah!
“If I Make My Bed in Sheol, You Are There”
Let’s examine another Psalm passage by David that comments on Sheol:
7 Where can I go from your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
Psalm 139:7-8 (NRSV)
To properly understand what David is saying here we must consider the gist of the entire psalm (remember, “context is king”). In Psalm 139 David is completely awestruck as he contemplates God’s omnipresence and omniscience; that is, God being everywhere at the same time and knowing everything. David humbly realizes that he himself is finite while God, the Almighty Creator, is infinite. This awareness overwhelms him so much that he states, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain” (verse 6).
With this understanding, David’s words in verses 7-8 above are simply a poetic way of describing God’s omnipresence. Where can David go that God isn’t? The obvious answer is nowhere. Note how the New International Version renders this passage:
7 Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths (sheol), you are
The NIV is a thought-for-thought translation and, as you can see, Sheol is rendered as “depths.” According to the NIV translators the thought of the passage is that, whether David goes far out into the universe or to the lowest depths of the earth, God is there. The translators evidently didn’t believe David was being very literal about the usage of sheol here; he was just making a point about God’s omnipresence in a poetic manner.
However, I don’t believe there’s any reason we shouldn’t take Sheol literally in this passage. God is everywhere. If David goes to heaven or to “the heavens”—the furthest reaches of the universe—God is there. If he makes his bed in Sheol, the LORD is there as well. God’s central presence isn’t in Sheol, of course (He’s on his throne in heaven), but He is completely aware at all times of Sheol and of every dead soul housed there. If you think that might be too difficult for the Almighty, consider that Psalm 147:4 says God “determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name,” which is mind blowing when you consider there are roughly 70 billion trillion stars according to current estimates!
David’s wording—“make my bed in Sheol”—is important to understanding the nature of the intermediate state for the unredeemed soul. David obviously believed that if he were to go to Sheol he’d essentially be in bed there or, we could say, asleep. This is in harmony with the repeated descriptions of souls in Sheol as “sleeping;” for example, Job’s exposition covered earlier.
Of course, souls in Sheol are not literally slumbering there, they’re dead. The only “sleep” they experience is the sleep of death.
This explains why David said in Psalm 6:5 that souls in Sheol cannot remember or praise the LORD even though God is present there (due to His omnipresent nature):
For in death there is no remembrance of you;
In Sheol who can give you praise?
Psalm 6:5 (NRSV)
This is a rhetorical question, meaning the answer is obvious within the question itself. If God is present is Sheol, why are souls held there unable to either remember or praise Him? Obviously because they are unable to do so because they’re dead and lack conscious existence. In short, they’re “asleep” in death. This is in complete harmony with the idea that Sheol is “the world of the dead.” It’s not the world of the living, it’s the world of the dead.
“Sleeping” in Sheol
As seen earlier, Job described the intermediate state in terms of sleep:
“Why did I not perish at birth
and die as I came from the womb?
12 Why were there knees to receive me
and breasts that I might be nursed?
13 For now I would be lying down in peace;
I would be asleep and at rest
14 with kings and counselors of the earth
who built for themselves places now lying in
Let’s keep in mind that this passage pertains to the time before redemption was provided for humanity through Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection; hence, everyone shared the same fate when they physically died. No one could escape the power of Sheol back then. With this in mind, note how Job describes the condition he would experience if he had died at birth: He says he would be “lying down in peace… asleep and at rest” with other people that died long before him.
Those who advocate that Sheol is a place of conscious existence would argue that Job is referring to his body sleeping in the literal grave and not to the soul sleeping in Sheol. Yet, notice that Job does not say his body would be asleep; he plainly states “I would be lying down in peace; I would be asleep and at rest.” Let’s remember that, from a purely biblical standpoint, the Judeo-Christian perspective is focused on the inner man, not the body. The apostle Paul even stated that an improper focus on outward appearance rather than the heart is “worldly” (2 Corinthians 5:12-17); in other words, doing such is the carnal perspective or “human point of view” (NRSV), not the godly or divine point of view. Also, consider Jesus’ statement that we are not to fear people who can only kill the body, but not the soul; rather, we are to fear God Himself who is able to utterly destroy both body and soul in the lake of fire (Matthew 10:28). You see, a true man or woman of God’s outlook is geared toward the inward person, not the body; and, remember, Job was the most righteous man of God on the face of the earth at his time (Job 1: 1,3,8).
But, for the sake of argument, let’s consider the possibility that Job was, in fact, referring to his body when he stated that he’d be asleep if he died at birth; and, by contrast, his soul would be fully conscious in Sheol. Let’s read the passage as if this were so:
“Why did I not perish at birth and die as I came from the womb? Why were there knees to receive me and breasts that I might be nursed? For now I would be lying down in peace; I would be asleep and at rest with kings and counselors of the earth who built for themselves places now lying in ruins. [I’m, of course, referring to my body here. My soul—my real self—would be fully conscious in Sheol joyously hanging out with father Abraham].”
Is this what Job really meant to say? Of course not. As you can see, altering the passage to fit the beliefs of those who insist that Sheol is a place of conscious existence renders it absurd.
Let’s observe a Psalm passage that describes the intermediate state of unredeemed souls in terms of sleeping:
Consider and answer me, O LORD, my God!
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of
Psalm 13:3 (NRSV)
David’s life was in mortal danger here; if God didn’t save him he was going to die. Notice plainly how he describes the death condition he would experience if the LORD didn’t deliver him: “I will sleep the sleep of death.” Like Job, above, he wasn’t absurdly referring to his body here; he says “I will sleep the sleep of death” not “my body will sleep the sleep of death while I go to Sheol and enjoy fellowship with our holy patriarchs.”
Let’s observe two cases where Jesus Christ himself described the intermediate state in terms of “sleep:”
…a ruler came and knelt before him [Jesus] and said, “My daughter has just died. But come and put your hand on her, and she will live.” 19 Jesus got up and went with him, and so did his disciples…
23 When Jesus entered the ruler’s house and saw the flute players and noisy crowd, 24 he said, “Go away. The girl is not dead but asleep.” But they laughed at him. 25 After the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took the girl by the hand, and she got up. 26 News of this spread through all that region.
Matthew 9:18-19; 23-26
Why did the people laugh when Jesus said the girl was “asleep”? Obviously because she was literally dead. She was indeed dead but Christ described her condition as sleeping. Why? Because her soul was in Sheol sleeping the sleep of death and he came to “awaken” her back to life.
This next passage involves the case of Lazarus’ death and subsequent resurrection by Jesus. The Lord is speaking:
“Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”
12 His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” 13 Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.
14 So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, 15 and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. Let us go to him.”
As you can see, Jesus says that Lazarus had “fallen asleep” and that he needs to go to him in order to “wake him up,” meaning resurrect him. But his disciples mistook him and thought he was talking about natural sleep. That’s when Jesus plainly tells them that Lazarus had actually died. Verse 13 reveals that the Messiah was speaking of Lazarus’ death when he said he had “fallen asleep” in verse 11.
What I want to drive home in this section is that the Bible repeatedly describes the intermediate state of the spiritually dead soul in terms of “sleeping.” Both the Old and New Testaments do this. Even Jesus Christ himself, the living Word of God, did this.
What can we deduce from this? That when an unredeemed person dies, according to the Bible, his/her soul enters into the sleep of death. Again, this is not literal sleeping; it’s “the sleep of death” as David described it above in Psalm 13:3.
Most of us have heard the evangelistic declaration: “If you die today you will wake up in either heaven or hell!” Yet, if unredeemed souls are asleep in death in Sheol until their resurrection to face God’s judgment (Revelation 20:11-15), this slogan is only right on the first count. After all, souls can’t very well “wake up” in hell (i.e. Sheol) if they’re sleeping the ‘sleep’ of death. Jesus and the apostles never used inaccurate pronouncements like this in their evangelistic efforts, why should we? If you’re a Christian, let’s strive to be faithful to biblical truth!
Why are Souls in Sheol Referred to as “Sleeping”?
If souls in Sheol are dead, why are they repeatedly described as “sleeping” in the Bible? All who go to Sheol are, in fact, dead and have ceased to exist in the sense of conscious existence, but the Bible refers to them as “sleeping” because they will all be awakened or resurrected from death one day. As briefly noted earlier, this is what differentiates Sheol, the first death, from the lake of fire (Gehenna), which is the second death (Revelation 20:6,14, 21:8 & 2:11). Everyone will be resurrected from the first death, but no one will be resurrected from the second death. This is why the second death is described as an “eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46) or “everlasting destruction” (2 Thessalonians 1:9) because there is no hope of recovery or resurrection from it—it’s a fatal destruction of such complete and final magnitude that it lasts forever.
Many of you have no doubt heard of “soul sleep” and may be wondering if that’s what I’m talking about here. Yes and no. ‘Yes’ because advocates of soul sleep believe, as noted above, that the soul is simply “sleeping” the sleep of death during the intermediate state between death and resurrection; they don’t believe the soul is literally slumbering while awaiting resurrection. ‘No’ because most adherents of soul sleep believe that the souls of spiritually regenerated people will also experience this condition of soul sleep during the intermediate state. As pointed out repeatedly in our study, this is simply not biblical. If people are born-again of the imperishable seed of Christ and, hence, possess eternal life in their spirits, why would they have to suffer death when their bodies perish? This explains why the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian believers that being absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8). This is fully addressed here.
The doctrinal label “soul sleep” is a good, brief and accurate description of the intermediate state of unregenerated souls but I never use it for two reasons:
- It gives the impression to the average person that the soul is still alive and merely dozing during the intermediate state.
- The label is too closely related with cultic or marginally cultic groups with which I don’t want to be associated, and understandably so.
Some will inevitably argue: “If cultic or near-cultic organizations adhere in some form to the view that souls in Sheol are asleep in death and therefore not conscious, does this not automatically make it false or, at least, questionable? If nothing else, it doesn’t look good.”
This argument is addressed in HELL KNOW, but allow me to briefly address it here: Christians do not determine the veracity of a doctrine by whether or not an objectionable group adheres to it in one form or another; they determine what is true and not true simply by finding out what the God-breathed Scriptures clearly and consistently teach. If a doctrine is not clearly and consistently taught in the Bible, it’s a false doctrine, regardless of what respectable person or group claims otherwise. Likewise, if a doctrine is clearly and consistently taught in the Bible then it’s a true doctrine, regardless of what questionable person or group agrees with it. This is in accordance with the theological principle of sola scripture, meaning “by Scripture alone,” which maintains that the God-breathed Holy Scriptures are the first and final authority regarding every judgment of Christian doctrine and practice. This explains Paul’s word of advice to the believers at Corinth: “Do not go beyond what is written” (1 Corinthians 4:6).
Let’s face it, we all agree with cultic groups on some things; for instance, many cultic or borderline cultic organizations believe that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God. All authentic Christians, of course, believe this as well. Wouldn’t it be ludicrous to reject this belief simply because questionable groups agree with it?
Think about it like this: any person or group that steps outside of the blinding influence of erroneous religious tradition will easily be able to determine what the Bible clearly and consistently teaches on Sheol and the condition of souls held there during the intermediate state, as this study shows. This explains how various cultic or borderline cultic groups are able to discern the truth about the nature of Sheol, at least partially—they weren’t blinded by human-made religious tradition.
SHEOL IN PROVERBS,The book of Wisdom
Of the 31 chapters of the book of Proverbs, the first 29 were written by Solomon, the wisest person who’s ever lived outside of Jesus Christ (1 Kings 3:12). Earlier we saw how Solomon described the nature of Sheol in very clear language. He said that those who die “know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5) because they’ve gone to Sheol, where “there is no work, or thought, or knowledge or wisdom” (Ecclesiastes 9:10).
Everything Solomon says about Sheol in the book of Proverbs is in harmony with this unmistakable description.
Sheol and Death: Synonymous
The following texts, for instance, reveal that Sheol is essentially synonymous with death because they go hand-in-hand. These first two verses poetically reference the wicked adulteress:
Her feet go down to death;
her steps follow the path of Sheol.
Proverbs 5:5 (NRSV)
Her house is the way to Sheol,
going down to the chambers of death.
Proverbs 7:27 (NRSV)
These passages apply to those in covenant with God under Old Testament law. They declare a sobering fact: Those who choose to commit sexual immorality with an adulteress “follow the path of Sheol” or are on “the way to Sheol.” Proverbs 2:18 teaches the same thing. This is not to suggest that godly people during the Old Testament period didn’t go to Sheol when they eventually died because we know from numerous passages that they did; these verses simply reveal that adulterers will prematurely die. This was the penalty for adultery and other critical sexual sins under the law of Moses (Leviticus 20:10-16).
Even today, despite the fact that we’re living during the New Testament era of grace, those who choose to live sexually immoral lifestyles often suffer serious consequences for their actions, including premature death from AIDS. Other consequences critically hamper the quality of one’s life—teenage pregnancy, illegitimate children, abortion, broken relationships, divorce, psychological problems, a multitude of sexual diseases—many of which are incurable—and other negatives, like the wrath of the mate of the person with whom one’s cheating. Truly, sexual immorality brings death. Even if it doesn’t literally kill you, it will certainly kill the quality of your life.
This next passage personalizes folly as a wicked woman and is referring to the foolish people who choose to follow “her”:
But they do not know that the deadare there,
that her guests are in the depths of Sheol.
Proverbs 9:18 (NRSV)
The 9th chapter of Proverbs showcases the personal invitations of Wisdom and Folly. Those who prudently enter the house of Wisdom will be rewarded with long lives, as verified by verses 11-12, while those who choose Folly will prematurely die.
Premature death is, of course, the gravest consequence of following folly with wild abandon. The graveyard is full of such people, so are our prisons and mental institutions. Those who merely dabble in folly here and there will suffer as well, just not as severely. This is the case even today in the age of grace.
Notice plainly in the verse that souls in Sheol are described as “dead,” not roasting alive in torment desperate for less than a drop of water for relief. Their sinful lifestyles resulted in their deaths because “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).
These next two passages equate Sheol with abaddon, which is the Hebrew word for destruction:
Sheol and abaddon [destruction] lie open before the LORD,
how much more human hearts!
Proverbs 15:11 (NRSV)
Sheol and abaddon [destruction] are never satisfied,
and human eyes are never satisfied.
Proverbs 27:20 (NRSV)
What I want to emphasize from the five proverbial texts in this section is that Solomon repeatedly brings up Sheol and repeatedly associates it with death or destruction. This is not unique to Solomon or the book of Proverbs; here are some passages from earlier sections that also equate Sheol with death:
For in death there is no remembrance of you;
in Sheol who can give you praise?
Psalm 6:5 (NRSV)
“For Sheol cannot thank you,
death cannot praise you;
those who go down to the Pit
cannot hope for your faithfulness.
19 The living, the living, they thank you
as I do this day.”
Isaiah 38:18-19 (NRSV)
Who can live and never see death?
Who can escape the power of Sheol?
Psalm 89:48 (NRSV)
There are other biblical passages that identify Sheol with death and destruction as well, such as Job 26:6, Psalm 49:14, Hosea 13:14, Habakkuk 2:5, Revelation 6:8 and 20:14. Most of these passages are cases of synonymous parallelism where the second part of the verse simply repeats and enforces the thought of the first in different words.
As you can plainly see, the God-breathed scriptures repeatedly equate Sheol with death and destruction, not conscious torture. These passages were written by a variety of godly men separated by many centuries—Job, David, the Korahites, Ethan, Solomon, Hezekiah, Habakuk and John; they all spoke in harmony concerning Sheol because they all “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20-21). Do you think the LORD is trying to reveal something to us about the nature of Sheol in these many clear passages? Of course He is! Those who go to Sheol suffer death; their lives are destroyed. Death simply refers to the absence of life because it is, in fact, the opposite of life—the state of non-being or non-existence; it does not refer to a low-quality life separate from God as proven in Chapter Six of HELL KNOW. Living a life of misery in a subterranean torture chamber is still life, after all, but that’s not what Sheol is. Biblically speaking, Sheol is the “world of the dead” where lifeless souls are housed until their resurrection. They are dead and lack consciousness; they can therefore neither remember nor praise God. How much clearer could the LORD possibly be in his awesome Word?
“To Avoid Sheol Below”
Let’s look at another proverbial passage that mentions Sheol:
For the wise the path of life leads upward
in order to avoid Sheol below.
Proverbs 15:24 (NRSV)
This verse isn’t saying that wise people in Old Testament times (before the ascension of Christ) would go to heaven when they died. We must interpret Scripture in light of Scripture—a hermeneutical rule—and we know that during the Old Testament period both the wise and foolish alike went to Sheol when they died.
The text is simply declaring that, under the law of Moses, living a wise, godly life would guarantee a person a long, blessed life in the “land of the living” and avoid a premature trip to Sheol. As Proverbs 4:18 puts it, “The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day.” Although death or Sheol was indeed “the destiny of every man” during the Old Testament period (Ecclesiastes 7:2 & Psalm 89:48), those who were wise by living according to godly wisdom would avoid Sheol as long as possible, enjoying a full, productive life.
Observe how the passage makes it clear that Sheol was something to be avoided as long as possible. This doesn’t jell with the belief that Sheol had a separate compartment called “paradise” where Old Testament saints enjoyed sweet fellowship with father Abraham far removed from their earthly troubles. If this were so, why would any godly person want to avoid it? Any righteous individual would want to get there as soon as possible if it were true, right? This shows that this belief is unscriptural. Sheol is, in fact, the state of death. Those who go there are dead and therefore no longer exist. Their soulish remains are held there but their conscious life has expired because the animating breath of life has returned to God. Hence, Sheol is to be avoided, not looked forward to.
Sheol: “The Assembly of the Dead”
As noted at the beginning of this article, Greek & Hebrew scholar James Strong defined Sheol as “the world of the dead.” This corresponds to the biblical description as seen in this passage:
Whoever wanders from the way of understanding
will rest in the assembly of the dead.
Proverbs 21:16 (NRSV)
A man who wanders from the way of understanding
will rest in the assembly of the dead.
Proverbs 21:16 (NASB)
The International Standard Version translates this passage like so: “Whoever wanders from the path of understanding will end up where the dead are gathered.” Where are the dead gathered? In Sheol, “the assembly of the dead.”
Someone might argue that “the assembly of the dead” might refer to the physical grave or tomb where bodies are laid to rest, but there are a number of problems with this view: corpses are laid to rest in cemeteries all over the earth and some bodies aren’t buried at all, while others are lost at sea or blown to bits, etc. This could hardly be “the assembly of the dead.” The phrase, however, perfectly fits the biblical concept of Sheol, which is the graveyard of dead souls in the heart of the earth, truly the “assembly of the dead.” And please notice that the souls gathered together in Sheol are dead. They’re not living souls or half-living souls. They’re dead because Sheol is the realm of the dead.
“Deliver His Soul from Sheol”
The fact that Sheol is the “assembly of the dead” and, as such, should be avoided as long as possible makes sense of this proverb:
Do not hold back discipline from the child,
although you beat him with the rod, he will not die.
You shall beat him with the rod
and deliver his soul from Sheol,
Proverbs 23:13-14 (NASB)
The passage is simply stressing the importance of godly, loving discipline. It is by no means advocating child abuse; only a wicked heart would entertain such a perverse interpretation. In Old Testament times everyone ultimately went to Sheol when they died, but by properly training a child to live in harmony with the laws of God, and hence acquiring godly wisdom, it would guarantee the child a long, blessed life and keep him or her from the curse of premature death.
Let me use my own life as an example: I grew up in a home where there was almost zero proper parental discipline. I was consequently full of folly as I entered my teenage years because my parents failed to discipline it out of me, that is, beat it out of me. *
* Proverbs 20:30 includes proper parental discipline when it states: “Blows and wounds cleanse away evil, and beatings purge the inmost being.”
This folly naturally resulted in a string of critical mishaps throughout my adolescence and young adult years. Some of these misfortunes included overdosing and almost dying on drugs, getting hit by a car and landing on my head resulting in a near-fatal head injury, getting expelled from school for drugs, falling off a 37’ cliff during a “party” at a fair and ending up in a body cast for months, not to mention almost committing suicide. The fact that I survived those years is a miracle!
My point is that the folly I walked in was due to lack of parental discipline and it almost resulted in my death on several occasions. So I know from experience how true this proverb is—if parents fail to drive-out folly in their children through proper discipline, folly will either severely hamper their lives or kill them.
By the age of 20 I was understandably starved for godly wisdom, discipline and truth! The LORD revealed Himself to me and I turned to Him in repentance through Christ. I slowly started to acquire wisdom through the study & application of His Word and the relational discipline of my Heavenly Father by the Holy Spirit. Here’s a fact: True love disciplines. Parents who fail to discipline their children are showing that they don’t really care nor have the time for them. The truth is, I longed for true, loving discipline throughout my teenage years but never received it. Thankfully my Heavenly Father lovingly gave me the discipline I needed when I finally turned to Him.
Observe, incidentally, how the above proverb says that a child’s soul is saved from Sheol. This is further evidence that Sheol concerns the state of the human soul after physical death. It is not the housing abode of the spirit—i.e. the breath of life—or the physical body. The spirit of life returns to God who gave it and the body simply returns to the dust. This article elaborates on this.
The Longest and Most Detailed Passage on Sheol
Ezekiel 32 features the longest passage on Sheol in the Bible. Chapters 31-32 of Ezekiel address God’s judgment on the nation of Egypt where Egypt is likened to a great cedar of Lebanon that is about to be felled by the nation of Babylon and, consequently, descend into Sheol where other nations condemned by God had descended, like Assyria, Elam and Edom. This passage powerfully drives home the image of Sheol as the common soulish grave of humankind where dead souls are housed until their resurrection on judgment day. God Himself is speaking in this passage from verse 18 onward:
17 In the twelfth year, in the first month, on the fifteenth day of the month, the word of the LORD came to me:
18 “Mortal, wail over the hordes of Egypt,
and send them down,
with Egypt and the daughters of majestic nations
to the world below,
with those who go down to the Pit,
19 “Whom do you surpass in beauty?
Go down! Be laid to rest with the
20 They shall fall among those who are killed by the sword. Egypt has been handed over to the sword; carry away both it and its hordes. 21 The mighty chiefs shall speak of them, with their helpers, out of the midst of Sheol: They have come down, they lie still, the uncircumcised killed by the sword.”
22 Assyria is there, and all its company, their graves all around it, all of them killed, fallen by the sword. 23 Their graves are set in the uttermost parts of the Pit. Its company is all around its grave, all of them killed, fallen by the sword, who spread terror in the land of the living.
24 Elam is there, and all its hordes around its grave; all of them killed, fallen by the sword, who went down uncircumcised into the world below who spread terror in the land of the living. They bear their shame with those who go down to the Pit. 25 They have made Elam a bed among the slain with all its hordes, their graves all around it, all of them uncircumcised killed by the sword; for terror of them was spread in the land of the living, and they bear their shame with those who go down to the Pit; they are placed among the slain.
26 Meshech and Tubal are there, and all their multitude, their graves all around them, all of them uncircumcised, killed by the sword; for they spread terror in the land of the living. 27 And they do not lie with the fallen warriors of long ago who went down to Sheol with their weapons of war,* whose swords were laid under their heads, and whose shields are upon their bones; for the terror of the warriors was in the land of the living. 28 So you shall be broken and lie among the uncircumcised, with those who are killed by the sword.
29 Edom is there, its kings and all its princes, who for all their might are laid with those who are killed by the sword; they lie with the uncircumcised, with those who go down to the Pit.
30 The princes of the north are there, all of them, and the Sidonians, who have gone down in shame with the slain, for all the terror that they caused by their might; they lie uncircumcised with those who are killed by the sword and bear their shame with those who go down to the Pit.
31 When Pharaoh sees them, he will be consoled for all his horde—Pharaoh and all his army killed by the sword, says the Lord GOD. 32 For he spread terror in the land of the living; therefore he shall be laid to rest among the uncircumcised, with those who are slain by the sword—Pharaoh and all his multitude, says the Lord GOD.
Ezekiel 32:17-32 (NRSV)
* Verse 27 (of the NRSV) is an obvious improper translation: The statement made in the negative—“And they do not lie”—makes no sense in light of its context. The New International Version properly translates this verse in the form of a rhetorical question as such: “Do they not lie with the other uncircumcised warriors who have fallen, who went down to the grave with their weapons of war, whose swords were placed under their heads?”
As you can see, the Pharaoh of Egypt and his army have been judged and condemned by God. What is the LORD’s sentence? God states in verse 20 that “Egypt has been handed over to the sword” and, in verse 31, “Pharaoh and all his army killed by the sword.” So God’s sentence is death. Is this a just sentence? Absolutely. It’s in line with the biblical axiom “the wages of sin is death.”
Since Egypt’s sentence is death, verse 18 says that the Egyptians shall be sent down “to the world below, with those who go down to the Pit.” “The Pit” is bowr in the Hebrew and is another term for Sheol, as detailed earlier; this synonym for Sheol appears 4 more times in the passage (verses 24, 25, 29 & 30) while Sheol itself appears twice (verses 21 & 27). As such, there’s no doubt that this section of Scripture is addressing the subject of Sheol, the intermediate state of un-regenerated souls between physical decease and resurrection.
With this understanding, let’s work our way through the long passage point by point.
Verse 18 describes Sheol as “the world below.” Sheol is described this way because it is part of the underworld. We’ll look at this in detail later but, briefly put, the Bible speaks of three realms or universes: 1. heaven, which is described as “the third heaven” in Scripture and is where God’s throne is located, 2. the earth & physical universe, and 3. the underworld (see Philippians 2:10 for verification). You’ll note that verse 18 above describes this “world below” as “the Pit.” Why? Because Sheol is a pit or dungeon in the underworld where dead souls are housed until their resurrection. Sheol has levels and chambers where dead souls are “laid to rest” in an orderly fashion according to nation and so on.
We know souls housed in Sheol are dead because the Bible repeatedly says so in numerous ways as detailed throughout this study. For instance, Ecclesiastes 9:5 & 10 explicitly state that “there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol” and that the people housed there are “dead” and “know nothing.”
The fact that souls in Sheol are dead is verified in verse 19 where it says that the Egyptians will be “laid to rest with the uncircumcised.” Notice they will be “laid to rest,” not writhe in screaming torment for over a thousand years without a break, as some ludicrously teach. No, they are simply laid to rest; this phrase is repeated in verse 32 in reference to the Pharaoh being “laid to rest” in Sheol. The two words “laid” and “rest” used in conjunction evoke the image of sleep. In addition, verse 21 says that people in Sheol “lie still,” verse 25 that Elam will be in “bed,” and verses 27, 28 and 30 that those in Sheol “lie” there. All these images clearly suggest sleep, not conscious suffering in fiery torment. Of course, these descriptions aren’t suggesting literal physical sleep, but rather the ‘sleep’ of death itself, from which all unrighteous souls will be “awakened” to undergo the Great White Throne Judgment (Revelation 20:11-15).
Verse 25 flat out states that souls in Sheol are dead: “they bear their shame with those who go down to the Pit; they are placed among the slain.” In other words, the newest group of souls entering Sheol will be “placed among the slain.” You see? Souls in Sheol are dead; they are not alive and are therefore conscious of nothing. How much clearer could God be?
Note also how verse 19 says that the Egyptians will be laid to rest “with the uncircumcised.” Who are the “uncircumcised”? In the Bible circumcision was a sign that a person was in covenant with God under the law of Moses. The Scriptures always distinguish between those who are in right-standing with God and those who are not. The “uncircumcised” in this text did not have a contract with God and therefore were not right with Him. This would include the numerous peoples cited throughout the passage—the Assyrians, Edomites, Sidonians, etc. In other words, verse 19 is simply pointing out that the Egyptians will be laid to rest in the very same section of Sheol that housed other uncircumcised godless people from that era.
As noted throughout our study, souls in right-standing with God also went to Sheol at the time of death during the Old Testament period but were not laid to rest with the uncircumcised. There was obviously a separate section in Sheol for those in covenant with God. If this sounds strange to you, consider the fact that bodies are buried in earthly graveyards in an orderly fashion according to family, purchaser and sometimes even religious faith (for instance, there are Catholic cemeteries and church cemeteries where only those of that specific faith can be buried), why would we think it would be any different for dead souls in Sheol? These righteous souls will be resurrected at the time of their bodily resurrection when the Lord returns to earth to establish his millennial reign (Daniel 12:1-2 & Matthew 19:28-30), although I leave room for the possibility that their souls were raised to life when Jesus ascended to heaven (Ephesians 4:7-10). In any case, righteous souls no longer go to Sheol when believers die because they possess eternal life through spiritual regeneration via the imperishable seed of Christ (1 Peter 1:23).
Verse 20 states that those in Sheol have been “killed by the sword” and that the Egyptians will suffer this same fate. This phrase (or similar phrasing) is used for every group mentioned in the passage. In other words, the text repeatedly emphasizes that these people are dead. Also notice that it says they were killed “by the sword.” If taken in a strictly literal sense we would have to conclude that each of these thousands upon thousands of people from varying nations perished by the stroke of a sword. Is this what happened? Of course not. Many obviously died from other methods—arrow, spear, club, fire, etc. “The sword” simply refers to the God-ordained right of a government to inflict the penalty of death on those who have committed capital crimes or those judged and condemned by God (see Romans 13:4). For instance, Ezekiel 31-32 show that Egypt had been judged and condemned to death. Whom does God commission to carry out this sentence? Babylon, as verified in Ezekiel 32:11: “ ‘For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: ‘The sword of the king of Babylon will come against you [Pharaoh and his army]’.” It’s unlikely that the Pharaoh carried a sword and, even if he did, it was merely for show; so “the sword” that the king of Babylon carried was actually the authority from God to carry out His just sentence of death.
Verses 22-23 introduce a revealing concept:
Assyria is there, and all its company, their graves all around it, all of them killed, fallen by the sword. 23 Their graves are set in the uttermost parts of the Pit. Its company is all around its grave, all of them killed, fallen by the sword, who spread terror in the land of the living.
Ezekiel 32:22-23 (NRSV)
These verses reveal that the Assyrians are in Sheol and that they are killed, fallen by “the sword” of the LORD’s judgment. In addition, three times the passage emphasizes that the graves of the Assyrians are in Sheol. The words “graves” and “grave” are respectively translated from the Hebrew words qibrah (kib-RAW) and qeburwrah (keb-oo-RAW), which refer to literal graves or tombs. What’s this mean? Simply what we’ve been discovering throughout this study—Sheol is a graveyard in the underworld where dead souls are laid to rest until their resurrection. Just as dead bodies are laid to rest in grave plots on earth, so dead souls are laid in grave plots in Sheol.
Is a grave ever intended for anything other than that which is dead? Of course not. This is further proof that souls in Sheol are dead and that Sheol itself is a soulish graveyard in the underworld, not a diabolical torture chamber.
Verses 24-26 likewise point out that there are “graves” in Sheol for the people of Elam, Meshech and Tubal. Tell me: Are people placed in graves for the purpose of conscious torture or simply to lie in the ‘sleep’ of death?
Notice in verse 23 that the Assyrians’ graves are set “in the uttermost parts of the Pit.” This is evidence that there are levels in Sheol and distinct sections. The dead souls of the Assyrians were, evidently, placed in one of the lowest levels.
Verse 23 ends by pointing out that the Assyrians once “spread terror in the land of the living.” The “land of the living” obviously refers to life on earth where the Assyrians warred, conquered and ruled. This is in contrast to Sheol, the land of the dead, where they would spread terror no more. How is it that they won’t spread terror anymore? Because they’re dead. Sheol is the land of the dead where “there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom.”
The very same point is made in reference to Elam, Meshech, Tubal and Egypt in verses 24, 25, 26, 27 and 32. We look at this further in SHEOL KNOW.
As you can see, throughout this long passage God repeatedly uses unmistakable and vivid language to show that souls in Sheol are dead. God is without doubt a master communicator. With this understanding, verse 31 must be taken in a non-literal sense because it states that, after Pharaoh dies, he will “see” the other groups laid to rest in Sheol and be “consoled.” This is obviously not to be taken literally. Pharaoh and his men will be dead at this point and will not be able to see anyone or anything; they’ll be laid to rest in the sleep of death just like the other groups in Sheol. In fact, the very next verse—verse 32—emphasizes that Pharaoh is “laid to rest” in Sheol, not alive and making observations; and please notice that he’s “laid to rest” not suffering in fiery torture. However, even if we were to view verse 31 literally it still wouldn’t support the religious view that pagan souls are in a state of constant torment until the Day of Judgment. After all, how would Pharaoh possibly be consoled by the fact that he and his army are going to join thousands upon thousands of writhing, screaming souls in roasting agony? Do you see how unscriptural this mythical belief is?
“Progressive Revelation” on the Nature of Sheol?
The above passage from Ezekiel 32 and other texts disprove the theory that humanity had a “progressive revelation” concerning the nature of Sheol. This theory suggests that the Hebrew understanding of Sheol evolved over time and, of course, is embraced by those who advocate that Sheol is a place of conscious torture. The reason they are forced to adopt this odd theory is obvious: The many Old Testament passages on Sheol that we’ve examined in this study clearly reveal that Sheol is a “Pit” in the underworld where dead souls are laid to rest in the sleep of death—a vast soulish graveyard where there is consciousness of nothing. Since they are unable to reconcile these numerous passages with their belief that Sheol is a place of constant conscious torment they have no recourse but to completely ‘write them off ’ with this theory. This is a blatant case of “taking away” from God’s Word, a practice severely condemned in Scripture (see Deuteronomy 4:2, Proverbs 30:5-6 and Revelation 22:18-19).
The reason these people are compelled to such error is because they’ve been indoctrinated that Jesus’ story of the Rich Man and Lazarus from Luke 16:19-31 is a literal account of life after death for un-regenerated souls. Yet, if we take this tale literally the entire rest of the Bible is in error on the nature of Sheol. Hence, they had no recourse but to concoct the idea of “progressive revelation.” Aside from the obvious fact that this reasoning conflicts with the weight of scriptural testimony, there are two problems with this position: 1. Jesus’ story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is clearly a fantastical story that was never meant to be taken literally. This article shows that it’s absurd to take it literally. And 2. the idea of “progressive revelation” suggests that humanity’s awareness of the nature of Sheol slowly evolved over time. The problem with this is that there is clearly no progressive revelation on Sheol in the Bible. The testimony of Scripture goes from the concept of Sheol as a nether graveyard where dead souls are conscious of nothing as they “sleep” in death, to the abrupt and completely opposite notion (based solely on a literal interpretation of Jesus’ parable) that Sheol is a nether realm where souls are fully alive and conscious, either in a state of constant fiery torment or hanging out with Abraham in communal bliss, depending upon whether the soul is wicked or righteous.
So how does Ezekiel 32:18-32 disprove this theory of “progressive revelation”? Simply because God Himself is speaking throughout this long passage. Throughout this study we’ve examined numerous passages on Sheol that reflect what various Old Testament characters believed about the nature of the intermediate state. We’ve looked at Job’s view, Solomon’s view, David’s view, Hezekiah’s view and many others. All of their views coincide that Sheol is a “Pit” in the underworld where dead souls are laid to rest in the unconscious sleep of death ‘awaiting’ their resurrection. One may argue that their views are the result of a limited understanding of the subject and are therefore inaccurate. Yet, one cannot make this argument concerning Ezekiel 32:18-32 because God himself is speaking. It’s the same thing with Ezekiel 18:4,20 and 28:7-8,19, not to mention Ezekiel 26:19-21, all of which are examined in SHEOL KNOW. The LORD Himself is speaking in all these passages. Does anyone ludicrously think that God had a “limited understanding” of the nature of Sheol? Does anyone absurdly think that the LORD had to have “progressive revelation” on Sheol? Or has He always known precisely and completely everything there is to know about it? The answers are obvious.
The vast majority of people who believe that Sheol is a place of conscious torment (or bliss for Old Testament saints) have never researched the subject of Sheol beyond Jesus’ story of The Rich Man and Lazarus. I know because I was once one of them. As such, I understand their reasoning: The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, if taken literally, reveals that people are in a conscious state in Sheol; and since Jesus Christ himself is speaking it’s not necessary to look into the subject any further. In other words, Jesus’ tale tells us everything we need to know about Sheol; after all, who would know more about Sheol than Jesus Christ himself?
Well, according to the Bible there’s only one higher than the Son, and that’s God the Father, and He is the One speaking in Ezekiel 32:18-32 wherein He repeatedly and explicitly reveals that souls in Sheol are “slain,” “laid to rest,” “lie still,” in “bed” in “graves,” etc. There’s mysteriously no hint of souls suffering in roasting anguish crying out for less than a drop of water that won’t be given. Why is it that advocates of conscious torture fail to bring up this long commentary on Sheol by God the Father Himself in Ezekiel 32? Because it contradicts their false religious belief, that’s why.
Am I suggesting that the Father and Son contradict each other? Absolutely not; that’s an impossibility. What I am saying is that the Scriptures very clearly show that the Father is the head over the Son and this is explicitly stated (1 Corinthians 11:3 & 15:27-28). (We could say that the Father and Son are equal in being, but the Son is subordinate to the Father in function or relationship). Hence, Jesus would never contradict the Father; in fact, he can’t contradict the Father because, as he said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Consequently, Jesus’ story of the Rich Man and Lazarus must be interpreted in light of what the entire rest of the Bible teaches on the subject of Sheol, including what the Father, who is the head, plainly taught, not to mention the Spirit, which brings us to one more crushing point…
Another reason this “progressive revelation of Sheol” argument holds no water is because the psalms are “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16) and, as such, all the psalmists “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). This is why Jesus said David was “speaking by the Spirit” when he quoted Psalm 110:1 (Matthew 22:43-44). This, of course, implies that David was “speaking by the Spirit” in all his psalms (and he wrote at least half of them). In other words, David’s statements in the Psalms were spoken by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit is God. In light of this, David’s exposition on Sheol contained in the psalms, as well as statements by other psalmists, shouldn’t be considered just “their view” of Sheol. No, it’s God’s view too because they were “speaking by the Spirit,” as Jesus put it, and the Holy Spirit is God; and God had no “progressive revelation of Sheol.” He’s always known the truth about its nature.
“Where, O Sheol, Is Your Destruction?”
The Hebrew word Sheol appears twice in the book of Hosea, both in the same verse:
“I will ransom them from the power of the grave
I will redeem them from death.
Where, O death, are your plagues?
Where, O grave (sheol) is your destruction?”
This passage is simply God’s promise that all his children shall be ransomed from Sheol and redeemed from death. This was accomplished, of course, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ “who became a ransom for all men” (1 Timothy 2:6). Jesus took our place and died for our sins so we don’t have to. Christians who are spiritually born-again of the imperishable seed of Christ have eternal life in their spirits. Consequently, the only death they’ll undergo is physical death. The simple reason for this is that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 15:50). Which is fine because those redeemed through Christ are going to ultimately receive a much better body—an imperishable, glorified, powerful, spiritual body (see 1 Corinthians 15:42-44)! The awesome thing about this new body, unlike the old one, is that it can inherit the kingdom of God!
You’ll observe that Sheol is mentioned synonymously with death and destruction in Hosea 13:14. In other words, Sheol is death and death is Sheol. The condition of souls in Sheol is destruction, not flaming torture. That’s why the LORD raises the question: “Where, O Sheol, is your destruction?” and not, “Where, O Sheol, is your continuous fiery torment?” The Bible is so easy to understand once you’re freed up from erroneous religious indoctrination!
Samuel, Saul & the Witch of Endor (and Elijah & Enoch)
Let’s now venture back to the Old Testament historical books and observe a fascinating incident that concerns Sheol. Samuel was the last of the judges and the first of the major prophets (1 Samuel 3:19-21). After Samuel died, ungodly King Saul was desperate for counsel and so went to a medium to get word from the dead prophet, which was a wicked act strictly forbidden by the LORD (Deuteronomy 18:10-13). The appearance of the dead prophet to the witch of Endor provokes questions on the nature of Sheol because Samuel went to Sheol when he died.
Let’s read the passage in question:
3 Now Samuel was dead, and all Israel had mourned for him and buried him in his own town of Ramah. Saul had expelled the mediums and spiritists from the land.
4 The Philistines assembled and came and set up camp at Shunem, while Saul gathered all Israel and set up camp at Gilboa. 5 When Saul saw the Philistine army, he was afraid; terror filled his heart. 6 He inquired of the Lord, but the Lord did not answer him by dreams or Urim or prophets. 7 Saul then said to his attendants, “Find me a woman who is a medium, so I may go and inquire of her.”
“There is one in Endor,” they said.
8 So Saul disguised himself, putting on other clothes, and at night he and two men went to the woman. “Consult a spirit for me,” he said, “and bring up for me the one I name.”
9 But the woman said to him, “Surely you know what Saul has done. He has cut off the mediums and spiritists from the land. Why have you set a trap for my life to bring about my death?”
10 Saul swore to her by the Lord, “As surely as the Lord lives, you will not be punished for this.”
11 Then the woman asked, “Whom shall I bring up for you?”
“Bring up Samuel,” he said.
12 When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out at the top of her voice and said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul!”
13 The king said to her, “Don’t be afraid. What do you see?”
The woman said, “I see a ghostly figure [a “spirit” or “god” in the Hebrew] coming up out of the earth.”
14 “What does he look like?” he asked.
“An old man wearing a robe is coming up,” she said.
Then Saul knew it was Samuel, and he bowed down and prostrated himself with his face to the ground.
15 Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?”
“I am in great distress,” Saul said. “The Philistines are fighting against me, and God has departed from me. He no longer answers me, either by prophets or by dreams. So I have called on you to tell me what to do.”
16 Samuel said, “Why do you consult me, now that the Lord has departed from you and become your enemy? 17 The Lord has done what he predicted through me. The Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hands and given it to one of your neighbors—to David. 18 Because you did not obey the Lord or carry out his fierce wrath against the Amalekites, the Lord has done this to you today. 19 The Lord will deliver both Israel and you into the hands of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons will be with me. The Lord will also give the army of Israel into the hands of the Philistines.”
20 Immediately Saul fell full length on the ground, filled with fear because of Samuel’s words. His strength was gone, for he had eaten nothing all that day and all that night.
1 Samuel 28:3-20
Was Samuel’s appearance after his death an illusion, an evil spirit masquerading as Samuel or Samuel himself coming back from the dead; that is, coming back from Sheol? Scholars may be divided on the issue, but the evidence shows that it was indeed Samuel in disembodied form. Verses 12, 14, 15, 16, 17 and 20 prove this and a couple verses state point blank that it was Samuel; for example, verse 15 says “Samuel said to Saul” and verse 16 that “Samuel said.” Notice that these verses don’t say “A spirit masquerading as Samuel said.” No, “Samuel said.”
As we’ve seen in this study, souls in Sheol are dead because the spiritual breath of God that animates them—that is, gives them life—has returned to the Creator. People become living souls when God animates them with a breath of life, as the ‘creation text’ shows (Genesis 2:7). Just as a physical breath of life is required for a body to live, so a spiritual breath of life is necessary for a soul to exist in a conscious sense. In the Old Testament period people’s souls went to Sheol at the point of physical death and the breath of life returned to the Almighty; this included both the righteous and the unrighteous. Elijah and (apparently) Enoch were exceptions (2 Kings 2:11 & Genesis 5:24). They bypassed death—Sheol—and went straight to heaven. God is the all-knowing, all-powerful Sovereign Creator of the universe and he occasionally chooses to treat some differently for his own purposes. God chose to spare them from death—Sheol—as examples of future resurrections, as detailed in this article. Again, these are exceptions.
The case of Samuel is a temporary exception where God, in His divine wisdom, chose to allow Samuel to be resurrected to ‘witness’ to the witch and prophesy to King Saul. Further proof that this was actually Samuel can be observed in that the witch cries out in fear when she sees the prophet coming up out of the earth; in other words, she wasn’t used to such real manifestations! Secondly, notice that what Samuel says is in line with God’s Word, and what he predicted came to pass—Saul and his sons were dead the next day (1 Samuel 31).
The passage says nothing about the nature of Sheol so we must turn to the rest of Scripture for answers on that question, but it fits the Sheol-as-the-sleep-of-death model in that Samuel says, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” This implies, of course, that he was disturbed from his ‘rest’ in Sheol. Numerous other Scriptures reveal what this ‘rest’ is—the ‘sleep’ of death where the soul is not conscious of anything because it’s dead.
How did God work this miraculous temporary resurrection? He simply breathed a spiritual breath of life into Samuel’s dead soul, which was housed in Sheol, and Samuel became conscious—i.e. a living soul—and came up. Speaking of coming up, note that Samuel came up from down in the earth, which is where Sheol—the world of the dead—is located: in the heart of the earth, albeit in the spiritual realm, not the physical, since Sheol and disembodied souls are not physical in nature (Matthew 12:40). Also, Samuel states that when Saul and his sons perish the next day they “will be with him.” My point? Both the righteous and wicked went to Sheol upon physical death in the Old Testament era. In our era, however, death has no power over those of us who’ve been born again of the imperishable seed of Christ, the second Adam—Praise God!
If my comments on human nature seem hard to understand (e.g. “spiritual breath of life”, etc.) please see this article.
Let’s now look at various biblical descriptions and insights about Sheol not yet addressed or, at least, not addressed in detail.
Sheol is Contrasted with “the Land of the Living”
The reality that Sheol is the realm where dead souls are held ‘awaiting’ their resurrection can be derived from the fact that Sheol is often spoken of in contrast to “the land of the living.” We witness evidence of this in Hezekiah’s statements from Isaiah 38:9-12. Let’s look at some other biblical examples:
8 For thou hast rescued my soul from death,
my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.
9 I shall walk before the LORD
in the land of the living.
Psalm 116:8-9 (NASB)
We see here that the LORD delivered the psalmist from a life-threatening situation. Verse 3 reveals that the psalmist was distressed and sorrowful because, as he puts it, “The cords of death encompassed me and the terrors of Sheol came upon me.” (Notice, once again, that death and Sheol are essentially synonymous terms in the Bible). The psalmist was seriously concerned that he’d lose his life in this situation, but the LORD ultimately delivered him and that’s why he exclaims in verse 8: “thou hast rescued my soul from death.” The psalmist knew that, if he died, his soul would go to Sheol, the world of the dead where lifeless souls experience only death (naturally). Note that God saved his soul from death. He did not save him from fellowship with father Abraham in the paradise compartment of Sheol; he saved him from death. Because the LORD delivered him, he states in verse 9: “I shall walk before the LORD in the land of the living.” Why does he say this? Obviously because you can’t walk before the LORD in Sheol.
If life in this world is “the land of the living” then it follows that Sheol is the land of the dead or “the world of the dead,” as James Strong and Proverbs 21:16 define it, where souls suffer death itself—the state of non-existence.
David speaks of “the land of the living” in these two passages:
I would have despaired unless I had believed
that I would see the goodness of the LORD
in the land of the living.
Psalm 27:13 (NASB)
I cried out to Thee, O LORD;
I said, “Thou art my refuge.
My portion in the land of the living.”
Psalm 142:5 (NASB)
In each case David was in a life-threatening situation. If the LORD failed to come through he would have died and gone to Sheol. As you can see, David speaks of life in this world as “the land of the living” as opposed to the alternative—dying and going to Sheol. Allow me to repeat: If life in this world is “the land of the living” then Sheol is obviously the land of not-living—the land of the dead, the realm of non-existence.
When his life was in danger, Jeremiah likewise used the phrase “land of the living” in this prayer:
Because the LORD revealed their plot to me, I knew it, for at the time he showed me what they were doing. 19 I had been like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter; I did not realize that they had plotted against me, saying,
“Let us destroy the tree and its fruit;
let us cut him off from the land of the living,
that his name be remembered no more.”
20 But, O LORD Almighty, you who judge righteously
and test the heart and mind,
let me see your vengeance upon them,
for to you I have committed my cause.
There were people out to kill Jeremiah; their intent was to “slaughter” him and “destroy” his very life, thus cutting him off from “the land of the living.” These evil plotters rightly knew that if they successfully murdered Jeremiah his soul would go to Sheol. Since souls in Sheol are literally dead, Jeremiah would be completely cut off from those who are alive in “the land of the living.”
But let’s suppose for a moment that Sheol is a place where souls are alive and conscious as religionists contend—the wicked suffer continuous torment without a drop of water for relief while the righteous blissfully enjoy paradise. Let’s reword the evil plotters’ words in verse 19 as if this belief were true:
“Let us physically destroy Jeremiah and cut him off from the land of the living on earth. Unfortunately his soul will immediately go to the paradise compartment of Sheol where he’ll enjoy blissful communion with father Abraham and other righteous saints who have passed on.”
Once again, we see that adjusting the Scriptures to fit the religious belief that souls are alive in Sheol, whether tormented or comforted, makes an absurdity of God’s Word. If souls in Sheol are alive and conscious then Sheol is just as much “the land of the living” as life on earth is “the land of the living.” Yet, this would make nonsense of the Scriptures.
If life on earth is “the land of the living” then we naturally conclude that Sheol must be the land of not-living, the land of the dead.
Sheol: The Soulish Grave of “All the Living”
Notice what David exclaims to God after having been rescued from a life-threatening situation:
For you have delivered my soul from death
and my feet from falling
so that I may walk before God in the light of life.
Psalm 56:13 (NRSV)
Obviously David knew that Sheol was the state of death where “the dead know nothing” and where “there’s no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom” (Ecclesiastes 9:5,10). The only reason he could “walk before God in the light of life” was because God rescued his “soul from death.” He knew, as we’ve looked at before, that Sheol is a state where you cannot remember or praise God (Psalm 6:5). God used David himself to reveal this in Scripture. Thus, if the LORD hadn’t delivered him on this occasion, his soul would have dwelt in the silent darkness of non-existence.
This is the common spiritual grave of all humankind where the souls of non-born-again people go at physical death. No one had the opportunity to be reborn spiritually and receive immortality until Jesus died and was raised. Before that, all humanity went to Sheol, the soulish grave. This is why, when Joshua was nearing his time of death, he said he was “about to go the way of all the earth” (Joshua 23:14). What is “the way of all the earth”? Sheol, the graveyard of souls.
In complete agreement with Joshua, Job made the statement:
“I know that you [God] will bring me to death,
and to the house appointed for all the living”
Job 30:23 (NRSV)
What is “the house appointed for all the living”? Sheol, of course. Notice that Job makes it very clear that “all the living” would go there. That’s why Ethan the psalmist asked the rhetorical question: “Who can live and never see death? Who can escape the power of Sheol?” (Psalm 89:48 NRSV).
Thus Sheol can be described as the common grave of humankind. People’s bodies may, in fact, be housed in separate, individual graves, tombs, mausoleums or whatever all over the earth, but throughout history all people’s souls have shared the common spiritual grave, Sheol. We see this evident in Job 3:13-19 where Job says that, if he died, he would experience the sleep of death “with kings and counselors of the earth… with princes… There the wicked cease from troubling and there the weary are at rest. There the prisoners are at ease together… The small and great are there and the slaves are free from their master” (NRSV).
Job makes it clear that kings, counselors, princes, wicked people, weary people, prisoners, people of small and great social stature, and slaves will all be housed in the same condition together. Indeed, Sheol is the common grave of every soul throughout human history, “the house appointed for all the living,” as Job describes it above. The only people who can escape the power of Sheol are those who have obtained immortality by being spiritually reborn of the imperishable seed of Christ (1 Peter 1:23 & 1 John 3:9).
W.E. Vine, the Hebrew and Greek scholar, points out in his lexicon that Sheol/Hades “never denotes the grave” (286) and he’s technically right if, in fact, “grave” is referring to the physical hole, tomb or mausoleum where corpses are housed. As pointed out earlier in our study, the Hebrew word qeber (KEH-ber) is the biblical word used to specify this. However, although Sheol doesn’t refer to the literal physical grave where the body is buried, it can accurately be described as the grave of the soul—the common spiritual graveyard where all dead souls are housed.
We see this in Ezekiel 31:14-18 where it says that whole nations (which are likened to trees, e.g. “trees of Eden,” “cedars of Lebanon”) will go to “Sheol, to those slain by the sword… to the earth beneath; you will lie in the midst of the uncircumcised with those who were slain by the sword” (verses 17-18 NASB). Sheol is specifically mentioned three times in this passage (verses 15, 16 & 17) and the context clearly states that Sheol is death: “For they have all been given over to death, to the earth beneath” (verse 14 NASB). “The earth beneath” or “world below” (NRSV) is a descriptive phrase for Sheol, which we’ll analyze later. Note, incidentally that this passage describes souls as lying in Sheol with other dead people (verse 18). “Lie” is shakab (shaw-KAB) in the Hebrew, meaning “to lie down” or “sleep,” which indicates being in a horizontal or prostrate position as on a bed or the ground. The image is that of resting or sleeping, not writhing and wailing in constant roasting torment begging for less than a drop of water. The latter notion simply isn’t biblical. A belief that’s not biblical is false and, as such, is a false doctrine. It may be religious, it may be traditional in the sense that it goes back to the time of Augustine and the Pharisees, but it’s false nevertheless. A lie 1600-2000 years ago is still a lie today; the mere passage of time does not give credence to error.
My main point here is that, because of God’s judgment, whole nations of people will go to Sheol and lie together “in the midst of the uncircumcised.” This clearly shows that Sheol is indeed the common grave of all spiritually un-regenerated souls.
In the New International Version, which is the most popular modern translation of the Bible, Sheol is consistently translated as “the grave” in the Old Testament. At first, I considered this an improper translation of the word since Sheol does not technically refer to the physical grave where bodies are housed. However, as I studied the subject and discovered that Sheol clearly refers to the common graveyard of unregenerated souls, I’ve concluded that “the grave” is indeed a sound translation. (Unfortunately, some modern translations sometimes translate Hades as “hell,” which is erroneous because it gives the impression that Hades and the lake of fire—hell—are one-and-the-same, which they’re not, as seen in Revelation 20:11-15).
Lastly, by describing Sheol as the “common grave” of dead souls I don’t want to give the impression that the remains of souls are thrown into Sheol and placed haphazardly like a mass grave during wartime or what have you. In the section on Ezekiel 32:17-32 in SHEOL KNOW it is established that there are compartments and levels to Sheol. Whole nations of dead souls are kept in one section on a certain level and others elsewhere. Solomon mentioned the “chambers” of Sheol in Proverbs 7:27. Bodies are buried in earthly graveyards in an orderly fashion according to family, purchaser and sometimes even religious faith; for instance, there are Catholic cemeteries and church cemeteries where only those of that specific faith can be buried. Why would we think it would be any different for dead souls in Sheol?
Sheol and the Physical Grave: Distinct Yet Parallel
Although the physical grave (qeber) and the soulish grave (Sheol) are indeed separate terms in the Bible they are often mentioned in the same breath. Why? Obviously because the two go hand in hand—if an unredeemed person physically dies his or her soul goes to Sheol; if his/her soul is in Sheol it’s because s/he physically died. Simple, right? Let’s look at a few examples:
In Psalm 30:3 David says, “O LORD, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit” (NRSV). Here, again, David is praising God for deliverance from a life-threatening situation. On this occasion David was so close to death that he considered himself as good as dead; that’s why he symbolically exclaims, “you brought up my soul from Sheol [and] restored me to life.” David obviously didn’t literally die, but he came so close that he spoke as if he did. Also notice that David makes it clear that Sheol is the condition and place that souls specifically go to upon physical death; this is, of course, in contrast to the physical grave where bodies are housed. Take note as well that David describes Sheol as “the Pit,” a synonym for Sheol.
With this understanding, consider what David goes on to say in verse 9: “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?” (NRSV). Observe how David mentions “the Pit,” which is a reference to Sheol, and then in the very next breath asks, “Will the dust praise you?” “Dust” is definitely a reference to the physical grave (qeber) or tomb (qeburah) where the body is housed because dust is what (unpreserved) bodies revert to after death. The reason David refers to Sheol and the physical grave interchangeably is simply because the two, although distinct, go together.
We also see this in Psalm 88 where Heman prays for deliverance from a serious life-threatening situation. Starting with verse 3 Heman says, “For my soul is full of troubles and my life draws near to Sheol. 4 I am counted among those who go down to the Pit; I am like those who have no help, 5 like those forsaken among the dead like the slain that lie in the grave (qeber)” (NRSV). By saying his “life draws near to Sheol,” Heman is simply expressing how close he was to losing his life in this situation. Now observe what Heman declares in verses 10-12:
“Do you [God] work wonders for the dead?
Do the shades rise up to praise you?
11 Is your steadfast love declared in the grave (qeber),
or your faithfulness in abaddon [destruction]?
12 Are your wonders known in darkness,
or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?”
Psalm 88:10-12 (NRSV)
Heman specifically mentions Sheol in verse 3 and refers to it as “the Pit” in verse 4. His reference to “darkness” and “the land of forgetfulness” in verse 12 are also references to Sheol, although they could arguably apply to the physical grave as well. In addition, he refers to Sheol as “regions dark and deep” in verse 6. He also mentions the literal grave, qeber, in verses 5 and 11.
Why is this important to our subject? I just want to show how Sheol and the physical grave are sometimes noted in the very same breath. Although Sheol refers to the soulish grave—“gravedom”—where un-regenerated souls go and qeber refers to the physical grave where bodies are laid to rest, both terms are parallel and signify the same condition: DEATH, the cessation of life. Qeber signifies the utter absence of life in the physical realm and Sheol denotes the utter absence of conscious life period.
Because Sheol and qeber are sometimes spoken of in the same breath some theologians have mistakenly theorized that Sheol refers to the physical grave, at least in the context in question. Yet, Sheol is repeatedly described in the Scriptures as a place and condition where immaterial souls go, not bodies. This has been firmly established in our study. As such, the idea that Sheol refers to the physical grave must be rejected.
Our conclusion is that Sheol and qeber are distinct yet parallel terms in the Bible; they have separate definitions but naturally go together. Being parallel terms, they signify the same thing—death, the absence of life. Is there any life in a physical grave? No. Neither is there life in Sheol, the soulish grave. Is a grave meant for anything other than that which is dead? No. The same goes for Sheol. Both terms, though distinct, denote the utter absence of life.
This presents a problem for the religious view which teaches that Sheol/Hades is a nether realm where unrighteous souls exist in a state of conscious torment desperately hoping for less than a drop of water for relief while Old Testament saints hang out in paradise with father Abraham. If this were so, Sheol and qeber couldn’t possibly be sister terms. Why? Because qeber would signify the utter absence of life whereas Sheol would refer to the express opposite—conscious life in a spiritual dimension, whether in misery or bliss. They wouldn’t be parallel terms at all if they represent two opposite conditions.
Job Spoke of “Sheol” and “Dust” in a Parallel Sense
The above explains why Job spoke of Sheol and “the dust” as parallel concepts:
“If I look for Sheol as my home,
I make my bed in the darkness;
14 If I call to the pit, ‘You are my father’;
To the worm, ‘my mother and my sister’;
15 Where now is my hope?
And who regards my hope?
16 Will it go down with me to Sheol?
Shall we together go down into the dust?”
Job 17:13-16 (NASB)
Job’s suffering was so great that he considered himself on the verge of death, which is why he says he’s looking for Sheol as his home in verse 13 and equates it with making his “bed in the darkness.”
This is synthetic parallelism where related thoughts are brought together to show similarities or some other correlation, including contrast. In this case, Job says that if he makes Sheol his home he will “make his bed in darkness.” Does this sound like Job will be conscious and active in Sheol, chummin’ around with father Abraham in some nether-paradise? No, he’ll “make his bed in darkness,” which perfectly coincides with his earlier statement that, if he died and went to Sheol, he’d be “lying down… asleep and at rest.” (Job 3:13). He’d be ‘sleeping’ the ‘sleep’ of death in his “bed in darkness.”
Verse 16 is another example of parallelism where the second part of the verse essentially restates the first part in different words: “Will it [hope] go down with me to Sheol? Shall we together go down into the dust?”
Job is obviously likening the soulish grave—Sheol—to the physical grave or tomb where the body returns to dust. Why? Because, as noted in the previous section, Sheol and the physical grave/tomb are distinct yet parallel concepts; they are different but go together. Being parallel, they signify the same thing—death, the absence of life. Is there any life in a physical grave? Neither is there life in Sheol, the soulish grave. The physical grave or tomb isn’t meant for anything other than that which is dead. The same goes for Sheol. Both terms, although distinct, denote the absence of life.
People Who Go to Sheol are “No More”
David says something interesting in Psalm 39 while lamenting about God’s severe discipline and the brevity of life:
Look away from me, that I may enjoy life again
before I depart and am no more.”
We don’t know what David’s sin was or the nature of God’s discipline, but the psalm shows David’s suffering and his forlorn reflections on the transient nature of life. God’s hand of discipline was so heavy that David no longer even enjoyed living and was concerned for his very life, which is why he asks the LORD to look away from him before he departs—dies—and is “no more.”
Please notice what David does not say. He doesn’t say, “Look away from me… before I depart and share fellowship with Abraham in the paradise compartment of Sheol.” This belief makes utter nonsense of the passage because it’s not true. David knew that if he died he’d go to Sheol and be “no more,” meaning he’d be dead—his conscious life would expire as the breath of life returned to the LORD and his soulish remains would go to Sheol to ‘rest’ in death.
This is not an isolated example as there are many other passages revealing that those who die and go to Sheol are “no more.” This can be observed with the king of Tyre in Ezekiel 28:7-8,18-19. Another example is Psalm 59 where David prays that the LORD would hold his adversaries accountable for their sins:
12 For the sins of their mouths,
for the words of their lips,
let them be caught in their pride.
For the curses and lies they utter
13 consume them in your wrath,
consume them till they are no more.
Then it will be known to the ends of the earth
that God rules over Jacob.
Notice that David doesn’t say, “Consume them until they physically die and their souls go to Sheol where they’ll suffer constant fiery torment.” Why doesn’t he phrase it like this? Because—again—it’s simply not true. It’s a false doctrine; a religious myth. When God’s wrath fell, David’s enemies would die and be “no more” because their soul would go to Sheol, which is the “world of the dead,” not the world of fiery conscious torture or the world of chummin’ with father Abraham in bliss.
Here’s an example from the LORD Himself against the city of Tyre:
“This is what the Sovereign LORD says: ‘When I make you a desolate city, like cities no longer inhabited, and when I bring the ocean depths over you and its vast waters cover you, 20 then I will bring you down with those who go down to the pit, to the people of long ago. I will make you dwell in the earth below, as in ancient ruins, with those who go down to the pit, and you will not return or take your place in the land of the living. 21 I will bring you to a horrible end and you will be no more. You will be sought, but you will never again be found, declares the Sovereign LORD’.”
When God’s judgment falls on Tyre it will become a desolate city as the inhabitants will be wiped off the face of this earth. Verse 20 shows that they will go to the “the pit” and “the earth below,” which are synonyms for Sheol; verse 21 elaborates that this is a “horrible end” where they will be “no more.” Please notice that going to Sheol is spoken by God as a horrible END and not the beginning of a life of roasting torture until their resurrection on judgment day. When these people go to Sheol they will be “no more” because Sheol is the “world of the dead,” which is in contrast to life on earth, the “land of the living” (verse 20). In other words, if life on earth is the “land of the living” then Sheol must be the land of the dead where souls rest in the ‘sleep’ of death until their resurrection. Take note: God Himself describes their condition in Sheol as being “no more,” which mirrors His description in Ezekiel 28:7-8,18-19.
For more examples see Genesis 42:13,32,36, Job 7:21, Psalm 104:35 and Isaiah 26:14.
The Fire of God’s Wrath “Burns Down to Sheol Below”
Sheol and death are synonymous terms in the sense that unredeemed people who die go to Sheol and are “no more.”
As such, they only ‘experience’ the condition of death, which makes sense of something the LORD says in the Song of Moses:
21 “They made me jealous by what is no god
and angered me with their worthless idols.
I will make them envious by those who are not a people;
I will make them angry by a nation that has no understanding.
22 For a fire will be kindled by my wrath,
one that burns down to the realm of the dead
It will devour the earth and its harvests
and set afire the foundations of the mountains.
23 I will heap calamities on them
and spend my arrows against them.
24 I will send wasting famine against them,
consuming pestilence and deadly plague;
I will send against them the fangs of wild beasts,
the venom of vipers that glide in the dust.
25 In the street the sword will make them childless;
in their homes terror will reign.
The young men and young women will perish,
the infants and those with gray hair.”
Those who claim that Sheol is a torture chamber in the heart of the earth where unrighteous souls suffer constant roasting torment until their resurrection on Judgment Day sometimes cite verse 22 to support their view, but they’re not too enthusiastic about it because it lacks the diabolical details inherent to their position. Thankfully, the meaning of the verse is clear within the context.
The LORD Himself is speaking and His verbiage shows Him to be quite angry. Verse 21 reveals why: the Israelites engaged in unrepentant idolatry and therefore a “fire” was kindled by God’s wrath that “burns down to the realm of the dead below” (verse 22). The “realm of the dead below” refers to Sheol while the “fire” is figurative of the punishment that will be inflicted on the unrepentant due to God’s wrath, provoked by their stubborn idolatrous spirit. Their precise punishment is detailed in the rest of the passage:
- The Israelites’ crops will fail (verse 22).
- The LORD will “heap calamities” on them and many will perish as God spends his “arrows against them” (verse 23).
- The failure of their crops will result in famine (verse 24).
- God will send a “deadly plague” (verse 24).
- They will be struck down by the “fangs of wild beasts” and the “venom of vipers” (verse 24).
- On the streets and in their homes “the sword” will take them out, which is figurative of any deadly weapon of evildoers or foreign invaders (verse 25).
- God’s sentence for the community of idolaters—young and old—is death, for that is the wages of sin (verse 25).
While this might seem like a harsh punishment it’s in line with the terms of the Old Covenant that the LORD had with the Hebrews. The terms were simple: blessings for obedience to God’s law and curses for disobedience (see Deuteronomy 28). If the Israelites were willing to humbly repent of their idolatry it would’ve resulted in God’s mercy and forgiveness, but this obviously wasn’t the case. They were obstinate about their sin.
As you can see from the passage itself, the LORD’s wrath against the idolatrous Israelites would result in the sentence of death through various means. This explains why verse 22 says that the fire of God’s wrath burns down to the realm of the dead below—because the outcome of God’s wrath is death for “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). The souls of those who die would be housed in the realm of the dead in the heart of the earth below, i.e. Sheol.
You see? The passage is simple to understand when you grasp both the nature of Sheol and the biblical penalty for sin—death, not constant fiery torture.
With this understanding, notice that absolutely nothing is said about souls in Sheol suffering roasting torment without a tiny bit of water for relief; neither is anything said about a “paradise” compartment that also supposedly exists in Sheol. Why not? Because they’re false doctrines foreign to the Scriptures.
“Gathered to His People”
Let’s now consider an interesting phrase that is often used in the Old Testament to describe the perishing of an Israelite. Notice what the LORD tells Moses at the end of his life:
“There on the mountain that you have climbed you will die and be gathered to your people, just as your brother Aaron died on Mount Hor and was gathered to his people.”
What does “gathered to your people” mean? We know it’s linked to the death of a person, but does it refer to the body being placed in a tomb amongst others from one’s people? No, this phrase refers to the soul going to Sheol. For proof consider a similar statement in the previous chapter of Deuteronomy:
The LORD said to Moses, “Soon you will lie down with your ancestors. Then this people will begin to prostitute themselves to the foreign gods in their midst, the gods of the land into which they are going; they will forsake me, breaking my covenant that I have made with them.”
Deuteronomy 31:16 (NRSV)
God informs Moses that he was soon going to die and describes it in terms of “lying down with his ancestors,” which—like “gathered to his people”—refers to his soul going to Sheol, the graveyard of dead souls. We know that God wasn’t referring to Moses’ body “lying down with his ancestors” because Moses’ body was not buried with his forefathers, but in an unknown grave in Moab, as shown in Deuteronomy 34:6. With this understanding, notice that God Himself describes the condition of the soul in Sheol in terms of lying down, which corresponds to Sheol as the condition of death where dead souls ‘sleep’ in death until their resurrection.
Let’s observe further proof that being “gathered to his people” refers to the soul “lying down” in Sheol and not to the dead body resting in a tomb:
When Jacob had finished giving instructions to his sons, he drew his feet up into the bed, breathed his last and was gathered to his people.
And the following verses of the next chapter:
Joseph threw himself on his father and wept over him and kissed him. 2 Then Joseph directed the physicians in his service to embalm his father Israel. So the physicians embalmed him,
The instant Jacob breathed his last breath he was “gathered to his people.” He of course left behind his physical shell and that’s what Joseph throws himself on in grief.
Additional proof can be observed in an earlier statement that Jacob made to Joseph:
When the time drew near for Israel [Jacob] to die, he called for his son Joseph and said to him, “If I have found favor in your eyes, put your hand under my thigh and promise that you will show me kindness and faithfulness. Do not bury me in Egypt, (30) but when I rest with my fathers, carry me out of Egypt and bury me where they are buried.”
Whether Jacob’s body was buried in Canaan or not he acknowledged that he would “rest with his fathers.” Where? In Sheol, the graveyard of dead souls.
These verses show that being “gathered to his people” is not a reference to the body, but rather to the soul going to Sheol and being laid to rest with the deceased’s countrymen: Jacob died and his soul—his immaterial being—was “gathered to his people” and Joseph subsequently gave directions about the embalming of Jacob’s body.
We discovered in a previous section that dead souls in Sheol are laid to rest according to nation, family and so on (see The Longest and Most Detailed Passage on Sheol). Earlier in this study we saw that the Hebrew word bowr (borr) is used as a synonym for Sheol, meaning “pit,” “well” or “dungeon.” Moreover, Proverbs 7:27 suggests that there are “chambers” or orderly sections to Sheol. As such, Sheol is a colossal pit or dungeon in the underworld where dead souls are housed until their resurrection. Sheol has levels and chambers where dead souls are “laid to rest” in an orderly fashion, according to nation, clan and family, much the way that bodies are buried in earthly graveyards or put in tombs or mausoleums in an orderly fashion according to citizenship, family, purchaser and sometimes even religious faith.
So when the Bible talks about Aaron, Moses, Jacob and others dying and being “gathered to their people” it means that their dead souls went to Sheol—the graveyard of souls—where they were laid to rest with their countrymen, tribe and family in an orderly fashion, just as the warriors of Egypt and other pagan nations were laid to rest with their countrymen, as seen in Ezekiel 32:17-32. It doesn’t mean that they went to Sheol and consciously hanged out with their dead loved ones and enjoyed sweet communion in a supposed paradise compartment of Sheol, as some teach. This is a false doctrine that’s incompatible with the Scriptures. After all, when the phrase “gathered to his people” is used, as well as any reference to a person dying and going to Sheol, does the passage say anything anywhere about them being conscious and buddying around with their countrymen in Sheol? No. On the contrary, the language is always that of lying down, “sleeping” in death, being silent, not being able to remember or praise God, resting, being “no more,” and so on. It’s the language of the condition of death, the state of utter non-being, which means the absence of consciousness.
In Genesis 50:1 above we observe Joseph mourning greatly for his father, as does the entire family and others nine verses later:
When they reached the threshing floor of Atad, near the Jordan, they lamented loudly and bitterly; and there Joseph observed a seven-day period of mourning for his father.
Why all the loud, bitter lamentations if Jacob went down to a nether-paradise to fellowship with father Abraham? Jacob reacted the same way when he was informed that Joseph was dead, as shown near the beginning of this article (Genesis 37:34-35). Such a reaction makes no sense if Old Testament saints went to a conscious life of bliss where they communed with their countrymen. If this were the case, would he be “mourning” and “bewailing” him so grievously? Of course not. Someone might argue that Joseph and the other family members were grieving over their own personal loss and not the destination of Jacob’s disembodied soul. If this were so, wouldn’t they likely exclaim something to the effect of, “Praise you LORD that our father is now in the comforting presence of Abraham, and we will one day go to this same paradise to reunite with them.” Yet they say nothing of the kind; in fact, their reaction is completely opposite to this. Why? Because the idea that Sheol is a place where souls are conscious and holy people of the Old Testament went to paradise with father Abraham is a false doctrine.
Wicked Kings “Rested with their Fathers”
As noted in Genesis 47:30 above, Jacob spoke of dying in terms of “resting with his fathers.” Interestingly, this same phrase is used in reference to wicked kings in the Old Testament. For instance, these first two references refer to two of the worst kings of Judah:
So Joram [aka Jehoram] rested with his fathers, and was buried with his fathers in the City of David.
2 Kings 8:24 (NKJV)
So Ahaz rested with his fathers, and was buried with his fathers in the City of David.
2 Kings 16:20 (NKJV)
Please notice that, in both cases, “rested with his fathers” is differentiated from their bodies being buried. In other words, “resting with their fathers” is a reference to their souls going to Sheol where they were “gathered to their people,” as detailed in the previous section.
These next two verses refer to the wickedest kings of the northern kingdom of Israel:
So Omri rested with his fathers and was buried in Samaria. Then Ahab his son reigned in his place.
1 Kings 16:28 (NKJV)
So Ahab rested with his fathers. Then Ahaziah his son reigned in his place.
1 Kings 22:40 (NKJV)
Like righteous Jacob, these wicked kings and many others are said to have “rested with their fathers” when they physically perished. The Hebrew for “rested” is shakab (shaw-KAB), which literally means “to lie down,” “sleep” or “slept.” They obviously “lied down” or “slept” in the figurative sense of ‘sleeping’ in death in Sheol, the graveyard of dead souls, until their resurrection to be judged.
While these kings were all Israelites they were wicked leaders who turned the Hebrews away from the LORD. In fact, Ahaz was the worst king of Judah; and Omri and Ahab were the evilest kings of the northern kingdom. If the doctrine that Sheol is a place of conscious existence where wicked souls suffer constant fiery torment and righteous souls are comforted in paradise, then these four kings would’ve certainly gone to the torments section, right? Yet there’s no indication of this in these passages because it’s a false doctrine. These evil kings died and they “rested with their fathers” in Sheol. That’s what the Bible plainly teaches.
THE NEW TESTAMENT and Sheol (Hades)
Now we’re going to examine references to Sheol (Hades) in the New Testament other than Jesus’ Parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus. We’ll look at direct and indirect references to Hades, as well as every passage that people cite to argue that Sheol is a state of conscious existence for human souls.
“The Gates of Hades will Not Overcome It”
Let’s start with an interesting statement Jesus made in response to Peter’s confession that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the living God”:
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.
What is the “rock” on which Jesus said he would build his church in verse 18? It’s not Peter whose name in Greek, petros, means “stone.” The “rock” on which Jesus would build his church is petra, meaning “large rock” or “bedrock.” When you’re driving on an interstate highway and pass through a section with sheer rock cliffs on either side it’s obvious that the road workers blasted through a big hill or mountain. When I see this I can’t help but marvel at the solid mass of rock underlying the topsoil. This is petra or bedrock. Figuratively speaking, Jesus said his church would be built on such bedrock—an incredible mass of solid rock. What is this “rock”? It’s the revelation—the fact—that Jesus is the Christ or Messiah, the Son of the Living God, who died for humanity’s sins and was raised to life for our justification, disarming all diabolical powers and authorities. This is the gospel or “good news.” Jesus’ church is built on this incredibly good news. It is through this gospel that people escape bondage to the kingdom of darkness and become part of God’s kingdom (Colossians 1:13).
Why did Jesus emphasize Peter’s name, petros? Because, although Peter was just a little “stone,” he would become a part of the bedrock of the church of Jesus Christ, as are all believers. We’re all little “stones” that together make up the bedrock of the church, Christ’s body on earth!
Jesus adds in verse 18 that the “gates of Hades” would not overcome his church. The “gates of Hades” was a colloquial Jewish phrase for death, which makes sense since Hades (or Sheol in Hebrew) is the realm of the dead and consequently a person would have to physically die to go there. In other words, physical death was the “gate” to enter Hades. With the understanding that the “gates of Hades” refers to death, Jesus was saying that even death, Satan’s ultimate weapon (Hebrews 2:14-15), couldn’t stop the Messiah from birthing and unleashing his church. And it didn’t. He was raised to life and the rest is history. Furthermore, death has no power to destroy the church, period. Every Satanic attempt to wipe out believers and stop the church’s spread has failed. In fact, the blood of genuine martyrs has always served to advance God’s kingdom rather than diminish it; for example, Stephan from Acts 7:59-8:4.
Peter’s Reaction to the Prospect of Jesus Dying and Going to Sheol
An interesting insight on the nature of Sheol can be observed from Peter’s response to Jesus’ declaration that he was going to be crucified and rise again three days later:
From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”
23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
Notice that Jesus doesn’t tell his disciples that he will be physically killed and live in a conscious state in Sheol for three days and then be raised to physical life. No, he plainly informs them that he will be killed and only raised to life three days later. This is in harmony with the notion that Sheol is the graveyard of souls where dead souls are housed until their resurrection. It doesn’t support the idea that souls are conscious and either fellowshipping with father Abraham in paradise or suffering constant roasting torment.
This, in turn, is verified by Peter’s response where he literally rebukes the Messiah: “Never, Lord!” Why would Peter have such a negative reaction to Jesus’ crucifixion if it resulted in him going to paradise for three days to chum with Abraham? This is just further testimony to the fact that Jesus’ Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is a fantastical tale given to rebuke the Pharisees and proclaim the main theme of the New Testament and not a literal accounting of the nature of Sheol.
Jesus’ Transfiguration and the Appearance of Moses & Elijah
The “transfiguration” refers to the occasion where Jesus took Peter, James and John up a high mountain whereupon the Lord was gloriously transfigured before them. Moses and Elijah then appeared and talked to Jesus. Let’s read the passage:
Six days later Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up on a high mountain by themselves. 2 And He was transfigured before them; and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light. 3 And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. 4 Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, I will make three tabernacles here, one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and behold, a voice out of the cloud said, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell face down to the ground and were terrified. 7 And Jesus came to them and touched them and said, “Get up, and do not be afraid.” 8 And lifting up their eyes, they saw no one except Jesus Himself alone.
9 As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, “Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.”
Matthew 17:1-9 (NRSV)
Did Moses and Elijah actually appear to Jesus on the mountain and talk to him? If so, how was this possible? There are two general explanations:
1. After his spectacular transfiguration, Jesus said to his disciples, “Tell the vision to no man” (Matthew 17:9). The Lord referred to what they saw as a vision. A vision is not a material reality, but a supernatural picture seen in the mind or eyes. This same Greek word for “vision” was used in reference to Peter’s vision of the unclean beasts being made clean (Acts 10:3,17,19 &11:5). This leads to the possibility that Elijah and Moses were not real but a supernatural picture. If this was the case, the transfiguration was perhaps a prophetic vision of that which would take place in the distant future. Peter, James and John saw the Son of Man glorified in the Kingdom and communing with Moses & Elijah in this vision.
Although this seems like a plausible explanation since Jesus himself specifically called it a vision, it’s weak in that Jesus was seen talking to Moses and Elijah. If these two figures were, in fact, a vision why would Jesus—who is real in this situation, not a vision—talk with “them”? It makes no sense.
There’s a better explanation:
2. Elijah & Moses literally came “down” from heaven and visited Jesus on the mountain. The evidence for this position is that Elijah escaped death and Sheol altogether and was spectacularly translated to heaven (2 Kings 2:11). This is apparently what happened to Enoch as well (Genesis 5:24). As for Moses, we know he wasn’t translated to heaven like Elijah because the Bible shows that he died and the LORD kept his gravesite hidden, but there’s evidence that he was resurrected from Sheol and went to heaven.
To explain, consider something discussed in the earlier section Samuel, Saul & the Witch of Endor (and Elijah & Moses):
In the Old Testament period people’s souls went to Sheol at the point of physical death and the animating breath of life returned to the Almighty. They subsequently ‘sleep’ in death until their resurrection; this included both the righteous and the unrighteous in periods preceding the ascension of Christ. Elijah and Enoch were exceptions. They bypassed death—Sheol—and were supernaturally translated to heaven in the same manner that believers will be during the Rapture of the church. God is the all-knowing, all-powerful Sovereign Creator of the universe who occasionally chooses to treat some differently; and he chose to spare these two from death—Sheol—for His own purposes. What was God’s purpose in making these exceptions? To offer Old Testament examples of the resurrection of New Testament believers, specifically translation to heaven, which is what will happen when the Rapture occurs. Believers who die before the Rapture are translated as well, it’s just that their souls are translated to heaven first—when they physically die—and subsequently experience a bodily resurrection at the time of the Rapture where they receive new glorified bodies.
Since Elijah was already alive in heaven it wouldn’t be a problem for him to appear to Jesus on the Mountain and speak with him. The Scriptures also offer evidence that Moses was in heaven, along with Elijah and Enoch; in other words, although Moses certainly died and his body was buried, he too was resurrected to heaven after a brief time in Sheol. What proof is there of this?
Deuteronomy 34:5-6 shows that Moses physically died and his body was buried in Moab, but no one knows exactly where because the LORD—who buried him—intentionally wanted it kept hidden, likely to keep his gravesite from becoming an idolatrous shrine, which would’ve been a stumbling block to the Israelites. With this understanding, there’s a curious passage about Moses’ body in the New Testament:
But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not himself dare to condemn him for slander but said, “The Lord rebuke you!”
This passage leaves you scratching your head. Why would Michael be arguing with Satan over Moses’ body after his death? Obviously the LORD did something extraordinary with Moses.
As you can see in the verse, Michael is described as an “archangel,” literally meaning an angel of the highest ranking. The Greek word for “archangel” is only used twice in the New Testament—here and 1 Thessalonians 4:16—the latter addressing the bodily resurrection of believers. Michael is also associated with the resurrection of the dead in Daniel 12:1-2. This offers evidence that Michael is God’s chief servant in the process of the resurrection of the dead. With this in mind, Jude 9 shows Michael arguing with the devil about Moses’ body, which suggests that Moses was resurrected from the dead at some point after his death.
The Scriptures are like a puzzle when it comes to topics like this and we have to put the pieces together based on the evidence God provides in his Word. From this evidence—even if it’s scant—we can draw possible conclusions; and the evidence at hand points to Moses being bodily resurrected sometime after his death and going to heaven. Before this resurrection his soul was dead in Sheol for a time, as shown in the earlier section“Gathered to His People”.
After Christ’s transfiguration, Jesus told his three closest disciples not to mention the supernatural event to anyone else until he was resurrected from the dead (Matthew 17:9 & Mark 9:9). Why? Because they didn’t yet understand the resurrection unto eternal life, which includes three general types:
- Believers going straight to heaven when they die and their later bodily resurrection at the time of the Rapture of the church (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18); this type of resurrection also includes people who become believers during the Tribulation and die (Revelation 20:4-6), as well as mortal believers during the Millennium; the latter will be similar to the time of the Rapture in which dead believers will be resurrected and living believers will be transformed from mortal to immortal.
- The translation of physically living believers at the Rapture, which includes the miraculous transformation of their bodies from mortal to immortal (1 Corinthians 15:51-54 & 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). This will take place at the end of the Millennium as well.
- The resurrection of the righteous from periods preceding the resurrection of Christ, which will take place at the time of Christ’s Second Coming after the Tribulation and before the millennial reign (Daniel 12:1-2 & Matthew 19:28-30); keep in mind, however, that there may be an earlier soulish resurrection of these Old Testament saints, which is addressed in this article.
What Peter, James and John saw on the mountain when Jesus was transfigured were examples of these three types of resurrections. Think about it: Elijah was supernaturally translated to heaven while Moses and Jesus were resurrected sometime after their physical decease. As such, Elijah represents the “type 2” resurrection specifically and “type 1” generally (as does Enoch); and Moses and Jesus represent “type 3.”
Another reason Moses & Elijah appeared to Jesus is that they represent the law and prophets respectively. Jesus was The Prophet who fulfilled the law and implemented a superior covenant (Hebrews 8:6). Again, Enoch, Moses and Elijah were types of the first resurrection, which is the resurrection of the righteous (covered here). Perhaps the LORD wanted types from each era of history: Enoch represented the righteous populace before the flood; Moses the deliverance of the Hebrews from Egypt and establishment of the theocracy of Israel; and Elijah the kingdom of Israel.
An Objection to Elijah & Moses Going to Heaven
Some object to the idea that Elijah & Moses (and Enoch) went to heaven based on a statement Jesus made:
No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.
This statement seems to contradict the scriptural evidence above, that Elijah and Moses ascended to heaven as examples of the forthcoming resurrections of the righteous. But since God’s Word is truth and cannot contradict itself we must apply the hermeneutical rules: 1. Scripture interprets Scripture and 2. context is king. When we do this all will make sense and the passages will harmonize with each other.
Let’s first establish what the Bible clearly says about Elijah’s last moments on earth:
As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.
2 Kings 2:11
As you can see, there’s no getting around the fact that Elijah was supernaturally translated to heaven at the end of his earthly life because it’s what God’s Word explicitly says. This explains how he was available to talk to Jesus at the Transfiguration and also how he was one of the two prophets from Revelation 11:1-14, the other being Moses, which is clear in the passage (and we’ll address it in the next section).
As detailed in the previous section, Elijah and Moses went to heaven as respective types of the resurrections of New Testament believers and Old Testament saints.
Since we know for a fact that Elijah did ascend to heaven as a type of raptured believers, how are we to interpret John 3:13? Again, Scripture interprets Scripture and context is king. Let’s read the passage with the surrounding verses, which is the context:
I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
The Messiah was contextually talking to Nicodemus, a leading Bible scholar of his day, and Jesus was answering the question of Proverbs 30:4: “Who has gone up to heaven and come down?” The answer, of course, is Jesus himself—he both came down from heaven to become a man and later ascended to heaven 40 days after his resurrection. Jesus then presents the gospel message to Nicodemus in verses 14-15 and the Bible implies that he later embraced it (see John 7:50-51 & 19:38-42). As you can see, the gospel message is rooted in believing in the One the Father lifted up—Jesus Christ who ascended to heaven.
So the context of John 3:13 is that of a person who both came from heaven and ascended to heaven and only one person fits that description, Jesus Christ. Elijah didn’t come from heaven; he was only translated to heaven as an Old Testament example of the raptured believer in the New Testament, as well as believers in general. Neither did Moses come from heaven; he died and went to Sheol but was later resurrected as an example of the resurrection of Old Testament saints.
People have to be careful not to take one passage out of its context, like John 3:13, and disregard clear scriptural evidence stated elsewhere, like the fact that Elijah was indeed translated to heaven (Enoch too); as well as the less overt evidence that Moses was resurrected and went to heaven.
“To Him (God) all are Alive”
Let’s now examine a passage of Scripture sometimes cited to argue that souls in Sheol are alive and conscious:
Some of the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus with a question. 28 “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman and died childless. 30 The second 31 and then the third married her, and in the same way the seven died, leaving no children. 32 Finally, the woman died too. 33 Now then, at the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?”
34 Jesus replied, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. 35 But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, 36 and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection. 37 But in the account of the burning bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ 38 He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all [of these] are alive.”
The topic here is the resurrection of the dead, not whether or not souls are conscious in Sheol awaiting their resurrection. Any unbiased reader who has read up to this point in this article realizes that God’s Word makes it clear that souls in Sheol are unconscious because they’re dead and know nothing. The remains of their souls in Sheol await resurrection. In this passage and the parallel passages (Matthew 22:23-33 & Mark 12:18-27) the resurrection of the dead is the subject, which the Sadducees didn’t believe in. So Jesus was not arguing for the immortality of the soul apart from Christ, but rather that the righteous dead would be resurrected to eternal life and attain a full state of immortality. This is why Jesus said “and they can no longer die” in verse 36, which of course indicates that they could die previously.
Let’s now consider verse 37. Christ said that Moses showed at the burning bush that “the dead rise…”. Again we observe that the topic is the resurrection of the dead, not whether or not people are conscious in Sheol. Secondly, notice that the Lord plainly describes souls in Sheol as “the dead.” These people are dead, not alive, conscious and buddying around with Abraham!
The Messiah goes on to point out that Moses referred to the LORD at the burning bush as “the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” To which Jesus points out: “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all [of these] are alive.” The meaning is obvious within the context of the resurrection of the dead, which the Sadducees didn’t believe in: As far as God is concerned, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were all alive because they were to be resurrected from the dead, as covered in the previous section. Just the same, the New Testament refers to unbelievers as “dead in their transgressions” even while they’re fully alive at present (Ephesians 2:5). In other words, they’re alive now, but God sees them as dead because he views reality from an eternal perspective and not a temporal one.
As you can see, Jesus’ statement was a correction to the Sadducees who didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead.
“You’ll be with Me in Paradise”
Some claim that righteous people of the Old Testament era experienced “paradise” in the compartment of Sheol they call “Abraham’s Bosom” based on a literal reading of Jesus’ Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. They cite Jesus’ statement to the repentant thief on the cross as proof of this:
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
40 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
43 Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Jesus obviously discerned a repentant spirit in this thief and faith for salvation (Acts 20:21). As such, he was promising the former criminal paradise when he was resurrected, possibly when Jesus later ascended (Ephesians 4:8); if not, at his Second Coming (Daniel 12:1-2 & Matthew 19:28-30). Some argue that Jesus told the man he’d be with him in paradise that very day. We know, of course, that the Lord said no such thing because Christ didn’t go to “paradise” the day he died; he literally died and his dead soul laid in Sheol for three days until he was resurrected. This obviously was not “paradise,” but rather the penalty of sin—death—which Jesus experienced in our place as our substitutionary death.
So what “paradise” was Jesus referring to and when would he and this repentant thief experience it? The Greek word is only used three times in Scripture. Other than Jesus’ statement in Luke 23:43, Paul referred to “paradise” as currently being in heaven in 2 Corinthians 12:4, which is substantiated by Revelation 2:7. Since the latter verse states that the tree of life is in this paradise, it’s likely a reference to the Garden of Eden (see Genesis 2:9 and 3:22-24), which was evidently removed from this fallen earth after Adam’s banishment, to be replaced one day when God makes the earth and universe new—new in the sense of removing the stain of evil and death, as well as other changes, like making worthless desert landscapes blossom and bloom (Revelation 21:1-4). Again, we know Jesus didn’t go to paradise that day, but to Sheol. He was dead and resurrected three days later. Forty days after that Jesus ascended to heaven where this paradise is located.
As already noted, Jesus may have resurrected Old Testament saints from Sheol at this time—including this ex-thief who was crucified with him. If so, this passage seems to support this possibility:
“When he [Jesus] ascended on high,
he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.”
When Jesus was crucified & resurrected he triumphed over the powers of darkness (Colossians 2:15). Paul said of this, “he was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Romans 4:25). The apostle was referring to the justification of all those who believe according to the new covenant, of course, but also to the holy people of the Old Testament period who had already passed away. In our new covenant believers don’t go to Sheol when they die because they’ve been born-again of the imperishable seed of Christ (1 Peter 1:3,23); as such, they bypass Sheol and go straight to heaven to await their forthcoming bodily resurrection (Philippians 1:21-24 & 2 Corinthians 5:8). Death—Sheol—has no power over believers who are reborn of the seed of Christ by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 15:55-57). Old Testament saints, on the other hand, had to go to Sheol when they physically died because Jesus hadn’t yet died for their sins or been raised to life for their justification. This includes the repentant thief whom Jesus informed would be with him in paradise, which—as we’ve seen—is located in heaven, not Sheol. As covered earlier, Enoch, Elijah and Moses were the only exceptions in the Old Testament period because they were types and shadows of the resurrection of the redeemed. After Jesus was resurrected, righteous souls no longer had to go to Sheol because justification was made available.
All this renders Luke 23:43 nonsensical because Jesus said to the ex-thief, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” The idea that Jesus went straight to paradise when he died—whether in heaven or anywhere else—simply isn’t supported by the rest of Scripture. This violates the hermeneutical law “Scripture interprets Scripture.” The contradiction is easily solved, however, by simply placing a comma in the appropriate spot in the text. Keep in mind that there was no punctuation in the original Greek text; consequently, translators have to determine where punctuation marks go, like commas and so on. Also bear in mind that the Greek word for “today” literally means ‘this day’ or ‘now.’ With these facts in mind, the passage makes perfect sense simply by changing the placement of one comma in the English text like so: “Assuredly, I tell you this day, you will be with me in paradise.”
So Christ wasn’t telling the ex-thief that he’d be with him in paradise that very day; no, he was telling him that day he’d be with him in paradise, meaning the ex-thief would be with Jesus in paradise in heaven when his soul was resurrected from Sheol, whether that occurred 43 days later when Jesus ascended or much later at Christ’s Second Coming is regardless. Keep in mind that time is of no significance when you’re dead in Sheol.
Those who disagree have to find scriptural support that Jesus went straight to some paradise upon physical death, which they can’t do; so this is the appropriate way to read the verse. Of course, some cite Jesus’ parable of the rich man and beggar, suggesting that “Abraham’s bosom” was a paradise, but the overwhelming evidence supplied throughout this book disproves that theory.
“You will Go Down to Hades”
Jesus condemned three villages of northern Israel on the grounds that the wicked pagan cities of Tyre, Sidon and Sodom would have all repented if they experienced his miraculous ministry:
Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”
Jesus says that it will be “more bearable… on the day of judgment” for the wicked cities of Tyre, Sidon and Sodom than for these three Israelite towns. He was talking about the Great White Throne Judgment where people will be resurrected from Sheol (Hades), nation by nation, and judged, as shown here:
Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. 13 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 they had done. 14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. 15 Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.
Notice the sequence of events: Unredeemed souls are resurrected from Hades (Sheol) and judged according to what they had done; then death and Hades (Sheol) are cast into the lake of fire, which is defined as the “second death.” Then anyone whose name is not found written in the book of life will be thrown into the lake of fire.
This massive judgment takes place right before the establishment of the “new heaven and new earth,” the eternal home of righteousness where “there will be no more death” (Revelation 21:1-5 & 2 Peter 3:13). How is it that there will be no more death? Because, as you can see above, Revelation 20:14 says that death and Hades (Sheol) will be thrown into the lake of fire. As we’ve seen throughout this study, death and Sheol go hand in hand because when an unredeemed person dies their body goes to the grave (“death”) and their soul to Sheol (“Hades”). Both are cast into the lake of fire—probably symbolically—and so “there will be no more death” in the eternal age of the new heaven and new earth.
It’s important to understand this so that we understand Christ’s condemnation of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum in Matthew 11:20-24 (and Luke 10:12-15). Notice again what Jesus says to Capernaum:
And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day.
The phrase “will you be lifted up to the heavens?” is figurative since this judgment takes place in God’s throne room in heaven and immediately after this judgment the heavenly city of the new Jerusalem will come “down out of heaven from God” to rest on the new earth (see Revelation 21:2,10 & 3:12) and thus the eternal age of the new heavens and new earth will begin. Just the same, the phrase “you will go down to Hades” is also figurative because Hades (Sheol) will no longer exist at this time. The dead souls of Hades will have been resurrected to face this judgment and then Hades itself is cast into the lake of fire. It would have been more accurate if Jesus said, “you will go down to the lake of fire (or Gehenna),” so why didn’t he? Because both Hades and the Lake of Fire (Gehenna) refer to the condition of death for human beings, the state of utter non-being. They’re one and the same in this sense; the difference being that Hades is the first death and the lake of fire is the second death. Everyone will be resurrected from Hades, the first death, but no one will be resurrected from the lake of fire, the second death. In other words, those unredeemed souls who are resurrected from Hades to face judgment will be thrown into the lake of fire to suffer death forever and ever (that is, if their names are not written in the book of life). As the Bible says, “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). In short, for human beings Hades and the lake of fire are one in the same in that they both involve the condition of death.
Now what about Christ’s statement that it would be “more bearable” on the day of judgment for some towns than others? The whole point the Messiah is making in this section of Scripture (Matthew 11:20-24 & Luke 10:12-15) is that the unrepentant cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum, where he preached and performed great miracles, were guilty of even greater sins than the infamous cities of Tyre, Sidon and Sodom. Because of this, Jesus says that it’s going to be “more bearable… on the day of judgment” for Sodom than those unrepentant cities. Please note that the Lord said it would be more bearable on the day of judgment and not more bearable for all eternity experiencing fiery conscious torment in the lake of fire. Jesus was simply pointing out that, on the day of judgment, the second death will be more bearable for the people of Sodom than for the people of Capernaum according to divine justice. Why? Because the people of Capernaum are guilty of a greater degree of sin. That’s simple enough to understand. We should just allow Scripture to say what it literally says and not feel compelled to add to it or take away (Revelation 22:18-19). In this case, adherents of eternal torment read way too much into this simple statement, no doubt because they’re desperate for biblical support of their position. For more details on this issue see Suffering Meted Out as Divine Justice Requires in this article.
“You will Die in Your Sins”
This is a minor point, but notice what the Lord said to the Pharisees, the fake religious leaders of 1st century Israel:
Once more Jesus said to them, “I am going away, and you will look for me, and you will die in your sin. Where I go, you cannot come.”
22 This made the Jews ask, “Will he kill himself? Is that why he says, ‘Where I go, you cannot come’?”
23 But he continued, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. 24 I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am he, you will indeed die in your sins.”
The Pharisees (verse 13) were wicked religionists whom Jesus bluntly said were children of the devil (verse 44). Three times in this passage Christ plainly informs them of the dismal prospects of their afterlife: “you will die in your sins.”
Sometimes it’s just as important to point out what the Bible doesn’t say as it is to point out what it does say. In this case the Messiah doesn’t say “you will die in your sins and suffer roasting torment in Hades for a few thousand years without a drop of water for relief and then be resurrected to face judgment and condemned to fiery torture forever and ever in the lake of fire.” No, he simply declares—three times—that, if they didn’t believe, they would die in their sins. Why? Because that’s what the wages of sin is—death.
I realize that Jesus wasn’t obligated to tell them every single detail of their eternal fate on this public occasion, but—as “The Truth” (John 14:6)—he was certainly obliged to tell them the gist. For instance, he doesn’t say anything about the resurrection of the unrighteous, the Great White Throne Judgment and being cast into the lake of fire to suffer the second death (Revelation 20:11-15), but he certainly summarizes their eternal fate if they refused to believe (three times): “You will indeed die in your sins.”
Christ Spoke of “Sleeping” in Death, Not Enjoying Paradise with Abraham
We addressed this point earlier but let’s look at it again from a slightly different angle: Jesus got word that his friend Lazarus was deathly ill and, later, discerned that he had died. Notice what the Messiah says to his disciples:
…“Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”
12 His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” 13 Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.
14 So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, 15 and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
Lazarus died and Jesus describes it as falling “asleep,” which his disciples mistook as natural sleep. So the Lord plainly informs them that Lazarus was dead.
Unlike the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, which is figurative like all parables, this occasion is a historical chronicling and Jesus says nothing whatsoever about the real Lazarus (as opposed to the fictitious Lazarus in the parable) going to paradise to hang out with father Abraham, which would be the case if his parable was a literal account of the nature of Sheol. How does Jesus describe the real Lazarus’ condition after physically dying? He describes it in explicit terms of ‘sleeping’ in death. This doesn’t refer to literal snoozing, of course, but to the condition of non-existence in Sheol where dead souls are housed. The Lord describes it in terms of ‘sleeping’ simply because every soul in Sheol will be ‘awoken’ one day; that is, resurrected. This is in contrast to the “second death,” which refers to being cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:13-15). Those who suffer the second death are never said to be ‘sleeping’ because they will never be ‘awoken’ from eternal death, which is why the Bible calls it an “everlasting destruction”—destruction that lasts forever with no hope of resurrection (2 Thessalonians 1:9).
I want to emphasize that Lazarus’ death would’ve been the ideal occasion for Jesus to elaborate on Sheol having a paradisal compartment for righteous souls of the Old Testament period, but the Lord says nothing of the kind. Nor does the Bible mention anything at all about Lazarus being in bliss with Abraham and lamenting his return to our fallen earth after Jesus miraculously resurrects him. Why? Because it’s a false doctrine based on mistaking a fantastical parable for a literal account.
Christ also described a dead girl as being “asleep” in three accounts of the same story, as seen in Matthew 9:24, Mark 5:39: and Luke 8:52. As with the case of Lazarus, this would’ve been the perfect occasion for the Lord to elaborate on how the girl was in paradise in Sheol with Abraham, but—again—Jesus says no such thing. Instead, he likewise describes her condition in terms of ‘sleeping’ in death.
On top of this is the astounding event of “many holy people” who were raised to life when Christ was resurrected, as shown in Matthew 27:50-53. They came out of their tombs and went into Jerusalem and were seen by many. Again, absolutely nothing is said about these righteous people being resurrected from a supposed blissful section of Sheol where living souls commune with Abraham. Instead, the passage simply says this:
The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised;
Matthew 27:52 (NASB)
As you can see, the Bible repeatedly describes the intermediate state of unregenerated souls in Sheol in terms of ‘sleeping’ in death, not being comforted in paradise or suffering constant fiery torment. It’s as if God is flashing the truth about Sheol in bright neon lights in His Word, but many Christians are too indoctrinated, sectarian, proud or dull to see it. WAKE UP, CHURCH!
Jesus’ Disciples Did Not Believe He went to Paradise (or Torments)
This is another minor point, but there’s no evidence in the New Testament that Christ’s followers believed he went to some nether-paradise to commune with father Abraham when he died. If this were so, wouldn’t they celebrate his going to this supposed paradise, even while they would grieve their loss? Yet there’s zero indication of this—none. Take, for instance, Mary Magdalene’s mournful disposition in this passage:
Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb
After Mary saw the resurrected Messiah she reported it to the other disciples who were also terribly grieving:
She went and told those who had been with him and who were mourning and weeping.
There’s mysteriously no mention anywhere of the disciples celebrating Jesus going to the paradise compartment of Sheol to fellowship with Abraham and other Old Testament holy people. For those who believe that Christ went to Sheol to suffer constant torment for three days without a drop of water for relief, there’s curiously no mention of this either. Why not? Because the idea that Sheol is a place of constant torments for wicked souls and blissful comfort for righteous souls is a false doctrine; a religious myth that’s utterly foreign to the Scriptures. This unbiblical doctrine is spread by people who are simply ignorant of the colossal biblical data on Sheol. Their understanding on the subject is limited to Jesus’ tale of the rich man and Lazarus, which they regard as a literal accounting of the nature of Sheol. Of course this is contradicted by the entire rest of Scripture, but they don’t realize this, which is why this book exists.
Understanding the Three Realms—Heaven, Earth and the Underworld
Scripture reveals that there are three basic realms or universes:
9 Therefore God exalted him [Jesus] to the highest
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is
Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” 3 But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it.
As you can see, the three realms are:
- Heaven, the spiritual realm where God’s throne is located, also called the “third heaven” (2 Corinthians 12:2).
- The earth, which naturally includes the physical universe that encompasses it and, as such, refers to the entire physical realm.
- The underworld, which is the “dark heavenlies,” as described in this passage:
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
Lending further support that there are three basic realms is the fact that God’s heaven is described as the “third heaven.” Since God’s heaven is the highest dimension where the LORD’s throne is located (Psalm 115:16) and is called the third heaven we must naturally conclude that there are two other heavens; that is, two other universes. These other realms are the earth/universe and the underworld, as shown in the above passages.
As far as the underworld goes, there was no such realm until Satan and his band of rogue angels started a war in heaven and were subsequently booted out and fell to the earth (Luke 10:18, Isaiah 14:12 & Revelation 12:9). The devil and his minions are spiritual beings and so they obviously didn’t enter into the physical earth & universe when they fell from heaven, but rather fell to the spiritual dimension that parallels or underpins the earth and universe. This is the underworld or dark heavenlies. We see evidence of this underpinning spiritual realm in the book of Job where Satan twice presents himself to the LORD in heaven to which God asks, “Where have you come from?” Both times the devil replies, “From roaming through the earth and going back and forth in it” (Job 1:6-7 & 2:1-2). Being a spiritual being, Satan wasn’t roaming around the physical earth, but rather throughout the dark heavenlies or underworld, which underpins the earth and universe.
The dark heavenlies exist between the earth/universe and the third heaven. This can be observed in Daniel 10:10-14 where an angel explains to Daniel that he was the messenger who came with a response from the Almighty to Daniel’s prayer, but he was hindered by a demonic entity in the dark heavenlies—“the prince of Persia”—and needed Michael the archangel’s help to get through to the physical realm. There’s more Scriptural evidence, but it’s scant and you have to read in between the lines. “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Corinthians 13:12 KJV).
In the above passage, Philippians 2:10, the Greek word translated as “under the earth” is one word—katachthonios (kat-akh-THON-ee-os), which means “subterranean” or “infernal.” This is the underworld—the dark spiritual dimension that underpins the earth & universe, which explains why it’s called the underworld. Notice that this passage doesn’t define the underworld as Hades. Why? Because Hades—that is, Sheol—is not the underworld; it’s merely a pit in the underworld where dead souls are kept.
Sheol: “ The Heart of the Earth” and “the Earth Below”
The fact that Sheol is a “pit” in the underworld and is not the underworld can be seen in its biblical description as “the heart of the earth” and “the earth below”:
“For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”
“Son of man, wail for the hordes of Egypt and consign to the earth below both her and the daughters of mighty nations, along with those who go down to the pit.”
Since we know that Jesus’ soul went to Sheol for three days and nights when he died we know that “the heart of the earth” is a description of Sheol. “The earth below” in the second passage is also a reference to Sheol since “the pit” is a biblical synonym for Sheol, in the earlier section Sheol: “The Pit” or “Well of Souls”, not to mention “the earth below” is referred to as Sheol in verses 21 and 27.
These descriptions of Sheol tell us where Sheol is located—in the nether regions of the earth, not in the physical realm, but the spiritual. The Hebrew word translated as “the pit” is bowr (borr), which means “pit,” “well” or “dungeon;” and Proverbs 7:27 suggests that there are “chambers” or orderly sections to Sheol. As such, Sheol is a pit or dungeon in the underworld where dead souls are housed until their resurrection. Sheol has levels and chambers where dead souls are “laid to rest” in an orderly fashion, according to nation, clan and family, much the way that bodies are buried in earthly graveyards in an orderly fashion according to citizenship, family, purchaser and sometimes religious faith (for instance, there are Catholic cemeteries and church cemeteries where only those of that specific faith can be buried). Why would we think it would be any different for dead souls in Sheol? For more info see the previous section The Longest and Most Detailed Passage on Sheol.
So Sheol is not the underworld or dark heavenlies, it’s a colossal dungeon in the underworld located in the nether regions of the earth. This is where Christ’s dead soul was housed for three days until his mighty resurrection.
With the understanding that Sheol is the graveyard of dead souls in the core of the earth, let’s examine an Old Testament passage that also shows Sheol as being located in the heart of the earth. This text has to do with God’s astonishing judgment on rebellious Korah and his followers:
Then Moses said, “This is how you will know that the Lord has sent me to do all these things and that it was not my idea: 29 If these men die a natural death and suffer the fate of all mankind, then the Lord has not sent me. 30 But if the Lord brings about something totally new, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them, with everything that belongs to them, and they go down alive into the realm of the dead (sheol), then you will know that these men have treated the Lord with contempt.”
31 As soon as he finished saying all this, the ground under them split apart 32 and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, and all those associated with Korah, together with their possessions. 33 They went down alive into the realm of the dead (sheol), with everything they owned; the earth closed over them, and they perished and were gone from the community. 34 At their cries, all the Israelites around them fled, shouting, “The earth is going to swallow us too!”
As you can see, the earth literally opened up and swallowed Korah and his followers and “they went down alive into the realm of the dead,” i.e. Sheol. This doesn’t mean that they stayed alive for long because the latter part of verse 33 clearly says that “the earth closed over them, and they perished.” Physical bodies can’t go to Sheol anyway since it exists in the spiritual realm—the dark heavenlies—and not the physical realm. Please notice that nothing is said about them suffering roasting conscious torment in Sheol for thousands of years until their resurrection on Judgment Day. It simply says “they perished.”
“The Spirits in Prison”
First Peter 3:18-20 is a particularly weak “proof text” for those who say that Sheol is a place of consciousness because anyone making this argument didn’t bother to really read the passage:
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit. 19 After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—20 to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water,
1 Peter 3:18-20
Verse 18 says that Christ “was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit.” Of course, we know that Jesus wasn’t “made alive by the Spirit”—that is, resurrected—until three days after his crucifixion. In the original New International Version, verses 19-20 read like so: “through whom also he [Jesus] went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built…” As you can see above, the newer edition of the NIV cites these verses as such: “After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.” With this in mind, let me stress five things about this passage:
- Clearly, Christ didn’t preach to these “spirits in prison” until after his resurrection and likely before his appearance to his disciples, but certainly before his ascension.
- The “imprisoned spirits” spoken of in the passage refer to fallen angels or demons that were permanently bound due to their extraordinarily vile nature. Elsewhere in the Scriptures we see that unclean spirits resist such an imprisonment (Luke 8:31). Ultimately, they will be cast into the lake of fire as their eternal abode and punishment (Matthew 25:41 & Revelation 20:10).
- What is this “prison”? Most likely what the New Testament describes as “the Abyss,” the furnace-like pit where evil spirits are imprisoned, not human beings. See Luke 8:31, Revelation 9:1-2 and 20:1-3 for verification. As noted in the previous point, the mass of unclean spirits known as Legion begged Jesus not to sentence them to the abyss (Luke 8:31). Jude 6 also refers to this prison for fallen angels.
- What did the Lord preach to these spirits in prison after his resurrection? Jesus’ resurrection was an incredible moment of victory wherein the mighty Messiah “made a public spectacle of” the powers of darkness, which is illustrative of a Roman general parading his enemies through the streets of Rome (Colossians 2:15 & Ephesians 1:19-22). The Lord no doubt proclaimed this crushing victory to these filthy losers and reminded them of their impending judgment and condemnation to the lake of fire. Think of a football player making an incredible touchdown in a championship game and the ensuing victory celebration, but times it to the nth degree for Jesus Christ’s triumphant resurrection.
- Verse 20 shows that these impure spirits have been captive to the Abyss since the time of Noah and therefore applies to the “sons of God” from Genesis 6:1-4, which coincides with 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 1:6. These evil spirits were sentenced to this prison because their wickedness overstepped the parameters of the Sovereign LORD’s tolerance, which helps explain why, after 120 years of Noah’s preaching while building the ark, only seven of his family members believed in the LORD. No one else in the human race could be convinced because of the vile anti-God activity of these spirits (not that this discounts human will, of course). God bound these wicked spirits in the Abyss until their final judgment. *
As you can see, 1 Peter 3:18-20 in no way supports the idea that people are conscious in Sheol, including Jesus Christ who spent three days there—dead—until his awesome resurrection and victory over the kingdom of darkness.
1 Peter 4:6
This verse has been known to befuddle people because it causes them to wonder if it’s talking about the gospel being preached to souls in Sheol, which of course implies that souls in Sheol are alive and conscious. Thankfully, the context of the passage clears it up:
Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because whoever suffers in the body is done with sin. 2 As a result, they do not live the rest of their earthly lives for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God. 3 For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. 4 They are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you. 5 But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. 6 For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.
1 Peter 4:1-6
As you can see, the context of the paragraph is the believer being “done with sin” in order to live the rest of his or her earthly life “for the will of God” (verses 1-2). This is the topic of the passage. Verses 3-4 go on to show how unbelievers—“pagans”—are in bondage to the flesh and live in sin as a lifestyle, for which they’ll be judged by God when they stand before the Almighty to give an account of their lives on Judgment Day (verse 5).
This is the context of verse 6, which is obviously talking about the gospel being preached to those who were now dead and not to preaching the gospel to dead souls in Sheol. In other words, the gospel was preached to these people before they died, which enabled them to “not live the rest of their earthly lives for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God” (verse 2). This is, after all, the main purpose of preaching the gospel to people beyond acquiring immortality (2 Timothy 1:10)—the power of the gospel sets them free of the flesh and enables them to “participate in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4) via “walking in the spirit.” When believers learn to be spirit-controlled rather than flesh-ruled they are free to “live according to God in regard to the spirit” (verse 6). We see this in passages like Ephesians 4:22-24. This is the thrust of the paragraph—the context—and “Context is King.”
It is presumed by the wording that the people whom Peter was referring to in verse 6 “who are now dead” accepted the gospel and—as spiritually regenerated children of God—were in heaven with the Lord, a topic covered (and proven) here.
How Can Sheol Be a State of Torment if Men Seek it During the Tribulation?
Let’s look at an indirect reference to Sheol in Revelation 9. The first part of this chapter has to do with the fifth trumpet judgment during the Tribulation. “Locusts” are released from the Abyss to torment people on the earth who don’t have the seal of God. As noted in a previous section, the “Abyss” is the furnace-like pit where particularly malevolent evil spirits are imprisoned (see Luke 8:31, Revelation 9:1-2 and 20:1-3). As such, we can confidently conclude that the “locusts” are wicked spirits who are given the power to torture people for five months, but not to kill:
[The locusts] were not allowed to kill them but only to torture them for five months. And the agony they suffered was like that of the sting of a scorpion when it strikes. 6 During those days people will seek death but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will elude them.
As you can see, the agony of these stubborn, unrepentant people will be so great that they’ll seek death but it will elude them.
This passage indirectly addresses the nature of Sheol in two ways: 1. These unbelievers are seeking death and, if they die, they automatically go to Sheol; and 2. death and Hades (Sheol) are spoken of in the same breath in Scripture; for instance:
“I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.”
…and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.
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 they had done. 14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death.
Why is it significant that these horribly tormented people will literally seek death? Because such a statement only makes sense if Sheol is the graveyard of souls where dead souls ‘sleep’ in death. In other words, Revelation 9:6 makes no sense if Sheol were a torture chamber in the heart of the earth where unredeemed souls suffer constant fiery torment until their resurrection. Let’s go ahead and read this verse as if this doctrine were true:
During those days people will seek death [and go to Sheol to suffer constant roasting torment where they will not receive even a drop of water for relief] but will not find it; they will long to die [and be tortured in flames in Sheol], but death will elude them.
As you can see, the idea that Sheol is a condition of constant fiery torment for unredeemed souls doesn’t fit this passage or any other passage in Scripture. It’s a false doctrine that makes utter nonsense of God’s Word. However, when we have a biblical understanding of the nature of Sheol—that it’s the soulish graveyard in the underworld where dead souls “rest” in death—then the passage makes perfect sense. No wonder these people wanted to die.
Now someone might argue that it’s not necessary for these people to know what death actually entails—i.e. suffering constant roasting torture in Sheol. In other words, they’re deceived in thinking that death will offer them relief from the torture of the “locusts” when it will actually bring them worse agony. Supposing this is true, let’s read the passage according to this line of reasoning:
During those days people will seek death but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will elude them [little knowing that death will not bring them the non-existence they crave as they will suffer perpetual flaming torment in Hades only to be resurrected on the day of judgment and cast into the lake of fire where they will suffer never-ending roasting torture forever and ever].
Again, the eternal torture belief makes utter nonsense of the Scriptures.
One last point about this passage: If Sheol is a place of constant fiery torment for the unrighteous, why were the locusts not allowed to kill the people, as detailed in verse 5? After all, if they killed them the people would automatically go to Sheol where they’d undergo unceasing torture there until their resurrection on judgment day, right? Again, this view makes nonsense of the Scriptures.
For further commentary on this topic see Job’s View of Sheol near the beginning of this article.
Jesus Christ DIED
A central doctrine of Christianity is that Jesus died for our sins and was raised to life for our justification:
He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.
Moreover, the Bible explicitly says that Father God did not spare the Son but delivered him over to death for our sakes:
He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?
Jesus himself plainly declared that he was going to be killed:
From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. 32 He will be delivered over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him and spit on him; 33 they will flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again.”
My point is that all four passages literally say in one way or another that Christ died for our sins and three of them that he was raised to life. How can someone be “raised to life” if he didn’t actually die? Stop for a moment and consider that question again: How can someone be “raised to life” if he didn’t actually die? It’s a simple question with a simple and obvious answer.
Amazingly, whole segments of Christendom don’t believe that Jesus really died. They only believe he died physically and then went to Sheol to either roast in torment for three days or hang out with Abraham in some paradise compartment; he perhaps ministered to imprisoned spirits in his spare time. Whatever the case, they don’t really believe he died, nor do they believe he was raised to life since he was already very much alive in Sheol. They only believe he was raised to life bodily.
The Bible, however, refutes this point blank. Both the Old and New Testaments plainly show that Jesus Christ died soulishly as well as physically:
Because He [Jesus] poured out His soul (nephesh) unto death,
And He was numbered with the transgressors,
And He bore the sin of many,
And made intercession for the transgressors.
Isaiah 53:12 (NKJV)
Then he said to them, “My soul (psuche) is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
As you can see, the Hebrew and Greek words for “soul” are used in these passages. Jesus “poured out His soul unto death,” not just his body.
To reinforce this, the Bible over and over stresses that Jesus Christ died as our substitutionary death. In fact, it’s often hard to get through one chapter of the New Testament without reading some reference to Jesus dying for our sins, as well as being raised to life. Let’s look at a smattering of examples from the epistle of Romans:
and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!
Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—7 because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.
8 Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.
And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.
Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.
For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.
If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died.
This is just one book of the New Testament and I’m skipping examples.
Here are more examples from other New Testament books:
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
When they came together in Galilee, he said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. 23 They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.” And the disciples were filled with grief.
“We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death 19 and will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!”
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
“We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, 34 who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”
“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men [angels] said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? 6 He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he [Jesus] told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: 7 ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ ”
“We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, 40 but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen.
Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep,
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,
1 Peter 1:3
Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God.
1 Peter 1:21
“I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.”
“To the angel of the church in Smyrna write:
These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.”
The person speaking in these last two verses is Jesus Christ Himself—“The Truth” (John 14:6). Notice that he plainly testifies that he died, but is now alive forever. No where does he say that he only physically died, but was fully conscious in either bliss or torments in Sheol. No, he plainly declares that he died and came to life again!
This is just a quick smattering of these types of passages. You’ll find such statements in most of the books of the New Testament and, again, often every chapter. If words mean anything at all we have to conclude that Jesus Christ literally died for our sins and was raised to life for our justification. This is a central truth of Christianity.
Yet adherents of eternal torture don’t believe this; they only believe Christ died physically and then ministered to spirits in subterranean prisons for three days or hanged out with father Abraham or was tortured in flames. Whatever the case, they don’t believe he really died; and they don’t believe he was raised to life either, except physically, because they don’t actually believe he died.
True Christianity, however, is rooted in the fact that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, gave up his deity to become a human being and became “obedient to death”:
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to
be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Jesus Christ literally died for our sins and was raised to life for our justification. When he was crucified he “gave up his spirit” (John 19:30) and the breath of life returned to the Father in heaven while Christ’s dead soul was laid to rest in Sheol—the “the assembly of the dead,” as Proverbs 21:16 defines it—the graveyard of souls in the heart of the earth.
Think about that for a moment because it’s a mind-blowing statement: One part of the Godhead (Father, Son & Holy Spirit) DIED for you and me so that we may be reconciled to the Creator and have eternal life—God DIED. How could God possibly die, that is, cease to exist for three days? I don’t know, but that’s precisely what happened: The Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End, became “obedient to death” and ceased to exist for three days; and was raised to life so that we may be justified and inherit eternal life.
What an incredible price to pay; it’s awe-inspiring!
Pat Robertson (whom I love) objected to the idea that the Messiah died completely by adamantly insisting that Jesus was God and if Christ wholly died—not just his body—the universe would fall apart (Robertson 72). While it’s true that if the Creator died—that is, Father, Son and Holy Spirit—the universe would certainly perish with its Creator, Jesus is one part of the Godhead, not all three (Matthew 28:19). So, whereas Jesus is God and Jesus died completely for three days, as Isaiah 53:12 shows, the Father and Holy Spirit did not. As such, the Father and Holy Spirit naturally made up for the loss of the Son for three days. To illustrate, consider my wife, Carol, going on a trip for three days. I’d have to cover for her in the home and the ministry. If I can cover for my wife for three days why wouldn’t the Father and Holy Spirit be able to do the same for the Son? This in no way diminishes the worth of my wife or the Messiah. I consider my wife invaluable, how much more so the King of kings?
One last point before moving on: We’ve gone over numerous passages in this section that show how Christ died for our sins and was resurrected three days later. Isn’t it interesting that there’s absolutely no mention of Jesus being alive & conscious in Sheol, whether in blissful comfort with Abraham or in roasting agony? If either were true, don’t you think God would mention it somewhere in his Word—our blueprint for authentic Christianity—particularly in these passages that address the issue? It’s not like it’s an insignificant detail! And yet there’s mysteriously no mention of either in any of these passages. Why not? Because Jesus’ soul was literally dead in Sheol for three days. There’s no getting around it, the idea that Sheol is a place of conscious existence is a false doctrine that’s utterly foreign to the Scriptures.
Hades in the Book of Revelation
The Greek word for Sheol—hades—appears four times in the book of Revelation. Here’s the first time:
When I saw him [Jesus Christ], I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. 18 I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.”
The context of this passage is the vision John received as a prisoner on the island of Patmos when he was about 95 years old (!). In this vision John sees Jesus Christ and falls “at his feet as though dead,” which might be a reference to the “slain in the Spirit” phenomenon. The Lord proceeds to comfort him by touching him and encouraging him not to be afraid because Christ is the beginning and the ending of history and, in fact, the meaning of history (it is, after all, His-story).
Jesus goes on to point out that he died, but now he is alive forever and ever. This corroborates what was established in the previous section: Jesus Christ literally died for humanity; he suffered the wages of sin—DEATH—so that we don’t have to. Religion has been lying about this for centuries, saying that he only died physically. Who are you going to believe, religion or Jesus Christ?
The Messiah then goes on to say that he holds the keys to death and Hades. What does this mean? Keys signify control or authority. If you own the keys to a facility you control who comes in or leaves. Jesus holds the keys to death and Hades. As we’ve seen over and over in this study, death and Hades go hand-in-hand because when un-regenerated people physically die and their bodies go to the grave or tomb their dead souls automatically go to Sheol, which is Hades. Death and Hades go hand-in-hand, which explains the next appearance of Hades in Revelation:
And behold, a pale horse, and he who sat on it, his name was Death. Hades followed with him. Authority over one fourth of the earth, to kill with the sword, with famine, with death, and by the wild animals of the earth was given to him.
The passage refers to the fourth seal judgment, which involves the fourth horseman of the apocalypse, which is death. Why is this fourth horseman death itself? Because, as you can see, this massive judgment entails the death of one quarter of the population on earth (!). This is why Hades follows after death because those who die go to Hades to “rest” in death until their resurrection, which takes place on judgment day, as shown here:
Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. 13 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 they had done. 14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. 15 Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.
As you can see, dead souls in Sheol are resurrected, as are their dead bodies from the earth and sea, and they are judged according to what they had done; if their names are not found written in the book of life they will be cast into the lake of fire, which is called “the second death” where Christ said God would “destroy both soul and body” (Matthew 10:28).
With this in mind, let’s go back to Jesus’ statement in the first chapter of Revelation:
“I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.”
Because of Christ’s miraculous triumph over death he holds the keys to death and Hades (Sheol) and therefore is in control of the eternal destiny of the bodies (death) and souls (Hades) of every unredeemed person who has ever existed.
Now let’s revisit the final two verses of chapter 20:
Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. 15 Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.
What does it mean that death and Hades are to be thrown into the lake of fire, which is the second death? It refers to one of two things or, more likely, both: 1. Since Jesus holds the keys to death and Hades he therefore has control over the bodies and souls of the un-regenerated. Those whose names are not found in the book of life will be cast into the lake of fire to suffer the second death; as such, death and Hades being cast into the lake of fire refers to the bodies (death) and souls (Hades) of the unredeemed who will suffer literal “everlasting destruction,” as Paul described it in 2 Thessalonians 1:9. 2. It also refers to the fact that “there will be no more death” in the eternal age of the new heavens and new earth as stated five verses later in Revelation 21:4. Since there will be no more death in the coming eternal age, death itself is cast into the lake of fire as is its counterpart Hades (Sheol). After all, if there’s no death there’s no need for Sheol either. In other words, they both cease to exist, just like the bodies and souls of the unrighteous who are cast into the lake of fire; that is, after a period of conscious suffering as divine justice dictates, which is covered in this article.
“The Rest of the Dead Did Not Come to Life until the Thousand Years were Ended”
Let’s look at one more passage from Revelation that reveals the nature of Sheol:
I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. 5 (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection. 6 Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years.
In his vision, John describes what he sees in Heaven and says he “saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony” during the Tribulation. These righteous souls are in heaven and the latter part of verse 4 says “they came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years,” referring to the Millennium, the thousand-year reign of Christ. This resurrection is referred to as the “first resurrection” in verses 5-6. Some argue that the phrase “they came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years” suggests that these righteous souls were fully dead—that is, in Sheol—but this can’t be since, again, the first part of verse 4 plainly shows these souls in heaven after being martyred during the Tribulation on earth, just like the martyrs in Revelation 7:9-17 and Revelation 6:9-11. Remember the hermeneutical rules: “Context is king” and “Scripture interprets Scripture.” With this understanding, here’s what verse 4 is saying: “they came to life [physically] and reigned with Christ a thousand years.” You see? The addition of one simple word clarifies the statement and settles the matter.
So this passage is addressing the “first resurrection,” which in this case is the third stage of the resurrection of the righteous (the first stage took place when Jesus was resurrected as the firstfruits and the second stage takes place at the time of the Rapture, as shown in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; see this article for more details). But notice the parenthetical reference to unredeemed souls in Sheol at the beginning of verse 5:
(The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.)
“The rest of the dead” is referring to all unredeemed souls laid to rest in Sheol throughout the course of human history. They “did not come to life” until after the Millennium, which is when the Great White Throne Judgment takes place, which we addressed in the previous section. If they “did not come to life” until their Judgment Day then this obviously means that they will be dead until then. In other words, they are in Sheol—the world of the dead—where dead souls ‘sleep’ in death until their resurrection.
Now, someone might argue that the reference to righteous martyrs coming to life at the end of verse 4 refers specifically to a bodily resurrection since the first part of the verse shows their souls alive in heaven; therefore, they argue, the reference to unredeemed people coming to life on Judgment Day would also refer only to a bodily resurrection. This argument must be rejected on the grounds that, although this passage reveals redeemed souls in heaven before their bodily resurrection, it doesn’t show anything about the nature of unredeemed souls in Sheol before their resurrection on Judgment Day. In fact, all it says is that they “did not come to life until the thousand years were ended,” which shows that they were dead until then, dead in Sheol. Since this passage says nothing more on the nature of Sheol beyond what is implied by this statement we have to look to the rest of Scripture to ascertain what it’s like for souls in Sheol; and the rest of this study plainly shows that souls in Sheol are dead, ‘resting’ in death until their resurrection.
The the believer’s intermediate state between death and resurrection is covered in this article.
What about People who Claim to have Visited Sheol Literally or in a Vision?
This question applies to books like Bill Wiese’ 23 Minutes in Hell (2006) and Mary K. Baxter’s A Divine Revelation of Hell (1993), both claiming to have gone to Sheol (Hades) in visions. I’ve read another minister’s testimony that he went to Sheol in a vision as well. I’m sure there are others with similar assertions.
The claim of these people is that they were given these visions in order to be used of God to evangelize the lost by utilizing the horrors of a torture chamber in the heart of the earth as a big club to convince people to repent. In other words, they believe they’re end-time agents of God on an evangelizing mission.
While evangelization and genuine repentance are always good, these people’s supernatural experiences beg the question: Why did the LORD wait almost 2000 years after the biblical canon was completed to reveal these insanely horrifying details about Sheol? If their visions (or experiences) are to be believed, why aren’t there similar such descriptions of Sheol in the Bible, the Word of God?
I’ve never read Wiese’s book and don’t need to because a thorough study of God’s Word informs us everything we need to know about the nature of Sheol, as this book testifies.
I did, however, read Baxter’s book back in the 90s and was sickened by its unscriptural portrayal of the topic. Ms. Baxter cites a number of passages at the end of her book to support her hideous visions, including Matthew 10:28. There are two problems with this: 1. Jesus was referring to Gehenna in this passage, which is the Greek word often translated as “hell” in English Bibles, and Gehenna literally refers to the Valley of Hinnom, a trash dump/incinerator located outside the southwest walls of Jerusalem (this is covered in this article; see the section The Example of Gehenna: “Hell”). Why would Jesus use this perpetually smoking trash dump to illustrate the lake of fire or second death? Because it was something all his listeners knew about and his message was therefore clear: Those who are God’s enemies will be discarded like trash and eradicated just like garbage cast into Gehenna, the Valley of Hinnom. 2. Gehenna (the lake of fire) and Sheol (Hades) are two completely separate places. In fact, souls in Hades will be resurrected from Hades and—if their names aren’t found in the book of life—will be cast into the lake of fire, as will Hades itself, as shown in Revelation 20:11-15.
Both of these points reveal the obvious problem with Baxter citing Matthew 10:28 to support her creative vision: The passage applies to the lake of fire and not to Sheol and, furthermore, refers to literal destruction of soul and body and not never-ending roasting torment. Evidently Ms. Baxter doesn’t even realize that there’s a difference between Sheol (Hades) and Gehenna, the lake of fire. Do you think it’s wise to give credence to the visions of a person who doesn’t even understand the fundamental aspects of her topic?
The bottom line is that we don’t need the visions or testimonies of these types of people to understand the nature of Sheol because everything God wants us to know about Sheol has already been revealed in his Word. This is in line with a rule that Paul gave believers: “Do not go beyond what is written” (1 Corinthians 4:6), which explains why SHEOL KNOW (from which this article has been taken) focuses exclusively on what God’s Word says on the subject from Genesis to Revelation and not the dubious testimonies of people who claim to have visions or experiences that just so happen to wholly disagree with what God’s Word teaches.
Near Death Experiences and Ghostly Phenomena
What about “near-death experiences”—NDEs—where people who claim to have died either “see the light” of heaven or suffer torments in some hellish torture chamber or some variation of either?
NDEs can be chalked up to one of four things:
- Activity of the mind after temporarily dying, i.e. dreams, imaginations.
- The person had a real after-death experience. This could be a child or spiritually regenerated person, like the kid in the book Heaven is Real, or an unbeliever whose soul and breath of life haven’t separated yet (I’m not saying that this actually happens; I’m just listing it as a possibility).
- We cannot discount what the Bible calls deceiving spirits.
- Another possibility is that the person is lying.
As for apparitions/ghosts, they could be one of four things:
- Flashes from the past, i.e. residual images of former events.
- Demonic activity.
- A person who has delayed entry to heaven or Sheol for whatever reason. In the event of a delayed entry to Sheol—if indeed such a thing even occurs (again, I’m just listing this as a possibility)—the soul and breath of life obviously didn’t separate at the point of physical death for some reason (keeping in mind that it’s the spirit of life that gives consciousness to the mind). As such, the person would be temporarily stuck on this plane in a disembodied state. If this doesn’t make sense see the Appendix.
- As above, the person may be lying.
This covers the spectrum of possibilities, although I’m sure there are minor or mixed variants. Even if one discovers evidence that most cases can be pinpointed to one reason, that doesn’t discount that some cases can be attributed to others. I think it’s pointless and possibly even unhealthy to pursue the topic further since the Torah expressly forbids contact with the dead (e.g. Deuteronomy 18:9-14) and therefore people who are overly interested with the subject are treading the borders. As noted in the previous section, Paul gave a rule in the New Testament: “Do not go beyond what is written” (1 Corinthians 4:6). So, with subjects like this, my advice is to stay within the wise parameters of God’s Word.
My main problems with NDEs are:
- These people didn’t actually die in the truest sense, despite what they say, since—if they were dead—they wouldn’t be here, which is why these experiences are called near-death experiences.
- We all know the crazy imaginations that the mind can come up with practically every night when we sleep, how much more so when we almost die or die for a brief time? Since this is so, how can we trust these stories as anything more concrete than dreams or nightmares? Even if many of them agree, too many of them contradict; so we can’t trust them.
- We can’t discount lying spirits. After all, the devil is the “god of this world” and his spiritual minions carry out his orders. He’s the “father of lies” and is fittingly called “the deceiver” in Scripture. Consequently, his modus operandi is to deceive.
In light of all this, if you were the devil wouldn’t you want spiritually un-regenerate people to think they have an immortal soul apart from Christ and that they’ll automatically see a bright light and feeling of warm love when they die, being ushered into heavenly bliss? Of course you would. Why? Because it would steer them away from the gospel, repentance, spiritual rebirth and their Creator. For these reasons I choose to stick with what God’s Word says on the subject and not go beyond it. I encourage you to do the same.
Conclusion on Sheol (Hades)
This study proves beyond any shadow of doubt that Sheol is not a place of conscious existence in the nether-realm where people are either tormented in flames crying out for a tiny bit of water or, if they’re righteous, in a nether paradise chummin’ around with father Abraham. This ludicrous error can be traced to a literal interpretation of Jesus’ parable of the rich man and beggar, which contradicts the entire rest of the Bible. The very fact that a literal interpretation of this tale is at variance with the rest of the Bible shows that it was never meant to be taken literally, but rather figuratively.
God’s Word overwhelmingly supports the view that Sheol is the world of the dead in the nether realm where dead souls lie in death ‘awaiting’ their resurrection. In other words, it’s the graveyard of dead souls. This is so blatantly obvious in Scripture it’s a wonder that so few Christians see it, but this explains the power of religious tradition and sectarian allegiance.
When unrighteous souls are eventually resurrected from Sheol they will be judged and “Anyone whose name is not found written in the book of life [will be] thrown into the lake of fire” “The lake of fire is the second death” (Revelation 20:11-15).
It goes without saying that making sure your name is written in the Lamb’s book of life is of the utmost importance. Any other earthly pursuit, no matter how important, is like playing trivial pursuit by comparison.
Amen and Praise God!
This article was edited from several chapters of my book SHEOL KNOW. For important details on this topic I encourage you to pick up a copy…
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