Part II – Sheol and Hades

In my last blog we discussed Old Testament (OT) believers being saved by faith, just like believers in the New Testament. We also saw how there was very little revelation in the OT regarding eternal punishment and eternal reward. In this blog we’re going to discuss where individuals in the OT went following death.

The OT teaches people went to a place of conscious existence called Sheol. This is a Hebrew word (shĕ’owl, Strong’s H7585) referring to the abode or dwelling of the dead occurring 65 times in the OT. English translations render shĕ’owl as “grave” (KJV, NKJV, NIV), “Hell” (KJV), or it is simply transliterated as “Sheol” (KJV, NKJV, RSV, NIV).

A very important point is Sheol doesn’t distinguish between the righteous and unrighteous dead. If I say heaven, you know I’m talking about the place for believers. If I say hell, you know I’m talking about the place for unbelievers. But if I say Sheol, I’m just talking about the place for the dead whether they’re believers or unbelievers.

Here are some verses using the NKJV showing believers in Sheol:

  • Gen 37:35 And all [Jacob’s] sons and all his daughters arose to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, and he said, “For I shall go down into the grave (Sheol) to my son in mourning.” Thus his father wept for him
  • Job 14:13 “Oh, that You would hide me in the grave (Sheol),
    That You would conceal me until Your wrath is past,
    That You would appoint me a set time, and remember me!
  • Psa 6:5 For in death there is no remembrance of You;
    In the grave
    (Sheol) who will give You thanks?
  • Psa 16:10 For You will not leave my soul in Sheol,
    Nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption.
  • Psa 88:3 For my soul is full of troubles,
    And my life draws near to the grave
  • Isa 38:10 I said,
    “In the prime of my life
    I shall go to the gates of Sheol
    I am deprived of the remainder of my years.”

Here are some verses from the NKJV showing unbelievers in Sheol:

  • Psa 9:17 The wicked shall be turned into hell (Sheol), 7585
    And all the nations that forget God
  • Psa 31:17 Do not let me be ashamed, O Lord, for I have called upon You;
    Let the wicked be ashamed;
    Let them be silent in the grave
  • Psa 49:14 Like sheep they are laid in the grave (Sheol);
    Death shall feed on them;
    The upright shall have dominion over them in the morning;
    And their beauty shall be consumed in the grave, far from their dwelling
  • Isa 5:14 Therefore Sheol has enlarged itself
    And opened its mouth beyond measure;
    Their glory and their multitude and their pomp,
    And he who is jubilant, shall descend into it

Now a little background info before discussing Hades

The OT was written almost exclusively in Hebrew (with a very small part written in Aramaic). Alexander the Great conquered the known world, essentially establishing a Greek-speaking culture around the 3rd century BC. To make the OT Scriptures readable to the Greek-speaking world, they had to be translated from Hebrew into Greek. In the late 3rd century BC seventy-two scholars began the work originally called by the Latin name versio septuaginta interpretum, leading to the shortened title Septuagint, and abbreviated in many bibles by LXX (the Roman numeral for seventy after the scholars who performed the work). When the NT writers quoted the OT, they actually quoted the Septuagint as opposed to the original Hebrew writings.

The Septuagint translated Sheol as Hades (hadēs, Strong’s G86) , making the two words virtually synonymous. To be clear, Hades is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Sheol, or you could say Hades is the NT equivalent of Sheol. In the NT when Hades is used, just like Sheol in the OT, it also doesn’t refer to believers or unbelievers; it’s simply referring to the abode of the dead.

Hades is used eleven times in the NT. Here are a few examples from the NKJV:

  • Matt 11:23 And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades; for if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.
  • Matt 16:18 And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.
  • Luke 10:15 And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades.
  • Luke 16:23 And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.
  • 1 Cor 15:55 “O Death, where is your sting?
    O Hades, where is your victory?”
  • Rev 6:8 So I looked, and behold, a pale horse. And the name of him who sat on it was Death, and Hades followed with him. And power was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, with hunger, with death, and by the beasts of the earth.

The KJV always translates Hades as Hell except in 1 Cor 15:55 when grave is used instead. This is unfortunate, because Hades and what we think of as hell are not the same. If we wanted to talk about hell, we should say the lake of fire (Rev 19:20; 20:10, 14, 15). Because of this poor translation, there’s confusion regarding the two, leading many to believe they refer to the same place. Although, Rev 20:13-14 clearly show Hades and Hell (or the Lake of Fire) to be two different places: The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. 14 Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.”Verse 13 shows Hades (or Hell) depending on the translation) as a place containing the dead. Verse 14 then describes Hades (or Hell) being cast into the Lake of Fire, showing them to be two separate places.

The Lake of Fire then becomes the dwelling of all unbelievers condemned to eternal punishment. It appears as a place of perpetual torment, and not of annihilation. Hades on the other hand is shown to be a place of temporal torment or comfort, which is what we’ll discuss in the next blog!

Part I – OT Believers and the Afterlife…

If you’ve been a Christian very long, and especially if you’ve read the King James or New King James Versions of the Bible, you’ve probably wondered what the deal is with Hades and Sheol. Are they the same as hell? You’ve probably also heard of Gehenna and the Lake of Fire. What do all these places (that is if they are places) have to do with each other?

We’re going to take a look at those terms over the next few blogs, but first let’s establish an important point regarding Old Testament (OT) believers and unbelievers: they were saved by faith, just like us…

Heb 11:13These (The OT believers discussed earlier in the chapter: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, and Sarah) all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. Notice the words died in faith. They didn’t receive the promises God made to them. They had to look forward to them in faith. They had to trust God just like we do, and their belief was accounted to them as righteousness (Gen 15:6).

Charles Ryrie sums up the matter of faith succinctly in this way: “The basis of salvation in every age is the death of Christ; the requirement for salvation in every age is faith; the object of faith in every age is God; the content of faith changes in the various ages.” In other words, no matter when people lived, their salvation is ultimately dependent on the work of Christ and a faith placed in God, but the amount of knowledge people had concerning the specifics of God’s plan have increased through the ages via God’s progressive revelation. Obviously those living after Christ’s First Coming will know much more than those looking forward to it in faith. Combine that with the revelation found in the New Testament and you have a monumental amount of information available to Church-age believers that wasn’t available in the OT.

Here are a few interesting verses dealing with the topic showing that although their revelation was limited it was still sufficient enough for salvation:

  • A little further in Hebrews 11 the author says Moses “[esteemed] the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt; for he looked to the reward” (11:26). This is to say Moses considered abuse suffered for Christ greater than the wealth and prestige of Egypt. Moses knew he was suffering, or forfeiting the blessings he’d have in Egypt for the Messiah; the author implies Moses knew he was doing it for Christ.
  • Gal 3:8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, “In you all the nations shall be blessed.” So this verse even says the Gospel was preached to Abraham when God established the Abrahamic Covenant with him. We probably wouldn’t think of those words as constituting a solid Gospel presentation, but because of the limited revelation in the OT, simply believing in these words was enough to save.
  • John 8:56 Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad. This refers to Abraham’s joy in looking forward to the day of the promised Messiah. Although we assume Abraham’s revelation of the Messiah was limited, we’re still told he looked forward to it with joy.

The point is, OT believers had saving faith in Christ. They were saved looking forward to Christ like NT believers are saved looking back on Christ. Interestingly, I think most people feel it was easier to believe in the OT where there were numerous miracles and supernatural events. We assume everyone would have faith then; however, the irony is OT believers would probably assume the same about NT believers since we all live after Christ came. To them, how could anyone possibly not believe when Jesus has already come?

The OT revelation of the afterlife was very minimal. It wasn’t until Jesus Christ that eternal reward and eternal punishment were clearly revealed. Although insignificant compared to the revelation in the NT, the OT did discuss eternal life and eternal punishment, but on a much narrower scale:

  • Dan 12:2 And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake,
    Some to everlasting life,
    Some to shame and everlasting contempt.
  • Isa 66:22-24 “For as the new heavens and the new earth Which I will make shall remain before Me (so it’s important to know He’s looking forward to eternity here talking about the New Heavens and New Earth),” says the Lord,
    “So shall your descendants and your name remain. 23 And it shall come to pass That from one New Moon to another, And from one Sabbath to another, All flesh shall come to worship before Me,” says the Lord. 24 “And they shall go forth and look Upon the corpses of the men Who have transgressed against Me. For their worm does not die, And their fire is not quenched. They shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”
    (Jesus quoted most of this verse and applied it to hell in Mark 9:47-48).

The idea is in verse 24 Jesus is describing the eternal punishment of the unrighteous.

That’s really about it for OT verses dealing with eternal reward and eternal punishment. Limited, huh? There are plenty of verses though about death and individuals going somewhere when they die (as opposed to being annihilated) and that will be the topic of the next blog!