What Is Sheol and Is it Different Than Hell?

What Is Sheol and Is it Different Than Hell?

When pondering the soul, many philosophers came up with theories and ideas about its nature, and what would happen to it when the body ceased to contain it. Most Christians would say it goes to Heaven or Hell depending on whether or not an individual repents of their sin and has a relationship with the Savior Jesus Christ.

In the Old Testament, though, there is another place that gets named, which can be confusing at first glance--Sheol.

Debated among thinkers, Sheol refers to the underworld, a place for the souls of the deceased to go, waiting for the Day of Judgment or to be brought out to join the Lord in Heaven. Some thinkers interpret Sheol as a metaphorical place, representing a spiritual state where someone is out of sync with God.

Several Bible verses, including a parable from Jesus, shows the Bible does assert Sheol was understood before the death and resurrection of Jesus as the afterlife, a place to hold the souls of those who died. 

What Is Sheol?

Theologians today debate the exact way to describe the Sheol. Most agree it has some overlap with the place called hell in the Book of Revelation, built for the rebellious angels who followed Satan, and where the unrepentant sinners will go.

Sheol was a term used in the Old Testament that referred to the afterlife, or the spiritual state of being in the grave. Certain translations also call it the realm of the dead.

Before the death and resurrection of Christ, the afterlife was understood to be two separate areas, much like it is today. These places were instead called Gehenna, a place for the unrighteous, and Abraham’s Bosom, a place for the righteous. In the parable of the rich man and the poor man Lazarus, both places are highlighted.

Jesus said, “The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side” (Luke 16:22-23). Abraham’s side and Hades are alternative translations for Abraham’s Bosom--or Paradise--and Gehenna or Sheol.

In torment, the rich man could look up and see Lazarus in Paradise, and Abraham could look beyond the “great chasm” (Luke 16:26), though he could not pass it. It seems to be one realm, whereas the place where believers will spend eternity has yet to come, as John the Apostle recorded, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more” (Revelation 21:1).

There was a place for the righteous dead before Jesus’ life on earth, access to heaven after Jesus’ resurrection, and there will be an eternal heaven after the end of days where those who put their faith in the Lord will spend eternity.

Is Sheol Different from Hell?

One of the reasons Sheol is generally perceived as different from the modern understanding of the afterlife post-resurrection, is there is a recurring suggestion that the righteous dead who spent time in the afterlife before Jesus’ death passed from to the place called Heaven.

The realm of Sheol called Hades, or Gehenna, will also not exist for eternity. After the judgment, the Book of Revelation prophecies, “And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged... Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death... And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:13-15).

Jesus spoke about this event during his ministry. He declared, “Then he will say to those on his left [after the judgment], ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’” (Matthew 25:41). When looking at how the writers of some of the Old Testament books speak about Sheol, they do not speak of it as a place of eternal torment, but rather a way-point between their life on earth, and a place in the House of the Lord.

When David was dying he also spoke about Sheol as a place where all the dead go. Of one of his enemies who rebelled against the Lord he told Solomon, “Act therefore according to your wisdom, but do not let his gray head go down to Sheol in peace” (1 Kings 2:6).

By the way the writers of the Old Testament spoke, Sheol was the place of the afterlife, with different regions for the righteous and unrighteous, divided by a great chasm.

Where Do We See Sheol in the Bible?

Sheol is named in the Old Testament, featured in conversation, prayer, and poetry. Often, when an individual is grieving a great loss they invoke Sheol.

After being told that his beloved son Joseph had died, Jacob mourned, crying out, ‘No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning’” (Genesis 37:35b).

Similar language appears in the book of Job, a book which tackles death, loss, and pain from a Biblical perspective. Job lost all his children, his home, and his wealth all at once. Then boils covered his body. In his suffering he cried out several times. He said, “Oh that you would hide me in Sheol, that you would conceal me until your wrath be past, that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me!” (Job 14:13)

Even the faithful during the centuries covered in the Old Testament saw Sheol as a temporary situation, one where they expected to go. David would write about the grips of death being on him in these terms. When he had been delivered from the murderous intentions of King Saul he wrote, “For the waves of death encompassed me, the torrents of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me” (2 Samuel 22:5-6).

Other than the glimpse of the afterlife given in Luke in Jesus’ parable, the Bible does not give a real glimpse into Sheol.

How Is Sheol Described?

Despite the lack of concrete details in the Bible, it does give hints and glimpses about this realm of the dead.

Some of the things the Bible does say about Sheol include:

  • Sheol is visible and accessible to God; “Sheol is naked before God, and Abaddon has no covering.” (Job 26:6)
  • Sheol is a place for the dead; “O Lord you have brought up my soul from Sheol; you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit.” (Psalm 30:3)
  • Spirits do not come back from Sheol; “As the cloud fades and vanishes, so he who goes down to Sheol does not come up;” (Job 7:9)
  • There is not a ‘spiritual life’ in Sheol; “For in death there is no remembrance of [God]; in Sheol who will give you praise?” (Psalm 6:5)
  • God ransomed people from Sheol; “But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me. Selah” (Psalm 49:15)

  • It is a consuming pit; “like Sheol let us swallow them alive, and whole, like those who go down to the pit;” (Proverbs 1:12)
  • It expands to take in more souls; “Therefore Sheol has enlarged its appetite and opened its mouth beyond measure, and the nobility of Jerusalem and her multitude will go down, her revelers and he who exults in her.’ (Isaiah 5:14)
  • It is deep; “...let it be as deep as Sheol or as high as Heaven.” (Isaiah 7:11b)

There are many mysteries for which the inquisitive will only have answers when they finally meet God and can ask Him directly. The exact nature of Sheol can be guessed and those inferences are well-thought out, but much of the spiritual realm is still a mystery.

Another passage regarding Sheol, and the dead, that leaves many puzzled was an eye-witness account of a strange occurrence at the crucifixion of Jesus; “The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many” (Matthew 27:52-53).

Were these souls being released from Sheol to go to Heaven in the presence of God? It is a mystery still.

Perhaps it is best for people to not fully understand the workings of the afterlife.

At times individuals have been give a glimpse into the heavenly realms, and they were always beyond comprehension. A servant of Elisha saw, “the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (2 Kings 6:16). An Daniel met an angel, a vision which left him bereft of strength who told the prophet, "'The prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days, but Michael, one of the chief princes came to help me…'” (Daniel 10:13-14a).

These two glimpses into the realm of true spiritual warfare give a glimpse into the overwhelming nature of what exists beyond this life.

While understanding the nature of Sheol can be helpful, it is important to not overly worry about perfectly understanding it. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ makes eternity with Him possible, and death and the grave--another word for Sheol--ultimately will have no power over those who put their faith in Jesus Christ.


Eternity, What Does the Bible Say of It? A Concordance of Texts on the Subject.  London: Samuel, Bagster, and Sons, 1880.

Balfour, Walter. An Inquiry into the Scriptural Import of the Words Sheol, Hades, Tartarus, and Gehenna All Translated Hell in the Common English Version. Boston: Benj. B. Mussey, 1832.

Johnston. Shades of Sheol Death and Afterlife in the Old Testament. Downers Grove: IP Academic, 2002.

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Bethany Verrett is a freelance writer who uses her passion for God, reading, and writing to glorify God. She and her husband have lived all over the country serving their Lord and Savior in ministry. She has a blog on graceandgrowing.com.