Old Testament. The Hebrew word seol [l/a.v], "Sheol, " refers to the grave or the abode of the dead ( Psalms 88:3 Psalms 88:5 ). Through much of the Old Testament period, it was believed that all went one place, whether human or animal ( Psalms 49:12 Psalms 49:14 Psalms 49:20 ), whether righteous or wicked ( Eccl 9:2-3 ). No one could avoid Sheol ( Psalm 49:9 ; 89:48 ), which was thought to be down in the lowest parts of the earth ( Deut 32:22 ; 1 Sam 28:11-15 ; Job 26:5 ; Psalm 86:13 ; Isa 7:11 ; Ezekiel 31:14-16 Ezekiel 31:18 ).
Unlike this world, Sheol is devoid of love, hate, envy, work, thought, knowledge, and wisdom ( Ecclesiastes 9:6 Ecclesiastes 9:10 ). Descriptions are bleak: There is no light ( Job 10:21-22 ; 17:13 ; Psalms 88:6 Psalms 88:12 ; 143:3 ), no remembrance ( Psalm 6:5 ; 88:12 ; Eccl 9:5 ), no praise of God ( Psalm 6:5 ; 30:9 ; 88:10-12 ; 115:17 ; Isa 38:18 ) in fact, no sound at all ( Psalm 94:17 ; 115:17 ). Its inhabitants are weak, trembling shades ( Job 26:5 ; Psalm 88:10-12 ; Isa 14:9-10 ) who can never hope to escape from its gates ( Job 10:21 ; 17:13-16 ; Isa 38:10 ). Sheol is like a ravenous beast that swallows the living without being sated ( Prov 1:12 ; 27:20 ; Isa 5:14 ). Some thought the dead were cut off from God ( Psalm 88:3-5 ; Isa 38:11 ); while others believed that God's presence reached even to Sheol ( Psalm 139:8 ).
Toward the end of the Old Testament, God revealed that there will be a resurrection of the dead ( Isa 26:19 ). Sheol will devour no longer; instead God will swallow up Death ( Isa 25:8 ). The faithful will be rewarded with everlasting life while the rest will experience eternal contempt ( Dan 12:2 ). This theology developed further in the intertestamental period.
The New Testament. By the time of Jesus, it was common for Jews to believe that the righteous dead go to a place of comfort while the wicked go to Hades ("Hades" normally translates "Sheol" in the LXX), a place of torment ( Luke 16:22-23 ). Similarly, in Christianity, believers who die go immediately to be with the Lord ( 2 Cor 5:8 ; Php 1:23 ). Hades is a hostile place whose gates cannot prevail against the church ( Matt 16:18 ). In fact, Jesus himself holds the keys of Death and Hades ( Rev 1:18 ). Death and Hades will ultimately relinquish their dead and be cast into the lake of fire ( Rev 20:13-14 ).
The fact that theology develops within the Old Testament and between the Old Testament and the New Testament does not mean that the Bible is contradictory or contains errors. It only indicates progressive revelation, that God revealed more of himself and his plan of salvation as time went on. That some Old Testament saints believed in Sheol, while the New Testament teaches clearly about heaven and hell, is nor more of a problem than that the Old Testament contains a system of atonement by animal sacrifice now made obsolete in Christ ( Heb 10:4-10 ) or that the Old Testament teaches God is one ( Deut 6:4 ) while the New Testament reveals a Trinity.
William B. Nelson, Jr.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
[E] indicates this entry was also found in Easton's Bible Dictionary
[J] indicates this entry was also found in Jack Van Impe's Prophecy Dictionary
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Sheol'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".