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In Hebrew, ²² Sheol (לואש, Sh'ol) is the "abode of the dead", the "underworld", "the common grave of humankind" or "pit".[1] In the Hebrew Bible, it is a place beneath the earth, beyond gates, where both the bad and the good, slave and king, pious and wicked must go at the point of death.[2] Sheol is the common destination of both the righteous and the unrighteous dead, as recounted in Ecclesiastes and Job.

Sheol is sometimes compared to Hades, the gloomy, twilight afterlife of Greek mythology. The word "hades" was in fact substituted for "sheol" when the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek (see Septuagint). The New Testament (written in Greek) also uses "hades" to refer to the abode of the dead.

By the second century BC, Jews had come to believe that those in sheol awaited the resurrection either in comfort (in the bosom of Abraham) or in torment. This belief is reflected in Jesus' story of Lazarus and Dives.

Protestants, who do not share a concept of "hades" with the Eastern Orthodox, have traditionally translated "sheol" (and "hades") as "hell" (for example in the King James Version). However, to avoid confusion of what are actually quite separate concepts in the Bible, modern English versions of the Bible tend either to transliterate the word sheol or to use an alternative term such as the "grave" (eg. NIV). Roman Catholics generally translate "sheol" simply as "death."


The origin of the term sheol is obscure.[3]

Sheol is also transliterated Sheh-ole, in Strong's Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries and Strong's Concordances.

Biblical scholar William Foxwell Albright suggests that the Hebrew root for SHE'OL is SHA'AL, which means "to ask, to interrogate, to question." Sheol therefore should mean "asking, interrogation, questioning." John Tvedtnes, also a Biblical scholar, connects this with the common theme in near-death experiences of the interrogation of the soul after crossing the Tunnel.

 Sheol in the Hebrew Bible

In the Tanakh, which is the Hebrew Bible (which Christians call the Old Testament), the word "sheol" occurs more than sixty times. It is used most frequently in the Psalms, wisdom literature and prophetic books.

In the book of Numbers, Korah along with 250 of his followers go down, living, into sheol when the earth opens up beneath them (Numbers 16:31-33), suggesting that sheol is literally under the ground.

Jacob, not comforted at the reported death of Joseph, exclaims: "I shall go down to my son a mourner unto Sheol" (Genesis 37:35). Sheol may be personified: Sheol is never satiated (Proverbs 30:20); she "makes wide her throat" (Isaiah 5:14).

Other examples of its usage:

  • Psalm 18:5-7 "The breakers of death surged round about me; the menacing floods terrified me. The cords of Sheol tightened; the snares of death lay in wait for me. In my distress I called out: LORD! I cried out to my God. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry to him reached his ears.
  • Psalm 86:13: "Your love for me is great; you have rescued me from the depths of Sheol."
  • Jonah 2:2: "...Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, And You heard my voice."

The Hebrew concept is paralleled in the Sumerian Netherworld to which Inanna descends. See Irkalla.

 Book of Enoch

The Book of Enoch (ca. 160 BCE) purportedly records Enoch's vision of the cosmos. The author describes Sheol as divided into four sections: one where the faithful saints blissfully await Judgment Day (see Bosom of Abraham), one where the moderately good await their reward, one where the wicked are punished and await their Judgment at the resurrection (see Gehenna), and the last where the wicked who don't even warrant resurrection are tormented.

 Sheol in the New Testament

The New Testament follows the Septuagint in translating sheol as hades (compare Acts 2:27, 31 and Psalm 16:10). The New Testament thus seems to draw a distinction between Sheol and "Gehinnom" or Gehenna (Jahannam in Islam). The former is regarded as a place where the dead go temporarily to await resurrection (according to some traditions, including Jesus himself), while the latter is the place of eternal punishment for the damned (i.e. perdition). Accordingly, in the book of Saint John's Revelation, hades is associated with death (Revelation 1:18, 6:8), and in the final judgment the wicked dead are brought out of hades and cast into the lake of fire, which represents the fire of Gehenna; hades itself is also finally thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:11-15).

In Luke 16:19-31 (the story of Lazarus and Dives), Jesus portrays hades as a place of torment, at least for the wicked. Jesus also announces to St. Peter that "the gates of hades" will not overpower the church (Matthew 16:18), and uses hades to pronounce judgment upon the city of Capernaum (Matthew 11:23).

The English word "hell" comes from Germanic mythology, and is now used in the Judeo-Christian sense to translate the Greek word Gehenna—a term which originally referred to a valley outside Jerusalem used for burning refuse, but came to designate the place of punishment for sinners. Although older translations (such as the King James Version) also translated Hades as "hell", modern English translations tend to preserve the distinction between the two concepts by transliterating the word hades and reserving "hell fire" for gehenna fire.

In the Esperanto translation of the New Testament, wherever the word "Hades" might appear, it is merely transliterated; but in places where the New Testament quotes from the Old Testament it uses Sheol, rendered into Esperanto spelling, corresponding with Zamenhof's translation in the original. (Cf. Acts 2:31, Psalm 16:10.)

 Secular outlook

According to Professors Stephen L. Harris and James Tabor, sheol is a place of "nothingness" that has its roots in the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament).

"The ancient Hebrews had no idea of an immortal soul living a full and vital life beyond death, nor of any resurrection or return from death. Human beings, like the beasts of the field, are made of "dust of the earth," and at death they return to that dust (Gen. 2:7; 3:19). The Hebrew word nephesh, traditionally translated "living soul" but more properly understood as "living creature," is the same word used for all breathing creatures and refers to nothing immortal...All the dead go down to Sheol, and there they lie in sleep together–whether good or evil, rich or poor, slave or free (Job 3:11-19). It is described as a region "dark and deep," "the Pit," and "the land of forgetfulness," cut off from both God and human life above (Pss. 6:5; 88:3-12). Though in some texts Yahweh's power can reach down to Sheol (Ps. 139:8), the dominant idea is that the dead are abandoned forever. This idea of Sheol is negative in contrast to the world of life and light above, but there is no idea of judgment or of reward and punishment. If one faces extreme circumstances of suffering in the realm of the living above, as did Job, it can even be seen as a welcome relief from pain–see the third chapter of Job. But basically it is a kind of "nothingness," an existence that is barely existence at all, in which a "shadow" or "shade" of the former self survives (Ps. 88:10)."[4]

Professor Harris shares similar remarks in his Understanding the Bible: "The concept of eternal punishment does not occur in the Hebrew Bible, which uses the term Sheol to designate a bleak subterranean region where the dead, good and bad alike, subsist only as impotent shadows. When Hellenistic Jewish scribes rendered the Bible into Greek, they used the word Hades to translate Sheol, bringing a whole new mythological association to the idea of posthumous existence. In ancient Greek myth, Hades, named after the gloomy deity who ruled over it, was originally similar to the Hebrew Sheol, a dark underground realm in which all the dead, regardless of individual merit, were indiscriminately housed."[5] While believers in the Bible think that it contains one doctrine of Hell (regardless of what they think about the nature of Hell), Harris and nontheists may view the doctrine as changing throughout the Bible.

By the time of Jesus, many Jews had come to believe in a future resurrection of the dead. The dead in Sheol were said to await the resurrection either in comfort or in torment, as in the story of Lazarus and Dives.

 See also


  1. ^ Metzger & Coogan (1993) Oxford Companion to the Bible, p277.
  2. ^ Sheol entry in Jewish Encyclopedia
  3. ^ Sheol entry in Jewish Encyclopedia
  4. ^ What the Bible says about Death, Afterlife, and the Future, James Tabor
  5. ^ Understanding the Bible: the 6th Edition, Stephen L Harris. (McGraw Hill 2002) p 436.


 External links

  • Sheol entry in Jewish Encyclopedia

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