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The Blue Letter Bible

Don Stewart :: What Is Sheol?

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Don Stewart
Humans have both a physical and spiritual nature. When a person dies those two natures separate. The body goes to the grave. We will now address the question as to what happens to the departed spirit. Is it roaming around in space or in some definite place?

Not Wandering Around

The Bible says that the spirits of the dead are not wandering around - there is a particular place where they go. The Old Testament calls this place "Sheol."


The Hebrew word "Sheol" is often translated "hell" in the English versions. However this gives the wrong inference. It is never used of the final destination of the wicked. Sheol is used in Old Testament in basically five ways:

1. The unseen realm of the dead

2. The grave - the actual place where bodies are buried

3. Specifically, the place of punishment for the wicked

4. Symbolically

5. The place from where the righteous are saved

Context Determines

Sometimes the exact meaning of Sheol is hard to determine - it can overlap these categories. Consequently it is essential to check out the context to find the correct meaning of Sheol each time it is used.

1. The Unseen Realm Of The Dead

Sheol generally means the unseen realm of the dead, the present state of death. Both the godly and ungodly go to Sheol in this sense of the term. When used in this way, there is no idea of a place of judgment or condemnation. It is, for example, the place where the righteous Jacob would go.

All his sons and daughters came to comfort him, but he [Jacob] refused to be comforted. "No," he said, "in mourning will I go down to the grave [Sheol] to my son." So his father wept for him (Genesis 37:35).

Sheol was also the place where sinners would end up.

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 grave [Sheol], then you will know that these people have treated the LORD with contempt (Numbers 16:30).

In common speech this refers to the grave - not the literal burying place of the dead but rather the realm of the death. The New International Version normally translates Sheol as "grave." It is usually with the sense of the realm of the dead.

2. Grave

Not only does Sheol figuratively represent the grave, it can also refer to the actual physical place where the literal bodies of the dead are buried.

Our bones are scattered at the mouth of the grave [Sheol], as when one plows and breaks up the earth (Psalm 141:7).

Jacob said.

But he said, "My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead, and he alone is left. If harm should come to him on the journey that you are to make, you would bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to Sheol" (Genesis 42:38).

In this instance, Sheol could refer either to the actual grave or merely the realm of the dead.

3. Place Of Punishment For Wicked

Often Sheol is used of the temporary place of judgment for the wicked. It is the place where God's anger burns against unbelievers.

Spiritual Death

Sheol is a place of spiritual death, or separation from God.

Let death come upon them; let them go down alive to Sheol; for evil is in their homes and in their hearts (Psalm 55:15).

Insatiable Appetite

Sheol has an appetite that cannot be satisfied.

Sheol and Destruction are never full; so the eyes of humanity are never satisfied . . . There are three things that are never satisfied, four things never say, 'It is enough: Sheol' (Proverbs 27:20; 30:15,16).

Isaiah wrote.

Therefore Sheol has enlarged itself and opened its mouth beyond measure; their glory and their multitude and their pomp, and the one who is jubilant shall descend into it (Isaiah 5:14)

The prophet Habakkuk said.

Because he enlarges his desire as Sheol, and he is like death and cannot be satisfied (Habakkuk 2:5).

4. Symbolically

Sheol is used symbolically in the Old Testament.

For Great Sin

Because you have said, "We have made a covenant with death, and with Sheol we have an agreement; when the overwhelming scourge passes through it will not come to us; for we have made lies our refuge, and in falsehood we have taken shelter" (Isaiah 28:15).

For Greed

Moreover, wealth is treacherous; the arrogant do not endure. They open their throats wide as Sheol; like Death they never have enough. They gather all nations for themselves, and collect all peoples as their own (Habakkuk 2:5).

5. Place From Which Righteous Saved

Though the wicked remain in Sheol, it is the place from where the righteous are saved. The psalmist wrote.

But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for He will receive me. Selah (Psalm 49:15).

For great is Your steadfast love toward me; You have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol (Psalm 86:13).

Still Within God's Reach

Those in Sheol are still within the reach of God. The prophet Amos said.

Though they dig down to the depths of the grave [Sheol}, from there My hand will take them. Though they climb up to the heavens, from there I will bring them down (Amos 9:2).

Sheol has no lasting influence on the godly.

Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol? Shall I redeem them from Death? O Death, where are your plagues? O Sheol, where is your destruction? Compassion is hidden from My eyes (Hosea 13:14).

Where Is Sheol?

Whenever there is a geographic reference to Sheol, it is described as being below, in the lower parts of the earth. God said.

For a fire has been kindled by My wrath, one that burns to the realm of Sheol below. It will devour the earth and its harvests and set afire the foundations of the mountains (Deuteronomy 32:22).

In Job, Sheol is contrasted with the highest heaven.

They are higher than heaven - what can you do? Deeper than Sheol (Job 11:8).

In the Book of Proverbs it says.

For the wise the path of life leads upward, in order to avoid Sheol below (Proverbs 15:24).

Isaiah the prophet said.

Yet you shall be brought down to Sheol, to the lowest depths of the grave (Isaiah 14:15).

Ezekiel testified.

They also went down to Sheol with it, to those killed by the sword, along with its allies, those who lived in its shade among the nations (Ezekiel 31:17).

Since every geographic description of Sheol refers to some place that is down, it has led some theologians to suggest that Sheol is somewhere in the heart of the earth.

Descriptions Of Sheol

The following descriptions are given of Sheol.


Sheol is symbolically described as having gates.

Will they go down to the gates of Sheol? Shall we have rest together in the dust? (Job 17:16).

Dark And Gloomy

Sheol is a place that is dark and gloomy.

If I wait for Sheol as my house, if I make my bed in the darkness (Job 17:13).


There is sorrow in Sheol.

The sorrows of Sheol surrounded me, the snares of death confronted me (2 Samuel 22:6).


Sheol is a place of pain.

The pains of death encompassed me, and the pangs of Sheol laid hold of me; I found trouble and sorrow (Psalm 116:3).

Darkness And Silence

Sheol is a lowly region of darkness and silence.

Before I go to the place from which I shall not return, to the land of darkness and the shadow of death. A land as dark as darkness itself, without any order, where even the light is like darkness (Job 10:22).


Sheol is a place where people are mere shadows of their former selves. Isaiah wrote.

The grave below is all astir to meet you at your coming; it rouses the spirits of the departed to greet you - all those who were leaders in the world; it makes them rise from their thrones - all those who were kings over the nations. They will all respond, they will say to you, "You also have become weak, as we are; you have become like us" (Isaiah 14:9,10).

Not Final State Of Righteous

Whatever the term Sheol means, it is clear it was never regarded as the ultimate home of the righteous. It was, at best, only a temporary place where the righteous dead went.

Wicked Will Leave Sheol

Sheol is also a temporary place for the wicked dead. After the resurrection and final judgment, the wicked will be sent to their ultimate destination - hell.


According to the Old Testament, all people who die go to the intermediate state called Sheol. Existence continues in Sheol but not life as we know it. This Hebrew word, unfortunately translated "hell" in some English versions, has a variety of meanings. They include:

1. The unseen realm of the dead

2. The grave

3. The special place where the wicked reside

4. Symbolically

5. The place where the righteous are saved from

Sheol can also refer to a combination of these. The context must determine the meaning. "Grave" is probably the best English word to translate Sheol.

Sheol is described as being a dark lonely realm under the earth. In the Old Testament, there seems to be no distinction between the righteous and the unrighteous in Sheol. The distinction between the believers and unbelievers is made clear in the New Testament. Sheol, or the grave, will continue until the resurrection. Since Sheol is an intermediate state, it will come to an end someday.
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