What happens to a person when they die? Is it possible for one to be condemned to suffer for eternity in an underworld of fiery torment called hell? To answer, we must address the Yahwehist concept of the Hebrew word sheol, translated into Greek as “hades.”
The term sheol is found 65 times in the Old Testament and 10 times in the New Testament under the Greek form hades. Unfortunately, these two terms are commonly rendered as “hell” in the English translations.
Sheol is not, as popularly construed, a place where after death, the wicked dwell as conscious, thinking, disembodied immortal souls. Rather, it is a “state of being” for the deceased person (nephesh) of every human, whether just or unjust—a circumstance equated with darkness. It is not so much the “grave” where the remains of the nephesh lie, but rather the “state of the remains” within the grave.
Further, sheol will only continue as a state of being until the end of this world-age. Then, after the coming of father Yahweh, it will be destroyed in the great end-time gehenna fire.
The Hebrew term שאול (sh-a-u-l), also rendered שאל (sh-a-l), i.e., sheol, is a transitory state of being often defined as “the abode of the soul after death.”1 It is a transitory condition due to the fact that the dead will be resurrected back to life from sheol.2
The term is derived from שאל (shael), “a prim. root; to inquire; by impl. to request; by extens. to demand,”3 “questioned, enquired . . . requested, prayed for”;4 “to ask . . . the unseen state.”5 Therefore, the state of sheol implies a connection with something asked for, as if borrowed or taken away, implying a thing that is hidden from view or concealed.
The meaning of sheol is understood by its context and use. In 2 Kings 6:5–7, for example, a man lost the iron head of his axe in a deep pool of water. He cried to the prophet Elisha, “My sovereign, and it is שאול (sheol).
In the Greek Septuagint (LXX) version of this verse, sheol is translated as κεκρυμμένον (kekrum-menon), a form of κρύπτω (krupto), “to hide, cover, cloak . . . to hide, conceal, keep secret . . . to hide oneself, lie hidden,”6 i.e., “and the axe head fell into the water; and he cried out, Alas! sovereign: and it was hidden (from view).”7 This translation conveys the idea that the axe head was asked for by the water, i.e., it was hidden or taken out of his sight.
The Latin Vulgate renders this verse with a similar meaning. In this text, the man exclaims, “et hoc ipsum mutuo acceperam (and this place [the water] has borrowed it to itself).”8 Some modern translations interpret the term as used in 2 Kings 6:5 to mean that the man himself had “borrowed” the axe and was distressed by its loss.9 This latter view seems less likely. In either case, sheol is connected with the idea of asking for something, whether requested, borrowed, or forcefully taken away and hidden. Therefore, sheol is a hidden place, a state of being from which Yahweh will request the return of the dead.
At the same time, sheol must not be confused with the grave or place of interment. The Hebrew terms for these concepts are as follows: •
• בור (bur), באר (bar): “a pit hole,” “well,” “cistern,” “grave, sepulchre.”10
• שוח (shuch), שוחה (shuchah), variant שוחת (shuchath): “a grave,” “went down, sank” “dungeon,” or “ a chasm:—ditch, pit.”11
• קבורה, also קברה (qeburah), or קבר (qebur): “sepulture; (concr.) a sepulchre:—burial, burying place, grave, sepulcher.”14 In Greek, μνῆμα (mnema) and μνημεῖον (mnemeion): “a memorial, i.e. sepulchral monument (burial-place):—grave, sepulcher, tomb,” “a remembrance, i.e. cenotaph (place of interment):—grave, sepulcher, tomb.”15
The above items, and others like them, merely represent a locale where the physical remains are placed.
The Greek word used in the LXX to translate the Hebrew שאל (sheol) is ᾅδης (hades), and its variants ᾅδου (adou), ᾅδῃ (ade), and the like.16 It similarly is defined as a concealed place and properly means, “unseen . . . the place (state) of departed souls.”17 When originally used to translate the Hebrew term sheol, hades was understood in the narrowest sense of that term.
Unfortunately, unlike the scriptural concept of sheol, the pagan Greeks conceived of hades as an underworld where immortal souls of the dead dwelt and as a place where these souls were fully conscious and able to experience both pleasure and pain.18
In ancient Greek mythology, hades was both the underworld of the dead and a region lying north among the Kimmerian peoples, in the foggy and cold regions above the Black Sea.19 In the minds of the ancient Greeks, these two ideas were not contradictory. Rather, they represented one and the same place. Kimmeria was a concealed country, heavily covered with fog, the land of the dead.
When the Kimmerians later moved further north to Denmark and the adjoining northern regions,20 hades moved north with them. In the northern dialects, the Greek concept of hades was called “hella,” “hel,” and the like.”21 The term came down in modern English as “hell,”22 a variation of the Old English term helan, also meaning “to conceal,”23 “to hide” or “cover.”24
Regarding the word “hell,” S. D. F. Salmond writes:
It (the term hell)‚ is cognate or connected with the German hehlen = hide, hüllen = cover, A.S. helan, Lat. celare, etc. It appears in much the same form in many of the European languages: Ger. hölle, Sw. helvete, Go. halja, Da. helvede, Du. hel, Ice. hel, O.H.G. hella, A.S. hel, helle, M.E. helle.)25
In ancient Norse literature, “Hel” was one of the nine worlds and was set in the north polar regions.26 From this circumstance comes the popular expression “cold as Hell.” In turn, this regional name served as the source for both the Old Norse underworld goddess Hel as well as Frau Hölle of German folklore. Hel was the queen of demons.27 She was the goddess of Niflheim (the underworld), the region lying furthest north.28 Therefore, the region surrounding the north pole was defined as hell, a concealed region.
In Old English, hell was also used for any underground cellar (a concealed place). For instance, when a farmer placed potatoes in an underground pit, he was said to have placed them in hell.
In English the Hebrew term “sheol” and its corresponding Greek term “hades” are variously translated as hell, grave, and pit.29 Nevertheless, every student of Scriptures should be aware that the use of the English term “hell” to define sheol and what originally was a narrow understanding of hades is fraught with problems.
To begin with, when the Jews and the later neo-Christians adopted the pagan concept of an immortal soul from the Greeks, they also acquired the notion of an eternal punishment in hades, defined as the abode of conscious, disembodied souls. For these Jews, neo-Christians, and others, upon death the wicked would go to hades where they would be eternally punished. Meanwhile, the pious would go to heaven.
The neo-Christian writers then began to combine their new understanding of hades as a place of eternal punishment for immortal wicked souls with the Greek idea of tartaros (a prison for fallen ruach angels) as well as with the concept of gehenna fire.30 This mixing of two entirely different concepts served only to confound the real and separate meanings of each term.
These data bring us back to the use of the English term “hell.” As S. D. F. Salmond writes:
The word ‘hell’ is unfortunately used as the rendering of three distinct words with different ideas,” namely the Greek words hades (Hebrew sheol), gehenna (Hebrew gay hinnom), and tartaros (Hebrew amoq tahum).31
As we will demonstrate later in our study, gehenna is the metaphoric name given to the great unquenchable fire which will engulf the earth at the end of the world-age just as father Yahweh arrives. Tartaros is a prison for sinning ruach angels.
By translating all three words as “hell,” neo-Christians have transformed the Hebrew concept of sheol into a realm of immortal souls, eternally imprisoned in a fiery underworld of torment, an idea depicted in Dante’s Inferno. This idea continues to this day as a Jewish, neo-Christian, and Moslem dogma. Nevertheless, this doctrine is totally false and, as we shall see, is denied by Scriptures.
A State of Being
When human beings die, thereby returning to the ‘aphar (dust) of the ground, they enter into a “state of being” known as sheol, a state of darkness and corruption, of no thought or emotion. The state of sheol is also relevant for sinning ruach angels, but only after they have been released from a place of darkness known to the Greeks as tartaros. We will discuss the relevancy of sheol for these ruach beings with a separate Topic.32 For now, our attention will focus on the human experience.
As already demonstrated, when a human dies, their “ruach (animating force) goes out,” and “he returns to the adamath (ground).”33 Notice that “he,” i.e., the “self,” goes back to the ‘aphar of the ground from which he was made.34
The book of Psalms states:
You (Yahweh) withdraw their (mankind’s) ruach, they gava (breathe their last) and return to ‘aphar. (Psalm 104:29)
In this process, the nephesh or person and his gewiyah (body) return to the ’aphar from out of which Adam was created.35
The link between sheol (the state of death) and a man returning to ‘aphar is also made in other ways. Sheol, for example, is said to be located in a downward direction toward the ground.36 In fact, one of the scriptural definitions for “death” is when one returns to the state of ‘aphar. In a psalm of King David’s regarding the messiah, for example, the messiah speaks of his own death by saying:
My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue clings to my jaws; and to the death belonging to ’aphar you (father Yahweh) have appointed me. (Psalm 22:15-16)
According to Scriptures, the nephesh (person, self) “clings to the ’aphar.”37 Furthermore, the nephesh clings to the ’aphar of a person’s material body not only during life, but after death as well. If the remains of the human body were totally destroyed, being torn asunder or burned to ashes, the divine ruach aspect of the nephesh will attach itself to the earth or water where that body dissipates, even if it lies in a dunghill.38
The corrupted state of the gewiyah (body), without animating ruach (energy), therefore, suspends the physical nephesh (oxygen-breathing function in the blood) and reduces the divine aspect of the nephesh or person into a state of unconsciousness and death. It is this dimension or suspended state into which the divine aspect of the human nephesh falls, containing as it does the self and innermost self, that Scriptures call “sheol.”
Sheol, therefore, is not a place where the body rests but is a “state of being” of the nephesh or person while it rests in and clings to the ‘aphar of the ground (e.g., dirt, water, material substance, etc.). It is not the grave but the state of the remains within the grave, or as G. E. Ladd points out, “Sheol is not so much a place as the state of the dead.”39
Sheol is even defined as being in the stomach of an animal, as demonstrated by the story of Jonah when he died after being swallowed by a great fish.40 When Korah and the other rebels who stood against Moses and Aaron were swallowed up by the ground in an earthquake, Moses wrote that they “went down alive שאלה (sheol-ah; toward sheol),”41 i.e., down through an opening in the ground to their state of death. Because sheol is a state of being and not a place, there is no limit to its capacity.
Sheol and destruction are never שבע (saba; filled to satisfaction)42 and the eyes of mankind are not שבע (saba; filled to satisfaction). (Proverbs 27:20)
This inability to fill sheol makes it equivalent to a dimension and not a place. Sheol grows as the human nephesh population grows, for it is a dimension connected directly with the human nephesh—a sort of storage condition.
The human nephesh was created by combining a physical nephesh body with the sacred ruach that was breathed into Adam, making him a living nephesh or person.43 To the contrary, we never read in Scriptures about the nephesh of an animal going to sheol or being resurrected from the dead. Instead, animals from their very beginning are under the curse of death with no hope of an afterlife.44
Sheol is a Prison
Sheol is also a state of corruption and darkness where the human nephesh is imprisoned until a resurrection.
The book of Job remarks:
Although I wait (for death), sheol will be my house. In darkness I will spread out my bed. I have called out to corruption, “You are my father,” to the worm, “My mother and my sister.” And then where is my hope? And who will see my hope? They will go down to the bars (i.e., prison restraints) of sheol, when together (we will come) upon the dust of descent. (Job 17:13-16)
The dead in sheol are, in turn, defined allegorically as prisoners.45 The prison-like state of sheol is also expressed when David, in the belief that he was going to be murdered by King Saul, requested Yahweh to “Bring my nephesh out of prison, so that I will give thanks to your name.”46
The prison bars of sheol are also metaphorically defined as being behind the gates of sheol, “for the gates of sheol will not prevail” against Yahweh’s Assembly.47 To come near “the snares of death” is to have the “cords of sheol” surround you.48
Death in sheol is allegorically made to be a land and condition of darkness. Job calls it:
The land of חשך (khoshek; darkness) and the shadow of muth (death); the land of obscurity, the very dark of the shadow of death, and there is no order and a shining is like אפל (aphel; extreme darkness).” (Job 10:21-22)
When mankind is resurrected back to life in the future, they will return from the ‘aphar, identified with sheol, as we have said, even if that person’s nephesh lies in a dunghill.
For example, 1 Samuel states:
Yahweh makes dead and makes alive, he brings down to sheol and brings up. Yahweh takes away and he gives riches; he brings low, yes, he lifts up high. He raises the weak from the ‘aphar, from the dunghill he lifts up the needy to cause to sit with nobles. (1 Sam. 2:6-8)
Note: This brings us to the conclusion of Part 1 of our study. Be sure to continue with Does Hell Exist? – Part 2 where we will provide many more scriptural details regarding sheol and its relationship with mankind.
1 HEL (Hebrew-English Lexicon. Zondervan Edition, 1970), pp. 257f. For שאל (sh-a-l) as sheol, see 1 Kings 2:6; Job 17:16.
2 The Resurrection will be discussed in another Topic.
3 SEC (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible), Heb. #7585, 7592.
4 HEL p. 257.
5 YAC, (Analytical Concordance to the Bible. Robert Young), p. 474.
6 GEL (A Greek-English Lexicon. Compiled by Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott), pp. 426, 452.
7 LXX (Greek Septuagint), 4 Kings 6:5 (MT – Masoretic Text: 2 Kings).
8 Cf., Vulg. (Latin Vulgate), loc. cit., “‘Alas, my master!’ cried the man, ‘it was borrowed.’”
9 E.g., SRB (The Scofield Reference Bible), loc. cit.; NJB (The New Jerusalem Bible), loc. cit.; REB (Rotherham’s Emphasized Bible), loc. cit.
10 HEL, pp. 30, 33; CHAL (A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. William L. Holladay), p. 56; HEL, p. 48; SEC, Heb. #1430.), p. 36; SEC, Heb. #953, 874.
11 HEL, p. 262; SEC, Heb. #7743, 7745; CHAL, p. 364.
12 CHAL, p. 56; HEL, p. 48; SEC, Heb. #1430.
13 SEC, Gk. #5028; GEL, p. 794; ILT (The Interlinear Literal Translation of the Greek New Testament. George Ricker Berry., p. 98).
14 SEC, Heb. #6900, 6913; HEL, p. 226; CHAL, p. 312.
15 SEC, Gk. #3418, 3419; GEL, p. 516; ILT, p. 65.
16 CS (A Concordance to the Septuagint and the Other Greek Versions of the Old Testament (including the Apocryphal Books). Edwin Hatch and Henry A. Redpath.), 1, p. 24, #6.
17 SEC, Gk. #86; GEL, p. 12, “the world below . . . the grave, death”; ILT, p. 3, “the invisible world.”
18 E.g., see Apollodorus, Library, 1:2:1, where Pluto is made to have dominion in hades; ibid., 1:3:2, where Orpheus descends alive to hades, talks with Pluto, and brings back his wife from hades; ibid., 1:4:1, where Tityus, after dying, was punished by the vultures in hades who ate his heart; 1:5:3, Ascalaphus was punished in hades when Demeter laid a heavy rock on him there; ibid., 1:9:3, Sisyphus is punished in hades by being forced to roll a stone with his hands up a mountain, but it kept rolling backwards; ibid., 2:5:12, Hercules went to hades, where Theseus and Pirithous tried to have him bring them out, where Hercules wrestled with Menoetes, talked with Pluto, and then returned from hades; and the list continues.
19 Strabo, 3:23:12.
20 Plutarch, Caius Marius, 11:5.
21 It is highly probable that the term hella (hel, hell) was a form of Dhyle, Dhel, Dhell, itself derived from the very ancient name of the northernmost countries of Europe: “Thyle (Thule, Thiele, etc.),” (e.g., Melae, 3:6; Pliny, 4:16) which was in the ancient Gothic tongue was called “Tiel or Tiule.” To this day, part of Norway is still referred to as Thile or Thilemark, and the extreme northern part of Denmark was called Thy or Thyland (Smith, Greek and Roman Geography, 2, p. 1191). In these northern dialects Thile was altered to Dhile = Hella or Hel.
22 HTR (Harvard Theological Review), 76, pp. 263–268.
23 WNWD ( Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, College Edition, 1964.), p. 674.
24 ISBE (The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia. Ed. by James Orr., 2, p. 1371.
25 ADB ( A Dictionary of the Bible, Comprising its Antiquities, Biography, Geography and Natural History, ed. William Smith, 3 vols., London, John Murray, 1863.), 2, p. 343.
26 Du Chaillu, Viking Age, 1, pp. 29–50.
27 HTR, 76, pp. 263.
28 In Scandinavian folklore the direction north was down, being somewhat analogous to the present sense that when one goes south they are traveling down.
29 See SEC, under Heb. #7585, pp. 418f, s.v. grave, p.478, s.v. hell, p. 792, v.s. pit.
30 Regarding tartaros and gehenna fire, we will address these in another Topic.
31 ADB, 2, p. 343.
32 The relevancy of sheol for angels will be discussed in a separate Topic.
33 Ps. 146:4.
34 Gen. 3:19; Job 20:11, 21:23–26; Eccles. 3:20.
35 E.g., Gen. 2:7, 18:27; Eccles. 3:20, 12:7; Job 4:19, 7:21, 10:9, 13:12, 30:19, 34:15; Ps. 7:5, 22:15, 30:9, 44:25, 103:14, 104:29, 113:7, 119:25; 1 Sam. 2:8; Isa. 26:19; Dan. 12:2.
36 E.g., Psalm 86:14; Prov. 15:24; Ezek. 26:20.
37 Ps. 119:25.
38 1 Sam. 2:8; Ps. 113:7.
39 NBD (The New Bible Dictionary. Ed. by J.D. Doublas.), p. 388.
40 Jonah 2:1-3.
41 Num. 16:27-34. The Hebrew expression שאלה (sheol-ah) does not mean “into sheol” as many have incorrectly translated it. In that case the Hebrew would have said something like לשאל (la-sheol; belonging to sheol) or בשאל (be-sheol; into sheol). The term שאלה (sheol-ah) means they were falling toward the region of their impending death in the ‘aphar (dust) of the ground, at which time the ground would close in on them, crushing them to death.
42 SEC, Heb. #7646.
43 Gen. 2:7; cf., John 20:22; Malachi 2:15.
44 Gen. 3:14; cf., Deut. 30:19.
45 E.g., Ps. 69:33; 146:7; Isa. 14:17, 24:22, 42:7, 49:9; Zech. 9:11.
46 Ps. 142:7.
47 Matt. 16:18.
48 2 Sam. 22:6; Ps. 18:5; cf., Ps. 116:3.