What the H-E-Double Hockey Sticks? Pt. 2- Terminology: Sheol, Hades, and Hell

Here’s Part 1

Hell (gehenna) as a concept of punishment and fire really comes about during the post-exilic era (although Jeremiah does lead into it during the exile). There is no “Hell” as we think of it in the Old Testament. While many would suggest that Sheol is the OT equivalent, it isn’t. It gets complicated sometimes when we look at our English bibles and we see words which don’t always line up quite right with the original languages. Sometimes we need some insights into biblical languages to understand how Old and New Testament texts work in relation to each other, and how that comes out into English (or any other language). I don’t pretend to be an expert in biblical languages, but I was blessed to have frighteningly brilliant instructors in both Hebrew and Greek, so while my skill leaves a lot to be desired, I at least know where to look for answers that are trustworthy.

Sheol is an Old Testament reality. It isn’t Hell as it is depicted in the New Testament. Sheol is part of the Hebrew mindset, one which doesn’t have a treatise type examination in the texts of Israels. It’s murky. Defining Sheol is like trying to nail jell-o to the wall sometimes. Is it final? Is it something consciously experienced? Is it a place? If so, where? Is it some alternate plane of existence?

Our understanding of Hell gets complicated because of terminology. As I noted in my last post, Paul never uses gehenna. In the Old Testament references to gehenna as a place of judgment is a linked to the events which took place there during the reigns of Ahaz and Manasseh (see Jeremiah 7:30-33, 19:1-13) and Divine retribution is poured out on the unrighteous, in what appears to be earthly retribution (note the reference to dead bodies, sword and slaughter). Divine judgment happens on both the historical and eschatalogical level, which further complicates our reading of God’s judgment. There is the wrath poured out for correction in history, and the wrath poured out at the conclusion of history as we know it. So how do we separate the two? The fire and sword and suffering of the Old Testament can be read in many ways. Sheol is one small part of this. It is something the Old Testament authors certainly don’t look forward to. A few examples:

Job 17:13, “If I look for Sheol as my home, I make my bed in the darkness”

Psalm 6:5, “For there is no mention of You in death; In Sheol who will give You thanks?”

Psalm 116:3, “The cords of death encompassed me And the terrors of Sheol came upon me; I found distress and sorrow”

Ecclesiastes 9:10, “for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going.”

Isaiah 38:18, “For Sheol cannot thank You, Death cannot praise You; Those who go down to the pit cannot hope for Your faithfulness.”

So, Sheol is not a good thing. But it isn’t entirely evil either.

Further complicating things is the New Testament references to Hades (in the septuagint hades is used to translate sheol). So what do we do with Hell, Hades, Sheol? They really are not the same thing, but what does that mean? Is there a diversity within the post-material life? Are they sequential? Are they just different metaphors for something else?

So what are Sheol, Hades, Gehenna? How do they relate to one another?

Sheol is translated different ways by different translators; death, grave, pit. But this is not the Hebrew equivalent of gehenna. (Remember that gehenna is just a translitteration ge-hinnam/ge-hinnom, Valley of Hinnom). Sheol is somewhat ambiguous and elusive. How we understand it is a difficult task. Etymologically sheol is connected to the verb sha-al, to ask (Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon).  Hence, it could be understood as the “place of inquiry”- a place of pondering, wondering, asking questions and having questions asked of us. It is a place where the dead continue to exist. However, it is not a place of punishment per se. Both the righteous (Gen. 37:35; Isa. 38:10; Ps. 30:3) and unrighteous go to Sheol. It is described as a place of darkness and silence. It is a place where the dead long for God; a continuing outcry or pleading (asking) for God. Sheol may or may not be permanent in the Old Testament understanding. Consider Hosea 13:14 (ESV),

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 sting?

Although Sheol is not named, we see in Daniel 12:2 this hope of release from death:

And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.

In Psalm 9:17-18 we see the wicked “return to Sheol” while the hope of afflicted will remain forever.

And in Psalm 139:8 we read of God’s presence even in Sheol: “If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there” (See also Romans 8:35-39)

So, Sheol is the Hebrew concept of a realm of the dead. It is where dead folks are, for better of for worse. This may shed some light on 1 Peter 3:18-20:

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 because they formerly did not obey

Tintoretto, “The Descent into Hell”, 1568. San Cassiano Venice, Italy.

Whether this “prison” is a reference to Sheol or not is debatable. Either way, we see in Sheol a Hebrew understanding of the afterlife, which was mysterious to them.  Clearly the Old Testament doesn’t give us a very full or clear picture of what happens at death, but it articulates some continued existence, shrouded in darkness. There is a glimmer of hope in the thought of being in Sheol. For the righteous, God will remember them. It is not a place beyond the redemptive power of God.

Hades is a bit trickier. It is used to translate Sheol in the Greek Septuagint (LXX). This may demonstrate the understanding of Sheol at the time of the creation of the LXX. It is also used of several other Hebrew words associated with death. For instance, Job 38:17 reads, “Have the gates of death been revealed to you, or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?”, and in the LXX “darkness” is translated with Hades.

Hades and Cerberus, photo by Aviad Bublil

Hades is of course borrowed from Greek mythology. It is the name of the god of the underworld (the name Hades means “unseen”), and the realm itself. The realm of Hades is where all humans go upon their death, crossing the river Styx to enter into a realm which consisted of various regions, and various mythologies painted various pictures of Hades. But for the sake of time, I don’t want to get too far into it, but the point is, Jewish authors adopted this word to speak of death.  We probably shouldn’t get too sidetracked by debating how much of Hellenistic understanding of afterlife seeped into Judaism because they use the word Hades. When Greek becomes the dominant language you use their terminology to express what you have as best you can.

In the Jewish Apocryphal literature, Hades is the term used, and is often depicted as temporary. Hades will not hold the righteous forever. Tobit 13:2 says “For he [God] afflicts and he shows mercy; he leads down to Hades in the lowest regions of the Earth, and he brings up from the great abyss”. Similarly, The Wisdom of Solomon 16:13 states “For you [God] have power over life and death; you lead mortals down to the gates of Hades and back again.” Sirach 48:5 states “You [Elijah] raised a corpse from death and from Hades by the word of the Most High”. In 2 Esdras, Hades is compared to a womb, which must push out the child within it. Souls must be “birthed” out of Hades where they are kept (2 Esdras 4:40-42).

In these especially we see one of the common characteristics of Sheol and Hades- downward descent. Abyss, pit, descending, etc. all point to an understanding of Sheol and Hades being below the earth. Does this mean that we should understand that there is some place below the earth’s crust where the disembodied souls of the dead reside? Not necessarily. Hermeneutics would have us use caution, understanding context and genre when we look at these texts. We don’t get our doctrine of Sheol from the same sort of texts that we get the Ten Commandments. Our references to Sheol come out of poetry, wisdom lit. and apocalyptic texts, all of which use metaphorical language, imagery, and hyperbole. So Sheol is not literally under the earth’s crust. But the descent language is used to demonstrate the distancing between heaven and Sheol. When dying you are moving away from the glory of the heavens (spiritually, but perhaps not geographically).

Hades makes 4 appearances in the Gospels (two of which are parallel verses- Mt. 11:23 & Lk. 10:15, and one is part of a parable, Lk 16:23, which means we may be dealing with metaphorical imagery) plus two more in Acts (both quotes from the LXX), and 4 in Revelation. So there isn’t much to work with here. All we can truly say from the NT references to Hades is that God is still sovereign over them (see esp Rev 1:18), and God and his people will have victory over it.

So, what do we do with this? Well, Hades and Sheol are really just ways of talking about death. They are ways of articulating that in death we are not “done” yet. We continue on in some sense after physical death. Gehenna is something very different, as it is an eschatalogical way of talking about judgment. It is a parable of sorts. It is an earthly experience which Jewish folks used to talk about the reality eschatalogical punishment.

Gehenna then is a different experience form Sheol/Hades. In fact, in Revelation 20:14, death and Hades are thrown into the lake of fire. Obviously this is metaphorical language. How does the “place of the dead” fit into the Valley of Hinnom? Point that Revelation is making is that the “place of the dead” (whether a geographical place or not) is done away with as it is no longer necessary. Sheol/Hades is done away with in the eschaton. Whether Gehenna goes on forever (universalism, annihilationism or literalism) or not is an issue for another part in this series. My point is that the ambiguity of Sheol and Hades is a temporary issue. Things will become clarified and decided once and for all by the Sovereign Lord who is Sovereign over Sheol, Hades, and Gehenna. All three are subject to his rule.

So, what does this do to our theology? How many of us believe that when we die, we go to heaven if we are Christian? And how many believe that when you the unrighteous die, they go to Hell? Suddenly this dualism of “pop theology” looks out of place and unbiblical. See what I mean when I say we have to always be closely examining our beliefs against Scripture? Things are not as straightforward as we might like them to be. Hell (Gehenna) is an eschatalogical thing. That means it’s fulfillment is in the future. Also, our final abode is not Heaven, but the New Earth which comes out of Heaven. This happens when we are resurrected, not at the time of our death. What happens in between is hotly debated. Conscious darkness? “Soul Sleep”? Existence outside space and time which makes resurrection seem instantly after death? I don’t know the answer to this, but biblically I have to conclude that no one has faced Hell yet. Hell is imminent and inevitable for many. But it’s not a current reality. Or at least that’s what I see in Scripture. Hell is part of Judgment, which comes in the future when the righteous are vindicated and the unrighteous receive punishment.

For a concise rundown of death, Sheol, etc. I recommend Stanley Grenz’s systematic theology, Theology for the Community of God, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994. pg. 573-598.

2 Comments on “What the H-E-Double Hockey Sticks? Pt. 2- Terminology: Sheol, Hades, and Hell

  1. Bravo! This is clear on the meanings of these terms regarding description of death, punishment, ect. I like your point that “hell” is yet future, somehting as a result of judgement. Good way to look at it. Helped me out.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s