Does the Old Testament Word Sheol Refer to Hell?


The simple answer is no, sheol isn’t hell. The meaning of sheol, often translated as “pit” or “grave,” is difficult to translate. The word occurs sixty-five times in the Old Testament, and it describes the place where both the righteous (Genesis 37:35; Genesis 42:38; Isaiah 38:10, Isaiah 38:17-18) and the wicked (Numbers 16:30; Isaiah 14:19, Isaiah 14:11) go after death. Still, this doesn’t mean that they go to the same place. It only means that the word sheol is flexible and doesn’t have to designate the specific destiny of the righteous or wicked. At the very least, sheol is simply a synonym for death; at most, it may refer to some sort of shadowy subhuman existence after death, without specifying the details.

The Old Testament doesn’t give us many details about hell. Daniel 12:2 says that the wicked will be resurrected and punished, but no other details are given. Ezekiel 32:17-32 is by far the longest description of the existence of the wicked after they die, but it’s a rather ambiguous passage, preventing us from coming to any firm conclusions about the nature of hell. In the passage, Ezekiel seems to make a distinction between sheol (Ezekiel 32:21,27) and what he calls “the nether world” (Ezekiel 32:18,24), where the wicked go when they die. Here, the wicked are arranged according to nationality (Ezekiel 32:22,24,26,29) where they receive their punishment for what they did while alive. Moreover, it seems that though they are not full alive, they are full conscious of what’s going on.  The wicked receive punishment (Ezekiel 32:27), feel shame (Ezekiel 32:30), and are even “comforted” at the arrival of more inhabitants in this “netherworld” (Ezekiel 32:31). “Misery loves company” seems to be the point here.

Despite what seems to be a detailed description of hell, the genre of the passage prevents us from taking all of these descriptions in a literal manner. At best, we can say that God revealed to Ezekiel that the wicked would receive some sort of punishment after they die. Beyond this, caution must rule our interpretation.

-Francis Chan, Erasing Hell

Here are other Frequently Asked Questions and how the Bible answers them.

Saved by Grace through Faith. In love with Jesus, His Glory, and obviously my beautiful wife Joelle, daughter Peyton, and son Matthew! Seeking Him in everything to glorify Him and spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Pastor at Austin Life Church.

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