reaper02The topic of hell is one about which believers often have much to say. Like heaven, hell is an emotional topic, and one that few are willing to compare with the Word of God to come to any kind of advance in truth. What most who claim to be Bible believers think about hell is no different from what the world around them thinks about it. Many would have to admit, if asked, that their beliefs about hell after they were saved did not really change much from what they believed about hell before they were saved. If they did change, this was usually because they were taught orthodox Christian beliefs about hell, and not because someone led them to the Word of God to find the truth the Spirit placed for us there.

Because of these things, a study of hell is one that few are willing to undertake, at least not with the Bible as the central and only source of this study. The Bible is decidedly unorthodox when it comes to this topic of hell, and so to maintain what Christians have always believed, many other sources need to be consulted and given equal weight with the Bible in determining what churches call “the truth about hell.” Yet since we are only really interested in the Bible’s teaching, not that of men or churches, we reject all such additional sources. Neither Plato, nor Dante, nor the ancient Greeks shall be allowed to give evidence to override and negate the testimony of the Word of God. We want only what the Bible teaches about hell, and only God’s teaching on hell will satisfy one whose desire really is God’s truth.

To discover what the Bible teaches about hell, it is clear that we will have to discover exactly what the Bible says about hell. To do this, we will turn to the same method we have used for several other important words regarding man’s nature and destiny, and do a word study on the words that are used in the Bible that are translated as “hell.” If we should start from the Old Testament, we would find that the Hebrew word translated “hell” is the word She’owl. We will treat this word as a proper name, and will simplify its transliteration to Sheol. Let us begin, starting from Genesis, to consider all the Word of God has to say about this important word.

Genesis 37:35. And all his sons and all his daughters arose to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, and he said, “For I shall go down into the grave to my son in mourning.” Thus his father wept for him.

The first occurrence of the word Sheol is in a quotation spoken by the man Jacob as he mourned for what he thought was the death of his son Joseph. His brothers had sold him into slavery, and then given their father his coat, stained with the blood of an animal. Jacob assumed that Joseph was dead, torn in pieces, and mourned for him disconsolately. When his remaining children tried to comfort him, he told them, “For I shall go down into Sheol to my son in mourning.”

Now right away we can see that Sheol does not match up with what is believed in modern orthodoxy about hell. It is commonly held that only the wicked or godless will ever end up in hell. Jacob was a Godly man, one of the patriarchs, and his son Joseph was also Godly, as we can clearly see from reading about their lives in the book of Genesis. Yet Jacob here seems certain that both his son Joseph when he dies (he thinks he is dead already here) as well as he himself will go down into Sheol when they die. He does not expect that, being righteous, they will escape this fate. From the very first occurrence of this word, then, the orthodox ideas about hell are starting to be called into question.

Moreover, we see that the Hebrew “Sheol” is translated by the English word “grave” here. Though this is the only Hebrew word that is translated “hell,” yet it is not translated “hell” consistently. In this case, it is used of a Godly man, one of the Biblical heroes, and so our translators have made it “the grave” instead of “hell.” This shows their bias, and demonstrates for us the fact that they had certain teachings they wanted to translate into the Bible regarding hell. We will see how much further their deception regarding this word goes as we continue to study through the occurrences of the Hebrew word Sheol.

Genesis 42:38. But he said, “My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead, and he is left alone. If any calamity should befall him along the way in which you go, then you would bring down my gray hair with sorrow to the grave.”

Now Jacob is reluctant to put Benjamin, Joseph’s brother, into danger for fear that something like what happened to Joseph might befall him. Then, Jacob is certain, his gray hair would be brought down with sorrow to Sheol. Again, Jacob expects to end up in Sheol when he dies, in spite of the fact that he is a Godly man.

Genesis 44:29. But if you take this one also from me, and calamity befalls him, you shall bring down my gray hair with sorrow to the grave.’

Judah is pleading with Joseph for Benjamin to be released. In so doing, he repeats Jacob’s protest to them before they left for Egypt against letting Benjamin go into any kind of danger. If any calamity befalls Benjamin, Jacob believes his gray hair will be brought down with sorrow to Sheol. Jacob again has every expectation of ending up in Sheol when he dies, and does not seem to think at all that his relationship with God from his younger days up to this time will stop this from happening.

Genesis 44:31. it will happen, when he sees that the lad is not with us, that he will die. So your servants will bring down the gray hair of your servant our father with sorrow to the grave.

If they return to Jacob and Benjamin is not with them, Judah believes that this will cause Jacob’s death. Then, the gray hair of his father will be brought down with sorrow to Sheol. Judah, like Jacob his father, believes that his father will end up in Sheol after he dies.

The word Sheol does not appear either in Exodus or in Leviticus, so our next occurrence of this word is all the way forward to the book of Numbers. When we compare this to the massive amount of times the word “heaven” occurs just in the book of Genesis, we can see how foolish the lie is that we have heard some Christians speak, that “The Bible talks more about hell than it does about heaven.” Variations of this statement are “The New Testament talks more about hell than It does about heaven,” also a lie, or “Jesus Christ spoke more about hell than He did about heaven,” which is a lie as well. Either the Bible these people are using is vastly different from the one we are examining, or what they are speaking is a massive untruth. We would suspect that many of those who say this are speaking out of a near total Biblical ignorance, and they are just repeating what they have heard others say before them. Yet a lie spoken in ignorance is still a lie, and these statements are all lies. Whatever word or words we relate to “hell,” the occurrences of the words for “heaven” vastly outweigh them. From every standpoint the Bible speaks ten times about heaven what it does about hell.

Numbers 16:30. But if the LORD creates a new thing, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into the pit, then you will understand that these men have rejected the LORD.”

Here Moses reveals what the LORD’s response is going to be to the rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. The earth is going to open its mouth and swallow them up with all that belongs to them. This will result in them going down alive into Sheol, and will prove their guilt, that by rebelling against Moses they have rejected the LORD. So again Sheol does not appear to match up very well with what people think hell is supposed to be. Apparently, being swallowed up by the earth is the same thing as going down alive into Sheol. We will continue to study through the occurrences of this word, and see if we can discover what this thing called Sheol might be.

Notice that here the word Sheol is again not translated hell, though this time it is not translated as “grave,” but rather as “the pit.” Why the translators decided to use this name for it is hard to say. Maybe they didn’t think this sounded exactly like the grave (though that translation certainly would have worked.) Yet they did not think that this sounded quite like hell either, so they came up with this alternate translation. At any rate, more confusion is heaped on the topic by what the translators have done here. This word Sheol is given three different translations, and the English reader has no way of telling that these are from the same Hebrew word without checking the original. The truth of “hell” is greatly obscured, which is why a study like the one we are undergoing is so essential.

Numbers 16:33. So they and all those with them went down alive into the pit; the earth closed over them, and they perished from among the assembly.

When the earth opened up and swallowed Korah, along with Dathan and Abiram and all their families, the result was that they went down alive into Sheol. This is also described as the earth closing over them, and them perishing from among the assembly. This seems to belie the idea that Sheol is a place of fire or eternal conscious torment, like hell is often thought of today. Again, the orthodox idea does not fit at all with what we actually see in the Bible regarding Sheol.

Deuteronomy 32:22. For a fire is kindled in My anger,
And shall burn to the lowest hell;
It shall consume the earth with her increase,
And set on fire the foundations of the mountains.

Here we have the only occurrence of the word Sheol in Deuteronomy. This is only the seventh occurrence of the word Sheol, and already it is the last occurrence in the Torah. Compare this with the word shemayim for heaven, and the seventh occurrence is Genesis 1:20. Seven occurrences of “heaven” does not even get us out of the first chapter of the Bible, whereas seven occurrences of “hell” gets us all the way through the Torah! Again, we see that things are not even close when it comes to the amount of times “heaven” is spoken of versus the amount of times “hell” is spoken of.

This verse is part of the song of Moses, which takes up all of Deuteronomy 32. Moses has sung about Jeshurun, a poetic name for Israel, like Columbia is a poetic name for the United States. He sings of them forgetting God and sacrificing to demons instead. The LORD decides to hide His face from them, a symbol of withdrawing His favor from them, and seeing what will become of them then. They have made Him jealous with gods that aren’t really God. God promises He will respond by making them jealous with those who are not a people, and make them angry with a foolish nation. This took place in the Acts period, when the Lord made Israel jealous by offering His salvation to Gentiles.

Finally, the LORD proclaims what is said in this verse. A fire is kindled in His anger, He says, and it shall burn unto the lowest Sheol. It shall consume the earth with her increase, and set on fire the foundations of the mountains. This occurrence of Sheol is in a song, so much of what is being said here is put in a poetic way. The LORD is not truly going to set the foundations of mountains on fire, and so forth.

His anger is causing Him to move in punishment against His land, consuming it. This does not mean Israel would be burned up, but is speaking of its crops being withered and destroyed. This could happen in a famine, but it ultimately happened when the LORD denuded the land of its inhabitants in the captivity. Mountains here are figurative for governments, and God destroyed the very foundations of Israel’s government in the same captivity. A fire burning to the lowest Sheol is likewise a figure. His anger would burn even to the grave, sending people down to the depths of death. At any rate, the fire is spoken of here as coming from elsewhere and reaching to Sheol, not coming out of Sheol. There is no evidence here that Sheol is a place of fire and burning in and of itself.

There are no occurrences of Sheol in the books of Joshua, Judges, or Ruth. We have to turn to the book of I Samuel for our eighth occurrence of this word.

I Samuel 2:6. “The LORD kills and makes alive;
He brings down to the grave and brings up.

This is part of Hannah’s song, as recorded in the second chapter of I Samuel. What she says is certainly true: the LORD kills and makes alive. However, many have extended this idea until they think that every time someone dies, the LORD did it. This is not true at all, for others besides the LORD can kill. Of course, none but the LORD can make one alive again after he is dead, or bring up one from the grave.

The word Sheol here is translated “grave.” Again we see in the two parallel statements here the idea that all who are dead are in Sheol. When the LORD kills someone, that person is brought down to Sheol. When the LORD makes someone alive, He brings him up from Sheol. It does not matter if the person is righteous or wicked. All go to Sheol.

II Samuel 22:6. The sorrows of Sheol surrounded me;
The snares of death confronted me.

This occurrence, the only one in II Samuel and the ninth overall, is found in David’s song to the LORD when He delivered him from all his enemies and from Saul. He describes himself surrounded by enemies who wished to kill him. He describes this poetically as the sorrows of Sheol surrounding him and the snares of death confronting him. We know that English poetry uses repetition of sounds to make poetry. Hebrew poetry, however, uses repetition of ideas rather than repetition of sounds. Thus we see again the parallel here. The sorrows of Sheol and the snares of death are the two parallel ideas.

Therefore we see that Sheol and death were all but synonymous to David. He did not think that only wicked men went to Sheol, but he hoped to go somewhere else.  When he was close to death, he viewed it as being the same as being close to Sheol. That was David’s opinion, at least, upon the matter. And in this case, he is speaking in an inspired psalm, so this would seem to be God’s opinion as well.

I Kings 2:6. Therefore do according to your wisdom, and do not let his gray hair go down to the grave in peace.

Our tenth occurrence brings us to the book of I Kings. Here, David is instructing Solomon on his deathbed as to what to do once he is gone. He is speaking of his nephew and army commander Joab. He had murdered two men, but he was too powerful for David to do anything about it. Solomon, however, is a different king. Joab always at least supported David’s reign as king, but he has already shown that he does not support Solomon as the next king. Therefore, David urges him to find some way in his wisdom to put Joab to death.

Now David describes Joab’s execution as not letting his gray hair go down to Sheol in peace. David assumes that Joab when he dies will be going down to Sheol, just as David himself expects to go down to Sheol. The only question is whether he will go down there peacefully or violently. David advises Solomon to be certain it is violently, for Joab deserves execution for the violent acts of murder he has committed. So once again dying and going down to Sheol are spoken of as being the same thing.

I Kings 2:9. Now therefore, do not hold him guiltless, for you are a wise man and know what you ought to do to him; but bring his gray hair down to the grave with blood.”

We are in the same speech of David to Solomon when we come upon the next occurrence of the word Sheol. Here, David is advising Solomon regarding Shimei the son of Gera. He was a Benjamite of the family of Saul who had cursed David with terrible curses when he was going into exile from fear of Absalom. When David returned he barely had control over Israel, and Shimei came to him with a thousand men at his back and asked for forgiveness. Under such circumstances, David had little choice but to pardon him. However, he had revealed what was in his heart, and it was clear he deeply hated David and his family. Shimei was a powerful man, and as long as he remained alive, he would be a threat to Solomon. Therefore, David urges Solomon to use his wisdom to devise some way to execute Shimei as well.

Here again David refers to Shimei’s execution as bringing “his gray hair down to Sheol with blood.” Shimei was a rebel who deserved death, so he deserved to be brought to Sheol violently, not peacefully. David is again referring to his death, of course, and views executing him as the same as bringing his gray hair down to Sheol with blood.

Again we find no occurrences of the word Sheol in II Kings, in I Chronicles, in II Chronicles, in Ezra, in Nehemiah, or in Esther. Surely this topic of “hell” is not nearly so important to the Biblical authors as some would like us to believe! In the book of Job, finally, we come upon our twelfth occurrence. Job will have quite a few occurrences, in fact, as we shall see.

Job 7:9. As the cloud disappears and vanishes away,
So he who goes down to the grave does not come up.

Job is speaking from his despair. He sees no future for himself. Everything he valued in life has been taken away, and death is the only prospect left for him. Moreover, as he says here, as the individual cloud disappears and vanishes away never to be seen again, so he who goes down to Sheol does not come up. Of course, this is entirely true unless God steps in, for only by resurrection will one who is dead ever live again. But from a purely human perspective, we know that once one dies, he does not come back.

Sheol is again translated as “the grave” here. In this occurrence we can see quite clearly what I believe to be the actual meaning of Sheol. That is, Sheol is the death-state. We have words in English to describe different states one can be in. For example, we speak of the state of being poor as poverty, or the state of being alone as solitude. However, we have no word for the state of being dead. Yet the Hebrews did, and I believe that word was Sheol. This idea would fit in any one of the occurrences of the word we have seen up to this time, and it will fit the occurrences of this word we will see after this, as we will discover as we continue to examine them.

Job 11:8. They are higher than heaven— what can you do?
Deeper than Sheol— what can you know?

Here we have the words of Zophar the Naamathite, and they give us an interesting perspective on the word Sheol. Here, the word Sheol is contrasted with the word shamayim, the word for heaven. Zophar puts heaven for height, and Sheol for depth. It is clear that he is speaking figuratively, for the universe is not an elevator with heaven on the top floor and Sheol on the bottom floor. Rather, heaven is viewed as the ultimate in exaltation, whereas Sheol is the ultimate in debasement. This teaches us something about these two words, but again this is clearly a poetic use of both of these, and so we cannot derive the meaning of these words from this.

Job 14:13. “Oh, that You would hide me in the grave,
That You would conceal me until Your wrath is past,
That You would appoint me a set time, and remember me!

This is in the section where Job is responding to Zophar, but he makes this statement to the LORD. He wishes the LORD would hide him in Sheol. There, he believes, he could be concealed until the LORD’s wrath is past. Then, he wishes the LORD would appoint him a set time, and remember him to bring him back to life once again. This indicates that Sheol, the death-state, is one of concealment, where one might even be hidden from the LORD’s wrath. This flies in the face of the idea that Sheol is the modern conception of hell, or a place where the LORD is actively pouring out his wrath and fury upon men.

Job 17:13. If I wait for the grave as my house,
If I make my bed in the darkness,

Job is discussing once again his hopeless situation. He might wait for Sheol to become his house, and for his bed to be made in the darkness of the grave. However, what hope is there in that? So Sheol is spoken of poetically as a house, but that he means his own entrance into the death-state is clear from the context.

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

If Job goes down to Sheol, will hope descend to the gates of that place with him? Would his hope rest in the dust with him? Again, there is poetry in what Job is saying here, but for all that his meaning is plain: he is speaking of death as a place with gates, but he expects it to be nothing more than resting in the dust as a dead man.

Job 21:13. They spend their days in wealth,
And in a moment go down to the grave.

Job is again answering Zophar, who has insisted that bad things happen to wicked people and good things happen to good people. Job is pointing out emphatically that this is not so. He speaks of wicked men who seem to be born with a silver spoon in their mouths and who have everything go well for them in life. They spend their days in wealth, he says. One cannot even comfort himself that they have a hard death, for they go down in a moment to Sheol, with no suffering or long drawn-out process of dying, as some men experience. Going down to Sheol is going into the state of death here.

Job 24:19. As drought and heat consume the snow waters,
So the grave consumes those who have sinned.

Job is considering here the ultimate fate of the wicked, violent sinners. Drought and heat consume the waters of the snow. In the same way, Sheol consumes those who have sinned. Sheol is personified here, but all must admit that this is poetic language, for none would suggest that hell has a mouth or that it eats people. We are to think of snow melting away, and then think of the death-state doing the same to the sinner. This is Job’s point, put here in this colorful word-picture.

Job 26:6. Sheol is naked before Him,
And Destruction has no covering.

Job is speaking here of the greatness of God. Sheol, he claims, is stripped naked before Him. Destruction, Abaddon, has its covering removed before His sight. Clearly this is again colorful imagery, for Sheol does not wear clothes, and Abaddon does not have a cover. The idea is clearly that there is nothing mysterious or inaccessible about Sheol and Destruction from the LORD’s perspective, though there certainly is from ours. He has absolute dominance over these things against which man has no power. But again we cannot take the absolute meaning of these terms from such a clearly poetic use.

So we have completed our examination of the word “Sheol,” the word that is translated “hell” in the Old Testament, from Genesis to Job. We have seen that it is used as a place where both the righteous and the wicked go after death. Though it is sometimes hard to see what it means since it is often used in poetry, it seems clear enough that Sheol means the state of death. Those who are in Sheol are in the death state, in contrast to those who are still alive.

This word Sheol, whatever it might mean, clearly means nothing like what men mean when they use the word “hell.” Whatever is believed and taught about hell, it is clear that it would have to be read into the word Sheol, for it cannot be read out. This word Sheol is nothing like our English word hell. To translate it by this word is misleading, so say the least. There is nothing of the modern conception of the word “hell” in the Hebrew Sheol.

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