Sheol (pronounced "Sheh-ol"), in Hebrew שאול (She'ol), is the "grave", or "pit" or "abyss"[1][2].

In Judaism She'ol[3] is the place of spiritual purification or punishment for the wicked dead in Judaism, a site at the greatest possible distance from heaven. According to most jewish sources, the period of purification or punishment is limited to only 12 months and every shabbath day is excluded from punishment.[4] After this the soul will ascend to Olam Ha-Ba, the world to come, or will be destroyed if it is severely wicked.[5] The place of spiritual purification or punishment for the wicked dead in Judaism is not called 'Hell' but referred to either as Gehinnom or She'ol.[6] It is a figurative name for a place where the dead were believed to be forgathered.

The word "hades" (=underworld) was substituted for "sheol" when the Hebrew scriptures - by decree - were translated into Greek (see Septuagint) in ancient Alexandria around 200 BCE (see Hellenistic Judaism).

In Christianity Sheol is the common destination of both the righteous and the unrighteous flesh, as recounted in Ecclesiastes and Job. The New Testament (written in Greek) also uses "hades" to refer to the abode of the dead. The belief that those in sheol awaited the resurrection either in comfort (in the bosom of Abraham) or in tormentis is reflected in the story of the New Testament of Lazarus and Dives. English translations of the Hebrew scriptures have variously rendered the word sheol as "hell"[7] or "the grave".[8]


The origin of the term sheol is obscure.

One theory is that Sheol is connected to ša'al, the root of which means "to burrow" and is thus related to šu'al "fox" or "burrower".[9]

Biblical scholar William Foxwell Albright suggests that the Hebrew root for SHE'OL is SHA'AL, which means "to ask, to interrogate, to question." John Tvedtnes, also a Biblical scholar, connects this with the common theme in near-death experiences of the interrogation of the soul after crossing the Tunnel.

As regards the origin not of the term but of the concept, the Jewish Encyclopedia considers more probable the view that it originated in animistic conceits: "With the body in the grave remains connected the soul (as in dreams): the dead buried in family graves continue to have communion (comp. Jer. xxxi. 15). Sheol is practically a family grave on a large scale. Graves were protected by gates and bolts; therefore Sheol was likewise similarly guarded. The separate compartments are devised for the separate clans, sects, and families, national and blood distinctions continuing in effect after death. That Sheol is described as subterranean is but an application of the custom of hewing out of the rocks passages, leading downward, for burial purposes."[10]

Sheol in the Hebrew Bible

In the Hebrew Bible, the word "sheol" occurs more than 60 times. It is used most frequently in the Psalms, wisdom literature and prophetic books.

Jacob, not comforted at the reported death of Joseph, exclaims: "I shall go down to my son a mourner unto Sheol" (Genesis 37:35).[11]

Other examples of its usage:

  • Job 7:9 "Just as a cloud dissipates and vanishes, those who go down to Sheol will not come back."
  • Psalm 18:5-7 "The breakers of death surged round about me; the menacing floods terrified me. The cords of Sheol tightened; the snares of death lay in wait for me. In my distress I called out: LORD! I cried out to my God. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry to him reached his ears.
  • Psalm 86:13: "Your love for me is great; you have rescued me from the depths of Sheol."
  • Psalm 139:8: "If I ascend to heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there."
  • Jonah 2:2: "...Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, And You heard my voice."
  • Proverbs 30:16:"Sheol is never satiated..."

The Hebrew concept is paralleled in the Sumerian Netherworld to which Inanna descends. See Irkalla.

Sheol in the Intertestamental Literature

Deutero Canonical Books

In the Wisdom of Sirach the view of Sheol/Hades is much the same as Ecclesiastes: "Who will sing praises to the Most High in Hades, as do those who are alive and give thanks? From the dead, as from one who does not exist, thanksgiving has ceased; he who is alive and well sings the Lord's praises. (Sirach 7:27-28)

Dead Sea Scrolls

There is still debate surrounding the views of the Qumran community on Hades, and whether their texts reflect any consistent view.[12]


Visits to Hades are a common feature of several Pseudepigrapha. For example:

  • The Book of Enoch (ca. 160 BCE) purportedly records Enoch's vision of the cosmos. The author describes Sheol as divided into four sections: one where the faithful saints blissfully await Judgment Day (see Bosom of Abraham), one where the moderately good await their reward, one where the wicked are punished and await their Judgment at the resurrection (see Gehenna), and the last where the wicked who don't even warrant resurrection are tormented.
  • The Apocalypse of Zephaniah (ca.100BCE - 70AD) represents Sheol/Hades approximately as divided into two sides equivalent to the picture given in the parable of the Bosom of Abraham. A significant difference is the presence of an angelic ferryman, whereas in Luke 16 the chasm cannot be crossed. “Triumph, prevail because thou hast prevailed and hast triumphed over the accuser, and thou hast come up from Hades and the abyss. Thou wilt now cross over the crossing place.” (Apoc. Zeph. 7:9)


Hellenistic Judaism

Josephus largely follows models of the Hebrew Bible. The "Discourse to the Greeks concerning Hades" found in the edition of the Complete Works by William Whiston is actually a 3rdC commentary on Luke 16 by Hippolytus.[14]

Sheol in the New Testament

The New Testament follows the Septuagint in translating sheol as hades (compare Acts 2:27, 31 and Psalm 16:10). The New Testament thus seems to draw a distinction between Sheol and "Gehinnom" or Gehenna (Jahannam in Islam). The former is regarded as a place where the dead go temporarily to await the Resurrection of the dead (according to some traditions, including Jesus himself), while the latter is the place of eternal punishment for the damned (i.e. perdition). Accordingly, in the book of Saint John's Revelation, hades is associated with death (Revelation 1:18, 6:8), and in the final judgment the wicked dead are brought out of hades and cast into the lake of fire, which represents the fire of Gehenna; hades itself is also finally thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:11-15).

In Luke 16:19-31 (the story of Lazarus and Dives), Jesus portrays hades as a place of torment, at least for the wicked. Jesus also announces to St. Peter that "the gates of hades" will not overpower the church (Matthew 16:18), and uses hades to pronounce judgment upon the city of Capernaum (Matthew 11:23), see Rejection of Jesus#Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum.

The English word "hell" comes from Germanic mythology, and is now used in the Judeo-Christian sense to translate the Greek word Gehenna — a term which originally referred to a valley outside Jerusalem used for burning refuse, but came to designate the place of punishment for sinners. Although older translations (such as the King James Version) also translated Hades as "hell", modern English translations tend to preserve the distinction between the two concepts by transliterating the word hades and reserving "hell fire" for gehenna fire.

In the Esperanto translation of the New Testament, wherever the word "Hades" might appear, it is merely transliterated; but in places where the New Testament quotes from the Old Testament it uses Sheol, rendered into Esperanto spelling, corresponding with Zamenhof's translation in the original. (Cf. Acts 2:31, Psalm 16:10.)

Historical outlook

According to Professors Stephen L. Harris and James Tabor, sheol is a place of "nothingness" that has its roots in the Hebrew Bible (or Talmud).

"The ancient Hebrews had no idea of an immortal soul living a full and vital life beyond death, nor of any resurrection or return from death. Human beings, like the beasts of the field, are made of "dust of the earth," and at death they return to that dust (Gen. 2:7; 3:19). The Hebrew word nephesh, traditionally translated "living soul" but more properly understood as "living creature," is the same word used for all breathing creatures and refers to nothing immortal...All the dead go down to Sheol, and there they lie in sleep together — whether good or evil, rich or poor, slave or free (Job 3:11-19). It is described as a region "dark and deep," "the Pit," and "the land of forgetfulness," cut off from both God and human life above (Pss. 6:5; 88:3-12). Though in some texts Yahweh's power can reach down to Sheol (Ps. 139:8), the dominant idea is that the dead are abandoned forever. This idea of Sheol is negative in contrast to the world of life and light above, but there is no idea of judgment or of reward and punishment. If one faces extreme circumstances of suffering in the realm of the living above, as did Job, it can even be seen as a welcome relief from pain–see the third chapter of Job. But basically it is a kind of "nothingness," an existence that is barely existence at all, in which a "shadow" or "shade" of the former self survives (Ps. 88:10)."[15]

Harris shares similar remarks in his Understanding the Bible: "The concept of eternal punishment does not occur in the Hebrew Bible, which uses the term Sheol to designate a bleak subterranean region where the dead, good and bad alike, subsist only as impotent shadows. When Hellenistic Jewish scribes rendered the Bible into Greek, they used the word Hades to translate Sheol, bringing a whole new mythological association to the idea of posthumous existence. In ancient Greek myth, Hades, named after the gloomy deity who ruled over it, was originally similar to the Hebrew Sheol, a dark underground realm in which all the dead, regardless of individual merit, were indiscriminately housed."[16] While some believers in the Bible think that it contains one doctrine of Hell (regardless of what they think about the nature of Hell), Harris and historical-critical Bible scholars typically view the doctrine as changing throughout the Bible.

See also


Some or all of this article is forked from Wikipedia. The original article was at Sheol. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

  1. Strong's Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries and Strong's Concordance
  2. "Hebrew word of uncertain etymology (see Sheol, Critical View), synonym of "bor" (pit), "abaddon" and "shaḥat" (pit or destruction), and perhaps also of "tehom" (abyss)." SHEOL websourced 02-10-2010.
  3. [1]
  4. "The place of spiritual punishment and/or purification for the wicked dead in Judaism is not referred to as Hell, but as Gehinnom or She'ol." HELL - Judaism 101 websourced 02-10-2010.
  5. [2]
  6. [3]
  7. e.g. King James Version
  8. e.g. New International Version.
  9. Brief Communications. "The Original Meaning of Sheol." Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 36, No. 3/4, (1917): 258.
  10. Sheol
  11. "Graves were protected by gates and bolts; therefore Sheol was likewise similarly guarded. The separate compartments are devised for the separate clans, septs, and families, national and blood distinctions continuing in effect after death. That Sheol is described as subterranean is but an application of the custom of hewing out of the rocks passages, leading downward, for burial purposes." SHEOL - JewishEncyclopedia websource 02-10-2010.
  12. Maxwell J. Davidson Angels at Qumran: a comparative study of 1 Enoch 1-36, 72-108 and sectarian Writings from Qumran. JSP Supplement. Series 11. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1992. p.92
  13. James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Doubleday, 1983
  14. Whiston, Josephus Complete Works p.1070
  15. What the Bible says about Death, Afterlife, and the Future, James Tabor
  16. Understanding the Bible: the 6th Edition, Stephen L Harris. (McGraw Hill 2002) p 436.
  • Coogan, Michael D. (2005). The Old Testament- a Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195139119. 

External links

  • Sheol entry in Jewish Encyclopedia

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