What Is Sheol?
Exploring the Afterlife in the Old Testament
ABSTRACT: Several dozen times throughout Scripture, the word “Sheol” appears with reference to the afterlife. The Old Testament portrays Sheol as the bunker of humanity’s enemy, the devil, and the exilic wilderness away from the Promised Land. Yet Sheol is also under God’s authority, and Old Testament saints testified to his power to raise people up from the depths of Sheol. In Jesus, God did just that: he entered the realm of the dead himself, defeating death and the grave, and filling the darkness of Sheol with the light of his resurrection.
“Sheol” is one of those unusual Old Testament words that easily confuses modern Bible readers. The Old Testament witness to Sheol is a difficult topic, made more difficult by the relative lack of explicit mention or discussion in Israel’s Scriptures of an intermediate state after death. Further, the current consensus among biblical scholarship is that ancient Israel did not care much about the afterlife, leading many to conclude that they did not affirm an intermediate state.1 This critical consensus has given supposed biblical warrant to some contemporary Christian philosophers and theologians who do not believe an intermediate state is a tenable position. Given all the difficulty, what can we learn about Sheol from the Old Testament? And how should we think about it as Christians?
“Sheol is a place of darkness, but it is also a place where God still remembers his people and where he is still King.”
The biblical picture of Sheol in much of the Old Testament is rather shady, both in terms of the lack of specificity and in terms of actual descriptions of the place. The biblical writers don’t usually go into exorbitant detail about Sheol or its inhabitants, and when they do describe it, it is often pictured as dark, dusty, and gloomy (Psalm 88:6, 12; 143:3).2 In what follows, I categorize the Old Testament’s language about Sheol in three ways, the first two of which are indeed primarily negative. Sheol is typically viewed as under the rule of God’s enemy, Satan (“The Enemy’s Bunker”), and it is a place outside the land (“The Exilic Wilderness”).
But contrary to much modern biblical scholarship, the Old Testament also has more positive things to say about the intermediate state, and modern critical scholarship’s conclusions regarding the lack of affirmation of an afterlife in ancient Israel, and more particularly a positive vision of the afterlife, are overstated.3 In what follows, we will see that, yes, Sheol is a place of darkness, but it is also a place where God still remembers his people and where he is still King.
Sheol Is the Enemy’s Bunker
In the Old Testament, the most common way of describing Sheol is as the house of death. It is the realm of the dead, where all the dead go. This is even personified in Proverbs 1–9, where Lady Folly’s house, and the meal she serves there, is characterized by death. Humanity’s accuser, Satan, is prince over this house of the dead. Death is his hangman and his jailer. The dragon, the great serpent, has been cast down to eat dirt for the rest of his days, and the dirt he eats is that of his realm, the grave (Genesis 3:14). The place of the dead is enemy territory, ruled by the first and greatest enemy of humankind, the accuser.4
Speaking of meals, the Old Testament speaks of Sheol as one who is never satisfied, always attempting to fill its belly but never achieving its goal. Nothing less than all of humanity will satiate it (Proverbs 30:15; Habakkuk 2:5). Its mouth is an open pit, swallowing all eventually. This insatiable gluttony is one of the reasons why it is often characterized as the abode of humanity’s final enemy, death itself, and why death is even called humanity’s shepherd (Psalm 49:14).
Sheol is a place from which there is no escape. The gates are locked, the windows are barred, and the prison guard, death, is undefeatable through human effort (Job 10:21; 17:13–16; Isaiah 38:10). The gates of hell are akin to Morannon, the Black Gate of Mordor, unassailably guarding Sauron’s territory in The Lord of the Rings. Human beings on their own cannot escape. Only something unexpected, entering into the realm of the dead and breaking down the gates from the inside, could ever hope to defeat both hell’s gates and their master. Storming the gates, for mere humans, is futile.
Sheol Is the Exilic Wilderness
Sheol is also symbolically characterized in the Old Testament as the opposite of the Promised Land. To put it geographically, it is the ultimate place of exilic wilderness, a place from which one cannot return to the land flowing with milk and honey. Instead, the only meal one can eat in Sheol is dust and ash. Further, instead of God being praised in the sanctuary — an act which of necessity is bodily — there is no praise of God in Sheol, and the dead do not remember him. Most striking is Psalm 6:5: “In death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?” Likewise, Isaiah 38:18 reads, “Sheol does not thank you; death does not praise you; those who go down to the pit do not hope for your faithfulness.”
What are we to make of these kinds of descriptions? Are the dead, and especially the dead who die with faith in the true God, now experiencing torment, or utterly separated from God? We should begin by noting that these are covenantal and liturgical statements, first and foremost. Psalm 6:5, to state the obvious, is found in the book of Psalms, a book comprised of material originally written for liturgical contexts. The acts of praise, lament, thanksgiving, celebration, and remembrance were, for Israel, primarily acts that took place in the tabernacle and, later, the temple.
Similar characterizations about Sheol, like the fact that it is a place of darkness and dust, could also be contrasted to statements about the Promised Land and specifically the tabernacle/temple, both of which are characterized by the light of God’s presence to the assembly of Israel and the flowing water of his Spirit, who is especially and particularly present in the Most Holy Place and, by extension, the land.
“In order to be raised from the dead, someone would have to break down the gates of hell.”
Alternatively, rather than dusty graves, sometimes Sheol is equated with the abyss, a place at the bottom of the sea (e.g., Jonah 2:2–9; cf. also Job 26:5). In the Old Testament, the sea is often described as a place of chaos and disorder, a place that stands in opposition to the firm ground of the Promised Land. To go to the sea, and especially into its depths, is to go away from God’s presence as Israel knew it through the tabernacle/temple in the Promised Land.
Whether Sheol is described as the wilderness where the wild beasts live or the abyss where the chaos monsters swim, Israel conceived of it symbolically as the opposite of Canaan. This is because, for Israel, to live meant to live embodied within the assembly in the presence of God and especially through worshiping him at the tabernacle/temple at liturgical intervals.
These two pictures, of Sheol as the enemy’s bunker and Sheol as the exilic wilderness, are indeed bleak. Death takes everyone, righteous and unrighteous alike, and no one comes back from the realm of the dead. After responding to Bildad’s call to repent, Job expresses this common fate of humanity in his prayer to God:
Why did you bring me out from the womb?
Would that I had died before any eye had seen me
and were as though I had not been,
carried from the womb to the grave.
Are not my days few?
Then cease, and leave me alone, that I may find a little cheer
before I go — and I shall not return —
to the land of darkness and deep shadow,
the land of gloom like thick darkness,
like deep shadow without any order,
where light is as thick darkness. (Job 10:18–22)
Does the enemy, therefore, always win, even if during this life God may give Israelites victory over their human enemies? Does Death always have an incurable sting and thus always gain the final victory? The short answer is no. Because the Lord is King over all things.
Sheol Is Under the King’s Authority
In the Old Testament, God has no rival. There is no place in heaven, on earth, or under the earth over which the Lord Almighty does not reign. Of course, his chosen people, Israel, dwell in a specific place, the place that he prepared and won for them, the Promised Land. But God’s rule does not stop at Israel’s borders and is not limited to his throne room in heaven. It extends even over the territory of Israel’s enemies on earth and to the depths of Sheol in the underworld.
This means that, despite Sheol’s gluttony, despite its characterization as the enemy’s bunker and all of humanity’s exilic wilderness, God still has authority in this darkest of places, this unnatural habitat for those who have received sin’s wages (Isaiah 25:8). As Richard Bauckham puts it,
Ancient Israel shared the conviction of the Mesopotamian peoples that “he who goes down to Sheol [the underworld] does not come up” (Job 7:9; cf. 10:21; 16:22; 2 Sam 12:23). No exceptions were known; there is no Old Testament instance of a true descent to and return from the underworld by a living human being, though there is one case of the calling up of a shade from Sheol by necromancy (1 Sam 28:3–25) and other references to this practice, which was rejected by the law and the prophets (Lev 19:31; Deut 18:10–12; Isa 8:19; 65:2–4).
However, the idea of descending to Sheol and returning alive to the land of the living does occur as a way of speaking of the experience of coming very close to death and escaping. When the psalmists feel themselves to be so close to death as to be virtually certain of dying they speak of themselves as already at the gates of the underworld (Ps 107:18; Isa 38:10; cf. 3 Macc 5:51; PsSol 16:2) or even already in the depths of the underworld (Ps 88:6). They have already made the descent to the world of the dead and only Yahweh’s intervention brings them up again (Ps 9:13; 30:3; 86:13; Isa 38:17; cf. Sir 51:5).
The picture of descent and return is more than a poetic fancy. For the psalmists to be already in the region of death means that they are in death’s power. The experience of Yahweh’s power to deliver them was a step towards the belief that his sovereignty over the world of the dead would in the future be asserted in bringing the dead back to the world of the living in the eschatological resurrection. The assertion that Yahweh “kills and makes alive” (Deut 32:39; 1 Sam 2:6; 2 Kgs 5:7; cf. 4 Macc. 18:18–19), later found in the form, “he leads down to Hades and brings up again” (Tob 13:2; Wis 16:13), originally referred to the kind of experience the psalmists expressed but became the basis of the later Jewish confession of faith in “the God who makes the dead live” (JosAsen 20:7; Rom 4:17; 2 Cor 1:9; Eighteen Benedictions).5
As the political and religious focus of Israel moved from conquest and kingship in the Primary History of Genesis–Kings to exilic realities in the Prophets and Writings, Israel reflected more explicitly on postexilic hope for both the living and the dead among God’s covenant people. For the former, that hope came primarily in the expectation that God, through his Servant the Messiah, would overthrow Israel’s enemies, return them to the land (which would also include rebuilding the temple and reestablishing the Davidic king), and give them his Spirit so that they could no longer walk away from his covenantal commands and promises. For the dead, the hope was that, in order to participate in this anticipated return from exile, their Messiah would trample Sheol underfoot, and they would be raised from the dead by God’s Spirit.
Righteous and Unrighteous in Sheol
While in the Old Testament discussions of the different experiences of the intermediate state for the righteous and unrighteous are limited or perhaps absent altogether,6 the confession that God is King over Sheol, along with more positive (or at least not entirely negative) statements about the afterlife, such as Abraham and Jacob being gathered to their fathers and Samuel being woken from his rest (Genesis 15:15; 49:29; 1 Samuel 28:15),7 led many Jews in the Second Temple period to reflect more concretely on the nature of the intermediate state. In doing so, they often differentiated between the experience of the righteous and the unrighteous in Sheol. God does not forget his people at the moment of their deaths,8 and he is not absent from Sheol even if it is not the Promised Land in which his temple stands. After all, as the psalmist confesses in Psalm 139:7–8,
Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If the Lord, who alone is righteous and just, and who remembers his people, is somehow still present in Sheol, then surely there is still in some sense justice and righteousness even in this dark land. It would make no sense, in other words, for the righteous to be punished in Sheol; that would be contrary to God’s justice, and it would also be contradictory to their blessed state at the resurrection.
Likewise, it would make no sense for the unrighteous to rest in Sheol; that would be contrary to God’s justice, and it would be contradictory to their being cast out at the resurrection. Thus, the explicit portrayal of different compartments in Sheol (or, in Greek, Hades) began to be widely used in order to communicate these realities about God’s justice and, ultimately, to foreshadow the fate of the dead at the general resurrection.
“There is no place in heaven, on earth, or under the earth over which the Lord Almighty does not reign.”
The language varies, but in general one can find references to the righteous compartment of Sheol via terms like “paradise,” “Abraham’s bosom,” and “heaven” or “heavens.” References to the unrighteous compartment of Sheol are made using terms like “Gehenna,” and sometimes more generic terms for the place of the dead like “Sheol” and “Hades” are used as more specific terms to refer to where the unrighteous dead dwell. Finally, Tartarus, the prison for evil angels, was conceived of as the lowest compartment of Sheol.9
We see this kind of compartmentalization most clearly in Scripture in Jesus’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31), in which Lazarus the beggar dies and rests in Abraham’s bosom, while the rich man is consigned to Hades. They can still communicate, but they are separated by a great chasm and cannot reverse their fate. Of course, this is a parable, and so Jesus is not teaching on the nature of the afterlife per se. But the contours of the story reflect common Jewish beliefs about the afterlife during the Second Temple period.10
In any case, the point here again is that these compartments foreshadow the eternal fate of the dead at the return of Christ and his final judgment.11 At his return, he will raise all the dead and judge the living and the dead. The dead who are raised will be judged according to the temporary judgments they experienced in the intermediate state — that is, the judgment they experienced through being placed in either the righteous or the unrighteous compartment in Sheol. The righteous will rise to everlasting life in the new heavens and new earth, while the unrighteous will rise to everlasting shame and contempt, being cast out into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:7–15; cf. Daniel 12:2).
But in order to be raised from the dead, someone would have to break down the gates of Sheol. Someone would have to destroy the enemy’s bunker and plunder death’s goods. Someone would have to take the keys to death and Hades in order to shine light into the place of great darkness and overcome it.
Christ’s Death, Descent, Resurrection, and Ascension
This is, of course, exactly what Christ does in his descent.
Great is your steadfast love toward me;
you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol. (Psalm 86:13)
As the Apostles’ Creed tells us, Jesus “descended to the dead.” What this means is that Jesus experienced death as all humans do — his body was buried, and his soul departed to the place of the dead, Sheol.12 Then in his resurrection, he defeated death and the grave and kicked down Sheol’s gates from the inside.
“Death takes everyone, righteous and unrighteous alike, and no one comes back from the realm of the dead.”
Because of Christ’s atoning death, descent to the place of the dead, and glorious resurrection from the dead, Sheol is no longer the enemy’s bunker. The strong man’s house has been plundered. Because of Christ’s work, Sheol is no longer the exilic wilderness. Israel’s Suffering Servant has walked through this valley of the shadow of death, Sheol, and emerged victorious on the other side, and now he guides all those who are united to him by faith through that same valley, shining the light of his resurrection to guide us.
The gates of Sheol will not prevail against Christ’s church because Jesus has already broken down its doors. All those united to Christ by faith and through the power of his Holy Spirit are no longer prisoners of death. Instead, death now is merely “sleep” for those in Christ (e.g., 1 Corinthians 15:20; 1 Thessalonians 4:14). While dead Old Testament saints waited for the Messiah to come and break their chains, their faith was made sight in Jesus’s death and resurrection.
Now all those who die in Christ die knowing that death already has been defeated, and Sheol already has been decimated. We still wait for the Messiah, but now we wait for his second advent, not his first. This may be why the New Testament uses the terms “third heaven” and “sleep” to refer to the resting place of the Lord’s saints, rather than Sheol. The intermediate state is now no longer a place only of darkness and gloom, because the light of the world has entered it.
See the discussion in Paul R. Williamson, Death and the Afterlife: Biblical Perspectives on Ultimate Questions, NSBT 44 (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2018), 38–44. Williamson notes the most common arguments against the Old Testament affirming a conscious intermediate state in this section and also offers a series of rebuttals, and particularly the idioms for death in the Old Testament, Sheol’s topography, and ancient Near Eastern parallels for terms referencing the dead and the place of the dead. See also the older but still widely consulted work of John Cooper, Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989). Cooper has updated his argument to include more recent philosophical discussion; see his “Whose Interpretation? Which Anthropology? Biblical Hermeneutics, Scientific Naturalism, and the Body-Soul Debate,” in Thomas M. Crisp, Steven L. Porter, and Gregg A. Ten Elshof, eds., Neuroscience and the Soul: The Human Person in Philosophy, Science, and Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 238–57. ↩
Philip S. Johnston’s Shades of Sheol: Death and the Afterlife in the Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2002) presents the biblical data concerning Sheol in this manner, and arrives at almost entirely negative conclusions concerning Sheol’s purpose and any indication in the biblical record that Israel affirmed some kind of conscious intermediate state. While I agree with Johnston’s descriptions of Sheol as dark, gloomy, and quite often a place where the wicked go, I do not think this paints the fullest picture, as we will see below. ↩
For two recent academic treatments of the concept of the afterlife in ancient Israel that do not simply swim with the tide of this current critical consensus, see Christopher B. Hays, A Covenant with Death: Death in the Iron Age II and Its Rhetorical Use in Proto-Isaiah (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015); and Richard C. Steiner, Disembodied Souls: The Nefesh in Israel and Kindred Spirits in the Ancient Near East, with an Appendix on the Katumuwa Inscription, Ancient Near Eastern Monographs 11 (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2015). ↩
See on this Michael Heiser, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible (Bellingham: Lexham, 2015), esp. 73–126. Heiser’s argument includes discussion of Ezekiel 28, Isaiah 14, Genesis 3:15 and 6:1–4, and Daniel 10:6, 12–14, 20–21, among other texts. ↩
Richard Bauckham, The Fate of the Dead: Studies on the Jewish and Christian Apocalypses, SNT 93 (1998; repr., Atlanta: SBL Press, 2008), 16. Bauckham also notes that Jonah 2:2–9 is “a psalm of thanksgiving for deliverance from death by drowning,” and that the language used in Jonah 2 represents “Jonah’s descent in to the sea” as a “descent to the depths of the underworld” (16–17). This should inform how we understand Jesus’s reference to spending three days and three nights “in the heart of the earth,” a direct allusion to Jonah 2. ↩
See, e.g., the careful statement of Spencer that, although “the OT [Old Testament] provides little indication of a hope for life after death beyond the grave,” there are still “scattered references” to Sheol in which “conscious life after physical death is implied.” Therefore, “those indications challenge claims that the OT teaches life ending with bodily death. [John W.] Cooper rightly distinguishes between indications of conscious human activity after death, on the one hand, and explicit teachings of that life, on the other. The OT may lack the latter, but not the former.” Stephen R. Spencer, “Last Things, the Doctrine of,” Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 440. I am a bit more positive about the OT’s references to a conscious intermediate state, but Spencer’s balanced interpretation of the data does justice both to the characterization of Sheol primarily as dark and the opposite of life in the land while also allowing for some kind of conscious intermediate state despite the relative lack of explicit mention of it. ↩
One also might think of Daniel’s distinction between those who formerly slept “in the dust” but are on the last day raised, “some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2). ↩
See, e.g., Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1988), 75–79. ↩
For an overview of the compartmentalization of the underworld in Second Temple Judaism, see Justin W. Bass, The Battle for the Keys: Revelation 1:18 and Christ’s Descent to the Underworld (2014; repr., Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2014), 45–61; and Williamson, Death and the Afterlife, 44–49. See also Heiser, The Unseen Realm, 337. When discussing 2 Peter 2:4–5, Heiser says, “Tartarus of course has no literal geography. This is the language of the spiritual realm. Tartarus was part of the underworld (biblical Sheol), a place conceived as being inside the earth because, in ancient experience, that is where the dead go — they were buried. Broadly speaking, the underworld is not hell; it is the afterlife, the place or realm where the dead go. That ‘place’ has its own ‘geography.’ Some experience eternal life with God in the spiritual realm; others do not.”
The subsequent footnote says, “When terms like ‘hell,’ ‘Hades,’ ‘heaven,’ ‘Sheol,’ etc. are understood in this context — they all speak of the afterlife and its spiritual geography — there is no need to criticize the Apostles’ Creed or other early Christian teaching as being unbiblical. The Apostles’ Creed says Jesus ‘descended to Hades.’ Jesus did not go to hell, the place of punishment. Rather, the point is that he went to the realm of the dead — he died” (337n3). ↩
On the relationship of Luke 16:19–31 to the idea of the compartmentalization of the underworld in Second Temple Judaism and Greco-Roman literature, see Matthew Ryan Hague, The Biblical Tour of Hell, LNTS 485 (London: Bloomsbury, 2013). ↩
“Paradise,” “Abraham’s bosom,” “heaven,” and other terms that refer to the righteous compartment describe the intermediate state of the righteous, and those in it dwell in the new heavens and new earth after the general resurrection and final judgment. “Gehenna” and, when used negatively, “Hades/Sheol” foreshadow the eternal fate of the unrighteous, which is to dwell in the lake of fire. ↩
I develop these arguments at length in “He Descended to the Dead”: An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019). ↩