Understanding The Underworld: Hell, Hades, Death & Sheol
Updated: Jun 17
Death. It’s an uneasy reality that looms over us all. Scripture spends far more time talking about here than the hereafter, but there is still much to learn about our fate from select passages. Surprisingly, while you’d think these pages would be mined for every detail possible, it seems they are largely overlooked or ignored. Instead of the rich tapestry of truth provided to us, we often instead turn to grossly oversimplified, and sometimes outright unbiblical, concepts. So let us take some time to shed scriptural light on what happens, and where you go when you die.
The Reality of Mortality
To make sense of what scripture says happens after your death, we first have to understand the nature of death itself and what it means to be mortal. Because even though most would agree on the definition of "mortal," many have accepted a Greek understanding of the nature of our soul—namely that it is actually immortal. But we should know that according to scripture, sin brought death into God's creation and now man is doomed to that fate, and that Genesis makes it clear that God removed the option for man to acquire immortality until the proper time (Gen 3:22-24). Remember that after man sinned, God immediately removed the Tree of Life from the garden so that man could not eat of it. This was to protect man from becoming immortal in his fallen state, otherwise humanity would suffer the same fate as the fallen angels—eternal condemnation. By removing the Tree of Life and allowing the consequences of sin to play out, God made redemption possible. By becoming the Messiah, God could pay the penalty for our sin first, washing us of the guilt of our crimes. Then and only then did He defeat death and offer those who believe eternal life (immortality). In Revelation we actually see that our redemption is complete as those who enter Heaven are granted access to the Tree of Life once again (Rev 2:7, Rev 22:2, 14, 19).
So the biblical narrative is very clear—man is a mortal being who must die due to the consequences of sin. The only way out of this predicament and man's natural state is by belief in Jesus Christ, that He is God, that He died on your behalf, and that He rose from the dead, conquering the grave and therefore is able to offer you life. Few would disagree with this basic understanding of the biblical narrative. However, many who would agree with that summary still have a tendency to think that our soul is immortal by default. We tend to believe that when we die, there is an afterlife for each person regardless of their belief in Christ. Somehow, despite clear biblical teachings, Christians continue to hold to pagan (typically Greek in the Western Church) mythologies and believe that when you die, there is something beyond that moment. For the Greeks, that reality beyond death was Hades, which was the fiery underworld of torment across the river Styx. According to this lore, Hades was where everyone paid for their misdeeds, so everyone suffered (though not equally). Hades was a place of eternal, conscious torment. Does this sound familiar? For most of us this sounds like Hell, because we have actually patterned our ideas about Hell around the Greek concept of Hades. But is this biblically sound? The answer is a resounding no.
Scripture repeats itself many, many times on this truth—mankind is mortal, his soul is mortal, he does not live eternally outside of Christ (Gen 2:17, Gen 3:24, Isa 51:6, Joh 5:24, Joh 8:24, Rom 5:12, Rom 6:23, Rom 8:13, 1 Co 15:22, Heb 9:27 et al). The wages of sin is death according to scripture—not simply a different eternity. Jesus came to offer us eternal life—how worthless the gift He offers would be if indeed we already possessed it. This truth is the basis of the Gospel message. The most famous passage in all of scripture states that whosoever believes in Jesus shall not perish, but have eternal life. It cannot be believed that there is a conscious reality beyond the grave for sinful man—that idea is incompatible with the whole of the biblical text. Death is his end, not a quick pit stop en route to an eternal existence. Let that reality sink in. Christ is the only way man can become immortal—He alone gives us access to the Tree of Life. All those who do not eat of that fruit are destined to die, and death is not simply a different conscious life and existence, it is the exact opposite—the absence of conscious life, thought and existence. Yet despite this elementary understanding, our concept of Hell usually involves that of eternal, conscious torment. In other words, non-believers also get eternal life, just one of suffering and pain rather than joy. This idea is not consistent with the basic premise of scripture or even basic definitions of words. Death is not life. Pain and suffering can only be endured by the living. Hell is where those who rejected eternal life go, so it can only result in death, or the absence of conscious thought and existence. This is why scripture calls Hell "the second death." At this point, you may begin to feel uncomfortable and wonder if I'm about to argue for Universalism or claim that Hell doesn't exist. So let me put your mind at ease right now and state for the record that Hell most definitely does exist exactly as scripture describes it and people will go there exactly as scripture warns. What needs adjustment is our reading of scripture through a Jewish, rather than Greek lens, not scripture itself. So I am going to ask a simple question and quote several passages which provide clear answers just to put us on a firm foundation here. Is there conscious existence for man after he dies?
The dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any who go down to silence... -Psa 115:17
For there is no mention of You in death; In Sheol who will give You thanks? -Psa 6:5
His spirit departs, he returns to the earth; in that very day his thoughts perish. -Psa 146:4
For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten... Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going. -Ecc 9:5 & 10
There (Sheol) the wicked cease from raging, and there the weary are at rest. -Job 3:17
But man dies and lies prostrate. Man expires, and where is he? As water evaporates from the sea, and a river becomes parched and dried up, so man lies down and does not rise. Until the heavens are no longer, he will not awake nor be aroused from his sleep. -Job 14:10-12
Lo, for my own welfare I had great bitterness; It is You who has kept my soul from the pit of nothingness, For You have cast all my sins behind Your back. For Sheol cannot thank You, Death cannot praise You; Those who go down to the pit cannot hope for Your faithfulness. It is the living who give thanks to You, as I do today; A father tells his sons about Your faithfulness. -Isa 38:17-19
These passages indeed provide a clear answer and support the basic scriptural premise that death is final, universal, and lacking any form of consciousness or continued existence... At least until "the heavens are no longer." This passage in Job is truly awesome as the oldest text of the Old Testament alludes to the end of time when God judges the dead. Job seems acutely aware of the full timeline of creation and the redemption process of God here. He continues: Oh that You would hide me in Sheol, that You would conceal me until Your wrath returns to You, that You would set a limit for me and remember me! If a man dies will he ever live again? All the days of my struggle I will wait until my change comes. You will call, and I will answer You; You will long for the work of Your hands. -Job 14:13-15
So it is clear that man dies and that when he dies, he does not experience conscious thought, because he's dead. It is also clear that he does not go directly to Heaven or Hell, because those are future places that are only created after the day of judgement and after the current heavens and earth are destroyed (this clear timeline will be discussed a few sections later). So where do the dead go until then? The Bible clearly, consistently, and repeatedly names that place as Sheol.
Sheol: The Place of the Dead
Most Christians are foreign to the concept of Sheol (the Catholic concept of Purgatory notwithstanding) even though it is both literally and figuratively everywhere in scripture. It's one of those obvious truths that is hidden in plain sight to the Western reader because we are Greek thinkers rather than Jewish ones. Part of the problem is translation—many English Bibles translate the proper noun, Sheol, into a common noun and render it simply as "the grave." This is an unfortunate interpretation of a Hebrew word rather than a literal translation. It communicates the same idea, but loses the specific meaning and identity of a unique place. But Sheol isn't simply a grave, it is the grave—the collective place of the dead. The etymology of Sheol is debated, but the two most likely candidates of its linguistic origin are the Babylonian shu'alu which means "the gathering place for the dead" or the Assyrian Shilu, meaning "a chamber." In the New Testament, where Old Testament passages containing the word "Sheol" are quoted, the word is literally translated into Greek as "Hades." In other words, as a proper noun, or a specific place, not just figurative language for death or the grave. But that's where the similarities between Sheol and Hades end. The Jewish understanding of Sheol was that of a waiting room or holding tank for the deceased awaiting the resurrection of the dead and being brought before God at the end of time to be judged. But unlike Hades, there was no conscious thought, life or existence there. You were dead, but the unique identity of you, your soul (your mind, will, and emotions), didn't simply vanish into the ether upon death, because that unique identity must be called upon to answer for its sin at the day of judgement. So a person's soul, their identity, went to Sheol to await their final fate. The language most often used in scripture to describe the state of a person's soul in Sheol is "asleep." So you'll see variations of this description used in both the Old and New Testament—Jesus played with words a few times saying dead people were merely "sleeping," and Paul used the same language in the context of death and the resurrection of the dead.
Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. -1 Co 15:51-52
So due to the unconscious nature of the soul after death, scripture doesn't give really any descriptions of Sheol itself, save one. I mean, what Sheol looks like is a bit of a silly notion considering no one there has the ability to see, hear, taste, smell or touch it. But the only descriptive attribute given to Sheol in scripture is both startling and incredibly important—it is a watery place. This is in stark contrast to the Greek concept of Hades, which of course was a hot, dry, and fiery place (except for the river you have to cross over to get to it, which is of special note). Even the Babylonian understanding of shu'alu was that it was dry and parched (this is common in many pagan mythologies and gave rise to the practice of pouring drink on the ground to quench the departed's thirst). But understanding the Jewish association between death, Sheol and water is profound. It brings many, many passages a greater depth and symbolism and they will leap off the page at you—truths hidden in plain sight to your Greek thinking mind. But before I go there, let me first firmly establish this biblical association between Sheol and water.
Thus says the Lord God, "On the day when it went down to Sheol I caused lamentations; I closed the deep over it and held back its rivers. And its many waters were stopped up..." -Eze 31:15
But man dies and lies prostrate. Man expires, and where is he? As water evaporates from the sea, and a river becomes parched and dried up, so man lies down and does not rise. -Job 14:10
"I called out of my distress to the Lord, and He answered me. I cried for help from the depth of Sheol; You heard my voice." (Jonah, praying from the belly of the fish) -Jon 2:2
"But He answered and said to them, "An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet, for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." (Jesus predicting His death and subsequent three days in Sheol before resurrecting) -Mat 12:39-40
And the sea gave gave up the dead which were in it, death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. -Rev 20:13
With this understanding of the association of water with death and Sheol, many other passages begin to have deeper truths brought to the surface. Noah's flood for example takes on a whole new meaning as God literally judged the world with Sheol as the "fountains of the deep" broke forth flooding the whole earth. In other words, Sheol rose from the depths of the earth and death claimed every life on the planet, then receded back to its proper place. This is why despite Israel being a nation on the shore of the Mediterranean, they were the only such nation which did not engage is sea faring—the open sea was thought to literally be the mouth of Sheol. Even the small lake known as the "Sea of Galilee" was terrifying to the Jewish mind. So when Jesus calmed the storm, the disciples were amazed because Jesus could control the wind and water. Then when he walked on the water, it was even more amazing to them. What man has power over Sheol? This Jewish association between death, Sheol and water is also of course the basis of believers' baptism. It symbolizes death and burial in Sheol and then being raised or resurrected out of those waters and into eternal life.
The Bible uses a few other phrases and euphemisms for Sheol that we must be aware of to make sense of some key passages. We've already discussed the metaphorical "sleep" or "rest" language, but Sheol is also referred to via figurative language such as "the pit" and the proper noun "Abbadon" when in a negative context. Abbadon literally means destruction in Hebrew and the Greek equivalent "Apollyon" is used in Revelation. In a positive context, Jesus also referred to it as "Paradise" when speaking to the thief on the cross next to Him. The word paradeisos was borrowed by the Greeks from the Persians and in later Jewish usage and in the New Testament it is used to describe the region of Sheol or Hades where the righteous go after death. The biblical texts confirm that Jesus was speaking of Sheol, not Heaven as scripture is clear that Jesus didn't go up when He died, He went down: For You will not abandon my soul to Sheol; Nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay. -Psa 16:10
Because You will not abandon my soul to Hades, Nor allow Your Holy One to undergo decay... He looked ahead and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that He was neither abandoned to Hades, nor did His flesh suffer decay. -Acts 2:27 & 31 (Quoting Psalms)
Therefore it says, "When He ascended on high, He led captive a host of captives, and gave gifts to men." Now this expression, "He ascended," what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth? -Eph 4:8-9
"For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." -Mat 12:40
We know that Jesus did not ascend to Heaven until well after His resurrection and He did so a conqueror and victor, sitting at the right hand of the Father, so what exactly was He doing for three days in Sheol? We have only a few tantalizing verses in scripture that may answer that question.
For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water. -1Pe 3:18-20
This passage makes it clear that Christ wasn't sleeping the sleep of death in Sheol, He was an anomaly. He entered Sheol conscious and made proclamation. He spoke in Sheol because He had overcome death itself. The Psalmist yet again is eerily prescient here.
Will You perform wonders for the dead? Will the departed spirits rise and praise You? Selah. Will Your lovingkindness be declared in the grave, Your faithfulness in Abaddon? Will Your wonders be made known in the darkness? And Your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness? -Psa 88:10-12
Indeed the death of God on the cross was such a cosmic event, Christ's conquering of death itself and descent into Sheol so literally and figuratively earth-shattering, that scripture records a brief moment when death experiences a glitch as the perfect and eternal God enters its domain on His terms.
And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth shook and the rocks were split. The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many. -Mat 27:50-53
This of course was just a taste of what was to ultimately come—a foreshadowing of the day when Christ would return and raise all the dead.
Judgement Day & the Resurrection of the Dead
The day of judgement is a major recurring theme in scripture and one which is always associated with the end of time. It is a singular event, not one which takes place daily, in real time as people die. It only happens after the resurrection of the dead and immediately precedes the destruction of the current world and the creation of the new heavens and new earth.
"Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment." -Joh 5:28-29
For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself. -Php 3:20-21
Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. -1Jn 3:2
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up. Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat! But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells. -2Pe 3:10-13
And the sea gave gave up the dead which were in it, death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. -Rev 20:13
These are pretty well known elements of scripture so I won't belabor this point much. But as the day of judgement is so strongly associated with the resurrection of the dead, it should go without saying that these souls would need to be truly dead for this event to have any meaning whatsoever. Sheol may not be explicitly mentioned in each and every one of these texts, but it is necessary to understand Sheol in order for these passages to truly make sense.
Heaven: The 2nd Earth
It's not just the underworld that is often misunderstood by Christians, shockingly even the believer's eternal destination is oversimplified and unbiblical concepts abound. Ideas of clouds, harps, wings and other ethereal elements plague our Christian imagery. The language we use conveys this sense that when we die, we go to Heaven, when the biblical narrative is clear that Heaven comes to us. Our eternal abode is not where God resides now, but rather His abode becomes the recreated earth. He left Heaven to dwell among us once and He will do it again at the end of the age, but this time permanently. People ask, "What will Heaven look like?" Well, look around you, it'll probably look something like this. Granted, there are some major differences between the current earth and the new earth given in scripture, but the "Heaven" that we experience in eternity will have a lot more in common with our current home than God's.
I think part of the confusion stems from the fact that we've largely omitted Sheol from the equation, assumed the soul is immortal and then condensed the timeline of our redemption to be instantaneous after our own personal death. We have reasoned that when we die we must go somewhere, so being a believer, that somewhere must be Heaven. This assumes of course the only alternative is Hell, but it also ignores the fact that neither of these places currently exist. By acknowledging the existence of Sheol, these confusing anachronisms and timelines suddenly become neat and tidy. Sheol has to exist because Heaven and Hell do not yet. They are mutually exclusive entities in scripture with virtually zero overlap on the biblical timeline. Once Sheol is emptied out via the resurrection of the dead for judgement day, Sheol itself is destroyed and the lake of fire and the new heavens and the new earth created. But until that day, Sheol is our destination after death.
Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. -Rev 20:14-15
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, "Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away." -Rev 21:1-4
Hell: The 2nd Death
Now, back to the underworld and the controversial place of judgement—Hell. Take note however that the word "Hell" is an English construct which does not actually appear anywhere in scripture. The etymology of "Hell" is that of Germanic origin pertaining to the underworld, and literally means "to cover over." This word therefore is inline with the Greek concept of Hades and the Jewish concept of Sheol but is a bit tricky when applied to Gehenna, the lake of fire, or the second death—the eternal alternative to Heaven. "Hell" is of course the place that some Christians have deemed too harsh for a loving God to create and so have taken it upon themselves to rewrite the Bible with a more proper fairly tale ending, using safety scissors on the pages which offend their delicate sensibilities. I've covered this egregious and illogical argument before (click here for "The Hell Debate"), but there is one point that the challengers make that holds water (Sheol pun intended), and that is the notion that the eternal conscious torment view of Hell is biblically questionable. As I was raised holding to this view, I had taken it as established biblical fact and therefore was quite skeptical of the the opposing view of conditional immortality. Turns out though, the conditional immortality view lines up much better with the Jewish understanding of the mortal nature of man and the reality of Sheol. Let me explain these two views briefly.
The Eternal Conscious Torment view of Hell is the one most of us are familiar with—the idea that Hell is forever. Couple this well-established biblical truth with the not-so-biblical idea that man's soul is immortal, and you get an equation that equals eternal conscious torment. The issue of course is that only half of this equation is accurate. Hell is forever, man in his natural state is not.
Conditional Immortality (sometimes referred to as "Annihilationism") is the challenging view which acknowledges that Hell is forever as it was created for eternal beings—Satan and his angels (Mat 25:41), but argues that when mortal beings are thrown into eternal flames, mortality rates are 100%, which is why Hell is called "the second death" in scripture for mankind. This view actually makes much more sense and is hermeneutically consistent. We know for a fact that Sheol, which is not an eternal entity, is thrown into the lake of fire and is destroyed, so it is logically consistent to think that mankind, who are not eternal beings would also be destroyed in the lake of fire. Hell would only be eternal conscious torment for beings who were immortal—namely fallen angels. And while this view may sound purely hypothetical rather than based on textual evidence, you may be surprised to find that there are several passages which plainly state just that. Even more surprising is that the texts which have traditionally been used to support the eternal conscious torment view are much weaker than we may think while also being contradictory to the basis of the biblical narrative—that man is not inherently immortal.
"Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. -Mat 10:28
There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy... -Jas 4:12
For many walk, of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction... -Php 3:18-19
These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power... -2Th 1:9
That when the wicked sprouted up like grass And all who did iniquity flourished, It was only that they might be destroyed forevermore. -Psa 92:7
"If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than, having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire, where THEIR WORM DOES NOT DIE, AND THE FIRE IS NOT QUENCHED. -Mar 9:43-44
And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. -Rev 20:10
In these passages we see clearly a reference to destruction, which is consistent with the term "the second death" in Revelation, "Gehenna" (a trash burning site outside of Jerusalem) as used by Jesus, and with the Old Testament term "Abbadon"—a synonym of Sheol. If something is destroyed, it does not continue to exist, so these passages are difficult to reconcile with an eternal conscious torment view. The reverse is not true. The Mark passage states that Hell's fires and worms are eternal, not their effect on mortal souls. The passage in Revelation clearly states that Satan and his incarnation on earth will be tormented forever and ever, but Revelation makes no such statement about mankind. Most surprising is the text which Jesus is quoting from in Mark chapter 9 when He speaks of the fire and worm. That passage is the very last section of Isaiah.
"For just as the new heavens and the new earth Which I make will endure before Me," declares the LORD, "So your offspring and your name will endure. And it shall be from new moon to new moon And from sabbath to sabbath, All mankind will come to bow down before Me," says the LORD. "Then they will go forth and look On the corpses of the men Who have transgressed against Me. For their worm will not die And their fire will not be quenched; And they will be an abhorrence to all mankind." -Isa 66:22-24
This apocalyptic text states that believers will actually look upon the corpses of those who transgressed against God. Note the word here is corpse—the unrighteous are dead and all that remains is ash. This is the passage that Jesus is using as the backdrop for His explanation of Gehenna, the place of destruction for those who reject Christ. This paints a bit more of a grim and somber view of eternity for those of us who received eternal life and lends gravity to Daniel's words.
"Now at that time Michael, the great prince who stands guard over the sons of your people, will arise. And there will be a time of distress such as never occurred since there was a nation until that time; and at that time your people, everyone who is found written in the book, will be rescued. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt." -Dan 12:1-2
The everlasting contempt is what the living have for those whose charred remains they look upon. But there is one passage in the book of Revelation which seems irreconcilable with the annihilation view, so it's worth discussing.
Then another angel, a third one, followed them, saying with a loud voice, "If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. "And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name." -Rev 14:9-11
This text clearly is regarding men, not fallen angels, and yet uses language which seems to imply eternal torment, so at first glance, this appears to be describing their judgement in Hell. However, if we look at the context of this passage, we find that is not so. Revelation chapter 14 is a summary and introduction to the following chapters describing the wrath of God poured out on mankind during the Great Tribulation, not His sentencing of those after the day of judgement. It also is specifically regarding those who have received the mark of the beast, not unbelievers throughout history. Chapter 14 is setting the stage for the next sequence of events described in Revelation, which is the 7 bowls of wrath poured out on the kingdom of the Antichrist on earth prior to Christ's return and subsequent day of judgement.
Chapter 16 details the sequence briefly introduced in chapter 14 and indeed paints a grim picture of the pain and torment those who received the mark of the beast will endure in that season, including horrendous boils, scorching fire, darkness, and anguish. While these do indeed sound like Hell, they are actually plagues which occur on the present earth and they are not eternal. The language used in Revelation 14:11 does indeed sound like it is depicting eternity, but it is figurative language, nearly identical to that used in Isaiah 34:10 which foretells of Edom's destruction. There, Edom also is said will burn day and night and it's smoke will rise forever and ever. The phrase "day and night, forever and ever" seems to be an expression used to emphasize the severity of something rather than the length of something as Edom is not still burning.
Purgatory: Pagan, Not Biblical
As I mentioned in passing earlier, the Catholic church does hold to the belief of Purgatory, which may sound similar in some ways to Sheol. However Purgatory was a pagan concept ported over into the Catholic church, much more similar to the concept of Hades, and was not derived from the Jewish concept of Sheol. While Sheol was merely a waiting place for judgement, Purgatory was a place of pain and purification which produced righteous souls who could enter into heaven despite dying in sin. Many cultures held the belief in an underworld which purified the dead of their wickedness in preparation for eternity and Greek philosophers such as Plato also held this view. Virgil, the famous Roman poet summarized the Greek understanding eloquently when he wrote:
"Nor can the groveling mind, in the dark dungeon of the limbs confined, assert the native skies, or own its heavenly kind. Nor death itself can wholly wash their stains; but long-contacted filth, even in the soul, remains the relics of inveterate vice they wear and spots of sin obscene in every face appear. For this are various penances enjoined; and some are hung to bleach upon the wind, some plunged in water, others purged in fires, till all the dregs are drained, and all the rust expires. All have their Manes, and those Manes bear. The few so cleansed to these abodes repair, and breathe in ample fields the soft Elysian air. Then are they happy, when by length of time the scurf is worn away of each committed crime, no speck is left of their habitual stains, but the pure ether of the soul remains."
As Greek thinking permeated the church, these pagan concepts often found themselves a new home in Roman Catholicism. While the concepts of Purgatory date back much earlier in the Catholic church, the terminology seems to have first been used in the late 12th century. Soon after, at the Second Council of Lyon in 1247, the Eastern Orthodox church strongly opposed the idea of Purgatory which in part prevented the reunification of the Catholic Church.
The "Problem" Texts
Every time I teach on Sheol someone challenges me on it. Strangely though, the issue is rarely Sheol itself, but rather that we go there without any consciousness as the Greek philosophers have influenced Western thought so strongly. There are two main passages that are typically brought up to mount an argument that the plain text of multiple other biblical passages must be in error—Jesus' parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke chapter 16 and the fifth seal of the martyrs in Revelation chapter 6.
When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained; and they cried out with a loud voice, saying, "How long O Lord, holy and true, will you refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?" -Rev 6:9-10
This passage does appear to suggest at first glance that souls are conscious in Sheol. It's important to note the location of these martyrs as "underneath the altar." This indicates these righteous souls are indeed in Sheol as there is a locational shift in language in the very next chapter where the great multitude stands before God in His throne room, where here they are under it. There is further evidence these believers' souls are in Sheol as God responds to their cry in verse 11 by telling them to rest a while longer—rest once again being a euphemism for death and Sheol. So which is it? Are they sleeping the sleep of death, or are they conscious and speaking to God? The answer lies in the Greek as krazo (cried out) and lego (saying) used here are Greek words meaning figurative speech rather than the Greek laleo which means a literal uttering of sounds. So similar to how Jesus says the rocks will "cry out" (krazo) in Luke 19:40, this passage in Revelation means the deaths of the martyrs figuratively call out to God and demand justice—the souls of the departed are not literally conversing with Him. These Christian martyrs are indeed asleep, waiting for the day of their resurrection, which appears to happen in Revelation chapter 7. Revelation 20:4-6 further clarifies this point.
So then we come to the main biblical proof text for a conscious existence in the hereafter—Jesus' parable, which is probably the longest and most elaborate account of the hereafter in all of scripture. It's also a parable, which are designed to communicate complicated spiritual truths in simple and easy to understand stories that are wholly figurative in nature.
"Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day. And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man's table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham's bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried out and said, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.' But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.' And he said, 'Then I beg you, father, that you send him to my father's house—for I have five brothers—in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.' But Abraham *said, 'They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.' But he said, 'No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!' But he said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.'" -Luke 16:19-31
A few things should stick out in this parable as they would be utterly unique among the biblical texts if regarding Sheol and stand in stark contrast to them. Not only are people conscious after death here, but there is comfort for some and fiery punishment for others. This does not match any of the other biblical descriptions of Sheol at all. So while the word Hades is used in this parable (as well as the term "Abraham's Bosom"), it should be quite clear that it is alluding to what happens after man's judgement, not immediately after man's death. Jesus seems to be using a parable to simplify and abbreviate the timeline in this story, combining Jewish elements of Sheol with Greek elements of Hades. With this reading, then this unique parable suddenly aligns with the other biblical texts which describe Heaven and Hell rather than contradicting the other biblical texts describing Sheol. So this seems to be the obvious and logical interpretation—Jesus simply used the common Greek understanding of Hades to communicate the similar spiritual reality of Hell. Like all parables, this reality is simplified and in figurative elements. There are several very important truths to be learned about judgement here, just not about Sheol.
The other issue that often comes up when discussing Sheol is whether or not Christians go there. We seem comfortable with the biblical texts naming Sheol for all the Old Testament inhabitants and even New Testament era non-believers, but we have this dearly (and strongly) held doctrine that when Christians die, we go straight to Heaven to be with Jesus. I myself held this doctrinal view all of my life, and it took years of studying these texts before I was forced to change my understanding, so I understand the discomfort many feel here. The proof texts used to support this idea are from passages in 2nd Corinthians, Philippians and oddly, 1st Thessalonians.
Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord—for we walk by faith, not by sight—we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord. Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. -2Co 5:6-10 (emphasis added)
For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake. -Php 1:21-24 (emphasis added)
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. -1Th 4:13-17
Most tend to read the phrase "God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep" as meaning God will return for those still alive with those who have fallen asleep. But that reading doesn't actually fit the context of the passage, let alone the biblical narrative as a whole. The key linking phrase here is "even so" or "and so" depending on translation, which requires us to look at the first part of the verse to understand the second part. The verse was establishing that just as Jesus died, was buried, and did not ascend to heaven until after His resurrection, so it would be for believers. God will indeed "bring with Him those who have fallen asleep" as He will not forget them and only return for those who are alive. The hope we have for the dead is that they will indeed come with the rest of us at Christ's return—a stark contrast to unbelievers who have no hope in the resurrection.
I find it rather curious that these passages are interpreted to mean that believers must immediately go to Heaven to be with the Lord when they die considering within those same passages believers are said to be asleep, and presence with the Lord is in the context of the day of judgement and the resurrection of the dead—which has not happened yet. Indeed the very notion of the resurrection of the dead is quite redundant if the dead in Christ are already alive in Heaven. Paul pins his hope on this reality in the entirety of 1st Corinthians 15, but I'll quote a particularly salient verse here.
If from human motives I fought with wild beasts at Ephesus, what does it profit me? If the dead are not raised, LET US EAT AND DRINK, FOR TOMORROW WE DIE. -1Co 15:32
Clearly Paul is stressing the hope we have in the resurrection of the dead in this chapter, but the logical question should then be, why? If the dead in Christ go directly to Heaven and are alive and with Christ immediately, why is our hope in the resurrection at all? And what meaning would the return of Christ and the resurrection of the dead even have as it would be utterly superfluous if the dead aren't dead. Again, going back to the symbolism of believer's baptism, it doesn't imply believers skip Sheol—but rather like Christ, we first descend into the lower parts of the earth in faith that when He returns, we will be resurrected and then ascend in glory.
Once again, the timeline appears to be condensed or abbreviated in the phrase "to be absent from body is to be present with the Lord." It is ultimately true, but not necessarily immediately true—there is a process and sequence to our salvation. This sequence is laid out by Paul in 1st Corinthians 15.
For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ's at His coming, then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be abolished is death. -1Co 15:22-26 (emphasis added)
Notice that being made alive is in the future tense at the time of the second coming, not before. Until then, Paul says believers sleep the sleep of death, not simply continue on, living as disembodied souls simply awaiting their glorified body. Death is the last enemy to be defeated—we cannot live beyond death until that enemy is ultimately destroyed.
So again, "to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord" is an ultimate truth, but a phrase which communicates a condensed timeline. Similarly, a passage in Hebrews condenses this timeline by stating:
And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment... -Heb 9:27
This verse does not mean that as soon as man dies, he goes to judgement—but that's how many might read it if they weren't aware that judgement day is a one-time event on a fixed timeline. Yet that anachronistic error is exactly how many are reading the "absent from the body" passages—as immediate rather than on a fixed timeline. But here I must insert a very important nuance, because of course it would seem rather immediate from the perspective of the deceased as they have no consciousnesses and therefore no perception of the passage of time. Put another way, time is a constraint and attribute of the current physical world, not the spiritual. The dead are not conscious and therefore are not conscious of time, but neither would even any conscious being disentangled from the physical realm actually experience it—but that doesn't mean that from the physical realm's perspective, that the timeline isn't fixed or that a considerable amount of time has indeed elapsed.
There is but one time in all of human history when the dead are raised (well, technically two as the dead in Christ are raised first) and the books are opened, and that time has not yet come. Regardless of your views on eschatology, Christ's return is associated with the resurrection of the dead and therefore on that fixed timeline, those who have fallen asleep, remain asleep until then. God's process is made clear in scripture and His timing for everything made plain, so we must read these passages in Corinthians, Philippians, and Thessalonians in light of the rest of scripture, not apart from it.
The biblical framework states that when man dies, he goes to Sheol awaiting the day of judgement. Christ returns somewhere near the end of the historical timeline and resurrects the dead in Christ first, then takes those who remain in Christ second and these righteous saints rule with Christ on earth for a 1,000 years according to Revelation chapter 20. You may interpret that number literally or figuratively in your eschatological view, but either way there is a period of time after Christ returns which those who were a part of the first resurrection are present with Christ on the current earth. Then at the end of that period of time, all of the dead are raised for judgement, then the current heavens and earth are destroyed, the new heavens and earth created, and those who accepted Christ then receive eternal life via access to the Tree of Life while those who rejected Christ enter the second death.
Then I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark on their forehead and on their hand; and they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were completed. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who has a part in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Him for a thousand years. -Rev 20:4-6
Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. -Rev 20:11-15
"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God." -Rev 2:7
"Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter by the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying." -Rev 22:14-15
This framework is the most straightforward reading of scripture possible, but some may take issue with it due to it incorporating a premillennial eschatological view—that is that the "1,000 years" talked about in scripture has not happened yet. I would argue that this truth is self-evident as Christ clearly has not yet returned, there has been no large-scale resurrection of the dead in Christ, Satan is demonstrably on the loose and much of the catastrophe and events depicted in all the apocalyptic texts appear to be unfulfilled.
Near Death Experiences
Though not a biblical argument, and therefore should be taken with an extremely large grain of salt, many have cited NDE's (near death experiences) as evidence that consciousness extends beyond the grave or even that departed souls go directly to heaven. Some might brush off these accounts as merely flights of fancy, but I do believe there is some credibility in the corpus of these studies. I'm not the only one either—Dr. Gary Habermas, the world's foremost scholar on the historical evidence and arguments for the resurrection of Jesus, has studied this phenomena for years. The reality is that over 30 million people just from North America and Europe have claimed to have such an experience, and a surprisingly large chunk of them have evidential support. By evidential support, I mean that while having an "out of body experience," they floated around and observed and heard things—later verified—which they could not have been aware of if they were actually dead, or even if they weren't dead but still tied to the natural limitations of human senses. Dr. Habermas has written a book and has given lectures (some of which are available online) covering these extraordinary and inexplicable cases. But while I don't rule out these experiences, I also don't take them at face value.
The problem with NDE's is that they are near death experiences and those experiences often do not align with the biblical texts. For example, millions of people have reported going to "heaven" despite the fact that they don't even believe in God, let alone Jesus. They have also reported seeing people in "heaven" who also never professed belief in Christ. This is much more problematic than the fact that they report going directly to heaven or describe experiencing consciousness after their body flatlined. I think viewing these experiences as near death is an important distinction as well as viewing what they experience as seeing a spiritual reality "through a glass dimly" as Paul said, filtering that experience through their own worldview and outside of the constraints of time.
If not even the apostles Paul or John were sure if they were actually in heaven seeing things in real-time or simply on earth experiencing a vision of heaven and future events, then we must be very careful in determining what non-believers have actually experienced in these instances. Instead, we must not just take these accounts at face value, but vigorously scrutinize them in light of scripture. Just because someone saw something, doesn't make it accurate or true—spiritual deception is just as possible as spiritual enlightenment—and just because they claimed to experience something, doesn't mean they actually did. Case in point: the best-selling Christian book, Heaven is For Real, which sold millions of copies and described a 6 year-old's account of heaven from his own near death experience. This book had an enormous impact on Christian beliefs about the afterlife, but five years after being published, the boy admitted that the entire story was fabricated. Publisher Tyndale House quickly pulled the book from stores and ceased printing, but by then the damage was largely done.
Now, I don't think all NDE's are fabricated. In fact, I don't even believe the majority are. However, I don't think they are reliable evidence of consciousness after death or directly entering heaven after death. Why? Because many of these accounts directly contradict what scripture plainly teaches about even salvation, let alone heaven (though many others do seem to align with a biblical worldview with some atheists describing a sense of judgment and extreme discomfort in the presence of an all-knowing being). We must also take into account the fact that the vast majority of people who have flatlined in a hospital report experiencing nothing after they "died," which doesn't bode well for the universal consciousness argument. What these relatively rare, but not insignificant NDE's do seem to indicate is that there is a reality beyond the physical realm and even beyond death, but the accuracy and details of these accounts are highly questionable. That's where we should be turning to God's word rather than flawed humanity's experiences and interpretations of those experiences for reliable truth.
While these concepts may sound unorthodox to some, the reality is that they are neither new, nor radical teachings. The founder of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther himself, held to the doctrines of "soul sleep" and conditional immortality. Hopefully this overview gives a better understanding of the underworld and what scripture says regarding the hereafter. Many questions remain of course, but my hope is that this study has at least imparted a hunger to investigate and challenged some of our traditions and beliefs. Sheol is a major biblical concept which is largely ignored in the church, so I believe it is worthwhile to spend some time on it. However I rarely get the chance to fully develop the biblical case due to time constraints, so this article felt in order. Though this is not an essential doctrine, should not be held dogmatically, and should not cause division in the Church, my hope and prayer is that it aids others in their understanding of a biblical framework and creates opportunity for thought and discussion now, "for there is no knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going..."
*All Bible references quoted are from the NASB translation
**For another resource on this topic click here