The Truth About Hell
In Isaiah 14:15
the word “grave” in the phrase “brought down to the grave” (NCV)1 is also translated as “hell” (KJV) and “Sheol” (NKJV). What is Sheol?
Recent Bible translations tend to use the Hebrew word sheol in many of the verses in which it is used in the Old Testament because there is no exact English equivalent for it. “Hell” is no longer the preferred translation, because the Hebrew word, as well as the Greek hades, does not refer to an eternal burning place where the wicked burn forever after death. In general, both terms (sheol and hades) refer to the place of the dead and are used to convey different, interrelated ideas.
1. The Grave: As the place of the dead, sheol designates the grave, where a corpse is deposited. Some Bible translations render it as “grave” (e.g., Gen. 42:38; 44:29; 1 Kings 2:9; Ps. 49:14; 55:15, NLT).2 Good and bad people descend to sheol/the grave or tomb (e.g., Gen. 44:31), although the main emphasis is on the descent of the wicked (e.g., Job 24:19; Ps. 9:17; 31:17). It is “the place [literally, “house”] appointed for all the living” (Job 30:23, NIV; cf. 17:13). In the New Testament Jesus Himself went to hades by being placed in a grave (Acts 2:31). The natural association between grave and death is indicated by using sheol as a synonym for “death” (Isa. 28:15, 18), and by phrases such as “to go down to sheol/the grave” (Gen. 37:35; Job 21:13) and “bring down to sheol/the grave” (1 Sam. 2:6) in the sense of “to die.” Usually a person dies and goes into sheol, but occasionally people “go down alive” into the grave, that is to say, they die in an unusual way (Num. 16:30, 33; Ps. 55:15).
2. The Depth of Sheol: Since the grave is underground, its depth is emphasized (Ps. 86:13; Prov. 9:18). Sheol is described as the “depths of the Pit” (Isa. 14:15) or simply as “the pit” (Ps. 16:10; 30:3, 9; Isa. 38:18), a land of dust (Job 17:16) and darkness (verse 13). In poetic language, the Bible describes sheol as a prison in the depths of the earth from which no one can escape. It has gates (Job 38:17; Isa. 38:10; Matt. 16:18) and is locked with a key (Rev. 1:18). Sometimes sheol is personified as an insatiable wild beast coming out from the pit and making its presence felt through diseases that threaten human life (Ps. 18:4, 5; 116:3; Prov. 30:16; cf. Rev. 11:7). Sheol is the negation or end of life (Prov. 15:24; 23:14; Ps. 30:3). The references to sheol as a place deep beneath the earth is not about geography but about its distance from heaven as the place of life. It stresses death as total alienation from the living God; the farthest place from heaven in the cosmos (Ps. 139:8; 88:5, 11). Those who are in sheol cannot praise the Lord (Ps. 6:5), and their memory is gone; they are dead. Consequently, Israel had no cult of the dead, and consulting the dead (necromancy) was forbidden (Deut. 18:11).
3. God and Sheol: But not all is darkness. God has power over sheol/the grave/death. The Lord “brings down to the grave and brings up” (1 Sam. 2:6). The dead have no access to God, but God has access to the grave. He has power to ransom His people “from the power of the grave; . . . from death” (Hosea 13:14; cf. Ps. 49:15). He is sovereign Lord of both heaven and sheol (Amos 9:2). “Death [sheol] is naked before [God]” (Job 26:6; Prov. 15:11).
Sheol is not the final or eternal residence of humans. It is a prison, but one from which we can escape through the power of God (cf. Isa. 25:8; Dan. 12:2). The key to this prison is now in the hands of Jesus, who was dead but is now alive, and has opened sheol to all who find refuge in Him (Rev. 1:18). He was in sheol, but He was not left to decay (Ps. 16:10). The resurrection will bring the power of sheol to its ultimate end. We could say that the term sheol points to the hope of victory over it. n
Angel Manuel Rodríguez is retired, after a career as a pastor, scholar, and theologian.