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SHEOL (shē'ōl, Heb. she’ôl). In the OT the place to which all the dead go, immediately upon death. Sometimes KJV translates it “grave,” sometimes “hell,” depending on whether or not the individuals in the particular passage were viewed as righteous, but this procedure involves importing distinctions into the OT that were not clarified until Jesus’ ministry. NIV prefers to translate she’ôl as “grave” (in all but eight passages) and place the name itself in a footnote, a procedure that is neither helpful nor justifiable. It seems best—as in ASV, NASB, and (except for Ps.49.14) RSV—to not translate she’ôl, because it is a name.

Bibliography: J. A. Motyer, After Death, 1965.

SHEOL she’ ōl (שְׁאוֹל, H8619; LXX ἅδης, αίδε̂ς), the Heb. word most frequently used for the place where the dead were believed to dwell. The KJV ambiguously tr. Sheol as “the grave” thirty-one times, as “hell” thirty-one times, and as “the pit” three times. The ASV and the RSV use the transliteration “Sheol.” The term is used more frequently in the Wisdom lit. than elsewhere in the OT. The etymology is in doubt. Some scholars believe it is derived from the verb “to ask,” the idea being either that the dead were frequently consulted (a practice strongly condemned in the OT), or that the experience of death is fig. described as Sheol constantly asking for more inhabitants. Others derive Sheol from the verb “to be hollow”; that is, it is conceived of as a hollow place under the earth.

Sheol is a place of continued existence rather than annihilation, and it does not lie beyond the reach of God. “If I ascend to heaven, thou art there! If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there!” (Ps 139:8). “Sheol is naked before God, and Abaddon has no covering” (Job 26:6). Thus there springs the hope mentioned several times in the OT that God will rescue His people from Sheol. In the OT, little distinction is made between the lot of the good man and the evil man in Sheol. This distinction developed later, during the intertestamental period.

Some ambiguity exists relative to the location of Sheol. In a large number of instances, Sheol is spoken of as a place “down to” which one goes. It is a question as to how closely the Heb. identified Sheol with the grave itself. In three instances it is used in parallel with Abaddon, which the KJV trs. “destruction,” but which the RSV uses as a place name (Job 26:6; Prov 15:11; 27:20). Sheol is underground: “The ground opens its mouth, and swallows them up, with all that belongs to them, and they go down into Sheol” (Num 16:30); it is located in subterranean waters: “The shades below tremble, the waters and their inhabitants” (Job 26:5); it has gates: “I am consigned to the gates of Sheol for the rest of my years” (Isa 38:10).

An important question regarding Sheol is this: At death, did the OT believers go to such a place of gloom or did they go to be with the Lord immediately? The former view was prevalent in the Early Church, which also held that Christ at His death descended into Sheol (Hades) to bring the OT believers to heaven with Him. The latter view is held by those who believe that the Sheol concept was held by the Israelites in common with their pagan neighbors until God gradually revealed more and more information about the life after death, climaxing His revelation in Christ who brought life and immortality to light. Both views contain considerable difficulties.


S. Zandstra, “Sheol and Pit in the Old Testament,” PTR 5 (1907), 631-641; J. D. Davis, “The Future Life in Hebrew Thought During the Pre-Persian Period,” PTR 6 (1908), 246-268; C. F. Burney, Israel’s Hope of Immortality (1909); E. F. Sutcliffe, The Old Testament and the Future Life (1947).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


1. The Name

2. The Abode of the Dead

(1) Not a State of Unconsciousness

(2) Not Removed from God’s Jurisdiction

(3) Relation to Immortality

3. Post-canonical Period

1. The Name:

2. The Abode of the Dead:

(1) Not a State of Unconsciousness.

Yet it would be a mistake to infer, because of these strong and sometimes poetically heightened contrasts to the world of the living, that Sheol was conceived of as absolutely a place without consciousness, or some dim remembrance of the world above. This is not the case. Necromancy rested on the idea that there was some communication between the world above and the world below (De 18:11); a Samuel could be summoned from the dead (1Sa 28:11-15); Sheol from beneath was stirred at the descent of the king of Babylon (Isa 14:9 ). The state is rather that of slumbrous semi-consciousness and enfeebled existence from which in a partial way the spirit might temporarily be aroused. Such conceptions, it need hardly be said, did not rest on revelation, but were rather the natural ideas formed of the future state, in contrast with life in the body, in the absence of revelation.

(2) Not Removed from God’s Jurisdiction.

It would be yet more erroneous to speak with Dr. Charles (Eschatology, 35 ff) of Sheol as a region "quite independent of Yahwe, and outside the sphere of His rule." "Sheol is naked before God," says Job, "and Abaddon hath no covering" (Job 26:6). "If I make my bed in Sheol," says the Psalmist, "behold thou art there" (Ps 139:8). The wrath of Yahweh burns unto the lowest Sheol (De 32:22). As a rule there is little sense of moral distinctions in the Old Testament representations of Sheol, yet possibly these are not altogether wanting (on the above and others points in theology of Sheol).

See Eschatology of the Old Testament.

(3) Relation to Immortality.

To apprehend fully the Old Testament conception of Sheol one must view it in its relation to the idea of death as something unnatural and abnormal for man; a result of sin. The believer’s hope for the future, so far as this had place, was not prolonged existence in Sheol, but deliverance from it and restoration to new life in God’s presence (Job 14:13-15; 19:25-27; Ps 16:10,11; 17:15; 49:15; 73:24-26; see Immortality; Eschatology of the Old Testament; RESURRECTION). Dr. Charles probably goes too far in thinking of Sheol in Psalms 49 and 73 as "the future abode of the wicked only; heaven as that of the righteous" (op. cit., 74); but different destinies are clearly indicated.

3. Post-canonical Period:

There is no doubt, at all events, that in the postcanonical Jewish literature (the Apocrypha and apocalyptic writings) a very considerable development is manifest in the idea of Sheol. Distinction between good and bad in Israel is emphasized; Sheol becomes for certain classes an intermediate state between death and resurrection; for the wicked and for Gentiles it is nearly a synonym for Gehenna (hell). For the various views, with relevant literature on the whole subject, see Eschatology of the New Testament; also DEATH; HADES; HELL, etc.