The Spirit World: Chapter One (Sheol)

This entry is part 3 of 23 in the series The Spirit World


(This is a continuation of The Spirit World book series. This post assumes the prerequisite reading of earlier posts in the series.)

Giving consideration to the fact that the Bible is translated from the Hebrew and Greek languages (with some Aramaic), it is necessary to evaluate original language terms to have a consistent understanding of the meanings of the English terms which represent them in translation.  One of the first terms one encounters in the scriptures which refers to a hidden spiritual realm is the Hebrew term, Sheol.  Being Hebrew, Sheol is found, of course, in the Old Testament.  Sheol literally means “the grave” or “the world of the dead.”  It is frequently translated into English as “the grave” and at times, “Hell,” although “Hell” is not the best translation for modern English consumption as will be explained in chapter eight.

“Sheol” appears over 60 times in the Old Testament.  From a comparison of these many usages one can make some very obvious conclusions, the first of which is that Sheol is not synonymous with Hell as many have erroneously assumed.  This conclusion is crystal clear by the shear fact that both the righteous and the unrighteous are demonstrated to enter Sheol in Old Testament texts.

Sheol is a place occupied by both the righteous and the unrighteous

Sheol is frequently used negatively in scripture, which has surely helped to persuade some to understand it as a place for the unrighteous, alone.  Indeed, the unrighteous are noted to enter Sheol in scripture.  Proverbs notes,

Proverbs 7:27 (NIV)
Her house is a highway to the grave[Sheol], leading down to the chambers of death.

The woman referenced in this text is an adulteress who is tempting a young man to be unfaithful to his wife.  The conclusion is that “her house is a highway to the grave,” or, Sheol, in the original Hebrew.  Interestingly, the King James Version of the Bible renders the same text,

Proverbs 7:27 (KJV)
27 Her house is the way to hell, going down to the chambers of death.

Clearly a man depicted as a partner to a prostitute can be understood from Proverbs as a notation of a sinful person.  Even more clearly, Psalms notes,

Psalms 9:17 (NIV)
The wicked return to the grave [Sheol], all the nations that forget God.

Isaiah also relegates a spiritually deviant person to the same destiny.

Isaiah 57:9 (NIV)
You went to Molech with olive oil and increased your perfumes. You sent your ambassadors far away; you descended to the grave [Sheol]  itself!

Isaiah speaks in this text to the evil sons of a sorceress while Ezekiel notes the path to Sheol for the uncircumcised of Egypt.

Ezekiel 32:21 (NIV)
From within the grave [Sheol]  the mighty leaders will say of Egypt and her allies, ‘They have come down and they lie with the uncircumcised, with those killed by the sword.’

Clearly the unrighteous are noted to be inhabitants of Sheol in the Old Testament.  If considering these texts alone, one may indeed conclude that Sheol is synonymous with, or at least greatly affiliated with the eternal lake of fire and brimstone.  Indeed, one who consorts with prostitutes, those who worship Molech, the uncircumcised of Egypt and the categorically “wicked” are those one may expect to find such condemnation spoken of in the Bible.  Yet, for such a conclusion to be made concerning Sheol, it is necessary for the use of the term to be consistently affiliated with the “wicked” in scripture.  Such consistency is not observed at all, however.

Sheol is also noted as a place of the righteous in the Old Testament.  Returning to Psalms it is written,

Psalms 49:15 (NIV)
But God will redeem my life from the grave [Sheol]; he will surely take me to himself. Selah

Psalms 49 was written by the sons of Korah, the offspring of a chief Levitical (priestly) family.  The content of their song is that of worship!  In fact, within the content of this song Sheol is noted as a destiny of both the righteous and the wicked, as verses 14 and 15 together paint a clear depiction of both groups assembling in Sheol.

Psalm 49:13-15 (NIV)
13 This is the fate of those who trust in themselves, and of their followers, who approve their sayings. Selah 14 Like sheep they are destined for the grave [Sheol], and death will feed on them. The upright will rule over them in the morning; their forms will decay in the grave [Sheol], far from their princely mansions. 15 But God will redeem my life from the grave [Sheol]; he will surely take me to himself. Selah

The sons of Korah note their own future entry into Sheol along with those “who trust in themselves,” or the wicked.  The righteous and the unrighteous alike find themselves in this abode.  However, the sons of Korah understand that, unlike the wicked, who “will decay in the grave (Sheol),” the righteous have the confidence that “God will redeem my life from the grave (Sheol).”  Interestingly, the KJV also uses the terms “the grave” consistently throughout this Psalm instead of the term “Hell,” which it uses at some other times for Sheol.  The King James’ use of the term “Hell” on such occasions will be discussed in chapter eight.

The priestly sons of Korah are not the only Old Testament saints to anticipate a future visit to Sheol.  David, the “man after God’s own heart,” also states,

Psalms 139:8 (NIV)
If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths [Sheol], you are there.

Likewise, Jonah, God’s disobedient-yet-reinstated prophet notes,

Jonah 2:2 (NIV)
He said: “In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me. From the depths of the grave [Sheol] I called for help, and you listened to my cry.

Hosea further articulates,

Hosea 13:14 (NIV)
“I will ransom them from the power of the grave[Sheol]; I will redeem them from death. Where, O death, are your plagues? Where, O grave, is your destruction?

Hosea, like the sons of Korah, declares again that the Lord will ransom his people from Sheol at a future point in time.

At this early point several observations can be made concerning the nature of Sheol.  First, Sheol is clearly a place containing both the righteous and the unrighteous.  Everyone from the heathen who worships Molech to the man after God’s own heart anticipates a future term in Sheol.  It can also be noted at this point, however, that the righteous expect a future release from Sheol.  While no such hope is noted for the unrighteous, the righteous speak frequently of God’s redemption for them from this spiritual habitat.

While it may seem that Sheol is a realm scattered with the righteous and unrighteous alike, further examination demonstrates that Sheol is in fact a place of various compartments.  There are clearly different positions within Sheol.  As such, Sheol can be noted to be partitioned in some way.

Sheol is compartmentalized

One text which demonstrates a sectional nature for Sheol is found in Deuteronomy 32.

Deuteronomy 32:22 (NASB)
For a fire is kindled in My anger, And burns to the lowest part of Sheol, And consumes the earth with its yield, And sets on fire the foundations of the mountains.

The New American Standard Bible is referenced in this example instead of the NIV because of the more mechanically accurate translation which the NASB uses.  The term “lowest” in the text is the Hebrew term tachti, which means “lower” or “lowest.”  The NIV translates it “the realm of death” which is technically accurate but less descriptive, while the KJV translates it “lowest” and the YLT translates “unto Sheol – – the lowest.”  The clear depiction of the Hebrew is that there is a part of Sheol which can be understood to be “the lowest” or “the lower” part.  This lowest part is spoken of separately from what must be understood to be a higher part of Sheol.  Indeed, if there is a lower part then there must also be a higher part.  As such, Sheol is a place which is at least divided into a lower and a higher part.

Likewise, Psalms indicates the same principle.

Psalms 86:13 (NIV)
For great is your love toward me; you have delivered me from the depths of the grave.

In this text the NIV renders the “depths” of the grave while the KJV notes “lowest” and the NASB reads “depths,” with a footnote indicating, “lit. lowest.”  Once again, the underlying Hebrew term is tachti, or “lowest,”  informing of a level of Sheol which is on a different plane than other part(s).

Added to the understanding that Sheol is compartmentalized, scripture also demonstrates that it holds a different experience for the righteous than it does for the unrighteous.  Numerous passages clearly portray an existence in Sheol which is greatly more favorable toward the righteous than the unrighteous.

Of the Righteous in Sheol, one key observation has already been noted.  The righteous will be redeemed from that location.

Hosea 13:14 (NIV)
“I will ransom them from the power of the grave[Sheol]; I will redeem them from death. Where, O death, are your plagues? Where, O grave [Sheol], is your destruction?

Psalms 49:15 (NIV)
But God will redeem my life from the grave [Sheol]; he will surely take me to himself. Selah

While Sheol is noted to have a “power” which holds its inhabitants within it, the righteous are to be redeemed from it at a future time, as Hosea and the sons of Korah note.  To that end, Sheol can be noted to have a different hold on the souls of the unrighteous than it has on the righteous.  The righteous are promised to be rescued from that location.

Sheol is commonly demonstrated to be a place which is undesirable for the righteous and the unrighteous alike, however.  After all, no one wants to die.  Sheol is clearly a place of existence which follows life on this earth.  While death is unattractive to all, it is less desirable for the unrighteous to enter Sheol, as they have no promise of release.

Beyond the future ransoming of the righteous from Sheol, scripture further offers a promise of God’s presence with the righteous while in that location.  As David noted,

Psalms 139:8 (NIV)
If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths [Sheol], you are there.

Sheol is clearly not a place beyond the presence of the Lord for the righteous who enter it.  David finds great comfort in his thoughts of Sheol in knowing that his Lord will be there with him.  Even in death, those who know the Lord are promised his company, along with the future redemption from their estate in Sheol.

Contrarily, however, the unrighteous are not given the assurance of the Lord’s presence, nor are they given the promise of release.  In fact, what is vowed to them is the anticipation of decay and deterioration.

Of the unrighteous in Sheol, Psalms notes,

Psalms 49:14 (NIV)
Like sheep they are destined for the grave, [Sheol], and death will feed on them. The upright will rule over them in the morning; their forms will decay in the grave [Sheol], far from their princely mansions.

Two things are noted of the unrighteous of Sheol in this text.  First, that “the upright will rule over them,” once again maintaining a separate type of existence for the unrighteous and the righteous in Sheol, and secondly, that “their forms will decay,” terms which once again note a particularly unfavorable estate for the unrighteous in that location.

Deuteronomy concurs, as the Lord notes,

Deuteronomy 32:22 (NIV)
For a fire has been kindled by my wrath, one that burns to the realm of death [Sheol] below. It will devour the earth and its harvests and set afire the foundations of the mountains.

Spoken to idolaters, God promises his wrath upon them which will follow them into Sheol.  While the righteous find comfort in God’s company in Sheol, the unrighteous find his wrath to have followed them into their afterlife abode in Sheol.  Job further states, that

Job 24:19 (NIV)
As heat and drought snatch away the melted snow, so the grave snatches away those who have sinned.

The terms, “snatch away,” are translated from the Hebrew, gazal, literally meaning “spoils” or “consumes.”  As such, the grave “spoils” or “consumes” those who have sinned as heat and drought “spoils” or “consumes” the melted snow.  Clearly one’s existence in Sheol is quite different in the unrighteous compartment from what it is in the righteous compartment.  In the righteous partition, the Lord is present and the promise of redemption is a reality.  In the unrighteous compartment neither is true, but burdens are added to their estate there.  The Lord’s anger for his sin follows one into Sheol and judgments which spoil and decay are pronounced upon them.  The “decay” noted in Psalm 49 seems to represent some destructive nature of Sheol upon the unrighteous.

In addition to these significant deductions concerning Sheol, other observations of note can also be gathered from scripture.

Sheol is always downward from Earth

Of lesser note, Sheol is always depicted as being downward from the perspective of those who live upon the earth.  Jacob notes Sheol as such.

Genesis 37:35 (NIV)
35 All his sons and daughters came to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. “No,” he said, “in mourning will I go down to the grave[Sheol] to my son.” So his father wept for him.

as do Hannah, Job and David.

1 Samuel 2:6 (NIV)
6 “The LORD brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave [Sheol] and raises up.

Job 7:9 (NIV)
9 As a cloud vanishes and is gone, so he who goes down to the grave[Sheol] does not return.

1 Kings 2:6 (NIV)
6 Deal with him according to your wisdom, but do not let his gray head go down to the grave[Sheol] in peace.

Further observations of this truth will be demonstrated later in this work as spirits are noted to rise for their future resurrections and judgments.  To this end, observations of Sheol being a downward place are biblically verifiable and consistent.

Another important deduction concerning Sheol is that it a place whose inhabitants are conscious and aware of their surroundings.

Sheol is a place of consciousness

Isaiah prophesies concerning the king of Babylon’s fate, that,

Isaiah 14:9 (NIV)
9 The grave below is all astir to meet you at your coming; it rouses the spirits of the departed to greet you– all those who were leaders in the world; it makes them rise from their thrones– all those who were kings over the nations.

 In Sheol, these kings are aware of their former identities in life.  They rise to greet a newcomer and gloat over their shared fate.  The consciousness of those in Sheol is a necessary requirement for such a taunt to be understood.  Likewise the consciousness of those other departed spirits is necessary that they would offer such jeers.

Similarly, Ezekiel depicts,

Ezekiel 32:21 (NIV)
21 From within the grave[Sheol]  the mighty leaders will say of Egypt and her allies, ‘They have come down and they lie with the uncircumcised, with those killed by the sword.’

God prophesies through Ezekiel this statement to Egypt; thus it is God’s own affirmation that a conscious awareness must exist within Sheol.  The dead leaders have conversations with and ponder the fates of one another.

Lastly, as with all of the spiritual realms, it should be concluded unconditionally that Sheol is completely under God’s own control.

Sheol is under God’s jurisdiction

Job notes that even Sheol lies fully exposed to God’s power and control.

Job 26:6 (NIV)
6 Death [Sheol] is naked before God; Destruction lies uncovered.

While God’s presence has already been noted in the righteous compartment of Sheol, likewise God’s presence should be noted in the unrighteous portion, though in a very unfavorable manner.  A text already observed notes,

Deuteronomy 32:22 (NIV)
22 For a fire has been kindled by my wrath, one that burns to the realm of death [Sheol] below. It will devour the earth and its harvests and set afire the foundations of the mountains.

Once again, this text is rendered a bit strangely in NIV.  It would more accurately read “the lowest part of Sheol,” where the unrighteous dwell.  While the unrighteous do not have God’s presence in the sense that the righteous do, they instead have his continued judgment in that location which demands that his control be exerted even in the lower, unrighteous compartment of Sheol.  His authority knows no bounds, and will be demonstrated to even exist in the eternal lake of fire later in this work, for even that place is a product of God’s creation which serves his purposes under his own authority.


In conclusion, Sheol is demonstrated in scripture to be a compartmentalized place of the spirits of the dead.  There is a higher compartment for the righteous and a lower compartment for the unrighteous.

The compartment for the righteous is peaceful, having both God’s comforting presence and the promise of a future redemption to another location for those present.  This compartment is higher than the compartment for the unrighteous, and those present will have some sort of rule over those in the lower compartment, though possibly that “rule” refers simply to their comfort and future redemption.  It is certainly the place greatly to be preferred in Sheol.  While it appears that even the righteous do not desire to go to Sheol, such is consistent with one’s desire not to die.  Yet, the righteous do not have the fear of Sheol that the unrighteous do.

Contrarily, the compartment for the unrighteous is one of despair, which is said to “feed” upon those present.  This compartment is lower than the compartment for the unrighteous, and those present have no promise of future redemption.  While God’s presence is there, it exists in judgment upon those who dwell within it rather than as a source of peace to them.

Sheol is a place of consciousness. Those existing there have awareness and are able to communicate and ponder their former lives, in both the righteous and unrighteous compartments.  And lastly, Sheol is always noted to be in a downward direction from Earth.  Thus, the idea of “the underworld” is a biblical concept within that parameter.

Further deductions concerning Sheol will be made as this work progresses, but the essence of Sheol is that it is a place of the dead under the earth, containing both the righteous and the unrighteous, with a promise to the righteous of a future redemption.  As such, any theological identification of Sheol as “Hell” is unfounded and inaccurate.  Hell, as it will be demonstrated in chapter eight, is a place which does not contain the righteous and which there is utterly no future escape.

image The Spirit World series will continue weekly until the entire book is published online. If, however, you enjoy this series and do not wish to wait, you can purchase the paperback version of The Spirit World here
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