January 30, 2005 Q & A

Meaning of Sheol and Hades


I'm confused about the different English terms for the destination of the deceased, and what appear to be (at times) inconsistent translations in different versions.

In the OT, Sheol is in the New American Standard Bible (NASB), but it is translated "the grave," "the pit," or "Hell" in other translations. It seems that Sheol is a place that most wish to avoid, as in the Psalms when the psalmist prays "Let me not go down into Sheol." However, I've read that the Jewish concept of the grave did not include an idea of eternal reward or punishment, rather, it was the place to which all men went after death. "The grave" and "the pit" don't imply to me any sense of punishment to be feared, but translating it "Hell" certainly does.

In the New Testament, the Greek "Hades" is also translated "Hell" in translations. In Greek/Roman mythology, I believe Hades was the "netherworld" or "underworld" to which all people went after death. There were various regions, like "Tartarus" that were reserved for wicked people, and others ("Elesian fields" or something like that) reserved for the good. However, they were all ruled by the same god. Did the OT concept of Sheol include these distinctions? Finally, the NT presents Heaven and Hell as two very different places, certainly ruled by very different masters. Aside from a rather vague comment by Jesus, "In my Father's house there are many mansions," they seem to be the only two options. When did the OT concept of a single destination to "the grave" become the NT concept of two separate destinations?

Your help would be greatly appreciated. I've asked people at my church, my pastor, the assistant pastor, etc. and just about everyone seems to have a different idea.


You are correct that there are many different, and inconsistent, translations in the English versions for the words Sheol and Hades. The reason for this is partly that there are many different, and inconsistent, ideas of what these words mean!

You are also correct that the Old Testament word "Sheol" is replaced in the New Testament by the word "Hades." This is natural because the various Septuagints (the Greek translations of the Hebrew Old Testament used in the years before, during and after Jesus' day) generally translated the Hebrew word "Sheol" with the Greek word "Hades." Although the word "Hades" came originally from the pagan mythologies, we do not take our understanding of what that term means from what the term meant in those pagan mythologies. Rather, we understand that God used the language of the Greeks to communicate His New Testament revelation to us without thereby approving of pagan ideas.

So what do the words "Sheol" and "Hades" mean? There is much disagreement among scholars today (as there usually is!). In the history of the Church, there also have been various views.

Some Christians have assumed that God wanted us to believe in a dark, shadowy netherworld of the disembodied spirits, as was taught by the pagans. Since we know that God will raise the dead at the end of the world, perhaps (so it has been thought by some) all men's souls, righteous and unrighteous, went to this neutral underworld to await their Final Judgment. Some Christians went further and accepted the pagan notion (which you mention) that there were not different regions for the wicked and the believers. Yet, clearly the New Testament does not teach this. Jesus told the thief on the cross, "Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43, New King James Version or NKJV). Paul said, "We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord" (2 Cor. 5:8, NKJV); and, "For I am hard pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better" (Phil. 1:23, NKJV).

This discrepancy led some to postulate that Old Testament believers had it different from believers called by God after the coming of Christ. While New Testament believers go immediately to be with Christ, perhaps Old Testament believers (so the thought is) had to wait for Christ to come to earth and to accomplish His work of redemption. The souls of these Old Testament believers descended to Sheol and waited in a state of limbo, called in Latin the "Limbus Patrum." After Christ's resurrection, these Old Testament saints were brought into heaven with Jesus when He "descended into hell [Hades]" (more on this phrase later).

However, most Reformed interpreters are not satisfied with this intricate explanation of Sheol/Hades. Instead, "Sheol" and "Hades" are seen as meaning, in most cases, simply "the grave." For example, take Acts 2:27 (where Peter quotes from Psalm 16:10 in speaking of Jesus), "For You will not leave my soul in Hades, Nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption" (NKJV). This verse from a Hebrew psalm has two parallel parts. "You will not leave" is parallel to "You will not allow"; "my soul" is parallel to "Your Holy One"; and "in Hades" is parallel to "to see corruption."

Our understanding of Hebrew poetry leads us to understand that the psalmist is saying the same idea in two related ways. Thus "Hades" is a place where there is "corruption" of the body, i.e., "the grave."

Similarly, the patriarch Jacob speaks in Gen. 42:38b concerning his youngest son Benjamin, "If any calamity should befall him along the way in which you go, then you would bring down my gray hair with sorrow to the grave [Sheol]." Consider also two verses from the Psalms: Ps. 6:5, "For there is no mention of Thee in death; In the grave [Sheol] who will give Thee thanks?," and Ps. 89:48, "What man can live and not see death? Can he deliver his soul from the power of the grave [Sheol]?" In both these verses, the word "Sheol" is parallel to the word "death" because they mean the same thing. So in a somewhat metaphorical way, the state of the dead is spoken of as a place, without implying the literal existence of such a place.

As you point out, "Sheol"/"Hades" is ordinarily spoken of as a "place" to be avoided by all humans, for whom death is not natural, but the result of God's penalty and curse for mankind's sin. However, for the unbeliever, "Sheol"/"Hades" is even more to be feared for it means he or she will face, after death, a fuller punishment by a righteous God (Hebrews 9:27). Thus, in some instances, the translation "hell" seemed more justified to certain translators of English versions.

In the Apostles' Creed (called thus, not because it was written by the apostles, but because it sets forth in summary fashion the teaching of the apostles), there is the phrase, "Was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into Hell [Hades] ...."

In the materials supplied by the Westminster Assembly (1643-1648), the version of the Apostles' Creed printed there contains a footnote to the words "descended into hell" which reads as follows: "i.e. Continued in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day." Similarly, the Westminster Larger Catechism Question 50 reads as follows: "Wherein consisted Christ's humiliation after his death?" Answer: "Christ's humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried, and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day; which has been otherwise expressed in these words, he descended into hell." In other words, as understood by the Westminster Divines, "descended into hell" teaches that Jesus continued to be in the grave until the third day.

Incidentally, John Calvin took the phrase differently; he took it to mean in a metaphorical way that Christ endured the pains of hell on the cross. He argued that otherwise, this pithy Apostles' Creed said the same thing twice, which Calvin considered unlikely. He was probably right about one thing - that such a repetition was not part of the original Creed. In fact, the phrase, "descended into hell" was not original to the Creed. When it first appeared it was inserted as a substitute explanation for the phrase "buried". Only later did both terms appear together.


The unfolding of God's revelation is a feature that is sometimes called "progressive revelation." By that we mean that certain clear teachings in the New Testament were present in the Old Testament in "types" and "shadows" but not in their full light.

For example, the doctrine of the Trinity is certainly found in the Old Testament, but not as clearly as in the New Testament. The person and work of Christ is everywhere taught in all the Scriptures (Luke 24:25-27), but was not unveiled fully until the coming of our Savior. So too, the Old Testament teaching of the state of individuals after death was not as fully revealed in the Old Testament as it is in the New Testament. To be sure, never is there a contradiction between God's revelation in the past and that at a later time, but there is a progressively greater clarity to be found in later revelation.

When people die, they go down to the grave, called "Sheol" in the Old Testament and "Hades" in the New Testament. Their bodies remain in the grave until the resurrection of both the just and the unjust (John 5:28-29; Acts 24:15). Their souls go immediately either to heaven or hell to await the resurrection. This systematic teaching is found in the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 32.1:

The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption1 but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them2 the souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God, in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies.3 And the souls of the wicked are cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day.4 Beside these two places, for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledges none.
     1Genesis 3:19; Acts 13:36
     2Luke 23:43; Ecclesiastes 12:7
     3Hebrews 12:23; 2Corinthians 5:1, 6, 8; Philippians 1:23; Acts 3:21; Ephesians 4:10
     4Luke 16:23-24; Acts 1:25; Jude 6-7; 1Peter 3:19

I hope this long answer helps clarify your thinking of what the Scriptures teach. May you be blessed in believing in Christ and His Word!



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