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Are Sheol and Hell the Same?

We continue with the question: "Where did Old Testament believers go after death? I have heard of the doctrine of Sheol being the abode of the dead with upper (Sheol) for believers and lower (Sheol) for unbelievers, and this only ended after Christ had come. I don't know how to answer this."

We have pointed out that many today deny that the Hebrew word, Sheol ever refers to the place of eternal punishment called "Hell." They claim that those who lived in the OT did not know of such a place, or of Heaven either, but only of an "abode of the dead" to which all, righteous and unrighteous, expected to go at death.

The NIV, for example, translates Sheol as "grave," "death," and "depths," but never as "Hell," thus banishing Hell from the OT. It does much the same with the Greek word, Hades, translating it "Hell" only once. The AV translates Sheol as "Hell" about half the time, in a total of 31 passages. With one exception it translates Hades as "Hell," that is, some 10 times.

Now, we do not dispute that the word Sheol can refer to the grave. There are some passages such as Genesis 44:29, 31 and Numbers 16:33, where it clearly refer to the grave. Note for example Numbers 16:33 where going into the pit (Sheol) is the same as being swallowed by the earth.

It is also true, however, as the AV translators saw clearly, that it cannot and may not always be translated "grave." There are a number of passages where Sheol clearly refers to Hell as the place of eternal punishment.

In Job 11:8, Isaiah 14:15, and Amos 9:2, the contrast is between Heaven and Hell, not Heaven and the grave. In Proverbs 23:13, 14, the death referred to cannot be physical death (chastisement does not deliver from it, but from eternal death) and therefore Sheol must refer to Hell, the place of eternal death, and not the grave.

Likewise, Job 26:6, Proverbs 15:11 and 27:20 speak of "hell and destruction." The word destruction is the Hebrew word, Abaddon, which in Revelation is the name for a messenger of Hell (Rev. 9:11). In light of that NT passage it is far better to identify both Abaddon and Sheol with Hell in the passages where they are used together.

We are convinced the in the NT Hades ALWAYS refers eternal punishment. In every undisputed passage that is the case. If so, then not only is the translation of Acts 2:27, 31 correct, but those passages reflect back on Psalm 16:10, from which they quote, and suggest that they too are referring to Hell, not the grave, when they speak of Sheol.

But why in the OT is the same Hebrew word used to refer both to the grave and to Hell? The answer is that the grave, apart from the redeeming work of Christ, is the entrance, the courtyard of Hell. All who go to the grave also go to Hell, unless they are rescued by the blood and sacrifice of Christ, who destroys that victory of the grave (I Cor. 15:55), and opens a new way out of it for those whom the Father gave Him.

The grave, therefore, even in the OT, as the place to which all go, is not a neutral place, but a place of suffering from which one must be redeemed (Ps. 116:3-8). And we are redeemed! Because of Christ's obedience and suffering the grave and death could not hold Him (Acts 2:24), nor can it hold those who are in Him by faith. Through Him who loved them believers are more than conquerors even over the grave (Rom. 8:37).

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Additional Info

  • Volume: 6
  • Issue: 20
Hanko, Ronald

Rev. Ronald Hanko (Wife: Nancy)

Ordained: November 1979

Pastorates: Wyckoff, NJ - 1979; Trinity, Houston, TX - 1986; Missionary to N.Ireland - 1993; Lynden, WA - 2002; Emeritus October 15, 2017

Website: www.lyndenprc.org/sermons/

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