Where Is This Place Called Sheol?
I hope I haven’t dizzied you with all the Bible quotations. So far, I have really only put forward three ideas. And with at least one of them, you were already as familiar as I was.
The first idea was that death is universal. To quote a Bible verse again:
There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven–A time to give birth and a time to die… Ecclesiastes 3:1-2 NASB
With this idea, everyone is familiar. You do not need the Bible to tell you this is so. We are all too aware of the reality of dying. The Bible’s purpose is not to inform us about death, but to give us a truthful and useful perspective on it.
The second idea I’ve put forward is that death is the result of sin. God had warned that death would occur if Adam and Eve committed sin. When they sinned, death entered the earth and has been here ever since – ultimately claiming every human life along the way.
The third idea is that at death the spirit of the person leaves the body and departs to a place the Bible calls Sheol. If you understand these three ideas then we have not missed a step in our walk together.
The Bible takes an experience which we all know about, in this case death, and seeks to give us understanding on the subject. The Scriptures enlighten us by explaining how death came to be. They also give us information which we might not otherwise know – that existence continues after this life in a place called Sheol.
In seeing these things, I hope you agree with me that the Bible is a very practical book. It takes the important issues of life and explains them. It tells us how things came to be the way they are. It shows the cause and effect relationships that exist in this ordered universe. It reveals those aspects of creation that are invisible, that cannot be ascertained by our physical senses.
The Bible is not organized like a dictionary or encyclopedia. If it was, we could look up “heaven” and then the sub-section on “who goes there” and have the answer to our question. Instead, the Bible is a collection of 66 distinct and varied pieces of writing produced by about 40 different authors. Furthermore, these authors did not collaborate, for the first one wrote about 1500 B.C. and the last one close to 100 A.D.
When you think about the Bible in these terms, you wonder if it could be understood at all by regular folks like us. But I have found this anthology of ancient literature far easier to read and understand than many things written much closer to our own time. I never quite got the hang of Homer, Shakespeare, Chaucer, or Dickens. My high school literature teachers could assure you of that. I even stumble over the dialects in Mark Twain’s books. The Bible, by contrast, seems far more approachable. I cannot imagine understanding all of it. But neither can I imagine not getting more understanding each time I go to it. Though the Bible is formidable, it is also approachable.
We learn the truths of the Bible by seeing how its various authors deal with similar themes. When that many authors spread apart by that many years see something the same way, it becomes apparent they are dealing with timeless truth. The repetition of ideas through a variety of personalities and terms establishes clearly communicated truths upon which we may rely.
The array of quotations I give you, therefore, is not to intimidate or impress you. It is meant to assure you, the way I have been assured, of the Bible’s teaching on this subject. If you believe that everyone is going to heaven it will not be because you read my book. Rather, it will be because through my book you read enough of the Bible to know what you believe and why you believe it. Now let’s get back to the task of laying more bricks for our wall of understanding.
Which Way to Sheol?
Through what you’ve seen of the Bible so far, you may have already picked up a location for Sheol, or, at the very least, a direction. Below. Remember Jacob’s repeated lament?
“Surely I will go down to Sheol in mourning…” Genesis 37:35 NASB
“…then you will bring my gray hair down to Sheol in sorrow.” Genesis 42:38 NASB
“…you will bring my gray hair down to Sheol in sorrow.” Genesis 44:29 NASB
“…your servants will bring the gray hair of your servant our father down to Sheol in sorrow.” Genesis 44:31 NASB
In each instance the direction one took to Sheol was down. Jacob may have never been there, but he knew the direction.
And here is an excerpt of a passage from Job that we have looked at:
“…he who goes down to Sheol does not come up.” Job 7:9 NASB
Job, too, saw a trip to Sheol as a trip down. Another passage from Job, which we have not yet seen, shows the consistency of his outlook:
“Will it go down with me to Sheol?
Shall we together go down into the dust?” Job 17:16 NASB
Speaking of the wicked, Job says,
“They spend their days in prosperity,
And suddenly they go down to Sheol.” Job 21:13 NASB
Of course, Job actually envied the wicked at this point in his life. He longed for the relief that Sheol would bring, for his earthly sufferings would then be over. He talked a lot about Sheol, but of course he was depressed and we can understand the preoccupation. The oft-forgotten conclusion, though, is that he did not give in to his depression. God ultimately restored him to health, gave him double of all he’d lost, and let him live happily and prosperously for another 140 years before he eventually went down.
David was another fellow quoted in the last chapter. Remember how his bearings also showed Sheol lying below the earth?
O LORD, You have brought up my soul from Sheol;
You have kept me alive, that I would not go down to the pit. Psalm 30:3 NASB
This was not the only occasion David spoke about Sheol being down. If we add a verse to a passage we read earlier we see this:
For my soul has had enough troubles,
And my life has drawn near to Sheol.
I am reckoned among those who go down to the pit… Psalm 88:3-4 NASB
David saw things the same way as Jacob and Job, both of whom had lived centuries before him. But that’s only because all the Bible’s writers saw it the same way. Watch.
…and they descend alive into Sheol… Numbers 16:30 NASB
Moses was speaking of Korah and his rebellious cohorts. Because of their evil, God sent them to Sheol before their time. Given the location of Sheol, they had to “descend.”
…and made them go down to Sheol. Isaiah 57:9 NASB
Isaiah agrees that if you’re going to Sheol, you’re going down.
They also went down with it to Sheol… Ezekiel 31:17 NASB
Ezekiel’s perception of things falls right into line with all the others: Sheol lay below.
None of the Bible writers who use the term Sheol ever departs from the idea that it is below. Not every occurrence of this term indicates the direction in which it lies, but whenever a direction is indicated, it is always down. Sheol is never considered to be east or west, up or sideways. It is commonly and universally understood to be down.
We can contrast this with heaven, which the Scriptures always present as being up. Heaven is never below; it is never sideways. It is always above. In the same way, Sheol is always below.
A World Below
Sheol was what the ancient Hebrews called the world below, the world of the dead. You may have run across the term “nether world.” Nether comes from a word meaning down. Nether world would then mean the world that is down, or below.
Another term you may have seen is “underworld.” This term, likewise, refers to the world of the dead that lies below us. The dead have not ceased to exist. They go down to the underworld. Of course, this word also has other applications (e.g. organized crime), but those have nothing to do with our discussion here except as they carry the connotation of death.
Though the word Sheol may have been unique to the Israelites, the idea of an underworld where the dead dwelt was not. It was an idea common to other ancient cultures. Even today, a funeral director may also be referred to as an undertaker. Of course, it is only the body he is taking under, but the imagery is consistent with the idea that the dead go below.
I am laboring in this book, and especially in this chapter, to scratch away some of the unfamiliarity of the word Sheol. Sure, it’s different to our ears. But the concept of an underworld for the dead is not all that foreign to our understanding. We have encountered aspects of such thinking. The Bible, therefore, is not so much introducing radically new concepts as it is clarifying the truth that lies behind many opinions. And the consistency of the viewpoint of the Bible presented by its many authors gives off a simplicity that makes the viewpoint easy to understand and accept.
For example, let’s take a passage that deals with several of the issues we have faced. It occurs in the days of Saul, the first king of Israel. Samuel was the prophet who had anointed Saul as king and given him instruction in the ways of the Lord many years before. Saul had wandered far from the Lord since those days and he died the day after this incident we’re examining took place. It is recorded in 1 Samuel 28:3-19 NASB and, since it’s an extended story, we’ll break it up to make it easier to digest.
Now Samuel was dead, and all Israel had lamented him and buried him in Ramah, his own city. And Saul had removed from the land those who were mediums and spiritists.
The connection between Samuel’s death and the banishment of mediums will become apparent as the story progresses. Remember that Moses had forbidden communication with the dead. In his brighter, more obedient days, Saul as king had seen that Moses’ injunction was enforced.
So the Philistines gathered together and came and camped in Shunem; and Saul gathered all Israel together and they camped in Gilboa. When Saul saw the camp of the Philistines, he was afraid and his heart trembled greatly.
Saul had fought the Philistines before, but at this point they seem to have him heavily outnumbered. He is afraid and doesn’t know what to do.
When Saul inquired of the LORD, the LORD did not answer him, either by dreams or by Urim or by prophets. Then Saul said to his servants, “Seek for me a woman who is a medium, that I may go to her and inquire of her.”
Accustomed to being able to rely on the counsel of Samuel, the faithful priest of God, Saul was in desperate need of an advisor. Unwilling to seek the Lord further, Saul’s impatience leads him to seek a medium who will gain access to the deceased Samuel. Given his quickness to resort to an activity that he knew to be wrong and which he himself had outlawed, it is easy to see why Saul was not on good speaking terms with the Lord.
And his servants said to him, “Behold, there is a woman who is a medium at En-dor.” Then Saul disguised himself by putting on other clothes, and went, he and two men with him, and they came to the woman by night; and he said, “Conjure up for me, please, and bring up for me whom I shall name to you.”
Though he has not used the word “dead” or “Sheol” it is obvious to the medium, and to us, what Saul is talking about. He says, “Conjure up,” and “Bring up for me who I shall name to you.” The dead were below, and everyone in this story knew that. Now, we know it, too.
But the woman said to him, “Behold, you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off those who are mediums and spiritists from the land. Why are you then laying a snare for my life to bring about my death?” Saul vowed to her by the LORD, saying, “As the LORD lives, no punishment shall come upon you for this thing.” Then the woman said, “Whom shall I bring up for you?”
Notice that she asked, “Whom shall I bring up for you?”
And he said, “Bring up Samuel for me.”
Notice that Saul answered, “Bring up Samuel for me.” Samuel, righteous as he had been, was below with all the rest of the dead. Remember that no one continually does good without ever sinning. Or, as we are more used to hearing in our day, “Nobody’s perfect.”
When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice; and the woman spoke to Saul, saying, “Why have you deceived me? For you are Saul.” The king said to her, “Do not be afraid; but what do you see?” And the woman said to Saul, “I see a divine being coming up out of the earth.”
The word “divine” here can also be rendered “god.” The angels were sometimes spoken of in the same terms. When we stop to consider that the spirit of a person is what descends to Sheol, then this makes all the sense in the world. Angels are spirits who have no bodies. When humans are disembodied spirits, they would resemble angels at least in this respect. But more to the point of our current discussion, notice that this being was “coming up.”
He said to her, “What is his form?” And she said, “An old man is coming up, and he is wrapped with a robe.”
Do I need to say it? “An old man is coming up.”
And Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground and did homage. Then Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?”
Samuel does not like being disturbed. (Now we know why all those grave markers say “R.I.P.”: rest in peace.) Notice also that he blames the disturbance on Saul for “bringing me up.”
And Saul answered, “I am greatly distressed; for the Philistines are waging war against me, and God has departed from me and no longer answers me, either through prophets or by dreams; therefore I have called you, that you may make known to me what I should do.”
Saul has made the foolish mistake of thinking he can ignore God and then get out of trouble by violating one of God’s prohibitions. It was Adam and Eve ignoring a prohibition from God that brought death into the earth in the first place. When will we ever learn?
Samuel said, “Why then do you ask me, since the Lord has departed from you and has become your adversary? The Lord has done accordingly as He spoke through me; for the Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, to David. As you did not obey the Lord and did not execute His fierce wrath on Amalek, so the Lord has done this thing to you this day. Moreover the Lord will also give over Israel along with you into the hands of the Philistines, therefore tomorrow you and your sons will be with me.”
It is a stern and tragic rebuke, but Saul brought it on himself. When Samuel says, “…tomorrow you and your sons will be with me,” what does he mean? Of course, he means that Saul and his sons will die in the battle. The words “death” and “Sheol” are not there but they don’t have to be. Given the context, Saul knew only too well what Samuel was saying. And now, we do as well.
The book of 1 Samuel goes on to relate how Saul and his three sons were actually killed just as Samuel had foretold. This included Jonathan who was a noble and God-fearing soldier and who favored David for the kingship even though it would have been his by natural birthright. Therefore, we have men of great morality (Samuel and Jonathan), a man of questionable piety (Saul), and two others whose morals are not characterized in this passage, all descending to Sheol at death. It was the sole place for the dead, just as the earth was the sole place for the living. Sheol was below the earth. There were no living people down there, and there is no place for the dead up here.
Someone may not agree with the way these folks view the issue of life after death, but no one could deny that they were consistent about it!
David, grieved over the loss of his friend and his king, wrote a lament for all Israel to chant. The refrain for Saul and Jonathan was:
“How have the mighty fallen,
And the weapons of war perished!” 2 Samuel 1:27 NASB
Even in this, the imagery and outlook was consistent. The mighty had fallen. Their bodies fell to earth as their souls fell to Sheol.
Let me pause to emphasize the point that the Bible that Jesus read is consistently portraying everyone as going to Sheol. Not just the wicked, not just the rebellious Korah and his co-conspirators, not just the enemies of God, but the friends of God: Rachel, Jacob, Job, David, David’s innocent infant, Jonathan, Samuel. Throughout what we call the Old Testament, the portrayal is consistent and clear: all human beings go down to Sheol at death. Anyone today who presumes to speak on the destiny of humans after death from a biblical perspective who fails to deal with Sheol is ignorant of the Bible on one of its clearest points, or is intentionally misleading others by failing to address it. I say this so that you won’t be misled by those who teach man-made traditions about life after death which have no genuine biblical foundation. There are lots of preachers who wave their Bibles and talk about your destination being either heaven or hell, but what I am giving you in this book is truly the Bible’s perspective. Please read to the end and make up your own mind.
Remember that what we are showing is the way things were before Jesus changed them (that is, the “Old Testament” view). He has come as Israel’s Messiah and has changed this reality to a far more wonderful one. But before we know what things were changed to, we have to clearly understand what they were changed from. Otherwise, we will not fully appreciate the language used in the New Testament about resurrection. In fact, we are likely to misunderstand the New Testament on this point – as, sadly, many have. Therefore, though life after death is different now you see me talking as if the old reality still exists. Please don’t let that throw you. We have to get clearly in our minds the way things were, and to do that I’m taking pains to fully describe the Hebrew mindset.
And while we’re at it, let’s remember that these Hebrews are not just writing what comes off the top of their heads. The prophets who wrote the Scriptures were inspired by Almighty God. They are not telling folktales, they are speaking truth. Neither do we want anyone to discount these ideas because they come from the Old Testament as if that were some less reliable part of the Bible. What we call the “Old Testament” was the only Bible Jesus knew, and He took it to be the word of God. He fully embraced its depiction of Sheol, and, as Messiah, came with a mission to do something about it. If Jesus embraced the Old Testament and its view of Sheol below for the dead, and we respect Him, then we should do no less.
Let us continue, however, for we have not nearly finished painting this picture.
Why the Dead Are Raised
Now that you have seen clearly how the Bible portrays all who die as having descended, you can better appreciate why their returning to life is always referred to as being “raised” from the dead. If dying took you down, certainly being made alive again would have to bring you up. Those who “rise” are those who’ve “fallen.” Let’s look at a few examples.
John the Baptist was beheaded by King Herod. After his death, some speculated, because of all the miracles that were taking place at the hands of Jesus and His disciples, that John may have come to life again. As Luke tells us,
…it was said by some that John had risen from the dead… Luke 9:7 NASB
Note that if John was going to come back from the dead, these folks said it would have to be by rising. Jesus had called him the “greatest” of all humans born up until that time. But even he descended at death.
Of course, Jesus Himself raised a number of people from the dead, including a man named Lazarus. Lazarus became notable for this experience as we see in John’s gospel:
Jesus, therefore, six days before the Passover, came to Bethany where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. John 12:1 NASB
Lazarus was a good man, but he had been below with all the rest of the dead. For him to return to the earth meant being raised.
We know that Lazarus was only one of a number of people raised by Jesus. When Jesus was questioned about the validity of His ministry, He offered as part of the proof of God’s involvement that dead people were raised from their condition. Here’s part of His answer:
the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up… Matthew 11:5 NASB
Notice that in each case the problem is mentioned then the solution He provided: The blind receive what? Sight. The lame do what? Walk. And so on, until…the dead are what? RAISED UP. Why? Because their condition was that they had been below. That is, their spirits had.
Of course, Jesus Himself “fell.” But He promised to “rise again.” That He was raised from the dead is written all over the New Testament. Here are but a few examples (the first a promise, the next three fulfillment):
From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day. Matthew 16:21 NASB
Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead… 2 Timothy 2:8 NASB
the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,” 1 Peter 1:3 NASB
Now the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep through the blood of the eternal covenant, even Jesus our Lord, Hebrews 13:20 NASB
According to these Scriptures, and the many like them elsewhere in the New Testament, Jesus was to be “raised up. ” Therefore, He was said to be “risen.” The event was called a “resurrection” from the dead. He had been “brought up from the dead.” Kind of consistent, huh?
The consistency of this language and imagery is only a mystery to someone who has never been shown all that the Scriptures teach about the dead and where they go. We have been given a consistent and coherent view of the existence and location of the spirits of the dead. And you will see this view blossom into a clear perception of the created universe in the next chapter.
For now, let me point out that the Bible never says Jesus, Elijah, Elisha, Paul, or Peter (these are people the Scriptures tell us brought back someone from the dead) ever “lowered” anyone from the dead. Heaven was above, where God was. Sheol was below, where the dead were. God might “come down,” but the dead could only “come up.” Without exception. Jesus included. You have seen it yourself.
Let’s stop and ask ourselves a question: Are we making too much of what we are reading in the Bible? That is, could we be taking figures of speech and making them express physical reality that the authors didn’t intend?
For example, “kicked the bucket” and “belly up” are figures of speech for death, and not much more than that. Is that was Sheol is – a mere figure of speech? Hardly. The picture being painted by the Bible’s authors is too big, too clear, and too consistent not to be communicating something more than an idiom. Perhaps we could be reading too much into a particular sentence. But the multitude of references on the subject, along with the interlocking and complementary facets of the picture, combine to make misunderstanding almost impossible (especially when you consider there’s even more to be drawn).
This place called Sheol is mentioned repeatedly. It always refers to death. It is designated as the place to which departed spirits depart. All departed spirits – good and bad, young and old – go there. This is the only destination the dead have. It is consistently thought to be downward, below the earth. Those few people who are called back up for a while are said to be raised from there. The cumulative effect of all these words and sentences seem impossible to ignore. The Bible is trying to tell us something. No – it is telling us something. It’s telling us what happens to the dead.
(I know you must be anxious to hear about heaven and maybe even about hell, but please be patient. We’ll cover both before the book is finished. Let’s continue letting the Bible tells its story in its own way.)
If we had found the Bible to be painting unclear and inconsistent pictures of what happens to the dead, we might be justified in rejecting its explanation. Since, however, it paints one clear and uncomplicated picture, and gives us hope about those who have died, why would we not embrace it quickly and gladly? Not only that, the Bible is not yet finished painting its picture of the world Jesus came to change. All we have seen so far is only a sketch. The picture is about to become full scale…and technicolor.
End of Chapter Three