The Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Sheol. Sheol is translated in the AV "hell," "grave," and "pit," while Hades is ten times translated "hell," and once "grave."

There has long been controversy over the exact import of the words. There are two views among Bible believers.

Divided Hades View

W. E. Vine expresses what is now perhaps, the most common view: "Hades [is] the region of departed spirits of the lost (but including the blessed dead in periods preceding the ascension of Christ).… It corresponds to 'Sheol' in the OT.… It never denotes the grave, nor is it the permanent region of the lost; in point of time it is, for such, intermediate between decease and the doom of Gehenna. For the condition see Luke 16:23–31.

"The word is used four times in the Gospels, and always by the Lord, Matt. 11:23; 16:18; Luke 10:15; 16:23; it is used with reference to the soul of Christ, Acts 2:27, 31; Christ declares that He has the keys of it, Rev. 1:18; in Rev. 6:8 it is personified, with the signification of the temporary destiny of the doomed; it is to give up those who are therein, Rev. 20:13; and is to be cast into the lake of fire, ver. 14" (Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words).

Usual Reformed View

Reformed theologians usually take a very different view. They reject the theory of a divided Sheol or Hades and hold that the Scriptures nowhere warrant our locating paradise in Hades. W. G. T. Shedd summarizes the arguments for the Reformed position as follows:

Sheol Means a Punitive Evil. "That Sheol is a fearful punitive evil, mentioned by the sacred writers to deter men from sin, lies upon the surface of the OT, and any interpretation that essentially modifies this must therefore be erroneous."

Sheol Often Means Hell. "Sheol signifies the place of future retribution.

"1. This is proved by the fact that it is denounced against sin and sinners, and not against the righteous. It is a place to which the wicked are sent in distinction from the good." Then follows a long list of texts: Job 21:13; Ps. 9:17; Prov. 5:5; 9:18; 23:14; Deut. 32:22; Ps. 139:8; Prov. 15:24; Job 26:6; Prov. 15:11; 27:20. In these last three references, destruction is in the Hebrew Abaddon. Shedd argues that since Abaddon is the Hebrew word for Apollyon who is "the angel and king of the bottomless pit" (Rev. 9:11), the use of Sheol in these texts proves that it denotes hell. "There can be no rational doubt, that in this class of texts the wicked are warned of a future evil and danger. The danger is that they shall be sent to Sheol."

"2. A second proof that Sheol is the proper name for Hell, in the OT, is the fact that there is no other proper name for it in the whole volume—for Tophet is metaphorical, and rarely employed. If Sheol is not the place where the wrath of God falls upon the transgressor there is no place mentioned in the OT where it does."

Shedd finds it "utterly improbable" that there should be such silence, when the final judgment is so clearly announced.

"3. A third proof that Sheol in these passages, denoted the dark abode of the wicked and the state of future suffering, is found in those OT texts which speak of the contrary bright abode of the righteous, and of their state of blessedness."

Shedd then argues that paradise cannot be placed as a part of Sheol: "There is too great a contrast between the two abodes of the good and evil, to allow them to be brought under one and the same gloomy and terrifying term Sheol." Again he lists proof texts: Ps. 16:11; 17:15; 49:15; 73:24; Isa. 25:8; Prov. 14:32.

4. As a fourth proof that Sheol signifies the place of future retribution, Shedd cites its inseparable connection with spiritual and eternal death. This is true of Hades, as it is used in the NT (Prov. 5:5; Rev. 20:14).

Sheol Often Means the Grave. But, Shedd argues, Sheol has another significance: "Sheol signifies the 'grave' to which all men, good and evil alike, go down. That Sheol should have the two significations of hell and the grave, is explained by the connection between physical death and eternal retribution. The death of the body is one of the consequences of sin, and an integral part of the penalty.… As in English, 'death' may mean either physical or spiritual death, so in Hebrew, Sheol may mean either the grave or hell. When Sheol signifies the 'grave,' it is only the body that goes down to Sheol. But as the body is naturally put for the whole person, the man is said to go down to the grave, when his body alone is laid in it … When the aged Jacob says, 'I will go down unto my (dead) son mourning' (Gen. 37:35), no one should understand him to teach the descent of his disembodied spirit into a subterranean world. 'The spirit of man goeth upward and the spirit of the beast goeth downward' (Eccl. 3:21)."

Shedd cites the following texts to prove that Sheol signifies the grave: 1 Sam. 2:6; Gen. 44:31; Job 14:13; 17:13; Num. 16:33; Ps. 6:5; Eccl. 9:10; Hos. 13:14; Ps. 88:3; 89:48. He goes on, "Sheol in the sense of the 'grave' is represented as something out of which the righteous are to be delivered by a resurrection of the body to glory, but the bodies of the wicked are to be left under its power. Ps. 49:14, 15; 16:10; Hosea 13:14. St. Paul quotes this (1 Cor. 15:55), in proof of the blessed resurrection of the bodies of believers—showing that 'Sheol' here is the 'grave,' where the body is laid and from which it is raised."

Objections to Idea that Sheol Means Grave. Shedd seeks to answer some of the objections to his last point. He argues that Psa. 16:10 and Acts 2:31 use soul to mean body and points out that in Lev. 19:28; 21:11; 22:4; Num. 6:6; 19:11, 13; Hag. 2:13, the Hebrew word nephesh, "soul" is translated properly by "dead body." He also remarks that Acts 2:31 proves that Psa. 16:10 uses Sheol as he has argued because, "Acts 2:31 asserts that 'David spake of the resurrection of Christ,' … but there is no resurrection of the soul. Consequently it is the body that David speaks of."

Hades Means Hell and Grave. What has been said of Sheol holds good for Hades. Mostly, it signifies the place of torment, and in three places (Acts 2:27, 31; 1 Cor. 15:55) it signifies grave.

In reply to the objection that Sheol and Hades cannot mean grave because there are other words for grave—Hebrew qeber and Greek mnemeion—Shedd replies, "Grave has an abstract and general sense, denoted by Sheol, and a concrete and particular, denoted by qeber. All men go to the grave, but not all men have a grave.… These remarks apply also to the use of Hades and mnemeion." (All quotations from Shedd's The Doctrine of Endless Punishment.)

Summary of Differences

Basically then, there are two views current among Bible believers. We may summarize their differences:

1. The first places paradise (at least until Christ's resurrection) as a compartment of Sheol or Hades. The second denies this and says the location of paradise in the third heaven (2 Cor. 12:2, 4) is the only location given in Scripture, with no hint of its ever having been located anywhere else.

2. The first emphasizes that Sheol refers generally to the region of the departed spirits (as does Hades until the resurrection of Christ). The second repudiates this and holds that "hell" is the proper translation.

3. The first holds that Sheol and Hades never mean grave. The second is equally adamant that in certain texts it does.

4. The first holds that the souls of the wicked and of the righteous both went to Sheol in the OT period (and in the NT until the resurrection of Christ). The second holds that in the OT only the souls of the wicked went to Sheol and that the saints went to heaven—as Elijah, upon his translation, did. In this particular aspect of the dispute, the upholders of the divided Hades view point out that Samuel "came up from the earth" (1 Sam. 28:7–20). Those of Shedd's persuasion answer that this does not change the plain statement of Prov. 15:24 and that Samuel is represented as coming up from the earth "because the body reanimated rises from the grave" (Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, 2:602). Furthermore, in the entire narrative, Sheol is not once employed.

Doctrinal Implications

There are many doctrinal issues hanging on the view adopted. According to the first view, Christ's soul descended into Sheol/Hades. Upholders of this view give differing reasons for His descent and speak of various activities while He was there. Most, however, say it was to proclaim His victory and to lead out the saints from paradise into heaven.

Shedd's position denies such a descent into Sheol/Hades by Christ to preach or proclaim anything. He says that if such a doctrine were true, it would form a fundamental part of the gospel, on a par with the incarnation, and it is inconceivable that it should be so completely passed over in the great dogmatic statements of faith in the NT. Jesus' cry on the cross, "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit," Shedd takes to be conclusive evidence that He did not go to any underworld of departed spirits, for "the hands of God" could not be taken as a description of any place but heaven.

One reason for opposing "grave" as a translation of Sheol or Hades is the use the self-styled Jehovah's Witnesses (see Russellites) make of such a belief. They say Sheol always means "the grave" and nothing more. However, Shedd's view, with its strong emphasis on Sheol as a place of dreadful punishment, poses arguments that the Jehovah's Witness sect can never answer.

After observing so many differences of opinion, it is worth noting that both parties hold Sheol/Hades to be a place of disembodied spirits. As the eternal blessedness of the believers in heaven is to be enjoyed by the entire man, including the body, so the eternal damnation of the sinner in hell is to be endured by the entire man, including the body. Thus Hades will give up the dead which are in it and, reunited with their bodies, they will be cast into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:13, 14).

See Descent into Hell; Intermediate State.

Cairns, A. (2002). In Dictionary of Theological Terms (pp. 203–205). Belfast; Greenville, SC: Ambassador Emerald International.

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