Let us begin our study by temporarily erasing in our minds all of our preconceptions of what we think hell is and begin at the beginning – that is, how the word “hell” is used in the Old Testament. The word “hell” is found in the OT thirty-one times. The Hebrew word for hell in every case is “sheol”.
A problem immediately arises in the fact that sheol can mean “the grave or pit”. However, many theologians agree that sheol means “the grave” in all thirty-one scriptures, but additionally “pit” in several other scriptures. So what does sheol mean when it is used to describe the grave? We know by the dynamic usage of the word in the scriptures it is used in doesn’t simply mean a grave where a dead physical body rests. It means much more than that. It is a realm of departed spirits of people. Not only that, but it is a subterranean underworld, as described in Job 26:5,6 NASB, “"The departed spirits tremble [or writhe] under the waters and their inhabitants. Naked is Sheol before Him, And Abaddon [Destruction] has no covering" and "Hell [Sheol] from beneath is moved for thee to meet thee at thy coming:" (Isaiah 14:9a KJV)
There also seems to be scriptural evidence that there are levels of punishment in Sheol. "For a fire is kindled in mine anger, and shall burn unto the lowest hell [Sheol], and shall consume the earth with her increase," (Deuteronomy 32.22 KJV) and "For great is thy mercy toward me: and thou hast delivered my soul from the lowest hell [Sheol]" (Psalm 86.13 KJV) However, it is extremely important to note that Sheol was divided into two distinct spheres of existence - Those of the wicked and those of the righteous who believed in God’s deliverance. "There the prisoners rest together; they hear not the voice of the oppressor. The small and great are there; and the servant is free from his master" (Job 3.18-19 KJV) For some, there is rest. The word “prisoners” does not have a negative connotation. It simply means that Sheol for them is a safe “holding place” until the day of Christ’s judgment upon the whole earth. The oppressor is Satan. If you are beginning to think this all sounds a lot like teaching of purgatory, there were many traditions of man piled up on this simple concept later on that have no scriptural foundation. We find scriptural evidence of different levels of punishment in the lake of fire even in the New Testament. We’ll get into that in another blog.
Let’s take a quick side step to Luke 16 and the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ (v 22-24 NIV) This paints a picture of the two realms of Sheol. Not to confuse you, but the abode of the wicked in Sheol in the New Testament is called Hades. If you look up “hell” in your Strong’s Concordance, a Hebrew definition of the word “hell” is also “hades”. The beggar was in the bosom of Abraham. This, by Jewish tradition, was the “paradise” side of sheol. Remember when Jesus was on the cross and He told the thief beside Him that that very day he would be with Him in paradise? Interesting Jesus did not say the thief would be with Him in heaven, because Jesus Himself did not ascend to heaven until over forty days later.
However, we know that Jesus did visit the grave (Sheol) during the three days His body was supposedly in the tomb. ”For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, He went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits - “ (1st Peter 3:18,19 NIV) The word “proclamation” is correctly rendered here instead of the word “preached” that other translations use, that gives the impression Jesus preached the word of God to them in hopes they would receive it and be saved. If they did not listen to Noah (in verse 20), they had already had their chance. So it is clear Jesus in the spirit visited the wicked realm of Sheol during those three days. The Bible does not say whether or not He also visited the paradise realm of Sheol to proclaim His victory over death, except the promise He gave the thief on the cross. However, some theologians believe that promise was metaphorical, and Jesus was telling the thief that because of his faith, he had entered into the promise of eternal life.
We are told more about the two realms of Sheol in verse 26, “And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
Later in this series, we will examine the point at which the spirits in paradise are now in the presence of God in heaven. Right now, let’s look at the definition of Sheol as the word “pit” or “hole”. Unfortunately, this definition lends itself to understanding Sheol (or grave) simply as an actual hole dug into the ground where a body might be buried. But we must remember we are viewing Sheol in a spiritual sense where spirits of people reside. In certain scriptures, Sheol as a pit is described as a place or realm void of God’s presence or strength. “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; I have become like a man without strength, (Psalm 88:3,4 NIV) "O LORD, thou hast brought up my soul from the grave [Sheol]: thou hast kept me alive, that I should not go down to the pit" (Psalm 30.3 KJV)
So we can see that in the Old Testament, Sheol is a real place where departed spirits go after they die. We also know it is (whether literally or symbolically) represented as being situated deep beneath the earth’s surface. However, hell in the Old Testament is sometimes used metaphorically as describing a state of moral depravity or corruption. "But he knoweth not that the dead are there; and that her [the adulteress'] guests are in the depths of hell [Sheol]". (Proverbs 9.18 KJV) Because of the sometimes subtle usage of the word, we really need to rely upon the Holy Spirit to teach us how Sheol is being used in each scripture it appears in when it doesn’t seem so clear to us.