Torment in Old Testament hell? The meaning of Sheol in the Old Testament

Many Roads

(image courtesy ChristArt)

By Spencer D Gear PhD

If you want to meet promoters of all sorts of unorthodox or strange doctrines, go to some of the Christian forums online.

I visited one where it was asked:

โ€œI haven’t seen evidence of eternal torment in hell anywhere in the old testament. If you have, and if you are tireless enough, would you post at least one of themโ€ฆ. The question was: Does the OLD testament have any verses that describe eternal torment in hell?โ€[1]

He [2] is missing a fundamental dynamic of biblical interpretation – progressive revelation from OT to NT. He would not be asking these questions if he understood the meaning of progressive revelation. There are many things in the OT that are vague when compared with the clearer NT revelation, thanks to the Lord revealing more with the NT.

Therefore, it should not surprise us that when the OT prophets stated many things about Sheol – the place to which people departed at death – they did not expound in depth on it. That was given to the NT to explain further. Sadly, the KJV translates Sheol as “hell” (31 times); “grave” (31 times) and “pit” (3 times). Because of this kind of inconsistency, this has given opportunity to various groups (JWs, Armstrongism, SDAs, etc.) to teach, wrongly, that Sheol means the grave.

However, the following examples of the use of Sheol use figurative language to explain the conditions there. These include:

  1. Sheol has “gates” to enter and “bars” to keep one in (e.g. Job 17:16; Isa. 38:10). Thus, by use of this figurative language, Sheol is described as a realm from which there is no way to escape.
  2. Sheol is described as a shadowy place, a place of darkness (Job 10:21-22; Ps 143:3).
  3. Sheol is regarded as being “down”, “beneath the earth”, in “the lower parts of the earth” (Job 11:8; Isa 44:23; 57:9; Ezek 26:20; Amos 9:2). These figures of speech are designed to tell us that Sheol has another existence – it is not part of this world that we live in. But there is another existence that has a different dimension. It is not sending the dead into non-existence or to be annihilated.
  4. It is a place for reunion with ancestors, tribe or people (e.g. Gen 15:15; 25:8; 35:29; 37:35; 49:33; Num 20:24, 28; 31:2; Deut 32:50; 34:5; 2 Sam 12:23). Sheol is the place where all human beings go at death. Jacob looked forward to his reuniting with Joseph in Sheol. These OT references confirm that death meant separation from the living, but reunion with the departed.
  5. There are indications that there could be different sections in Sheol with language such as “the lowest part” and “the highest part” (Deut 32:22).
  6. What are the conditions for a person who goes to Sheol? At death a person becomes a rephaim, i.e. a ghost, shade, disembodied spirit, according to the Hebrew lexicons and dictionaries of the OT (see Job 26:5; Ps 88:10; Prov 2:18; 9:18; 21:16; Isa 14:9; 26:14, 19). Instead of saying that human beings pass into non-existence at death, the OT states that a person becomes a disembodied spirit. Keil & Delitzsch in their OT commentary define rephaim as “those who are bodiless in the state after death” (Vol 4 on Job, p. 52).
  7. Those in Sheol converse with each other and can even make moral judgments on the lifestyle of those who arrive (Isa 14:9-20; 44:23; Ezek 32:21). So, they are conscious beings when in Sheol.
  8. Those in Sheol do not have knowledge of what is happening for those who are still alive on earth (Ps 6:5; Eccles 9:10, etc.)
  9. Some of the spirits in Sheol experience the following:

a. God’s anger (Deut 32:22). Here, Moses states of the wicked that “a fire is kindled by my anger and it burns to the depths of Sheol” (ESV).
b. Distress and anguish (Ps 116:3);
c. There is writhing with pain; they are trembling (Job 26:5). Here the Hebrew word, chool, means to twist and turn in pain like a woman giving birth to a child.

From the OT revelation, we know that the righteous and the wicked went to Sheol at death (Gen. 37:5), but the OT believers did not have a clear understanding of what to expect in Sheol. That was left for the progressive revelation of the NT to reveal more for us. Because of this principle of progressive revelation, the OT believers did not have the information that was needed to approach death with peace and joy (see Heb. 2:14-15).

Not once does Sheol in the OT mean non-existence or annihilation.


[1] Christian Forums, Christian Apologetics, The debate on eternal hell fireโ€™, #578, 580, available at: (Accessed 10 July 2012). When I checked this URL on 14 April 2018, it was no longer available online.

[2] I am indebted to Dr. Robert A. Morey for the following information, from his excellent book, Death and the Afterlife (1984. Bethany House Publishers, pp.77-81). I posted this information as OzSpen at #582, Christian Forums op cit.


Copyright ยฉ 2013 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 17 May 2018.