Demystify the Meaning of Sheol and Hades in the Bible


In our English bibles Sheol (Hebrew) and Hades (Greek) are seen as only something physical. However that is not how the Jews understood these terms. Christians today use words like hell, Hades, Sheol and Gehenna interchangeably but they are not the same. This post will address the difference between Sheol and Hades as they are important for us to know how the Hebrews see Sheol.

The word translated “grave” in the REV in Revelation 20:13 is the Greek word Hadēs (#86 ᾅδης), which came over into English as the loanword Hades (pronounced ‘hay-dees). Hadēs was the Greek word that was used in both the Old Testament (LXX) and the New Testament to represent what the Hebrew word Sheol meant in the Hebrew language, which was the state of being dead.

Sheol was not the physical grave itself, but the state of being dead (the actual physical grave was referred to in Hebrew as the qeber (#06913 קֶבֶר). Some theologians refer to Sheol as “gravedom” (the reign of the grave; or the reign of death). Sheol (Hadēs in the Greek Bible) is not a place, it is a state of being—the state of being dead. In the Hebrew Old Testament, dead people are said to be in Sheol (cp. Genesis 37:35; 42:38; 1 Kings 2:6; Job 7:9; Psalm 6:5; 16:10; 31:17; Proverbs. 7:27; Ecc. 9:10; etc.).

Like English, Hebrew has a common noun for “death,” which is maveth (#04194 מָוֶת), and a commonly used verb for “die,” which is muth (#04191 מָוֹת).

As we have seen the Hebrew language has the word “Sheol” which refers to “the state of being dead” in the above scriptures. However, English has no such word, so what we have to say is a person “is dead,” or they are “lifeless.”

In contrast, Hebrew has the advantage of being able to say that the person is “in Sheol” (cp. Psalm 6:5; 31:17; 49:14; Ecc. 9:10). This has the potential to stop a lot of confusion, because when a person dies they are “in Sheol,” then they are not also “in heaven” or “in Hell.” They are dead, in the state of being dead, and thus they are “in Sheol.”

In Greek mythology, Hadēs was both the name of the god of the underworld and the name of the underworld itself. When the Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek around 250 BC, the Septuagint translators translated the Hebrew word Sheol by the Greek word Hadēs. It was actually a bad choice to translate Sheol as Hadēs, because in Sheol people are dead, whereas the Greeks believed that in Hadēs the souls of dead people were alive. Greek mythology had many stories of people being alive in Hadēs. So when the Greek-speaking Jews in Egypt translated Sheol as Hadēs, by the stroke of a pen they turned dead people into living people, and this introduced great confusion about the state of the dead into Judaism and then into Christianity, and that confusion still exists today.

Actually, that confusion continued and perhaps was exacerbated when the New Testament books of Matthew, Luke, Acts, Corinthians, and Revelation used the word Hadēs. Although the New Testament use of Hadēs was the same as its use in the Septuagint, it is understandable that most Greeks would have seen Hadēs in light of their traditional mythology, and believed that the god Hadēs (the Devil) lived in Hadēs and reigned over the people there. So today millions of Christians believe that the souls of dead people are alive and suffering in “Hell” (Hadēs) because of what came from Greek mythology into Christianity.

Why would the Greek-speaking Jews translate Sheol as Hadēs?

It is possible that some of the Jews had become so Hellenized that they thought that the dead were alive in Hadēs and felt that Hadēs was a good translation of Sheol. It is also possible that they used Hadēs because they did not have a Greek word that had the same meaning as Sheol. The Greeks believed that the human soul was immortal, and so they did not have a vocabulary word that was the equivalent of Sheol which meant “the state of being dead.”

Whatever the case, the Septuagint translators chose to use the Greek word Hadēs as a translation of Sheol. To maintain the proper theology of the Bible, it would have been better if they had simply transliterated Sheol into Greek and brought it into the Greek language as a loanword. Actually, that is what David Stern does in his Complete Jewish Bible. When Hadēs occurs in the Greek New Testament, Stern translates it Sheol.

The word Hadēs occurs in the Greek New Testament ten different times (11 in the Byzantine text), and it always refers to the state of being dead or the state of non-existence except one time in Luke 16:23. In that passage, Jesus uses Hadēs in the same way that his Pharisee audience was using it—to refer to a place of the living dead. The Pharisees were one of the Jewish groups that took on the Greek belief that some of the humans who had died were alive in Hadēs, which explains why Jesus framed his parable of the rich man and Lazarus the way he did (Luke 16:23). When Jesus told that parable, he was not trying to debate with the Pharisees whether dead people were dead or alive, he was trying to make the point that they were being so hard-hearted that they would not believe the truth if someone came back from the dead and told it to them (Luke 16:31).

E. W. Bullinger writes so lucidly about Sheol and Hadēs that it is worth quoting him extensively.

“Hadēs. This is a heathen word and comes down to us surrounded with heathen traditions, which had their origin in Babel, and not in the Bible…. As Hadēs (a word of human origin) is used in the New Testament, is the equivalent for the Hebrew Sheol (a word of divine origin), its meaning can be gathered not from human imagination, but from its Divine usage in the Old Testament. If we know this, we know all that can be known. [At this point, Bullinger lists all 65 uses of Sheol in the Old Testament].

On a careful examination of the above list, a few facts stand out very clearly. …”The grave”…stands out…as the best and commonest rendering. As to the rendering “hell,” it does not represent Sheol, because both by dictionary definition and colloquial usage, “hell” means the place of future punishment. Sheol has no such meaning, but denotes the present state of death. “The grave” is therefore a far more suitable translation.

The student will find that “THE grave,” taken literally as well as figuratively, will meet all the requirements of the Hebrew Sheol; not that Sheol means so much specifically “A” grave as “THE” grave.

If we enquire of it in the above list of the occurrences of the word Sheol, it will teach:

  1. That as to direction, it is down.
  2. That as to place, it is in the earth.
  3. That as to nature it is put for the state of death. Not the act of dying…but the state or duration of death. Sheol therefore means the state of death; or the state of the dead; which the grave is tangible evidence. It may be sometimes personified and represented as speaking, as other inanimate things are. It may be represented by a coined word, Gravedom, as meaning the dominion or power of the grave.
  4. As to relation, it stands in contrast with the state of the living. It is never once connected with the living except by contrast.
  5. As to association, it is used in connection with mourning; sorrow; fright and terror; weeping; silence; no knowledge; punishment.
  6. And finally, as to duration, the dominion of Sheol or the grave will continue until, and only end with, resurrection, which is the only exit from it.

[In the New Testament] Hadēs is invariably connected with death; but never with life; always with dead people; but never with the living. All in Hadēs will “not live again” until they are raised from the dead (Revelation 20:5). That the English word “hell” by no means represents the Greek Hadēs; as we have seen that it does not give a correct idea of its Hebrew equivalent, Sheol. That Hadēs can mean only and exactly what Sheol means, vis., the place where “corruption” is seen and from which resurrection is the only exit.” [1]

Bullinger was correct that when a person dies they go to Sheol, the state of being dead, and they stay dead until God raises them up in one of the resurrections.

The Bible compares death and Sheol with a prison that has gates and from which there is no escape except by resurrection, so it uses the phrases, “the gates of Sheol” (Job 17:16; Isaiah 38:10) and “the gates of death” (Job 38:17; Psalm 9:13; 107:18).

Jesus Christ referred to the gates of death in Matthew 16:18, and many English versions translate the Greek words as “the gates of Hell,” but “the gates of the grave” would be more correct. Once a person has died and gone through the “gates of Sheol,” only God and his Son Jesus can open them and bring the person back to life, but Jesus will open those gates and resurrect people to life. Jesus said that “the gates of the grave” would not prevail against his congregation, and indeed those gates will not prevail because he will raise dead believers to everlasting life.


The condition of the dead in sheol/hades is consistently described in Scripture as a state of sleep. Sheol is not a place of torment, for it contains both the wicked and the faithful. The Hebrew shachav (“sleep”) recurs again and again in the familiar expression that one who died “slept with his fathers” (1 Kings 2:10, etc.), i.e., that he joined his predecessors who were already sleeping. From this most telling phrase, so unlike our popular language about death as “passing on” or “going home,” we learn that the dead rest in unconsciousness. There is no hint that the real person was not asleep but fully alive elsewhere as a spirit!

Sheol (Hadēs in the Greek Bible) is not a place, it is a state of being—the state of being dead.


[1] Bullinger, Critical Lexicon and Concordance to the English and Greek New Testament, 367-369.

This post link below is similar to the this article but with a slightly different style and information, which might better suit some trying to come to grips with the impact of Sheol being misunderstood. The Hebrew word Sheol shows us Dead People are Dead

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s