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Hell in the Old Testament

In the previous article on hell we examined the serious error which translators made in defining hell as a place of eternal torment in a literal ever burning fire for the vast majority of mankind. We saw that hell was an English translation of the Greek word hades in most versions of the bible. Furthermore we saw Hades is more accurately defined as UNPERCEIVED or the UNSEEN or IMPERCEPTIBLE. It is NOT an ever-burning torture chamber for evil doers. For proof see Strong’s Concordance Number G86 and the previous article on "Hell in the New Testament".

In the Old Testament the Hebrew word sheol has the same meaning as the Greek word hades.

We will examine this word sheol in this article.


We must ask why is the word sheol sometimes translated hell , and sometimes grave and a few times pit? It is interesting that the King James Version (AV) translates sheol as hell 31 times and it translates the same Hebrew word as grave 31 times and the word pit 3 times. How can this be? Oh, some will say its all about the context but that’s not true. Are hell and grave really the same word? No. Do they both have the same meaning? No. Then why are they translated into two words from the one Hebrew word sheol?

There is something fishy here.

It is interesting to note that a number of bible translators recognized this inconsistency and so we find that more recent translations translate the word sheol as grave . As a matter of fact, the New King James translates the word as hell only 19 times (not like the AV which does it 31 times). Even more interesting no other translation has the word hell in its translations including the ever popular NIV. Very interesting, don’t you think? This indicates that the pagan concept of hell is not in the Old Testament.

So how can the word sheol have a definition of two English words that have totally opposite and different meanings? Well, in honest scholarship and honest translating, they can’t and they don’t!

If the reader will substitute the word grave in the place of hell in all these passages, he or she will be further ahead in understanding the teaching on this subject.

The Hebrew word sheol and the Greek word hades are synonymous in meaning. So why was sheol sometimes translated hell and other times grave?

It is because the translators were influenced by ancient philosophy about the after life.


We must look for the origin of this doctrine of hell elsewhere than in the mind of God. No trace of it is found in the Old Testament, which is all the written record we have of the divine mind and purpose for the space of four thousand years. The Patriarchs knew nothing of it. Moses knew of this teaching having learned it in Egypt. He repudiates it by his silence. The Law as described in the Torah contains no vestige of it among all its penalties and threatenings, blessings and cursings. It was reserved for the Gospel to bring forth the wonderful teaching of God concerning immortality and His glorious plan for mankind.

A thorough investigation will show that the doctrine of Endless Punishment in hell is nowhere to be found in the sacred Scriptures of the Jews. Among the ancient pagans, the belief in a hell of some sort was very common, if not universal. The doctrine of Endless Punishment in hell has come primarily from the ancient Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians. We find the doctrine in full bloom with the Egyptians, but not a trace of it among the early Hebrews. But, surely enough, when, in later years, the Jews had become corrupted, and had departed from the Law of Moses, we find the doctrine among them. That the whole matter of judgment after death, the rewards of a good life, and the punishments of a bad life, originated and was perfected among the Egyptians, according to the peculiar character of their mythology.

From them it was borrowed by the Greeks, who made such changes and additions as fitted the system to the character and circumstances of that people. The rulers and magistrates, or priests, invented these terrors to keep the people, in subjection; the masses religiously believe in them; while the inventors, of course, and the educated classes, the priests and the philosophers, though they teach them to the multitude, have themselves no manner of faith in them.

The apocryphal books of the intertestimental period had a tremendous impact on the Jews in the time of Christ. It is from these books, especially the book of Enoch, that many of the Jewish myths and fables concerning hell, heaven, demons and angels and many other fables first became a part of Judaism and from there became a part of Christianity. The myths and fables of these books came from Pagan influences (namely Zoroastrianism), during and after the Babylonian captivity of Israel.

So we see that the doctrine of future endless punishments is totally alien to the teachings of Holy Scripture, both in the Old Testament and the New. There is plenty of historical evidence to settle the matter beyond dispute. The heathens themselves confess to the invention of the dogma, and of all the fabulous stories of the infernal regions; the legislators and sages very frankly state that the whole thing was devised for its supposed utility in governing the gross and ignorant multitude of men and women, who cannot be restrained by the precepts of philosophy. One cannot help noting the resemblance between these knowledgeable men and some of our own day, who seem so anxious to maintain the hell doctrine in the belief that it is necessary to restrain men from sin. But, unfortunately for this theory, the revelations of history, both Pagan and Christian, prove it to be untrue.

Clearly in the Old Testament sheol was not a place of eternal punishment in hell fire. Sheol was a condition meaning unseen or imperceptible. Even faithful Jacob was there (Gen. 37.35, 42.38, 44.29, 31). Righteous Job also longed for it in Job 14.13. David spoke of going to sheol in Ps. 49.15 and Jesus went there, Ps. 16.10 and Acts 2.24-31. In all these cases, these men were unseen because they were dead.

And here is the proof from the Scriptures and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that the Hebrew sheol and the Greek hades are identical in meaning:

Acts 2:27: (KJV) Because You will not leave My soul in hell [Gk: hades], neither will You suffer your Holy One to see corruption (is quoted from Psalm 16:10).

Acts 2:27 (CLV) For Thou wilt not be forsaking my soul in the unseen [Gk: hades], Nor wilt Thou be giving Thy Benign One to be acquainted with decay.

Psalm 16:10: (KJV) For You will not leave My soul in hell [Heb: sheol]; neither will You suffer your Holy One to see corruption.

Psalm 16:10 (CLV) For You shall not forsake my soul in the unseen [Heb: sheol]; You shall not allow Your benign one to see corruption.

And so the inspiration of the Spirit of God proves that the Greek word hades is the right and proper translation of the Hebrew word sheol.

Whatever hades means, sheol means the same, and whatever sheol means, hades also means the same.

Absolutely nowhere is sheol used to represent a place of life, consciousness, fire, or torture—nowhere, absolutely nowhere.

There are numerous problems with translating sheol as both grave and hell, and the Wycliffe Bible Dictionary says on page 1573:

The Bible likens death to a Return. The soul RETURNS to sheol/hades—the UNSEEN. The spirit RETURNS to God who gave it. And the body RETURNS to the dust of the ground from whence it came.

Everyone’s soul goes to sheol at death—both the sinners and the saints.

No matter how fanciful one’s ideas may be regarding the use of the word hades in the New Testament, it does not take on the meaning of consciousness, judging, torture, chastisement, annihilation, or eternity. It is the UNSEEN, IMPERCEPTIBLE, UNCONSCIOUS STATE OF THE DEAD called sheol throughout the Old Testament Scriptures.

The American Standard Version has a correct rendering of this word. It leaves sheol [the imperceptible state of the dead], as it is found in the Hebrew manuscripts, and they leave hades [the imperceptible state of the dead], as it is found in the Greek manuscripts. Whereas The Concordant Literal New Testament, translates the O.T. Hebrew word sheol [the imperceptible state of the dead], as the unseen, and they translate the N.T. Greek word hades [the imperceptible state of the dead], also as the unseen .

No, there is no consciousness in hell, and there is no consciousness in hades which is translated into the English word hell.

Ecclesiastes 9:10 (ASV – American Standard Version) Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in Sheol, whither thou goest.

When an Old Testament Scripture is quoted in the New Testament, sheol is translated into hades. So is there consciousness in the place sheol in the O.T.? Absolutely not. There is NO WORK, nor DEVICE, nor KNOWLEDGE, nor WISDOM, in the grave where you go (Ecc. 9:10). According to God’s Word, when a person dies and returns to his earth, he or she has no consciousness or thoughts. God’s answer: His spirit goes forth, he returns to his earth, in that very day his thoughts PERISH (Psalm 146: 3-4).

This is one of the most comforting and reassuring truths of scripture. The dead are really dead. Dead is the absence of life. No immortal soul. They are asleep, in the unseen, awaiting a resurrection.

In upcoming articles in this series on hell we will cover the meaning of the words Gehenna, Tartarus and Lake of Fire.

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