Where Do We Go When We Die – Sheol or Heaven?

May 10, 2023

My mother passed away in the Autumn of 2021 at the age of 97. On several occasions, during the final days of her life, she would point to someone apparently standing at the foot of her bed. “Do you see him?” she asked. “Who?” I would reply. “That man,” she said, with a big smile on her face.

No, I did not see the “man.” But I believe she saw something — or someone.

I choose to believe, based on what the Scriptures tell us, that she saw the angel assigned to soon escort her to the place where she would await her resurrection. (More on this later.)

Notice that I did not say the angel who would take her to Heaven. That’s because, contrary to what most of us learned in church, the Bible does not say Heaven is the next stop after we die. According to the Scriptures, both believers and unbelievers alike go to a place referred to as Sheol1 in Hebrew, or Hades2 in Greek.

Sheol In The Scriptures

It has been said that the problem with Sheol is that both the righteous and the wicked go there. Sheol is the mysterious place (grave) from which righteous souls will be resurrected when the trumpet sounds on the Day of the Lord. It also contains a sort of “waiting room” for unrepentant souls destined for the lake of fire known as Gehenna.3

The Prophets and Patriarchs made mention of Sheol on several occasions, and its whereabouts are noted in Enoch’s writings. In Genesis and Jubilees, a distraught Jacob declared that he would go there after examining Joseph’s blood-stained coat.

Then they took Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a young goat, and dipped the robe in its blood. They sent the robe of many colors to their father and said, “We found this. Examine it to see whether it is your son’s robe or not.” And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted; and he said, “For I will go down into Sheol unto my son mourning.” Thus his father wept for him.

Genesis 37:31-35 Berean Study Bible
jacob examines the coat of joseph

Jacob examines Joseph’s coat

And the sons of Jacob slaughtered a kid, and dipped the coat of Joseph in the blood, and sent (it) to Jacob their father on the tenth of the seventh month. And he mourned all that night, for they had brought it to him in the evening, and he became feverish with mourning for his death, and he said: ‘An evil beast hath devoured Joseph’; And he mourned for Joseph, one year, and did not cease, for he said: Let me go down to She’ol mourning for my son.

Jubilees 34:12-13,17
Korah goes down to Sheol
Korah, his followers, and his household go down to Sheol

The rebellious Korah and all his kin went down alive to the pit (Sheol) for trying to usurp Moses’ authority in defiance of the Almighty.

If these men die a natural death, or if they suffer the fate of all men, then Yahuah has not sent me. But if Yahuah brings about something unprecedented, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them and all that belongs to them so that they go down alive into Sheol, then you will know that these men have treated Yahuah with contempt.

Numbers 16:29,30

The Prophet Enoch wrote this regarding Sheol:

In those days shall the earth deliver up from her womb, and Sheol deliver up from hers, that which it has received; and destruction shall restore that which it owes.

1 Enoch 51:1

Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Tobit spoke of Sheol and this place is mentioned in the Psalms, Habakkuk, Jonah, Amos, Hosea, Job, and the writings of Baruch (Jeremiah’s scribe).4 It may surprise you to learn that Sheol is also mentioned by one of the three Hebrew men thrown into Nebuchadnezzer’s fiery furnace.5

While we do not understand the exact nature of Sheol, we do know that it is the first stop on our journey to the afterlife. Unfortunately, Sheol/Hades has been mistranslated as “death, pit, grave, and hell in various versions of the Bible. These descriptions have led to much confusion as to its features and whereabouts over the centuries.

According to Fred B. Pearson Th.D., Sheol is a place located in the lower parts of the earth where departed souls reside.6

The Old Testament word for the abode of the dead is Sheol. It is derived, as most scholars think, from a word meaning hollow. To the Hebrew mind Sheol was simply the state or abode of the dead. It was not the same as the grave, though it was so translated in some of the older versions. The grave was the resting place of the body from which the spirit had departed, while Sheol was the resting place of departed spirits, or personalities. Usually, Sheol was thought of as being deep down in the earth, as hell is often thought of today. In Old Testament Sheol is represented as the opposite of the upper sphere of life and light. It is “deep Sheol.” Its direction is “down.”

from Sheol and Hades in Old and New Testament

Enoch mentions that Abel is currently there, along with everyone else who has died since his murder at the hands of his brother Cain (Qayin). However, there is an important distinction made regarding this realm.

Pearson:

Always Sheol was regarded as the appointed place for all persons, the great rendezvous of the dead. Here the dead are gathered to their tribes and families. Often we find, especially in the Pentateuch, such expressions as “to be gathered to one’s people,” “to go to one’s fathers,” etc.

from Sheol and Hades in Old and New Testament

We learn from Enoch that the righteous dead are placed in separate compartments from the unrighteous souls in Sheol. (1 Enoch 22) According to Enoch’s vision, the compartment containing the righteous is “bright and there is a fountain of water in its midst.” The water is perhaps symbolic of resurrection; which makes sense in the context of the parable that Yeshua told of the rich man and Lazarus.

The Rich Man and Lazarus in Sheol

One of the best explanations given of our intermediate destination after death is found in Yeshua’s discourse with the Pharisees in Luke’s gospel, in which he expounded on the Law, Prophets, and the Kingdom.

So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. “And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off and Lazarus in his bosom. “Then he cried and said, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.”

Luke 16:22-24
The Rich Man and Lazarus in Sheol
” The Rich Man in Hell and the Poor Lazarus in Abraham’s Lap” – Hans Leonhard Schäufelein (1480-1540)

These verses are very illuminating. In them, we learn that Lazarus was carried by angels to a place called “Abraham’s bosom.” The epithet is used to describe a place of comfort.

Bosom of Abraham” refers to the place of comfort in the biblical Sheol (or Hades in the Greek Septuagint version of the Hebrew scriptures from around 200 BC, and therefore so described in the New Testament)[1] where the righteous dead abided prior to Jesus’ resurrection. 

Bosom of Abraham. (2023, April 27). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bosom_of_Abraham

We are also told that the rich man was suffering in a lower level of Sheol/Hades in that he had to “look up” to see Abraham and the beggar. Many theologians teach that the rich man was in a fiery Hell, suffering in the torment of literal and unquenchable flames. However, this conclusion has several flaws:

  1. The first resurrection has not yet occurred
  2. The unrighteous have not been judged (Revelation 20:11)
  3. Hell is mistranslated in some Bibles as Hades
  4. Torment here is referring to an emotional state, not literal flames (a Catholic notion)

When the Scripture speaks of this man being in torment, it is speaking of the emotional torment of a person awaiting the second death, which is total annihilation in the Lake of Fire known as Gehenna. The word for torment or agony is odunaó. HELPs Word Study offers this insight into what this Greek word means:

3600 odynáō (from 3601 /odýnē, “very painful sorrow”) – properly, to experience intense emotional pain (WP, 2, 223), i.e. deep, personal anguish expressed by great mourning (LS). This root (ody-) literally means “go down” (as the sun in a sunset) and refers to consuming sorrow.

The rich man was not asking for a literal drink of water. He was desirous of something that he could never have — resurrection.

Contrary to what we were taught in church, the unrighteous dead will spend their time in a dark compartment of Sheol awaiting the final judgment at the end of the millennium. They will have had hundreds, if not thousands of years to contemplate their ultimate destiny in Gehenna — the lake of fire that will completely annihilate them. The wicked will not be forever burning in a lake of fire. This is a Catholic notion and insults the merciful and gracious nature of our Heavenly Father and his Son Yeshua, our High Priest

We Must Be Born Again

In his conversation with Nicodemus, Yeshua ties water and Spirit to the salvation experience. Once we are redeemed from Sheol and “quickened”, we will no longer be made of flesh and blood. In order to enter the New Jerusalem (heaven), our bodies will need to be recreated (reconstituted) and our nature will change.

Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?

John 3:3,4 NKJV

When Yeshua told Nicodemus that we must be born again to enter into Yahuah’s Kingdom, the Pharisee was understandably confused. But he, like us, had to expand his way of thinking. He had to think of Sheol as a type of womb that would “birth” (resurrect) new “creatures” (creations) made of water and Spirit. (James 1:18) This event is known as the first resurrection. (1 Thessalonians 4:16)


“Truly, truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.” John 3:5


In John 3:1-21, Yeshua marks the way to eternal life with breadcrumbs for us to follow. These verses contain a wealth of information that contradicts much of what we were taught about the new birth, the way to Heaven, the punishment of Gehenna, and the authority Yeshua’s name carries. This authority is tied to his purpose and has a huge impact on how we understand the sequence of events that lead to our redemption.

Water holds historical, ritual, eschatological, and metaphorical significance in the life of a believer. It is tied to the conduct of individuals and nations. As a rule, covenant breakers, the lawless, and the disobedient are denied water. Those who desire to walk in righteousness are given it abundantly as a sign of moral purity.

Eschatologically speaking, when the righteous are caught up to the New Jerusalem, Yahuah will water our “dry bones.” At this time we will be sprinkled with clean water and purified. This sprinkling represents both the resurrection and the indwelling of the Spirit.

Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. Your filth will be washed away, and you will no longer worship idols.  And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart.

Ezekiel 36:24-26 New Living Translation

Life After Death

The Scriptures speak of our bodies metaphorically as a tent or sukkah — a temporary dwelling place. The essence of who we really are (our mind, will, emotions, and life experiences) is contained in our souls.

Now we know that if the early tent we live in is dismantled, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked.

2 Corinthians 5:1-3 Berean Study Bible

When we die our bodies return to dust, Yahuah withdraws His life-giving breath, and our souls go to the Sheol. The righteous souls who occupy “Abraham’s bosom” will be ransomed from there on the Day of the Lord, when they receive their resurrection bodies. The wicked will remain in their “holding cells” until the Great White Throne judicial proceeding is spoken of in Revelation.

This first resurrection has been called the rapture7 by many in mainstream Christianity. However, it can be more appropriately thought of as the first resurrection or even the second exodus.

I shall ransom them from the power of Sheol; I shall redeem them from Death. O Death, where are your plagues? O Sheol, where is your sting? Compassion is hidden from my eyes.

Hosea 13: 14 ESV

Your dead will live; their bodies will rise. Awake and sing, you who dwell in the dust! For your dew is like the dew of the morning, and the earth will bring forth her dead.

Isaiah 26:19 Berean Study Bible

And many who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to everlasting life, but others to shame and everlasting contempt.

Daniel 12:2 Berean Study Bible

Sheol’s Connection to Biblical Cosmology

Artist illustration of flat earth biblical cosmology

It must be stated that belief in Sheol’s existence beneath the earth is tied to biblical cosmology. Specifically a geocentric versus a heliocentric model of our home in this physical realm. Why? Because if you adopt a heliocentric mindset, then you will likely believe that the earth contains a liquid outer region surrounded by a solid iron core.

This model not only makes the existence of Sheol as described in the Scriptures almost impossible, but it also injects an element of doubt into what the Bible says about:

Whether you agree or disagree, please take time to test everything that is written in this article against Scripture. Ask the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) to guide your thinking.8

When you understand what the Bible has to say about a place called Sheol, you will be well on your way to discovering what happens nanoseconds after you die. Your final destination will either be life in Yahuah’s (YHWH) Kingdom or total annihilation in the lake of fire — the second death. Sheol just is a stop along the way as we all await the resurrection.


FOOTNOTES

1 Sheol (#H7585): underworld (place to which people descend at death). Hades, or the word of the dead (as if a subterranean retreat), including its accessories and inmates; grave, hell, pit.

2 (Strongs #G86hádēs (from 1 /A “not” and idein/eidō, “see”) – properly, the “unseen place,” referring to the (invisible) realm in which all the dead reside, i.e. the present dwelling place of all the departed (deceased); Hades. Source: HELPS Word-studies

3 (Strongs #G1067) geenna – Gehenna is a valley west and South of Jerusalem, also a symbolic name for the final place of punishment of the ungodly. Source: Strong’s Concordance. (Strong’s #G1067) géenna (a transliteration of the Hebrew term, Gêhinnōm, “the valley of Hinnom”) – Gehenna, i.e. hell (also referred to as the “lake of fire” in Revelation). Source: HELPS Word-study

4 Isaiah 5:14;28:15, Ezekiel 31:14(b);15(a)

5 The “Prayer of the Three Hebrew Children” was once included in the King James bible but was later removed. This is the prayer that Hadrach, Meshech, and Abednego (Hanania, Mishael, and Azariah) prayed while in the furnace. The furnace is symbolic of the Lake of Fire — the ultimate fiery furnace spoken of in the Book of Revelation.

6 Pearson, F. B. (1938). Sheol and Hades in Old and New Testament. Review & Expositor35(3), 304–314  https://doi.org/10.1177/003463733803500304

7 The origin of the Rapture doctrine (theory) can be linked to two men: John Nelson Darby, a 19th-century theologian, and C.I. Scofield, author of the Scofield Reference Bible.

8 The Gospel Worth Dying For goes into detail concerning life after death, Sheol, Gehenna, and the days leading up to the return of Yeshua. Download the book here.

Brenda Ross
Brenda Ross

Brenda Ross is a co-author of the book, “The Gospel Worth Dying For.” She is a former major market radio and television broadcaster who has served as Single’s Ministry Director at one of Houston’s Memorial Drive-area churches, a Jews for Jesus staff volunteer, and participated in mission outreach activities in Costa Rica, Mexico, and China. Urban mission experience includes volunteer work for Habitat for Humanity and catering to the homeless in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district.

2 Comments

  1. Anya

    Do you have more scripture references on the eternal torment not being scriptural? My understanding was the same as yours as Yeshua says to fear the Father who can kill both body and soul in Gehenna. But I think it is Revelation 20 where it says Satan is tormented day and night in the lake of fire, and that the unrighteous are also cast in this lake that makes people think it is eternal suffering and not that they stop existing. Would love more references on this as I know this doctrine actually stops many people from having faith in Yah.

    Reply
    • Brenda

      Hi Anya,

      My response to your question is done in all humility. I am not a “teacher.” I am just a woman who loves the Word and is, like you, trying to figure it all out. That said, these are my thoughts:

      Many people insist that if you question the notion of hell, you are rejecting established church orthodoxy. However, they fail to understand that the notion of burning forever in flames was never a widely accepted and held belief during the first 500 years following the death, burial, and resurrection of our High Priest, Yeshua.

      Tertullian was the first to write about an eternal fiery hell, while Augustine has been credited with establishing the notion of hell. Augustin’s apparent lack of expertise in Greek helped cement this concept in the Western church. (https://rb.gy/akfbr) The Catechism of the Catholic Church (https://www.catholic.com/tract/the-hell-there-is) also endorsed the idea of burning forever in everlasting flames.

      Satan is eventually thrown into the Lake of Fire (Gehenna) where the beast and false prophet had already been thrown alive. “These both were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone.” (Revelation 19:20) It is reasonable to presume from the verse that the ultimate outcome will be utter destruction of Satan and his cohorts.

      In the case involving humans who end up in Gehenna/Lake of Fire, we must remember that it is the “smoke of their torment that ascends forever.” It does not say that people burn forever.

      Ultimately death, Sheol, and anyone not found written in the Book of Life will be destroyed in Gehenna. (Revelation 21:8) This is the second death.

      It should also be mentioned that it was the practice of kings in the ancient near east to utterly destroy their enemies. (Malachi 4:1) (Hebrews 12:28-29)

      God (Elohim Most High) is described as being like a consuming fire. (Deuteronomy 4:24) (Hebrews 12:29) (Exodus 24:17) (Deuteronomy 6:15).

      The Hebrew word for consume is akal (H398) which means to eat; figurative of fire, devour, consume. The Greek the word is (G2654) katanalisko: use up, spend, consume (as with fire). Exodus 15:7 reads: “ you overthrew Your adversaries by Your great majesty you unleashed Your burning wrath; it consumed them like stubble.”

      Our Father Yahuah is a righteous judge who judges righteously. We have a choice in the way we are to be ultimately judged. A person who puts their faith in Yeshua and chooses to live by the dictates of Torah will be judged by the “spirit” of the Law. Those who reject Messiah and the commandments will be judged by the “letter” of the Law. (See “Epilogue: Yeshua, the End of the Law” in our book.)

      2 Thessalonians 1 describes the destiny of those who endure suffering in service to the coming Kingdom. Those who do not “will suffer the penalty of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of Yahuah and the glory of His might,” 

      Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Related Posts