Sheol  & GEHENNA



An Underground Abyss







The first concept of hell was based on the idea of Sheol after death in the Old Testament and Judaism.  It is the first legitimate concept since we get back to Eden only through death. The problem essentially was the OT people had no idea what happens after death in sheol and what is the method and the way back to Eden.

The O.T. Hebrew word for the place where the dead go is Sheol  שְׁאוֹל  
The N.T. Greek word corresponding to it is Hades ᾅδης
It appears 31 times in the Old Testament and is translated as "hell".





Here we go looking into the Old Testament to find out what they thought about hell.

Old Testament.

Death was the law of the cosmos outside of the Eden, since there was no possibility of getting the fruit of the tree of life.  The Hebrew word , "Sheol, " refers to the grave or the abode of the dead ( Psalms 88:3; Psalms 88:5 ).
Through much of the Old Testament period, it was believed that all went to one place,
whether human or animal ( Psalms 49:12 Psalms 49:14 Psalms 49:20 ),
whether righteous or wicked ( Eccl 9:2-3 ).
No one could avoid Sheol ( Psalm 49:9 ; 89:48 ),
which was thought to be down in the lowest parts of the earth
( Deut 32:22 ; 1 Sam 28:11-15 ; Job 26:5 ; Psalm 86:13 ; Isa 7:11 ; Ezekiel 31:14-16 Ezekiel 31:18 ).

Other Biblical names for Sheol were:
Abaddon (ruin), found in Psalm 88:11, Job 28:22 and Proverbs 15:11;
Bor (the pit), found in Isaiah 14:15, 24:22, Ezekiel 26:20; and
Shakhat (corruption), found in Isaiah 38:17, Ezekiel 28:8.
These words describes what after death really meant to the Jews.  Evidently there is no concept of redemption involved here.

Where is this Sheol?

The Hebrew Universe and placement of Sheol

Where else can man go after death than to the earth?  Where on earth?  To see that we need to understand their concept of cosmos God created for his children of Adam family.
"The ancient Hebrews imagined the world as flat and round, covered by the great dome of the firmament which was held up by mountain pillars (Job 26.11; 37.18). 

Above the firmament and under the earth was water, divided by God at creation (Gen 1.6, 7; cf Ps. 24.2; 148.4). 

The upper waters were joined with the waters of the primordial deep during the Flood; the rains were believed to fall through windows in the firmament (Gen 7.11; 8.2).

The sun, moon, and stars moved across or were fixed in the firmament (Gen 1.14-19; Ps 19.4, 6).

“The Hebrew term raqia’ for the firmament suggests a sheet of something firm and solid (cf.Job 37.18) Luminaries (the light giving sun, moon and the starswere set in the firmament on the fourth day of creation (Gen 1.14-19). Rains were believed to fall through sluices or windows in its surface (cf. Gen 7.11).” ( pg 338-339)

Achtemeier, Paul J (Ed). The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary. (New York: HarperCollins, 1996)


Within the earth lay Sheol, the realm of the dead (Num 16.30-33; Isa 14.9, 15).”   Sheol is under the ground in the heart of the earth,( "Underworld" )

This is more or less the Greek idea of heaven and hell.


Description of Sheol in the Bible.

What happens when we reach sheol after death? Evidently the life giving spirit and the carrier of life the body are separated.

Man was created from the dust which formed the body and given life by the breath of God (the Spirit of God)  and Man became a living soul.



"Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was; and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it" (Eccl. 12:7).

Body goes to earth as dust

"In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return" (Genesis 3:19).
"All go unto one place; All are of the dust, and all turn to dust again" (Eccl. 3:20).

The Spirit goes back to God

"Thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust" (Psalm 104:29).

The Soul goes to Sheol

In Genesis 37:35 Jacob says, "I will go down into Sheol unto my son (Joseph) mourning." 
This is the first place where Sheol is found in the Old Testament.

Sheol was essentially the "Abode of the Soul"

Into Sheol, when life is ended, the dead are gathered in their tribes and families.

Hence, the expression frequently occurring in the Pentateuch,
"to be gathered to one's people,"
"to go to one's fathers," etc.
(Genesis 15:15; 25:8,17; 49:33; Numbers 20:24,28; 31:2; Deuteronomy 32:50; 34:5).

The soul was imagined  like the data written by the Spirit onto the body.  Thus the separation of spirit from the body left the soul unreadable unless it is again regained by the spirit and body together.  Left alone there was no continuation of life.  Thus sheol was thought of as an abode of dead.


Biblical References to the Afterlife


Some scholars claim that belief in the afterlife is a teaching that developed late in Jewish history. It is true that the Torah emphasizes immediate, concrete, physical rewards and punishments rather than abstract future ones. God rewarded a righteous man with a long life and many offspring. (Psalms 127:3-5.) See, for example, Lev. 26:3-9 and Deut. 11:13-15. However, there is clear evidence in the Torah of belief in existence after death.

Gathered together with their people


The Torah indicates in several places that the righteous will be reunited with their loved ones after death, while the wicked will be excluded from this reunion.


The Torah speaks of several noteworthy people being "gathered to their people." See, for example, Gen. 25:8 (Abraham), 25:17 (Ishmael), 35:29 (Isaac), 49:33 (Jacob), Deut. 32:50 (Moses and Aaron) II Kings 22:20 (King Josiah). This gathering is described as a separate event from the physical death of the body or the burial.

Genesis 15:15 As for you [Abraham], you shall go to your fathers in peace; you will be buried at a good old age.
Genesis 25:8 Abraham breathed his last and died in a ripe old age, an old man and satisfied with life; and he was gathered to his people.
Gen 25:17 Ishmael breathed his last and died; and was gathered to his people.
Genesis 35:29 Isaac breathed his last and died and was gathered to his people, an old man of ripe age; and his sons Esau and Jacob buried him.
Genesis 49:29 I [Jacob] am about to be gathered to my people; bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite… 33 Jacob finished charging his sons, he drew his feet into bed and breathed his last, and was gathered to his people.
Numbers 20:24 Aaron will be gathered to his people; for he shall not enter the land which I have given to the sons of Israel, because you rebelled against My command at the waters of Meribah.
Numbers 31:2 God said to Moses: afterward you will be gathered to your people.
Judges 2:10 All that generation [Joshua's] also were gathered to their fathers; and there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord, nor yet the work which He had done for Israel.
Deut 32:50 God to Moses: Then die on the mountain {Mount Nebo] where you ascend, and be gathered to your people, as Aaron your brother died on Mount Hor and was gathered to his people
Deut 34:5-63:27 So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the lend of Moeb,according to the word of the Lord. And He burled him In the valley In the lend of Moeb, opposite Beth-peor: but no man knows his burial place to this day.
2 Sam 12:23 But now he has died: why should I fest? Can I bring him beck again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me
2 Chron 34:28 I will gather you {Josiah} to your fathers and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace


Some explain that the expression "gathered to your people" refers to a common burial ground for one's relatives. Like when a person dies today and is buried in the same grave site as his parents and grandparents. But for a nomadic people this is hardly justifiable as in the case of the Israelites.  Noe one knows where Moses was buried.  Then it may be a "cut off from his people".


Certain sins are punished by the sinner being "cut off from his people." See, for example, Gen. 17:14 and Ex. 31:14. This punishment is referred to as kareit (kah-REHYT) (literally, "cutting off," but usually translated as "spiritual excision"), and it means that the soul loses its portion in the World to Come.


A man who had led the most righteous lives were taken to be with God directly from earth and not after death. They ascended to heaven without tasting death - bypassing  sheol. Enoch and Elijah were examples of this. 


(There are some who explains that though Judaism considers Enoch was taken alive to heaven, the Bible only says that "he was not" which is according to them only means he died young and without pain.  In the case of Elijah, though he was taken up in a Chariot, he wrote a letter to the King after 20 years indicating he was somewhere else on the earth.  Jesus claimed the only person who was in heaven with the father was Jesus alone.
John 3:13 13No one has ascended into heaven except the One who descended from heaven — the Son of Man. Accordingly it is assumed that all mankind till the second coming will have to die to get to heaven)

The death according early Judaism was a separation of the soul from the body and the spirit. Soul of man is a separate entity and belongs to the person alone.  Since soul is not really spirit, they existed something like a spirit which the Jews called "rephaim": a "ghost, "shade," or "disembodied spirit" At death man becomes a rephaim, i.e., a "ghost " "shade," or "disembodied spirit" according to Job 26:5; Ps. 88:10; Prov. 2:18; 9:18; 21:16; Isa. 14:9; 26:14,19. .    

Later portions of the Tanakh speak more clearly of life after death and the World to Come. See Dan. 12:2, Neh. 9:5.

“As the sleeper does not cease to exist while his body sleeps, so the dead person continues to exist despite his absence from the region in which those who remain can communicate with him, and that, as sleep is known to be temporary, so the death of the body will be found to be”
(Vine & Hogg 1997, 95)

In First Temple Judaism, Sheol in the Hebrew Old Testament, or Hades in the Septuagint, is primarily a place of "silence" to which all humans go. However, during, or before, the exile in Babylon ideas of activity of the dead in Sheol began to enter Judaism. Here are a collection of the scripture which gives us an understanding of what Sheol is all about:

You will notice that there are divergent descriptions.
1.  Some verses gives the impression that the soul is deep sleep with no sign of life and life activities. 

l  Ecclesiastes 9:5For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten. 6Indeed their love, their hate and their zeal have already perished, and they will no longer have a share in all that is done under the sun.

l  Ecclesiastes 9:10,….. for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going.…

l  Sheol is devoid of love, hate, envy, work, thought, knowledge, and wisdom implying that there is no life there,

l  There is no light in it ( Job 10:21-22 ; 17:13 ; Psalms 88:6 Psalms 88:12 ; 143:3 ),

l  Job 10::21Before I go—and I shall not return— To the land of darkness and deep shadow, 22The land of utter gloom as darkness itself, Of deep shadow without order, And which shines as the darkness.”

l  Psalm 88:6 You have put me in the lowest pit, In dark places, in the depths.

l  There is no remembrance ( Psalm 6:5 ; 88:12 ; Eccl 9:5 ),  Ecclesiastes 9:5 For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten

l  There is no praise of God heard in it ( Psalm 6:5 ; 30:9 ; 88:10-12 ; 115:17 ; Isa 38:18 )
In fact, there is no sound at all ( Psalm 94:17 ; 115:17 ).

l  Its inhabitants are weak, trembling shades ( Job 26:5 ; Psalm 88:10-12 ; Isa 14:9-10 ),
who can never hope to escape from its gates ( Job 10:21 ; 17:13-16 ; Isa 38:10 ).
Sheol is like a ravenous beast that swallows the living without being sated ( Prov 1:12 ; 27:20 ; Isa 5:14 ).

l  Some thought the dead were cut off from God ( Psalm 88:3-5 ; Isa 38:11 );
while others believed that God's presence reached even to Sheol ( Psalm 139:8 ).

    Psalm 139:8 If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
    If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.

l  There is nor fire or torment in Daniel's revelation and it is only through the olam.
(Daniel was carried off to Babylon in 605 B.C. by Nebuchadnezzar, the Assyrian)l

l  It is a "land of forgetfulness," where God's "wonders" are unknown (Psalms 88:10-12).

l  There is no remembrance or praise of God (Psalms 6:5; 88:12; 115:17, etc.).

l  In its darkness, stillness, powerlessness, lack of knowledge and inactivity, it is a true abode of death,  hence, is regarded by the living with shrinking, horror and dismay (Psalms 39:13; Isaiah 38:17-19), though to the weary and troubled it may present the aspect of a welcome rest or sleep (Job 3:17-22; 14:12).

 Sheol itself is described a ravenous insatiable animal that swallows the humans both good and bad



It is
(a) the abode of the wicked (Numbers 16:33; Job 24:19; Psalms 9:17; 31:17, etc.);
(b) the abode of the good (Psalms 16:10; 30:3; 49:15; 86:13, etc.).


"Therefore hell hath enlarged herself, and opened her mouth without measure" Isa 5
It is like a monster animal that swallows its victims and is never satisfied.

 This word sheol is derived from a root-word meaning "to ask," "demand;" hence insatiableness (Proverbs 30:15, 16).


Sheol is a Jail where the humans are put in waiting for judgement.


It is also like a jail
Sheol is described as:
deep (Job 11:8), dark (10:21, 22), with bars (17:16).
The dead "go down" to it (Numbers 16:30, 33; Ezekiel 31:15, 16, 17).


2.  But then according to others there is an ongoing active life going on in Sheol.  It is another form of life in existence. We may say that the soul puts on a new dimension and a body connected with the dimension. 

This gives the concept of the ghost.
This then considers an independent existence for soul.  The idea is that the soul takes up another type of non-physical body ( Etherial body?) and exists underground in full consciousness and life.

l  Hell is not a State of Unconsciousness !!
There can be communication between the world above and the world below (Deuteronomy 18:11).
Even Samuel could be summoned from the dead (1 Samuel 28:11-15);
Sheol from beneath was stirred at the descent of the king of Babylon (Isaiah 14:9). 

l  Hell is not Removed from God's Jurisdiction.
"Sheol is naked before God," says Job, "and Abaddon hath no covering" (Job 26:6).
"Where can I go fiom Your Spirit.’ Or Where can I flee from Your presence.’ If I ascend to heaven, You are there. If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there."(Psalm 139:7-8)

   "The wrath of Yahweh burns unto the lowest Sheol: (Deuteronomy 32:22).
   Sheol and Abaddon lie open before the LORD, How much more the hearts of men.’
   (Proverbs 19:11)

So it would appear that the dead lived there as though it is another life after their lives on earth.

I called out of my distress to the LORD, And He answered me. I cried for help from the depth of Sheol; You heard my voice. " (Jonah 2:2)

l  THE LORD CAN REDEEM THE DEAD FROM THE SHEOL AND MAKE THEM ALIVE AGAIN IN HEAVEN: "Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol? Shall I redeem them from death? O Death, where are your thorns? O Sheol, where is your sting? Compassion will be hidden from My sight." (Hosea 13:14)
O Lord my God, I cried to You for help, and You healed me. O Lord, You have brought up my soul from Sheol. (Psalm 30:2-3)

You shall strike him with the rod and rescue his soul from Sheol. (Proverbs 23:14)

l  THE HAND OF THE LORD CAN AND WILL REACH DOWN INTO THE SHEOL: Though they dig into Sheol, from there Will My hand take them; And though they ascend to heaven, From there Will I bring them down. (Amos 9:2.)

 I called out of my distress to the LORD, and He answered me. I cried for help from the depth of Sheol,' You heard my voice. (Jonah 1:2.)
O Lord my God, I cried to you and you heard me. O Lord, You have brought up my soul fiom Sheol (Psalm 30:2.- 3)

Shall I ransom them rom the power of Sheol,  Shall I redeem them rom death.’ O Death, Where are your thorns.’ O Sheol, Where is your sting.’ Compassion Will be hidden fiom My sight. (Hosea 13:14.)

Thus Sheol is an ongoing life.  Do they put on some form of body that are not physical in that life time? But it appears similar to life on earth, before death.

Sheol is a temporary abode only Since both righteous and the unrighteous go to sheol this cannot be the immortal end of anyone  but deliverance from it and restoration to new life either in God's presence or away from God's presence awaits.
Job 14:13-15; 19:25-27 Psalms 16:10,11; 17:15; 49:15; 73:24-26;  .

Psalm 89:48;  Genesis 37:35;  Genesis 44:29 ; 1 Kings 2:9 ; Psalm 18:5 ; Psalm 107:20 ; Proverbs 1:12 ; Proverbs 30:16;  Ezekiel 31:15-17 ; Jonah 2:2 ; Psalm 88:11-12;  Job 3:13-19;  Job 7:9 ; Job 17:13-16;  Psalm 6:5 ; Isaiah 14:9-11;  Isaiah 38:18;  Numbers 16:33;  
1 Samuel 2:6 ; Job 24:19 ; Psalm 9:17;  Psalm 31:17;  Psalm 49:14 ; Psalm 55:15;  Isaiah 14:15;  Job 14:13 ;  Psalm 16:10;  Psalm 30:3 ; Psalm 49:15; Psalm 86:13.



19th century Burmese Painting of Sheol
showing it as a place of torment.
Since the dead in sheol are spirits,
how the fire can harm them is a mystery.





Another name we find in the bible is the name Gehenna or Gehinnom.

Gehenna ( Ancient Greek: γέεννα) from the Hebrew Gehinnom (Rabbinical: גהנום/גהנם) is a small valley in Jerusalem. In the Hebrew Bible, Gehenna was initially where some of the kings of Judah sacrificed their children by fire. Thereafter it was deemed to be cursed (Jer. 7:31, 19:2-6).

In Rabbinic literature and Christian and Islamic scripture, Gehenna is a destination of the wicked. This is different from the more neutral Sheol/Hades, the abode of the dead, although the King James Version of the Bible usually translates both with the Anglo-Saxon word Hell.

In the King James Version of the Bible, the term appears 13 times in 11 different verses as Valley of Hinnom, Valley of the son of Hinnom or Valley of the children of Hinnom.


The tombs of Gehenna            Worship of Moloch (2 Kg 23:10; 2 Ch 28:3; 2 Ch 33:6; Jer 7:31, etc.)

Mark Smith state that in the seventh century child sacrifice was a Judean practice also,
performed in the name of Yahweh

The earliest mention of the valley of Hinnom is in (Joshua 15:8; 18:16) where it is given as the boundary line between the tribes of Judah and Benjamin  as passing along the bed of the ravine.

On the southern brow, overlooking the valley at its eastern extremity Solomon erected high places for Molech, (1 Kings 11:7) whose horrid rites were revived from time to time in the same vicinity the later idolatrous kings. Ahaz and Manasseh made their children "pass through the fire" in this valley, (2 Kings 16:3; 2 Chronicles 28:3; 33:6) and the fiendish custom of infant sacrifice to the fire-gods seems to have been kept up in Tophet, which was another name for this place. To put an end to these abominations the place was polluted by Josiah by spreading human bones and sewage and rubbish. He ordered it to be rubbish dumping place and kept the fire to burn continually, (2 Kings 23:10,13,14; 2 Chronicles 34:4,5). Thus Ge Hinnom, Gehenna (land of Hinnom)--came to denote as the place of eternal fire. In this sense the word is used by Jesus. (Matthew 5:29; 10:28; 23:15; Mark 9:43; Luke 12:5) .  The rabbinic word for hell, "Gehenna", is thus taken from the name of a valley of ongoing fire where children were said to be sacrificed as burnt offerings to Baal and Moloch (Semitic deities) and the place where the rubbish keep the fire burn and which never goes out.


This will explain the symbolism of the place of Gehenna.  According to the Jewish thought, the average person after death descended to Gehenna the place of punishment.  The fire is usually thought of as a punishment - an intense pain and suffering.  The fire was explained also as a means of purification being burning away all rubbish. Since it is a purification place also, it can be considered as purgatory where they are purged of their sins and then allowed to enter the paradise or heaven which is Eden.


As a purgatory, the soul’s are sentenced to Gehinnom for a period limited to a 11-months to get all the sewage of their spirit burn out before they takes their place in Olam Ha-Ba (Mishnah Eduyot 2:9, Shabbat 33a  A 12-month limit is also reflected in the yearlong mourning cycle and the recitation of the Kaddish (the memorial prayer for the dead) starting from the day of death.  Hence the post-death rituals - Prayer for the Dead - were very important for the release of the dead from Gehenna to higher realms after purification..


Most humans are purified by this 11 month period and gets back to Eden.
Only the utterly wicked do not ascend to the Garden of Eden at the end of this year.

Sources differ on what happens to these souls at the end of their l time of purgation.
Some say that the wicked are utterly destroyed and cease to exist; while others believe in further periods of purification.  (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Law of Repentance, 3:5-6).

In other words there is another life period is given to man  within the purgatorial Gehenna. Which is repeated until they are fully refined when they return to Eden.


The scheme of the After death processing in Jewish thought can be depicted as follows following theology of the various Rabbis.:


Kochba (A.D. 132-35] says, concerning the New Year (Rosh Hashanah):

Rabbi Samrnai teaches this:
that there will be three groups of souls at the judgment:
one of the truly holy,
another of the truly wicked, and
a third in between.
It is immediately written and sealed that the truly holy shall live until the end of time,
and it is likewise written and sealed that the truly wicked shall remain in Gehenna, as it is written (Dan. 12:2).
As for the third group, they shall go down to Gehenna for a time and then come up again to earth to live, as it is written (Zech. 13:9 and 1 Sam. 2:6).



But the Hillelites say: He who is abundant in mercy inclines toward mercy, and it is of them that David speaks {Ps. 116:1)
The sinners of Israel, guilty in their body, and the sinners of the nations of the world, guilty in their body, go down to Gehenna to be punished there for twelve months, then their souls are reduced to nothing and their bodies are burned and Gehenna vomits them up; they become ash and the wind disperses them to be trodden underfoot by the holy (Mal. 4, 3, 3, 21).Originally, Sheol was believed to be a place where all the dead went. In later periods Judaism developed the belief that in Sheol the righteous and the wicked were separated.


During the Second Temple period (roughly 500 BCE–70 CE) the concept of a Bosom of Abraham first occurs in Jewish papyri that refer to the "Bosom of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob". This reflects the belief of Jewish martyrs who died expecting that: "after our death in this fashion Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will receive us and all our forefathers will praise us" (4 Maccabees 13:17).






Other early Jewish works adapt the Greek mythical picture of Hades to identify the righteous dead as being separated from unrighteous in the fires by a river or chasm. In the pseudepigraphical




Charon the ferryman takes his payment to cross a soul




Apocalypse of Zephaniah the river has a ferryman equivalent to Charon in Greek myth, but replaced by an angel.


On the other side in the Bosom of Abraham : "You have escaped from the Abyss and Hades, now you will cross over the crossing place... to all the righteous ones, namely Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Enoch, Elijah and David."  In this story Abraham was not idle in the Bosom of Abraham, he acted as intercessor for those in the fiery part of Hades.  This is clearly seen in Jesus' parable about the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). In early Jewish belief it was thought possible to pass from the side of the wicked to the side of the righteous (the "Bosom of Abraham") through the intercession of Abraham.





The pseudepigraphic Book of Enoch describes travels of Enoch through the cosmos and paints a vivid picture of supposedly the entire cosmos as seen by the Christians. Enoch divides Sheol into four sections which are situated below the Dark Mountain of the Dead::
(1) for the truly righteous (Abraham's Bosom),
(2)  the good (Abel) ,
(3) the wicked who are punished till they are released at the resurrection, and
(4)  the wicked that are complete in their transgressions and who will not even be granted mercy at the resurrection.
However, since the book is pseudepigraphic to the hand of Enoch, who predates Abraham, naturally the character of Abraham does not feature.


Brian's Blog

Later rabbinical sources preserve several traces of the Bosom of Abraham teaching. In Kiddushin 72b, Adda bar Ahavah of the third century, is said to be "sitting in the bosom of Abraham", Likewise "In the world to come Abraham sits at the gate of Gehenna, permitting none to enter who bears the seal of the covenant" according to Rabbi Levi in Genesis Rabba 67. In the 1860s Abraham Geiger suggested that the parable of Lazarus in Luke 16 preserved a Jewish legend and that Lazarus represented Abraham's servant Eliezer

However, by the time of Jesus, Judaism generally believed that it was not possible to pass from one side of Sheol to the other (Luke 16:26).            





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