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Bible Dictionaries

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology


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Old Testament . The Hebrew word seol [ Psalm 88:3,5 ). Through much of the Old Testament period, it was believed that all went one place, whether human or animal (Psalm 49:12,14,20 ), whether righteous or wicked (Ecclesiastes 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 (Deuteronomy 32:22; 1 Samuel 28:11-15; Job 26:5; Psalm 86:13; Isaiah 7:11; Ezekiel 31:14-16,18 ).

Unlike this world, Sheol is devoid of love, hate, envy, work, thought, knowledge, and wisdom (Ecclesiastes 9:6,10 ). Descriptions are bleak: There is no light (Job 10:21-22; 17:13; Psalm 88:6,12; 143:3 ), no remembrance (Psalm 6:5; 88:12; Ecclesiastes 9:5 ), no praise of God (Psalm 6:5; 30:9; 88:10-12; 115:17; Isaiah 38:18)—;in fact, no sound at all (Psalm 94:17; 115:17 ). Its inhabitants are weak, trembling shades (Job 26:5; Psalm 88:10-12; Isaiah 14:9-10 ) who can never hope to escape from its gates (Job 10:21; 17:13-16; Isaiah 38:10 ). Sheol is like a ravenous beast that swallows the living without being sated (Proverbs 1:12; 27:20; Isaiah 5:14 ). Some thought the dead were cut off from God (Psalm 88:3-5; Isaiah 38:11 ); while others believed that God's presence reached even to Sheol (Psalm 139:8 ).

Toward the end of the Old Testament, God revealed that there will be a resurrection of the dead (Isaiah 26:19 ). Sheol will devour no longer; instead God will swallow up Death (Isaiah 25:8 ). The faithful will be rewarded with everlasting life while the rest will experience eternal contempt (Daniel 12:2 ). This theology developed further in the intertestamental period.

The New Testament . By the time of Jesus, it was common for Jews to believe that the righteous dead go to a place of comfort while the wicked go to Hades ("Hades" normally translates "Sheol" in the LXX), a place of torment (Luke 16:22-23 ). Similarly, in Christianity, believers who die go immediately to be with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8; Philippians 1:23 ). Hades is a hostile place whose gates cannot prevail against the church (Matthew 16:18 ). In fact, Jesus himself holds the keys of Death and Hades (Revelation 1:18 ). Death and Hades will ultimately relinquish their dead and be cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:13-14 ).

The fact that theology develops within the Old Testament and between the Old Testament and the New Testament does not mean that the Bible is contradictory or contains errors. It only indicates progressive revelation, that God revealed more of himself and his plan of salvation as time went on. That some Old Testament saints believed in Sheol, while the New Testament teaches clearly about heaven and hell, is nor more of a problem than that the Old Testament contains a system of atonement by animal sacrifice now made obsolete in Christ (Hebrews 10:4-10 ) or that the Old Testament teaches God is one (Deuteronomy 6:4 ) while the New Testament reveals a Trinity.

William B. Nelson, Jr.

See also Death, Mortality; Hades; Hell; Intermediate State; Pit

Copyright Statement
Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House Company, PO Box 6287, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49516-6287.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.

Bibliography Information
Elwell, Walter A. Entry for 'Sheol'. Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. 1996.

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