Resurrection is foundational to ancient Jewish thought. Descriptions of the dead being raised appear in Israel’s Scriptures, the New Testament, and rabbinic literature. But what happens in the time between death and resurrection? Some assume that the postmortem destination is “heaven” (שׁמים; shamayim), but that’s where God lives, not where people go when they die. Instead of describing an afterlife in heaven, the Bible refers to “Sheol” (שׁאול) as the interim realm in which the deceased wait for resurrection.

The notion of bodily resurrection pervades Jewish literature. Daniel 12:2 states, “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, and others to shame and everlasting contempt.” Jesus says, “An hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear [my] voice and come out: those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (Jn 5:28-29). According to the Mishnah, “Those who are born are [destined] to die, and those who die are [destined] for resurrection” (m. Avot 4:22). Ancient Jews awaited a universal, physical resurrection in which all people — both righteous and wicked — would stand before God.

Israel’s Scriptures describe a place where people go after death called Sheol. When Jacob thinks that Joseph has died, he exclaims, “I shall go down to Sheol (שׁאול) to my son” (Gen 37:35). Hannah’s prayer affirms that those in Sheol will, one day, be raised to new life: “The Lord brings death and makes alive (מחיה; mehayeh); he brings down to Sheol (שׁאול) and raises up” (1 Sam 2:6). In this case, Sheol is a “place-holder” where the dead wait for resurrection. Even between death and resurrection, those in Sheol are not separated from God. Psalm 139:8 reads, “If I ascend to heaven you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol you are there!” Still, God’s ultimate intent is to restore lives from Sheol through resurrection (cf. Ps 6:4-5; 30:3).

The New Testament word for Sheol is Hades (ᾅδης). In Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus, the two men die “and in Hades (ᾅδης) [the rich man]… lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham from afar, and Lazarus in his bosom” (Lk 16:23). When the tormented rich man calls out to Abraham for help, the patriarch tells him, “A great chasm (χάσμα; chasma) has been fixed between us and you… and no one may cross from there to us” (16:26). It’s easy to assume that the rich man sits in “hell” and gazes up at Abraham and Lazarus in “heaven,” but this is not what the text says (despite certain English versions that translate ᾅδης as “hell”). Instead, the three figures are in the same place, but separated by a gulf that no one can traverse. The rich man, Lazarus, and Abraham are all in Hades/Sheol—but the rich man is in a different neighborhood!

It is in light of this story in Luke 16 that we should interpret Jesus’ words to the thief in Luke 23:43: “Today you will be with me in paradise” (notice that Jesus doesn’t say “in heaven”). Here, “paradise” should be understood as the same place that Lazarus went; namely, into the safety and tranquility of “Abraham’s bosom.” Yet, a postmortem paradise will not be the thief’s final destination. Instead, just as Jesus spends only three days and nights in “the heart of the earth” (Matt 12:40), the thief’s stay in the paradisiacal section of Sheol is only a temporary respite on the road to resurrection. In biblical thought, all who have died (apart from the likes of Enoch and Elijah) begin in Sheol/Hades and wait for their bodily resurrection on a “new earth” (cf. Isa 65:17; 66:22; 2 Pet 3:13; Rev 21:1) — when God’s everlasting kingdom, the “new Jerusalem” (Rev 21:2), comes down to this earth from heaven.

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165 COMMENTS

  1. Very well thought out article. I like remind your readers that Hades is the Greek word for the Hebrew word She'ol. I disagree with your idea of a paradaisical section of Hades as though the dead are still alive after they die. The Scriptures is clear on that point.
  2. A few Scriptures will suffice:
    Death is a sleep- Daniel 12:2
    The dead knows nothing- Psalms 146:4; Ecclesiastes 9:5-6
    Both the righteous and the wicked will rise again- John 5:28-29; Daniel 12:2.
    More Scriptures attest to the truth that the dead are really dead, not alive at all.
    • I'm glad you enjoyed the article, James. Here are a few points to consider: (1) I would caution against pushing "sleep" in too literal a direction; it is a Semitic euphemism for "death," but it needn't preclude continued consciousness; (2) while some verses depict what we might deem "unconsciousness" in the afterlife, others describe those in Sheol as conscious beings who retain the ability to speak, move, and interact (e.g., Isa 14:9; Ezek 32:21; Jonah 2:2; Job 26:5-6); (3) based on the story of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus seems to think that embodied consciousness continues in Hades/Sheol, and the immediate "paradise" that Jesus promises the thief on the cross would not be much consolation if the thief can't consciously enjoy it.

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    • James the dead will rise from this place called Sheol. How can you state that there is no such paradiasical place? Yeshua said to the theif on the cross..."Today you will be with me in paradise".
  3. Hi Nicholas. If the Bible speaks of consciousness in embodied bodies in Hades and unconsciousness in embodied bodies in Hades, then what do you make of the unconsciousness in the embodied bodies in Hades which are supposed to be conscious? Is not this scenario, perhaps, a contradiction?
    • Hi, Thandu. Thanks for your question, but I'm having trouble following your syntax. I think you're asking if there's a contradiction in the fact that some biblical texts seem to speak of a lack of consciousness in Sheol/Hades, and other verses speak of continued consciousness. (1) I'd want to avoid the language of "contradiction," since the law of non-contradiction comes from Greek philosophy, rather than Jewish theology. That is, the biblical authors are not bound by the same intellectual constraints vis-a-vis "contradiction" that we are in Greek-influenced modernity. (2) The Bible is a library, not a book ("the Bible" comes from "ta biblia," meaning "the books," plural). As a library, the biblical texts say things that differ from each other in their presentations of theological topics. While the Bible is surely multivocal on the issue of the afterlife, it seems to me that the "consciousness" texts outweigh those that seem to speak of "unconsciousness." More, I think some texts have been misread as speaking of "unconsciousness" when they really just speak about a lack of knowledge or wisdom in Sheol -- which is different from unconsciousness. Thanks again for your question!
  4. Excellent article! I was of the same understanding. I am a little curious though what Paul meant when on the one hand he'd like to with the Lord, but on the other it's better for his readers for him to stay (Phil 1:23-24)
    • Great question, James. Paul says that he can't decide between (1) staying alive and continuing his ministry, or (2) dying and being "with Christ" (syn Christo). Does Paul mean here that he would die and be "with Christ" immediately after death and, therefore, bypass the interim period in Sheol before resurrection? Looking at Paul's other uses of "with Christ" is the first step: First, believers are "with Christ" already via baptism (cf. Rom 6:4-8; Gal 2:19; Phil 3:10; cf. 2 Cor 13:4), so Paul may mean that he would die "in Christ" (cf. 1 Thess 4:16) -- or "secured" with Christ -- and would therefore be assured of a positive judgment at the resurrection. That is, Phil 1:23 may refer to Paul's status "with Christ" upon death, and continued security with Christ as he awaits judgment. Second, Paul uses "with Christ" to refer to the future eschaton or Day of Judgment (cf. 1 Thess 4:17; 5:10; 2 Cor 4:14; Phil 3:21; Rom 8:17, 29). If this is Paul's usage in Phil 1:23, then we should understand him to be saying that he will be with Christ once he is raised from the dead. Really, Paul is probably using "with Christ" in both ways simultaneously: he will be secured "with Christ" upon death, and then be "with Christ" eternally at the resurrection/parousia. While Paul's terminology does not preclude an interim period between death and resurrection, it does underscore the closeness and continuity of relationship between the believer and Christ after death.

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  5. How does “Sheol” align with Catholicism’s “Purgatory” as related to the practice of offering “Indulgences” to a priest for their prayers with the intent of swaying the coming judgement one way or the other of all contained therein?
    J.
    • Thanks, Jerry. The notion of purgatory in Catholicism is built (in part) on the concept of Sheol -- that is, there is biblical warrant for "purgatory." A main difference is that purgatory is for people who aren't quite good enough to go to "heaven" and not quite bad enough to go to "hell" -- the technical term for people in purgatory is "imperfectly purified." So they spend time in an intermundia of continued refinement in order to reach heaven. The biblical view of Sheol differs from the Catholic view of purgatory insofar as Sheol isn't just for those who need further purification; rather, everyone goes to Sheol (righteous or unrighteous) and awaits resurrection. More, the biblical goal is not "heaven," and no one goes to "hell" directly after death, as Catholics (and many other Christians) would have it.
  6. I just have a question. I am not Catholic, but Baptist. I have always heard about purgatory. Is Hades/Sheol the same as purgatory?
    Heather
    • Thanks, Heather. The notion of purgatory in Catholicism is built (in part) on the biblical concept of Sheol. A main difference is that purgatory is for people who aren’t quite good enough to go to “heaven” and not quite bad enough to go to “hell” — the technical term for people in purgatory is “imperfectly purified.” So they spend time in an intermundia of continued refinement in order to reach heaven. The biblical view of Sheol differs from the Catholic view of purgatory insofar as Sheol isn’t just for those who need further purification; rather, everyone goes to Sheol (righteous or unrighteous) and awaits resurrection. More, the biblical goal is not “heaven,” and no one goes to “hell” directly after death, as Catholics (and many other Christians) would have it.
    • We are very happy that you’ve joined our discussion forum. Would you believe that these articles are only a taste of what Israel Bible Center has to offer? We also provide comprehensive teaching on a variety of biblical, historical, and cultural topics. You might begin with The Jewish Gospel of Matthew or The Hebrew Psalms: How To Worship God. You’ll be amazed at the Jewish world that awaits you. Don’t delay another minute: enroll now!
  7. What say you to Moses and Elijah appearing on the mount of transfiguration? This has always puzzled me when considering resurrection, although your recent article on “spirit bodies” definitely sheds light on the situation.
    • Another good question, Aaron. The transfiguration appearances of Moses and Elijah support the notion of embodiment in the afterlife. Moses will certainly be raised from the dead at the resurrection, but clearly has some kind of body in the meantime. Elijah's a special case, since he is whisked to heaven before death. So since he's not in the ground, we can only speculate what his status will be at the resurrection of the dead. Here's a previous article I wrote on Moses and Elijah at the transfiguration that you might find interesting: https://weekly.israelbiblecenter.com/why-moses-and-elijah/

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  8. I agree on your teaching, however, Jesus is the first fruits. Once He recieved His glorified body, anyone who is a believer in Him will go to heaven no longer to sheol. Paul even said, absent from the body face to face with the Lord.
    • Thanks, Charlene. I affirm your citation of 2 Cor 5:8, but notice that Paul doesn't mention "going to heaven" in the surrounding context. The picture is not of believers going up to heaven, but rather a "building from God" that is now "in the heavens" (2 Cor 5:1), but will ultimately come down to this earth at the resurrection (cf. Rev 21:1-2).

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