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.