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 post-mortem 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). While it’s easy to assume that the rich man gazes upward to see Abraham and Lazarus in “heaven,” this is not what the text says. Rather, 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, 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; 1 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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62 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.

      • Dear Dr. Schaser – excellent article!! I just want to make sure I understand correctly – “Sheol” comprises a “paradisiacal section” versus an opposing section. The fact that you find yourself in one or the other seem to pre-suppose the type of judgment, doesn’t it?

        • Excellent point, Riaan. In Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man’s position in the “bad neighborhood” of Hades certainly does seem to presuppose which way his judgment will go at the resurrection. The fact that he’s in “torment” in Sheol doesn’t bode well for what the verdict will be once he is raised from Sheol.

          • I value your reply sir bit it did prompt another question. If I find myself in the “paradisiacal section” of Sheol, why do I still need to be judged? Should I “fail” (for lack of a better word) that judgment, am I then expelled from paradise? Kindly forgive my ignorance.

          • No, these are great questions — they aren’t a product of your “ignorance,” but rather of your sound critical-thinking skills 🙂 The post-resurrection judgment weighs up what we’ve “done in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Cor 5:10) — those who are deemed righteous remain on the renewed earth in God’s eternal kingdom, while those who are deemed unrighteous go to Gehenna (a fiery pit on the outskirts of God’s kingdom). Since God sees everything people do, once we die God already knows where we’ll end up on the day of resurrection. Thus, the post-resurrection judgment is less of a “fact-finding mission” than it is a public declaration of one’s status before God. Everyone who goes to the “good neighborhood” in Sheol will be “expelled” from Abraham’s bosom upon their physical, bodily resurrection, because Sheol is not the final destination. The true “paradise” to which Jesus points on the cross is God’s eternal kingdom on a renewed earth after resurrection.

  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.

      • So my belief is before the shedding of our Lords blood, we went to a place awaiting His victory. only one of two places. Where the rich man went or where Lazarus went. Acknowledging up until that time Satan had the crown and septer to plant his seeds of destruction.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  9. Opened my understanding..What are ypur thoughs about 1.Ephesians 2:6 (we are seated in heavenly places.) 2.Ephesians 4:8 As the scripture says, “When he went up to the very heights, he took many captives with him; he gave gifts to people”.

    • Thanks, Ramon. The language of being seated in the heavenly places (Eph 2:6) is a metaphorical way of talking about Jesus saving people from their sins: “when we were dead in our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ… and raised us up with him and seated us in the heavenly places.” Obviously, Ephesians doesn’t refer to a literal “raising up from the dead,” but rather a figural “raising from the ‘death’ of sins.” In the same way, we are not literally seated in heaven either. The post-mortem destination isn’t “heaven” — that’s where God lives (and now Jesus at the right hand of Power; Matt 26:64; Mk 14:62; Lk 22:69). On Eph 4:8, check out the next few verses, in which the “gifts” that Jesus gives from “the heights” are the gifts of ministry to apostles, evangelists, teachers, etc.

  10. I am a Catholic convert who struggles with the concept of Purgatory and with the Church’s teaching on praying for the dead in order to get them released from Purgatory. Do you have any teaching on this issue? If so, it would help me greatly. Thank you!

    • Hi, Pam. Catholic “purgatory” 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 in the Catechism is “imperfectly purified.” In Catholic thought, those who need further purification spend time in purgatory in order to reach heaven. From a Catholic perspective, the prayers of the living can help speed up the purgatorial processes. The idea of praying for the dead comes primarily from 2 Maccabees 12:39-45, in which Judah prayers for the dead soldiers and thereby makes “atonement for the dead” (12:45). Some would also point to 2 Tim 1:16-18 for support of this tradition, but it’s unclear as to whether the recipient of the prayer is living or dead. 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.

  11. Fascinating discussion but is there necessarily a period of Earthtime between our demise and our Resurrection since God sees all of creation and all of time at once, or is that poor speculation ?

    • Hi, Michael. I’m not sure that I see biblical warrant for the idea that “God sees all of creation and all of time at once,” but we certainly can’t be sure how those in the afterlife experience “time” (since the Bible doesn’t expound on this question).

  12. My sister died with the reassuring words, “absent from the body, present with the Lord”. In trichotomism, is there a difference where these three parts go if you die before Christ’s resurrection and after? What is figurative and what is literal?

    • Hi, Robert. The Bible doesn’t specify the anthropology or pneumatology of the afterlife (Scripture is far more concerned with how we spend our time in this world than in the World to Come). Personally, I wouldn’t lean too heavily on theories of trichotomism, since this is a system of thought that can’t be perfectly mapped on to the complexity of the biblical discussion. As far as we can tell, the person is embodied and retains the “spirit” in the afterlife, and then is reconstituted in a resurrection body at a future point. But, honestly, it’s unwise to be dogmatic about these things (due to lack of data). These previous articles from IBC may provide some further insight:
      https://weekly.israelbiblecenter.com/can-spirit-body/
      https://weekly.israelbiblecenter.com/mean-god-spirit/

  13. When John is transported to Heaven either in body or vision, he views a multitude too many to count who came out of the Tribulation. These died and went directly to Heaven.

  14. Hi Dr. That is how I learned in Bible college, referring to your answer to Charlene, I have it that Sheol is not in Abrahams bossom anymore, but went to a special paradise, ascended with Yeshua towards the heavans awaiting new earth and new heavans.

    • Thanks for your comments, Pepler. Interesting interpretation, but since Jesus doesn’t ascend to the heavens until after his death and resurrection (see Acts 1:11), the thief couldn’t have ended up in heaven on the day Jesus spoke to him from the cross. And since Jesus ascends to heaven on his own, I can only assume that the thief remains, with Lazarus, in the bosom of Abraham. I think that to extrapolate any more than that would be to go beyond our textual data 🙂

  15. Elijah did not go to heaven he was transported to somewhere else as he wrote a letter to Jehoram king of Judah several years later warning the king about his sins 2 Chronicles 21: 12-15. Scripture talks about 3 heavens. The 1st heaven is the sky above.

    • @ Pat Martin, there are many different and reasonable interpretations/understandings of how to resolve those two passages. Are you convinced that Eliyahu still being alive on the earth and personally writing a letter at that time to the king is definitely what happened?

  16. Thanks for your response Dr. Just a quick one, what did the word unconscious really mean to the Old Testament Hebrews?

  17. Scripture is clear/ absent from the body present with the Lord. None is any clearer then what Christ told us Himself “John 14:2 In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. Joh 14:3

  18. We know Jesus is at his Father’s house. 1 Thess 4:14, when he comes back to “rapture’ his church, He brings the spirits of those who have died in Christ to be united with their resurrected body. Those who “sleep” are alive and with Christ in heaven.

  19. Dr. Nicholas J. Schaser ,I had a death experience a few years ago and I knew I was dead physically and could see and hear the paramedics trying to revive me. I was conscious and aware.I was standing at a door and saw a crowd and Jesus coming for me.

  20. The problem some are having is with the various meanings of ‘judgement’ in English. They may imagine Judgement as Deciding. Perhaps pleading their case while He comes to a decision. Think of it rather as Sentencing. God already knows exactly where you stand and there is nothing you can dispute.

  21. Dear Bro. Nicholas I was very happy to read your article and comforted and consoled by the Word of the Lord. My mum slept in the Lord on 12th Feb’ 2019 ( Mrs Rita David aged 80 Yrs) and she was like a baby to me.

  22. Without wanting to give the impression of being controversial I have to say that the more I go to a bible class in our local Church and the more I read the above comments the more confused I become. I am desperately searching for the truth but don’t understand. Help!!!

  23. Very interesting article. How would you reconcile the New Testament verse where Paul writes, “Now we are confident and are pleased rather to be absent out of the body, and to be at home with the Lord.” Curious to read your take on this verse. Again, your article was excellent.

    • Glad you enjoyed the article, Jerry. You’ve cited 2 Cor 5:8 which, taken in isolation, can sound like Paul is taking about being “in heaven” (i.e., “at home”) with the Lord immediately after death. However, “home” in this context is not a “place where we go after death” (i.e., “heaven”); rather, Paul refers to the “home” of two different bodies: “The tent that is our earthly home will be destroyed” (5:1) — i.e., our fleshly bodies will die — but then we will “put on” bodies that will be given to us from heaven, and that constitute our new “home” with the Lord (5:2-3; cf. Rom 13:14; Gal 3:1). Paul ends this discussion by referring to everyone appearing before the “judgment bench” (bema) to give account for what they’ve done in the body (5:10), so this entire section seems to be an eschatological one — rather than “going to heaven immediately after death,” Paul is talking about the new “bodies” (or “homes”) we will have after death, and the later eschatological judgment that will occur on this (renewed) earth.

  24. Hi Dr Schaser. With all of what is being said, I would simplify by saying: whilst those in Sheol can be logical when articulating their respective views (the exchange between Abraham and Divas), they lack knowledge on matters “happening” in the “now” physical world.

  25. When Christ calls us to Himself into the Heavenly Clouds at the Rapture before the Tribulation, we will be given Glorified Bodies. But at that time, the earth will not be a ” New Earth” as you explained. For the earth still has to go through the Tribulation.

  26. Dr. Schaser, setting aside theological ideas as support for a particular reading, is there any purely *linguistic* evidence for interpreting Yeshua’s statement as either “I tell you today, you will be” vs. “I tell you, today you will be” ?

  27. I see all this as technicalities, What difference does it make? Ultimately, whether you go straight to heaven or you go and wait somewhere else is irrelevant if you die outside the kingdom. So remain in the faith until the last minute and smile at how wrong the teachers were!

  28. Thank you so much for your insights into the Word of God. Truly you and your colleagues at Israel Bible Center are gifts from Hashem. My heart warms when truths are put there with your insight.

  29. I agree with Eddie M. However the teaching ministry is one of the valuable gifts to the church. Let us remain in the true faith. Shalom.

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