Although the existence of hell is a notable feature of the New Testament, the Hebrew Bible never describes a fiery place of eternal torment for sinners. In fact, as Ecclesiastes tells us over and over again:
The same fate comes to everyone: to the righteous and to the wicked, to the good and to the wicked, to the clean and to the unclean, to those who sacrifice and to those who do not sacrifice. As with the good man, so also to the sinner; as with those who swear an oath, so also those who fear oaths. This is the injustice that is done under the sun: the same fate comes to everyone. Also the hearts of humans are full of evil; delusion is in their hearts during their lives, and then they die. (Eccl 9:2-3, NRSV).
What was the meaning of Sheol in preexilic Israel?
The word Sheol appears sixty-five times in the Hebrew Bible. Since it often seems to connote an underworld (Gen 42:38; Prov 9:18) or the depths of the earth (Deut 32:22; Amos 9:2), it is tempting to conflate it with later postexilic ideas about hell as a place of punishment, such as those that appear in the New Testament (e.g., Matt 11:23 // Luke 10:15; Luke 16:23; Rev 20:15). This conflation begins as early as the Septuagint (LXX) in which “Sheol” is translated from the Hebrew into Greek as “Hades.” However, along with other terms like the “Pit” (e.g., Job 33), and “Abaddon” (e.g., Job 26:6; Ps 88:11; this word later appears as the name of the angel of death in Rev 9:11), Sheol is a place that holds all of the dead (see Gen 37:35; 1Sam 2:6; Isa 28:15) without judgment or torment.
Sheol is referred to as “the chambers of death” (Prov 7:27) and seems to connect the physical grave with an underground abode of the dead. For example, in Num 16:30-34, rebels are swallowed by the earth and brought down alive to Sheol. It is sometimes described as watery (Job 26:5-6; Ps 69:15) or muddy (Ps 40:3; Ps 69:3). The term can also be used metaphorically to connote a place of shadowy afterlife existence or even an insatiable (Hab 2:5), harsh (Song 8:6) power that can destroy the living (Isa 5:14).
Even with all these references, it is difficult to know exactly how the ancient Israelites conceptualized this abode of the dead. In 1Sam 28, a necromancer calls up the dead prophet Samuel from beneath the earth to prophesy to King Saul, which suggests that Israelites believed in some sort of continued afterlife existence. Grave goods and tomb installations in Iron Age Judah show us that the dead were fed and sustained by the living. In fact, scholars connect the biblical insistence that land can never be sold with the existence of family graves, making it important for descendants to maintain, and probably venerate, their ancestors on the family land. We also find several terms in the Bible that are related to words in Ugaritic that refer to the dead in the context of their veneration. For example, a ritual feast known as a mrzh that took place in ancient Canaan was held by the living to honor and share food with the dead; the same term comes out in Hebrew as a marzeah ritual, mentioned in Jer 16:5; Amos 6:7; Ps 106:28 as a reference to sacrifices of the dead. Similarly, in the Ugaritic literature we have terms cognate to biblical Rephaim, such as in Isa 14:9; Isa 26:14; and Ps 88:11, where the Ugaritic cognate term refers to a line of dead kings and heroes. Also, although the term usually means “God,” Elohim can be used to refer to the dead, as for example in Isa 8:19-21, and the cognate term is used similarly in Ugaritic texts. This suggests some similarities in Israel with known beliefs about the afterlife from ancient Canaan.
In the Hebrew Bible, the term Sheol is most often associated with the negative implications of death: the inevitability of it (Ps 89:48), being cut off from the living and from God (Job 24:19; Ps 6:5), and being sent to a place of weakness and rot (Isa 14:10-11) and of no return (Job 7:9). Other than a few references in late texts (Isa 26:19; Dan 12:2; and a metaphorical reference in Ezek 37), there is no conception of a future resurrection in the Hebrew Bible; death is considered final. Given the sense throughout the Hebrew Bible of the inevitability and finality of death, fleeting references to God’s ability to both send one to Sheol and to redeem one from there are best understood as poetic expressions of God’s ultimate power over life and death (e.g., 1Sam 2:6; Hos 13:14).
While there is not any prolonged description of life after death in the Hebrew Bible, the number and variety of uses of the term Sheol in the Hebrew Bible, along with evidence from archaeology and comparative literature, demonstrates a widespread belief in some sort of dark and dreaded shadowy postmortem existence.