What does the Bible say about Hades (the Greek word hadēs), also known as Sheol (the Hebrew word šᵊ’ôl)? Hades in the Bible is the temporary abode of the dead (Acts 2:27). It consists of two compartments: a place of comfort (also called Abraham’s bosom) and a place of torment that will be cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14).
Table of contents
- Is Hell Discussed in the Old Testament?
- Hades (Greek) or Sheol (Hebrew) Is the Temporary Abode of the Dead
- Hades Has Two Compartments
- Believers Were Removed from Hades at Jesus’s Ascension
- Unbelievers Will Be Removed from Hades on “The Day of Judgment”
Is Hell Discussed in the Old Testament?
Even though heaven and hell are of incredible importance, can you think of verses in the Old Testament discussing them? Unless I am missing something, the only verse in the Old Testament discussing eternal life and eternal punishment is Daniel 12:2 which says, “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”
Isaiah 66:24 seems to discuss eternal punishment: “They shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” You probably recognize this verse because Jesus quoted it in Mark 9:48 to describe hell.
There are a few verses that subtly describe heaven:
Psalm 16:11 In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
Heaven is loosely described as the joy of being in God’s presence.
Psalm 23:6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Heaven is described as being with God forever.
Psalm 73:24 You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory.
Heaven is described as being brought into glory.
Isaiah 26:19 Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy…the earth will give birth to the dead.
This describes resurrection. But none of these verses come close to the clarity of the New Testament, because revelation was both progressive (in that more revelation was given over time) and cumulative (in that it builds on previous revelation).
Hades (Greek) or Sheol (Hebrew) Is the Temporary Abode of the Dead
Because of the limited revelation in the Old Testament, instead of saying people went to heaven or hell when they died, it says they went Sheol, the pit, or the grave. The Hebrew word Sheol is the name of the temporary abode, or location, for the souls of the dead until they go to their permanent home in heaven or hell.
When Alexander the Great conquered the known world and made everything Greek there needed to be a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. That Greek translation is called the Septuagint, and when you see it mentioned in your Bible in the footnotes it says LXX, the Roman numeral for 70, because the Septuagint was translated by 70 scholars. When the Septuagint translated the Hebrew word Sheol into Greek, it translated it as Hades. Sheol and Hades are the same, but one word is Hebrew and the other word is Greek.
When the Bible discusses Sheol in the Old Testament and Hades in the New Testament, it does not distinguish between the righteous or unrighteous dead, or discuss eternal reward or eternal punishment, because Hades was a location that contained believers or unbelievers.
Believers in Sheol (Hades)
For example, here are four verses, and I could give more, about the righteous going to Sheol:
- Genesis 37:35 [Jacob said], “I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.”
- Job 14:13 Oh that you would hide me in Sheol, that you would conceal me until your wrath be past!
- Psalm 88:3 My life draws near to Sheol.
- Isaiah 38:10 I am consigned to the gates of Sheol for the rest of my years.
Unbelievers in Sheol (Hades)
- Numbers 16:30 If the Lord creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth…and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall know that these men have despised the Lord.”
- Psalm 9:17 The wicked shall return to Sheol, all the nations that forget God.
- Psalm 31:17 O Let the wicked be put to shame; let them go silently to Sheol.
- Isaiah 5:14 Sheol has enlarged its appetite…and the…multitude [of revelers] will go down.
The Old Testament shows the righteous and wicked going to Sheol (Hades) after death.
Where was Jesus for The Days and Nights Between His Death and Resurrection?
He wasn’t in heaven! After Jesus was raised from the dead Mary Magdalene went back to the tomb. Jesus was there, but she didn’t recognize Him. She thought He was the gardener. When Jesus said her name, she recognized Him and was about to embrace Him, but, “Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to Me, for I HAVE NOT YET ASCENDED TO MY FATHER’” (John 20:17). He said he had not yet been to heaven. Jesus didn’t ascend to heaven until His ascension.
So where was He? Jesus used Jonah to provide the answer: “As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights IN THE HEART OF THE EARTH” (Matthew 12:40). Jesus was in the same location others were when they died.
Jesus Identified with Us Even After Death
Hebrews 2:17 says, “In all things [Jesus] had to be made like His brethren.” This refers to the ways Jesus became like us. Most obviously, He became a man, who experienced the same things we experience: hunger, thirst, fatigue, temptation, betrayal, hurt, and even death. But Jesus’ identification with us didn’t just end when His earthly life ended. He even identified with us in His death in that He went to the same place people went when they died: Hades.
When the Holy Spirit fell on people at Pentecost they began speaking in tongues. Some observers thought they were drunk, so Peter took the opportunity to tell they were seeing the result of Jesus’ resurrection: Jesus ascended to heaven in Acts 1 and sent the Holy Spirit in Acts 2. The Holy Spirit couldn’t descend unless Jesus first ascended and sent Him: “Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, [Jesus] has poured out [the Holy Spirit] that you yourselves are seeing and hearing” (Acts 2:33). The only way Jesus could ascend to pour out the Holy Spirit is if He was raised from the dead:
Acts 2:24 God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. 25 For David says concerning him “‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken; 26 therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; my flesh also will dwell in hope. 27 For YOU WILL NOT ABANDON MY SOUL TO HADES, or let your Holy One see corruption.
Peter quoted David in Psalm 16:8-11, but David isn’t only talking about Jesus, he’s talking as though he IS Jesus. Jesus is speaking THROUGH David about His time in the grave. We should read the words as though Jesus Himself is saying them while He was dead. Jesus is dead, but He’s not in heaven. He’s in Hades. In Psalm 16 it says Sheol, but when it is quoted in the New Testament it says Hades, because (as explained earlier) Hades is the New Testament equivalent of Sheol.
Peter again confirmed Jesus was in Hades: “he (this is David) foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that HE WAS NOT ABANDONED TO HADES, nor did his flesh see corruption” (Acts 2:31).
Hades Has Two Compartments
Hades has a place of comfort, which is called paradise and Abraham’s bosom. Hades also has a place of torment.
What Did Jesus Tell the Thief on the Cross?
Jesus is crucified, resurrected, and forty days later He ascended to heaven, but He told the thief on the cross, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Have you wondered why Jesus told the thief on the cross that “today” he would be with Him in paradise when He didn’t go to heaven for another forty-three days? When Jesus died, He took the thief with Him to the place of comfort in Hades, versus taking him to heaven.
Believers Were Removed from Hades at Jesus’s Ascension
Ephesians 4:8 Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” 9 (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth?
This is referring to Jesus’s ascension in Acts 1. “He gave gifts to men” is what we just read in Acts 2: Jesus ascended and then sent the Holy Spirit who is the bestower of gifts. We call them the gifts of the Spirit. Because Jesus sent the Holy Spirit that gave the gifts, He can also be credited with giving the gifts.
“He led a host of captives” with him when He ascended to heaven. People in Hades are called captives because they couldn’t go to heaven before this. They were captive in the place of comfort in Hades. Before Jesus ascended into heaven, He first “descended into the lower regions of the earth,” referring to Hades, where He released the captives.
Why Couldn’t Old Testament Believers Go to Heaven Earlier?
Old Testament saints had to remain captive in Hades, because Jesus hadn’t died yet. People’s sins had only been covered by the animal sacrifices, but had not been taken away. Hebrews 10:4 says, “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”
The veil hadn’t been torn yet: “Behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split” (Matthew 27:51). Two verses in Hebrews describe the veil as symbolic of the separation between God and man and with the veil torn, we could enter God’s presence:
- Hebrews 6:19 We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain
- Hebrews 10:20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh,
When the veil was torn, we could enter God’s presence, but not before that. If I had to use one word to describe the Old Testament it would be the word separation and if I had to use one word to describe the New Testament it would be reconciliation.
Two of the clearest manifestations of God’s presence in the Old Testament were the ark and Sinai:
- The Jews at Sinai couldn’t touch the mountain or they’d die because of God’s presence.
- The Israelites couldn’t touch the ark or they’d die. Some Israelites and Uzzah learned this the hard way (1 Samuel 6:19 and 2 Samuel 6:7).
It’s hard for me to believe people could go to heaven before Christ died and removed their sins. Jesus said, “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (John 3:13). Jesus Himself said nobody went to heaven before Him.
What About Enoch and Elijah?
Enoch and Elijah’s accounts harmonize with the above interpretation. Genesis 5:24 says, “Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him.” We are told that God took Enoch, but we are not told that God took him to heaven.
Second Kings 2:11 says, “Chariots of fire and horses of fire separated [Elijah and Elisha]. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.” This isn’t the heaven where God dwells.
The Three Heavens
Heaven is used multiple ways in scripture. The first heaven is the earth’s atmosphere or blue sky:
Genesis 8:2 the rain from the heavens was restrained
We don’t think this means rain from where God dwells. We understand it means rain from the clouds.
This is the second heaven is outer space with the stars:
Genesis 15:5 [God] brought [Abraham] outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.”
The third heaven is where God dwells or what we think of as heaven itself:
2 Corinthians 12:2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows.
Paul was speaking in the third person about his vision of God in the third heaven.1
The verse says a whirlwind took Elijah into heaven and it means up into the first heaven or sky. He was transported like Philip in Acts 8:39-40. After Elijah was taken up, a search party went out looking for him: “They sent therefore fifty men. And for three days they sought him but did find him” (2 Kings 2:17). It’s as though he’d been transported somewhere on the earth, but they couldn’t locate him.
If you happen to disagree with the above interpretation and believe that Enoch and Elijah ascended to heaven where God dwells, I don’t know how to reconcile that with Jesus’s words: “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (John 3:13).
Unbelievers Will Be Removed from Hades on “The Day of Judgment”
We almost always think positively of the word resurrection. But there is a resurrection unto eternal life in heaven with God, and another resurrection unto eternal life in the lake of fire:
John 5:28 Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice 29 and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the RESURRECTION OF JUDGMENT.
The resurrection of unbelievers takes place on what’s commonly called the day of judgment. Jesus talked about this day:
- Matthew 10:15 Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on THE DAY OF JUDGMENT for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.
- Matthew 11:22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable on THE DAY OF JUDGMENT for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more tolerable ON THE DAY OF JUDGMENT for the land of Sodom than for you.”
- Matthew 12:36 I tell you, ON THE DAY OF JUDGMENT people will give account for every careless word they speak, 37 for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”…42 The queen of the South will rise up at THE JUDGMENT with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.
Paul talked about this day…
- Acts 17:31 HE HAS FIXED A DAY on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed (this is Jesus as we’ll see in a moment)[iv]
- Acts 24:25 And as he reasoned about righteousness and self-control and THE COMING JUDGMENT, Felix was alarmed and said, “Go away for the present. When I get an opportunity I will summon you.”
- Romans 2:5 says But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.
- Romans 2:16 ON THAT DAY when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
Peter talked about this day…
- 2 Peter 2:9 The Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until THE DAY OF JUDGMENT,
- 2 Peter 3:7 But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the DAY OF JUDGMENT and destruction of the ungodly.
This judgment is repeatedly said to take place on a day, versus days. That’s because in one moment, the place of torment in Hades will be emptied. All unbelievers who have ever lived will be resurrected to stand before the Great White Throne.
The Great White Throne Judgment
John MacArthur said, “[The Great White Throne Judgment] takes place in the indescribable void between the end of the present universe (Revelation 20:11) and the creation of the new heaven and earth (Revelation 21:1).” We will look at the description of the judgment verse-by-verse:
Revelation 20:11a Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it.
Jesus Sits on the Throne
God sits on the throne in the Person of Jesus Christ, because He does all the judging: “The Father judges no one, but has committed all judgment to the Son” (John 5:22). Jesus occupies one of two roles for every person who has ever lived: Savior or Judge. Although many people think Hebrews 4:12 refers to the Bible, it refers to Jesus:
Hebrews 4:12 For the word of God (Jesus is the word of God) is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And no creature is hidden from HIS SIGHT, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of HIM to whom we must give account.
The use of the pronouns “His” and “Him” tell us we are talking about a Person. Jesus is the One “we must give account to…who has nothing hidden from His sight…who has everything uncovered and laid bare before Him.”
It might be tempting to say, “Can you imagine what it would be like standing before the Father after rejecting His Son?” Unbelievers don’t stand before the Father if they reject the Son. They stand before the Son if they reject the Son and spend a lifetime without acknowledging His sacrifice.
Revelation 20:11b From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them.
This is how terrifying the throne is: even the earth and the sky want to get away from its presence. They don’t slowly move away. They flee. But there is nowhere to hide. The idea is if the earth and sky can’t hide, nobody can as the following verse reveals:
Revelation 20:12a And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne,
Picture a throne large enough that all unbelievers throughout history can be stretched out before it. The dead here are unbelievers who remained spiritually dead in their sins. They were born physically, but they were never born again spiritually. When they died physically, they were still dead spiritually.
The words “great and small” are another way of telling us nobody escapes: not the greatest, most famous, wealthiest, most powerful people in the world, or the smallest, most insignificant, poorest, weakest people in the world. All unbelievers will be judged.
They are “standing.” Think of a courtroom. People stand when the judge enters, and when they are sentenced. This isn’t a trial. It only consists of a sentencing. Nobody will be making excuses for what they did, explaining why they rejected Jesus, or talking about how they were mistreated. They have no defense. First John 2:1 says, “We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” This is the idea of a defense attorney, but these people rejected Him.
Judged By Their Insufficient Works
Revelation 20:12b and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done.
Numerous books are present. The book of life is commonly called, “The Lamb’s Book of Life,” and it contains the names of all believers, or we could say it contains the name of all those who will NOT appear at this judgment. It isn’t that believers escaped judgment. It’s that our sins were already judged on the cross.
The other books contain the records of these people’s lives: “judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done.” Maybe there’s a book for each person. The books provide evidence that these people were not good enough to get to heaven.
Revelation 20:12 and 13 both say, “The dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done.” God repeats Himself when He wants to make sure we don’t miss something, and twice we are told that unbelievers people are judged according to what they had done.
If you have repented and put your faith in Christ you receive His righteousness. For believers this would read that we are judged according to WHAT CHRIST HAS DONE. Unbelievers who don’t have Christ’s righteousness must be judged by what they have done. This is not teaching salvation by works. Instead, because all these people go to hell, it shows that they couldn’t be saved by works.
Death and Hades
Revelation 20:13 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done.
This reveals where the unbelieving dead were before this judgment. “Death and Hades” are frequently mentioned together because of their relationship: Death brought Hades, or Hades was necessary because of Death. People die and then they need a place to go, and that place is Hades.
“The sea” was thought of as a bottomless abyss. Micah 7:19 says, “He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into THE DEPTHS OF THE SEA.” The sea was considered a place where nothing could return from it, which is why our sin is cast there. It’s probably mentioned to show that no matter the location of a body (even a bottomless sea), God can gather it for this judgment.
Hades is where their souls are located. They are brought up from the place of torment and are about to enter an even worse torment.
Revelation 20:14a Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.
Hades and the lake of fire are not the same, because Hades is thrown into the lake of fire. There is confusion about Hades being hell because the King James Version translates Hades as hell, but the lake of fire is what we commonly think of as hell. I don’t think that Death and Hades are literally thrown into the lake of fire. They are temporary and I think this is God’s way of showing them ending.2
The last vestiges or echoes of sin are finally destroyed. Sin came into the world and brought Death. Death came into the world and brought Hades because dead people had to go somewhere. With sin ending Death also comes to an end. With Death ending, Hades also comes to an end.
The Second Death
Revelation 20:14b This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
This is called the Second Death because unbelievers die physically and then they die spiritually and eternally when they go to hell. But understand even though it is called the second death, they are very much alive. They go on living in the lake of fire:
- Unbelievers experience a physical birth followed by a physical death and then a spiritual death.
- Believers are born again: we experience a physical birth, then a spiritual birth followed only by a physical death.
If you have repented of your sins and put your faith in Christ, then your name is written in the book of life, and you will never face the great White throne judgment.
- For more verses discussing the three heavens see also Genesis 8:2, Deuteronomy 11:11, 1 Kings 8:35, Genesis 15:5, Psalm 8:3, Isaiah 13:10, 1 Kings 8:30, 2 Chronicles 30:27, Psalm 123:1.
- There are two ways Death is temporary. First, it only exists until this judgment. Then it “dies” when it is thrown into the lake of fire. Second, it was temporary in that unbelievers only stay “dead” until they are resurrected to be judged before this Throne. Then Death will no longer exist because all the dead will be alive and there will be no more sin to lead to further death.