What Are Sheol and Hades

By: Dr. John Ankerberg and Dr. Erwin Lutzer; ©2002
Dr. Erwin Lutzer explains the difference between the terms “sheol,” “hades,” and “hell.” What is each one like? What will be the condition of people in these places? Will they be able to see, feel, hear? touch?

What Are Sheol and Hades?

Dr. John Ankerberg: Any time the subject of death comes up, someone is sure to bring up the topic of “hell”. Now, the Bible uses two words that most people associate with hell: “sheol” and “hades”. Would you clear up for us: Are sheol and hades the same thing? Are they two different things? Do either of them refer to hell as we usually think of it? Start us off.

Dr. Erwin Lutzer: You know, it’s very necessary for us to talk about the dark side of death. We do have to talk about hell. But first let’s clear up the confusion about what the Bible refers to in the Old Testament as Sheol and in the New Testament as Hades.

Now, 65 times in the Old Testament you have that word Sheol occurring. In the King James Version, 31 times it is translated “grave.” Thirty-one times also it is referred to as “hell.” And that’s what caused the confusion, by the way, in the minds of people because as we shall see in a moment, Hades is not yet hell. Hades is going to be “thrown into hell,” as the Book of Revelation teaches. And three times it has been translated as “the pit.”

Ankerberg: All right. What does Sheol refer to?

Lutzer: First of all, let me say, it is not just the grave. There is a Hebrew word that refers only to the grave and that’s not the one that is used. In all of the text of the Bible, Sheol is always referred to as “a shadowy place” of departed spirits. There are several things that we know about it. In it, people appear to be fully conscious. They go down into Sheol. The Scripture talks about “Sheol awaiting the dead.” It speaks about those who descend into Sheol, into the “gloomy, shadowy place” where they are being “tormented.” It seems to be a place of isolation. In fact, in the Old Testament what you find, though, is that there seems to be an indication that Sheol has two compartments. Why do I say that? Because the righteous, they delight to go into the grave, into Sheol.

For example, Asaph talks about dying and he says, “Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is none upon the earth that I desire beside thee.” That’s Psalm 73. So Asaph was desiring and looking forward to a place after he died of bliss. And yet at the same time you find that there are all of these negative references to Sheol.

Now, this is what caused the ancient rabbis to see something with which I happen to agree, that Sheol you can think of as two compartments because the righteous, they go into Sheol and they are blessed; they are with God. Those who do not know God, they also go into Sheol and it is there that they experience gloom and darkness.

Ankerberg: That is probably a new thought to many of our readers, but there is a great story in the Bible that helps illustrate what you just said. Tell us about that.

Lutzer: Yes, John, the best place for us to see this is in the New Testament. In Luke 16 Jesus tells a story. It is not a parable; it’s actually a story. And let me tell you the reason He told it. He was trying to show the Pharisees, who loved money, that in the afterlife the fortunes of the rich and the poor might be reversed. And so He tells the story of a man by the name of Lazarus who was very poor. So poor, in fact, that he was willing to eat the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table in fact. Jesus talks about the dogs coming and licking His sores. Can’t get much more poor than that, can you? And yet the remarkable thing is, he dies and he goes to Hades. Now, let’s just be clear: in the New Testament—which was written in Greek—the Old Testament word Sheol is Hades. And I take, there­fore, Hades to be another description of the Old Testament Sheol. And here you have two compartments, if you please. Let me just read a few verses:

“A certain poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate [that is, at the rich man’s gate] covered with sores, longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table. It came about that the poor man died and was carried by angels into Abraham bosom. And the rich man died and was buried and in Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue because I am in agony in this flame.’ And Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received good things and likewise Lazarus bad things; and now he is being comforted here and you are in agony. And beside all this, there is between us a great chasm fixed in order that those who wish to come over from here are not able to do so and we cannot cross over.’” And then, the man becomes interested in “missions” and says, “Send Lazarus that he may go warn my brothers that they come not to this place of torment.”

Ankerberg: Okay. Tell us what that says about this place called Hades. What can we learn about it?

Lutzer: First of all, the man who died, the rich man who was tormented, was fully con‑scious. You just look at his senses. He could see. He could feel. He could touch. He wasstill filled with compassion. Also notice, though, his eternal destiny was fixed. Abraham saidthat “between you and us there is a great gulf fixed and no one can cross over from eitherside.” Furthermore, I want you to notice that he was in torment. He is in agony in this flame.

John, I thought about this a lot and I believe that one of the characteristics of hell—and remember, this is not yet hell, this is Hades. Hades is going to be thrown into hell—I be­lieve that one of the characteristics is these great burning desires that are never fulfilled. I believe that people who live with a great deal of lust in this life and that was their god, in hell they will experience lust and they will never be fulfilled. Perhaps an alcoholic will long for a drop of alcohol that will never come to him. These are insatiable desires for all of eternity. In fact, that’s the other thing, is that he is eternally in this place called Hades which will be thrown into hell.

And you know, John, I believe that this man knew that his punishment was just. First of all, he doesn’t complain about being there and he does not say it’s unfair. But second, he knows exactly why he’s there. He says to Abraham, “Please send Lazarus back that he might preach to my brothers and that they might repent so that they do not come to this same place of torment.” I marvel at this story because what it really means is that this man knew that it was repentance that would keep them from this place of torment.

Ankerberg: Okay. What can our readers take away from this story?

Lutzer: Let me just speak from my heart to the reader for a moment. At the end of the day what we need to do is to understand that unless we repent, unless we trust in Jesus Christ, we will be in this place called Hades and we will experience the gloom and the darkness and the torment.

So at this moment, I need to ask you, have you believed in Jesus? Because the Bible says that, “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; but he who does not believe in the Son, shall not see life but the wrath of God abides on him.”

Why don’t you at this moment trust Christ? Tell Him that you’re a sinner, that you know that you are headed for condemnation. And believe in Him! Why? So that you do not come to this place of torment. It’s the most important decision you could ever make.

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