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Particulars of Christianity:
303 Bible Cosmology

Hell in the Old Testament

Cosmology: Introduction and Definitions
Part 1: The Old Testament - Buildings in Heaven
Bodies in Heaven: Angels and Spirit Bodies
Humans and Angels: How Similar are We?
Hell in the Old Testament
Part 2: From Christ's Death to His Return
Part 3: Christ's Return Through His Millennial Reign
Part 4: The Final Judgment and Eternity
Replaced or Restored: "Restarts" vs. the First Start
Replaced or Restored: Genesis 1 and Angels
Replaced or Restored: Precedent Reveals Restoration (Part 1)
Replaced or Restored: Precedent Reveals Restoration (Part 2)
Replaced or Restored: More on the Creation of Angels (Part 1)
Replaced or Restored: More on the Creation of Angels (Part 2)
Cosmology: Composite Chart
Cosmogony Illustrations

In the Old Testament and in particular, prior to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, those who died in faith were not permitted to go into the presence of God because atonement had not yet been provided.

The word "hell" occurs 31 times in the Old Testament. All 31 of those times, the word translated "hell" is the Hebrew word "sheol." While the English word "hell" has connotations as a place of punishment for the condemned, sheol does not have such connotations. Sheol simply refers to the abode of the dead in general, not particularly the place of the punishment for the wicked. In fact, sheol was divided into two compartments, one for the righteous dead and one for the wicked dead. And, more specifically, the Jewish concept of sheol was the "underworld," or in other words, a place within the earth, underneath the surface world.

And these concepts are substantiated in scripture. The first indication we have that prior to the death and resurrection of Christ, the righteous dead remained in Sheol comes from 1 Samuel 28:6-20. In this passage, Saul enquires of the LORD but the LORD will not answer him. So, Saul then goes to a witch from Endor who, by Saul's request, brings up the spirit of Samuel from the dead. First, in verse 11, both Saul and the witch refer to "bringing up" a spirit. This phrase itself indicates the belief that dead spirits resided "below" or "under" and thus needed to be "brought up."

And in verse 13-14, Saul asks the witch to describe what she sees as she brings up Samuel. The witch replies saying, "I saw gods ascending out of the earth" and "an old man cometh up." Now, the Bible does not deny that this is really occurring nor does it qualify this as a trick of some sort. Instead, the Bible testifies that Samuel actually answers Saul in verse 16. Therefore, the Bible records the reality of these events, particularly that the spirit of the dead prophet Samuel resided within the earth. Thus, this Biblical account substantiates the Jewish concept of sheol as a place below the surface of the earth where the righteous dead resided.

In the New Testament, Jesus himself explains further. In Luke 16:19-31, during a parable, Jesus describes sheol in similar detail.

Luke 16:19 There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day: 20 And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, 21 And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; 23 And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. 24 And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. 25 But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. 26 And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence. 27 Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father's house: 28 For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment. 29 Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. 30 And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. 31 And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.

Now, we have no reason to believe that Jesus' depiction of these things is inaccurate. The presumption should be that Jesus' words are not misleading regarding this arrangement of the place of the dead. One other thing that is significant is that the setting of this parable is BEFORE the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Therefore, we should not confuse what is depicted in this parable with the situation regarding the dead after the death and resurrection of Christ himself.

Now, what do we learn from Jesus' description in this parable. First, we see that the place of the dead is divided into two compartments separated by a gulf so that those on either side cannot go to the other side. However, the fact that Abraham and the rich man are able to communicate indicates that, although divided, these compartments are in the same general overarching location. Second, we see that the beggar is taken to the side on which Abraham resides. This side of the place of the dead is a place of comfort. And the name for this portion of the place of the dead (where the righteous) go was "the Bosom of Abraham." As we will soon see, this place of the righteous dead was also known as "Paradise." Third, we see that the rich man goes to the other side of the gulf, which is described as a place of fiery torment.

Here, in the words of Jesus' himself we have corroboration for the Jewish concept of sheol. And not only that, but Jesus' words also align perfectly with 1 Samuel 28, where the prophet Samuel is depicted as arising out of the earth.

Additionally, in Luke 23:43 we find Jesus on the cross about to die and he promises the thief that "To day shalt thou be with me in paradise." What does Jesus mean here by Paradise? Did he mean he and the thief were going to the garden of Eden? Did he mean he and the thief were going into the presence of God in heaven? Well, since as we have shown, the Jewish concept of Jesus' day as upheld by both 1 Samuel 28 and Jesus himself in Luke 16, was that the righteous dead such as Samuel, Abraham, and the beggar Lazarus, was a place within the earth. So, as a matter of precedent, we should conclude that this "righteous" thief was going, not to heaven and the presence of God, but to the place of the righteous dead within the earth, the Bosom of Abraham. Thus, the term Paradise would simply be another synonym for the Bosom of Abraham.

The Greek word translated Paradise in Luke 23:24 is "paradeisos." For the Greeks, paradeisos referred to the Persian concept of a well-watered grove, garden, park, or hunting ground, which for the Greeks was a part of hades set aside for the heroic among others and as distinguished from the portion of hades where some of the dead were tortured.

1 Peter 3:18-21;4:6 tells us more.

1 Peter 3:18 For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: 19 By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; 20 Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.
...4:6 For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.

Peter tells us that when Christ died, he went and preached to the spirits of the dead who were in prison, particularly those who were disobedient in the days of Noah before the flood. Although we will discuss 1 Peter 3 and 4 again later on in our study as we move to where the dead go after the resurrection of Christ Jesus, for now it is important to note that 1 Peter also corroborates the Jewish concept of sheol as a place of the dead. 1 Peter 3 and 4 demonstrate particularly that disobedient spirits were kept in a prison, which is consistent with the concept of sheol presented in Luke 16, where we find the rich man in a fiery prison separated from the bosom of Abraham by a gulf.

But, not only was sheol a prison for the wicked dead, but it was also a prison for fallen angels and demons. In Luke 8:31, Jesus is casting the Legion of demons out of a man and the demons ask not to be sent to the abyss. In Jude 1:6 and 1 Peter 2:4 we see that some angels are likewise imprisoned in a place of deep darkness. Revelation 9:1-2,11 speaks of an angel being let out of this abyss during the tribulation. And similarly, Revelation 20:1-3 speaks of the chief adversary as being chained in this abyssal pit for the duration of the 1000 year reign of Christ, after which he is let out again for a short time.

Even the Greek words used in the New Testament reflect the Jewish concept of sheol. There are several words translated as hell in the New Testament. Of those Greek words, the two that are relevant to this portion of our study are "hades," "tartaros," "phrear," and "abussos." Tartaros is by definition a dark subterranean region where the wicked dead are imprisoned. Hades also is defined as a dark place within the earth where the dead spirits reside. The New Testament also uses the word "pit" or "abyss" (such as Revelation 9), which is the Greek word "phrear" and refers to a pit below the surface of the earth. In Luke 8:31, the demons beg not to be cast into the deep, which is the Greek word "abussos," which again refers to a deep gulf or chasm within the earth where the dead reside. In fact, phrear and abussos are used almost interchangeably throughout the book of Revelation to refer to the deep pit of imprisonment for fallen angels (Revelation 9:2).

In conclusion, based upon 1 Samuel 28, Luke 16, and 1 Peter 3 and 4, we can conclude that throughout the Old Testament, prior to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, both the wicked and the righteous went to a place below the surface of the earth known in general as sheol in the Old Testament Hebrew and hades in the New Testament Greek. Sheol was divided by a gulf. On one side of this gulf was a compartment known as Paradise or Abraham's Bosom where the righteous dead such as Samuel, Abraham, and the beggar Lazarus went and experienced comfort. On the other side of this gulf was a place of imprisonment where the wicked dead and fallen angels were kept in chains and fiery torment spoken of in Jude 1 and 1 Peter 2. This place of imprisonment for the wicked was known interchangeably as Tartaros, the abyss, the pit, or the deep (abussos and phrear.)

So, when we speak of hell in the Old Testement times prior to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we must be careful and deliberate. The English word "hell" automatically denotes a place of torment for the wicked. However, Sheol was not exclusively a place for the wicked. Sheol contained a place for both the torment of wicked dead and the comfort of the righteous dead.

We should note that Sheol is a separate place, distinct from heaven and earth. However, these departed spirits are not allowed to leave Sheol and enter the presence of God in heaven or roam about the earth.

This concludes our examination of the heaven and hell in the Old Testament prior to the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. We will now move on to our next division of time starting with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and concluding with the return of Jesus Christ and the beginning of his millennial reign.

Related Images

(Days of Creation)
(Figures 1-6)

Cosmology Chart