Where Do the Dead Go?

A Detailed Study on Sheol/Hades
and Other Related Topics

 

The Body, Upon Death, Goes Back to Dust.

The bodies of those who die are laid to rest in various ways, often by burial. 

"...the rich man also died, and was buried" (Luke 16:22).

"And his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him (Abraham) in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron."

"So Joseph died, being an hundred and ten years old: and they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt" (Gen. 50:4).

The body may be buried, cast into the ocean, cremated, blown to pieces in an explosion, etc. but ultimately the physical remains of a person will decompose and go back to dust:

"In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return" (Genesis 3:19).

"All go unto one place; All are of the dust, and all turn to dust again" (Eccl. 3:20).

"Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was; and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it" (Eccl. 12:7).

"For He knoweth our frame; He remembereth that we are dust" (Psalm 103:14).

"Thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust" (Psalm 104:29).

In Daniel 12:2 the dead are described as those who "sleep in the dust."

A Biblical fact, which even the unsaved cannot dispute,
is that the bodies of the dead go back to dust.


The Soul, Upon Death, Departs From the Body.

It is easy to determine where the body of the dead person goes, but to know where the soul or the immaterial part of man goes can be determined in only one way.  We cannot see the soul.  We cannot watch it depart from the body.  We can look at a soul-less body in a funeral home and we know that the person is missing, but we cannot see where the soul went.  The only way to learn about things is to go to the only One who knows the answer, the living God.  Only His infallible Word, the Bible, can reveal such mysteries and let us know what lies beyond the grave.
 

The Key to Understanding Where the Soul Goes is to Understand What the Bible Teaches About Sheol/Hades.

The O.T. Hebrew word for the place where the dead go is Sheol; the N.T. Greek word is Hades.

Genesis 37:35--Jacob said, "For I will go down into the grave (Sheol) unto my son mourning."

Luke 16:22-23--"The rich man also died, and was buried, and in hell (Hades) he lift up his eyes, being in torments."

Psalm 16:10--"For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell (Sheol); neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption."

Psalm 16:10 is also quoted in the New Testament, in Acts 2:27--"Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell (Hades), neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption."   These two passages (Psalm 16:10 and Acts 2:27) demonstrate that the Old Testament term "Sheol" is equivalent to the New Testament term "Hades." 

Note:  Sometimes the words "Sheol" and "Hades" are translated by the English word "hell."  This can be confusing because usually when we think of HELL as being a place of punishment.  At this point it is better to think of Sheol or Hades as referring simply to the place where the soul goes at death.  As will be seen, Sheol/Hades is also the place where the souls of righteous people go, and punishment would not be appropriate for these people.  Psalm 16:10 (as well as Acts 2:27) is Messianic and refers to the place where Christ's soul went between His death and resurrection.  Certainly Christ did not go to a place of punishment (compare Luke 23:43).

Sheol does not refer to the grave.

In the Old  Testament Sheol is translated hell 31 times, grave 31 times and pit 3 times.  In the New Testament Hades is translated hell 10 times and grave one time. 

Even though these words are translated "grave" in the KJV,  it is better to understand Sheol/Hades as the place where departed spirits go (where the souls of the dead go). There are many solid reasons for not identifying Sheol with the grave:

The Hebrew language has a common word which clearly means "the grave."

This is the word "queber."  It is used in Genesis 50:5--"Lo,  I die: in my grave (queber) which I have digged for me in the land of Canaan, there shalt thou bury me."   It is possible that there could be two different Hebrew words to describe the same thing (i.e. "grave"), but let us consider the following points:

Sheol is never used in the plural.

If the word meant "grave" we would expect it to be used in the plural.  For example, "And they said unto Moses, because there were no graves (plural of queber) in Egypt" (Exodus 14:11).  But the word Sheol is never used in this way.  Queber is used in the plural 29 times.

When Sheol is used, it never speaks of the body going there.

If the word meant "grave" we would expect that it would be associated with a dead body or carcass or bones.  Example:  "And the bones of Saul and Jonathan his son buried they...in the sepulchre (queber) of Kish his father" (2 Sam. 21:14).  The body is said to go to queber 37 times.  The body is never said to go to Sheol.

Sheol is never said to be located on or near the face (surface) of the earth.

If the word meant "grave" then we would expect it to be described as being located on or near the face or surface of the earth. Example:  "In my grave [queber] which I have digged for me in the land of Canaan, there shalt thou bury me" (Gen. 50:5)   This was a grave that was dug on the surface of the earth, deep enough for a body to be placed in it.  Queber is located on or near the face of the earth 32 times.  Sheol is never used in this way.

Sheol never refers to an individual's grave.

If the word meant "grave" then we  would expect it to refer to an individual's grave, as in this made up sentence, "There is Joseph's grave." But the word is never so used.  Queber is used in this way often:  "The sepulcher (queber) of Kish" (2 Sam. 21:14).  The O.T. would never say, "The Sheol of Kish."   Queber is used of an individual's grave 44 times; Sheol is never so  used.

The Bible never speaks of a man putting a dead person into Sheol.

If the word meant "grave" then we would expect that there would be verses describing a dead person being put into Sheol, but we do not find this.   A dead body is put in queber 33 times as in this example:  "He laid his carcass (the carcass of the man of God) in his own grave (queber)" (1 Kings 13:30).

Man never digs or makes a Sheol.

If the word meant "grave" then we would expect to find verses which speak of man digging a Sheol, but we do not find this.  Queber is used in this way six times:   "In my grave (queber) which I have digged for me in the land of Canaan, there shalt thou bury me" (Genesis 50:5).   The Old Testament never speaks of a Sheol being dug.

The Old Testament never speaks of a man touching Sheol.

A grave can be touched.  In Genesis 50:5 (quoted in the above  paragraph) Jacob dug and prepared his own grave (queber), and his hands must have touched it in one way or another as he was preparing it.  The Bible never speaks of Sheol being touched. 

The Old Testament never speaks of a man going down to queber (the grave).

Twenty-two times the Bible speaks of going down or descending into Sheol, but it never speaks of going down or descending into the grave (queber).   The reason for this will become more apparent later when we discuss the location of Sheol/Hades.

There are three places where the Bible speaks of conversations taking place in Sheol.

See Ezekiel 32:21, Isaiah 14:9-20 and Luke 16:19-31. It is obvious that in the grave it is impossible for conversations to take place.  A dead person does not talk to the corpse next to him.  No conversations are ever mentioned in connection with the term queber.

The Old Testament distinguishes between the grave and Sheol, proving that they are not the same.

In Genesis 37:35 Jacob says, "I will go down into Sheol unto my son (Joseph) mourning." 

This is the first place where Sheol is found in the Old Testament.  Jacob believed that Joseph had been devoured by a beast (verse 33) and thus  Jacob knew that Joseph was not buried in a grave.  Yet he seemed to believe that he would be reunited with his son in Sheol, which, in this passage,  cannot possibly mean the grave.

Also Isaiah 14:15 describes a man who will be "brought down to Sheol."  But in verse 19 we learn that this same man had been cast out of his grave.  Thus the grave and Sheol cannot be the same in these verses.

Note:   The arguments here given showing the differences between Sheol and the grave (queber) are largely taken and adapted from the very helpful booklet, Life and Death by Caleb J. Baker.

Sheol/Hades does not refer to hell as hell is normally understood.

The Hebrew term "Sheol" and the Greek term "Hades" are often translated  "hell" in the KJV Bible.  This can be confusing for two reasons:

1)  When we think of hell, we think of it as being a place of eternal punishment for the wicked, for unbelievers, for the unsaved.  However, as we shall see in this study, the Bible indicates that saved people have been in Sheol/Hades as well as the wicked.  This was true during the Old Testament period.  Sheol/Hades was divided into two compartments, one for the righteous and one for the wicked (Luke 16:26).  After the resurrection, Sheol/Hades held only the souls of the unsaved. 

2) Hell is normally thought of as the place of eternal punishment, the final, permanent abode of the wicked.  However, as we shall see in this study, the Bible teaches that Sheol/Hades is merely a temporary abode for the wicked, a temporary prison while they await the final judgment. It is the lake of fire, not Sheol/Hades, which is the final abode of all unbelievers.

The Lord Jesus went to Sheol/Hades between His death and resurrection.

The Lord's body went into Joseph's tomb (Matthew 27:59-60) but His soul went to Sheol/Hades:  Acts 2:27--"Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell (Hades), neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption."   The body of Christ was in the grave, but God did not allow it to see corruption.   The soul of Christ went to Hades but He was there only briefly.  In Acts 2:31 Peter gives further explanation:  "He (David) seeing this before, spake of the resurrection of Christ, that His soul was not left in hell (Hades), neither his flesh did see corruption."   Christ's soul was in Sheol/Hades between His death and resurrection.  The place where Christ's soul went between His death and resurrection is also called paradise (Luke 23:43).  Christ promised the thief on the cross that on that very day that he would be with Him in paradise.  It is obvious that the thief on the cross was not with Christ in Joseph's tomb, but he was with Him in paradise (Sheol/Hades).   

Note:   Acts 2:27 (where the Greek word is Hades) is an exact quotation of Psalm 16:10 (where the Hebrew word is Sheol).  Both passages are speaking of the place (Sheol/Hades) where Christ's soul went after He died on the cross. 

Sheol/Hades is located in the center of the earth.

Between Christ's death and resurrection it is obvious that His body was in Joseph's tomb. The Bible also clearly teaches that between Christ's death and resurrection, the soul of Jesus was in the heart of the earth:  "For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Matthew 12:40).  The term "heart" refers to the core or center of the earth.  Joseph's tomb was not in the heart of the earth, but it was located on the surface of the earth.  Matthew 12:40 is not talking about our Lord's body and it is not talking about the location of our Lord's tomb.  Jesus' body went to the tomb; Jesus went to Sheol/Hades (Paradise) in the heart of the earth.

It may seem strange to think Sheol/Hades is located in the center of the earth, but Matthew 12:40 is not the only passage that teaches this.   Ephesians 4:9 teaches that before Christ ascended, He first "descended into the lower parts of the earth."  This agrees fully with Matthew 12:40.  Psalm 16:10, Acts 2:27 and 2:31 teach that Christ's soul went to Sheol/Hades.  Matthew 12:40 and Ephesians 4:9 teach that Christ went to the heart of the earth, even the lower part of the earth.  We conclude then that Sheol/Hades is located in the heart of the earth or the lower part of the earth. 

Not only Christ, but other people went down to Sheol/Hades also.

In Numbers 16:30-32 God did a very unique thing to those who rebelled with Korah.  God caused the earth to swallow them up and they went down into the pit (Sheol).  Most wicked men die before they go to Sheol/Hades.   These men were swallowed alive and transported immediately to the lower part of the earth.  This was different from the way most men die (see Numbers 16:30 where God explains that He was doing something very unique).  In the case of most men, their bodies would go to the grave and their souls would go to Sheol/Hades. In the case of those who rebelled with Korah, both body and soul went to Sheol/Hades, and therefore this was a unique experience. 

Philippians 2:10 teaches that someday every knee will bow to Christ.  Paul is apparently referring to humans, and these humans who shall someday bow the knee to Christ presently are in three habitations (see verse 10):  1) humans who are in presently in heaven (those who are saved);  2) humans who are presently on earth (those who are still living);  3)  humans who are under the earth,  an apparent reference to the wicked who are in Sheol/Hades.  Wicked Cain, Pharaoh, Haman, Judas, Hitler and every other child of the devil will someday be released from Sheol/Hades and will bow the knee to Christ before being cast into the lake of fire forever.

Because of its location under the earth, we are not surprised to find that the Word of God speaks of going down or descending into Sheol 22 times in the Old Testament.  "I will go down into Sheol [KJV--the grave]" (Gen. 37:35).  Deuteronomy 32:22 and Psalm 86:13 speak of the lowest Sheol [KJV-hell].  The vast height of heaven is contrasted with the great depth of Sheol:  "It is as high as heaven...deeper than Sheol [KJV-hell]" (Job 11:8).  If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: If I make my bed in Sheol [KJV-hell], behold, thou art there" (Psalm 139:8).  The same contrast between the height of heaven and the depth of Sheol is found in Amos 9:2 ("hell"=Sheol).

In the New Testament Hades is described as being DOWN:  "And thou, Capernaum, which are exalted unto heaven, shall be brought down to Hades" [KJV-"hell"].  Notice the contrast between being exalted very high and brought down very low.  In the parallel passage in Luke 10:15 the Lord spoke of being "thrust down to Hades."

Sheol/Hades once had two compartments: one for the souls of the saved, the other for the souls of the unsaved.

This is clearly taught in Luke 16:19-31.  The rich man died, his body was buried and he went to hell (Sheol/Hades)--see verses 22-23.  In Sheol/Hades he was being tormented (tortured) by a flame (verses 23, 24, 25, 28).  It is a literal "place" (v. 28).  This is the place where the souls of the unsaved go upon death.  But also in Sheol/Hades is another compartment occupied by Abraham and Lazarus (verse 23).  It was the place where the righteous dead would go.  This compartment is a place of comfort (v. 25).  It is called "Abraham's bosom" (Luke 16:23).  "Abraham's bosom" is the place where the righteous dead can have fellowship with each other and with Abraham who is the father of the faithful.  Sheol/hades is also called "paradise" where the thief on the cross and Christ went (Luke 23:43).

Between these two compartments communication was possible (verses 24-31).   However passing from one compartment to the other was impossible (verse 26).  The destiny of the people in each compartment was fixed and settled and could not be changed. The way to avoid the compartment which involved torture in the flame and the way to enter the blessed compartment with Abraham was to hear and heed the Word of God while one is still alive (verses 27-31).

The following diagram represents Sheol/Hades prior to the resurrection of Christ, showing the two compartments:


Luke 16:19-31 is not a parable.

People have tried to deny the simple truths taught in Luke 16:19-31 by insisting that it is merely a parable and therefore has nothing to teach us regarding the place where the soul goes after death.

Many groups who deny the doctrine of eternal punishment (such as Jehovah's Witnesses, followers of Herbert Armstrong, some ultradispensationalists etc.) claim that this passage is a parable because they do not believe what it teaches about Hades.  This passage clearly teaches that Hades is a place of conscious torment and suffering for the wicked. These groups think that if this passage is only a parable then they do not have to accept what it teaches about the condition of men following death.  The Bible does not say that this was a parable. Even if it were a parable, it would indeed be a unique parable for the following reasons:

1.  It would be the only parable in the Bible that describes certain things that are outside of the realm of human experience. All the other parables talk about things that we are familiar with such as birds, seed, fields, pearls, wheat, barns, leaven, fish, etc. (see Matthew 13, etc.).  This passage is different because it talks about what happens to two men after death, and this is a realm where none of us have had any personal experience. A parable is an earthly story with a heavenly or spiritual significance, but Luke 16 transcends the realm of the earthly.

2.  It would be the only parable in the Bible that uses a proper name (Lazarus).

3.  It would be the only parable in the Bible that makes mention repeatedly of a historical person--Abraham. Moreover, this historical person actually carries on a dialogue with the rich man! Indeed, mention is also made in this parable of  Moses, another historical character.  What other parable speaks of real, historical persons? 

4.  It would be the only parable in the Bible that describes the places where the dead go (Hades, Abraham's bosom, a place of torment).

5. It would be the only parable in the Bible that makes mention of angels.  Compare Matthew 13 verses 24-30, 36-43, 47-49 where angels are mentioned in the explanation of the parable but not in the parable itself.

6. If Hades is not really a place of torment then this would be the only parable in the Bible where the Lord Jesus taught error instead of truth. GOD FORBID! 

 

At the time of the Resurrection/Ascension of Christ, the righteous dead went immediately to the third heaven, to be with Christ.  They did not go to Hades.

After the death of Christ a great change took place with respect to the location of paradise, the abode of the souls of the saved.  According to Luke 23:43 the Lord Jesus and the thief on the cross went to paradise, which, as we have seen, was equivalent to Sheol/Hades (the saved compartment, Abraham's bosom).

In 2 Corinthians 12:2,4 we learn that after the resurrection and ascension of Christ, in the days of the Apostle Paul, Paradise is equivalent to the third heaven.  Paradise has always been the abode of the righteous, but its location has changed.  The thief on the cross and Jesus both died, and they went to paradise which was located in Sheol/Hades.  Paul was caught up to paradise which was located in the third heaven.   It seems that at the time of the resurrection and ascension of Christ, this change of location took place as the saints in Sheol/Hades were relocated to the third heaven.

A number of Bible scholars believe that Ephesians 4:8 describes the time when the souls of the righteous were transported to the heavenly paradise:  "When He (Christ) ascended on high, He led captivity captive."   The saints in paradise in Sheol/Hades were waiting for their sins to be paid for by the finished work of Christ on Calvary's cross.  Once this great event took place, they were taken to the heavenly paradise.

The following discussion is somewhat technical, but it explains what Paul meant by the phrase, "led captivity captive":

It also seems clear to the writer that, in accordance with Scriptural usage, the phrase "led captivity captive" must have reference to the deliverance of captured friends.  This phrase, unqualified, occurs but twice in the Old Testament--once in the Psalm from which the Apostle quotes it (Psalm 68:18); and again in the Song of Deborah and Barak (Judges 5:12):  "Arise, Barak, and lead thy captivity captive, thou son of Ahinoam."

Regarded merely as a phrase, it may mean either of two things:  (1) to lead as prisoners a number of enemies, or (2) to lead as re-captured a number of friends previously captured by an enemy.  The latter seems to be its most natural interpretation; and this manifestly is its meaning in Judges 5:12, the only passage in which the context determines the meaning.  It is clearly implied, Judges 4:16, that Barak took no prisoners, in the words:  "All the host of Sisera fell upon the edge of the sword, and there was not a man left."  The captivity that Barak led captive must have been captured Israel.

....This, then, is not only the natural, but the scripturally suggested interpretation of Ephesians 4:8-9--that Christ descended into Hades, and then ascended into Heaven (above all Heavens), leading a multitude whom He had delivered (captured) from captivity.

--From John Peter Lange's Commentary on the Holy Scriptures, Volume 12 (James-Revelation), published by Zondervan, p. 373.  The particular article this quotation is from is entitled, "Excursus on Hades," and is written by the American Editor whose initials are E. R. C.  The entire article is excellent (see pages 364-377).

Today when a believer dies, he does not go to Sheol/Hades and he does not go to the heart of the earth. Instead he goes immediately to heaven to be with Christ.  Read carefully 2 Corinthians 5:8 and Philippians 1:21,23.

After the Death and Resurrection of Christ, the unrighteous dead remained in Sheol/Hades where they await the second resurrection when they will stand before the Great White Throne Judgment before being cast into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:11-15).

Today when an unsaved person dies, he goes to Sheol/Hades, the same place that unsaved people have always gone, the same place that the rich man went in Luke 16:19-31.  It is a place of torment and suffering (Luke 16:23-25).  The rich man did not want his brothers to come to such a place of torment (Luke 16:28).  The unsaved who die and go to this place of torment are those who have failed to hear and heed God's Word (Luke 16:28-31).  Hades is not the final abode of the wicked.  It is a temporary prison.  The lake of fire will be the eternal home of all who have despised God's Word and rejected His Son (Rev. 20:11-15;  Matthew 25:41,46).  

The souls of those living in each compartment of Sheol/Hades wait for a great event.  Their location cannot change until the great event takes place.

Those believers who died before the death of Christ were in the compartment of Hades that is called "Abraham's bosom" (Luke 16:22) and "paradise"  (Luke 23:43).  These would include Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Isaiah, Daniel, the thief on the cross, etc.  They were waiting for a great event, namely the full payment of their sins which would take place on Calvary's cross.  Once this great event took place, then Christ set them free and delivered them from Hades and brought them to heaven.

Those who are in the unsaved compartment of Hades will remain there until a great event takes place:  the future and final judgment of all the wicked.  This judgment is also called the Great White Throne Judgment.  When this great event takes place, their souls will be removed from Hades, their bodies will be resurrected (the second resurrection--John 5:29), and they will stand before God.  Their works will be reviewed showing conclusively that they lacked the righteousness that God requires (Rev. 20:12-13).  They will see that their names are not written in the Lamb's book of life (Rev. 20:15) because they never received the Lord Jesus Christ as their  Saviour (John 1:12).  All who reject Christ will perish eternally (John 3:16).

This is illustrated below:

 

Summary of What the Bible Teaches on Hades by William Newell

Hades is literally, "the unseen":  yet it is a place, with gates.  It is in the heart of the earth.  Matthew 12:40.  It is the Hebrew sheol; as we see by comparing Psalm 16:10 with Acts 2:27.  Men went down into itGenesis 37:35, R. V. Spirits, not bodies, went there,except in "the new thing" that God did in the judgment of Korah, Numbers 16:30-33, R. V.  There was "a great gulf" there, fixed by God, separating His own from "the pit wherein was no water": for Christ had covenanted to shed His blood for His "prisoners,"which made them "prisoners of hope"; and God promised Christ He would "render double" unto them,not only delivering them from the pit,as was Lazarus, in Abraham's bosom as a child of faith delivered,but also bringing them up from the "stronghold," in which they waited.  See Zechariah 9:9,11,12.  When Christ ascended, after the three days there in "the lower parts of the earth," He led up His "captives,"the Old Testament saints,in His ascension (see Ephesians 4:8-10) so that they are now "spirits of just men made perfect," in their proper place in heaven, awaiting the Lord's second coming and the resurrection.  It is blessed, and sad, to reflect upon the countless hosts waiting with eagerness our Lord's coming:  and the prattling ones who "do not believe in it,"and the frightful terror awaiting them!  Note that our Lord's words in Matthew 16:18 refer to the gates of a literal region,in this earth's center: into which gates the saints of the Church were never even to enter.   --The Revelation, pages 79-80 (footnote).

 


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