Sheol, Hebrew “Pit,” is a term symbolizing a cavern, womb, or underworld; related to the uterine paradise-garden called Shal-Mariin Tibet and Shalimar in India. Originally Sheol was the Virgin’s “enclosed garden” of flowers, fruits, fountains, and fairy nymphs. Sacred kings dying on trees entered this world. The Markandeya Purana mentioned an underworld realm when men’s souls are impaled on trees.
Shal-Mari probably became Sheol-Mari in the Middle-East, where Mari was Ishtar, and there was a long tradition of hanging human sacrifices on trees.
Sheol was the place where the dead gathered, as thought by the early Hebrews, and was believed located beneath the earth, perhaps at the roots of mountains. The dead were thought to lead a conscious shadowy existence there, they were not in torment, but had neither hope nor satisfaction. Some thought they remained cut off from God.
The following are biblical examples of Sheol:
When Jacob was grieving the lost of Joseph he said that you (Reuben) shall bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to sheol (Genesis 42:38).
And Moses speaking to the congregation said if the Lord makes a new thing, and the earth opens her mouth to swallow them up, with all that appertains unto them, and they go down alive into sheol; then you will understand that these men have provoked the Lord (Numbers 16:30).
The Lord can kill and he can make alive; he can bring down to sheol, and he can bring up (1 Samuel 2:6) The sorrows of sheol compassed me; and the snares of death touched me (2 Samuel 22:6). Do to him according to your wisdom, and do not let his gray (old) head go to sheol in peace. Now, therefore, do not hold him guiltless; for you are a wise man, and you know what ought to be done to him, but bring his gray (old) head down to sheol with blood (1 Kings 2:6, 9).
As the cloud is consumed and vanishes; they that go down to sheol shall come up no more (Job 7:9).
If I wait, sheol in my house; I have made my bed in darkness. They shall go down to the bars of sheol, when we rest together in the dust (Job 17:13, 16).
O Lord, you have brought up my soul from sheol (the grave); you have kept me alive, that I should not go down to the pit (Psalms 30:3).
Let me be not ashamed, O Lord; for I called upon you, and let then be silent in sheol (Psalms 31:17).
Let death siege upon them, and let them go down alive into sheol; for wickedness is in their dwellings, and among them (Psalms 55:15).
For great is your mercy toward me; and you have delivered my soul from the lowest sheol (Psalms 86:13).
Sheol and destruction are never full; so the eyes of man are never satisfied (Proverbs 27:20).
I said in the cutting off of my days, I shall go to the gates of sheol; I am deprived of the residue of my years (Isaiah 38:10).
And you went to the king with ointment, and increased your perfumes, and sent your messengers far off, and you debased yourself even unto sheol (Isaiah 57:9).
Thus said the Lord God, In the day he went down to sheol, I caused a mourning; I covered the deep for him, and I restrained its floods, and the waters were stayed; and I caused Lebanon to morn for him, and all the trees of the field fainted for him. I made the nations shake at the sound of his fall, when I cast him down to sheol with those who descend into the pit; and all the trees of Eden, the choice and best of Lebanon, all that drink water, shall be comforted in the lower parts of the earth. They also went down into sheol with him unto those who are slain with the sword; and they that were his arm, who dwelt under his shadow in the midst of the nations. (Ezekiel 31:15-17).
The strong among the mighty shall speak to him out of the midst of sheol with those who helped him; they are gown down, they lie uncircumcised, slain by the sword. And shall they not lie with the mighty that are fallen of the uncircumcised, who are gone down to sheol with their weapons of war? And they have laid their swords under their heads, but the iniquities shall be upon their bones, though they were the terror of the mighty in the land of the living (Ezekiel 33: 21, 27).
I will ransom them from the power of sheol; I will redeem them from death, O death, I will be your plagues; O sheol, I will be your destruction, repentance shall be hidden from your eyes (Hosea 13:14).
Though they dig into sheol, there shall your hand take them; though they climb up to heaven, from there I will bring them down (Amos 9:2).
And said, I cried by reason of my affliction unto the Lord, and he heard me; out of the belly of sheol; cried I, and you heard my voice (Jonah 2:2).
Yes, also, because he transgressed by wine, he is a proud man, neither stays at home, who enlarges his desire as sheol, and is as death, and cannot be satisfied, but gathered unto himself all nations, and takes unto himself all peoples (Habakkuk 2:5).
In summary, from the above scriptures the description is basically a place, beneath the earth, where the dead go to, a place of the gathering of the dead. People went sorrowfully to Sheol and it contained sorrows; therefore, it was viewed as gloomy. It was thought both the good and evil went there; some could be taken there alive. The Hebrews often described it as a grave or pit. The Lord could send people down to Sheol, or he could bring them up from it. A person can send another person to Sheol. Sheol is seen as a dark place where everyone rests in dust; and it appears to have been thought to have levels because the lowest and belly of Sheol is referred to. As the Hebrew thought progressed one sees more emphasis is placed on the wicked being sent to Sheol; it becomes a place of imprisonment from which they never leave. Sheol and destruction are never full; so the eyes of man are never satisfied. The wicked leader, along with those who helped him, can go to Sheol, and lie beside those whom they have slain.
Many think Sheol foreshadows the Christian hell because there are resemblances between the two. Both are believed to be beneath the earth, dark and gloomy. Both share resemblances to Hades; Sheol more so than hell.
People, on occasion, were thought to be able to leave Sheol, like Hades, but never hell. Due to the similarities it is easy to see how the concept of hell evolved from Sheol.
Some Christians think Sheol, rather than hell, is what is referred in Apostle’s Creed which states Christ, after his crucifixion, descended into hell. Also, there is a belief by some, that all deserving the eternal reward of heaven; will rise up at once and enter heaven; therefore, Sheol seems a good intermediary resting place. A.G.H.
Bowker, John, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 888-889
Ibid., Apostles’ Creed, p. 82
The Encyclopedia Americana, Sheol, Year 2000 Edition, volume 24, p. 700