Old School

Why does the image of cemetery gates invoke a feeling of foreboding?

We look, so often, to the Old Testament for the beginnings of a doctrine, a principle or a truth taught in the New Testament and in doing so we can gain depth, clarity and context.

The fact that there is but one God is entrenched so deeply in the Old Testament, we find that that truth is the anchor of all doctrine in the New Testament. We find the teaching of the just living by faith embodied in the life of Abraham so that when Paul picks it up in the New Testament, we become awestricken over the height, and the width and the depth of faith. Don’t get me started talking about the study of the Tabernacle followed by the reading of Hebrews. We are rich beyond measure.

So, I am going to look to the old in the hope of gaining depth, clarity and context in the new. The subject matter? Hell.

First stop – my concordance:

The word “hell” in the Old Testament is translated from the Hebrew sheol, only, and appears 31 times. Interestingly, the Hebrew sheol is also translated “grave” and it also appears… 31 times. Add to these, three more occurrences of sheol, this time translated, “pit”.

So, rendered hell (31) + rendered grave (31) + rendered pit (3) = 65 occurrences of the Hebrew word sheol in the Old Testament. Good so far?

According to Easton’s Bible Dictionary 1, that Hebrew word, sheol, is defined as: the grave or the realm of the dead. This is the case whether the word is translated “hell”, “grave” or “pit”. It does not matter. As a matter of fact, recently revised versions of the Bible have had sheol inserted back into passages where the original manuscript contained the word, leaving the words “hell”, “grave”, or “pit” out.

It is a curious fact that less than half of the occurrences of the word sheol are rendered “hell” and all of those can contextually support a rendering of “grave”. (See table 2.1)

Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words is critical of the English translation of the King James Version of the Bible in saying that Sheol has been “unhappily rendered ‘hell’.”2

Old headstones with Hebrew inscriptions.

Another interesting fact is that the very first mention of the word “hell” (first mention is an important principle in the study of scripture) doesn’t occur until Deuteronomy 32:22. Count them: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and all the way to the end of Deuteronomy before the word “hell” is used in scripture. Chronologically, that’s nearly 2,500 years in the account of human existence before anyone mentions … hell?

Hell was never mentioned to Adam and Eve nor does it appear in scripture regarding the antediluvian world of Genesis 6. Noah never mentions hell to them, nor does Lot to the people of Sodom. Did you know the Hebrew language does not even have a word that means hell?

Rabbi Perlins of the Temple B’nai Shalom in Fairfax Station, VA says, “In fact, nowhere in the entire five books of Moses, and with few exceptions, our entire Torah, is there any indication of a realm beyond this world.”3

“There is no concrete Jewish vision of the afterlife,” says Rabbi Shalom Carmy, Yeshiva University professor of Jewish Studies and Philosophy.4

So, what am I saying – there is no hell in the Old Testament? That is exactly what I am saying. Except for 31 “unhappy” renderings of the Hebrew sheol, there is no hell in the Old Testament narrative. It is just not there, and there is a good reason for that.

To the ancient Hebrew, dead was dead:

Remember, Ecclesiastes is a collection of wisdom literature written by Solomon in his old age. Solomon said that the dead are dead – that the dead know not anything. What does that mean? I think that means that the dead do not know anything.

The ancient Jews did believe in the resurrection of the dead, but that was an extremely late development and they did not have a clue what the afterlife looked like.

The Hebrew Sheol rendering of “the grave” is contextually supported throughout the Old Testament. So, in answer to my first question – who goes to hell? Everyone! That is… everyone that dies goes to the grave –  the realm of the dead.


1M.G. Easton, Easton’s Bible Dictionary, New York: Scriptura Press, Original ©1893, Latest ©2015

2W.E. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words, Nashville: Thomas Nelson Inc., ©1997, p. 517.

3Rabbi Perlins, Religion 202: “Is there a Heaven or Hell in Judaism? (Temple B’nai Shalom), https://www.tbs-online.org/rabbi-perlins-study/307-2/, December 9, 2016, retrieved 5/17/2021.

4Rabbi Shalom Carmy, quoted in Edwin Black, Hell on Earth, Washington Post online, August 29, 1999, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1999/08/29/hell-on-earth/a2777d75-cfa6-4325-814a-0a26c83086c5/, retrieved 5/17/2021.

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