Sheol and Gehenna, Heaven and Hell


The KJV translates “Sheol” as “Hell”’ but that is misleading, for Sheol was a neutral space for departed souls; both righteous and wicked. It was dark and gloomy, but it was not a place of anguish and torment. In the NT, though, we find the neutral Sheol split into two, Heaven for the righteous and Hell for the wicked.

In the sense of the abode of the souls of the departed, the name Gehenna appears only in the NT, not the OT, where (in the form Gei-Hinnom) it is used only as the name of the valley outside Jerusalem where the Canaanites who lived there before the Israelite conquest had an altar that they used for child sacrifices.

On the other hand, the name Sheol occurs only in the OT, never in the NT. This clearly points to a move away from the idea of a single gloomy abode where the souls of all the departed were gathered indiscriminately, righteous and wicked alike, replacing it with the novel idea of a segregated afterlife in which the righteous were rewarded and the wicked punished.

My question is this: Was Jesus the first to proclaim the new doctrine of a segregated Heaven and Hell, or had the idea already appeared in Judaism at an earlier date?

There is a hint of this in Daniel 12:3. “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake. some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt.” But there is a problem with this verse. It is part of Daniel’s prophecy of the end times: “At that time the great prince (or archangel) Michael, who guards your people, will appear …” This raises a further question: Pending the awaited appearance of the archangel Michael, where are all those souls now – those who will eventually awake to everlasting life and those who will eventually awake to shame and everlasting contempt? Are we to understand that it was Daniel’s belief that, for the time being, those souls are all together in Sheol, the righteous and the wicked alike?

My reason for asking this question is that, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16, Jesus seems to be saying that, as soon as they both died, the rich man’s soul went to Hades and Lazarus’s soul to the abode of Abraham. He doesn’t seem to be allowing for an interim period in which they were both together in Sheol.

Jesus also doesn’t seem to feel the need to provide a detailed explanation of their separate destinies. Neither does Luke add a footnote of any kind. And yet, if Jesus had been preaching an entirely new doctrine here, surely we would expect to find the parable prefaced with a word of explanation such as we find repeatedly in Matt. 5: “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time …, but I say unto you …” (vv. 21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43). That’s why it sounds to me as though Jesus was not presenting a new doctrine on Heaven and Hell, but simply framing his parable in terms that his audience would have been fully familiar with.


That’s an interesting observation. I don’t have an answer to your specific question, however, I’d like to point out; what do you think, then, “Hell” refers to in the Creeds, when it’s stated that “He descended into Hell”?

From the Catechism:

Paragraph 1. Christ Descended into Hell

632 The frequent New Testament affirmations that Jesus was “raised from the dead” presuppose that the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his resurrection.This was the first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ’s descent into hell: that Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there.

633 Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, "hell" - Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek - because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God. Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the Redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into “Abraham’s bosom”: “It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell.” Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him.

It is just a question of context – just like in the Creeds we don’t mean Jesus descended into the Hell of the eternally damned, but to the place that corresponds to those who are “deprived of the vision of God”, whether they are good or bad. In other words, the same kind of “Hell” the KJV is referring to, is what is also called “Hell” in the Creeds.


Thank you, Micosil. That is an extremely interesting point you raise there. Ten NT passages are mentioned in the footnotes to this section of the CCC (Nos. 632-637), three of which, at least, back up the assertion that the “Hell” in the Creed can only be Sheol, not Gehenna: Acts 2.24, Heb. 13.20, and 1 Peter 3.18-19. According to the Jerusalem Bible, the word translated as “death” in Acts 2.24 is replaced, in some manuscripts, by the name Hades, which makes the case even plainer.

So where does this leave us with Heaven and Hell?

I notice you live in Spain. Let me ask you one more question. What is the wording of this phrase in the standard text of the Creed in Catholic use in Spain? I’m in Brazil, and in Portuguese we say “Desceu à mansão dos mortos” – not “Hell” at all, but “the abode of the dead”. Quite a departure from the Latin descendit ad infernos.



We say “descendió a los infiernos”, which closely mimics the Latin, as you can see. Curious, since I was under the impression Portuguese is closer to Latin than Spanish. “Infierno”, in singular, by the way, is more commonly the hell of the eternally damned.


There was already a sort of idea of a reward/punishment after death in Jesus’ day. (It kinda goes hand in hand with the ideas of the immortality of the soul and the eventual resurrection of the dead.) Though of course one has to be careful not to inject our modern, Christian understanding of ‘Heaven’ or ‘Hell’ for this, since there’s no single, clearly-defined idea. There’s a few nearly-universal elements, but most everybody seemed to have their own ideas of what lies beyond.

In one scheme, all the dead are thought to go to Sheol (the afterlife) where they are to wait for the final resurrection. At this time however, Sheol is now thought to be comprised of separate ‘compartments’ or ‘spaces’: the righteous dead and the sinful dead are segregated from each other. The sinful dead are punished, while the righteous get some relative recompense (they get to see the sinners punished, for one ;)). Sometimes you’ll see a finer distinction: within the ‘righteous’ category you have the ‘saintly people’ and the ‘moderately good’ people, and in the ‘wicked’ category you have the ‘bad’ (who are punished but are to be resurrected in the last judgment anyway, usually either to be tortured again - this time forever - or obliterated for good) and the ‘very bad’ (who are doomed to suffer forever, to the point that they will not be raised in the general resurrection - since they are already condemned).

Of course, there’s also a scheme that thought the final resurrection was unnecessary and ditched it: the immortal soul already received reward or punishment/eternal death in the afterlife, so what’s the point of resurrection? Josephus speaks of a Pharisaic idea which seems to imply that the righteous dead could get to be transmigrated/reincarnated into other bodies (Jewish War 2.164), but it’s also possible that he just attempted to translate the Jewish idea of the resurrection of the body into something his foreign audience would better understand.


And conversely, the rich man suffering torments in the fire of Hades is close enough to recognize, on the far side of the chasm, Lazarus having a swell time in the company of Abraham! (Luke 16, 23f.)

Nothing like that in Dante’s arrangement, with an underground Hell completely shut out from Heaven in the starry sky. No gloating for the souls in Dante’s Paradise.


Well, in those days there’s really no clear consensus as to where the good souls (or souls in general) will end up. In the older scheme, Sheol is an underground realm (hence the name - ‘the Pit’), which some people kept. But you also have this idea (expressed in 1 Enoch 22, 25-27) that ‘Sheol’ is actually a mountain on the far western end of the Earth, with caves where the souls of the deceased reside (separated into groups of course). In this scheme, in the final judgment the ‘very bad’ souls will be annihilated without trace (a la the modern Jehovah’s Witnesses idea), the ‘bad’ souls - those who escaped punishment in life - will be relocated to the Valley of Hinnom (= Gehenna) to suffer eternal torment, while the ‘good’ souls will get to climb up to the mountain of God, at the summit of which is the divine throne.

You really two possible ways to understand Sheol: either as an intermediate place/state where all the dead (regardless of whether they are good or bad) will wait for their final reward or punishment, or as a place of torment for the bad souls, in which case it would be interchangeable with ‘Gehenna’. The latter scenario gave rise to the idea of the good souls going to a different locale after they die, Paradise/Heaven (again, two interchangeable terms). Before the 1st century BC, only two individuals are thought to have gone up to the skies: Enoch and Elijah. (Most other people, of course, stay down in Sheol.) But eventually, some people thought: what if the good souls end up in the same place/state as Enoch and Elijah?


Thank you, Patrick. Those are interesting points you make, including the one about Enoch and Elijah. I now realise I was guilty of an oversimplification when I assumed that the OT Sheol is invariably thought of as an undifferentiated, gloomy abode where the souls of the righteous and the wicked live side by side. Equally it was evidently an oversimplification to assume there must have occurred, at some point, a sudden switch to the Christian belief in a segregated Heaven and Hell.

In Second Temple Judaism there would have been different views held by different schools and at different times. Enoch and Elijah, after all, were exceptions to the rule – if it was a rule – that all souls ended up in Sheol, and in Jesus’ time the Sadducees denied the afterlife altogether. Perhaps also in the early Church there may have been a range of conflicting views on the subject, rather than a single, clearly defined doctrine.

In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus uses the name “Hades,” specifying that on the Hades side of the gulf or chasm there is fire but no water, and vice versa on Abraham’s side. Nevertheless, the rich man is close enough to be able to recognize Lazarus and to carry on a conversation with Abraham. In a sense, therefore, they are both in the same place, though the chasm divides it into clearly differentiated environments. It sounds much the same as the Greek myths, in which all souls go to Hades, but Hades has its heavenly section, Elysium, and its hellish section, Tartarus, where the wicked souls like Sisyphus end up.


I should just add:

The early Israelites didn’t really distinguish between the ‘body’ and the ‘soul’; they tended to view human beings as an inseparable, psychosomatic whole. A person does not so much have a ‘soul’ but is a ‘soul’ or ‘being’ (nephesh), alive when the breath of life (the ruach / neshama) is present, dead when it is not.

When people die, they switch from being ‘living beings/souls’ (nephesh chayah) who have the breath of life to ‘dead beings/souls’ (nephesh met). The person remains identifiably the same, but as its body falls apart the person enters a diminished, inferior state of existence - he/she becomes a ‘shade’ (rephaim). These shades stay in Sheol where they lead a sort of gloomy, shadowy existence. (The shades are often presented as being in a sort of state of slumber.) These rephaim are not disembodied souls, in the sense of an immortal, immaterial essence that enjoys bliss or misery - they are, well, quasi-bodily shadows of their former selves, cut off from life.

Being dead for the Israelites, while something inevitable, was not a very good state to be in: all the good stuff only happens when you are alive. Salvation and praising God is only possible if you’re still breathing. Reward and punishment can only happen while you’re still walking. After death, everybody’s equal.*

  • That eventually proved to be a dilemma for the Israelites. What good was it to “choose life” if the choice proved empty in view of one’s immanent death (and everyone dies eventually)? Was it even worth it to obey God’s law if you’re just gonna snuff it anyway? What good is it whether one is righteous or wicked if both paths lead to the same end? If all roads lead to the same end, why be righteous? (And as Job shows, being righteous does not automatically mean that your life will be a picnic.) Why not just “eat, drink and be merry”?

Eventually, you see this idea come up that the shades in Sheol will eventually be granted new life by God - by physically raising them. In other words, persons who passed from bodily life to shadowy existence in death will be restored from that shadowy existence to bodily life. (Again, there was no clear distinction between body and soul yet.) Think Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of the dry bones.

By the second Temple period, you see the dualism between the ‘body’ and the ‘soul’ supplanting the earlier holistic view of the person in some circles. (Possibly an influence of Greek philosophy?) So on the one hand, you have people like Ben Sira or the Sadducees who continued to hold the earlier idea of Sheol being terminal. On the other hand, you have a strand who adopted Greek dualism and affirmed an afterlife of everlasting disembodiment. In the main, however, Judaism followed the line of Isaiah and elaborated an eschatology which involved a temporary separation from fleshly existence until the final resurrection.

The Hebrew terms ruach and nephesh became translated as pneuma and psyche into Greek. Whereas in original Hebrew thought, nephesh referred to the living human ‘being’ as a whole while ruach was the animating ‘breath’/‘spirit’ (the thing which makes the nephesh alive), now pneuma and/or psyche often tended to be applied to the disembodied dead awaiting resurrection.

By this time, most people affirmed the resurrection of the body, but not all in the same way. Some people understood resurrection as the perfect restoration of the earthly body to its original structure. Others understood it as the transformation of the natural body into a glorified body. Still others viewed it as the translation of the physically resurrected person into a mode of spiritual existence appropriate for dwelling in heaven. All these versions of resurrection, you should note, presuppose the dichotomy of body and soul at death.



Thank you very much for taking the trouble to provide such an encyclopedic overview of the various cross-currents flowing backward and forward between Judaism and the Hellenistic world. The complexities are quite fearsome.

There is just one last question that I’d like to ask you, if you don’t mind. In the light of everything you have told us about the beliefs prevalent in Second Temple Judaism, does it make sense, in the Jewish context, to assert that “He descended into Hell,” in the words of the Creed?

Or, to put the same question another way: For a Jerusalemite in the Herodian period, would there be any significant difference between saying (a) “he was dead, and then he came back to life” and (b) “he was in Sheol, and then he came back to life”?



The King James Version is correct to render the Hebrew “Sheol” as “hell” as the old English meaning for “hell” is “a space in the ground, i.e., a cellar or room for a grave.” The expression “helling potatoes” no longer used, once meant “to store potatoes in the cellar.”

The “Gehenna” of New Testament times, while the trash dump for the city of Jerusalem in the first century, came to be used by the Jews of Jesus’ day to represent “eternal torment in hell” or “Sheol.” The theology of the Second Temple in Judaism had already developed to include this. Jesus and the New Testament writers being Jewish (or in the case of Luke, being quite familiar with Second Temple Judaism) were merely borrowing and building upon an already established Jewish belief. Even today Jews refer to “Gehenna” in the same fashion, including being a gateway to the underworld.

The reason why “Sheol” never appears in the New Testament is that “Sheol” is a Hebrew word. The New Testament was written in Greek. The Greek equivalent for “Sheol” is “Hades.” Whenever the Hebrew is being quoted, the word “Hades” occurs as the Greek substitute in the New Testament, such as in the following:

For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
or let your Holy One experience corruption.—Acts 2.27, NRSV.

This is a quote:

For you do not give me up to Sheol,
or let your faithful one see the Pit.—Psalm 16.10, NRSV.

The same text is rendered as follows in the Revised Grail Psalter:

For you will not abandon my soul to hell,
nor let your holy one see corruption.—Psalm 16.10, RGP.

Notice that the words are interchangeable. “Sheol” is Hebrew, “Hades” is Greek, and “hell” is English. They each mean the exact same thing.

Death was originally understood as something inconceivable, shaded from human understanding. Were people still alive in Sheol after death? Early Judaism had no definitive answer. The Scriptures sometimes indicate that nothing happened after life, and at other times they stated that activity could occur in the grave.—Compare Ecclesiastes 9.5, 10 with Jonah 2.1-2.

Judaism did evolve, and apparently by the time of the Second Temple the Holy Spirit had inspired the Jewish writers of the Deuterocanonical works to speak about life after death. (Wisdom 3.1-4; 2 Maccabees 12.38-46) It appears that by the time Jesus was born there was quite a developed hope in what is known as “Olam Ha-Ba,” or “the world to come.” (See Hebrews 2.5.) True, like the Sadducees not all Jews embraced this view of eternal life for the just and eternal punishment for the wicked. For those that did words like “Sheol,” “Gehenna” and their equivalents in Greek (“Hades”) and Latin (“infernum”) took on new meanings.

A third word, “Tartarus,” is used to describe the underworld in the form of a verb at 2 Peter 2.4. While the word is borrowed from Greek mythology, the reason it is used is because 2 Peter was written in Koine Greek which language had a word to specifically describe the “jailing of spirit entities” or at least the transcendent “location.” The word refers to the confining of evil spirits but there is not agreement among scholars as to whether this is describing confinement to “hell” or merely a limited confinement of some other sort (even though some Bible versions use “hell” here).

Now as for the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16.19-31, although it was dealing with the realities of the netherworld, it is a parable. Like Jesus’ other parables the details therein were not meant to be taken literally.

For instance, the beggar Lazarus goes to be with Abraham and the Rich Man goes to suffer torment after death. Why? Jesus doesn’t mention that Lazarus was righteous, merely that he was poor and hungry. Does this mean that people who don’t wish to work and desire the rich to care for their needs go to heaven after their death for having this attitude? And what evil did the Rich Man perform? It is not a sin to be rich or enjoy life, is it? Jesus never says that the Rich Man didn’t provide Lazarus with anything, does he?

No, again this is merely an illustration. Jesus is showing that what we experience in this life may in fact be reversed in the afterlife where we can do nothing to change our fates. The story is meant to warn the living that they should take steps to change their lives now while they still can. If the story were literal that would mean that people could talk between heaven and hell and that a drop of water could bring relief from the torment in hell. It would also imply that all good people experience leaning up against the breast of Abraham in the afterlife. That would be some large chest if this were literally true, right?

The story also has a prophetic prediction, namely that some of Jesus’ enemies would never turn from their course even after Jesus rose from the dead. (Luke 16.30-31) Many former unbelieving Jews did turn around at Pentecost and came to believe in Christ as Acts 2.36-51 proves, but some of Jesus’ generation never did.


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