What Distinguishes Sheol from Hell?

If you are not familiar with the terms Sheol, Gehenna, etc. please see some of the previous blogs at this site.

The Bible has a number of terms that describe places of after death suffering:  Sheol, Hades, Gehenna and the Lake of Fire.  In many versions of the Bible and in many people’s minds, these all get lumped under the term “Hell”.  More careful study shows you that Hades and Sheol are the same thing (just a different language for each word).  Gehenna and the “lake of fire” are most likely the same as well.  The thing that distinguishes these groups is the Sheol is before Judgment Day and Gehenna is after Judgment Day.  But is that the only difference?

The descriptions used for these places can seem confusingly similar:  fire, worms, anguish.  The similarities between Sheol (Hades) and the Lake of Fire (Gehenna or Hell as we call it) are probably a key reason why they are conflated in most people’s understanding of the destiny of the damned.

The same could be said for Heaven and the New Heaven and Earth.  Both have God’s direct presence and the absence of sin, Satan and suffering, but they are not the same thing.

The fact that Sheol and Hell are different is made by Revelation 20 where Sheol (Hades) is dumped into the Lake of Fire.    A qualitative difference is found in Psalm 139.  Psalm 139 speaks of the presence of God:

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;  if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

The Old Testament people expected to go to Sheol at their deaths. Part of Sheol, sometimes referred to as “The Bosom of Abraham” or “The Limbo of the Fathers” was a place of comfort, but still outside the visible presence of God.  Psalm 139 may be referring to just this good neighborhood of Sheol or, more likely, the whole thing.  The final judgment involves God forsaking a place and its contents.  So a key difference may be that Sheol is still without the absence of God, even for the damned.  That doesn’t make it nice.  But it certainly suggests Hell is worse.  It is hard to imagine being forsaken by God.  It is not like we are conscious of His presence even now.  But when God is gone so are all good things.  Hope, friendship, happiness, every good thing gone.

Another difference is the company one would have in Hell.  There is no reference of Satan or demons in Sheol.  The classic picture of demons enjoying the tormenting of the damned is non-biblical fantasy.  Sheol seems to be for people.  The Lake of Fire, says Revelation 20, is prepared for Satan, his cohorts, and those in Sheol.  The point is made that their torment is “day and night for ever and ever”.  So no rest or reprieve for them.  They suffer together.

That God would make punishment eternal offends many people.  The suffering seems disproportionate to the sins.  In the end, those who suffer in Hell didn’t want God.  They have rejected His love, rejected His rule and (for people) rejected that great sacrifice made to save them.  Hell is essentially getting that for which you asked.  The eternal nature of Satan, angels and people is simply a part of what we are.

Sheol may also be different in that it holds a dim ray of hope.  Jesus’ post-crucifixion descent into Sheol seems to be for the purpose of saving some who are there. 1 Peter 4:6 makes this point.  What is criteria?  Are those in Sheol capable of faith?  Did Jesus go more than once or reach out to more than “those who disobeyed in the days of Noah?(1 Peter 3:18)  We don’t know.

The differences, though small, point to the importance of Judgment Day.  Judgment Day is the “line in the sand”.  Things change for the worst for those without Christ.  Things change for the better for those who are in Christ.

 

The Destiny of Satan

It is a classic picture, found in sources as diverse as Renaissance art and The Far Side, to see the damned trapped in Hell with Satan and demons.  Some of that art seems to suggest that Satan and demons somewhat enjoy it.  They are captives not masters.  Don’t depend on artists or cartoonists to be biblically correct.  The Pre-Judgment Day destination of the damned (Sheol, Hades) has no mention of the presence of Satan or any fallen angel.  The Post-Judgment Day destination of the damned (Hell) does.  We have already seen one quick reference in Matthew 25:41.  The other two are in Revelation.

But the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet who had performed the miraculous signs on his behalf.  With these signs he had deluded those who had received the mark of the beast and worshiped his image.  The two of them were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur.    Revelation 19:20

Though the word “Gehenna” is not used in this paragraph, the “lake of fire” would seem to be an obvious reference to the same place.  Where is this place?  No information is given.  With possibly this one exception, it doesn’t seem to be a destination for any human prior to Judgment Day.  The fact the beast (possibly a powerful demon not Satan) and his false prophet go there Pre-Judgement Day, may suggest that Hell exists already somewhere.  The classic ideas of Hell as being at the core the Earth are both the product of confusing it with Sheol and the ancients not having any information about it.  If I were to guess, I would guess Hell is in some dimensional space completely segregated from either Heaven or Earth.  Hell’s distinction is not the endless fire, but rather it is its absence from the presence of God.  It is forsaken.

The other reference to the “lake of fire” happens in Revelation 20:7-10:

When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth- Gog and Magog- to gather them for battle.  In the number they are like the sand of the seashore.  They marched across the the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of  God’s people, the city he loves.  But fire came down from heaven and devoured them.  And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and false prophet had been thrown.  They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.

For some reason not shared with us, Satan is allowed a short time of being at full power, and he uses his time to drag a large segment of humanity down with him.  God thwarts his effort to attack those who remain true to God and then Satan is pitched into the lake of fire, also Pre-Judgement Day, but just barely.  His confinement and torment are then permanent.

Judgment Day then commences in Revelation 20 with this conclusion:

Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.  The lake of fire is the second death.  If anyone’s name is not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

Hades is a place not a person.  What is death?  Death is a sentence.  It is a sentence pronounced by God’s Law that the unforgiven human must be separated from God forever.  The movement of death to Hell is a victory for the forgiven human but it is the consummation of the Law for the sinner.  Everyone whose name is not found in the Book of Life, which would be everyone not connected to Jesus, is thrown into the lake of fire with a resurrected and indestructible body and soul.  The torment is both physical, by fire, and spiritual by being forsaken by God.

As Jesus said, you really don’t want to end up here.  Jesus gave himself so you don’t have to.