In order to better understand what happens to the unrighteous after death, we must study one Old Testament Hebrew word and three New Testament Greek words. Although these Hebrew and Greek words actually describe three different places, they are often all translated hell in certain Bible translations, which can be misleading to readers.
First, let’s consider the Old Testament Hebrew word Sheol.
The word Sheol is mentioned more than sixty times in the Old Testament. It clearly refers to the after-death abode of the unrighteous. For example, when Korah and his followers rebelled against Moses in the wilderness, God punished them by opening up the ground, which swallowed them and all their possessions. Scripture says they fell into Sheol:
So they and all that belonged to them went down alive to Sheol ; and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly (Num. 16:33, emphasis added).
Later in Israel’s history, God warned them that His wrath kindled a fire that burns in Sheol:
For a fire is kindled in My anger, and burns to the lowest part of Sheol , and consumes the earth with its yield, and sets on fire the foundations of the mountains (Deut. 32:22, emphasis added).
King David declared that,
The wicked will return to Sheol , even all the nations who forget God (Ps. 9:17, emphasis added).
And he prayed against the unrighteous by requesting,
Let death come deceitfully upon them; let them go down alive to Sheol , for evil is in their dwelling, in their midst (Ps. 55:15, emphasis added).
Warning young men of the wiles of the harlot, wise Solomon wrote,
Her house is the way to Sheol , descending to the chambers of death….he does not know that the dead are there, that her guests are in the depths of Sheol (Prov. 7:27; 9:18, emphasis added).
Solomon wrote other proverbs that lead us to believe that it is certainly not the righteous who end up in Sheol:
The path of life leads upward for the wise, that he may keep away from Sheol below (Prov. 15:24, emphasis added)
You shall beat him [your child] with the rod, and deliver his soul from Sheol (Prov. 23:14, emphasis added)
Finally, foreshadowing Jesus’ description of hell, Isaiah prophetically spoke to the king of Babylon, who had exalted himself but who would be thrust down into Sheol:
Sheol from beneath is excited over you to meet you when you come; it arouses for you the spirits of the dead, all the leaders of the earth; it raises all the kings of the nations from their thrones. They will all respond and say to you, “Even you have been made weak as we, you have become like us. Your pomp and the music of your harps have been brought down to Sheol ; maggots are spread out as your bed beneath you, and worms are your covering.” How you have fallen from heaven, O star of the morning, son of the dawn! You have been cut down to the earth, you who have weakened the nations! But you said in your heart, “I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God, and I will sit on the mount of assembly In the recesses of the north. I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.” Nevertheless you will be thrust down to Sheol , to the recesses of the pit. Those who see you will gaze at you, they will ponder over you, saying, “Is this the man who made the earth tremble, who shook kingdoms, who made the world like a wilderness and overthrew its cities, who did not allow his prisoners to go home?” (Isa. 14:9-17, emphasis added).
These scriptures and others like them lead us to believe that Sheol has always been and still is the tormenting place where the unrighteous are incarcerated after their deaths. And there is more proof.