Risen from the Dust
In the Old Testament, the word that is generally translated, and most closely equates with our English word hell, is the Hebrew word "Sheol". However, there is disagreement about the nature of Sheol in the Old Testament, and how closely it matches our popular conceptions of hell. By looking at Sheol in its original context, we can begin to arrive at a more complete understanding of it, and how it relates to biblical hell.
Sheol is more complex in its meaning and usage than the common religious concept of hell. This is why in the King James it is translated 31 times as hell, but also as grave 31 times, and as pit 3 times. The various usages and contexts of Sheol have created debate as to what the real and original meaning of the word is. It is fair to say that Sheol is a dynamic word with many possible usages and contexts.
For example, Sheol is commonly used to describe a state of death, disorder, and estrangement from God, "If I wait, the grave [Sheol] is mine house: I have made my bed in the darkness. I have said to corruption, Thou art my father: to the worm, Thou are my mother, and my sister" (Job 17.13-14 KJV bible), "O LORD, thou hast brought up my soul from the grave [Sheol]: thou hast kept me alive, that I should not go down to the pit" (Psalm 30.3 KJV bible). While Sheol is not a living creature, it is sometimes described as hungering for the living, "Hell [Sheol] and destruction are never full; so the eyes of man are never satisfied" (Proverbs 27.20 KJV bible), "Let us swallow them up alive as the grave [Sheol]; and whole, as those that go down into the pit" (Proverbs 1.12 KJV bible). Sheol can also be used metaphorically, such as in describing a state of moral depravity, "But he knoweth not that the dead are there; and that her [the adulteress'] guests are in the depths of hell [Sheol]" (Proverbs 9.18 KJV bible), "And thou wentest to the king with ointment, and didst increase thy perfumes, and didst send thy messengers far off, and didst debase thyself even unto hell [Sheol]" (Isaiah 57.9 KJV bible). Lastly, and similar to the common religious concept of hell, Sheol is consistently associated with the ground or depths of the earth, "They, and all that appertained to them, went down alive into the pit [Sheol], and the earth closed upon them: and they perished from among the congregation" (Numbers 16.33 KJV bible). From these verses we come to understand the dynamic nature of Sheol, as a word associated with death and corruption.
Despite Sheol's varying usages and contexts, there is a basic and root meaning of the word. It's clear that the correct interpretation of the word is the name for a hell-like place or underworld. Sheol cannot be scripturally constructed to mean only a state of mind, or to represent an abstract concept such as death or chaos. Even though it is associated with the ground, it cannot be understood as simply a grave or literal pit. You would not dig a Sheol, because it is a realm of departed spirits.
Take for example Job 26, which describes the dead as continuing on in a place known as Sheol, "The departed spirits tremble [or writhe] under the waters and their inhabitants. Naked is Sheol before Him, And Abaddon [Destruction] has no covering" (Job 26.5-6 NASB bible). This depiction of Sheol as a shadowy hell-like underworld runs throughout the Old Testament, "The strong among the mighty shall speak to him out of the midst of hell [Sheol] with them that help him: they are gone down, they lie uncircumcised, slain by the sword" (Ezekiel 32.21 KJV bible), "let the wicked be ashamed, and let them be silent in the grave [Sheol]" (Psalm 31.17 KJV bible), "Hell [Sheol] from beneath is moved for thee to meet thee at thy coming: it stirreth up the dead for thee, even all the chief ones of the earth; it hath raised up from their thrones all the kings of the nations. All they shall speak and say unto thee, Art thou also become weak as we? art thou become like unto us?" (Isaiah 14.9-10 KJV bible). Isaiah even describes the dead being "stirred up" and speaking out, implying that Sheol is a realm of many departed souls.
There are several other important attributes of Sheol that the Old Testament brings forth for us. One important point, is that the experience of Sheol varies depending on the individual dwelling there, giving it a purgatorial quality. This is why when speaking of it, Ezekiel describes the punishment for iniquities resting on the bones of those who committed them, "Nor do they lie beside the fallen heroes of the uncircumcised, who went down to Hell [Sheol] with their weapons of war and whose swords were laid under their heads; but the punishment for their iniquity rested on their bones" (Ezekiel 32.27 KJV bible). Job in his anguish, however, describes it as a place of rest, "There the prisoners rest together; they hear not the voice of the oppressor. The small and great are there; and the servant is free from his master" (Job 3.18-19 KJV bible). Job's description is less severe, because the experience of Sheol depends on the individual who goes there, with some individuals experiencing a release from worldy oppression.
This purgatorial nature of Sheol maybe related to the different subdivisions, or levels, within it, "For a fire is kindled in mine anger, and shall burn unto the lowest hell [Sheol], and shall consume the earth with her increase," (Deuteronomy 32.22 KJV bible), "For great is thy mercy toward me: and thou hast delivered my soul from the lowest hell [Sheol]" (Psalm 86.13 KJV bible). These deeper levels are associated with greater imprisonment and degradation. So Sheol is a proportionately more miserable place for the wicked, and once there, they are afflicted according to the measure of their transgressions.
One of the difficulties with understanding the Old Testament nature of Sheol is that it is sometimes identified as the Pit, in the sense of a literal pit or hole dug into the earth, "I cast him down to hell [Sheol] with them that descend into the pit" (Ezekiel 31.16 KJV bible), "Let us swallow them up alive as the grave [Sheol]; and whole, as those that go down into the pit" (Proverbs 1.12 KJV bible), "Nevertheless you will be thrust down to Sheol, To the recesses of the pit" (Isaiah 14.15 NASB bible). These verses refer to Sheol as the Pit or Hole, further associating it with the depths of the earth.
This identification of Sheol as the Pit doesn't define it as a literal pit in the ground. Rather, the Hebrew words for "pit" and "hole" are being used as figurative depictions of Sheol. The usage of the word pit portrays Sheol as a place of darkness and imprisonment, removed from the strength of God, "Unto thee will I cry, O LORD my rock; be not silent to me: lest, if thou be silent to me, I become like them that go down into the pit" (Psalm 28.1 KJV bible), "For my soul is full of troubles: and my life draweth nigh unto the grave [Sheol]. I am counted with them that go down into the pit: I am as a man that hath no strength" (Psalm 88.3-4 KJV bible). Various Hebrew words for pit are often used as representations of the underworld, but this symbolism not define Sheol as a literal hole in the earth.
In many verses, it's clear from the context and usage of the word pit, that something more is being implied than a literal pit in the ground. In Ezekiel, an entire city is prophesied to descend into this pit, "When I shall bring thee (Tyre) down with them that descend into the pit, with the people of old time, and shall set thee in the low parts of the earth, in places desolate of old, with them that go down to the pit, that thou be not inhabited; and I shall set glory in the land of the living" (Ezekiel 26.20 KJV bible). Sheol is being portrayed here as the Pit, meaning an ancient and desolate spiritual wasteland.
The Pit is the underworld; not the land of the living, but the land of the dead. It is a place of ruin that is associated with the depths of the earth, "Son of man, wail for the multitude of Egypt, and cast them down, even her, and the daughters of the famous nations, unto the nether parts of the earth, with them that go down into the pit" (Ezekiel 32.18 KJV bible), "There is Elam and all her multitude round about her grave, all of them slain, fallen by the sword, which are gone down uncircumcised into the nether parts of the earth, which caused their terror in the land of the living; yet have they borne their shame with them that go down to the pit" (Ezekiel 32.24 KJV bible). Is there some kind of giant mass grave in the Middle East where all these armies ended up? No, of course not, because the Pit is being used metaphorically to describe Sheol. Sheol is the realm of the deceased, and the Netherworld that these ancient warriors descended into.