In ordinary Hebrew usage, sheol can mean a ravine, a chasm, the underworld, or world of the dead.
In the Old Testament sheol is the abode of the dead. “Death shall be their shepherd; straight to the grave they descend, and their form shall waste away; Sheol shall be their home” Ps 49:14. It is envisioned as a hollow space under the earth, a place of shadows and silence and forgetfulness. Job laments, “Let me alone, that I may find a little comfort before I go whence I shall not return, to the land of gloom and deep darkness, the land of gloom and chaos, where light is as darkness” Job 10:20–22.
The Psalmist adds, “Are thy wonders known in the darkness, or thy saving help in the land of forgetfulness?” Ps 88:12. In ancient Israel the afterlife was not clear so the rabbis emphasized immortality through earthly remembrance. God punished his enemies by blotting out all remembrance of them. “I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven” Ex 17:14. “Whoever has sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book” Ex 32:33. Rabbi Yeshua does the same. “Afterward the other maidens came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you’” Mt 25:11–12.
Yet ancient Israel saw hope in sheol. Job foretold, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth” Job 19:25. Isaiah proclaimed, “Thy dead shall live, their bodies shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy!” Is 26:19. Daniel declared, “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” Dan 12:2.
Hebrew Scripture tells us, “Abraham breathed his last and … was gathered to his people” Gen 25:8. “These are the years of the life of Ishmael, a hundred and thirty-seven years; he breathed his last and died, and was gathered to his kindred” Gen 25:17. “And Isaac breathed his last; and … was gathered to his people” Gen 35:29. “When Jacob finished charging his sons, he … breathed his last, and was gathered to his people” Gen 49:33. And the LORD said to Moses that very day, “Ascend this mountain of the Abarim, Mount Nebo, … and die on the mountain which you ascend, and be gathered to your people, as Aaron your brother died in Mount Hor and was gathered to his people” Deut 32:48–50. “And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers” Judg 2:10. “Then David slept with his fathers …” 1 Kings 2:10. “And Solomon slept with his fathers” 2 Chron 9:31.
The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis illuminates this last phrase, was gathered to his people:
“This phrase, peculiar to the Torah, is also used of Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Aaron, and Moses. An analysis of the contexts in which it is found reveals that it is to be distinguished from death itself because the action follows the demise. It is not the same as burial in an ancestral grave, because it is employed of Abraham, Aaron, and Moses, none of whom was buried with his forefathers. It is also not identical with interment in general because the report of burial follows this phrase, and the difference between the two is especially blatant in the case of Jacob, who was interred quite a while after being “gathered to his kin.” It would seem, therefore, that the existence of this idiom, as of the corresponding figure ‘to lie down with one’s fathers,’ testifies to a belief that, despite his mortality and perishability, man possesses an immortal element that survives the loss of life. Death is looked upon as a transition to an afterlife where one is united with one’s ancestors. This interpretation contradicts the widespread, but apparently erroneous, view that such a notion is unknown in Israel until later times.”
The hope of the virtuous for a joyful afterlife was fulfilled.
§ 631 Jesus descended into the lower parts of the earth. He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens. The Apostles’ Creed confesses in the same article Christ’s descent into hell and his Resurrection from the dead on the third day, because in his Passover it was precisely out of the depths of death that he made life spring forth:
Christ, that Morning Star, who came back from the dead, and shed his peaceful light on all mankind, your Son who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.
§ 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.
§ 634 “The gospel was preached even to the dead.” The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfilment. This is the last phase of Jesus’ messianic mission, a phase which is condensed in time but vast in its real significance: the spread of Christ’s redemptive work to all men of all times and all places, for all who are saved have been made sharers in the redemption.
§ 635 Christ went down into the depths of death so that the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. Jesus, “The Author of life,” by dying destroyed him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and delivered all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage. Henceforth the risen Christ holds the keys of Death and Hades, so that, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.”