Please review both of them first (in order mind you). First off, I write this at the behest of a friend, whose encouragement for these little articles makes me know at least one person is reading them.
What’s the New Testament say?
One argument that I hear is that Sheol in the OT means grave, because, look at its usage in context. That’s all fine and good, though I don’t think it accounts for the richness of the Hebrew language. But I think it begins to fall apart when one takes into account the New Testament usage of the word Hades.
When the OT was translated in the lingua franca of the day Greek, they made some curious editorial choices. One of those was to translate the word Sheol as Hades. Now if you know your Greek mythology (you can consult Disney’s Hercules if you need a quick refresher), you’ll notice that Hades has a lot of cultural baggage associated with it. It is the god of the underworld and the underworld (both named Hades). In Greek mythology it was the place that disembodied souls went. As an aside Greek has a word for grave tophos, which means the place where you put dead bodied.
It would be like today, translating a word we think means “grave” as “hell.” You’d probably be inclined to say – why don’t we use “grave” instead, since people often associate hell was some incorporeal afterlife motif. I’d agree with you. So when the Greek OT uses Hades for nearly all usages of the Hebrew that makes you wonder.
Well how does the NT use the word Hades? In nearly all cases it doesn’t seem to be “grave.” Matt 11:23; 16:18; Luke 10:15; 16:23; Acts 2:27, 31; Rev. 1:18; 6:8; 20:13–14; and one use of Tartarus in 2 Pet. 2:4 (compare Jude 6). Also there is something “under the earth” (Rev. 5:3, 13; Phil 2:10).
So let’s walk through some of these:
Tartarus is not synonymous with Hades but it’s pretty close (and the ESV actually used the word “hell” when translating it in 2 Pet. 2:4). But the rich man ends up in Hades after he dies in a parable of Jesus (Luke 16). Hades has gates (Matt. 16:18); a key (Rev. 1:18; cf., Rev. 20:1 a key to the bottomless pit), houses the dead (Rev. 20:13-14), and even a personified rider who rides with death (Rev. 6:8).
Heaven is juxtaposed with Hades (Matt. 16:18; Luke 10:15; see also the Apostles’ Creed) and Jesus is “there” in Hades (Acts 2:27, 31) or rather, was there, but unlike David (Ps. 16) is now in heaven (Acts 1; cf., Rom. 10:6-8).
Evil angels are tossed into this bottomless pit called Tartarus (2 Pet. 2:4; Jude 6) and something exists “under the earth” to both bow down at the name of Jesus and not be found to be able to open the scroll of the book of life (Phil. 2:10 and Rev. 5:3, 13; respectively).
So the NT, when read in light of the Pseudepigrapha and the OT, seems to say that Hades is a real place. Hades looks to be very similar to Sheol and people exist there in some form. If the NT has any bearing on the OT, I don’t think it’s acceptable to read every instance of Sheol as grave, but rather a place disembodied souls went to. Now that brings to it a much bigger question – what happened to the OT saints after Jesus came…?
Update: By the way, you should see Hell, Hades, Gehenna and the Realm of the Dead (Acts 2:27) by Bill Mounce which goes into some difference between the Gehenna and Hades. He confirms most of what I think I’ve said above.