Sheol is sometimes compared to Hades, the gloomy, twilight afterlife of Greek mythology. The word "hades" was in fact substituted for "sheol" when the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek (see Septuagint). The New Testament (written in Greek) also uses "hades" to refer to the abode of the dead.
By the second century BC, Jews who accepted the Oral Torah had come to believe that those in sheol awaited the resurrection either in comfort (in the bosom of Abraham) or in torment. This belief is reflected in Jesus' story of Lazarus and Dives. At that time Jews who rejected the Oral Torah believed that Sheol meant simply the grave.
Anglicans, who do not share a concept of "hades" with the Eastern Orthodox, have traditionally translated "sheol" (and "hades") as "hell" (for example in the King James Version). However, to avoid confusion of what are separate concepts in the Bible, modern English versions of the Bible tend either to transliterate the word sheol or to use an alternative term such as the "grave" (e.g. the NIV). Roman Catholics generally translate "sheol" as "death."
Biblical scholar William Foxwell Albright suggests that the Hebrew root for SHE'OL is SHA'AL, which means "to ask, to interrogate, to question." Sheol therefore should mean "asking, interrogation, questioning." John Tvedtnes, also a Biblical scholar, connects this with the common theme in near-death experiences of the interrogation of the soul after crossing the Tunnel.
An alternative theory is that Sheol is connected ša'al, the root of which means "to burrow" and is thus related to šu'al "fox" or "burrower".
As regards the origin not of the term but of the concept, the Jewish Encyclopedia considers more probable the view that it originated in primitive animistic conceits: "With the body in the grave remains connected the soul (as in dreams): the dead buried in family graves continue to have communion (comp. Jer. xxxi. 15). Sheol is practically a family grave on a large scale. Graves were protected by gates and bolts; therefore Sheol was likewise similarly guarded. The separate compartments are devised for the separate clans, septs, and families, national and blood distinctions continuing in effect after death. That Sheol is described as subterranean is but an application of the custom of hewing out of the rocks passages, leading downward, for burial purposes.
Jacob, not comforted at the reported death of Joseph, exclaims: "I shall go down to my son a mourner unto Sheol" (Genesis 37:35). Sheol may be personified: Sheol is never satiated (Proverbs 30:16); she "makes wide her throat" (Isaiah 5:14).
Other examples of its usage:
In Luke 16:19-31 (the story of Lazarus and Dives), Jesus portrays hades as a place of torment, at least for the wicked. Jesus also announces to St. Peter that "the gates of hades" will not overpower the church (Matthew 16:18), and uses hades to pronounce judgment upon the city of Capernaum (Matthew 11:23).
The English word "hell" comes from Germanic mythology, and is now used in the Judeo-Christian sense to translate the Greek word Gehenna—a term which originally referred to a valley outside Jerusalem used for burning refuse, but came to designate the place of punishment for sinners. Although older translations (such as the King James Version) also translated Hades as "hell", modern English translations tend to preserve the distinction between the two concepts by transliterating the word hades and reserving "hell fire" for gehenna fire.
In the Esperanto translation of the New Testament, wherever the word "Hades" might appear, it is merely transliterated; but in places where the New Testament quotes from the Old Testament it uses Sheol, rendered into Esperanto spelling, corresponding with Zamenhof's translation in the original. (Cf. Acts 2:31, Psalm 16:10.)
Professor Harris shares similar remarks in his Understanding the Bible: "The concept of eternal punishment does not occur in the Hebrew Bible, which uses the term Sheol to designate a bleak subterranean region where the dead, good and bad alike, subsist only as impotent shadows. When Hellenistic Jewish scribes rendered the Bible into Greek, they used the word Hades to translate Sheol, bringing a whole new mythological association to the idea of posthumous existence. In ancient Greek myth, Hades, named after the gloomy deity who ruled over it, was originally similar to the Hebrew Sheol, a dark underground realm in which all the dead, regardless of individual merit, were indiscriminately housed. While some believers in the Bible think that it contains one doctrine of Hell (regardless of what they think about the nature of Hell), Harris and nontheists may view the doctrine as changing throughout the Bible.
By the time of Jesus, many Jews had come to believe in a future resurrection of the dead. The dead in Sheol were said to await the resurrection either in comfort or in torment, as in the story of Lazarus and Dives.
Sheol is the name of an album by Swedish blackened-death metal band Naglfar.
In the Robert A. Heinlein science fiction novel Starship Troopers, Sheol is also the name of an Arachnid colony planet, decimated by a Terran military attack. Likewise in the Walter Jon Williams novel Voice of the Whirlwind, Sheol is the name of a planet on which a terrible war is waged.
In the book Memnoch the Devil by Anne Rice Sheol is a name given to the realm where the spirits of the dead go, should they not be worthy to go to Heaven. This land is turned into Hell by Memnoch as a way to show these souls the error of their ways so that they may pass on into Heaven and so that he can end the suffering of the human race and return to God himself.
Cordwainer Smith used the variant spelling "Shayol" for the Instrumentality of Mankind's prison planet, a world in which humans exposed to the native microbial life would begin growing additional limbs and organs, all the while experiencing horrific pain. These organs would then be harvested for transplantation, which was seen as a restitution for their crimes. Eventually, after a pair of children were wrongfully sent there to be imprisoned, the underpeople serving as jailors rebelled, and the prisoners were released from their punishment.
Sheol is the name of an asteroid mining base referred to in the user manual's plot foreword for the computer game Wing Commander: Privateer.
In the Fury3/Hellbender game universe, "red sheol" is a mineral, the "isomorphic decay" of which can be used to attract wormholes for faster than light travel. In Fury3, it is found on the planet Ares, the setting of one of the game's missions.
In the Hellboy comics collection, Strange Places, Hellboy's father is described as a "Prince of Sheol".
Sheol is also the name of a San Francisco bay area rock band.
In a Season 2 episode of Transformers, Smokescreen bargains for his friends' lives in a town on a bleak asteroid, and the town is named Sheol.
Sheol is also referred to in the John Constantine:Hellblazer book Subterranean. in on of the chapters one of the characters refers to the underworld: "some call it Shambala, some call it Sheol"
The protagonist of Walter Jon Williams' novel Voice of the Whirlwind is the clone of a man who fought a brutal war on an alien planet named Sheol. The planet was named for its devastating winter storms, though it appeared paradisical during the warm seasons.
In the RPG In Nomine, Shoel is principality of hell. Specficly it belongs to Belial the prince of Fire. It's described as hell's only volcano (it's about the size of Mt. everest)