What the Hades?! (Part 1)

Michelangelo BuonarrotiHell. For varying reasons, it’s a topic oft-approached by some and all-together avoided by others. Some see it as part and parcel to the gospel and, thus, must be preached; others struggle with the notion of everlasting torment for all unbelievers.

What are we to make of hell?

For starters, I’ve become convinced that much of our ideas concerning hell are centered in post-biblical, medieval theology, rather than the actual scriptural narrative of the Hebrew-Jewish people.

I’d be so bold as to say our typical pop-idea of hell itself is unbiblical. This is because “hell” is another whole concept quite different from the actual terms used in Scripture.

So perhaps we need to take a step back and talk about the biblical terminology.

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word regularly used for the place of the dead (that is, the place for all dead, not just the unrighteous) is sheol. In our translations, we might read “realm of the dead” or “the grave.” And that’s just what sheol is. Nothing more, nothing less. This place is neither one of bliss or punishment, rather it’s simply the place where humanity – both God’s people and the nations – awaited the final judgment.

For example, it was Samuel who was “brought up” from the place of the dead, the grave, sheol (see 1 Sam 28:11-12). The psalmists also spoke of this place a number of times. For example, we read these words in Ps 16, a messianic psalm:

Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
    my body also will rest secure,
because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead [sheol],
    nor will you let your faithful one see decay. (16:9-10)

Thus, in summary, sheol is not “hell” where unbelievers are to be tormented. Sheol is the grave, the place of the dead.

Moving on to the New Testament, the Greek equivalent for sheol is hades. Contrary to widespread thought, this is simply a neutral place for the dead, meaning, as with sheol, hades is not a place where the unrighteous are sent to for eternal, conscious, post-mortem punishment.

Thus, we have a problem when certain English Bible versions take the word hades and translate it into the misnomer word, hell. As you can imagine, it skews the meaning of the passage. Consider Matt 16:18 in a translation like the KJV or even the more modern ESV (though it gives a footnote). Both translate hades as “hell”:

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

For many, from mistranslations such as this, the idea is taken for granted that there is this great place of evil, called “hell,” filled with the powers of the enemy, the great Satan. Accordingly, what Jesus would then be saying is this evil place, and its great powers (Satan and demons), cannot prevail against the church, the people of God.

It makes for good rhetoric, perhaps. However, it’s completely off base.

Jesus is not teaching us that Satan and demonic forces (summarized by the term “hell”) will not prevail against the church. Instead, he is teaching that the grave, death itself, will not prevail. And we know that to be true because the people of God will be raised to life on the last day, especially in light of Jesus’ own resurrection as the foretaste of that final day. This is great news!

I believe this kind of confusion over hades has led to our conflation of the term with gehenna. It is this Greek word, gehenna, that would be translated as “hell.” I’ll come on to the concept of gehenna in future posts, but it’s interesting to note up front that the word is used only 12 times in the whole of the New Testament – 11 by Jesus in the synoptic Gospels, 1 in the epistle of James. Not only that, but we also confuse gehenna from the Gospels with the lake of fire and sulfur spoken of in Rev 19 and 20. But, again, more to come in later articles.

With all of this muddled theology, I believe it has led to some wrongly worded worship songs of our day, ones where I believe we might do well to change the word “hell” to either hades or “the grave” (though those might not roll off the tongue as easily). For example, I’m thinking of the bridge in Christ Has Risen and the final verse in In Christ Alone.

Now, those who know the in’s and out’s of the theological conversations (or debates) about hell will know that there are plenty of questions that still arise:

  • What of the use of hades in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)? It seems pretty clear in this passage that hades is a place of torment, thus confirming hades and hell are synonymous. They both are words describing the final destination of the wicked as they endure eternal conscious torment.
  • Or what of the use of this term gehenna? We are told in the Gospels that gehenna (or hell) is a place where both body and soul can be destroyed (Matt 10:28).
  • Finally, what is the final punishment for the wicked? Is it eternal conscious torment or annihilation?

I’ll come on to these questions in forthcoming posts. But here is a question we must always begin with: Are we reading Scripture within the framework of its ancient Jewish context or are we reading it as an abstract, westernized theology book?

If we make every effort to read Scripture as a Jewish storied narrative, out of which theology comes forth, then I believe we’ll begin at the right place for forming a proper theology. However, if we run to the Bible as a kind of supra-historical document primarily speaking above its own actual history, I believe we will formulate conclusions that are far different from those who actually penned Scripture.

We do this with our ideas of “hell.” We do this with other topics as well.

So, to recap: I’ve laid the groundwork for the terms sheol and hades. Simply stated, they are the realm of the dead, the place of rest in the grave for all humanity. Nothing more, nothing less.

Here are the links to the rest of this series:

Part 2: Considering the oft-discussed Luke 16:19-31.

Part 3: Looking at the word gehenna, which is usually translated as “hell.”

Part 4: Understanding the words eternal and everlasting when it comes to judgment.

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