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Tuesday, May 09, 2006

a hell of a subject - 2. hades

This is the second of a series of posts exploring what the New Testament says about hell. See my introduction for a brief overview of my plans for this series.
Note: I am not a scholar. The following represents my current understanding, based on my own studies which are not comprehensive. I welcome further insights and corrections.

Hades is the name of the Greek god of the underworld. His domain was originally known as haidou but eventually became called Hades as well. Hades corresponds roughly to the Hebrew word Sheol, the place of the dead. When the Hebrew Bible was first translated into Greek, the word Sheol was translated as Hades.

In the New Testament, the word Hades appears in eight passages. In some English versions, Hades is translated as hell, but it's really not the same.

To illustrate the difference between hell and Hades, I'll start at the end of the Bible.

And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.

- Revelation 20:13-14

This is in the middle of a passage describing the final judgment. I'll come back to this later in the series, to look at the larger context. What's important in regards to Hades is that, in the end, Hades gives up all the dead who are there, and is itself thrown into the lake of fire to be destroyed. This accords with the Jewish understanding of Sheol as a temporary holding place where the dead wait until the day of resurrection. After judgment day, when the righteous are given eternal life and the wicked are thrown into the fire, there is no more need for Hades.

Revelation mentions Hades two previous times, and in both Hades is a companion of Death. In the second, Hades and Death are anthropomorphized.

I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades.

- Revelation 1:18

I looked and there was a pale green horse! Its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed with him; they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, famine, and pestilence, and by the wild animals of the earth.

- Revelation 6:8

What does the rest of the New Testament say about this holding place?

For David says concerning him, ‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will live in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption. You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’
Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne. Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying, ‘He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption.’

- Acts 2:25-31

This passage from Acts uses the word twice, indicating the early church's belief that Jesus was in Hades between his death and resurrection. Again this accords with the Jewish understanding of Sheol, with the exception that Jesus did not wait until the general resurrection at judgment day.

In the gospels, Hades is mentioned four times, twice in Matthew and twice in Luke.

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.

- Matthew 16:15-18

In an ancient walled city, the gates were the weakest point of defense. Here Hades is portrayed as an enemy that will not be able to withstand the assault of the church. Just as in Revelation, Hades is destined for destruction.

I'll take these next two as a pair, because they are parallel passages.

And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades. For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you.

- Matthew 11:23-24

And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades.

- Luke 10:15

This is one from a list of judgments passed by Jesus against unrepentant cities. Today we usually think of sins as something committed by individuals, but in ancient times it was not unusual to speak of sin as a community problem. As far as Hades itself is concerned, these passages don't give us any new information.

Finally, one of Jesus's parables has something to say about Hades.

There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’

- Luke 16:19-26

This parable is notable for a few reasons. First, it's the only one of Jesus's parables in which a character is given a name. Second, it gives the New Testament's clearest picture of a soul being tormented after death. Third, the only reason given for the man being punished is the fact that he was rich.

But to the point of this post: What does this tell us about Hades? To answer that, it's necessary to understand Jewish apocalyptic writings, specifically the Book of Enoch. This book was written by an anonymous author, who used the name of Enoch (from Genesis 5:18-24) to lend an air of authority. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church considers this book to be part of scripture, and the only surviving complete copies are in the Ethiopian language.

Chapters 21 and 22 describe a visit by "Enoch" to the regions of the underworld. Chapter 21 corresponds to Tartaros, "the prison of the angels," mentioned in 2 Peter and Jude. Chapter 22 corresponds to Hades. It is a place where "souls are separated". It has both "delighful places" and places of "abundant suffering." There are three separators in this place: a chasm, water, and "light above it".

This is the place where both the rich man and Lazarus go after death. The chasm from Luke 16 is the chasm from Enoch 22. Lazarus and the rich man await judgment on opposite sides of the chasm. On the rich man's side, people are punished for their sins. On Abraham's side, the righteous are comforted. The more they suffered in life, the more they are comforted in death, according to Enoch.

On judgment day there will be further separation, according to Enoch. The righteous will be taken up to eternal life, but the wicked will be split between those who will "perish from the seed of the human race" and those who will be "punished and bound there for ever." This is not entirely clear from the English translation. It's hard to find good online references, but the Encyclopedia Mythica at least devotes a paragraph to explaining this passage, while acknowledging that there is no consensus on this interpretation.

Though the Book of Enoch fills in the details for this parable in Luke, it is hard to reconcile this picture of Hades with the rest of the New Testament's references to Hades as a temporary holding place that cannot withstand the church, and will ultimately be destroyed on judgment day after giving up all its inhabitants.

That's where things stand regarding Hades. The picture is not entirely clear. There seem to be two competing ideas here, with neither being fleshed out in the New Testament itself. The single clearest picture of Hades is from an apocalyptic text that, for most Christians, is not considered scripture.

So far we've looked at both gehenna and Hades. Between the two, they appear in 15 passages in the New Testament. All of these passages are in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) or in Acts, James, or Revelation.

The rest of the New Testament is not silent about death and the afterlife. The writers simply use different language. I'll examine the language of Paul and John in my next post in this series.

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At 5/10/2006 5:10 AM, Anonymous Rich(luthsem) said...


Good stuff and you say you are not a scholar :)

Some of this stuff is addressed in seminary.

At 6/15/2006 7:39 AM, Blogger Mike said...


I would disagree with your 3rd point on the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man wasn't in torment because he was rich, he was in torment becuase he wasn't generous to Lazarus, who had nothing.

Would you agree? I don't think God punishes people for getting rich. He gets upset when the rich do not help those who are poor and oppressed.


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