When most people think of Hades, Greek mythology immediately comes to their forefront of their minds. Hades is associated, nearly exclusively, with Greek myths. However, many Christians may find it surprising, that the word Hades is a biblical word. Hades is Christian theology.
Certainly, it is very different from the Greek perception of it. In Greek mythology, Hades was technically the name of the god who ran the underworld, or, the place of the dead. Although he went by other names, Hades was his primary name, and thus, became the name of his kingdom as well.
For most people, Hades is the Greek myth version of the Christian Hell. This is not a good comparison for many reasons. However, the primary reason is that Christians ought to believe in both, just with the biblical definitions of both.
It is unclear to me if Hades was a term the biblical writers stole from the Greeks and used to describe something in their revelation, or if it was their word and concept to begin with, which the Greeks ruined over time. Who borrowed from who is unclear, but what is clear, is that the Bible does teach of a place called Hades.
Hades & Gahenna
When most Christians think of the afterlife, they think of two places: heaven and hell. Thus, when someone dies, we immediately assume that person is in one of two places: heaven or hell. But what if I told you that absolutely no one is in heaven or hell right now?
The Bible, in the New Testament, uses many different places when speaking of the afterlife: Hades, Gahenna, Paradise, Tartarus, Heaven, and Hell. Some of these are used interchangeably, but others are not.
Hades is not hell. The Greek word for Hades is the same, Hades, and it is distinguished from the place we call hell.
In the newer translations of Scripture, the word Hell is in fact never used in the Old Testament (OT). The OT saints did not have a yet completed revelation of the judgment after death as it has been revealed in the New Testament (NT). The OT referred to the afterlife as Hades: the place of the dead, the grave, the heart of the earth, and the concept of this place as being “down” or “under” or “beneath” is used often as well. So it seems, the OT Saints, rightly so, assumed all people would, in a way, go to the same place when they died.
In the NT further revelation is given to us. In the newer translations, Hades is used ten times in the NT, while in other places the word Gahenna is used.
Hades is the spiritual waiting place for the dead. This is a place where everyone goes to await their final judgment.
Gahenna is the word we translate into Hell. Gahenna is the final judgement for the wicked. Hell is where the unbelieving sinners and demons alike will spend all eternity in torment. And since the final judgment has not yet happened, it is currently empty.
Heaven is where redeemed sinners will spend eternity with Jesus, free from torment, for all eternity.
Hell and Heaven are permanent, but not yet in use, while Hades is a temporary measure. The sinner and the saint were together in Hades, but they were not undergoing the exact same experience. There are two “compartments” within Hades (I call Paradise and Tartarus).
One was for the redeemed, the other for the lost, and within these two places, separated by a chasm, the experience is very different.
The compartment for the lost can be referred to as, again, Hades. While the compartment for the saints ought to be referred to as “paradise,” although some will refer to it as “Abraham’s Bosom” (because of Luke 16).
Hades Is Not Purgatory
Some Christians when first introduced to the concept of a spiritual waiting place may want to think this gives some credence to the Roman Catholic concept of “Purgatory.” Hades and Purgatory are nothing alike. The concepts are not the same. Besides, the word Hades is actually in the Bible.
In Purgatory, a person is undergoing “satispaseo.” That is the Latin phrase for “suffering of atonement.” In Purgatory, people are atoning for their own sins. It is a very painful place of judgement. The very concept of Purgatory is about cleansing or purifying. The people there are being made perfect, they are being cleansed of their sins. There is no atoning of sin or purification in Hades. The damned are experiencing judgment while the redeemed are immediately made perfect. The concepts are completely contradictory.
Another important distinction is that in Roman Catholic theology, unbelievers do not go to Purgatory. Purgatory is only for believers to be completely purified before Heaven. It is impossible to go from Purgatory, to Hell. Heaven is always the reward of Purgatory. However, the Bible teaches that many in Hades will be cast into Hell.
For these reasons and others, Hades is in no way to be linked to Purgatory. In short, Hades is not Gahenna, Gahenna is Hell, therefore, Hades is not Hell, and purgatory does not exist.
These distinctions are very biblical, both grammatically and contextually.
1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”
Paul here is very explicit that Christians who are still living during the final coming of Christ “will not precede” those who are dead. Without a doctrine of Hades, we can see how some church (among other reasons) buy into concepts such as “soul sleep.” It is clear here that the final resting place for believers will be something the Saints inherit together. No one will precede another.
Thus, what is happening to believers who wait? The answer is “Paradise.”
Luke 23: 42-43, And [the thief on the cross] was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!” And [Jesus] said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”
One of the more well-known stories of Scripture is the amazing death-bed conversion of one of the thieves on the cross next to Jesus. This man recognized His sin, recognized Jesus’ perfection, and asked to be remembered. And by the grace of God, in his final hour, he was saved.
We know he was saved because Jesus told him that he would be with Jesus on that day, the one in which they both died. Thus, they both went to the same place. However, Jesus calls this place “Paradise.” It is certainly possible that after Jesus’ resurrection, those in paradise were brought up to heaven, but given what Paul says in 1 Thessalonians, the new heaven at final resurrection will still be new and different than what the Christians who are asleep experience now.
There is a reason nearly every translation uses this word. It is not heaven, otherwise it would have been translated as heaven. Contextually we know this place was good as this man was receiving salvation, it is used nearly synonymous in the text with being in God’s Kingdom, and the thief would be with Jesus there. This was a good place, it was an afterlife, but it wasn’t heaven. This believer died, and was immediately with the Lord, but was not in heaven.
Where Did Jesus Go?
That point brings us to a prominent debate among Christians for centuries. The debate circles around 1 Peter 3: 18-20 when Peter says that after Jesus died He “went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison…” Thus, this doctrine made it into the famous apostle’s creed (AC), which states the Christ “descended into hell.” What needs to be taken note of here is that the original Greek AC did not say hell, it said Hades. Thus, the early church affirmed Christ being in Hades, which would be not only consistent with Him promising to be with the thief in paradise, but given the two-compartment system of Hades, would allow Him the ability to proclaim His victory to those in prison as well.
In Ephesians 4:8 says that after His descension , Jesus “ascended on high” and “He led a host of captives..” I believe the most harmonious way of understanding this is that Jesus took the righteous with Him after His descension, which is why now Paul can say “Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8).
While the redeemed are not in “heaven,” they are likely not in Hades, for they are with the Lord, and Hades is being prepared for hell.
Where does the idea come from which substantiates this “two compartment system”? Well, it comes from the words of our Lord in Luke 16 and the famous story of the rich man and Lazarus.
Luke 16:19 -30, “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’31 He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”
Much could be said about this text, but for our purposes, notice a few things: first, the rich man is in the same general place as Lazarus as he can see, hear, and speak to him.
Second, this place is separated by a chasm no one can cross (26).
Third, the place where the rich man now abides is referred to as Hades (23). Lazarus is said to be with Abraham at his side. Older translations referred to it as his bossom, which is why the place is often referred to as “Abraham’s bosom.”
Fourth, the two are not experiencing the same thing. One is comfortably with Abraham while the other is in “torment” (23) and “anguish” (24), and refers to the entire place as a “flame” (24).
Thus, the two men are in the same general place, but separated by a great chasm, and are not going through the same experiences. So it is not as if the damned will spend some time in glory before hell, nor will the redeemed spend any time in torment before heaven.
Many dismiss this because Luke 16 is often considered a parable. Many do not consider it a parable, but most do. However, does that really matter?
It simply isn’t the case that we must dismiss the local because the story is fiction.
For example, all Jesus’ other parables utilize real places and real people. Jerusalem, vineyards, seeds, plantations, and other very real places are all present in Jesus’ parables. We never disregard these places as being real because they show up in a parable. Usually, the setting of the parable is real. Thus, whether Luke 16 is a parable or not is irrelevant to whether we accept the afterlife chasm of the story.
What is Hell?
Matthew 5: 22 is a place where Jesus speaks of experiencing the fire of hell, but he does not use the word Hades, but rather, Gahenna.
In Matthew 5:29-30 Jesus says it is better to lose those things which cause us to sin rather than be thrown into hell with them. And when He says Hell, the Greek word is Gahenna, not Hades.
Lastly, although there are many examples, in Matthew 10: 28 Jesus says, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
Gahenna is the Greek word for the Hebrew “Valley of Hinnom.” Originally, this valley was thought to be the place where the pagans would burn their children as they sacrificed them to Molech.
It did eventually come the place where Rome burned their trash. In fact, Rome was so often burning trash, the fire was said to never go out. Therefore, Jesus played on this to describe Hell. A place of burning and fire and torment, where the flame never dies. That is not Hades, it’s Hell, otherwise known as, the Lake of Fire.
Revelation 21: 13-15, “And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”
This apocalyptic revelation is very important. Notice here that Hades is clearly distinguished from the lake of fire. Hades here is itself thrown into the lake of fire, thus, it cannot be the same thing.
The description also describes that process as Hades giving up those in it to the lake of fire. And those in Hades only received judgment at this time. This is so important. It shows the true and final judgment is still coming, that Hades is not hell, that Hades is temporary, and that no one is in hell because they have not yet been judged.
How Did We Lose the Doctrine?
I believe, although I certainly could not prove this, that the KJV is much to blame for losing this doctrine. The KJV purposely replaced all references to Hades in the NT with hell, as well as all references to Sheol in the OT with hell. Neither of those places are hell. Many have speculated and justified why the translators did this, but nonetheless, because the KJV was so prominent to the English-speaking world, and eventually to the entire world, that because that Bible removed Hades, English speaking believers lost it as well. Do not get me wrong, the KJV is a fine translation which has saved hundreds, maybe even thousands of people.
But discussions like this certainly demonstrate the blessing we have in the universal Church. When brilliant Christian men and women, together, study the original languages, produce translations, and explain their purposes, the Bride of Christ is edified and blessed.