I grew up thinking that Hades was a euphemism for Hell. Good people who didn’t want to use the four-letter “H” word said Hades instead. I started having problems with that theory when I read that after the second judgment Hades would be thrown into the lake of fire (Gehenna). If they were the same thing, how could one be thrown into the other? And if Hades is different, where did it come from?
Christians confess their faith with the Apostles Creed and say that Jesus “descended into Hell.” Did he? That’s not what the original Greek version says. There it confesses that Jesus descended into Hades—which agrees with the New Testament.
The term “Hades” comes from Greek mythology and refers to the God of the underworld, as well as the abode of the dead, where all people go when they die. Jesus takes this word and applies his own specific, though limited, descriptions to it. In our time, since Hades is not as widely used as Hell, it doesn’t carry the unbiblical connotations for most people.
The Old Testament parallel or precursor to Hades is “Sheol,” often rendered “the grave” or “the depths”—which again causes confusion to the English speaker. It is a dark, listless, miserable state, though not of torment. The concept as understood throughout the Old Testament is vague at best. The New Testament Hades is generally thought to be a clarifying revelation.
In a few places Hades indicates something evil. Jesus says that “the gates of Hades will not overcome” the church (Matthew 16:18). That is to say that, as elders of a city held court or conducted business at their city gates, the judgments or schemes of Hades would not prevail against the church. Revelation 6:1–8 depicts the four horsemen of the apocalypse, but in fact the fourth comes as a pair: “Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him.” Whether Hades has a horse or not goes unstated.
In other places Hades looks more like a place: Jesus tells the folks of Capernaum that they “will go down to Hades” (Matthew 11:23). And he holds “the keys of death and Hades” (Revelation 1:18). Then we have Jesus’ “parable” of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16, where Lazarus is with Abraham and the rich man is in “Hell.” Parable? Jesus never calls it a parable. And the rich man is not in Gehenna at all. Verse 23 says he’s in Hades. But like Gehenna, Hades is a place of fire and torment. Despite an impassable chasm, communication goes on between Heaven and Hades but implicitly not between Hades and earth.
Luke 16 is the only place to describe Hades as a place of torment, yet it does not indicate whether all who go there will suffer, or just bad people like the rich man. It does not indicate any varying degrees of suffering or any criteria or theology regarding those who go there.
Some traditions presume the rich man is in Gehenna and suggest that both Paradise, where Lazarus is at Abraham’s side, and Gehenna are part of Hades. But this is impossible, because the same text depicts Hades as being a separate place from Paradise. We also see in Revelation 20:13–14 that after death and Hades give up their dead, they are both thrown into the lake of fire, Gehenna. Clearly we’re seeing two entirely different places or conditions or states of being.
Is the Luke 16 depiction a fictional narrative? Or is Jesus pulling back the veil for us to get a glimpse for a better view of what’s at stake after we die? Characters in his parables never have names, but here we have not only Lazarus but also Abraham. This side of death we obviously can’t make a final judgment, but we have no reason not to take this account as a revelation of the afterlife.
It may help us to think beyond our physical earthly framework and consider that all these images of a bad afterlife may be a state or condition instead of (or as well as) a location. The spiritual world is not materially bounded, yet it obviously has its own kind of bondage.
A major difference and a major similarity stand out between Hades and Gehenna. The difference is that Hades is temporal; it has an end. And in Hades we see implied in some biblical passages, which we’ll look at next, a vague and limited possibility of redemption utterly absent in Gehenna. Gehenna is eternal, and it is the greater entity, for Hades is thrown into it. The similarity is that like Gehenna, Hades is a place of fire and torment—at least for some like the rich man, though all the imagery suggests that Gehenna is much worse.
Evangelism in Hades?
Jesus is clear that he is the only way, the only hope humanity has of connecting with the Triune God to spend our afterlife in his glorious presence. Most evangelicals tend to assume that’s simply the end of it. But the mercy of God invades in ways many of us are unaware of.
In John 5:24 Jesus affirms that if we believe in him, we will not be condemned but have “crossed over from death to life.” He goes on to say in verse 25, “A time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live.” Is he speaking of people who are actually dead or does he mean those who are physically alive but spiritually dead? The context of verse 24’s spiritual death and spiritual life would suggest that verse 25 refers to those who are physically alive but spiritually dead; they respond to Jesus and become spiritually alive. This interpretation is reasonable and the most common.
Yet Jesus takes the idea one step further in verses 28-29, “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.” Contrasting verses 24–25, this cannot be talking about people who are merely spiritually dead. Those “who are in their graves” can only refer to actual dead people. And he can’t be referring to believers who die because they’re already in Heaven. Furthermore, saying that they “will rise” to live or be condemned can again only refer to the afterlife.
So we’re left with a strong indication that people who die and don’t go to Heaven will hear Christ’s voice, presumably as they are in Hades, and rise to either life or condemnation. I don’t see this in too many theologies or statements of faith. But it’s in the Bible.
Peter echoes this in 1 Peter 3:18–19, saying that Christ “was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison.” Given that the Bible never indicates fallen angels will be redeemed, the “spirits in prison” can hardly be anything other than spirits of the dead. Verse 20 indicates that these spirits were of people in the days of Noah. Is it limited to them? What about the people after Noah?
The answer comes as Peter goes on to speak of people in his own time. Because God judges “the living and the dead . . . the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to men in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit” (4:6). Some interpret this to mean those who are spiritually dead, but a plain reading of the passage, particularly following the parallel of 3:18–19, would lead first to understanding this as referring to people who have actually died. Again, to interpret these passages as meaning spiritually dead ignores, or at least stretches, the context of Christ’s going to prison to preach—the Bible never refers to earth as a prison.
When we put this together with Jesus’ statement in Matthew 12:40, “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth,” we begin to see how this happened.
Collectively these verses show us what happened spiritually when Jesus’ physical body was in the grave between Good Friday and the resurrection early Sunday morning. No biblical passages give us any contrasting view. Every indication is that Jesus was in Hades preaching to the dead there that they might have a future hope of eternal life.
How does that work? Does it refer only to those who died before Christ? Or does it include those who die without hearing the truth of Christ today? The Bible doesn’t tell us. We’re not in the judgment seat.
But it does tell us about a second round of judgment. The unclear part is that these passages about the dead encountering Christ and hearing the gospel message in Hades contrast with Revelation 20:11–15, which indicates that the dead will be judged according to what they had done. But then do the deeds mean only the way they lived, or could deeds include their response to Christ’s witness in the afterlife? After all, Jesus said, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:29). So wherever belief and deeds converge or diverge in end-times judgment we don’t know, and we haven’t been given judge’s robes.
We might ask if Hebrews 9:27 contradicts the discussion so far: “Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.” The context of this verse is that of annual temple sacrifices on one hand and Christ’s “once for all . . . sacrifice of himself” on the other (9:25–28). Thus the singularity of “once” refers to death, not to judgment. The verse does not negate Revelation 20’s indication of a second end-time judgment.
People always ask about Purgatory and if it’s the same as Hades. The Roman Catholic Church developed the idea of Purgatory as a place in the afterlife for people who believe in Jesus and escape Hell yet aren’t quite good enough to enter directly into Heaven. These folks are purged to clean them up and make them worthy of Heaven. The concept is based on a theology of doing works to earn merit before God. It contradicts the entire basis of God’s grace and Jesus’ work on the cross. Let Purgatory go the way of the Greek myths.
What exactly happens in Hades? We only know what the above passages tell us. Beyond that, ours is not to judge but to believe and help others believe. We know what we need to know. The rest we’ll find out on the other side.
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