HADES: WHAT IS IT?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Wednesday, July 4, 2012 at 3:14pm
QUESTION: I have seen the word “Hades” in the New Testament several times, but I am not sure what that means. Can you explain it?
ANSWER: I can try. First, the OT equivalent to Hades is Sheol, which appears about 65 times in OT writings. The Greek OT (the Septuagint) translates this word with Hades almost every time. The NT then uses Hades ten times (or 11 if 1 Cor. 15:55 is counted). The main thing to remember is that these words are always connected with DEATH. They are the place or location of the dead. For this connection see Psalm 18:5; Proverbs 5:5; Isaiah 28:15; Revelation 1:18; 6:8.
To properly understand these terms we must first of all accept the full inspiration of the whole Bible and thus the unity and consistency of the contents of its teaching. Second, we must accept the Bible’s teaching that human beings consist of two parts, the physical body and the spirit or soul. These are meant to exist together but are separated at the point of physical death. Finally, we must accept the fact that there are three aspects of the death that has fallen upon the human race as the result of sin: the physical death of the body; the spiritual death of the soul (Eph. 2:1, 5); and eternal death in hell, the lake of fire, which is “the second death” (Rev. 20:14; 21:8).
Much of the confusion about the nature of Hades (Sheol) is the result of the denial of the reality of the soul or spirit as a genuine and separate aspect of human nature. Such a denial is central in the theology of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists, for example. The soul’s existence is also becoming more and more questioned even in evangelical circles. Those who thus see human beings as bodies only will never properly understand the nature of Hades. (On the dualistic nature of man, see my book, The Faith Once for All, pp. 134-147.)
How then shall we understand Hades, the place and power of death? First of all, we must see that at times Sheol in the OT and Hades in the NT refer to the grave, which swallows up the bodies of those who die, righteous and wicked alike. Those who deny the existence of the soul often say that Sheol and Hades always refer to the grave, but they are wrong. Some (such as Robert Morey) say these words never refer to the grave, but this too is wrong.
On the one hand (contra Morey), in some texts Sheol/Hades clearly means the grave. In its sense of “the place of the dead,” Sheol/Hades is the place beneath the surface of the earth where dead bodies are buried. As such, both the righteous and the wicked enter into Sheol/Hades, the enemy which captures and devours every member of Adam’s race. In this way, even for the righteous, death seems to be the victor, since the grave swallows us all and turns our bodies back to dust (see Ps. 89:48; 116:3; 141:7; Isa. 38:10). In this sense Sheol/Hades is something to be dreaded and feared, something from which we all long to be delivered and redeemed (Ps. 49:14-15; 86:13; Hos. 13:14). This is the light in which Psalm 16:10 must be understood: “For You will not abandon my soul to Sheol; nor will you allow Your Holy One to undergo decay.” (Here the word “soul” has the sense of “person, self”; “my soul” means “me, myself.”) In Acts 2:27, 31 Peter cites this as a prophecy of the resurrection of Jesus’ body from the tomb, whereby “He was neither abandoned to Hades, nor did His flesh suffer decay.” This refers only to Christ’s body as buried in and raised from the grave (Sheol/Hades), not to the state or activity of his spirit between his death and resurrection.
On the other hand (contra those who deny the soul’s existence), in some texts where Sheol/Hades refers to a specific location, it does not refer to the grave as the receptacle of the body but to the place to which the spirits of some of the dead are taken, where they will exist in their intermediate (bodiless, conscious) state until Christ’s return. Since Sheol/Hades is the place of the dead, only the souls of the wicked are put into Sheol/Hades in the sense of the waiting place for disembodied souls (see Job 24:19; Ps. 9:17; 31:17; 55:15; Prov. 9:18; 23:14; Isa. 14:13-15; Matt. 11:23). The souls of the righteous do not enter Sheol/Hades, since their souls are not in a state of spiritual death but have been made alive through God’s resurrection power (Eph. 2:5-6; Col. 2:12-13). Thus we should not think that Sheol/Hades is occupied by the souls of the righteous and the wicked alike (Ps. 49:14-15; 86:13; Prov. 15:24).
As the place where the wicked abide until judgment, Sheol/Hades is seen as an enemy or captor in all its terror. In Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus, only the rich man (personifying the wicked in general) is said to be in torment “in Hades” (Luke 16:23).
In both of its specific meanings, (1) the grave as the receptacle of the bodies of all men, and (2) the intermediate dwelling place for wicked souls, Sheol/Hades is mankind’s enemy, a foul force conquered by the redeeming work of the crucified and risen Christ (Rev. 1:18) and from which we find refuge in the church (Matt. 16:18). In the end it will be finally destroyed in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14).
Where, then, do the souls of the righteous go when separated from the body at death? Their destiny is never called Sheol or Hades. They are described as being in Abraham’s bosom (Luke 16:23), in Paradise (Luke 23:43), “at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8), and under the heavenly altar (Rev. 6:9). We may refer to this simply as Paradise (see 2 Cor. 12:4), which should not be considered as just one section of Hades. Righteous souls have been “made perfect” (Heb. 12:23), and that includes being made fully alive in a spiritual sense. They no longer have the stench and penalty of spiritual death about them, and thus are not proper citizens of Hades, which is the place of death. The righteous are “in Hades” only in the sense that their bodies are in the grave.
Where are Paradise and Sheol/Hades located? Paradise, as the place where the souls of the righteous dead exist in their intermediate state, is equivalent to or at least adjacent to the heavenly throneroom district of the invisible universe created for the angelic race. This conclusion is based on two facts. First, John saw the souls of at least some of the righteous dead under the altar of this heaven (Rev.6:9). Second, when we die our souls will be in the presence of Christ (2 Cor. 5:8; Phil. 1:23), and Christ himself in his glorified human existence is presently in this heavenly throneroom (Acts 7:55; Rev. 3:21; 5:6, 13). When we die, our souls will awaken in conscious bliss in that blessed place.
But where is Sheol/Hades, the place into which the souls of the wicked are ushered at death? We can only speculate about this. But based on the above, I infer that this too is a part of the invisible universe, a distant or nether region far from the presence of God and the glorified Christ, perhaps adjacent to the place called Tartarus occupied by some fallen angels (2 Pet. 2:4). It is a place of darkness (Job 17:13), gloom and suffering, without light and without hope. It is the place where lost human beings await the final judgment and their eternal consignment to hell.
(For these and other details about the afterlife, see my book, The Faith Once for All, chapter 29 on “The Intermediate State.”)