The Words We’ve Fudged: Hell (Hades)
What does salvation, righteousness and eternity have in common? They are all beautiful words found frequently in the Bible, yes. And yes, they all convey something of God’s magnanimous nature and His glorious plan for mankind. However, they have yet another common distinction: they are often misunderstood. Why? Partly due to the challenge of the translation process; partly because they’ve become muddled by centuries of encrusted dogma.
As we saw in our last article, while our English word “eternity” means unending, never-ending, or forever and ever, there is no such word in the original languages of the Scriptures. Yes, when connected to God Himself, we can draw certain conclusions. However, if we make assumptions willy-nilly about the word translated “eternity,” we fudge the intention of important passages of the Bible.
One such related concept that is almost bent beyond redemption, if you’ll pardon my pun, is that of eternal judgment. And when it comes to this concept, no word is more battered and beaten out of proportion than the word Hell.
2377 words (c. 6 pages) = 25 minute read
Hell & Hades: More Fudged Words
In this article and the next two, we look at the words we’ve fudged related to “hell” and the consequence of this distortion to the doctrine of eternal judgment.
As you may well know, the word “hell” is a pagan word, of proto-Germanic origin, that referred to the netherworld of the dead (a concept that had long fascinated the ancient pagan mind). The word then entered Old English sometime in the eighth century A.D. It was incorporated into Christian tradition to marry a concept that was already popularised by several early church fathers, namely Hades, the Greek concept of the netherworld, the infernal regions, the abode of the damned.
It’s worth pointing out that Greek philosophy had made headway into Hebrew thinking well before even the New Testament was written. With the prevalence of the Greek language, the Old Testament was translated into Greek as early as the third century BC. In this translation (the Septuagint), many Greek concepts were married to Hebrew ideas and Hades was considered a metaphorical equivalent of the Hebrew word Sheol. By the time Jesus walked the earth, mainstream Hebrew life was replete with Greek idioms and expressions.
Furthermore, the great minds of the early church during the second and third century were predominantly Greeks who converted to God. Many of them were first disciples of Plato before they were disciples of Jesus. In other words, those who influenced early Christian thinking in the era post the Apostles did so in the midst of the challenge they themselves faced; that is, reconciling the Message of Jesus, and its deeply Hebraic roots, with their own prevailing Greek culture and mindset.
This is not intended as a criticism of the early church fathers (or the translators of our English Bibles). Not at all. It’s merely stating the obvious. The facts. All missiologists face this challenge in attempting to incarnate the Message in their own culture.
To add to the complexity (and in their defence), the early church fathers (and later, the translators of the Bible) were only following the New Testament writers in borrowing from these pagan concepts in the first place.
However, it seems that they took what the New Testament writers used as colloquial speech, metaphor and allegory, and turned it into cast-iron dogma.
The long story short, when the Scriptures were first translated into English, the word “hell” was used as a catch-all phrase for both the Hebrew word Sheol, and the Greek words Gehenna, Hades and Tartaroo, cementing the confusion. While newer translations now distinguish between these words, tradition continues the unfortunate use of the word hell in translating the Greek word Gehenna. In other words, pagan concepts continue to colour our understanding of the doctrine of eternal judgment.
Let’s then consider the three words originally translated “hell” in the New Testament. The word Gehenna appears twelve times, Hades eleven times and Tartaroo just once. (We’ll look at Tartaroo and Hades in this article and Gehenna in the next.)
Tartaroo is used in 2 Peter 2:4 in a rather cryptic reference to the ‘imprisonment’ of certain fallen angels who are “reserved for judgment”—clearly not a permanent place. Tartaroo, the verb meaning to “throw to Tartarus,” stemmed from Greek mythology; where it was considered the deepest abyss of Hades used as a torture chamber or dungeon to inflict suffering. In Roman mythology, the gods condemned their enemies to Tartarus.
In his second epistle, Peter seems to be using a Greco-Roman idea to explain metaphorically the judgment of fallen angels, possibility linking it to the imprisonment of 200 angels described in The Book of Enoch, an ancient Jewish work … although it’s terribly obscure.
Certainly, the more adverse (and hideous) images of hell as a place of torture may unfortunately derive from this Greek concept of Tartarus. In fact, most medieval Christian art that attempted to graphically portray the horrors of eternal judgment are tragically more alike unto this bogus Greco-Roman concept than anything in the Biblical record. And thus, they terribly askew the nature of God’s justice.
Hades is the ‘realm of the dead;’ that is, the place or state of departed souls. Although again of Greek origin, and also rather cryptic, it referred to the place in which those who die in this life are judged. It was used as a (loose) metaphorical equivalent for the Old Testament’s Sheol, a word that incidentally refers to the state of both the righteous and unrighteous, often translated with the words “death” or the “grave” (c. Psalm 16:10 and Acts 2:27).
As spurious as the Hades may be due to its pagan origins; if we accept it as a metaphorical equivalent for Sheol—as the New Testament writers seem to use it—then the bottom-line is that Christ’s victory over Hades makes it clear that it’s also not a permanent place (1 Corinthians 15:55; Revelations 1:18; 20:14).
And a quick side note here on Sheol and the Hebrew understanding of the afterlife. The Old Testament does not give us a complex picture of the hereafter. Rather, death or Sheol was considered the great leveller, primarily a place of silence to which all men go; however, it was not a permanent place of punishment (see, for example, 1 Samuel 2:6; Psalm 30:2, 3; 49:15; 86:13; 116:3-8; 139:8; Hosea 13:14). The ancient Hebrew people seemed content to trust God’s just nature beyond the grave.
It is interesting that Rabbinical Tradition holds that unbelievers face remedial punishment (purification) after death, a sentence that never exceeds twelve months, and ends in the redemption of the sinner, or his destruction (he ceases to exist). They teach that it is not a physical place, but more an experience of intense shame and remorse. I mention this only to point out that Judaism does not teach unending damnation.
In contrast, the Greeks concocted a deeply complex view of the afterlife. Hades was first the name of the Greek god of the underworld, but it eventually became synonymous with the abode of the dead. Again, that the translators of the Septuagint—the Greek version of the Old Testament—used the word Hades to translate Sheol reflects how early Judaism began to borrow from the Greek view of the afterlife. And, of course, as pointed out, the New Testament writer’s followed suit.
While I’d prefer to cut all ties with Hades, I don’t have this luxury. Jesus Himself used the word.
Jesus used many contemporary pictures held by the people of His day; for example, He also referred to “Beelzebub” (Matthew 12:27), the “lord of the flies” or filth. By doing so, He referred to a pagan picture or image His audience was familiar with. This does not imply that He validated these things, only that He did not feel it was necessary to dismantle them. Rather they were mere props He could use to point His audience to the higher dimensions of His Kingdom reality. In the same way, we refer to the movie The Matrix as a telling metaphor for understanding society’s dominant frame story. We don’t for one second believe we’re subdued by sentient machines who are feeding on the heat of our bodies as an energy source while we’re stuck in a simulated reality.
Similarly, Jesus merely used Hades to point them to the implications of His Kingdom message.
Jesus only used the word Hades three times, and it appears, He used it in three different ways on each occasion. The first reference in Matthew 11:23 (repeated in Luke 10:15) is in His judgment of the city of Capernaum: “And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades…”
It seems obvious that just as Capernaum wasn’t literally in “heaven,” it stands to reason that Capernaum was not literally going to be cast into “Hades.” Jesus was using poetic hyperbole to express Capernaum’s demise; crashing from their once giddy heights to their eventual dismal depths … as we might say today.
Jesus’ second use of Hades is Matthew 16:18, “I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.”
Jesus’ reference to the “gates of Hades”—note, not the “gates of hell” as many are in the habit of misquoting—is interesting. In the ancient world, governmental and official affairs were conducted in the city gates serving as “command and control centres.” Consequently, Jesus alludes here to the command and control systems of evil: both religious and secular. He is therefore not directly referring to the devil, but metaphorically to man-made authority structures which are exploited by the demonic to oppose God’s will (see vv. 18, 19 c. 5-12).
That this idea, which is profoundly powerful when understood in context, has been misconstrued into caricatures that the devil himself personally inhabits “Hell” overseeing the torture of the damned is terribly unfortunate, and plays more to the Greek concept of Hades, the god of the underworld, and Tartaroo than the biblical record.
The third time Jesus used Hades is in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31). Yes, the Greek word used in verse 23 is Hades; too many glibly use the word “hell” here immediately distorting this passage.
The concept of Hades, with flames and all, situated alongside but separate from “Abraham’s bosom” (v. 22)—another non-biblical Jewish idiom—was a first-century mix-match of Greco-Roman and Hebrew syncretism. Personally, I’d prefer to stay away from such a jumble of hodgepodge, but Jesus—knowing far, far better than me; not bound by my religious insecurities—felt differently.
The important thing to note here then is that Jesus is not validating this worldview. For example, in saying Lazarus went to “Abraham’s bosom,” He makes no mention of any metaphors consistent with a biblical view of the afterlife such as “Paradise” or the “Tree of Life”. Nor is He teaching on the hereafter. He is pointedly instructing His audience concerning the Kingdom of God—specifically, how we use our privileges: selfishly or selflessly for the good of others (see v. 14)—a prevailing theme in Jesus’ message. Thus, He merely used Hades as an allegory in this passage. Significant people in Christian tradition, such as Martin Luther, likewise considered this parable allegorical.
So, to be clear, in addressing the “Pharisees, who were lovers of money” (v. 14), Jesus was addressing greed and apathy, not teaching on post-mortem judgment. Furthermore, there is no direct or implied statement that the rich man’s punishment was unending. In fact, Jesus’ use of Hades might imply the opposite. Recall that Hades was used as an equivalent of Sheol, and the Pharisees held to the Old Testament’s view that Sheol was not a permanent place of punishment (see, for example, 1 Samuel 2:6; Psalm 30:2, 3; 49:15; 86:13; 116:3-8; 139:8; Hosea 13:14). Plus, it seems that the rich man was actually changing, becoming more humane. The once self-absorbed and conceited man becomes thoughtful and caring of others (vv. 27-30). Again, this offers hope that God’s judgment, even after death, is corrective.
A final word on the word Hades.
Since we derive so much of our understanding of the Gospel from Paul, how did he use the word?
Paul, the great apostle and evangelist, used the word Hades on but one occasion. Yes, just once. In 1 Corinthians 15:55, he wrote: “O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?”
In his single use of the word, Paul uses it as a poetic synonym for death (not unending torment). And he only mentions it to proclaim Christ’s sovereign victory over death, reducing it to a virtual non-entity. That’s it. That’s the sum total of Paul’s contribution to this matter, which is, in itself, telling.
What’s the key point to ponder?
The Scriptures were written from a Hebrew mindset, as the overwhelming proportion of its authors were Hebrew. Thus, holy writ rings and resonates with Hebraic values—which, it can be argued, is in accord with what God values. (Note: not everything Hebraic is of God; like all culture, it deteriorated over time. However, the values came first, seeded by God, and the people that first blossomed from that pure seed became the Hebrew nation.)
In contrast, we read the Scriptures with Greek-tinted glasses. Our society today is still steeped in Greek values. And our inherited dogma is rife with it.
It is my opinion that one of the worst hack jobs of this phenomenon is what the pagan import of Hades (and in turn, Hell) has done to the concept of eternal judgment. And that this reflects poorly on the very nature of God makes it, in my mind, the worst.
Think about it like this.
What was Jesus’ predominant message? The Father-heart of God. A God of abounding love who balances mercy and judgment in great care and wisdom.
How do most unbelievers view God? As a vengeful angry Being who thinks nothing of using violence (and that, in its most hideous and abusive form), to torture and torment those who disagree with him. Forever and ever. And ever.
So here’s the question.
How much of this distortion of Jesus’ Message is due to an antiquated Greek version of the afterlife?
Where we’re going next?
Yep, Hell (Gehenna) is up next. And yep, I know. It’s taken a while to get there. However, I think you’ll agree that the ground that we’ve covered has been invaluable. That is, if you’re still with me. If you’ve unliked me from Facebook, deleted my number from your mobile and cancelled my Christmas present, I guess I had it coming.