Thursday, April 28, 2011

Notes on Hell: Sheol & Hades

In the King James Version of the Bible, sheol and hades are almost always translated hell. Sometimes death or grave, but mostly hell. Thus we get our many of our notions of hell from those verses using sheol and hades. However, as we probe each word, we find that sheol and hades carry different nuances. And sometimes the use of hades in the NT is a reference back to the OT, meaning we ought to consider the original meaning before we add a new meaning. And this has implications for which verses we draw on to construct our vision of hell.

In examining the different occurrences of the word "hades" in the Greek New Testament, it seems that often it is referring to the Jewish word "sheol." This prompts the question: what does Jesus mean when he uses the word "hades"? Does he mean the common Greek culture perception of hades? Or, as an observant Jew, does he mean sheol, even though his words were recorded in Greek?

For a review of the usage of sheol in the OT, see last weeks' notes on Hell.

A clue to how to translate and understand the different uses of the word hades has to do with context. There are some verses where it seems that Jesus is either indirectly or directly quoting from the Old Testament. Thus, though the word in the New Testament is the Greek hades, the original word is the Hebrew sheol.

Below are Scriptures in the New Testament that use the word "hades," accompanied by Scripture from the Old Testament that I think is the original reference.

Matthew 11:23 (NIV) And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. [see also Luke 10:15]

Sheol Reference: Isaiah 14:15 (YLT) Only -- unto Sheol thou art brought down, Unto the sides of the pit.
Here it seems that Jesus is drawing on Isaiah's prophecy of doom towards Babylon, and using it to denounce the unbelief of Capernaum. It's very similar language, such that whatever connotations come from the use of "hades" to the reader of Matthew, it is likely that Jesus quoted from Isaiah using "sheol". Thus this description of hell by Jesus points us back to our understanding of sheol.

Matthew 16:18 (NIV) And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

Sheol Reference: Isaiah 38:10 (YLT) `I -- I said in the cutting off of my days, I go in to the gates of Sheol, I have numbered the remnant of mine years.
Job 38:17 (YLT) Revealed to thee were the gates of death? And the gates of death-shade dost thou see?
There is one use of "gates of Sheol" in the OT. Often times sheol and death equate a very similar idea, and thus I've included the reference that uses "gates of death." One wonders if Jesus is inferring back to the story of Hezekiah when using the phrase "gates of Hades." Or the suffering of Job?

Others point to archeological evidence that Jesus is referring to geography and mythology. Jesus makes this statement while in the area of Caesarea Philippi, also known as Panea. Worship of the god Pan was common in this area, and at one of the worship areas to Pan was a Gate of Hades.

Click here for a helpful website with pictures of the Gates of Hades and archeological insights.

Click here for a blog with good insights on Caesarea Philippi. Context is everything!

So here we have an example of where the gospel uses the word "hades," and while there seems to be slim evidence that Jesus is referring to the Jewish idea of sheol, it's more likely that he is referring to the notions of Greek mythology held in the popular imagination.

Acts 2:27 (ESV) For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption.
Acts 2:31 (ESV) he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption.

Sheol Reference: Psalm 16:10 (YLT) For Thou dost not leave my soul to Sheol, Nor givest thy saintly one to see corruption.
Peter is preaching, making the case that King David was referring to resurrection in Psalm 16, and that Jesus was the one actually resurrected. Peter then goes on to point out the implications of this fact. What's interesting is that the author of Acts quotes Psalm 16:10, substituting the Jewish word sheol for the Greek word hades. King David meant sheol when he wrote Psalm 16, not hades. To those that heard Peter's sermon, it's likely he directly quoted Psalm 16 and used sheol. But Luke records the sermon in Greek, and uses the word hades. This dosen't mean that hades and sheol mean the exactly the same thing. There is a reason for this substitution, including for cultural reasons.

1 Corinthians 15:54-55 (YLT) and when this corruptible may have put on incorruption, and this mortal may have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the word that hath been written, `The Death was swallowed up -- to victory; where, O Death, thy sting? Where, O Hades, thy victory?'

Sheol Reference: Isaiah 25:8 (YLT) He hath swallowed up death in victory, And wiped hath the Lord Jehovah, The tear from off all faces, And the reproach of His people He turneth aside from off all the earth, For Jehovah hath spoken.
Hosea 13:14 (YLT) From the hand of Sheol I do ransom them, From death I redeem them, Where [is] thy plague, O death? Where thy destruction, O Sheol? Repentance is hid from Mine eyes.
Here Paul is writing at length about resurrection. He is nearing the end of his piece when he pulls together two direct quotes from two different authors, Isaiah and Hosea. The two poems that Paul pulls from are compelling, imaginative, resonating ideas about what God will do in the future. The NT Greek has hades, but the original OT has sheol. The KJV here uses the word death in the OT. But it's the same word sheol that in other contexts it translates hell.

Revelation 1:18 (NIV) I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.

Sheol Reference: Matthew 16:18, Hosea 13:14 (see above)
John the Revelator is quoting the words of Jesus to him. The idea of death and Hades together points back to the Hosea text. Jesus' reference to the gate of Hades earlier now comes to mind as he describes holding the keys to Hades. Here the KJV uses the word hell. But when examining the Hosea and Matthew texts, Jesus seems to be implying something else other than our popular notion of hell. 

Revelation 6:8 (NIV) I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.

Sheol References: Deuteronomy 32:22-25, Ezekiel 14:12-23, Leviticus 26:14-39, Hosea 13:14
Again, John uses "death and hades" together, though he seems to personify them in this text. His usage of the ideas of sword, famine, plague, and beasts all come from previous texts in Torah and the Prophets. Whether John is referring to Hades as the Greek mythological god, or a personification of sheol, as sometimes the OT does, is not abundantly clear. What is clear is that the KJV usage of hell here does not clear up any notions of how we ought to think of hell.

Revelation 20:13-14 (NIV) The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done.  Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death.

Sheol Reference: Deuteronomy 32:22 (ESV) For a fire is kindled by my anger, and it burns to the depths of Sheol, devours the earth and its increase, and sets on fire the foundations of the mountains.

Song of Songs 8:6 (YLT) Set me as a seal on thy heart, as a seal on thine arm, For strong as death is love, Sharp as Sheol is jealousy, Its burnings [are] burnings of fire, a flame of Jah!,

Daniel 7:10 (YLT) A flood of fire is proceeding and coming forth from before Him, a thousand thousands do serve Him, and a myriad of myriads before Him do rise up, the Judge is seated, and the books have been opened.
This is an interesting and creative use of references to "death and hades", as John the Revelator has done elsewhere in Revelation. I looked for references in the OT where there is a connection between sheol and fire. I included the reference from Daniel since it refers to a "flood of fire" which seems metaphorically close to "lake of fire" and it includes a reference to the book of life, which is in the same verse of Revelation as sheol and fire and death. According to the KJV, hell is cast into the lake of fire. However, it seems clear that hell here means sheol. And the end of sheol has been prophesied elsewhere using different imagery. So we don't have here a very clear notion here of what the popular vision of hell is like.

These have been examples of the usage of hades in the NT and it's referring back to OT uses of the Hebrew word sheol. I am contending that in these instances, though the Greek word hades was used in the written text, the original meaning was Hebrew. Thus, though the KJV often translated hades and sheol as hell, getting clarity on what those two different words mean shapes what we understand hell to be. These usages of the words hades points more back to a Jewish understanding of sheol then our current popular notion of hell.

1 comment:

Daniel said...

Doug Wilson answers a question on Hell vs Hades here: