Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Notes on Hell: Hades, Tartarus & the Underworld

What does the Bible teach about hell? 

If you've got an old King James Version of the Bible, you'd find over a hundred references to hell. Except that in the original languages, there are a few different words for hell. And they don't all carry the same nuances. And so the vision of hell gets a little more complicated.

First we looked at the Hebrew word sheol that the KJV often translates as hell. Then we looked at the Greek word hades, which the KJV translates as hell, especially those uses that seemed to be similar in usage to the Hebrew word sheol. However, there are other uses of hades that don't seem to refer back to the Hebrew idea of sheol.

For example, when Jesus tells the parable about the Rich Man and Lazarus, Luke records the story by having Jesus use the Greek word hades. The parable has the Rich Man and Abraham having a conversation. Granted it is a parable, but it's not one that is referring to a Jewish idea of the afterlife. So which hades is Jesus referring to? Maybe the one of popular culture, the idea of hades that floats around in the minds of people who have been influence by Greek and Roman culture for the past three hundred years?

In sheol, dead men don't talk. In a Roman vision of hades, they would. So it seems that here we have Jesus using the popular notion of hades to make a point about how the rich ought to treat the poor. Does this mean that Jesus is giving us a literal description of what hell is really like? Or is it more likely that since Jesus is telling a story, he's referring to the legends of hades? It doesn't mean he's affirming that the Roman view of the afterlife is correct, but rather that he is using those stories for great effect.

Another example: Peter in his two letters refers to Tartarus and to a prison. In Virgil's map of hades (as seen in Alice K. Turner's book: The History of Hell) there is a prison of Tartarus that is separated form the Elysian Fields by a great river of fire. Tartarus is a deep abyss, an inescapable prison where there are terrible torments and endless torture. Peter says that God sent rebellious angels to Tartarus. He also says that Jesus went and preached the gospel to these spirits. So is Peter saying that Tartarus really exists? Or he, like Jesus, is using a common notion for the after life to make bigger points about judgment and the scope of Jesus' ministry.

Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians that there will come a day when every being in the heavens, upon the earth, and under the earth will bow down before Jesus. The ancients believed in a three tiered universe - so this is Paul's way of saying that every being in existence will acknowledge Jesus as Lord. But Paul also seems to be asserting that there are beings in the Underworld that exist - which is not a Jewish idea. Paul seems to be referring to notions of classic hades rather than sheol - and this is a big deal. In sheol there is nothingness, but in hades there is a shadowy existence. Whatever beings are there, they will someday confess Christ as King.

Hades does not carry the same meanings as sheol. Often times the gospel writers used the words hades when quoting an Old Testament verse that originally used the word sheol. Did that writer mean to change the meaning? Or was it a "dynamic equivalent" situation? Hades was the closest meaning available in Greek? Simple research shows that what the ancients believed about hades is not the same as what the Jews believed about sheol.

So there seems to be a shift within the Bible, from the Old Testament to the New Testament in ideas about what happens after you die. In sheol, everybody is in the grave or the pit, eaten by worms and no hope for the future. In hades, everybody goes down to the depths to a shadowy existence crossing the River Styx maybe into the Elysian Fields. Some part of the man or woman, the soul or spirit, continues existence in hades, not as punishment or reward, but a listless abode of the dead. And some New Testament Scriptures seem to affirm that there is some kind of place that exists, which is in conflict with what the Old Testament teaches.

Up to this point in the study, we've examined the use of sheol and hades. It's not revealed anything definitive about hell as we moderns understand it. It's not a place of torment for everybody. It's not a place of punishment, it's not the destination of sinners - it's just where everybody goes after they die, according to Greek and Roman notions about the afterlife.

In Revelation it describes death and hades being thrown into the lake of fire. Since hades has been our understanding of hell up to that point in the Bible, it makes you wonder what John means when he prophesies that event happening. How does death and hell get tossed into a lava pit? What happens to death and hades in a pool of flames? Is this a reference to sheol and classical hades? Is this a reference to general pagan notions of death and the afterlife? What is the lake of fire? It can't be our definition of hell, since hell gets thrown into it. Rather then getting a clearer picture of hell, the vision is getting murkier.

And so it is that there is more the Bible has to say about hell then just references to sheol and hades. Next week we explore the idea of gehenna as Jesus used it. This is another word that the KJV translated as hell, though it likely refers to a ghastly place called the Valley of Hinnom.


Paul Navarro said...

There is confusion about "tartarus" in 2 Peter and Jude because scripture has been replaced with mythology; both verses refer to Numbers 16 and not to Antiquity.

Tim Hallman said...

I disagree with you Paul. Numbers 16 is not a reference to Tartarus. If anything it is a vivid example of Sheol. That said, if Peter is referencing the Greek mythology of Tartarus, he is doing it as a missionary - using Tartarus as an analogy to point to reality.