Paula Jarvis Garland has asked the question: “Are Hades and Hell the same place?” The short answer is, Yes, but the whole subject is one of the Bible’s most complex and far reaching. That’s why I’m splitting my answer into two posts. Here’s part 1.
For centuries the classic King James translation of the Bible was the favored one for the English-speaking world. Many of us grew up reading the K.J.V. and memorizing its verses, and undoubtedly it’s a generally solid translation. Unfortunately, the way it uses the word “hell” has been a longstanding problem.
In the K.J.V.’s New Testament, three very different Greek words describing three very different places all get translated as the one word “hell.” This has caused untold confusion among sincere students of the Bible. The three words are Tartarus, Gehenna, and Hades. I could devote an entire series of posts to explaining what the Bible teaches about each place, but for this post let me just offer the basics.
First, I’ll name Tartarus. Tartarus is a place exclusively for the imprisonment of fallen angels. No human souls have ever been or ever will be incarcerated in Tartarus. 2 Peter 2:4 speaks of a certain group of fallen angels and says that God has “…cast them down to hell…” (K.J.V., N.K.J.V.). The original Greek behind that phrase “cast them down to hell” uses the Greek verb tartaroo, from which we get the noun form Tartarus. (By the way, if you are wondering what those fallen angels did to get themselves imprisoned in Tartarus, you’ll find the answer in Genesis 6:1-4. These angels are the “sons of God” referred to in that passage.)
Just to clarify, though, while 2 Peter 2:4 is the only verse that actually uses the word tartarus (at least the verb form of it), it certainly isn’t the only New Testament passage in which Tartarus is described. Tartarus, you see, goes by two other names. In the book of The Revelation, it is “the bottomless pit” mentioned in chapters 9,11,17, and 20. Likewise, it is “the deep” mentioned in Luke 8:31 and Romans 10:7. Those terms “the bottomless pit” and “the deep” both translate the Greek word abussos, from which we get our English word “abyss.” Putting everything together, Tartarus, the bottomless pit, the deep, and the abyss are all the same place, and it’s a place not built for human souls. It’s a prison for fallen angels.
Second, Gehenna is the infamous eternal lake of fire that is mentioned so prominently in chapters 19-21 of The Revelation. Even though this place is in existence right now, it currently stands as completely empty. Its first occupants will be the Antichrist and the False Prophet from the coming tribulation period (Revelation 19:20). They will be cast into Gehenna in the aftermath of the Battle of Armageddon that ends the tribulation period. Ultimately, though, Gehenna will be the place where all of history’s lost people will spend eternity.
This leaves us with Hades. Hades is the New Testament Greek’s word for the place, but the Old Testament Hebrew’s word for it is Sheol. And what is Hades (Sheol)? It’s best to think of it as being the afterlife realm of the dead. As proof of this, I’ll point out that the Old Testament of the K.J.V. translates the name Sheol as “hell” in thirty-one instances and as “the grave” in another thirty-one instances. What am I saying? I’m saying that in Old Testament days the soul of every deceased person, regardless of whether the person was saved or lost, went to Hades (Sheol). As scriptural evidence of this, Psalm 9:17 puts the lost souls of the wicked there, but 2 Samuel 22:6 puts the soul of David, who was at the time living under a death sentence from King Saul, dangerously close to being there.
Someone might ask, “But how could God allow the souls of all the Old Testament people to go to the same afterlife abode?” The answer is simple: Hades (Sheol) consists of TWO sections. God designed one section to house the souls of saved believers and the other section to house the souls of lost unbelievers. While the Old Testament certainly hints at these two sections, the New Testament comes right out and describes each one.
The passage is Luke 16:19-31, which is Christ’s story of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus. In the story, the souls of the rich man and the beggar both go to Hades (Sheol) upon death. (The Greek word translated as “hell” in the K.J.V. of the passage is Hades.) The beggar’s soul goes to the bliss section of the place, where he is comforted by the soul of Abraham, an Old Testament believer. But the rich man’s soul goes to the torment section, where there is no comfort. Even though the rich man can engage in a brief conversation with Abraham and Lazarus, a great gulf prevents him from passing over to that other section.
It is this torment section of Hades (Sheol) that people nowadays have in mind when they talk about someone dying and going to “hell.” Just as was the case in Old Testament times, the souls of lost people still go to the torment section of Hades. It is a place of torment and flame (Luke 16:24). It is a place of painful remembrance of the events of your earthly life (Luke 16:25). It is a place where all your requests are denied (Luke 16:24, 27-28, 30-31).
And would you believe that Hades (both sides) is literally located in the heart of the earth? The Old Testament always speaks of the place in terms of being “down.” For your homework, read the story of how God allowed a medium to conjure up the soul of the deceased prophet Samuel so that Samuel could pronounce a word of doom upon King Saul (1 Samuel 28:3-25). According to that story, Samuel’s soul ascended up out of the earth, not down from heaven. Furthermore, not only is Hades (Sheol) located somewhere in the heart of the earth, the Bible also teaches that the place has gates (Job 17:16, Matthew 16:18).
But here now is where we bring this whole topic into our current era. Please take special note of what you’re about to read: When Jesus ascended back to heaven forty days after His resurrection, He emptied the bliss section of Hades and took those saved souls into heaven with Him. The passage on this is Ephesians 4:8-10, which reads in the New King James translation:
Therefore He says: “When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, And gave gifts to men.” (Now this, “He ascended – what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.)
What Paul is doing in this passage is playing off the scene of a Roman general leading a procession through the streets of Rome after a victorious military campaign. The general would be at the front of the parade in such a procession, and behind him would be the “trophies” he had “won” through his military victories. Some of those “trophies” would be people who had been captured as prisoners of war by the general’s army.
And so, using this earthly illustration, Paul describes how Jesus “won” the souls out of the bliss section of Hades. First, Jesus descended into the lower parts of the earth. (Remember that Hades is located somewhere deep in the heart of the earth.) Second, He ascended to heaven with those souls. Third, He marched victoriously into heaven with those souls behind Him. The N.I.V. translation does the best job of conveying Paul’s imagery. It renders Ephesians 4:8 as, “…he led captives in his train…”
You ask, “But why did all those saved souls have to wait until Christ’s resurrection and ascension before they could formally enter heaven?” It was because Jesus had to officially shed His blood in time and history before their sins could be eternally cleansed. Keep in mind that Hebrews 10:4 says that it wasn’t possible for the blood of the Old Testament sacrifices to take away sin. The best such blood could do was cover sin and keep the wrath of God off those believers. It is only Christ’s literal blood that can eternally cleanse sin. As I once heard a Bible teacher say, “Really, the Old Testament believers were saved on credit by looking ahead to Christ’s death on the cross just as we look back to it.”
And so what does all this mean for the Christian today? It means that at the moment of death the Christian’s soul goes straight up to heaven. There is now no longer a need for the bliss section of Hades. That section does still exist, but it’s empty. It has had its time. It has served its purpose. It is now closed for business and no longer receives saved souls.
If we needed any further proof of this, the same Paul who wrote about how the resurrected, ascended Jesus entered into heaven with those saved souls from Hades (Sheol) also taught in 2 Corinthians 5:1-8 that now when a Christian is absent from the body, that Christian is present with the Lord. Paul also said in Philippians 1:23 that he desired to depart this earth and be with Christ, which is far better. When he said that he knew full well that Jesus is now seated at the right hand of God the Father in heaven. For that matter, just before Steven died his martyr’s death he saw Jesus in heaven standing to receive his soul (Acts 7:54-60). The obvious implication was that Stephen’s soul was about to enter into heaven, not into the bliss section of Hades (Sheol).
Okay, that covers the fact that Hades (Sheol) has two sections and that Jesus emptied the souls from the bliss section and took them into heaven with Him. That just leaves the torment section open for business. But what about its future? Will that section ever be emptied of its souls? And if so, where will those souls be transported? Well, those answers will take us into a whole other part of this topic, and that’s the part that I will tackle in the next post. See you then.