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 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 I won’t do that because I’m already in a series. For my purposes here, let me just give you the barest of the bare basics.
First, Tartarus (2 Peter 2:4) is a place exclusively for the imprisonment of certain fallen angels. No human souls have ever been or ever will be incarcerated there. The New Testament refers to this place by two other names. In The Revelation, it is “the bottomless pit” mentioned in chapters 9,11,17, and 20. In Luke 8:31 and Romans 10:7, it is “the deep.” The terms “the bottomless pit” and “the deep” both translate the Greek word abussos, from which we get our English word “abyss.”
Second, Gehenna is the eternal lake of fire of chapters 19-21 of The Revelation. Even though this place is in existence now, it is completely empty as of yet. Its first occupants will be the Antichrist and the False Prophet from the coming tribulation period (Revelation 19:20).
This leaves us with Hades, which is where Acts 2:27 places Christ’s soul after His death. Perhaps it’s best to think of Hades as being a general realm of the dead. In the Old Testament Hebrew, it goes by its Hebrew name Sheol. In Old Testament days, the soul of every deceased person went to Sheol (Hades). You ask, “Do you mean that in Old Testament days the souls of saved people went to the same afterlife abode as the souls of lost people?” Yes, that’s right. There is, however, more to it than that.
The thing about Hades (Sheol) is this: It has two sections. One section was for the souls of saved believers, and the other section was for 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, 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 upon death. The beggar’s soul goes to the bliss section of Hades, where he is comforted by the soul of Abraham, an Old Testament believer. On the other hand, the rich man’s soul goes to the torment section where there was no comfort. The rich man can engage in a brief conversation with Abraham and Lazarus, but a great gulf prevents him from passing over to that other section.
It is this torment section of Hades (Sheol) that people have in mind when they talk about someone dying and going to hell. And this notion is factual because this is exactly the place where every lost soul now goes. This section 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.” Read the story of how God allowed a medium to conjure up the soul of the deceased 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 located somewhere in the heart of the earth, the Bible also teaches that the place has gates (Job 17:16, Matthew 16:18).
And so now the question becomes, “Which section of Hades did Christ’s soul go to at His death?” We find the answer in Luke 23:43. There, just before He dies, Jesus promises the believing thief on the cross beside Him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” Make no mistake, there is no correlation whatsoever between the torment section of Hades and “Paradise.” And since Jesus said, “you will be with me,” He obviously went to the bliss section of Hades.
I should point out that the word “Paradise” is used in two other places in the New Testament. First, in 2 Corinthians 12:4 the apostle Paul uses it in reference to “the third heaven,” which is God’s heaven, the place we think of when we use the word “heaven.” Second, in Revelation 2:7 (when interpreted through the lens of Revelation 22:2) the word is used in reference to the future city of New Jerusalem, the city where the saved of all history will spend eternity.
You see, in the New Testament the specific “Paradise” being mentioned is determined by the context and time-frame of the passage in question. Before Christ’s death and resurrection, “Paradise” was the bliss section of Hades. After Christ’s death and resurrection, “Paradise” became the third heaven, God’s heaven. In the prophetic future, after Christ’s 1,000 year reign upon this earth, “Paradise” will become the heavenly city called the New Jerusalem.
Okay, I’m going to put a period here for now, but it’s not because I don’t have more to say about Hades. I just feel like I’ve given you plenty of scriptural meat to chew on for one post. Let me encourage you to study all these references for yourself. I think you’ll find them interesting reads. Then, in my next post, I’ll say the rest of what I need to say about Hades and Christ’s soul going there after His death.