Hell, as popularly conceived, has long been a sort of kitchen drawer, a jumble of assorted ideas stuffed into one handy catch-all. There are two words in the New Testament that are usually rendered as “hell” in English translations: Hades and Gehenna. If they refer to the same reality, they refer to it in very different ways — yet they are customarily translated as if they meant the same thing. Today we will look at the word Hades. Next time we will look at Gehenna and discover how very different it is from Hades.
Hades is used eleven times in the New Testament. Twice each in Matthew, Luke and Acts, once in 1 Corinthians and four times in Revelation. In the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, it is found 66 times and in every instance refers to the realm of the dead, both of the righteous and the unrighteous. Likewise, in the New Testament, it refers to the realm of the dead, which is how the New International Version usually translates it. The ways Hades is used in the New Testament are as interesting as they are varied:
- Matthew 11:23 and Luke 10:15 both refer to Jesus’ statement warning Capernaum, a city that thought itself “lifted to the heavens” (that is, prosperous and privileged) but would “go down to Hades” (that is, be brought down low). This is a very metaphorical use, as cities do not actually go down to the grave or the realm of the dead.
- In Matthew 16:18, Jesus says, “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.” Christ builds his Church and not even death can prevent it. Christ’s Church is greater than the realm of the dead because Christ himself has been raised from the dead and is the firstfruits of the resurrection to come.
- In Luke 16, Jesus tells a couple of parables about money and attitudes about wealth. One of them is the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, in which we find the line, “In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side” (v. 23). The point of the parable is not to provide a description of Hades, literal or otherwise, but about valuing what God values over the pursuit of wealth. The details simply support the story line in order to make the main point.
- In Acts 2:27 and 2:31, Peter preaches at Pentecost concerning the resurrection of Christ. In verse 27, he quotes David from Psalm 16, “You will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, you will not let your holy one see decay.” In verse 31, he affirms David’s prophetic statement concerning Christ: “Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay.”
- In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s great exposition on the resurrection of Christ, he rhapsodizes, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death [Hades], is your sting?" (v. 55). This is the one time Paul mentions Hades in any of his letters, and it is clearly about the grave.
- Finally, it is used four times in Revelation, always named together with death. Jesus holds “the keys of death and Hades” (1:18). The rider of the pale horse is named Death, and Hades follows close behind (6:8). Near the end, “death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them” (20:13), “then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire” (20:14). Notice that Hades is emptied of its contents before being cast into the lake of fire.