The Meaning of Sheol, Hades, and Hell

Meaning of Sheol Hades and Hell

William G. T. Shedd,
The Doctrine of Endless Punishment,
Chapter 2, The Biblical Argument, Part 2.

Scriptural Terminology.

Having thus noticed the positive and explicit nature of Christ’s teaching, we now proceed to examine the terms employed in Scripture to denote the abode of the lost, and the nature of their punishment.

The Old Testament term for the future abode of the wicked, and the place of future punishment, is Sheol. This word, which is translated by Hades in the Septuagint, has two significations: 1. The place of future retribution. 2. The grave.

Before presenting the proof of this position, we call attention to the fact, that it agrees with the explanation of Sheol and Hades common in the Early Patristic and Reformation churches, and disagrees with that of the Later Patristic, the Medieval, and a part of the Modern Protestant church. It agrees also with the interpretation generally given to these words in the versions of the Scriptures made since the Reformation, in the various languages of the world.

The view of the Reformers is stated in the following extract from the Schaff-Herzog encyclopedia (Article Hades):

“The Protestant churches rejected, with purgatory and its abuses, the whole idea of a middle state, and taught simply two states and places—heaven for believers, and hell for unbelievers. Hades was identified with Gehenna, and hence both terms were translated alike in the Protestant versions. The English (as also Luther’s German) version of the New Testament translates Hades and Gehenna by the same word ‘hell’, and thus obliterates the important distinction between the realm of the dead (or nether-world, spirit-world), and the place of torment or eternal punishment; but in the Revision of 1881 the distinction is restored, and the term Hades introduced.”

The same change is made in the Revised Old Testament, published in 1885. The Authorized version renders Sheol sometimes by “hell,” in the sense of the place of punishment, and sometimes by “grave”—the context determining which is the meaning. The Revisers substitute “Sheol” for “hell,” and whenever they leave the word “grave” in the text, add the note: “The Hebrew is Sheol,” in order, as they say, “to indicate that it is not the place of burial.” Had they been content with the mere transliteration of Sheol, the reader might interpret for himself. But in the preface to their version they become commentators, and interpret for him. They deny that Sheol means “hell” in the sense of “the place of torment,” and assert that it “signifies the abode of departed spirits, and corresponds to the Greek Hades, or the Underworld” (Preface to the Revised Old Testament).

The meaning of an important technical term, such as Sheol, must be determined, certainly in part, by the connection of thought, and the general tenor of Scripture. An interpretation must not be put upon it that will destroy the symmetry of doctrine. Whether Sheol is from sha’al שָׁאַל or sho’al שֹׁעַל, or any other merely linguistic particular, will not of itself decide the question whether it denotes the Heathen Orcus, or the Christian Hell. That Sheol is a fearful punitive evil, mentioned by the sacred writers to deter men from sin, lies upon the face of the Old Testament, and any interpretation that essentially modifies this must therefore be erroneous.

But such an essential modification is made by denying that it is the place of torment, and converting it into a promiscuous and indiscriminate abode for all disembodied spirits. The indiscriminateness nullifies the evil, and the fear of it.. A successful version of the Bible requires the union of philology and theology. A translation of Scripture made wholly upon assumed philological grounds, and independent of the analogy of faith, would be certain to contain errors. The general system of Christian truth, and the connection of ideas, confessedly controls the explanation of such terms as, πίστις, ζωή, πνεϋμα, and λόγος. Merely to apply classical and lexical philology in these cases, would lead to misconception. Even, therefore, if it were conceded that the Greek and Hebrew learning of the English Revisers is superior to that of the age of Usher and Selden, it would not necessarily follow that the truth in this instance is with them, and not with their predecessors. That they may have been under a dogmatic prepossession, and have interpreted Scripture by mythology, and the spurious clause of a creed, instead of by Scripture itself, is a possibility.

I. Sheol Signifies the Place of Future Retribution.

I. In the first place, Sheol signifies the place of future retribution.

The Wicked, Not the Righteous, Go to Sheol.

1) This is proved, first, by the fact that it is denounced against sin and sinners, and not against the righteous. It is a place to which the wicked are sent, in distinction from the good.

“The wicked in a moment go down to sheol” (Job 21:13).

“The wicked shall be turned into sheol, and all the nations that, forget God” (Psalm 9:17).

“Her steps take hold on sheol” (Proverbs 5:5).

“Her guests are in the depths of sheol” (Proverbs 9:18).

“Thou shalt beat thy child with a rod, and shalt deliver his soul from sheol” (Proverbs 23:14).

“A fire is kindled in my anger, and it shall burn to the lowest sheol” (Deuteronomy 32:22).

“If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there; if I make my bed in sheol [the contrary of heaven], behold thou art there” (Psalm 139:8).

“The way of life is above to the wise, that he may depart from sheol beneath” (Proverbs 15:24:).

“Sheol is naked before him, and destruction [Abaddon, Revelation ver.] hath no covering” (Job 26:6).

“Sheol and destruction [Abaddon, Revelation ver.] are before the Lord” (Proverbs 15:11).

“Sheol and destruction [Abaddon, Revelation ver.] are never full” (Proverbs 27:20)

If in these last three passages the Revised rendering be adopted, it is still more evident that Sheol denotes Hell; for Abaddon is the Hebrew for Apollyon, who is said to be “the angel and king of the bottomless pit” (Revelation 9:11).

There can be no rational doubt, that in this class of Old Testament texts the wicked are warned of a future evil and danger. The danger is, that they shall be sent to Sheol. The connection of thought requires, therefore, that Sheol in such passages have the same meaning as the modern Hell, and like this have an exclusive reference to the wicked. Otherwise, it is not a warning. To give it a meaning that makes it the common residence of the good and evil, is to destroy its force as a Divine menace. If Sheol be merely a promiscuous underworld for all souls, then to be “turned into sheol” is no more a menace for the sinner than for the saint, and consequently a menace for neither. In order to be of the nature of an alarm for the wicked, Sheol must be something that pertains to them alone. If it is shared with the good, its power to terrify is gone. If the good man goes to Sheol, the wicked man will not be afraid to go with him. It is no answer to this, to say that Sheol contains two divisions, Hades and Paradise, and that the wicked go to the former. This is not in the Biblical text, or in its connection. The wicked who are threatened with Sheol, as the punishment of their wickedness, are not threatened with a part of Sheol, but with the whole of it. Sheol is one, undivided, and homogeneous in the inspired representation. The subdivision of it into heterogeneous compartments, is a conception imported into the Bible from the Greek and Roman classics.

The Old Testament knows nothing of a Sheol that is partly an evil, and partly a good. The Biblical Sheol is always an evil, and nothing but an evil. When the human body goes down to Sheol in the sense of the “grave,” this is an evil. And when the human soul goes down to Sheol in the sense of “hell and retribution,” this is an evil. Both are threatened, as the penalty of sin, to the wicked, but never to the righteous.

Consequently, in the class of passages of which we are speaking, “going down to sheol” denotes something more dreadful than “going down to the grave,” or than entering the so-called underworld of departed spirits. To say that “the wicked shall be turned into sheol,” implies that the righteous shall not be; just as to say that “they who obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ shall be punished with everlasting destruction” (2 Thessalonians 1:8-9), implies that those who do obey it shall not be. To say that the “steps” of the prostitute “take hold on sheol,” is the same as to say that “whoremongers shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone” (Revelation 21:8). To “deliver the soul of a child from sheol” by parental discipline, is not to deliver him either from the grave, or from a spirit-world, but from the future torment that awaits the morally undisciplined. In mentioning Sheol in such a connection, the inspired writer is not mentioning a region that is common alike to the righteous and the wicked. This would defeat his purpose to warn the latter. [1] Sheol, when denounced to the wicked, must be as peculiar to them, and as much confined to them, as when “the lake of fire and brimstone” is denounced to them. All such Old Testament passages teach that those who go to Sheol suffer from the wrath of God, as the Eternal Judge who punishes iniquity. The words: “The wicked is snared in the work of his own hands. The wicked shall be turned into sheol, and all the nations that forget God” (Psalm 9:16-17), are as much of the nature of a Divine menace against sin, as the words, “In the day thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die” (Genesis 2:17). And the interpretation which eliminates the idea of penal suffering from the former, to be consistent, should eliminate it from the latter.

Accordingly, these texts must be read in connection with, and interpreted by, that large class of texts in the Old Testament which represent God as a judge, and assert a future judgment, and a future resurrection for this purpose.

“Shall not the judge of all the earth do right.” (Genesis 18:25).

“To me belongeth vengeance, and recompense; their feet shall slide in due time” (Deuteronomy 32:35).

“Enoch the seventh from Adam prophesied of these, saying, Behold the Lord cometh ‘with ten thousand of his saints to execute judgment upon all, and to convince all that are ungodly among them of all their ungodly deeds which they have ungodly committed” (Jude 14:15).

“The wicked is reserved to the day of destruction. They shall be brought forth to the day of wrath” (Job 21:30).

“The ungodly shall not stand in the judgment; the way of the ungodly shall perish” (Psalm 1:5-6).

“Verily, he is a God that judgeth in the earth” (Psalm 58:11).

“Who knoweth the power of thine anger? even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath” (Psalm 90:11).

“O Lord God, to whom vengeance belongeth, shew thyself. Lift up thyself, thou Judge of the earth: render a reward to the proud” (Psalm 94:1-2).

“There is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death” (Proverbs 16:25).

“God shall judge the righteous and the wicked: for there is a time for every purpose, and every work” (Ecclesiastes 3:17).

“Walk in the ways of thine heart and in the sight of thine eyes; but know thou that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment” (Ecclesiastes 11:9).

“God shall bring every work into judgment with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:14).

“The sinners in Zion are afraid; fearfulness hath surprised the hypocrites. Who among us shall dwell with devouring fire? who among us shall dwell with devouring burnings” (Isaiah 33:14).

Of “the men that have transgressed against God,” it is said that their “worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched” (Isaiah 66:24).

“I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of days did sit. His throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels like burning fire; thousand thousands ministered unto him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him: the judgment was set, and the books were opened” (Daniel 7:9-10).

“Many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2).

“The Lord hath sworn by the excellency of Jacob, Surely I never will forget any of their works” (Amos 8:7).

“They shall be mine, saith the Lord of hosts, in the day when I make up my jewels” (Malachi 3:17).

A final judgment, unquestionably, supposes a place where the sentence is executed. Consequently, these Old Testament passages respecting the final judgment throw a strong light upon the meaning of Sheol, and make it certain, in the highest degree, that it denotes the world where the penalty resulting from the verdict of the Supreme Judge is to be experienced by the transgressor. The “wicked,” when sentenced at the last judgment, are “turned into sheol,” as “idolaters and all liars,” when sentenced, “have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone” (Revelation 21:8).

Judgment and Sheol are Correlated.

2) A second proof that Sheol is the proper name for Hell, in the Old Testament, is the fact that there is no other proper name for it in the whole volume — or Tophet is metaphorical, and rarely employed. If Sheol is not the place where the wrath of God falls upon the transgressor, there is no place mentioned in the Old Testament where it does. But it is utterly improbable that the final judgment would be announced so clearly as it is under the Old Dispensation, and yet the place of retributive suffering be undesignated. In modern theology, the Judgment and Hell are correlates; each implying the other, each standing or falling with the other. In the Old Testament theology, the Judgment and Sheol sustain the same relations.

The proof that Sheol does not signify hell would, virtually, be the proof that the doctrine of Hell is not contained in the Old Testament; and this would imperil the doctrine of the final judgment. Universalism receives strong support from all versions and commentaries which take the idea of retribution out of the term Sheol. No texts that contain the word can be cited to prove either a future sentence or a future suffering. They only prove that there is a world of disembodied spirits, whose moral character and condition cannot be inferred from anything in the signification of Sheol; because the good are in Sheol, and the wicked are in Sheol. When it is merely said of a deceased person that he is in the world of spirits, it is impossible to decide whether he is holy or sinful, happy or miserable.

Sheol is Contrasted With the Abode of the Righteous.

3) A third proof that Sheol, in these passages, denotes the dark abode of the wicked, and the state of future suffering, is found in those Old Testament texts which speak of the contrary bright abode of the righteous, and of their state of blessedness. According to the view we are combating, Paradise is in Sheol, and constitutes a part of it. But there is too great a contrast between the two abodes of the good and evil, to allow of their being brought under one and the same gloomy and terrifying term Sheol.

When “the Lord put a word in Balaam’s mouth,” Balaam said, “Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his” (Numbers 23:5-10). The Psalmist describes this “last end of the righteous” in the following terms: “My flesh shall rest in hope. Thou wilt show me the path of life; in thy presence is fullness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore” (Psalm 16:11). “As for me, I will behold thy face in righteousness; I shall be satisfied when I awake with thy likeness” (Psalm 17:15). “God will redeem my soul from the power of sheol; for he shall receive me” (Psalm 49:15). “Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel, and afterwards receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but thee” (Psalm 73:24). In like manner, Isaiah (25:8) says, respecting the righteous, that “the Lord God will swallow up death in victory, and will wipe away tears from all faces;” and Solomon asserts that “the righteous hath hope in his death” (Proverbs 14:32).

These descriptions of the blessedness of the righteous when they die have nothing in common with the Old Testament conception of Sheol, and cannot possibly be made to agree with it. The “anger” of God “burns to the lowest Sheol;” which implies that it burns through the whole of Sheol, from top to bottom. The wicked are “turned” into Sheol, and “in a moment go down” to Sheol; but the good are not “turned” into “glory,” nor do they “in a moment go down” to “the right hand of God.” The “presence” of God, the “right hand” of God, the “glory” to which the Psalmist is to be received, and the “heaven” which he longs for, are certainly not in the dreadful Sheol. They do not constitute one of its compartments. If, between death and the resurrection, the disembodied spirit of the Psalmist is in “heaven,” at the “right hand” of God, in his “presence,” and beholding his “glory,” it is not in a dismal underworld.

There is not a passage in the Old Testament that asserts, or in any way suggests, that the light of the Divine countenance, and the blessedness of communion with God, are enjoyed in Sheol. Sheol, in the Old Testament is gloom, and only gloom, and gloomy continually. Will any one seriously contend that in the passage: “Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him,” it would harmonize with the idea of “walking with God,” and with the Old Testament conception of Sheol, to supply the ellipsis by saying that “God took him to sheol?” Was Sheol that “better country, that is, an heavenly,” which the Old Testament saints “desired,” and to attain which they “were tortured, not accepting deliverance?” (Hebrews 11:10, 35).

Sheol is Inseparably Connected With Spiritual and Eternal Death.

4) A fourth proof that Sheol is the place of future retribution, is its inseparable connection with spiritual and eternal death. The Old Testament, like the new, designates the punishment of the wicked by the term “death.” And spiritual death is implied, as well as physical. Such is the meaning in Genesis 2:17. The death there threatened is the very same θάνατος to which St. Paul refers in Romans 5:12, and which “passed upon all men” by reason of the transgression in Eden. Spiritual death is dearly taught in Deuteronomy 30:15: “I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil;” in Jeremiah 21:8: “I set before you the way of life, and the way of death;” in Ezekiel 18:32-33:11: “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live;” in Proverbs 8:36: “All they that hate me love death.”

Spiritual death is also taught, by implication, in those Old Testament passages which speak of spiritual life as its contrary. “As righteousness tendeth to life, so he that pursueth evil pursueth it to his own death” (Proverbs 11:19). “Whoso findeth me findeth life” (Proverbs 8:85). “He is in the way of life that keepeth instruction” (Proverbs 10:17). “Thou wilt show me the path of life” (Psalm 10:11). “With thee is the fountain of life” (Psalm 36:9). “There the Lord commanded the blessing, even life for evermore” (Psalm 133-3).

Sheol is as inseparably associated with spiritual death and perdition, in the Old Testament, as Hades is in the New Testament, and as Hell is in the common phraseology of the Christian Church. “Sheol is naked before him, and destruction hath no covering” (Job 26:6). “Sheol and destruction are before the Lord” (Proverbs 15:11). “Sheol and destruction are never full” (Proverbs 27:20). “Her house is the way to Sheol, going down to the chambers of death” (Proverbs 7:27). “Her house inclineth unto death, and her paths unto the dead” (Proverbs 2:18). “Her feet go down to death; her steps take hold on sheol” (Proverbs 5:5). The sense of these passages is not exhausted, by saying that licentiousness leads to physical disease and death. The “death” here threatened is the same that St. Paul speaks of, when he says that “they which commit such things are worthy of death” (Romans 1:32), and that “the end of those things is death” (Romans 6:21) Eternal death and Sheol are as inseparably joined in Proverbs 5:5, as eternal death and Hades are in Revelation 20:14.

But if Sheol be taken in the mythological sense of an underworld, or spirit, world, there is no inseparable connection between it and “death,” either physical or spiritual. Physical death has no power in the spirit-world over a disembodied spirit. And spiritual death is separable from Sheol, in the case of the good. If the good go down to Sheol, they do not go down to eternal death.

II. Sheol Also Signifies the Grave, for Good and Evil Alike.

Sheol signifies the “grave,” to which all men, the good and evil alike, go down. That Sheol should have the two significations of hell and the grave, is explained by the connection between physical death and eternal retribution. The death of the body is one of the consequences of sin, and an integral part of the penalty. To go down to the grave, is to pay the first installment of the transgressor’s debt to justice. It is, therefore, the metonymy of a part for the whole, when the grave is denominated Sheol. As in English, “death” may mean either physical or spiritual death, so in Hebrew, “Sheol” may mean either the grave or hell.

When Sheol signifies the “grave,” it is only the body that goes down to Sheol But as the body is naturally put for the whole person, the man is said to go down to the grave when his body alone is laid in it. Christ “called Lazarus out of his grave” (John 12:17). This does not mean that the soul of Lazarus was in that grave. When a sick person says, “I am going down to the grave,” no one understands him to mean that his spirit is descending into a place under the earth. And when the aged Jacob says, “I will go down into sheol, unto my [dead] son mourning” (Genesis 37:35), no one should understand him to teach the descent of his disembodied spirit into a subterranean world. “The spirit of man goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast goeth downward” (Ecclesiastes 3:21). The soul of the animal dies with the body; that of the man does not.

The statement that “the Son of man shall be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40), refers to the burial of his body, not to the residence of his soul. When Christ said to the penitent thief, “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise,” he did not mean that his human soul and that of the penitent should be in “the heart of the earth,” but in the heavenly paradise. Christ is represented as dwelling in heaven between his ascension and his second advent. “Him must the heavens receive, till the time of the restitution of all things” (Acts 3:21). “The Lord shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God” (1 Thessalonians 4:16). “Our conversation is in heaven, from which we look for our Savior the Lord Jesus” (Philippians 3:20).

But the souls of the redeemed, during this same intermediate period, are represented as being with Christ. “Father, I will that they whom thou hast given me be with me where I am, that they may behold my glory which thou hast given me” (John 17:24). “We desire rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). When, therefore, the human body goes down to Sheol, or Hades, it goes down to the grave, and is unaccompanied with the soul.

The following are a few out of many examples of this signification of Sheol. “The Lord killeth, and maketh alive: he bringeth down to Sheol, and bringeth up” (1 Samuel 2:6). “Thy servants shall bring down the gray hairs of thy servant our father with sorrow to sheol!” (Genesis 44:31). “O that thou wouldest hide me in sheol” (Job 14:13). “Sheol is my house” (Job 17:13). Korah and his company “went down alive into sheol, and they perished from the congregation” (Numbers 16:33). “In Sheol, who shall give thee thanks?” (Psalm 6:5). “There is no wisdom in Sheol whither thou goest” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). “I will ransom them from the power of sheol; O Sheol, I will be thy destruction” (Hosea 13:14). “My life draweth nigh unto sheol” (Psalm 88:3). “What man is he that liveth, and shall not see death? Shall he deliver his soul from the hand of Sheol?” (Psalm 89:48). “The English version,” says Stuart, “renders Sheol by ‘grave’ in 30 instances out of 64, and might have so rendered it in more.

Sheol in the sense of the “grave” is invested with gloomy associations for the good, as well as the wicked; and this under the Christian dispensation, as well as under the Jewish. The Old economy and the New are much alike in this respect. The modern Christian believer shrinks from the grave, like the ancient Jewish believer. He needs as much grace in order to die tranquilly, as did Moses and David. It is true that “Christ has brought immortality to light in the gospel;” has poured upon the grave the bright light of his own resurrection, a far brighter light than the Patriarchal and Jewish church enjoyed; yet man’s faith is as weak and wavering as ever, and requires the support of God.

Accordingly, Sheol in the sense of the “grave” is represented as something out of which the righteous are to be delivered by a resurrection of the body to glory, but the bodies of the wicked are to be left under its power. “Like sheep, the wicked are laid in sheol; death shall feed on them. But God will redeem my soul [i.e. body] from the power of sheol” (Psalm 49:14-15). “Thou wilt not leave my soul [i.e. body] in sheol; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption” (Psalm 16:10). [2] This passage, while Messianic, has also its reference to David and all believers. “I will ransom them from the power of sheol. O death, I will be thy plagues; O sheol, I will be thy destruction” (Hosea 13:14). St. Paul quotes this (1 Cor. 15:55), in proof of the blessed resurrection of the bodies of believers—showing that “sheol” here is the “grave” where the body is laid, and from which it is raised.

The bodies of the wicked, on the contrary, are not delivered from the power of Sheol, or the grave, by a blessed and glorious resurrection, but are still kept under its dominion by a “resurrection to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2). Though the wicked are raised from the dead, yet this is no triumph for them over death and the grave. Their resurrection bodies are not “celestial” and “glorified,” like those of the redeemed, but are suited to the nature of their evil and malignant souls. “Like sheep they are laid in sheol; death shall feed upon them” (Psalm 49:14). Respecting sinful Judah and the enemies of Jehovah, the prophet says, “Sheol hath enlarged herself, and opened her mouth without measure, and their glory shall descend unto it” (Isaiah 5:14). Of the fallen Babylonian monarch, it is said, “Sheol from beneath is moved for thee to meet thee at thy coming. Thy pomp is brought down to sheol: the worm is spread under thee, and the worms cover thee” (Isaiah 14:9-11).

To convert this bold personification of the “grave,” and the “worm,” which devour the bodies of God’s adversaries, into an actual underworld, where the spirits of all the dead, the friends as well as the enemies of God, are gathered, is not only to convert rhetoric into logic, but to substitute the mythological for the Biblical view of the future life.

Some interpreters,” says Alexander on Isaiah 14:9, “proceed upon the supposition, that in this passage we have before us not a mere prosopopoeia or poetical creation of the highest order, but a chapter from the popular belief of the Jews, as to the locality, contents, and transactions of the unseen world. Thus Gesenius, in his Lexicon and Commentary, gives a minute topographical description of Sheol as the Hebrews believed it to exist. With equal truth a diligent compiler might construct a map of hell, as conceived by the English Puritans, from the descriptive portions of the Paradise Lost.” The dear perception and sound sense of Calvin penetrate more unerringly into the purpose of the sacred writer. “The prophet,” he says (Com. on Isaiah 14:9), “makes a fictitious representation, that when this tyrant shall die and go down to the grave, the dead will go forth to meet him and honor him.” Theodoret (Isaiah 14:9) explains in the same way.

Hades and Gehenna.

The New Testament terms for the place of future punishment are Hades and Gehenna. Besides these, the verb, ταρταρόω is once used, in 2 Peter 2:4. “God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to Tartarus.” Tartarus was one of the compartments of the pagan Hades, the contrary of Elysium, from which there was no deliverance. Tantalus, Sisyphus, Tityus, and Ixion were doomed to endless punishment in Tartarus (Odyssey, 11.575). Plato (Gorgias, 235) describes this class of transgressors as “forever enduring the most terrible, and painful sufferings.” It is noteworthy, that the place in which they suffer is denominated Hades, by both Homer and Plato showing that in the classical use, Hades is sometimes the equivalent of Tartarus and the modern Hell, and the contrary of Elysium.

There is no dispute respecting the meaning of Gehenna. It denotes the place of retributive suffering. It is employed twelve times in the New Testament: seven times in Matthew’s Gospel; thrice in Mark’s, and once in Luke’s. In every one of these instances, it is Christ who uses the term. The only other person who has used it is James (3:6). It is derived from Valley of Hinnom. It was a valley southeast of Jerusalem, in which the Moloch worship was practiced (2 Kings 23:10; Ezekiel 23:37-39). It was called Tophet, “abomination” (Jer. 31:32). King Josiah caused the filth of Jerusalem to be carried thither and burned (2 Kings 23:10). Robinson asserts that there is no evidence that the place was used in Christ’s day for the deposit and burning of offal. “Gehenna,” at the time of the Advent, had become a technical term for endless torment; as “Paradise” and “Abraham’s bosom” had for endless blessedness; and as “paganus” (villager) subsequently became, for a “heathen.”

Hades Has the Same Two Meanings as Sheol.

Hades is the word by which the Seventy translate Sheol. It has the same two meanings in the New Testament that Sheol has in the Old: 1. The place of retribution. 2. The grave.

1. First of all, Christ’s solemn and impressive parable of Lazarus and Dives demonstrates that Hades is the place of future punishment.

The rich man died and was buried; and in Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torments. And he cried, and said, Father Abraham have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am tormented in this flame” (Luke 16:22-24).

Our Lord describes Dives as a disembodied spirit, and as suffering a righteous retribution for his hardhearted, luxurious, and impenitent life. He had no pity for the suffering poor, and squandered all the “good things received” from his Maker, in a life of sensual enjoyment. The Savior also represents Hades to be inexorably retributive. Dives asks for a slight mitigation of penal suffering, “a drop of water.” He is reminded that he is suffering what he justly deserves, and is told that there is a “fixed gulf” between Hades and Paradise. He then knows that his destiny is decided, and his case hopeless, and requests that his brethren may be warned by his example. After such a description of it as this, it is strange that Hades should ever have been called an abode of the good.

2. Secondly, Hades is represented as the contrary of Heaven, and the contrary of Heaven is Hell. “Thou Capernaum which art exalted unto heaven shalt be brought down to hades” (Matthew. 11:23; Luke 10:15). This is explained by the assertion, that “it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for thee.”

3. Thirdly, Hades is represented as Satan’s kingdom, antagonistic to that of Christ. “The gates of Hades shall not prevail against my church” (Mat. 16:18). An underworld, containing both the good and the evil, would not be the kingdom of Satan. Satan’s kingdom is not so comprehensive as this. Nor would an underworld be the contrary of the church, because it includes Paradise and its inhabitants.

4. Fourthly, Hades is represented as the prison of Satan and the wicked. Christ said to St. John, “I have the keys of Hades and of death” (Rev. 1:18), and describes himself as “He that openeth, and man shutteth, and shutteth, and no man openeth” (Rev. 3:7). As the Supreme Judge, Jesus Christ opens and shuts the place of future punishment upon those whom he sentences, “I saw an angel come down from heaven having the key of the bottomless pit, and a great chain in his hand, and he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years, and cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up” (Rev. 20:1-3). All modifications of the imprisonment and suffering in Hades are determined by Christ. “I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened, and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in those books; and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them, and they were judged every man according to their works; and death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:12-14). On the day of judgment, at the command of the Son of God, Hades, the intermediate state for the wicked, surrenders its inhabitants that they may be re-embodied and receive the final sentence, and then becomes Gehenna, the final state for them. Hell without the body becomes Hell with the body.

5. Fifthly, Hades, like Sheol, is inseparably connected with spiritual and eternal death. “I have the keys of Hades and of death” (Rev. 1:18). “Death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them” (Rev. 20:18). “I saw a pale horse; and his name that sat upon him was Death, and Hades followed him” (Revelation 6:8). Hades here stands for its inhabitants, who are under the power of (“follow”) the “second death” spoken of in Rev. 2:11; 20:6-14; 21:8. This is spiritual and eternal death, and must not be confounded with the first death, which is that of the body only. This latter, St. Paul (1 Cor. 15:26) says was “destroyed” by the blessed resurrection of the body, in the case of the saints, not of the wicked. (supra p. 39.) The “second death” is defined as the “being cast into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:14). This “death” is never “destroyed;” because those who are “cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, with the devil that deceived them, shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever” (Rev. 20:10).

Besides these instances, there are only three others in which Hades is found in the Received Text of the New Testament: namely, Acts 2:27-31; 1 Corinthians 15:55. In 1 Corinthians 15:55, the uncials א B C D, followed by Lachmann, Tischendorf, and Hort, read θάνατε twice. In all these instances Hades signifies the “grave.”

From this examination of texts, it appears that Hades, in the New Testament, has the same two significations that Sheol has in the Old. The only difference is, that, in the Old Testament, Sheol less often, in proportion to the whole number of instances, denotes “hell,” and more often the “grave,” than Hades does in the New Testament. And this, for the reason that the doctrine of future retribution was more fully revealed and developed by Christ and his apostles, than it was by Moses and the prophets.

If after this study of the Biblical data, there still be doubt whether Sheol and Hades denote sometimes the place of retribution for the wicked, and sometimes the grave, and not an under-world, or spirit-world, common to both the good and evil, let the reader substitute either the latter or the former term in the following passages, and say if the connection of thought, or even common sense, is preserved.

The wicked in a moment go down to the spirit-world.” “The wicked shall be turned into the spirit-world, and all the nations that forget God.” “Her steps take hold on the spirit-world.” “Her guests are in the depths of the spirit-world.” “Thou shalt beat thy child with a rod, and shalt deliver his soul from the spirit-world.” “The way of life is above to the wise, that he may depart from the spirit-world beneath.” “In the spirit-world, who shall give thee thanks?” “There is no wisdom in the spirit-world, whither thou goest.” “I will ransom them from the power of the spirit-world; O spirit-world I will be thy destruction.” “Like sheep the wicked are laid in the spirit-world; death shall feed upon them. But God will redeem my soul from the power of the spirit-world.” “Thou wilt not leave my soul in the spirit-world; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.” “The gates of the spirit-world shall not prevail against the church.” “Thou Capernaum which art exalted unto heaven shalt be brought down to the spirit-world.” “And in the spirit-world he lift up his eyes being in torments.” “Death and the spirit-world were cast into the lake of fire.” “I saw a pale horse, and his name that sat upon him was Death, and the spirit-world followed him.

Hades is the disembodied state for the souls of the wicked between death and the resurrection, as Paradise is for the souls of the righteous. All human souls between death and the resurrection are separated from their bodies.

“Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was; and the spirit shall return to God who gave it” (Ecc. 12:71).

“Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the spirit” (Mat. 27:50).

“When Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit; and having said this he gave up the ghost” (Luke 23:46).

“Stephen called upon God, saying, Lord Jesus receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59).

“We are willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8).

“I knew a man in Christ about four years ago, whether in the body or out of the body, I cannot tell” (2 Cor. 12:2).

“I think it meet, as long as I am in this tabernacle, to stir you up by putting you in remembrance: knowing that shortly I must put off this my tabernacle, even as our Lord Jesus Christ hath shewed me” (2 Peter 1:13-14).

“I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus” (Rev. 20:4).

“I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God” (Rev. 6:9).

All texts which teach the resurrection of the body at the day of judgment, imply that between death and the final judgment; the human soul is disembodied.

The Immortality of the Soul.

Belief in the immortality of the soul, and its separate existence front the body after death, was characteristic of the Old economy, as well as the New. It was also a pagan belief. Plato elaborately argues for the difference, as to substance, between the body and the soul, and asserts the independent existence of the latter. He knows nothing of the resurrection of the body, and says that when men are judged, in the next life, “they shall be entirely stripped before they are judged, for they shall be judged when they are dead; and the judge too shall be naked, that is to say, dead; he with his naked soul shall pierce into the other naked soul, as soon as each man dies.” (Gorgias 523).

That the independent and separate existence of the soul after death was a belief of the Hebrews, is proved by the prohibition of necromancy in Deuteronomy 18:10-12. The “gathering” of the patriarchs “to their fathers” implies the belief. Jehovah calls himself “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” and this supposes the immortality and continued existence of their spirits; for, as Christ (Luke 20:28) argues in reference to this very point, “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living;” not of the unconscious, but the conscious. Our Lord affirms that the future existence of the soul is so dearly taught by “Moses and the prophets,” that if a man is not convinced by them, neither would he be “though one should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:29).

Some, like Warburton, have denied that the immortality of the soul is taught in the Old Testament, because there is no direct proposition to this effect, and no proof of the doctrine offered. But this doctrine, like that of the Divine existence, is nowhere formally demonstrated, because it is everywhere assumed. Much of the matter of the Old Testament is nonsense, upon the supposition that the soul dies with the body, and that the sacred writers knew nothing of a future life. For illustration, David says, “My soul panteth after Thee.” He could not possibly have uttered these words if he had expected death to be the extinction of his consciousness. The human soul cannot “pant” for a spiritual communion with God that is to last only seventy years, and then cease forever. Every spiritual desire and aspiration has in it the element of infinity and endlessness. No human being can say to God: “Thou art my God, the strength of my heart, and my portion, for three-score years and ten, and then my God and portion no more forever.” When God promised Abraham that in him should “all the families of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 12:3), and Abraham “believed in the Lord, and he counted it to him for righteousness” (Genesis 15:16), this promise of a Redeemer, and this faith in it, both alike involve a future existence beyond this transitory one. God never would have made such a promise to a creature who was to die with the body; and such a creature could not have trusted in it. In like manner, Adam could not have believed the protevangelism, knowing that death was to be the extinction of his being. All the Messianic matter of the Old Testament is absurd, on the supposition that the soul is mortal. To redeem from sin a being whose consciousness expires at death, is superfluous.

David prays to God, “Take not the word of truth out of my mouth; so shall I keep thy law continually forever and ever” (Psalm 119:43-44). Every prayer to God in the Old Testament implies the immortality of the person praying. “My flesh faileth, but God is the strength of my heart forever” (Psalm 63:2). “Trust ye in the Lord forever in the Lord Jehovah is everlasting strength” (Isaiah 26:4). The nothingness of this life only leads the Psalmist to confide all the more in God, and to expect the next life. “Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; and mine age is as nothing before thee: verily, every man at his best state is altogether vanity. And now, Lord, what wait I for? my hope is in thee” (Psalm 39:5-7). As Sir John Davies says of the soul, in his poem on Immortality:

“Water in conduit pipes can rise no higher
Than the well-head from whence it first doth spring:
Then since to eternal God she doth aspire,
She cannot be but an eternal thing.”

Another reason why the Old Testament contains no formal argument in proof of immortality, and a spiritual world beyond this life, is, because the intercourse with that world on the part of the Old Testament saints and inspired prophets was so immediate and constant. God was not only present to their believing minds and hearts, in his paternal and gracious character, but, in addition to this, he was frequently manifesting himself in theophanies and visions. We should not expect that a person who was continually communing with God would construct arguments to prove his existence; or that one who was brought into contact with the unseen and spiritual world, by supernatural phenomena and messages from it, would take pains to demonstrate that there is such a world. The Old Testament saints “endured as seeing the invisible.”

The Old Testament teaches the conscious happiness of believers after death.

“Enoch walked with God’ and he was not; for God took him” (Genesis 5:24).

“Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his” (Numbers 23:10).

“My flesh shall rest in hope. Thou wilt show me the path of life: in thy presence is fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:9-11)

“As for me, I will behold thy face in righteousness: I shall be satisfied when I awake with thy likeness” (Psalm 17:15).

“God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave; for he shall receive me” (Psalm 49:15).

“Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel, and afterward receive me to glory. My flesh and my heart faileth; but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:24-26).

“He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces” (Isaiah 25:8).

This is quoted by St. Paul (1 Cor. 15:54), in proof that “this mortal shall put on immortality.” St. Paul also teaches that the Old Testament saints, like those of the New, trusted in the Divine promise of the Redeemer, and of the resurrection.

“I stand and am judged for the hope of the promise made of God unto our fathers: unto which promise, our twelve tribes, instantly serving God day and night hope to come. For which hope’s sake, king Agrippa, I am accused of the Jews. Why should it be thought a thing incredible with you, that God should raise the dead?” (Acts 26:6-8; comp. 23:6)

“These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but: having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. And, truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly” (Hebrews 11:13-16).

These bright and hopeful anticipations of the Old Testament saints have nothing in common with the pagan world of shades, the gloomy Orcus, where all departed souls are congregated.

The New Testament abundantly teaches the conscious happiness of believers in the disembodied state. “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise,” said Christ to the penitent thief (Luke 23:43). “They stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59). Immediately on dying, Lazarus is in “Abraham’s bosom;” “receives good things;” and is “comforted” (Luke 16:23-25).

“To die is gain. I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and be with Christ, which is far better” (Phil. 1:21- 23).

“I knew a man in Christ, above fourteen years ago, who was caught up to the third heaven, into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter” (2 Cor. 12:2-4).

“We know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God; an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. Therefore we are always confident, knowing that whilst; we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord. We desire rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:1-6-8).

“Christ died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him” (2 Thes. 5:10).

“I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven [not Hades] and earth is named” (Eph. 3:14-15).

“Which hope entereth into that within the veil; whither the forerunner is for us entered, even Jesus” (Heb. 6:20).

“And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and white robes were given unto every one of them” (Rev. 6:9-11).

“Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord” (Rev. 14:13).


The doctrine that the condition of all men between death and the resurrection is a disembodied condition has been greatly misconceived, and the misconception has introduced errors into eschatology. Inasmuch as the body, though not necessary to personal consciousness, is yet necessary in order to the entire completeness of the person, it came to be supposed in the Patristic church, that the intermediate state is a dubious and unfixed state; that the resurrection adds very considerably both to the holiness and happiness of the redeemed, and to the sinfulness and misery of the lost. This made the intermediate, or disembodied state, to be imperfectly holy and happy for the saved, and imperfectly sinful and miserable for the lost. According to Hagenbach (Section 142), the majority of the fathers between 250 and 730 “believed that men do not receive their full reward till after the resurrection.” Jeremy Taylor (Liberty of Prophesying, Section 8) asserts that the Latin fathers held that “the saints, though happy, do not enjoy the beatific vision before the resurrection.” Even so respectable an authority as Ambrose, the spiritual father of Augustine, taught that the soul “while separated from the body is held in an ambiguous condition” (ambiguo suspenditur). [3]

The incompleteness arising from the absence of the body was more and more exaggerated in the Patristic church, until it finally resulted in the doctrine of a purgatory for the redeemed, adopted formally by the Papal church, according to which, the believer, between death and the resurrection, goes through a painful process in Hades which cleanses him from remaining corruption, and fits him for Paradise. The corresponding exaggeration in the other direction, in respect to the condition of the lost in the disembodied state, is found mostly in the Modern church. The Modern Restorationist has converted the intermediate state into one of probation, and redemption, for that part of the human family who are not saved in this life.

The Reformed View of the Intermediate State.

The Protestant Reformers, following closely the Scripture data already cited, which represent the redeemed at death as entirely holy and happy in Paradise, and the lost at death as totally sinful and miserable in Hades, rejected altogether the Patristic and Mediaeval exaggeration of the corporeal incompleteness of the intermediate state. They affirmed perfect happiness at death for the saved, and utter misery for the lost. The first publication of Calvin was a refutation of the doctrine of the sleep of the soul between death and the resurrection. The Limbus and Purgatory were energetically combated by all classes of Protestants. “I know not,” says Calvin (Institutes 2:16:9), “how it came to pass that any should imagine a subterraneous cavern, to which they have given the name of limbus. But this fable, although it is maintained by great authors, and even in the present age is by many seriously defended as a truth, is after all nothing but a fable.

The doctrine of the intermediate or disembodied state, as it was generally received in the Reformed (Calvinistic) churches, is contained in the following statements in the Westminster standards: “The souls of believers are, at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory [The Larger Catechism (86) and Confession (32:1) say, “into the highest heavens“]; and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves till the resurrection. At the resurrection, believers, being raised up in glory, shall be openly acknowledged and acquitted in the day of judgment, and made perfectly blessed in full-enjoying of God to all eternity” (Shorter Catechism, 37, 38). According to this statement, there is no essential difference between Paradise and Heaven. The Larger Catechism (86) asserts that “the souls of the wicked are, at death, cast into hell, and their bodies kept in their graves till the resurrection and judgment of the great day.” The Larger Catechism (89) and Confession (32:1) say that “at the day of judgment, the wicked shall be cast into hell, to be punished forever.” According to this, there is no essential difference between Hades and Hell.

The substance of the Reformed view, then, is, that the intermediate state for the saved is Heaven without the body, and the final state for the saved is Heaven with the body; that the intermediate state for the lost is Hell without the body, and the final state for the lost is Hell with the body. In the Reformed, or Calvinistic eschatology, there is no intermediate Hades between Heaven and Hell, which the good and evil inhabit in common. When this earthly existence is ended, the only specific places and states are Heaven and Hell. Paradise is a part of Heaven; Sheol, or Hades, is a part of Hell. A pagan underworld containing both Paradise and Hades, both the happy and the miserable, like the pagan idol, is “nothing in the world.” There is no such place.

Introduction of the Mythological View of Hades.

This view of Hades did not continue to prevail universally in the Protestant churches. After the creeds of Protestantism had been constructed, in which the Biblical doctrine of Sheol is generally adopted, the mythological view began again to be introduced. Influential writers like Lowth and Herder gave it currency in Great Britain and Germany. “A popular notion,” says Lowth (Hebrew Poetry, Lect. 8), “prevailed among the Hebrews, as well as among other nations, that the life which succeeded the present was to be passed beneath the earth; and to this notion the sacred prophets were obliged to allude, occasionally, if they wished to be understood by the people, on this subject.” Says Herder (Hebrew Poetry, Marsh’s Translation, 2:21), “No metaphorical separation of the body and soul was yet known among the Hebrews, as well as among other nations, and the dead were conceived as still living in the grave, but in a shadowy, obscure, and powerless condition.” The theory passed to the lexicographers, and many of the lexicons formally defined Sheol and Hades as the underworld. It then went rapidly into commentaries, and popular expositions of Scripture.

The Pagan conception of Hades is wide and comprehensive; the Biblical is narrow and exclusive. The former includes all men; the latter, only wicked men. The Greeks and Romans meant by Hades, neither the grave in which the dead body is laid, nor the exclusive place of retribution, but a nether world in which all departed souls reside. There was one Hades for all, consisting of two subterranean divisions: Elysium and Tartarus. In proportion as the Later-Jews came to be influenced by the Greek and Roman mythology, the Old Testament Sheol was widened and made to be a region for the good as well as the evil. Usher (Limbus Patrum) and Pearson (Creed, Art. 5) cite Josephus as an example. This mythological influence increased until the doctrine of purgatory itself came into the Jewish apocryphal literature. Purgatory is taught in 2 Maccabees, 12:45. Manasses, in his Prayer, asks God not “to condemn him into the lower parts of the earth.” The Synagogue, according to Charnocke (Discourse 2), believed in a purgatory. [4]

The Pagan conception, as has been observed, passed also into the Christian church. It is found in the writings of many of the fathers, but not in any of the primitive creeds.

“The idea of a Hades, known to both Hebrews and Greeks, was transferred to Christianity, and the assumption that the real happiness, or the final misery of the departed, does not commence till after the general judgment and the resurrection of the body, appeared to necessitate the belief in an intermediate state, in which the soul was supposed to remain, from the moment of its separation from the body to the last catastrophe. Tertullian, however, held that the martyrs went at once to paradise, the abode of the blessed, and thought that in this they enjoyed an advantage over other Christians, while Cyprian does not seem to know about any intermediate state whatever” (Hagenbach: History of Doctrine, Section 77).

According to this Hellenized eschatology, at death all souls go down, to Hades: in inferna loca, or ad inferos homines. This is utterly unbiblical. It is connected with the heathen doctrine of the infernal divinities, and the infernal tribunal of Minos and Rhadamanthus. The God of revelation does not have either his abode, or his judgment-seat in Hades. From Christ’s account of the last judgment, no one would infer that it takes place in an underworld. In both the Old and New Testament, the good dwell with God, and God’s dwelling place is never represented as “below,” but “on high.” Elijah ascends in a chariot of fire. David expects to be “received to glory.” Christ describes the soul of a believer, at death, as going up to Paradise. “The beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died, and was buried. And in Hades he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom” (Luke 16:22-23) According to this description, Abraham’s bosom and Hades are as opposite and disconnected as the zenith and the nadir. To say that Abraham’s bosom is a part of Hades, is to say that the heavens are a compartment of the earth. St. Matthew (8:11) teaches that Abraham’s bosom is in heaven: “Many shall recline with Abraham, in the kingdom of heaven.” Paradise is separated from Hades by a “great chasm” (Luke 16:26). The word χάσμα denotes space either lateral or vertical, but more commonly the latter. Schleusner, in voce, says: “Maxime dicitur de spatio quod e loco superiore ad inferiorem extenditur.” Hades is in infernis; Abraham’s bosom, or Paradise, is in superis; and Heaven, proper, is in excelsis, or summis.

If Paradise is a section of Hades, then Christ descended to Paradise, and saints at death go down to Paradise, and at the last day are brought up from Paradise. This difficulty is not met, by resorting to the Later-Jewish distinction between a supernal and an infernal paradise. The paradise spoken of by Christ, in Luke 24:33, is evidently the same that St. Paul speaks of in 2 Corinthians 12:3-4, which he calls “the third heaven.”

It is sometimes said, that there is no “above” or “below” in the spiritual world, and therefore the special representation in the parable of Dives and Lazarus must not be insisted upon. This, certainly, should not be. urged by those who contend for an underworld. Paradise and Hades, like Heaven and Hell, are both in the universe of God. But wherever in this universe they may be, it is the Biblical representation (unlike the mythological), that they do not constitute one system, or one sphere of being, any more than Heaven and Hell do. They are so contrary and opposite, as to exclude each other, and to constitute two separate places or worlds; so that he who goes to the one does not go to the other. This contrariety and exclusiveness is metaphorically expressed by space vertical, not by space lateral. Things on the same plane are alike. Those on different planes are not. If Paradise is above and Hades is beneath, Hades will be regarded as Hell, and be dreaded. But if Paradise and Hades are both alike beneath, and Paradise is a part of Hades, then Hades will not be regarded as Hell (as some affirm it is not), and will not be dreaded. Hades will be merely a temporary residence of the human soul, where the punishment of sin is imperfect, and its removal possible and probable.

Church Fathers Who Rejected the Mythological View of Hades.

A portion of the fathers, notwithstanding the increasing prevalence of the mythological view, deny that Paradise is a compartment of Hades. In some instances, it must be acknowledged, they are not wholly consistent with themselves, in so doing. According to archbishop Usher (Works, 3.281), “the first who assigned a resting-place in hell [Hades] to the fathers of the Old Testament was Marcion the Gnostic.” This was combated, he says, by Origen, in his second Dialogue against Marcion. In his comment on Psalm 9:18, Origen remarks that “as Paradise is the residence of the just, so Hades is the place of punishment for sinners.” The locating of Paradise in Hades is opposed by Tertullian (Adv. Marcionem, 9:84), in the following terms:

“Hades (inferi) is one thing, in my opinion, and Abraham’s bosom is another. Christ, in the parable of Dives, teaches that a great deep is interposed between the two regions. Neither could the rich man have ‘lifted up’ his eyes, and that too ‘afar off,’ unless it had been to places above him, and very far above him, by reason of the immense distance between that height and that depth.”

Similarly, Chrysostom, in his Homilies on Dives and Lazarus, as quoted by Usher, asks and answers:

“Why did not Lazarus see the rich man, as well as the rich man is said to see Lazarus? Because he that is in the light does not see him who stands in the dark; but he that is in the dark sees him that is in the light.”

Augustine, in his exposition of Psalm 6 (Migne, 93), calls attention to the fact that “Dives looked up, to see Lazarus.” Again, he says, in his Epistle to Evodius (Migne, 2:711), “it is not to be believed that the bosom of Abraham is a part of Hades (aliqua pars inferorum). How Abraham, into whose bosom the beggar was received, could have been in the torments of Hades, I do not understand. Let them explain who can.” Again, in De Genesi ad literam, 12:33-34 (Migne, 3:482), he remarks:

“I confess, I have not yet found that the place where the souls of just men rest is Hades (inferos). If a good conscience may figuratively be called paradise, how much more may that bosom of Abraham, where there is no temptation, and great rest after the griefs of this life, be called paradise.”

To the same effect, says Gregory of Nyssa (In Pascha. Migne, 3:614):

“This should be investigated by the studious, namely, how, at one and the same time, Christ could be in those three places: in the heart of the earth, in paradise with the thief, and in the ‘hand’ of the Father. For no one will say that paradise is in the places under the earth or the places under the earth in paradise; or that those infernal places are called the ‘hand’ of the Father.”

Cyril of Alexandria, in his De exitu animi (Migne, 10:1079-82), remarks: “Insontes supra, sonres infra. Insontes in coelo, sontes in profundo. Insontes in manu dei, Sonres in manu diaboli.” Usher asserts that the following fathers agree with Augustine, in the opinion that Paradise is not in Hades: namely, Chrysostom, Basil, Cyril Alexandrinus, Gregory Nazianzen, Bede, Titus of Bostra, and others.

These patristic statements respecting the supernal locality of Paradise agree with Scripture. “The way of life is above to the wise, that he may depart from sheol beneath” (Proverbs 15:24). When Samuel is represented as coming up from the earth (1 Sam. 28:7-20), it is because the body reanimated rises from the grave. This does not prove that the soul had been in an underworld, any more than the statement of St. John (12:17), that Christ “called Lazarus out of his grave,” proves it. Paradise is unquestionably the abode of the saved; and the saved are with Christ. The common residence of both is described as on high.

“When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive” (Ephesians 4:8).

“Father, I will that they also whom thou hast given me be with me where I am, that they may see my glory” (John 17:24)

“Those which sleep in Jesus, God will bring with him” [down from Paradise, not up from Hades] (2 Thessalonians 4:14).

At the second advent, “we which are alive and remain shall be caught up in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thessalonians 4:17).

Stephen “looked up into heaven, and saw Jesus standing on the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55). Christ said to the Pharisees, “Ye are from beneath, I am from above” (John 8:23). Satan and his angels are “east down to Tartarus” (2 Peter 2:4). The penitent thief says to Christ: “Lord remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.” Christ replies: “This day shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 28:42-43). This implies that paradise is the same as Christ’s kingdom; and Christ’s kingdom is not an infernal one. Christ cried with a loud voice, “Father into thy hands I commend my spirit, and having said this, he gave up the ghost” (Luke 23:46) The “hands” of the Father, here meant, are in heaven above, not in “sheol beneath.”

These teachings of Scripture, and their interpretation by a portion of the fathers, evince that Paradise is a section of Heaven, not of Hades, and are irreconcilable with the doctrine of an underworld containing both the good and the evil.

“He Descended into Hell.”

Another stimulant, besides that of mythology, to the growth of the doctrine that the intermediate state for all souls is the underworld of Hades, was the introduction into the Apostles’ creed of the spurious clause, “He descended into Hades.” Biblical exegesis is inevitably influenced by the great ecumenical creeds. When the doctrine of the descent to Hades was inserted into the oldest of the Christian symbols, it became necessary to find support for it in Scripture. The texts that can, with any success, be used for this purpose, are few compared with the large number that prove the undisputed events in the life of Christ. This compelled a strained interpretation of such passages as Matthew 12:40; Acts 2:27; Romans 10:7; 1 Peter 3:18-20; 46, and largely affected the whole subject of eschatology, as presented in the Scriptures.

The Apostles’ Creed, in its original form, read as follows: “Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead, and buried; the third day he rose again from the dead.” The first appearance of the clause, “He descended into Hades,” is in the latter half of the 4th century, in the creed of the church of Aquileia. Pearson (Creed, Art. 5), by citations, shows that the creeds, both ecclesiastical and individual, prior to this time, do not contain it. Burnet (Thirty Nine Articles, Art. 3) asserts the same. Rufinus, the presbyter of Aquileia, says that the intention of the Aquileian alteration of the creed was, not to add a new doctrine, but to explain an old one; and therefore the Aquileian creed omitted the clause, “was crucified, dead, and buried,” and substituted for it the new clause, “descendit in inferna.” Rufinus also adds, that “although the preceding Roman and Oriental editions of the creed had not the words, ‘He descended into Hades,’ yet they had the sense of them in the words, ‘He was crucified, dead, and buried,’” (Pearson, Article 5). The early history of the clause, therefore, clearly shows that the “Hades” to which Christ was said to have descended was simply the “grave” in which he was buried.

Subsequently, the clause went into other creeds. The Athanasian (600) follows that of Aquileia, in inserting the “descent” and omitting the “burial.” It reads: “Who suffered for our salvation, descended into Hades, rose again the third day from the dead.” Those of Toledo, in 633 and 693, likewise contain it. It is almost invariably found in the Medieval and Modern forms of the Apostles’ creed, but without the omission, as at first, of the clause, “was crucified, dead, and buried.” If, then, the text of the Apostles’ creed shall be subjected, like that of the New Testament, to a revision in accordance with the text of the first four centuries, the Descensus ad inferos must be rejected as an interpolation.

While the tenet of Christ’s local descent into Hades has no support from Scripture, or any of the first ecumenical creeds, it has support, as has already been observed from patristic authority. [5] “The ancient fathers,” says Pearson (Article 5),

“differed much respecting the condition of the dead, and the nature of the place into which the souls, before our Savior’s death were gathered; some looking on that name which we now translate hell, hades, or infernus, as the common receptacle of the souls of all men, both the just and unjust, while others thought that hades, or infernus, was never taken in the Scriptures for any place of happiness; and therefore they did not conceive the souls of the patriarchs or the prophets did pass into any such infernal place.”

This difference of opinion appears in Augustine, who wavered in his views upon the subject of Hades, as Bellarmine concedes. Pearson (Art. V) remarks of him, that

“he began to doubt concerning the reason ordinarily given for Christ’s descent into hell, namely, to bring up the patriarchs and prophets thence, upon this ground, that he thought the word infernus [hades] was never taken in Scripture in a good sense, to denote the abode of the righteous.” [6]

Pearson cites, in proof, the passages already quoted from Augustine’s Epistles, and Commentary on Genesis. On the other hand, in his City of God (20:15), Augustine hesitatingly accepts the doctrine that the Old Testament saints were in limbo, and were delivered by Christ’s descent into their abode.

“It does not seem absurd to believe, that the ancient saints who believed in Christ, and his future coming, were kept in places far removed, indeed, from the torments of the wicked, but yet in Hades (apud inferos), until Christ’s blood and his descent into these places delivered them.”

Yet in his exposition of the Apostles’ creed (De Fide et Symbolo), Augustine makes no allusion to the clause, “He descended into Hades.” And the same silence appears in the De Symbolo, attributed to him. After expounding the clauses respecting Christ’s passion, crucifixion, and burial, he then explains those concerning his resurrection and ascent into heaven. This proves that when he wrote this exposition, the dogma was not an acknowledged part of the catholic faith. Still later, Peter Chrysologus, archbishop of Ravenna, and Maximus of Turin, explain the Apostles’ creed, and make no exposition of the Descent to Hades. The difference of opinion among the fathers of the first four centuries, together with the absence of Scriptural support for it, is the reason why the Descensus ad inferos was not earlier inserted into the Apostles’ creed. It required the development of the doctrine of purgatory, and of the medieval eschatology generally, in order to get it formally into the doctrinal system of both the Eastern and Western churches. [7]

The personal and local descent of Christ into Hades — whether to deliver the Old Testament saints from limbo; or to preach judicially, announcing condemnation to the sinners there; or evangelically, offering salvation to them — if a fact, would have been one of the great cardinal facts connected with the Incarnation. It would fall into the same class with the nativity, the baptism, the passion, the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the ascension. Much less important facts than these are recorded. St. Matthew speaks of the descent of Christ into Egypt, but not of his descent into Hades. Such an act of the Redeemer as going down into an infernal world of spirits, would certainly have been mentioned by some one of the inspired biographers of Christ. The total silence of the four Gospels is fatal to the tenet. St. Paul, in his recapitulation of the principal events of our Lord’s life, evidently knows nothing of the descent into Hades. “I delivered unto you that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day” (1 Cor. 15:3-4).

The remark of bishop Burner (Thirty-Nine Articles, Art. 3) is sound.

“Many of the fathers thought that Christ’s soul went locally into hell, and preached to some of the spirits there in prison; that there he triumphed over Satan, and spoiled him, and carried some souls with him into glory. But the account that the Scripture gives us of the exaltation of Christ begins it always at his resurrection. Nor can it be imagined that so memorable a transaction as this would have been passed over by the first three Evangelists, and least of all by St. John, who coming after the rest and designing to supply what was wanting in them, and intending particularly to magnify the glory of Christ, could not have passed over so wonderful an instance of it. The passage in St. Peter seems to relate to the preaching to the Gentile world, by virtue of that inspiration that was derived from Christ.” [8]

Further Reading:

A Traditionalist Response to John Stott’s Arguments for Annihilationism by Robert A. Peterson.

Annihilation or Eternal Punishment? by Robert A. Peterson.

Why Annihilationism is Wrong by J. I. Packer.

A Course of Lectures on Future Punishment by W. C. Rider.


[1] “The meaning of the Hebrew word Sheol is doubtful, but I have not hesitated to translate it hell. I do not find fault with those who translate grave, but it is certain that the prophet means something more than common death; otherwise he would say nothing else concerning the wicked, than what would also happen to all the faithful in common with them” (Calvin on Psalm 9:17).

[2] St. Peter (Acts 2:31) asserts that “David spake of the resurrection of Christ,” when he said that “his soul was not left in sheol, neither did his flesh see corruption.” But there is no resurrection of the soul. Consequently, it is the body that David “spake of.” To “leave Christ’s soul in sheol,” is the same thing as to “let his flesh see corruption” — evincing, that “soul,” here, is put for “body,” and “sheol” means the “grave.” St. Paul (Acts 13:35) omits the clause, “Thou wilt not leave my soul in Sheol,” evidently regarding the clause, “Thou wilt not suffer thine Holy One to see corruption,” as stating the whole fact in the case.

In support of this interpretation of these words, we avail ourselves of the unquestioned learning and accuracy of Bishop Pearson. After remarking that the explanation which makes the clause, “He descended into hell,” to mean “that Christ in his body was laid in the grave,” is “ordinarily rejected by denying that ‘soul’ is ever taken for ‘body,’ or ‘hell’ for the ‘grave,'” he proceeds to say that:

“This denial is in vain: for it must be acknowledged, that sometimes the Scriptures are rightly so, and cannot otherwise be, understood. 1) First, the same word in the Hebrew, which the Psalmist used, and in the Greek, which the Apostle used, and we translate ‘the soul,’ is elsewhere used for the body of a dead man, and rendered so in the English version. Both נֶפֶשׁ [nephesh] and ψυχή are used for the body of a dead man in the Hebrew, and Septuagint of Numbers 6:6: ‘He shall come at no dead body’ (נֶפֶשׁ מֵת). The same usage is found in Leviticus 5:2; 19:28; 21:1-11; 22:4; Numbers 18:11-13; Haggai 2:13. Thus, several times, נֶפֶשׁ and ψυχή are taken for the body of a dead man; that body which polluted a man under the Law, by the touch thereof. And Maimondes hath observed, that there is no pollution from the body till the soul be departed. Therefore נֶפֶשׁ and ψυχή did signify the body after the separation of the soul. And this was anciently observed by St. Augustine, that the soul may be taken for the body only: ‘Animae nomine corpus solum posse significari, modo quodam locutionis ostenditur, quo significatur per id quod continetur illud quod continet’ (Epist. 157, al. 190 ad Optatum; De animarum origine, c. 5, sect. 19).

2) Secondly, the Hebrew word שְׁאוֹל [sheol] which the Psalmist used, and the Greek word ᾅδης [hades] which the Apostle employed, and is translated ‘hell’ in the English version, doth certainly in some other places signify no more than the ‘grave,’ and is translated so. As when Mr. Ainsworth followeth the word, ‘For I will go down unto my son, mourning, to hell;’ our translation, arriving at the sense, rendereth it, ‘For I will go down into the grave, unto my son, mourning’ (Genesis 37:35). So again he renders, ‘Ye shall bring down my gray hairs with sorrow unto hell,’ that is ‘to the grave’ (Genesis 42:38). And in this sense we say, ‘The Lord killeth and maketh alive: he bringeth down to the grave, and bringeth up’ (1 Samuel 2:6). It is observed by Jewish commentators that those Christians are mistaken who interpret those words spoken by Jacob, ‘I will go down into Sheol,’ of hell [in the sense of underworld]; declaring that Sheol there is nothing but the grave.” (Pearson, On the Creed, Article V).

The position that נֶפֶשׁ [nephesh] is sometimes put for a dead body, and that Sheol in such a connection denotes the grave, was also taken by Usher (as it had been by Beza, on Acts 2:27, before him), and is supported with his remarkable philological and patristic learning. See his discussion of the Limbus Patrum and Christ’s Descent into Hell, in his Answer to a Challenge of a Jesuit in Ireland (Works, Vol. III.).

This metonymy of “soul” for “body” is as natural an idiom in English, as it is in Hebrew and Greek. It is more easy for one to say that “the ship sank with a hundred souls,” than to say that it “sank with a hundred bodies.” And yet the latter is the real fact in the case.

It is objected that Sheol does not mean the “grave,” because there is a word (קָבַר, qabar) for grave. A grave is bought and sold, and the plural is used; but Sheol is never bought and sold, or used in the plural. The reply is, that “grave” has an abstract and general sense, denoted by שְׁאוֹל [sheol], and a concrete and particular, denoted by קָבַר [qabar]. All men go to the grave; but not all men have a grave. When our Lord says that “all that are in their graves (μνημείοις) shall come forth” (John 5:28), he does not mean that only those shall be raised who have been laid in a particular grave with funeral obsequies. A man is “in the grave,” in the general sense, when his soul is separated from his body and his body has “returned to the dust” (Genesis 3:19). To be “in the grave,” in the abstract sense, is to have the elements of the body mingled with those of the earth from which it was taken (Ecclesiastes 12:7). The particular spot where the mingling occurs is unessential. Moses is in the grave, but “no man knoweth of his sepulcher unto this day.” We say of one drowned in the ocean, that he found a watery grave. These remarks apply also to the use of ᾅδης and μνημείον. According to Pearson (ut supra) the Jerusalem Targum, with that of Jonathan, and the Persian Targum, explains שְׁאוֹל [sheol], in Genesis 37:35; 42:38, by קָבַר [qabar].

[3] It is often difficult to say positively, and without qualification, what the opinion of a church father really was upon the subject of Hades, owing to the unsettled state of opinion. One and the same writer, like Tertullian, or Augustine, for example, makes different statements at different times. This accounts for the conflicting representations of dogmatic historians. One thing, however, is certain, that the nearer we approach the days of the Apostles, the less do we hear about an underworld, and of Christ’s descent into it. Little is said concerning Hades, by the Apostolical fathers. In the longer recension of Ignatius ad Smyrnaeos (Ch. 9), they are exhorted to “repent while yet there is opportunity, for in Hades no one can confess his sins.” Justin Martyr (Trypho, Ch. 5) simply says that “the souls of the pious remain in a better place, while those of the wicked are in a worse, waiting for the time of judgment.” The extracts from the fathers in Huidekoper’s volume on Christ’s Mission to the Underworld, show the uncertainty that prevailed. The same is true of those in Konig’s Christi Hollenfahrt, notwithstanding the bias of the author.

[4] On the influence of Hellenism upon the Later-Judaism, see Edersheim’s Messianic Prophecy and History. Lecture 9.

[5] See Hagenbach’s History of Doctrine, sections 77, 78, 141, 142. Smith’s Ed.

[6] Notwithstanding the currency which the view of Hades as the abode of the good and evil between death and the resurrection has obtained, it would shock the feelings, should a clergyman say to mourning friends: “Dry your tears, the departed saint has gone down to Hades.”

[7] Baumgarten-Crusius (Dogmengeschichte 2:109) finds three stadia in the development of the dogma of the Descent to Hades. 1. The Descent was the Burial itself put into an imaginative form. 2. The Descent was a particular condition or status of Christ resulting from his Burial. 3. The Descent was entirely separate from the Burial, being another and wholly distinct thing.

[8] Augustine, Bede, Aquinas, Erasmus, Beza, Gerhard, Hottringer, Clericus, Leighton, Pearson, Secker, Hammond, Hofmann, and most of the Reformed theologians, explain 1 Peter 3:18-20 to mean that Christ preached by Noah to men who were “disobedient” in the days of Noah, and who for this cause were “spirits in prison” at the time of Peter’s writing. The particle ποτε [“which sometime“], qualifying ἀπειθήσασίν [“were disobedient“], shows that the disobedience (or disbelief) occurred “when the ark was a-preparing.” But the preaching must have been contemporaneous with the disobedience, or disbelief. What else was there to disobey, or disbelieve? Says Pearson (Creed, Art. 2):

“Christ was really before the flood, for he preached to them that lived before it. This is evident from the words of St. Peter (1 Peter 3:18-20). From which words it appeareth, first, That Christ preached by the same spirit by the virtue of which he was raised from the dead: but that Spirit was not his [human] soul, but something of a greater power; secondly, That those to whom he preached were such as were disobedient; thirdly, That the time when they were disobedient was the time before the flood, when the ark was preparing. The plain interpretation is to be acknowledged for the true, that Christ did preach unto those men which lived before the flood, even while they lived, and consequently that he was before it. For though this was not done by an immediate act of the Son of God, as if he personally had appeared on earth and actually preached to that world, but by the ministry of a prophet, by the sending of Noah, ‘the eighth preacher of righteousness:’ yet to do anything by another not able to perform it without him, as much demonstrates the existence of the principal cause, as if he did it himself without any intervening instrument.”

Another proof of the correctness of this interpretation is the fact that Christ’s preaching to “the spirits in prison” was πνεύματι [“by the Spirit“], alone. The total θεάνθρωπος [God-man] did not preach. The σάρξ, human nature, of Christ had no part in the act. But Christ’s personal and local preaching in Hades would require his whole Divine-human person; as much so as his preaching in Galilee, or Jerusalem. The Formula Concordiae (9:2) so understands and teaches: “Credimus quod tota persona, deus et homo, post sepulturam, ad inferos descenderit, Satanam deviceterit,” etc. Christ’s preaching through Noah, “a preacher of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5), and therefore an “ambassador of Christ” (2 Cor. 5:20), might be done through his divinity alone. Christ preached πνεύματι [“by the Spirit“] through Noah, as David έν πνεύματι [“in spirit“] called him Lord (Mat. 22:43). The objection that actually living men upon earth would not be called “spirits” is met by Romans 13:1; 1 John 4:1-3; and by the fact that at the time of Peter’s writing the persons meant are disembodied spirits.

The passage 1 Peter 4:6, sometimes cited in proof of the Descensus ad inferos, refers to the preaching of the gospel to the spiritually “dead in trespasses and sins.” This is Augustine’s interpretation (Ep. ad. Evodium 6:21). In Ephesians 4:9, τὰ κατώτερα μέρη τῆς γῆς to which Christ “descended” from “on high” signify this lower world of earth St. Paul is speaking here of the incarnation. The incarnate Logos did not descend from heaven to hades, nor ascend from hades to heaven. Compare Isaiah 44:23: “Shout ye lower parts of the earth.” This is the opposite of the “heavens,” which are bidden to “sing.” In Acts 2:19, this world is called τῆς γῆς κάτω. Hades would be τά κατώτατα μέρη τής γής. In Romans 10:7, Christ’s descent “into the deep” (ἄβυσσον) is shown by the context to be his descent into the grave.

Whatever be the interpretation of 1 Peter 3:18-20, such a remarkable doctrine as the Descent to Hades should have more foundation than a single disputed text. The doctrine itself is so obscure that it has had five different forms of statement. 1. Christ virtually descended into Hades, because his death was efficacious upon the souls there. 2. Christ actually descended into Hades. 3. Christ’s descent into Hades was his suffering the torments of hell. 4. Christ’s descent into Hades was his burial in the grave. 5. Christ’s descent into Hades was his remaining in the state of the dead, for a season. The Westminster Larger Catechism (50) combines the last two: “Christ’s humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried, and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death, till the third day, which hath been otherwise expressed in these words, ‘He descended into hell.’


One thought on “The Meaning of Sheol, Hades, and Hell

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s