Thursday, February 22, 2018

In Regard to Hell - Part Two

What's the story with hell? 

If you missed part one you can find that here

When trying to make sense of “hell” it is important to pay attention to words, their meanings, context and implications. If we don’t there is every likelihood our understanding of “hell” will end up either popular or pagan – neither is a good option. The goal though is a biblical appreciation of what is going.

It’s also important to pay attention to whole passages of scripture, their meanings, context and implications. This isn’t necessarily an easy task, but if you’re game, I’m game. We’ll have to work hard though. Well actually you will, I already have. There is a lot for you to read here, a long post but I think one that would be worth your while. A tweet wouldn’t really cut it.

So, in this post will look at three things…

Some thoughts on the Greek underworld.
Some thoughts on the first half of Luke 16.
Some thoughts on the second half of Luke 16 – the parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus.

We’ll do this because in this parable Jesus talks about hades and we need to figure out what is going on. What is Jesus saying? What isn’t Jesus saying? Some people use this passage of scripture in an attempt to paint a picture of hell and the “after-life” and we need to see if that is fair-game or not. 

Hades and the Greek Underworld

Let’s quickly summarise the two words we have looked at so far; sheol and hades.

Sheol – death, the grave, gravedom, 6ft under, pushing up daisies. It is the end of one’s life, the end of one’s story, it’s inevitable but also problematic in that it severs relationship with God and the rest of creation. In the Old Testament there is a trusting hope that death is not beyond the reach of God but little more in terms of a well-developed eschatology.  

Hades (biblical context) = death, the grave, gravedom, 6ft under, pushing up daisies, a negative reality of life, the end of one’s relationship with God and others, the end of one’s story. It is used at times with allusions to the Greco-Roman understanding of the underworld but not as an endorsement of this mythology. The New Testament offers great hope in regard to death and hades will be defeated and of resurrection life.

Hades also needs to be understood more specifically in its Greco-Roman context as we move forward.

Hades (Greek mythology) = the underworld separated from the land of the living by two rivers and ruled over by the Greek god Hades. The dead are transported there by The Ferryman (Charon), with the Gates of Hades guarded by the three-headed hound of hades (Cereberus).

There is more to hades than that though.

In the Greco-Roman culture of the 1st Century, Hades was understood to have different parts to it, where you’d “go to live” when you were dead.

The Asphodel Meadows – This was the place in the underworld for the ordinary or indifferent. Those who had neither committed great sins nor lived a life of any great distinction or virtue. 

The Mourning Fields – This was a realm for those who wasted their lives on unrequited love. They loved greatly but were not loved back. This is where all the Vodafone Warriors fans would end up.

Elysium – This was the destination for the distinguished, where they would have an easy afterlife and no labor. The abode of heroes, demigods, and the virtuous. You might remember Maximus in the movie Gladiator addressing his troops; Hold the line! Stay with me! If you find yourself alone, riding in the green fields with the sun on your face, do not be troubled. For you are in Elysium, and you're already dead!”

Isle of the Blessed – When you reached Elysium, you could either choose to remain or be reborn, if you chose to be reborn three times, and each time landed back in Elysium, you would then be granted entrance to the Isle of the Blessed also known as The Fortunate Isles. This was paradise, but you had to live three honorable lives to get there. Clock the game three times to get there you could say. Some would settle for Elysium, others would return to do it all over again.

Tartarus – This is where you would go if you had bad teeth and had died of tooth decay. No, Tartarus was a deep abyss, a prison, a dungeon of torture – it was where the wicked received the divine punishment of Zeus.

Hades was thus the destination for all who died, a place where the righteous and unrighteous would end up. For some, it would be a place of eternal punishment in the abyss and for others a place of eternal rest in Elysium, or even better in the Isles of the Blessed.

This Greek mythology is important to keep in mind when we look at the story of The Rich Man and Lazarus in the later part of Luke 16.

It is also important to keep in mind the first half of Luke 16 (and Luke 15 but we don’t want this post to blow out into a book).

So, read on! Though you should probably pause first and read Luke 16.

The Shrewd Manager – Luke 16:1-13

In this story a steward (the go-between for a rich landowner and his tenants) is discovered to be cooking the books. Receiving a salary from the landowner and a one-off fee from the tenants each time a lease negotiation is settled on the land – it appears he is also skimming off the top. Likely he is taking some of the produce of the land that actually belongs to the landowner as annual rent. He has been found out and will certainly be thrown into prison. 

Everyone hearing this story knows how things will unfold with the steward’s demise and incarcerated future assured.

Jesus’ stories always have unexpected twists though.

As it turns out the steward isn’t cast out and thrown into prison, instead, he is just fired. Basically, he is told to go and pack up his office and move on. There are hints of generosity and mercy in this response from the landowner.

What is the steward to do? He sees himself as too old to start over as a laborer (no one in the community will employ him as a steward now) and too proud to beg. He’ll have no home and no means to support himself (and his family if he has one). Having been asked to clear out his things though, he has a small window of opportunity. No one knows he has been fired and he seizes the moment. He calls in those indebted to the master, tenants due to pay their lease with the produce of the land (grain, grape, goat etc.), and lowers their bill. It’s like a Briscoes sale! In doing so he ensures their favour and they’ll be obligated to return a favour to him. He ensures for himself a place to live once he leaves his current abode.

More than that though, he is shrewdly entrusting himself to the generosity and grace of the master who, without realising it, is gaining a reputation as a generous and a virtuous man. No doubt the village is celebrating and toasting his health and wellbeing.  

When the master hears all of this he commends the steward as shrewd. What the heck!?!

In this first-century context generosity is about reciprocation, about earning the favour, goodwill, and indebtedness of others. As well though, generosity is also a primary quality of a nobleman. This puts the master in a bind, he could try and explain what has happened but would soon be understood as stingy rather than as generous, and as tight rather than as noble, or, he can remain quiet and receive the praise and reputation that is coming his way. What is he to do?

We have already seen hints of his character as a generous man in not immediately throwing the steward into jail. Now we see that he is indeed a man of generosity. Reflecting, he commends the steward. In a back-handed way, the actions of the steward are a compliment to the master who values his reputation as one who is generous. The steward trusts the master to continue in generosity.  

You could say it like this… The steward risked everything based on the master’s tendency towards generosity and mercy with the master paying the full price for the steward’s salvation. That’s a sentence worth reading again (even though there is a lot of reading going on here). The steward risked everything based on the master’s tendency towards generosity and mercy with the master paying the full price for the steward’s salvation.

Do note: the shrewdness of the steward is not his dishonesty, that isn’t what is being commended. The shrewdness of the steward is the way he entrusts everything to the master’s reputation as one who is generous, merciful and kind.

Jesus in telling this parable is using a rabbinic method of teaching– kal vahomer – the light and the heavy.  If something is true in a “light” thing (a small or minor thing), how much more so will it be true in a “heavy” thing (an important or weighty matter). 
If this dishonest steward solved his problem by relying on the mercy and generosity of his master (the children of this age being shrewd in dealing with their generation) – a light thing, how much more will God help the children of light who throw themselves before his mercy and generosity, the heavy thing.

The steward is aware of the generosity of his master (the light). How much more should God’s children be aware of the generosity of their master!?! (the heavy).

Jesus then encourages those listening to use worldly wealth to gain friends, so that when it is gone, they’ll be welcomed into eternal dwellings. This is a bit mysterious.

Bear in mind that generosity in this first-century context was all about reciprocation, you’d give, you’d be generous, you’d develop friendships, with people of an equal or greater status to you. They would in turn be indebted to you and in time would return some sort of favour; open a door for you, speak well of you in a certain context, give you their vote.

However, Jesus offers a different perspective in Luke 6:32-36If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Disciples of Jesus aren’t to give in order to ensure favours. They are to give to those who cannot pay them back, who cannot reciprocate the gift; give to those who are in need, and whom can’t advantage you in any way – the poor and the outcast. And thus in doing so, they are making friends with those who can’t repay the favour and in the system of the day are setting themselves up to lose or to miss out. From God’s perspective though thay are actually storing up treasure and investing in an eternal dwelling.

One is to be faithfully generous according to the way of the Kingdom with their worldly wealth (the light) and will thus inherit the true riches of the kingdom of God (the heavy).
The Pharisees weren’t super excited about this. 

The Pharisees – Luke 16:14-18

The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.

Rather than using money to make friends across social-class boundaries, the Pharisees are instead friends with money.

He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.

The Pharisees are seeking to be well esteemed in the eyes of others, the well to do. If they do happen to be generous, it’ll only be in a self-seeking way that pursues the values of this age. Their main concern is their own interest rather than the interests of others, they’re not up with the play with what God is doing.

“The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is urged to enter into it.

This is a new and expansive era of God’s grace; the good news is particularly directed towards the poor. But, despite being a new era; It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.

This new kingdom of God thing doesn’t do away with the prophets or the law though, it is a fulfillment of all that comes before. The ideals of the kingdom are embedded within the prophets and the law already.

“Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Divorce is still divorce, and while there are some biblical reasons for divorce, you (the Pharisees) have twisted things if you are buying into the idea of “for-any-reason” divorce. (That’s another topic for another day). What Jesus is advocating in terms of the Way of God’s kingdom is already embedded in the Law and the Prophets, but the Pharisees miss it there and in the teaching of Jesus.

All in all, the theme of Luke 16:1-18, at least so far, is the appropriate use of wealth to overstep social boundaries between rich and poor in order to participate in a form of economic redistribution grounded in kinship. One that reflects the kingdom of God, the justice, mercy, kindness, and grace of God.

Give generously and extend hospitality to the poor, to those who cannot reciprocate – it secures one an eternal home, that is, stores up treasure in heaven. That is, instead of entrusting oneself to reciprocation and the advantages that come with generosity that is extended to those in high places – cast yourself entirely upon the goodwill, generosity and kindness of the master.

Which brings us to The Rich Man and Lazarus – what do you think this story likely to be about? Hell or issues pertaining to material wealth?

The Rich Man and Lazarus - Luke 16:19-31

“There was a rich man…

So, we need to pause right here.

You may have heard well-meaning preachers suggest here that we are therefore not dealing with a parable, after all… “There was…” means there was. And thus this story is to be read literally, as the facts of the matter regarding the state of The Rich Man and of Lazarus when it comes to life-after-death. They might be well meaning but they are heading down the wrong track.

Modern scholars agree that this is a parable with Luke introducing many of his parables in a similar fashion to this introduction in Luke 16 – words to the effect; “There was a man…” (Luke 10:30; 14:16; 15:11; 16:1, 16:19; 19:12; 20:9). This parable (of the Rich Man and Lazarus) is part of a series of parables – back-to-back-to back – Luke 15:4-16:31.

Not only is this a parable that Jesus is telling, it is Jesus’ take on a parable well-known to Jesus’ audience at the time. It was a story already floating around (about seven different versions) common to the people that Jesus takes and adapts to suit his purposes and in order to make his particular point(s).

So, let’s start again, clear that this is a parable…

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen…

This is the finest of attire. Fine linen would have been white garments, nearly impossible to keep clean or to wash in a first-century context, and purple garments were the costliest of garments given that about 10,000 little sea snails had to be sourced and crushed up to get purple die. This kind of regalia was the same as what the priest would wear on Day of Atonement. This Rich Man is OTT. 

…and lived in luxury every day.

The idea of luxury here is that of feasting. In the story of the Loving Father, a fattened calf was butchered in celebration of the youngest son returning home. This is the kind of luxury that this Rich Man lives out every day. Again, it is OTT.

At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

In stark contrast to the Rich Man we have Lazarus. He is literally just outside, just there on the other side of the gate. Lazarus is not dressed in fine linen though, rather he is clothed in sores. Lazarus isn’t feasting, instead the dogs have started feeding on him. This is OTT in the other direction.

For the audience of the time none of this is particularly shocking. For them it is almost a “black comedy” of sorts. The contrast between the two characters in the story is so extravagant it is almost hilarious. This will be a great story about a Rich Man who is obviously someone favoured by God (hence the incredible wealth) and Lazarus who is obviously someone under God’s fierce judgement (he is covered in sores and cursed even as Job appeared to be). No doubt those listening are looking forward to finding out what comes next.

Well, what happens next is an unexpected reversal. 

“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side.

Here we should note that the use of Hades in this context is plucked straight from Greek mythology. The term isn’t being used to simply speak of the grave, of death, of being six feet under (as in sheol in the Old Testament and hades in most of the rest of the New Testament). Hades here is literally in the sense of the Greek underworld. Jesus runs with the conventions of the story.

The unexpected reversal is that Lazarus ends up at Abraham’s side and the Rich Man in a place of torment. This is a real curve ball.

Abraham was a distinguished and virtuous character, he’d of course be in a good part of hades, Elysium. Surely the Rich Man must have been a man of virtue as well, his wealth was a sign of God’s favour and blessing - wasn’t it? Surely when he died he too would end up at Abraham’s side, in Elysium?

And Lazarus, well, clearly Lazarus would end up in the torment of Tartarus – a continuation of the torment he knew in life as someone under the judgment of God. At best Lazarus could perhaps hope to land in the Asphodel Meadows – for the ordinary and the indifferent. What’s going on?

What’s going on is the kingdom of God which doesn’t operate according to the schemes of the world. Jesus came to preach good news to the poor and the downcast – blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek, blessed are those persecuted. 

There is a big hint in relation to this embedded in the story – Lazarus is the Greek version of the Hebrew name Eleazar, which means: God is my helper. God is Lazarus’ helper.

Let’s carry on…

So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

Even in this position the Rich Man doesn’t get it, he still sees himself as privileged and Lazarus one who should help him in his difficulty, “get Lazarus to come and dip his finger in water and let me cool my tongue.” He is still interested in only himself – even as he had been in life.

As a side – we’ve another pointer that the story isn’t literal when we consider a drop of water as some sort of relief in the agony of fire. It’s hardly going to make a difference.

“But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

In life, it was just a gate that separated them, for the Rich Man to open it and invite Lazarus in would have been so easy. Now the Rich Man discovers an uncross-able chasm. There is no Ferryman to make the trip.

“He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’

Still the Rich Man wants Lazarus to be his servant, still his concern is only for his own, his family, his five brothers – now he wants Lazarus to go and warn them. Which, if Lazarus is in Elysium, he could choose to do. Remember you could choose to leave Elysium and live again and if you lived three virtuous lives you’d be promoted to the Blessed Isles.

But the Greek mythological ideas in relation to Hades and the underworld aren’t the point of the story. They exist within the story that Jesus is appropriating for his own purposes. But, they are not the point of Jesus story, they are only a vehicle. Jesus' use of this story shouldn’t be understood as any sort of endorsement of what the underworld or the “afterlife” is like.

In fact… if we are using this story in Luke 16 to paint a picture of heaven, hades, hell etc. we’ll end up painting a picture that is pagan not biblical.

Not ideal.

There is next to nothing that we should take form this parable in relation to our understanding of hell. Those issues, quite simply, aren’t the point of the story.

Here is the point though… 

“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

“‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

The point of the story is a massive rebuke of the Pharisees who are privileged and have easy access to both the Law and the Prophets but still can’t figure out how to live the Way of God in relation to the poor, downtrodden and disadvantaged.

The five brothers (other Pharisees) have the five books or Torah and the prophets and a beggar they know who sits at the gate of the Rich Man (a Pharisee) but still can’t figure it all out. Someone coming back from the dead won’t cause them to repent and rethink everything either.

The point of the story is that the Way of the Kingdom is not the same as the way of the world. The story is a colourful conclusion to everything that Jesus has already talked about earlier in Luke 16 and in relation to the use of material wealth.

The Pharisees are not using their earthly wealth wisely – that is, to bring food and provision and redemption to those in need, to those who’ll not be able to reciprocate the generosity. They need to realise that God’s kingdom is breaking in, everything is being turned upside down (or right-side-up) and they need to get on board. If they were to do so they would secure for themselves treasure in heaven (Sermon on the Mount term), or eternal dwellings (Luke 16:9). Instead they are storing up treasure (fine purple linen, feasting etc) where moth and vermin will destroy it.

The kingdom of God is breaking in and God is doing a new thing – lost coins are being found, lost sheep are being found, prodigal sons are finding their way home, but elders brothers are missing it (Luke 15). Even dishonest and broken stewards are finding grace and mercy as they throw themselves entirely upon the generosity of the master (Luke 16), but the Pharisees are missing it.

The kingdom of God is breaking in, there is hope for the poor and the downcast – the Lazarus’s in the world should know that God is their helper even though the religious system of the day has let them down.

The point of it all is to be faithful with earthly wealth, use it generously to bless the poor and to give to those that cannot reciprocate. You’ll likely not get a “return on investment” in this life but will inherit heavenly treasure. Love your neighbour as yourself!

What does the story tell us about hell?
It isn’t a story about hell.

We do of course also have a prophetic nod to Jesus, who will rise from the dead as the resurrected Son of God but still not be accepted by many.


Aren’t we meant to be looking at “hell” and our understanding “hell?” It seems that this big long post hasn’t offered anything new or insightful?

Perhaps – but hopefully it has cleared away some of the thinking that gets in the way of a biblical understanding of hell. Even though it is parts of the bible we are clearing away. That is, looking to interpret more carefully. 

There is still much to consider: gehenna, tartarus, worms, gnashing of teeth, lakes of fire, eternal fire.

We’ll get there.  

Let’s not miss the challenge of Luke 16 though. Who are you in the story; the Rich Man or Lazarus?

If you’re the Rich Man…

In God’s kingdom the wealthy are to use their resource to overstep social boundaries between the rich and poor, and are to participate in a form of economic redistribution grounded in kinship, that reflects the love, justice, mercy, kindness and grace of God.

We’re to give generously and extend hospitality to the poor, to those who cannot reciprocate.

If Lazarus…

God is my help!

Often we are both.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

In Regard to Hell – Part One

What comes to mind when you think of “hell”?

More than likely, Christian or not, you’ll be imagining some sort of red devil with horns and a fiery furnace. This will, of course, be accompanied by the screams of the damned who’re destined to an eternity of suffering. It is a fairly popular perspective, one reinforced in contemporary culture with everything from cartoons and movies (Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey and Hellboy) to Iron Maiden album covers and t-shirts painting this sort of picture.

I don’t think it is an accurate picture though. I don’t even think it is close to accurate – even though at times this idea comes up in some Sunday morning sermons. Hell as eternal conscious torment is daft.

So, esigeses and exegeses. Now those are a couple of words beginning with “e”! 

Esiegeses is the process of reading an idea into the text. For example, when you read the following phrase – the key was stuck – more than likely you are imagining a key stuck in a door lock. The thing is, you’ve read an idea into the text that may not be accurate to the intended meaning. We need a better understanding of context in order to truly figure out what a phrase may be getting at. Look how a little more information changes our understanding – the piano tuner rang to confirm that indeed, the key was stuck. Now we see it is far more reasonable to conclude that a key on a piano has become stuck and will require a repair.

The more contextual information we have the better we’ll be able to make sense of what is going on. 

When it comes to our understanding of “hell” in the Bible, I think it is fair to conclude that in many instances rather than engaging in a process of exegesis (a careful reading that attempts to draw meaning out of the text), many folk instead engage in esiegeses and read meaning into the text instead – meaning stolen from contemporary culture and particularily ideas of “hell” inherited from Dante Alighieri and his 14th century work The Divine Comedy in which “hell” is depicted as nine concentric circles of torment located in the centre of the earth.

Basically, people have an idea of “hell” in their head, see the word in the Bible and then conclude that the idea they have in their head is the same as the one the Bible is trying to convey. It may not be so.

So, what’s the story with hell?

Let’s begin by noting that the Bible doesn’t mention “hell.” Not even once. Quite simply, "hell" isn't something that any of the biblical authors write about. Neither in the Old or the New Testament.


At the end of the day, “hell” is an English word used in our English translations of the Bible as a substitute for certain Hebrew and Greek words that the original authors did use to convey particular ideas. The biblical authors wrote of; sheol, hades, tartarus and gehenna.

Now, you may be tempted to think of me as disingenuous to use this language-game to suggest that the Bible doesn’t mention hell. Hear me out, I don’t think I am. What I think is disingenuous is to play a language-game that puts a pop-culture idea of hell into the text in place of what the authors discuss as sheol, hades, tartarus and gehenna.

We use these words, but to steal from The Princess Bride; "I do not think they mean what you think they mean."

Let’s start by looking at the Hebrew word sheol and then the Greek word hades.

First up, sheol.

In the Hebrew scriptures, sheol is the place of the dead or the abode of the dead.

When you put it like that though, it gives the impression that sheol is a place one travels to in death.

And then when you put it like that it gives the impression that death isn’t dying but is instead some sort of a relocation – as if sheol is where the dead go to live. This isn’t the case. To be dead is to not live, it isn’t to live somewhere else.

It is better to understand sheol as the equivalent of being “6 feet under,” or, “pushing up daisies,” or as a “rest in the dust.” It is to be swallowed by the ground or to disappear into the depths of the sea.
Ultimately sheol is the grave, sheol is death.    

In Genesis 37:35 we’ve Jacob hearing that his beloved son Joseph has died.  And all his sons and all his daughters came to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. “No,” he said, “in mourning I will go down to sheol (to the grave, to my death), to my son.” So, his father wept for him. What we shouldn’t imagine is Jacob in death getting a chance to visit his son – as if in dying his son had moved to Australia and Jacob will get to visit soon when he dies.

In Job 7:9 we’ve Job speaking of those who have died. As a cloud vanishes and is gone, so those who go down to sheol (the grave, death) do not return. In death people don’t relocate to sheol, they die, they cease to exist.  

Again in Job, Job 17:13-16 – we’ve Job speaking of death. If the only home I hope for is the grave, if I spread out my bed in the realm of darkness, if I say to corruption, ‘You are my father,’ and to the worm, ‘My mother,’ or, ‘My sister,’ where is my hope – who can see any hope for me? Will it go down to the gates of sheol (the grave, death)? Where there is rest in the dust? Job isn’t talking about living in sheol, he is talking about death being a return to dust and non-existence.

Here are a few from the psalms.

Psalm 6:5
Among the dead no one proclaims your name. Who praises you from sheol? (from the grave, from the dead). The answer is no one.

Psalm 30:3
You, Lord, brought me up from the realm of sheol (the grave, death); you spared me from going down to the pit. i.e. saved me from dying.

Psalm 88:3
I am overwhelmed with troubles and my life draws near to sheol (the grave, death).

It seems that the Hebrew idea of sheol is best understood as death or the grave – gravedom would be a good word to use because it isn’t a “loaded term.” Sheol is Genesis 3:19 in action… By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.

Now, in speaking of the dead, or the place of the dead, or gravedom; there are poetic descriptions given in the Old Testament (Job, Psalms, Isaiah), that appear to give it a sense of animation, as if one exists in sheol albeit as a shadow of one’s former self. The kind of picture painted is that of a place of no return, a land of gloom and deep shadow, a land of deepest night, of deep shadow and disorder, where even the light is like darkness, a land of oblivion, a land of dust, a place of forgetfulness, of forgottenness, of silence, monotony, loneliness, sleep, and paled being.

What seems to be happening here though, is not the suggestion of some actual shadow existence, but rather we’ve poetic and metaphorical expressions of what it is to be dead, to be cut off from the land of the living – lonely and forgotten where even the light is darkness. It’s poetic ways of articulating the reality that in death, your story comes to an end, specifically your relating to others and your relating to God. It’s the antithesis of life.

That said, sheol (not a location by the state of being dead, being 6ft under) was not seen as being beyond God’s sight or reach or power – death and the grave – was not seen as being beyond the arm of God. There was a belief that God would restore those who were righteous from sheol, from death, and from the grave – to enjoy the fellowship of life once again. The biblical word we use here is resurrection and it shouldn’t be confused with some kind of relocation out of one place and to another.

In translating sheol to English, the American Standard Version and the English Standard version just leave “sheol” as it is. This is a pretty good hint that an English equivalent is hard to come by and instead of trying to come up with one we’d be better to preserve sheol and understand this as it’s own thing.

If we want an English word, maybe “gravedom” could be used as it isn’t loaded in a particular direction.

The NIV, mainly uses “grave.”  The KJV though, it uses “grave,” as well as “pit,” and then also “hell.” This is unhelpful. Can you see why?

“Hell” is a word already loaded with meaning. And, the meaning it is loaded with is quite different to anything we’ve just discussed in relation to sheol. And thus, we end up reading ideas into the text rather than out of the text.

It seems, that where “hell” is used in the OT, it is in passages where sheol is seen as the negative consequence of unrighteous living – an early death. This is entirely in keeping with the challenge presented to the Israelites to follow the ways of Yahweh and choose life, not death, blessing not cursing. In Proverbs the way of the virtuous woman (wisdom) rather than the bed of the adulterous woman (folly).  

Psalm 9:17
The wicked shall return to sheol (ESV) (the realm of the dead NIV, hell KJV), all the nations that forget God.

Proverbs 7:27
Her house is the way to sheol (ESV) (the grave NIV, hell KJV), leading down to chambers of death.

The idea is really that there is a way of living that actually leads to death and another way of living that leads to life (green pastures and still waters you could say). To read “hell” into the text, and pop-culture eternal torture and punishment, is really to read ideas into the text that simply aren’t there.

So, if you come across “hell” in the Old Testament, its really a poor English word for the Hebrew word sheol.

In the Old Testament it would be better to leave it sheol as sheol.

Now let’s look at the New Testament and consider hades.

A few hundred years before Christ, Greek scholars started translating the Hebrew scriptures into koine Greek. As they set about the task of translation they came across a certain Hebrew word, sheol, (you might have heard of it). They had to choose a word for sheol and decided to use the Greek word hades. In doing so, they choose an incredibly loaded word.

Hades was both the Greek god of the underworld and also the underworld itself. In Greek mythology Charon (the Ferryman) would ferry the souls of the dead across the rivers Styx and Acheron, the cost being a coin that was placed on or in the mouth of a deceased person. Cerberus, the multi-headed hound of Hades, was the watchdog that guarded the gates of hades so that no one could escape. Hades ruled the underworld, along with his queen, the goddess Persephone, the daughter of Zeus who Hades had abducted and dragged into the underworld – hades.

Did you get all of that?

It’s important to note though, that while this Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures uses hades in place of sheol, the intent was not that the word would be understood in the same manner as it is in Greek culture. They weren’t seeking to import Greek mythology into the Old Testament. No one translating the text would have thought that Jacob, on hearing that his beloved son Joseph had died, refused to be comforted and that in mourning he’d die, have a coin placed in his mouth, be carried by Charon across the rivers Styx and Acheron, past Cerberus, through the gates of  hades and to the Greek god of the underworld himself – Hades. Though they use the Greek hades for the Hebrew sheol, it is simply an attempt to find a word suitable.

When it comes to the New Testament written post-Christ, the question to ask is whether or not the New Testament authors were using the term hades (in their writing) to mean something more than what sheol meant in the Old Testament? Or, was hades still the word of choice to convey similar theological ideas to sheol in the Hebrew scriptures.

Let’s have a look – it only occurs a few times.

Matthew 11:23 and also Luke 10:15
And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day.

Here the ideas are the same as we see in the Old Testament, in Isaiah and Ezekiel, sheol is seen as the great leveler of the mighty and the rich, and of those that had great miracles in their midst but did not believe. Death awaits. Hades is here conveying the same ideas as sheol; the grave, gravedom, 6ft under.

Matthew 16:18
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.

The gates of death, the realm of death, the grave, gravedom, being 6ft under won’t ultimately be the end of the story. Here the idea of hades is the same as the Hebrew Scripture’s idea of sheol. Additionally, hades is used here with a nod of the head to the Greek idea Hades with the reference to gates, but we shouldn’t see this turn of phrase as an endorsement of Greek cosmology or mythology.

Revelation 1:18
I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive forever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.

Death and the grave, sheol / hades, those that have died have returned from the dust of the earth, from the grave – because Jesus is sovereign over that too! Jesus is king of the grave! Or, you could say, the Greek god Hades is not the king of the grave! That myth is all wrong.

Revelation 20:13
The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done.

Here hades again speaks to the same sort of idea that we have with sheol – gravedom, the dust of the earth or depths of the ocean – Hades is no god of the dead.  

Revelation 20:14
Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death.

Death and the grave is destroyed, no more sheol, no more hades, no more false kings of the dead – only Jesus Christ as Lord of both the living and the dead. Death is destroyed and any idea of the realm of the dead – that’s destroyed too. Eventually we’ll come back to that.

For all intent and purpose, when we read sheol in the Old Testament and hades in the New Testament the ideas behind the text seems to be very similar – death, the grave, gravedom, the dust of the earth, 6ft under, pushing up daisies etc.

In the New Testament there are some allusions to Greek mythology but that’s the culture of the time and every passage undoes the reality of the mythology. We shouldn't miss the subtlety here.

To “be in sheol” or “to be in hades” is “to be in death” is to be dead, 6ft under, pushing up daisies. As it is so eloquently put in the movie A Knight's Tale, it is to have “the spark of one’s life covered in shite.”

Thus, when we read translations of the Bible that use “hell” in place of sheol or in place of hades, there is every chance we’ll be reading some ideas into the text that we shouldn’t be.

Sheol should be left in play in the Old Testament.
Hades should be left in play in the New Testament.

Now, of course, there is still much more to be said about hell. We’ve still got words like tartarus and gehenna to consider. Not to mention the story of The Rich Man and Lazarus - that's a biggie.

We’ll get there. Don’t worry. Grace and peace.

You can read part two here.