“….the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven, with the angels of his power; In a flame of fire giving vengeance to them who know not God, and who obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess 1:8 DRB).
Of the many false translations found in our modern English bibles, one that I suspect escapes the notice of many readers, is that of HADES. In fact, it is not, strictly speaking, so much a wrong translation as it is a non-translation. But because it is left untranslated in the English text of some bibles, it has become a false translation, and can give the reader a totally wrong concept of what lies beyond the grave.
There should be no connection in thought between a Greek and a Christian view of the afterlife. But the modern bibles with their non-translation of Hades in some, and mistranslation in others, blur the distinction; and by so doing give the impression that biblical thought and understanding has its roots in Greek thought; but nothing could be further from the truth.
Biblical understanding was given by revelation from heaven; and while there are similarities in some aspects of thought and belief in the Greek and Christian ideas, this is understandable because human beings were made in the image of God, and one aspect of this image is a sense of justice and retribution.
So, heathen Greek and Christian thought had the same word (hades) for the underworld but it represented two quite different concepts; it is the distinctions that make all the difference. The Greek idea represents it as the final and eternal confinement and state of dead souls without it being a punishment. But Christian revelation shows that hades refers to hell, a terrifying place of endless torment. The biblical afterlife is not a Greek afterlife. And the biblical hell is not the Greek Hades. In order to consider why I make such a distinction, it will be necessary to first describe the ancient Greek concept of afterlife; next, to compare it with Christian revelation, and then show why the distinction is important.
Hades in Greek Mythology Consisted of Three Regions
There were three regions within mythical Hades: the Asphodel Meadows or Fields of Asphodel, Tartarus, and Elysium. They were the realm, collectively known as the underworld, ruled by the god Hades (Pluto), brother of the gods Zeus (Jupiter) who ruled the sky and the heavens, and Poseidon (Neptune) who ruled the sea. Following their victory in the Titanomachy (a ten year war against the Titans for control of the universe), as their birthrights, Hades received the underworld, Zeus the sky, and Poseidon the sea; but the earth, which had long been the province of Gaia, was open to all three gods concurrently for any actions they wished to carry out.
The Asphodel Meadows
The first region of Hades comprised the Fields of Asphodel (or Asphodel Meadows). In the forecourt of the god’s (Hades, from whom the whole of the Underworld is named) palace, the three judges of the Underworld sit to judge every soul that has died and to determine their eternal fate. If these souls are neither virtuous nor evil, they are returned to the Fields of Asphodel; if evil or impious are sent to Tartarus, or, if extraordinarily good or brave, or if related to a deity, were sent to Elysium with the “blameless heroes”.
The Asphodel Meadows is a place where the vast majority of the dead dwell forever and exist as “shades” – incorporeal, miserable, mournful, lost souls; without purpose, rational thought, or emotion. It was guarded by the three-headed dog Cerberus to prevent them from escaping. So the ancients had no hope for a happy future life. The dead, both great and insignificant, were confined within the Fields of Asphodel when they died, and all floated around, forever in misery. Even the formidable Achilles in Greek mythology, one of the mightiest heroes of them all, languished there, according to Homer.
Tartarus in Greek mythology is a terrifying place. The mythographer Apollodorus describes Tartarus as “a gloomy place in Hades as far distant from Earth, as Earth is distant from the sky”. It was a horrible prison where ferocious monsters (which abound in Greek mythology) and particularly bad criminals were banished and imprisoned, and where the gods placed their rivals after a war. In particular, it is probably more commonly known as the place where the gods of Olympus (the gods commonly known to us today) imprisoned the Titans, from whom they had wrested control of the universe after a ten-year war. It was a place of never-ending fire and torment and, in that respect, closely resembles the Tartarus of the Bible.
The Apostle Peter gives us a glimpse of such a place when he describes the punishment of a group of angels who had sinned in a particularly grievous manner: “For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but delivered them, drawn down by infernal ropes to the lower hell [Greek: Tartaros], unto torments, to be reserved under judgment….” (2 Pet 2:4). These angels, Jude tells us, “….kept not their principality, but forsook their own habitation [and God] hath reserved [them] under darkness in everlasting chains, unto the judgement of the great day” (Jude 6).
Many of the Church Fathers believed that this group of angels are described in Genesis: “Now giants were upon the earth in those days. For after the sons of God [angels] went in to the daughters of men, and they brought forth children, these are the mighty men of old, men of renown….” (DRB). The Fathers understood the sons of God to be angels because their bible was the Septuagint (LXX), and it translates “sons of God” in the text as “angels of God”. Even some of our modern English versions translate similarly. The Revised English Bible has: “In those days as well as later, when the sons of God had intercourse with the daughters of mortals and children were born to them, the Nephilim were on the earth; they were the heroes of old, people of renown”. And the Good News Bible has: “In those days, and even later, there were giants on the earth who were descendants of human women and the heavenly beings. They were the great heroes and famous men of long ago”.
There are other references to these giants in the deuterocanonical books (pejoratively known by Protestants as “apocrypha”). One example is that found in Ecclesiasticus (Wisdom of Sirach): “The ancient giants did not obtain pardon for their sins, who were destroyed trusting to their own strength” (Eccli 16:8 DRB). Another is: “There were the giants, those renowned men that were from the beginning, of great stature, expert in war. The Lord chose not them, neither did they find the way of knowledge: therefore did they perish” (Bar 3:26 DRB). Again: “And from the beginning also when the proud giants perished, the hope of the world [Noah[ fleeing to a vessel, which was governed by thy hand, left to the world seed of generation” (Wisdom of Solomon 14:6).
Elysium, (also known as the Elysian Fields, and the Blessed Isles), was Greek mythology’s version of heaven; it seems to have been a fairly exclusive club at the beginning and not many mortals managed to get there. To be sent to Elysium after death, one had to be either related to the gods, or be a great hero. The majority of Greeks were just like us – neither particularly good nor particularly evil, humanly speaking (this is not the biblical judgment of humanity, of course) – and were thus sent forever to languish forever in the Asphodel Fields.
The Biblical After-world
By way of contrast and comparison, the biblical after-world, when all is said and done, consists also of three places – Heaven and Hell; and a middle place of purgation and purification (named Purgatory by Catholics), located between heaven and hell. The revealed knowledge of Purgatory is found in the book of 2 Maccabees (12:38-45), a pre-Christian Jewish writing which is part of the Catholic and Orthodox canon of Scripture; the Catholic idea is more detailed than the Orthodox. This middle realm is rejected by Protestants, along with Maccabees and the deuterocanonical books as a whole. It is easy to reject a biblical doctrine if you remove the bible passage which teaches or reveals it, as Protestants have done.
Some Definitions and Descriptions
The “Analytical Greek Lexicon” defines hades as “the invisible abode or mansion of the dead; the place of punishment, hell; the lowest place or condition, Matt 11:23; Luke 10:15”.
So that we don’t get the false idea of a wide range of meaning, the lexicon gives only two bible references, as shown. We are not, therefore, meant to think of hades as anything but a place of punishment.
Looking at the two references given in the lexicon’s definition, how can we understand it to mean anything else but a place of punishment? In Matt 11:23-24 (DRB), Jesus says: “And thou Capharnaum, shalt thou be exalted up to heaven? Thou shalt go down even unto hell (hades). For if in Sodom had been wrought the miracles that have been wrought in thee, perhaps it had remained unto this day. But I say unto you, that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee”. And in Luke 10:14-15 Jesus says: “But it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment, than for you. And thou, Capharnaum, which art exalted unto heaven, thou shalt be thrust down to hell (hades)”.
Jesus is warning these towns that something far more terrifying and severe is ahead of them than its inhabitants being condemned to simply lying in the grave (Eccles 9:5-6) for eternity, bad as that would be. He’s warning them of the certainty of hell, as the DRB translates it. This is illustrated in Luke 16:23 where the Rich Man is being tormented in hell (hades); and in Rev 20:13-14 where death and hell (hades) themselves, after delivering up the dead which are in them, will be thrust into Gehenna, the lake of fire.
Most bibles, when translating Acts 2:27, 31, leave hades untranslated because the Greek is a translation of the Hebrew she’ol. But the DRB gets it right in translating hades as hell because the previous verse tells us it is a place of torment. In prophecy, Jesus says, “For this my heart hath been glad, and my tongue hath rejoiced: moreover my flesh also shall rest in hope. Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, nor suffer thy Holy One to see corruption….Foreseeing this, he spoke of the resurrection of Christ. For neither was he left in hell, neither did his flesh see corruption” (Acts 3:26-27 DRB). Here we see that Jesus’ body was in the grave whereas his soul went to hell, the place of torment. Hell, the place of torment and unrest, and the grave (hades), the place of decay and physical corruption, are distinguished from each other in this passage. And the DRB has captured the distinction.
The word “hades” appears in the Greek New Testament (UBS 4th ed., Nestle-Aland 26th ed.) ten times: Matt 11:23; 16:18; Lk 10:15; 16:22; Acts 2:27, 31; Rev 1:18; 6:8; 20:13, 14. In the DRB it is either described or translated as “hell” in all ten of these verses. And when one checks them, it’s easy to see why they were translated thus. That “hades” is what we understand as hell as a place of punishment is clear from the way it is used. It is far more than simply lying in the grave. Admittedly, hades is synonymous with Hebrew she’ol (the grave), but it is not a resting place for unbelievers and sinners – there is no rest for the wicked after death. Even the OT word she’ol confirms this in its usage: “The wicked shall be turned into hell, all the nations that forget God” (Ps 9:17). It is more than the grave because it is here used as a place of judgment and condemnation. Everybody goes to the grave, so the words of this psalm mean nothing if they’re not referring to a place of punishment and torment. From the moment the eyelids of the wicked close in death they awake in hell and are tormented in flames for evermore. Dante, in the section on hell in his “Divine Comedy”, has a sign over the gates of hell which reads, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here”. Sobering and terrifying thought!
The Apostles Creed states clearly and succinctly that Jesus “…was crucified, dead, and buried: He descended into hell; on the third day He rose again from the dead…” And when his soul was reunited with his body, which had been kept incorrupt, and he ascended to heaven, we’re told: “Ascending on high, he led captivity captive; he gave gifts to men” (Eph 4:8). And he now possesses “the keys of death and of hell” (Rev 1:18 DRB).
The Valley of Gehenna was the place where Hebrew children in the time of the kings were sacrificed to Molech (or Moloch). The godly King Josiah deliberately defiled and desecrated Gehenna so that it could never again be used as a place of child sacrifice (2 Kings 23:4-14), and it was turned into a garbage dump that was kept perpetually burning; a place of infamy and disgust. These never-dying flames became an image of the fires of hell, and Gehenna thus had come to mean “hell” by the time of Christ (see Matt 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; 25:30, 46; Mk 9:43, 45, 47; Lk 12:5; Jas 3:6; and in each of these references it is either translated or characterised as “hell” in the DRB).
Hell (Tartarus): Prison of the Fallen Angels
Tartarus corresponds more with that place described in 2 Pet 2:4 and Jude 6, as I’ve shown, the place where the rebellious angels who had sexual relations with human women (Gen 6:4) were sent, there to await the judgment.
Hades: The Bottomless Pit
The pit, the bottomless pit, the abyss, and the pit of the abyss, are one and the same, and in the book of Revelation it is always associated with devils (Rev 9:1, 2, 11; 11:7; 17:8; 20:1,3); it is a place of fire and thick smoke (9:2); and seems to be the abode of devils (9:11; cf Matt 16:19 and Lk 8:27-31); and also a prison (9:1-2; 20:1,3); and thus corresponds to the other descriptions of hell i.e. Gehenna and Tartarus.
The Confusion Rationalised
Are there then four different hells? No. There is just one prison, one place of punishment, and the different places named in the NT are all contained in the one abode – Hades, the biblical hell. Each of the places named under the heading of Hades in this article share in common the characteristics of punishment, inextinguishable fire, and torment. Only Satan (the dragon) and devils (fallen angels), the beast and the false prophet, those who bear the mark of the beast, and unbelieving human beings will be sent there to be tormented forever. They are eternally separated from God. Some of those fallen angels are kept, even at this time, in everlasting chains until the judgment (Jude 6); some are released temporarily when God determines so that they will inflict physical pain and torment on ungodly humanity as part of God’s judgment on sinful humanity (Rev 9); and unbelieving humans go there as soon as they die, to be tormented (2 Thess 2:10-12; Lk 16:19-31; Mk 9:44-48 etc.).
We need to understand that the book of Revelation is three genres of literature: letters (literal), prophetic, and especially apocalyptic, in nature; thus it is highly symbolic in places, with lurid word-pictures of strange and fantastic and impossible creatures, such as a woman with a cup filled with vileness riding a dragon (Rev 17:1-6); locusts in the shape of horses, with hair like women and tails like scorpions with stings in them (Rev 9:7-10); earth-destroying cosmic events and massive earthquakes (Rev 6:12-14; 8:8-13); a bottomless pit belching out flames and thick smoke, with a huge door opened by an angel with a key (Rev 9:1-3); a demonic army consisting of 200,000,000 riders on horses which have heads like lions and which breathe out “fire and smoke and brimstone” (Rev 9:3-11; 13-21), and many more. So this, coupled with the fact that the bible doesn’t go into specific detail about what lies beyond the grave, except to tell us that hell is a place to be avoided at all costs (Mk 9:43-48; Matt 5:29-30), makes it impossible to accurately depict or understand what lies beyond our human vision and understanding. It is a place to be avoided at all costs.
Thus there will always be a measure of confusion about the specifics of the afterlife as we read the little in the bible that is given to us; sufficient for us is it to know that we can repent of our sins and turn to Christ in faith, and thus live for ever in bliss; or we can live now as if he doesn’t exist, and see and experience for ourselves after we die what hell is really like – but if we get to that stage, it’s too late and there is no coming back: “For if we sin wilfully after having the knowledge of the truth, there is now left no sacrifice for sins, But a certain dreadful expectation of judgment, and the rage of a fire which shall consume the adversaries….It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb 10:26-27, 31).
Christian Revelation, not Pagan Greek Mythology
So we have seen that Hades in Christian revelation is not a place where the unhappy souls of the dead, righteous or not, flit around forever, but is a place of torment of unbelieving sinners. The writers of Scripture, “the holy men of God [who] spoke, inspired by the Holy Ghost” (2 Pet 1:21) were not Greek; they were Jewish Christians; thus their worldview and their understanding of the spiritual and unseen realm was Christian with Old Testament Jewish background; and their concept of the afterlife was Christian, not the pagan concept found in Greek mythology and poetry.
The Christian concept of the spiritual realms which exists unseen is just that – Christian. It is an “other-world” view which was revealed by Jesus to the apostles and through them to the Church. We see this, for example, in Jesus’ revelation to John: “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him….and signified, sending by his angel to his servant John…” (Rev 1:1; see 2 Tim 3:16). It was revelation which was given to Jesus by the Father (Jn 8:28; 12:49-50; Rev 1:1; and see Jn 3:11-12).
Jesus, who created all things (Col 1:16), which also incorporates the invisible realm, gives us a view of the after-world which, while sharing some of the elements of Greek mythology, is nevertheless very different to it, and it is not mythological. In Jesus’ story, Abraham told the Rich Man, who was suffering in hell, in torment and punishment for his sinful life, while Lazarus was at peace, resting in Abraham’s bosom, “between us and you, there is fixed a great chaos; so that they who would pass from hence to you cannot, nor from thence come hither” (Lk 16:26). Here is a contrast between Greek myth and Christian revelation. Where the Greek Tartarus as the place of torment was as far beneath Hades as the earth is beneath the sky, we’re told, Jesus tells us that Lazarus and the Rich Man could not only see each other, but could also talk to each other, so close are the two realms to each other; and yet it is impossible for anybody to pass to the other because there is an impassable gulf between them.
And the place where the disembodied spirit of the Rich Man lay was a place of torment and punishment. He is still there today and awaits the time when his body, soul, and spirit, will be reunited in a new form and then cast into Gehenna, the lake of fire, there to be tormented forever (Rev 14:11; 20:8, 10); but where Lazarus rested was a state of bliss and he awaits reunification with his resurrection body, and living with God. It is akin to the Greek Elysium in that he will be eternally happy; but mythical Elysium is a far inferior place to heaven, and God is not there. However, Lazarus was there in that blissful state, not because he was related to a god, or because he had performed extraordinary feats of heroism, as in the Greek concept, but because of the grace and mercy of God. Lazarus was a sinner, just as the Rich Man was, and as such he deserved hell just as much as he. And he was so poor that his only source of food was the crumbs that fell from the Rich Man’s table; so undernourished and unhealthy that he was covered in sores – hardly a candidate for Elysium! But at some time and in some way, Lazarus had committed himself to God and trusted in him, and God would not forget this.
The Rich Man’s suffering as described by Jesus was the beginning of unending torment, while Lazarus received comfort and was ministered to in the “bosom of Abraham”, a symbolic term indicating rest and comfort, and sometimes referred to as Paradise. Jesus promised the dying thief: “…this day thou shalt be with me in paradise” (Lk 23:43); and when he died and rose, he went to Paradise and led the “blessed dead” out and took them with him to heaven.
“Amen, amen, I say unto you, that he that heareth my word, and believeth him that sent me, hath life everlasting; and cometh not into judgment, but is passed from death to life. Amen, amen, I say unto you, that the hour cometh, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and they that hear shall live….Wonder not at this; for the hour cometh, wherein all that are in the graves shall hear the voice of the Son of God. And they that have done good things shall come forth unto the resurrection of life; but they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of judgment” (Jn 5:24-25; 28-29).
“Analytical Greek Lexicon”, Samuel Bagster and Sons, 72, Marylebone Lane, London, W.1, reprinted 1967, 1971.
Unless otherwise stated, all bible references are from Douay Rheims Bible, published by Baronius Press, London, 2010.