Hades or Hell in the Bible?  The King James Bible Gets it Right

Of the various readings 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 most 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.  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. 

Hades (or the Fields of Asphodel) 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 just floated around, forever in sorrow and misery.  Even the formidable Achilles in Greek mythology, a demigod and one of the mightiest of them all, languished there, according to Homer.

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’re 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 Jesus says: “And thou Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shall be brought down to hell (Gk: hades): for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until 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, Capernaum, which art exalted to heaven, 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 KJV 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.  By doing so, they leave it to the reader to translate and understand the concept.  This stems from the wicked men who first “revised” the Authorised Version or King James Bible (Westcott, Hort, Lightfoot, Trench et al) but in reality and by stealth and deception produced a totally new version (the Revised Version 1881) and a totally new and heavily corrupted Catholic Greek text (Vaticanus and Sinaiticus), in order to introduce unbiblical concepts into the Church of England.  Concepts such as no eternal punishment in hell, the supremacy of the Pope and the Catholic Church, the theory of evolution, denying the sufficiency of salvation by faith alone in the finished work of Christ on the cross, and undermining the doctrine of the deity of Christ, among a host of other essential doctrines of Protestantism and true Christianity and the Gospel. 

But the KJV gets it right in translating hades as hell because the previous verse tells us it is a place of torment.  In prophecy, Jesus says, “…thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption….He seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh see corruption” (Acts 3:26-27).  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 KJV has captured the distinction.

Hell (Hades)

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; 16:23; Acts 2:27, 31; Rev 1:18; 6:8; 20:13, 14, in all of which the NIV has Hades, except Acts 2:27 , 31 where it foully has “realm of the dead”.  In the KJV it is either described or translated as “hell” in all ten of these verses.  That “hades” is what we understand as hell, a place of torment and never-ending 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, And all the nations that forget God” (Ps 9:17 KJV).  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 has an inscription over the gates of hell which reads, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here”

Until recently, when the Church began to “update” the bible and the liturgies, the Apostles Creed stated 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 he now possesses “the keys of hell and of death” (Rev 1:18).

Hell (Gehenna)

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 KJV).

Hell (Tartarus): Prison of the Fallen Angels   

Tartarus corresponds more with that place described in 2 Pet 2:4 and Jude 6, a place of punishment 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, darkness, 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 fallen angels are kept, even at this time, in everlasting chains until the judgment (Jude 6); some will be released temporarily when God determines so 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.). 

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).  Thus there will always be a measure of mystery 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.

Christian Revelation, not Pagan Greek Mythology

The writers of the New Testament, “holy men of God” (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.  It is an “other-world” view which was revealed by Jesus to the apostles and through them to the Church.    

Jesus, who created all things (Col 1:16), which also incorporates the invisible realm, gives us a view of the after-world 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, “between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither would they pass from thence” (Lk 16:26); while Lazarus was at peace, resting in Abraham’s bosom.  Here is a contrast between Greek myth and Christian revelation.  Where the Greek Tartarus/Gehenna as the place of torment was as far beneath Hades as the earth is beneath the sky, as the Greek poet Apollodorus tells us, Jesus tells us that Lazarus and the Rich Man could see 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.

The disembodied spirit of the Rich Man 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. 

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 shalt thou 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.


“Analytical Greek Lexicon”, Samuel Bagster and Sons, 72, Marylebone Lane, London, W.1, reprinted 1967, 1971.

All scripture references are from the King James Version of the Bible.