September 2013—April 2014
On Hell – Introduction
On Hell Part 1 of 4 – Setting the stage: Life and Death
On Hell Part 2 of 4 – Clarifying words: Sheol, Hades and Gehenna
On Hell Part 3 of 4 – Meditating on hell: The Lord’s justice and mercy
On Hell Part 4 of 4 – Meditating on hell: Jesus, Jonah, and Hades; or reflecting on the depth of God’s mercy
On Hell: Conclusion
On Hell – Addendum 1 of 2: Hell in The Apostles’ Creed and the Philokalia
On Hell – Addendum 2 of 2: Further Questions and Considerations
In reading volume 1 of The Philokalia, several Church Fathers recommend, in so many words, meditating on hell. When I first read that a few years ago I thought that was a crazy idea. Why on earth would anyone do that?! Well, last year for a class, I did just that. The assignment was: what does the Bible teach and what should we believe about hell? By the end of that paper, I found that several things had been clarified for me, I found that modern translations of Greek often muddy things up for us English readers, and, most importantly, I found myself weeping in awe of the Lord’s love and holiness. In this four-part post, I hope to share some insights that came from my meditating on hell. (Unless otherwise noted, I’ll be quoting Scripture using the NIV ).
I have found that we cannot adequately speak of hell without also discussing life and death or salvation and judgment. So we must ask: What is salvation? To be more specific: From what and to what are we saved? A typical way of thinking about salvation is this: upon death, some people go to heaven where they will be forever with God in eternal bliss, but most people, upon death, go to hell where their souls are tortured forever and ever. ‘Popular’ images of hell usually depict Satan and his minions joyfully doing horrid things to those poor souls resigned to hell. I once saw a cartoon strip that, I think, was supposed to scare people into believing in Jesus. It begins with a teenage kid committing suicide and finding himself bound in hell with demons surrounding him. The kid asks if he’s there because he committed suicide; the demons taunt him: “No, you’re here because you didn’t believe in Jesus!” (insert maniacal laughter). Now, Jesus saves: yes! Absolutely! “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). My question again, however is: from what and to what? Is the cartoon caricature correct? Do Satan and his minions control hell and torture lost souls upon their deaths? What does the Bible actually teach about this?
I looked at all of the New Testament (NT) occurrences of the verb “to save” (sozo) and the noun “salvation” (soteria), and they never occur in conjunction with the word for hell (gehenna)! [We’ll explore this more in the next post]. Many times, the words “save” and “salvation” are not explained; it’s assumed we understand their meaning. In these places, a deeply personal sense or a final, end-of-history sense is suggested, but what that entails is not spelled out (e.g., Luke 13:23; Acts 2:47; 2 Cor 1:6). After reading all the words’ occurrences, it seems to me, that when salvation is explained it very much has something to do with our physical bodies! For example, it often refers to being saved from sickness, bodily harm, or death (e.g., Mark 5:23, 28, 34; Luke 1:71; Heb 5:7). That is, it is a salvation to life and wholeness. By “wholeness” I mean the Hebrew concept of Shalom: well-being of body, mind, and soul; inner and outward peace; and life lived fully! Salvation is also spoken of in contrast to killing, destroying and judging (e.g., Mark 3:4; John 10:9-10; 1 Cor 1:18; Php 1:28). And, salvation is found in Jesus—believing in him and his gospel (e.g., Luke 8:12; 19:9, 10; John 10:9; Acts 2:21; 4:12; Rom 1:16; 5:10; Eph 1:13; 2 Tim 2:10; 3:15). Putting all of this together: in Christ, we are saved from death and God’s wrath, and this is a bodily salvation (e.g., Rom 5:9; 1 Thes 5:9). Most notably stated, we are waiting for “the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved” (Rom 8:23-24).
The first canonical occurrence of the verb “to save” in the NT sets the stage for the entire NT: “you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). And this, necessarily, is connected to the above observations, because “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:23). From all of this, it seems to me that salvation, in the biblical sense, overwhelmingly has to do with having life – true, full, whole life – rather than death.
Salvation to eternal life is found in Jesus Christ who frees us from death. “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor 15:26), but Scripture does not speak the same way of hell. If the enemy of life is death, what’s hell got to do with it? Read on; we’ll get there…
If death is the opposite of life, then death, by nature is non-life. That is, most naturally, death is the cessation of life; it is non-being. And yet, the Bible shows that some part of us ‘lives on’ when our bodies cease their natural processes (e.g., 1 Sam 28:7-19). It seems that, just as in the Garden story Adam and Eve did not die immediately upon eating the fruit of that tree, so too, non-existence is not actually what happens when we ‘pass on.’ In God’s kindness and generosity he extends this mercy to us, providing some kind of covering (cf. Gen 3:21). There is a state of being that isn’t non-existence, but it’s also not quite life; it’s some sort of intermediate state.
In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word sheol (often translated as “the grave”) is the place of the dead, the underworld, and it is characterized as being absent of the presence and worship of the Lord God (cf. Ps 30; Isa 38:18) since he is the God of heaven and earth (cf. Gen 24:3; Deut 10:14; 26:15; Ps 11:4; Isa 66:1; etc.), not the underworld. Sometimes Sheol is even thought of as a hiding place from God (cf. Job 14:13; Isa 28:15), though the Lord can still reach even to Sheol (cf. Ps 139:7-8; Isa 28:18). In Greek, sheol is translated as hades. Evagrios of Pontus defines hades as, “the ignorance of the rational nature, when the deprivation of the vision of God occurs” (cp. Matt 27:47//Mark 15:34). Hades is Sheol, where God is not seen, but this is not hell. And this is where English translations often confuse the issue…
The Greek word gehenna occurs 12 times in the New Testament (NT). All but one occurrence of the word is found on the lips of Jesus in the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In the NIV (1984), gehenna is always translated as “hell.” Hades occurs 10 times in the NT. In Revelation, Hades is always paired with Death, usually personified. In the NIV (1984), five times hades is simply transliterated (Matt 16:18; Rev 1:18; 6:8; 20:13, 14), twice it’s translated as “the depths”—but in NIV (2011) it’s “Hades”—(Matt 11:23//Luke 10:15), in Acts 2:27, 31 it’s translated as “the grave”—but in NIV (2011) it’s “the realm of the dead”—and in Luke 16:23 it is confusingly rendered “hell”—though this was corrected in 2011. So what is Gehenna and how is it different than Hades? The Greek gehenna is actually a transliteration of a place name in Hebrew: The Valley of Hinnom. The Old Testament records human sacrifices being done in this valley (Cf. 2 Chron 28:3; 33:6 // 2 Kgs 16:3; 21:6; Jer 7:31) for which it was condemned by the Lord through his prophets with threats of future destruction (Cf. Jer 2:23; 7:31-32; 19; 32:35. Cp. Isa 30:30, 33; 31:9; 66:24).
Gehenna, by name, only occurs 12 times in the NT (i.e., Matt 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5; Jas 3:6). This has led some to believe that it is unimportant or at least overstated. But looking at the word’s origin as well as its use, it seems that the word gehenna (a.k.a. hell) is actually a symbolic reference for Jews—including Jesus—of the Day of Judgment, which will be wrought by the Lord himself, after/at the Resurrection of the Dead (cf. Dan 12:2; Rev 20:11-15). Therefore: 1) being that this Day has not yet taken place, no one is currently ‘in hell,’ but in an intermediate state, and 2) Satan is not ‘in charge’ of hell; God is! The cartoon caricatures of hell are incorrect! In contrast, Jesus says, “the eternal fire [was] prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt 25:41; cp. Rev 20:10-15).
In the U.S., hell is usually thought of as the antithesis of heaven. Heaven and hell are paired, but you only get one or the other. However, in Scripture, heaven is actually frequently paired with earth, not antithetically, but to signify the whole of creation (e.g., Gen 1:1; 2:1, 4; 14:19, 22; Deut 4:39; Pss 73:9, 25; 89:11; 115:15; Matt 6:10; 24:35; Acts 4:24; 17:24; Eph 1:10; etc.). In the Bible heaven is sometimes paired with an opposite, but it is never Gehenna (i.e., hell) but Sheol/Hades (cf. Job 11:8; Ps 139:8; Amos 9:2; Matt 11:23//Luke10:15; Matt 16:17-19; cp. Gen 7:11; 8:2; 2 Sam 22:5-17//Ps 18:4-16; Prov 15:24)! Heaven is portrayed as God’s throne and also where the righteous – those who have called upon the name of our Lord Jesus, the Messiah – await resurrection to eternal life, whereas Sheol/Hades is where the wicked await resurrection to judgment (see Part 4). Hades is an intermediate state, but, unlike heaven, it is also a provisional and temporary place. That is, Hades and Death will be destroyed on the Day of Judgment (cf. Rev 20:14; cp. Isa 25:8; 1 Cor 15:26) because there will be no place for either of them in the age to come where there will be “no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things [will have] passed away” (Rev 21:4).
As we saw in Part 2, hell (gehenna) is symbolic of the coming Judgment itself. Hades is a temporary holding place, a prison of sorts, but Gehenna will be God’s final, decisive act of Judgment. The “lake of fire” does not seem to be in Hades; rather it is the very ‘place’ that Death and Hades are “thrown into,” making them “no more” (cf. Rev 20:14; 21:4). Death will ‘go to hell’! It will also be the devil’s ‘place’ of eternal torment (cf. Rev 20:10), but for humans, that fire is described as “the second death” wrought upon anyone whose “name was not found written in the book of life” (Rev 20:14-15). There is more that can be said (e.g., is the idea of everlasting human torment in accord with God’s character, anyway?), but I’ve become convinced that this “second death” is truly non-life and all that means (see Part 1), that is destruction, annihilation, non-existence, rather than the usual view of ceaseless torment of human souls. Consider Matt 10:28 where it is most clearly stated: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in [gehenna].” (Check out a few other texts of destruction, and see what you think: Matt 7:13; Php 1:28; 3:19; 1 Thes 5:3; 2 Thes 1:9!; James 4:12!; 2 Pet 2:12; 3:7). The same Greek word usually translated “destroy” (apollumi) is translated as “perish” when the verb is in the middle voice, as in: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16; cp: John 10:28). It’s right there in this well beloved summary of the gospel! In his love and mercy, God offers us eternal life in Jesus Christ, without whom we would be destroyed in the Judgment—we would utterly perish when Jesus returns and the refining fire upon the earth is finally kindled (cf. Luke 12:49; also Mal 4; Matt 3:7-12; 2 Thes 1:7; Heb 12:29).
So what is hell? It is the coming Judgment of God upon sin and death, destroying Hades and those who would continue in their rebellion against God rather than accept the depths of God’s mercy found in Christ (if you haven’t, read C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce!). To meditate upon hell is to meditate on the justice of the Thrice Holy Lord, particularly on his righteous Judgment to come. But it is also to meditate on God’s “kindness, forbearance and patience” which, if not rejected, leads us to repentance (cf. Rom 2:4). Said differently, the reason why this Judgment (i.e., hell) has not yet been rendered is because “He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9). “Our Lord’s patience means salvation” (2 Pet 3:15), which, as we saw in Part 1, means life – resurrection life eternal, in Jesus Christ! Read on for the good news about Hades.
Sheol/Hades is a place of darkness and despair but not quite nonexistence. It is the place of “shades” (cf. Ps 88:10; Isa 14:9), of human beings who are not quite alive, but exist in the shadow of death. It is a subhuman existence. Hades, though not a good place to be, is itself – I think – a merciful provision of God. In pride, we wanted to seek life apart from God, and he granted it, though such a state (i.e., life without God) is impossible for any creature. As is often the case, God gives us our ‘druthers’ so that we can see what doing things our own way will get us. But then Jesus calls us to repentance and belief in the gospel (cf. Mark 1:15). He calls us to himself and to life (cf. John 10:1-21). And I’ve come to believe that Jesus, the Light of the World (John 8:12; 9:5; cp. John 1:4-9; 12:35-36), didn’t just appear to those on the earth and call them, but indeed “the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned” (Matt 4:16//Isa 9:2; cp. Isa 49:6!).
Living without Christ is to live under the “dominion of darkness” (Col 1:13-14), in the realm of death, but Jesus says that those who hear his voice and believe his Father have actually “crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24). He then immediately says, “I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live….Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned” (John 5:25, 28, 29). In John 10, Jesus speaks more of his voice being heard, leading his sheep and also calling others to make them one flock. Perhaps he’s speaking of living Jews and Gentiles, at least on one level. But immediately before and after saying he’s got other sheep to call (10:16), he talks about laying down his life for his sheep and taking it back up again (10:15; 17-18)! Jesus’ dying is connected to calling his sheep. Then speaking to those who do not believe him, he says, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27-28). In Matt 10:11-12, Jesus speaks of pulling sheep out of ‘a pit’ on the Sabbath…the one full day of the week Jesus was in the grave (cp. John 5:8-21)! I think Jesus made it possible for those who had not previously heard the gospel (cf. Gal 3:8) to hear it. In short, I’ve come to truly believe that Jesus descended to the dead, that is Hades/Sheol, and did something there!
Understanding Hades to be different than Gehenna (see Parts 2 & 3) helps shed great light on “the sign of Jonah” (Matt 12:39-41), which is far more powerful than I previously thought. Jonah is inside the fish “for three days and nights” (Jonah 1:17). From inside the fish, Jonah says he’s in “the depths of [sheol]” (2:2), from which he’s spit out (2:10) and commanded by the Lord, “Arise!” (3:2; In the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament [the Septuagint], this word is the same word used by Pharaoh in the Exodus account (Exod 12:31), and in the NT, Jesus uses this word to teach about his resurrection [cf. Mark 8:31; 9:9; 10:34]!). Jonah then preaches of the coming destruction of Nineveh, “a very important city—a visit required three days” (3:3), paralleling his time in the fish/Sheol, and “the Ninevites believed God” (3:5), urgently called upon God (3:8; cp. 2:2!), giving up their evil ways, and were then spared in God’s compassion (3:10)! Jesus was “in the heart of the earth” three days like Jonah (Matt 12:40). What was he doing?
Through my study and meditation on hell, I’ve come to believe that Jesus preached the good news to all those in Hades/Sheol (that is the plain sense reading of these two often dismissed or reinterpreted passages: 1 Pet 3:18-19; 4:5-6) and set the captives free (cf. Luke 4:18-19/Isa 61:1-2; Eph 4:8; cp. Isa 42:6-7), making a way for those there to escape before its promised destruction per Rev 20:14. This does not necessarily mean that all who were there believed Christ and followed him to freedom, but that Christ made a way out—through faith in him—where there previously was none. As Paul says: “Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living” (Rom 14:9).
As the Christ Hymn in Phil 2:6-11 beautifully confesses, Jesus underwent a double descent, a double humbling and emptying of himself: first by becoming human, and then by dying. With the above understanding, we might say that he emptied himself first of the ‘form’ of God (Php 2:6), and then even of the ‘form’ of being fully human (2:7) by becoming obedient to death (2:8) even as, in both cases, he was enlivened by the Spirit (cf. Luke 4:14-21; 1 Pet 3:18) to proclaim to those imprisoned by sin and death. Jesus was wholly obedient to the Father’s commission, even to the point of death on a cross (Php 2:8),
Therefore, God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. ~Php 2:9-11
“Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out” (Rom 11:33)! Despite my initial reservations about why anyone would meditate on hell (see Introduction), doing so has humbled me and opened my eyes more and more to the Lord’s inscrutable justice and unfathomable mercy. “And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ” (Eph 3:17-18; cp. Rom 8:38-39; Eph 4:9-10). God is holy. God is love. God is a consuming fire. I believe the above discussion allows us to maintain all three assertions simultaneously (see Addendum 2, Q4). Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, is a gracious judge who desires that all humankind would repent and find life in him, which will be fully realized at the resurrection. And yet, many will reject the Lord’s love and mercy, and in the end, the all-knowing Lord, Creator of all, will say to some, “I never knew you. Away from me…” (Matt 7:23). He who has ears to hear, let him hear! May this understanding bring us to our knees in reverent fear, worshipping the Lord in love and humility, and bring us to our neighbors with the good news of Jesus Christ. By better understanding Gehenna and Hades, and by regaining a more apostolic theology of Christ’s descent to Hades, Christians can confidently bear witness to the Holy Lord of Righteous Love whose love is not feeble, nor justice arbitrary.
I’ve never read Dante’s Divine Comedy, but whenever I hear the word “inferno,” it usually comes along with descriptors like “blazing,” “raging,” or “towering.” The Apple Dictionary provides two definitions: 1. a large fire that is dangerously out of control. 2. hell. I don’t know Latin, but I love words and etymology. Apple tells me that the origin of “inferno” is from the Latin infernus meaning “below, underground.” The word has nothing etymologically to do with fire, but locale! The Apostles’ Creed includes the phrase that has been translated into English in one of two ways, “he descended into hell” or “he descended to the dead.” As it turns out, the Latin behind this phrase is inferno. We confess that Jesus descended to inferno. Given what we’ve seen about the nature of hell (gehenna), it would be impossible to actually ‘go’ there presently, since it is a symbol of God’s future and final judgment on sin and death. Hell isn’t so much a place as it is a future divine action: God’s wrath. Again, I don’t know Latin, and I don’t have a Latin Bible Concordance, but looking at the Vulgate (i.e., St. Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible) in a few places where I know the Hebrew word sheol is used (see Part 2), I found it had been translated as inferno just as the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament) translates sheol as hades! “I believe” with the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus “descended to [the place of] the dead” before rising again. As I hope to have shown in Part 4, this confessional belief is actually scriptural and not a later fanciful departure from the faith handed down by the apostles. And while the PC (USA)’s Book of Confessions (2004) says, “the Apostles’ Creed played no role in Eastern Orthodoxy” (p. 6), this belief is not something unique to the Latin/Western Church, as we’ll see next.
If you happen to have a copy of the English translation of the first volume of The Philokalia (Faber and Faber, 1983), you might want to go get it and have a pen handy. (If you have never read the Philokalia, you may want to skip the rest of Addendum 1). There are six places (at least that I’ve found) where hades is unfortunately – misleadingly – translated as “hell.” The (mis)translations are at the very top of p36; on p114 in paragraphs 61 and 62; twice in the middle of p156; and paragraph 68 on p314 (this last one is quoting Jonah 2:2 [see Parts 2 & 4]). The Greek Church Fathers carefully distinguish between “reason (dianoia)” and “intellect (nous),” so it’s hard to imagine they would use hades and gehenna interchangeably. And as it turns out, they don’t! Let us now hear St. Mark the Ascetic more clearly: Writing to Nicolas, Mark instructs him and us to “continually keep in mind the great humiliation which the Lord took upon Himself in His ineffable love for us” (155-6), including “crucifixion; death; the three-day burial; the descent into hades. Then keep in mind all that has come from these sufferings: the resurrection from the dead; the liberation from hades and from death of those who were raised with the Lord; the ascension to the heavens” etc. (156). What a difference this makes! St. Mark is exactly in line with the apostolic witness and the Church’s confession rather than implying that Christ ‘went to hell’ for us or that hell is a present state of being from which people may be liberated (see Part 2).
In “On the Spiritual Law,” St. Mark also quotes Prov. 15:11 from the Septuagint: “Hades and perdition [apoleia (destruction/annihilation)] are manifest to the Lord” (114 [paragraph 61]), and then he explains what this means in the next paragraph: “Hades is ignorance, for both are dark; and perdition [apoleia] is forgetfulness, for both involve extinction [apolonto]” (see Parts 2 & 3). As you may recall from Part 2, Evagrios the Solitary defines hades, essentially, as a place ignorant of the vision of God. In his “Teaching on Asceticism and Stillness,” Evagrios enjoins us to “Call to mind, also, what is even now going on in hades. Think of the suffering, the bitter silence, the terrible moaning, the great fear and agony, the dread of what is to come, the unceasing pain, the endless weeping” (36, emphasis added). Have you ever suffered psychologically (in your soul and/or mind) because of a fearful anticipation? While there is suffering going on in Hades, Evagrios does not say it is at the hands of demons, like so many cartoons picture ‘hell.’ No. In addition to ignorance of God, the emphasized words of the above quote highlight that what makes Hades truly unbearable is some awareness of the actual Judgment to come (cp. Luke 16:23; and Philokalia, p234).
There are a few places in The Philokalia where the word gehenna is not in the Greek but is nonetheless signified and – perhaps appropriately – rendered “hell” in the English (e.g., middle of p36; and p128 [paragraph 38]). “Hell” is correctly used to translate gehenna on pages 127 (paragraph 22), 137 (paragraph 141), 183 (paragraph 123), and 216 (quoting Matt 23:15). At the bottom of p74, gehenna is simply transliterated. A brief survey shows that these occurrences all contrast hell with the kingdom of God, that is, the coming inheritance of the wicked and righteous, respectively (cf. Matt 25:34, 41, 46). God himself brings about both. There are two more occurrences of gehenna I’ve found, the first of which clarifies what we’ve just said.
John Cassian (fourth century disciple of Evagrios [see above]), quoting Abba Moses states: “When we…always bear in mind what is to come – the kingdom of heaven, the Gehenna of fire and all God’s works – our wicked thoughts diminish and find no place” (97, emphasis added). That is: meditate on God’s coming reward and judgment! A few pages later, Cassian quotes Abba Serapion who says that failure in “the spiritual art…which is understood only through purity of heart…brings, not temporary loss, but the soul’s destruction and eternal death” (104). The work attributed to St. Antony the Great likewise claims that the soul can die (336 [paragraph 45]). Remember Matt 10:28 (see Part 3)? Whom alone are we to fear? The One who can destroy both body and soul in Gehenna. St. Hesychios, similar to Cassian, says that watchfulness “is produced by fear of gehenna and fear of God…” (163 [paragraph 7]). Fearing Gehenna is fearing nothing other than God’s wrath, and therefore goes hand in hand with fearing God himself.
Having said that, there are two other places in The Philokalia (as far as I’ve found) that use the word “hell” inappropriately in a different way! In Hesychios, we find the phrase “the lords of hell” (163 [paragraph 4]). How can this be, since the Lord Almighty alone is ‘in charge’ of hell (see Part 2)? Similarly, in Diadochos we read “the rulers of the netherworld” (295 [last paragraph]). The English translation of Diadochos’ phrase is closer to the Greek than the translation of Hesychios. The Greek of both passages are very similar, and in neither is gehenna or hades used; rather both Hesychios and Diadochos use tartaros. I know very little about this, so I will say only very little. 1) According to some versions of Greek mythology, Tartarus is the location of the Titans bound by Zeus who defeated them. 2) The only time it appears in the New Testament is 2 Pet 2:4: “For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but committed them to Tartarus in fetters of gloom to be kept until [the] judgment…” (my translation; cp. Jude 6). Unless I’m horribly mistaken, Tartarus, in these two passages in The Philokalia, is not so much ruled by these beings, but, as in 2 Peter, both Hesychios and Diadochos understand Tartarus to be populated by a class of (disobedient) angelic beings called “rulers” or “princes” (Gk. archontas; cf. John 12:31; Eph 2:2) not “lords” (Gk. kurioi). The 2 Pet 2:4 usage seems to be what St. John of Karpathos is suggesting with his reference to Tartarus (not Gehenna, despite its translation as “hell”) in text 96 of his “One Hundred Texts for the Monks of India.” As is, the translation reads: “your enemies are ‘clothed with shame’ (Ps 109:29) and with the darkness of hell” (p320).
(This final paragraph, in a way, begins the next Addendum.) Just like some say of Hades and Paradise (see Addendum 2), perhaps we may think of Tartarus as a low-lying level of Heaven. This helps make sense of why, after the Judgment, there will be a “new heavens” along with a new earth (cf. Isa 65:17; 66:22; 2 Pet 3:13; Rev 21:1)! Even Heaven needs purgation and renewal if it contains within it these darker levels (cf. Job 15:15; Isa 24:21)! This is also the only way I can make sense of how “the rulers of Tartarus” is used in The Philokalia, because it seems that these Fathers are saying that just as prisoners in a jail may taunt, jeer or maybe even grab at people passing through their corridors, hindering their progress toward their destination, so these imprisoned beings seek to verbally accost, discredit and pull down the otherwise heaven-bound soul. Fear not these bound and condemned beings, but continuously call upon the Lord Jesus Christ, our avenger in life and death (cf. 188 [paragraph 149]), and you will be able to boldly confront your accuser in the name of Christ, which he cannot withstand (cf. 303-304 [paragraph 25]).
Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God,
and the authority of his Christ.
For the accuser of our brothers,
who accuses them before our God day and night,
has been thrown down.
They overcame him
by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony;
they did not love their lives so much
as to shrink from death. ~ Rev 12:10-11
Warning: if you have not read all the previous posts on hell, please turn back! Go no further! I adjure you not to proceed to these further questions and considerations until you’ve read the more foundational scriptural concepts as per the previous posts. Even if you have read the above, you may have more questions. So do I! I do not promise definitive answers in what follows. I offer several questions for you to consider and prayerfully contemplate, as well as some of my own thoughts on them. The main four posts, to the best of my understanding, are solid exposition of how the Holy Bible actually distinguishes between Hades and Gehenna, and how it describes each. The first Addendum offers clarification of some ancient writings in light of scriptural considerations. The below, however, is not in the same category. To be sure, I offer the below considerations in light of and on the foundation of all of the above, but some of it is more abstract. I must make the disclaimer that some (not a lot) of the below is absolute speculation. I try to make it clear when I am offering a speculation rather than a consideration. Please, please, please do not confuse the below speculations with the above scripturally solid ground or other divine “utterances of grace” (Philokalia, p. 275). Diadochos would rather you “spend most of our time in prayer, in singing psalms and reading the Holy Scriptures” (ibid.).
Q1: Before Jesus came, what was the status of the dead Patriarchs, Prophets and Saints? What about any unfaithful Israelites?
Based on the parable of beggar Lazarus and the unnamed Rich Man in Luke 16, it seems that those with implicit faith in the promised Messiah of God (e.g., Abraham and Lazarus) are separate from, though not entirely isolated from, those who trust in other things (e.g., themselves or wealth; Ps 49) regardless of their Abrahamic lineage (cp. Luke 16:24 with 3:8). In Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, there are two important things in v. 24 to note for your consideration: 1. The Rich Man does not actually call out to God for mercy (cp. Luke 18:13-14) but to Abraham, and 2. The Rich Man never asks to leave Hades…rather he wants Lazarus to come and serve him there! While this is one of the most explicit scriptural depictions of the differentiation of those presently dead (that is, ‘presently’ dead before Jesus’ death and resurrection) rather than the frequent depiction of the differentiation that is to come at the Final Judgment, it must be remembered that it is a parable, which concludes by foreshadowing that people will not repent or believe even if ‘someone’ is raised from the dead (Luke 16:30-31).
Some have said that all the dead before Christ—both the righteous and unrighteous—were in Hades, but they resided in distinct areas based on their sinfulness or faithfulness. Some also say, however, that Hades is one of several levels of Heaven itself, as is Paradise (cf. 2 Cor 12:2-4). Luke 16 does not explicitly say that Lazarus or Abraham are in Heaven (cp. Luke 16:9), but that “angels carried him [Lazarus] to Abraham’s side” (v. 22). Jesus says The Rich Man “also died and was buried” (v. 22) and found himself in Hades, where he looked upwards to wherever Abraham was. In Jesus’ parable, whether Abraham is in another section of Hades or in Heaven, he is not depicted as being in anguish. He is, after all, the father of all the faithful (cf. Rom 4:16; Gal 3:7) and therefore somehow considered “living,” even before Jesus’ death and resurrection (cf. Matt 22:31-32//Mark 12:26-27//Luke 20:37-38)!
Q2: If we must believe the gospel of Jesus Christ in order to be saved, what does that mean for the Jews before Christ? And what about the Gentiles? If they didn’t know Jesus or the gospel, how can God’s justice be just or his mercy truly good?
Jesus says, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). This is not the place for me to outline the many, many places in Scripture that make it abundantly clear that “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). This is absolutely the case. I believe this. Jesus is the Jewish Messiah; the surprise is that he is also God Incarnate and the Lord of all! As Lord of all, I believe he is capable of making his gospel known to all.
By referring to God’s promises to Abraham in Gen 12:3 and 18:18, St. Paul seems to claim that Abraham knew the gospel (i.e. the promised blessing to all nations) and believed (cf. Gal 3:8)! Of course, the Prophets spoke of the Messiah to come, even if the meaning and details were not altogether clear to them (cf. 1 Pet 1:10-12) and regardless of whether or not others believed them (cf. Acts 7:52), and so the Patriarchs and Prophets obviously believed in the promised Messiah. It seems that faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—which includes trusting him and believing his promises whether fulfilled or not—has always been, and is still, necessary for salvation according to Scripture (cf. Acts 3:17-26; cp. Ps 78:22).
We know what happened regarding the inclusion of the Gentiles into the people of God because of Jesus (Read Acts; cf. also Rom 9:24-26; 10:11-21; 11; Eph 2-3; 1 Pet 2:9-10), but what about the Gentiles before Jesus’ ascended and the Holy Spirit came? Are they simply lost? Some Church Fathers, like St. Ephraim the Syrian, talk about Christ dying to save Adam in Hades, which also implies dying for all those who are “in Adam” (1 Cor 15:22) that is, everyone (cf. Rom 5:12-21 esp. v.18)! However, this is not Universalism, in that all will be saved. Jesus died for everyone, and everyone will be raised from the dead because of Christ…and then the world will face him upon his judgment seat. What this means is that salvation is offered universally. This does not in any way guarantee that Jesus is universally accepted, but he has made himself available.
Of course we may speak of Jesus “freeing” or “releasing” those ensnared in sin and its effects (e.g. sickness), but is the imagery of him freeing prisoners and releasing those in darkness (cf. Isa 42:6-7; Luke 4:18-19//Isa 61:1-2; Matt 4:16//Isa 9:2) primarily metaphoric or actually spiritual? I used to say these things were spiritual because I didn’t ‘see’ Jesus literally freeing prisoners in the Gospels (e.g. John the Baptist), but then I’m afraid I denied the actual spiritual reality of what was going on. What does it even mean to sit “in darkness and deepest gloom…[for rebelling] against the words of God” (Ps 107:10). This Psalm, I think, must be referring to salvation from some exile at least on the surface in vv. 11-16, but then vv. 17-22 speak of the Lord rescuing people from the grave! This, my friends, is the massive import of the doctrine and confession of Jesus descending to Hades (see Part 4 and Addendum 1).
Earlier I said Hades was a mercy of God (cf. Parts 2 and 4), but that may have seemed very strange to say. I say it’s merciful, even if it is miserable, because the consequence of sin is only death and Hades rather than immediate annihilation. I think that Christ’s descent into Hades means that he offered forgiveness through himself even to those “who disobeyed long ago…in the days of Noah” (1 Pet 3:20), those even before Abraham and his descendents of the promise who had the gospel (see Q1)! So Hades is a mercy in that it provided a space for the disobedient to (eventually) still see Jesus and hear the good news. Cyril of Alexandria says that it is through Christ’s descent to Hades and proclamation there that his love for humanity was perfected; it would be contrary to God’s character to only offer salvation to some. But for Cyril, the response of faith in Christ is still needed. He writes of Christ that he
preached even to those in Hades, so that he might release those, as many as were about to believe…Therefore just as Christ called out equally to all those upon earth through his appearance in the flesh, and those who believed benefitted, so too through his descent into Hades he set free from the bonds of death those who believed and acknowledged him.
Q3: What about now? What about those who die now without repenting and believing the gospel, calling to and trusting Jesus as Lord?
While scripture does not say this, it seems to me that the way out of Hades may still open for those who die before hearing the gospel. I repeat: for those who have never previously heard the gospel. Just as in Q2, this is not Universalism. Jesus very clearly teaches that the door to salvation will eventually be shut with some left outside (cf. Luke 13:23-25; cp. Isa 22:22; Rev 3:7) and that many go to destruction rather than life (cf. Matt 7:13-14; cp. Luke 13:23-24; Php 3:18-19). There is a door of salvation (that will be shut, per above), but there are also gates of Hades (cf. Matt 16:18). Psalm 107 uses the word “gates” twice. The second time says “the gates of death” (v. 18), but in v. 16, the Psalmist says the Lord “breaks down the gates of bronze and cuts through bars of iron.” Can we say that the gates of Hades have been ‘busted in’ and therefore have no more power to contain the dead? Even if we can’t say that, the Lord Jesus Christ does say now, “I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades” (Rev 1:18). It was just during this past Holy Saturday (4/19/2014) that I saw the second sentence of this verse as actually correlating to the first (thanks, Tim!).
Let me say again, I do not think that those who actively reject God’s salvation in Jesus Christ during their time on earth will get a second chance, but that just as Christ commands his Church to continue to preach the gospel to all peoples (cf. Matt 28:19-20; Acts 1:8; cp. Matt 24:14; Col 1:23b), and shortly before the final Judgment, an angel will proclaim the gospel to all the remaining inhabitants of the earth (Rev 14:6-7), so now, I believe that, by Jesus himself, “the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead” (1 Pet 4:6), therefore making the offer of salvation by grace through faith in Christ truly universal (see Q2). That is to say, while scripture does not explicitly say this, I think post-mortem repentance may be possible, however I suspect that it is ‘a hell of a lot’ more difficult to change the trajectory of one’s life (i.e., to repent and believe the gospel) after one has died. Therefore, the Church—we!—must never neglect Jesus’ clear command and the unambiguous apostolic testimony to continue to proclaim the gospel now, even if—and it is an “if”—in his great mercy, Jesus allows those who have not heard the gospel before their death to still get a chance to respond. Regardless, we can be absolutely certain that we can trust God to “judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity” (Ps 98:9), which will begin with judging how faithful the family of God has been (cf. 1 Pet 4:17; cp. 1 Cor 9:27; Col 1:22-23). “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Cor 5:10; cp. Rom 2:5-16; Rev 20:12-13)
Q4: Where is Hades? And what exactly is “the lake of fire”? If hell (i.e., the Judgment) hasn’t taken place yet, what is this lake’s connection to hell and does it exist presently?
In the Bible, Sheol/Hades is an abysmal place to which one descends (cf. Pss 30:3; 55:15; Prov 1:12; 15:24; Isa 14:15; 38:18; Matt 11:23//Luke 10:15; cp. Rom 10:7; Eph 4:9-10). But Hades’ location, I don’t think, can be located physically by the spatial concept “down.” The same can be said of heaven and “up”! These may, indeed, be ‘locations,’ but not in any earthly spatial sense. I believe we must think in spiritual/metaphysical terms of location.
In my original paper on hell, I noted that for many Universalists the big issue for salvation is the tension between human free will and the love of God. Similarly, many evangelicals see the main issue in the tension between human free will and the holiness of God. I’ve come to think that neither of these are adequate paradigms. It seems to me that the ‘issue’ is the tension between God’s love and God’s holiness! To that end, I have speculated that Hades is ‘the space between’ God’s holiness and love. If this is so, then we may think of the Judgment to come as this gap being closed in the age to come, leaving no place left to hide from God (see Part 2). It seems that in the age to come there will be no life, no existence, outside of God’s “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28). Though our sinfulness actually affects God (cf. Gen 6:6; Mark 6:34; John 11:32-36; Eph 4:30), I am not suggesting that the Lord’s being is somehow dualistically rent apart, even if from the perspective of sinful humanity it is difficult to look upon both the Lord’s holiness and love. The Old and New Testaments do not depict two different Gods, as some heretics have claimed, nor does God have a split personality! No. If my hypothesis has any basis in reality, then this ‘tear’ is no more than Christ’s body broken by us and yet for us. Perhaps we may think of this ‘space’ metaphysically as the very wounds of Jesus.
Thinking of Hades as ‘the space between’ God’s holiness and love, and recalling that God is an all-consuming fire, then perhaps we may think of hell, this lake of fire, as God himself! Biblical cosmology speaks of waters above and waters below—the earth is surrounded. Why not think of Hades as surrounded—suspended, if you will—in the midst of God’s fiery presence and yet somehow apart from him as well? If one were able to look, it may seem like a ‘lake of fire’ above and below (cp. Deut 32:22; SS 8:6!). Interestingly, some ancient Universalist Christians thought that hell was nothing other than the unmitigated presence of the Lord’s love, which eventually won over the previously unrepentant persons engulfed. That is, hell is the fire of God’s love. I actually think that hell probably is the unmitigated presence of the Lord’s Holy Love, but based on the scriptural witness, I disagree with the Universalists on its ultimate effect on those who actively reject the grace of God in Jesus Christ. As I’ve argued above, Scripture testifies to the ultimate destruction of the wicked. There will be a refining fire upon the earth (cf. Luke 12:49; also Mal 4; Matt 3:7-12; 2 Thes 1:7; Heb 12:29). God’s purifying wrath (i.e., hell) will come upon the earth (it has not ‘been satisfied’), but those who are in Christ, in his resurrection life by the Spirit, will not be destroyed, but “shall be saved” (Rom 5:9, 10; note the future tense in both verses; see Part 1). Receiving the Holy Spirit now is to become new (2 Cor 5:17; cp. Rom 8:1-17), like new wine skins which will not be destroyed by the cups of wrath—the new wine to be poured out upon the world (cf. Matt 9:17; Rev 16; cp. Isa 63:1-6), refining and healing God’s people while destroying the persistently wicked (cf. Deut 32:36-43; Mal 3:2-3; 4:1-3; 1 Cor 3:10-17; Heb 10:26-39) like weeds or chaff separated from the wheat (cf. Matt 3:12; 13:30, 36-43).
While in Rev 20:14, Hades and Death are thrown into the lake of fire and are finally “no more” (Rev 21:4) after the dead are raised and judged, I think we may say that those who are thrown into the lake of fire actually prefer to remain in Hades (I highly recommend reading C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce)—away from God’s presence, rejecting Jesus. God ultimately honors human free will. You exist, but it was not your choice to exist! God created us without our consent (i.e., against our will). Life was and is a gift—as is everlasting life. In the end, you will be able to live truly, accepting the gift of love in the freedom and fullness of life that is only found in Christ Jesus. Or you can choose ‘freedom’ from Christ, rejecting the gift of life given you, and cease to exist. That is, you can continue to love the darkness (cf. John 3:16-21; 1 John 1:5-7; 2:9-11) and remain in the realm of death (cf. John 5:24; Col 1:9-14), which is on the road to destruction…and it will eventually reach its end. But the Lord would rather you have new life, beginning now, by grace through faith in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Q5: Do I need to reject all the great hymns and poems that refer to Jesus overcoming the powers of death and/or hell?
No! Well, not necessarily.
So, here’s the thing. Language is important. Words are powerful; they have lasting significance (cf. Matt 12:36-37; James 1:19-26; 5:12). Jesus himself is the Word—the Logos! I’ve said a lot about the importance of distinguishing between Sheol/Hades and Gehenna. I do think it is important for us to distinguish between these realities. Having said that, the words we use to refer to these realities is not quite as important. Don’t get me wrong, words are important, but I also don’t want quarrel about words (cf. 2 Tim 2:14). I simply want to clarify about the realities to which they refer, but our understandings and translations have muddied the scriptural witness for us. Here’s the main difficulty: words change meaning over time.
In the year 2014, in the English speaking West, when people say “hell” what they generally mean is a place of active punishment for the wicked. This is closer to Gehenna (i.e., the final coming Judgment), but our understanding of Gehenna has somehow been superimposed onto the biblical description of Hades or death in general. This has inadvertently led to several monstrous—and unbiblical—images of Divine justice as cruel, God’s goodness as not so good, Satan’s power as greater than it really is, and it tends to diminish the significance of Jesus’ Incarnation, Death, Resurrection and Ascension. Is that possible simply because we’ve not been careful with words? I don’t know the full history of this unfortunate misconception, but I suspect that mishandling words has something to do with it.
The English word “hell” seems to be derived from Old English/German language and Norse mythology regarding a more generic netherworld or place of the dead without necessarily implying final Judgment. Apple Dictionary says that its Indo-European root means “to cover or hide” (like a grave?!). That is, our word “hell” originally described something more akin to Hades rather than Gehenna! All this to say, there’s nothing wrong per se with using the word “hell” to refer to Hades/Sheol (as it most probably used to anyway), but because of our current cultural connotations with the word, please clarify to what you are referring when you use it. Also, if you use the word “hell” for hades, then another word to refer to gehenna may need to be used for clarity’s sake, and I’m not sure what that word would be, exactly. For my own part, what I have done throughout these posts and in conversation—when it comes up—is to continue to use “hell” to refer to gehenna as the ‘place’ of judgment and simply started using the words “Hades” and “Sheol” themselves when referring to the abode of the dead. No matter what linguistic solutions we come up with, let us speak clearly, taking care with the words we choose.
So, these great hymns: carefully listen to their lyrics (especially those translated from German [e.g. hymns by Luther] or English hymns from centuries past) and see if what is being said about hell is actually in line with what Scripture has to say about Hades without any of the present conflated images of Gehenna. Or see if they refer to the coming judgment without any reference to those presently dead. If so, sing it at the top of your lungs! Jesus has indeed overwhelmed the powers of death and ‘hell’ (if that is referring solely to Hades). Hallelujah! But beware of any hymns that inadvertently make God out to be monstrous or Satan more powerful than he is. Jesus has not conquered gehenna because he himself will bring that creation-refining hell-fire and throw Satan, Death, and Hades into those flames when he appears to judge “the quick and the dead,” completing the purification beginning now by the Spirit in those who call on Jesus’ name, destroying all sin, and finally make “all things new” (Rev 21:5; cf. Rev 21:1-22:6; cp. Isa 65). Amen! Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. Amen.