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The Language of Hell - Sheol and Hades

Updated: Oct 1, 2019

When people talk about hell, one of the first biblical passages used to discuss it is Luke 16:19-31. It is the story of a poor man named Lazarus and a rich man who both die. The story that follows is mainly an interaction between the rich man and Abraham.

Why is Luke 16 so important? Well lets look at how it is often handled by scholars who write books defending the traditional view.

Christopher Morgan writes,

“In Luke 16:19-31, Jesus depicts hell as a place where justice prevails, consisting of suffering, torment, and agony (16:23-25, 27), and as a place of fire (16:24). Jesus graphically illustrates that this future punishment is final and inescapable separation and exclusion from heaven (16:25-26).”

JI Packer writes,

“In his teaching on neighbor love, Jesus envisages a hardhearted rich man describing his after-death state as “agony in this fire” (Luke 16:24).”

... and continues…

“As to the theory of annihilation (i.e., the idea that the fiery destruction that unbelievers will undergo ultimately will end in their nonexistence), this idea has to be read into the texts; it cannot be read out of them, since the fire is a picture not of destruction but of ongoing pain, as Luke 16:24 makes unambiguously clear.”

Sinclair B Ferguson says,

“Hell, though prepared for the devil and his angels, is shared by real human beings...The rich man is there (Luke 16:19-31);”[1]

So that is why Luke 16 is important. Those holding the traditional view and writing about it will often reference it and leave the reader to check whether or not the passage is or isn’t saying what the scholar says it is saying. This is seen over and over again – the assumption from the vast majority of Christian preachers and scholars who hold to a traditional view is that Luke 16 is obviously talking about what happens after all the dead are resurrected, after they are judged and then those who reject God end up with the rich man.

I am going to be discussing this story in far more detail in another video but before I do that, I feel it is important to focus on the word that gives the location of where this story takes place. One word that is in verse 23 but needs verse 22 to give it context.

22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him [Lazarus] to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried.
23In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side.(NIV)

This time lets use KJV.

22 And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried;
23 And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.

What do you notice? There is an issue with the location of the story.

NIV: And in Hades…

KJV: And in hell…

Hades sounds a little different to hell so why are they different? There are four words that have been translated hell, especially by the King James Version and we’ll discuss two of them here: Hades and Sheol. The other two are Gehenna and Tartarus which will be discussed in other videos and essays.

Before you switch off thinking that I will be re-translating the bible on this channel, I want to clarify that I lean heavily on the committees of scholars who have spent years translating scripture and you will not hear me on this channel sharing my own translations of Greek words. What I will do though is highlight where a Greek word is used and translations have a potential flaw or bias in them compared to another. I’ll then highlight what scholars think and I’ll share which argument I find more convincing. That is generally how bible study works! If you want to watch a video on translations and why it is useful to work between a few of them, see this video though there are several good ones on youtube.

I’ll start with three interesting things to note about this story for the sake of this video and they all lead us to the question – what is hades?

1. The rich man dies, is buried and is then in hades.

2. In hades, the rich man is able to talk to Abraham

3. The rich man asks for Lazarus to be sent back to the living, specifically his brothers, so that they might repent

The orthodox view of the stages of judgement at the end of the world is that all who have died, will be resurrected to judgement and after judgement will either receive eternal life or eternal punishment and that punishment is hell. The story of the rich man shows that Jesus wasn’t talking of the hell that the unsaved are sent to in this story because people are still alive!

Though there is some form of judgement between the rich man in torment and Lazarus with Abraham, neither have been resurrected and the rich man’s brothers are still alive. All we know about this judgement though is that the rich go to hades and the poor go to Abraham, this doesn’t sound like the gospel or anything else within the bible regarding how to gain life with God.

This parable is far more complex than most preachers and scholars make it out to be and it causes issues for the generally accepted biblical view of hades as well as we’ll see in a moment.

So, what is Hades?

Hades, as anyone who has heard of the story of Odysseus will know, is the Greek underworld. The word literally means, ‘the place that is not seen’[2] which is probably why ‘hell’ which means ‘to cover, conceal’[3] was used to translate it and was the Norse word for the underworld. The Septuagint, the earliest Greek translation of the old testament completed 132 years before Christ, used a similar concept and translated Sheol from Hebrew to Hades. So maybe Hell is a decently accurate translation of hades and sheol, but it isn’t necessarily so when it comes to Gehenna and Tartarus which we’ll look at in another video. Unfortunately, we only relate the English word ‘hell’ to fire and brimstone and torment these days so we’ve got it all backwards.

Hades is Sheol so lets take a brief look at Sheol – a simple search of any online bible shows that it mostly relates to death[4] and the grave for all people[5] and was thought to be under the earth[6] and is often connected with a pit or burial. Notice the first point I made regarding the story of Lazarus and the Rich man. They were buried and in hades. It sounds very much like the language of Sheol of one going to the grave.

There is a lot of imagery around Sheol because much of what we know of it comes from the Psalms which are songs and often metaphoric: God is there in Psalms 139:8 but people are cut off from him in Psalms 88:5. Some have argued for hell as separation from God[7] but it can’t be found conclusively here. Sheol is a place of silence[8] rather than praise and it may be that those in Sheol have no memory of God[9]. Interestingly in the story of Lazarus and the rich man, they are able to talk across a chasm, something that isn’t identified in the OT understanding of the grave.

You can go to Sheol in peace[10] or sorrow[11] but both righteous and wicked go there[12]. Those in Sheol may or may not have bodily form depending on how you compare Psalms 49:14 with Luke 16:19-31, that is, if you take the story of Lazarus and the rich man as a true story.

Sheol could also be used figuratively to represent depression and anguish[13]. It was understood that those who died or went to Sheol alive do not come back[14] until Hosea prophesied that God will ransom and redeem his people from death and Sheol[15], a prophecy that Paul repeats in his letter to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 15 encouraging the church to look forward to the resurrection and ultimate defeat of death and the grave, aka Sheol or Hades.

After looking at Sheol in the Old Testament you start to notice trends in the New, realising that the New Testament authors were directly quoting the Old:

  • Luke 10:15 shows that Capernaum will not be exalted to heaven but brought down to Hades. A connection to Isaiah 14 that is the prophecy of Babylon’s destruction.

  • Acts 2:27 directly quotes Psalms 16:10 and is used again in verse 31 to point people to Jesus who didn’t decay in the tomb but was risen again.

The best bit of the New Testament regarding Hades is Revelation 20:14. All who are dead in the grave will be resurrected to judgement in verse 13. Death and Hades are emptied of their power and both are destroyed in the lake of fire. John explains what the lake of fire is. It is the second death. Death throughout the Old Testament is understood to be something you don’t come back from without God being involved. I argue that this is the simplest and most accurate interpretation of what John means by death in the phrase ‘second death’. And if you look at verse 15, you will see that those not in the book of life will be thrown in the lake of fire. We’ll look at that in more detail in my video on Gehenna.

What does this mean for our theology? It means that we all die and we all await a resurrection. If you believe body and soul are separate then your soul awaits reuniting with the body, if you believe body and soul are one unit and inseparable you will await the resurrection in Hades with everyone else.

Understanding that Sheol and Hades are not hell is important but I will admit that it does raise many questions regarding an intermediate state. I’m still keeping an eye on different debates regarding the make up of the human and the soul but I am firmly on the fence, that said I’ll place a couple of links on the topic below [16] [17] if you are interested. The various views of the makeup of the human in comparison to the soul do not have an impact on the clarity of what happens after resurrection which is what this channel focuses on due to its impact on how we present the gospel.

So to highlight what is clear:

1. God is immortal and humans are not[18].

2. Those in Christ WILL gain eternal life with God in the new creation[19]

3. Death and Sheol are destroyed in the lake of fire and will not be a part of the new creation[20]

4. Those who trust in Jesus have the hope of resurrection and life with God.[21]

As for Lazarus and the Rich man? We’ll leave the in-depth discussion for another video but we can at least conclude here that Hades is not the hell that it is commonly thought to be as it is not after Jesus’ return. It is a far more complex piece of scripture than is often taught and is not an ‘unambiguously clear’ argument against annihilation. Even Lazarus coming back from the dead won’t save the rich man’s brothers which hinted at the lack of belief amongst the Jews even when Jesus returned from the dead.

Next up we will investigate Gehenna so look out for that within the next couple of weeks. Also, I am going to be doing my first live stream with J.D Martin Theology Discussion Channel discussing the traditional view and the conditionalist view on the 6th of September.

[1] All quotes as found in Hell Under Fire (Morgan & Peterson, 2007)

[2] Papaioannou, K. (2013). The Geography of Hell in the Teaching of Jesus. Pickwick Publications.


[4] 1 Sam 2:6; 2 Sam 22:6, Psalms 18:5; Proverbs 5:5, 7:27 and many more

[5] Ecclesiastes 9:10

[6] Numbers 16:33, Isaiah 7:11

[7] Joshua Ryan Butler argues this in chapter 6 of his book The Skeletons in God’s Closet.

[8] Isaiah 38:18

[9] Psalm 6:5

[10] Job 21:13, 1 Kings 2:6,

[11] Genesis 42:38

[12] Job 24:19, Psalms 9:17, Jacob says he will go to Joseph in sheol in Genesis 37:35.

[13] Psalms 86:13

[14] Job 7:9, Psalms 55:15, 89:48

[15] Hosea 13:14

[16] Richard Middleton highlights the complexity of the term Paradise and it being incongruous with the understanding of the kingdom of heaven as well as the fact that Jesus hadn’t been raised until the third day and not ascended to heaven for some time after that in his book A New Heaven and New Earth, Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology.


[18] Genesis 2:17 and 3:22, 1 Timothy 6:10, 1 Corinthians 15:53,54

[19] John 3:16, Romans 6:23, Revelation 21:5-8

[20] Isaiah 25:6-9, Revelation 20:14 and 21:4

[21] 1 Corinthians 15, Revelation 21:4

Middleton, R. (2014). A New Heaven and a New Earth. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Morgan, C. W., & Peterson, R. A. (2007). Hell Under Fire. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

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