For those who are just joining us, we’re discussing hell. No, wait; don’t leave. We’re not getting into the deeply analytical (and to many, unpractical) exegeses of whether hell amounts to eternal torture, utter annihilation, or some other scenario. Leave that to the serious theologians and the hearts of men. Rather, we’re delving into its utility and necessity as a central component of a preached message of the Gospel.
Picture a street preacher telling passers by that they’re going to hell without Jesus. The crux of my question is whether that’s effective. My anecdotal experience says no, but I’ll definitely let Jesus, who sees into the hearts of men, be an insight into any unseen efficacy. If he was brimstoning people (see what I did there?) on the street corner, then it must do more good than harm, despite my experiences.
So you’re getting to join me on some research I’m doing. Last week, I delved into the Greek word most commonly translated into hell: gehenna. And based on Jesus’ example (and its usage, really), there’s nothing there to support the condemnation I’ve seen on crowded street corners today.
Today’s key word certainly seems to have a stronger correlation to our modern day hell imagery: hadēs. This word meant the underworld of the dead to the Greek culture that so thoroughly influenced the New Testament region of the Roman empire.
So how did Jesus use the term?
Matthew 11:23 (paralleled in Luke 10:15)
“And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day.”
“And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”
Luke 10:15 (paralleled in Matthew 11:23)
Audience: 72 followers, instructed to speak to unrepentant public
Setting: private, instructed to speak to public
“‘And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades.'”
Audience: disciples directly; tax collectors, sinners and Pharisees indirectly
In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side.
Hadēs as Sheol
It’s also significant that in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew scripture commonly used in synagogues in the New Testament era) uses translates the Hebrew shĕ’owl into hadēs. And the Old Testament uses the term shĕ’owl liberally (here’s a good list on the Blue Letter Bible).
So when the Jewish audiences heard the term, their mental imagery undoubtedly goes to that of the Jewish concept of shĕ’owl. It’s important to note that while this concept was almost universally linked to a death-related experience, it was used broadly, requiring context to interpret its application.
It’s often a stand-in for the grave (e.g. Genesis 37:35, 1 Samuel 2:5). It’s a hole in the ground that swallows up the judged (Numbers 16:30). Deuteronomy 32:22 shows it as a deep place below the ground. Hosea 13:14 shows shĕ’owl/hadēs failing to have a true effect on those God protects. Proverbs 15:24 deliberately contrasts is with life. It’s claustrophobic based on the use of metsar in Psalm 116:3.
In summary, shĕ’owl can bring to mind a lot of things, but they’re all well-represented by darkness, mystery, and death. Which stands to reason, given that shĕ’owl is based on the word sha’al which means asking a question due to a lack of knowledge. It’s literally a simplified summary of “whatever awaits us after death”.
In fact, hadēs itself follows this pattern. It is a combination of a and eidō, which together mean not seen or not known. It’s no wonder that New Testament era translators selected this word for shĕ’owl.
When Jesus referred to hadēs to his primarily Jewish audience, the uncertain darkness of death must have entered the mind of those hearing His words.
Conclusion: Poor Support
Back to hadēs. This particular word appears in other passages as well. We see it twice in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2:27,31) and — unsurprisingly — several times in the Revelation (Rev 1:18, 6:8, 20:13-14), the first of which comes from Christ Himself.
I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.
Such keys are reminiscent of the gates described in Matthew 16:18 which further resembles the gates of shĕ’owl in Isaiah 38:10. Even if we weren’t informed by the Greek perspective on the underworld, hadēs still clearly links closely to death, even though Jesus is clearly depicted victorious over whatever it is.
Cities experiencing the consequences of unrepentance as seen in Matthew 11:23 and Luke 10:15 is not unlike Isaiah’s statements about Babylon (Isaiah 14:13, 15) going to shĕ’owl or Ezekiel’s mention of Tyre (Ezekiel 26:19-21), both of which have gone to the grave.
The dark mystery of death awaits us all, and that was no less true for the Jewish audiences that heard Jesus’ words. In that regard, hadēs awaits us all, believers and unbelievers alike (just as we see in the Old Testament’s shĕ’owl). Yet, we certainly see something different depicted by Luke 16’s story of Lazarus and the rich man. Here, we see the first clear separation from the universal grave of shĕ’owl.
Orthodox Christians often liken this hadēs with the idea that shĕ’owl serves as a holding place until a later date. In that regard, it’s not the fiery inferno that is often depicted as hadēs, though some hold that still may await those awaiting judgment.
Western Christians typically perceive a heaven/hell dichotomy here, with Lazarus in the former and the rich man in the latter. This view is debated by some, but it is certainly the mainstream interpretation.
Being a parable (since most since the medieval era have agreed that this is a parable rather than Jesus describing an actual event), both sides at least recognize the dominance of symbolism in such a telling. It might or might not be intended as a linear description of the afterlife awaiting folks who reject Jesus, particularly given the presence of the pre-Christ Abraham in the narrative. Some creative hermeneutical legwork awaits anyone seeking to nail this down firmly. Much like any other mention of hadēs or shĕ’owl.
Still, it’s showing something that could resemble a hellfire and brimstone story. What was the context? Well, here we have Jesus specifically addressing his disciples (see 16:1), though there’s evidence of others gathering beforehand (15:1) and the Pharisees being close enough to heckle (16:14). This is a public teaching, for sure. But it’s a public teaching, not a public condemnation.
In fact, given that this same teaching began with the parables of the prodigal son and the lost sheep, condemnation was not likely the tone. The one time we’re sure of Jesus’ condemning tone was his rebuke of the religious elitist Pharisees who loved money, a condemnation which came four verses before this parable of the rich man and Lazarus began. There’s likely a dig going on, but it’s not of the crowds of sinners surrounding him. This doesn’t support street side condemnation, though it does produce evocative imagery.
Hadēs in Matthew 11:23 and Luke 10:15
Now, in Matthew 11:23 Jesus does condemn an unrepentant town. Going one step further, he advises his followers to do the same in Luke 10:15. If I’m being honest, this one gives me pause in my assumptions.
The trick, though, is that these are broad statements about entire cities in the tradition of (and even in literal reference to) Sodom. The entire point of the new covenant made possible by the cross of Christ is that we each, individually, have access to God in an unprecedented way. This individualized accountability in the gospel doesn’t fit with blanket condemnations to eternal hell based on generalizations.
More likely, this, too aligns with Scripture’s repeated use of the hadēs/shĕ’owl concept to represent the grave, an undeniable destination for the ancient city of Sodom, regardless of the eternal destinies of its inhabitants. The coherence here is considerable, even considering these statements’ juxtaposition of hadēs with ouranos (sky, or in this case “heaven”), a term that the Hellenized Jewish audience would associate with the Hebrew samayim which represented heights and prominence (a literal sky) more than anything resembling an afterlife.
So while we do see hadēs being taught publically by Jesus, and we do see Him instructing His followers to declare unrepentant cities to be hadēs-bound, this is a far cry from an endorsement from on high of the practice of individual condemnation of strangers. We’d have to willfully ignore (or be ignorant of) Old Testament precedent and Jesus’ other teachings to tell people they’re going to hell based on Jesus’ use of hadēs.
There’s more to come, though. So far, Jesus hasn’t seemed to model the street side hellfire preaching I’ve seen, but hadēs and gehenna aren’t the only times Jesus talks about “hell”. So next week we’ll start checking into the others.