A look into Hades

Hades is a Greek god whose name means “The Unseen.” He is depicted as lord of the underworld, or the abode of the dead. So, it should come as no surprise that Jesus and the New Testament writers borrow from the familiar term Hades to describe the realm of departed spirits. What’s more, they cut through the mythology to present a more accurate picture of the afterlife.

The word Hades appears 10 times in the New Testament, forming a linguistic bridge that takes us from the Old Testament view of life beyond the grave (in Sheol) to the New Testament position. In coming to a biblically faithful understanding of Hades, it’s important to state what the word does not mean.

It does not mean death, because the Greek word thanatos is used for death in the New Testament. Further, death (thanatos) and Hades appear together in Rev. 1:18, so they cannot mean the same thing.

Second, it cannot mean grave, because the Greek work mneema depicts the place where the bodies of the deceased are buried.

Third, it cannot mean hell, the place of final punishment for the wicked, because the Greek word Gehenna is used for hell in the New Testament, along with other terms like “outer darkness,” “eternal fire,” and “lake of fire.” Further, Hades is cast into the lake of fire in Rev. 20:14.

Fourth, Hades is not heaven, which is the intermediate state of Christian souls between death and resurrection, because the Greek word ouranos depicts heaven.
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Hebrew Scriptures and the Trinity

This is the ninth in a series of articles on the Trinity, excerpted from “What Every Christian Should Know About the Trinity,” available through Amazon and other booksellers.

While most arguments for the Trinity are grounded in the New Testament, God begins revealing His triune nature in the Old Testament. One hint at the plurality and unity of the Godhead may be found in several passages where God speaks.

For example, Genesis 1:26 reads, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness.’” Here, the verb “said” is singular, but the verb “let us” is plural, as are the possessive endings of the nouns “our image” and “our likeness.” Then, in the next verse we read, “So God created man in his own image; he created him in the image of God; he created them male and female” (v. 27).

Genesis 3:22-24 provides a similar clue: “The LORD God said, ‘Since the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil, he must not reach out, take from the tree of life, eat, and live forever.’ So the LORD God sent him away from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove the man out …”

Other examples include:

Genesis 11:7, where the LORD says, “Come, let’s go down there and confuse their languages so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” Then, in verses 8 and 9, the LORD “scattered them” and “confused the language of the whole earth.”

Isaiah 6:8 – “Then I heard the voice of the Lord asking: Who should I send? Who will go for us?”
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A look into Sheol

Old Testament writers use the Hebrew word Sheol 65 times to describe the abode of the dead. It communicates the reality of human mortality and the impact of people’s lives on their destinies.

Ancient Israelites believed in life beyond the grave, borne out in such passages as Isa. 14:9-12, where Sheol contains “the spirits of the departed;” and 1 Sam. 28:13, where the deceased prophet Samuel temporarily appears as “a spirit form coming up out of the earth.”

While the Old Testament consistently refers to the body as going to the grave, it always refers to the soul or spirit of people as going to Sheol, according to Robert A. Morey in Death and the Afterlife.

One source of confusion is the variety of ways the King James Version translates Sheol, according to Morey: “The KJV translates Sheol as ‘hell’ 31 times, ‘grave’ 31 times, and ‘pit’ three times. Because of this inconsistency of translation, such groups as the Adventists … and Jehovah’s Witnesses have taught that Sheol means the grave.”

Fortunately, he adds, lexicons and rabbinic literature consistently understand Sheol as the place where the souls of persons go at death.

Down to Sheol

In fact, the first occurrence of Sheol in the Old Testament (Gen. 37:35) cannot possibly mean “grave.” As Jacob holds the bloodied remnants of Joseph’s coat, he laments about his deceased boy, “I will go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.”

Whatever else Sheol may mean, in this passage it cannot mean Joseph’s grave, for Jacob believes his son has been devoured by wild animals and thus has no grave. Jacob could not be buried in a common grave with Joseph.

According to the context, Jacob anticipates being reunited with Joseph in the underworld. He speaks of going “down” because it is assumed that Sheol is the place of departed spirits, likely a hollow place in the center of the earth.

There are other factors about Sheol to consider, among them:

(1) When Old Testament writers want to identify the grave, they use the Hebrew word kever, which is contrasted with Sheol. Kever is the fate of the body, while Sheol is the fate of the soul.

(2) In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, Sheol is never translated as mneema, the Greek word for grave.

(3) Sheol is “under the earth” or “the underworld,” while graves were built as sepulchers above the earth, in caves, or holes in the earth.

(4) While bodies are unconscious in the grave, those in Sheol are viewed as conscious.

Progressive revelation

Because God’s revelation in Scripture is progressive, we see the concept of Sheol develop throughout the Old Testament. While it is described as dark (Lam. 3:6), and a place of helplessness (Ps. 88:4), trouble and sorrow (Ps. 116:3), God is both present in Sheol (Ps. 139:8) and able to deliver from it (Ps. 16:10; 49:15).

This leads some commentators to conclude that there are two compartments in Sheol, one for the wicked and another for the righteous. Later Jewish literature, such as the Book of Enoch, describes these divisions, in which people experience a foretaste of their final destiny.

Jesus’ story of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31) seems to expand on this depiction, applying the Greek word Hades to the realm of the dead.

Other scholars contend, however, that Sheol is only for the wicked, while God rescues the righteous from Sheol and takes them to a place of blessedness. The ascensions of Enoch and Elijah to heaven, for example, are cited to support the belief that the righteous under the old covenant could be taken directly into God’s presence at the end of their earthly lives.

Today, we know that the souls/spirits of Christians enter heaven immediately upon death (2 Cor. 5:6-8). Evidently, the souls of unbelievers remain in Sheol where they await resurrection and final judgment.

The LORD our God is one

This is the eighth in a series of articles on the Trinity, excerpted from “What Every Christian Should Know About the Trinity,” available through Amazon and other booksellers.

The Bible consistently declares there is one true and living God, the self-revealed Creator who alone must be loved and worshiped. All other gods are false. The physical depictions of these gods, as carved images or naturally occurring phenomena such as stars and trees, in fact represent demons (see Deut. 32:16-17; 1 Cor. 10:19-20).

Perhaps nowhere is the exclusivity of God stated more clearly than in the Shema, an affirmation of Judaism and a declaration of faith in one God. It is the oldest fixed daily prayer in Judaism, recited morning and evening since ancient times. It consists of three biblical passages, two of which instruct the Israelites to speak of these things “when you lie down and when you rise up.”

The best-known part of the Shema is from the first biblical passage: “Listen, Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deut. 6:4-5).

The prophet Isaiah echoes this cry as he calls the Israelites to return to the LORD. Isaiah 44:6 – 45:25 is a powerful reminder from Yahweh that He alone is God. Consider just a small portion of this passage:

“This is what the LORD, the King of Israel and its Redeemer, the LORD of Armies, says: I am the first and I am the last. There is no God but me” (44:6).

“I am the LORD, and there is no other; there is no God but me” (45:5).
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New resource: “Jesus Before Bethlehem”

The Missouri Baptist Convention, through its High Street Press imprint, has just released a new resource for personal or group study titled Jesus Before Bethlehem: What Every Christian Should Know About the Angel of the LORD.

Written by the MBC’s Rob Phillips, the 338-page book explores dozens of Old Testament appearances by a figure often identified as “the angel of the LORD.” This figure not only speaks for God; he speaks as God. He appears as a man, a voice from heaven, a flame within a thorn bush, and a divine presence in a pillar of cloud and fire – all of which come to us as Christophanies, or appearances of Jesus before Bethlehem.

The book addresses the question: What was Jesus doing prior to his conception in Mary’s womb? While we see the Father and the Holy Spirit actively engaged in human affairs across the pages of the Old Testament, the other member of the Trinity (Jesus) is foreshadowed in messianic prophecies but otherwise absent from the earth. Or is he?

Jesus Before Bethlehem is designed to show how the eternal Son of God has always taken a personal interest in those he created to be his imagers on earth.
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