The Greeks Called It Hades
Remember any Greek mythology? If so, the word “Hades” may be familiar to you. He was the Greek god of the dead, and his realm existed – you guessed it – below.
The name Hades came to apply as much to the place of the dead as to the god himself. In the Greek mind it was the lower world in which all the spirits of the dead dwelt.
The Greeks were much more descriptive of Hades than the Hebrews were of Sheol. As you have seen, Sheol was a vast domain of murky depths which the living were not allowed to know much about. Hades, by contrast, was described as having five rivers, each with its own name. Well-developed story lines made Hades seem like a maze through which the dead were made to negotiate. But then the Greeks had always been creative with regard to the unseen dimension of the universe. The multiplicity of their gods in the heavens, each with well-defined and sometimes all too human personalities, testifies to their ability to spin a good yarn.
On the other hand, the Israelites had been taught to accept whatever God revealed about spiritual reality but not to embellish it. Moses put it this way:
“The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law.” Deuteronomy 29:29 NASB
In other words, not all knowledge about the spiritual dimension was revealed to humanity. What God kept to Himself should not be the subject of speculation. Rather, we should focus on what has been revealed. And not only that, but whatever is revealed should be put to practical use. It is for the purpose of obeying and honoring God. All that the Bible has told us about the spiritual heavens, earth, and sea are for the purpose of giving us enough understanding to be able to live morally. What the Hebrews lacked in fancy was made up for in fact. We may call Greek thinking mythology, but we can call Hebrew thinking reality.
With regard to the multiplicity of their gods, the Greeks were right in line with the rest of ancient cultures. Polytheism was the predominant view of the world before Christ. Ancient man regarded the heavens to be populated by multiple supernatural powers. The descendants of Abraham were unique in claiming there could only be one God. (Notably, the modern world, by its view, has fully vindicated ancient Israel on this point; monotheism has so stamped out polytheism that even atheists claim it’s God – not gods – that they don’t believe in.) Even though the Hebrews espoused monotheism they did not deny that there were other lesser beings of power and personality in the heavens, for they wrote of angels and Satan. Thus, ancient cultures consistently regarded the heavens as God’s (or the gods’) dwelling place, the earth as man’s dwelling place, and the world below as that occupied by the dead.
Have you ever played that game where everyone stands in a circle and a story or statement is passed from one person to the next? The first person whispers it to the second, the second whispers to the third, and so on. By the time it gets back to the first person, the story has changed – sometimes significantly. This is why ancient cultures did not agree on the details of their view of creation, but similarities can be seen in their general outlook. Obviously, God had been on speaking terms with Adam and Eve as well as their children. Generations later, various descendants of theirs would have varying views because of the gradual corruption of knowledge that was passed from one generation to another, the greater corruption that occurred when any descendant chose to be less faithful to God, and the geographic separation of cultures that allowed varying degrees of isolation.
Some people say that the knowledge of God – what some call religion – has evolved. That is, they say humanity started with a little knowledge of God and gradually put together ideas and – wham – out came the Israelite’s (or whoever’s) view of God. But common sense and the Bible tell us that this is the opposite of what actually happened. That is, what is known can get gradually lost and misunderstood in the transference from person to person and from generation to generation (much like the game above). The views of the Greeks and other ancient civilizations were degenerative versions of the truth (just as polytheism was a corruption of monotheism). They were truth decayed rather than developed. All ancient cultures shared ancestors with the Israelites. Only Noah and his family survived the flood so everyone could trace their ancestry to him. Noah knew God and taught his children. But he had a grandson named Canaan who was a problem. Generations later, Abraham would distinguish himself among the descendants of Noah, the majority of whom had become idol worshipers. It all just shows us that degradation of a message is an easily observable and understandable process.
This process of deterioration was slowed in the case of the Hebrews, primarily by two things. First, God spoke to individuals called prophets in each generation. Their fresh expressions of the truth kept the knowledge of God accurate and were a defense against erroneous thinking. Second, these prophets wrote their thoughts – and these became the Hebrew Scriptures, our Bible. These writings, from Moses to Malachi, and later all the way to Revelation, in effect etched in stone the timeless truths. When the truth was lost to later generations, they could come back to these writings and recapture what had been lost.
Notice that I said these two forces only slowed the process of corruption. The writings themselves reveal that the Israelites would lose sight of things that had once been so clear. They would fail to act on what they knew to be true. Consequently, truth would fade to the recesses of their consciousness and they’d be prone to take on the habits of cultures around them.
There is one and only one solution to reversing the devolution of our grasp of truth. That is to act on what we know to be true. When we do, God speaks more truth into our hearts. We act on that and He tells us yet more. The point being that man has never been able, and will never be able, to truthfully and morally live in the earth without acknowledging God’s active, just, and loving presence. Just as the physical part of us will suffocate without air, so the spiritual part of us suffocates without the air of God’s presence.
For the purpose of your life and my life I am saying that we should always listen to, and not ignore, the whisperings of God deep in our hearts. If we pay more attention, maybe those whisperings will not be so hard to hear. But for the purposes of this book I am pointing out why we see both similarities as well as differences between the worldviews of the Hebrews and that of other ancient civilizations.
The Rise and Dominance of Greek Culture
There is a reason why I have singled out the Greeks and their view of life after death. The Greek culture came on the world scene and made a dramatic impact which is still felt today. The rise of the Greek empire came at a time when the people of Israel had been dispersed throughout the world. In 586 B.C., their capital city of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians. Most of the population was carried off into exile. Only a portion of them ever made it back. The Jews were being dispersed throughout the world like seeds of a dandelion. (Satan thought he was destroying Hebrew thought but he was only spreading it.)
It was during the centuries between this destruction of Jerusalem and the time of Christ that the Greek empire was established. Even the Romans who overcame them, thought so highly of Greek culture that they adopted much of it. Therefore, even when the Roman empire succeeded them, the Greeks were still providing the world its most common language and culture. Thus, even as the Roman empire is prominent in the New Testament, so also are many things Greek.
As the Jews sought to live out their faith in foreign lands they realized that they needed the help of their Holy Scriptures. The only problem was that the prophets had, of course, written them in Hebrew. If the ideas of the prophets were ever to fully take root on foreign soil they would have to be translated into another language. Therefore, the first language for the Bible to be translated to was, for all the reasons mentioned, Greek. It had become the principal language of the world during the time of the Jewish dispersion in the same way that English is the principal language of the world today. If someone wants to speak to the greatest portion of humanity today, he puts his ideas into English. In that day, you would put them into Greek. This translation was called the Septuagint (a Greek word meaning 70, derived from the number of translators who produced it).
How Do You Say “Sheol” in Greek?
The Jews before Christ had only the books of Moses through Malachi – what we call the Old Testament. When the translators came to the word Sheol, they chose to use the word Hades. It was the logical choice. This does not mean that they were buying into all the exotic embellishments of Greek mythology. Sheol was Hebrew for the netherworld of the dead. Greeks said Hades when they were referring to the same place. Hades, therefore, was the logical choice for translating Sheol. It was the place of the dead. It lay under the earth. It was where everyone went when they died. This was the essential idea and in this sense the meanings were identical.
Therefore, whether you read the word Sheol or Hades, you are reading the same thing. They are synonymous. Where the Hebrew Scriptures would say Sheol, the Septuagint would say Hades. We run into something similar with the words “Messiah” and “Christ.” “Messiah” is a Hebrew word meaning “Anointed,” as in “He was anointed king.” The Greek word for “anointed” was “Christ.” Therefore, where the Hebrew Scriptures would say “Messiah,” the Septuagint would say “Christ,” but the meaning would be the same either way.
The New Testament Also Uses the Word Hades for Sheol
The original language of the New Testament documents was Greek. Though Jesus and all of His apostles were Jews, He had instructed them to take His message into the entire world. In doing so, they found Greek the best way to communicate to the most people. Therefore, both the Old and New Testaments, when translated from Greek typically render Sheol as Hades, just as they typically render Messiah as Christ. Since the New Testament was written originally in Greek and not in Hebrew, you may never find the word Sheol in an English translation. This is part of the reason that the word seems obscure to so many. Of people today who have read some of the Bible, most have read from the New Testament. Since this reading would never expose them to the word Sheol, it would be obscure to them even though it wasn’t obscure at all to the people who wrote the New Testament.
I’m sorry about all the confusion of language but, alas, it’s one of the consequences of the Tower of Babel we are still feeling today. For our purposes, all you have to remember is that Hades means Sheol. Everything you’ve learned about Sheol applies to Hades. Here is a prime example of what I mean. Psalm 16 in the Old Testament makes a reference to Sheol. Here’s how it reads:
For You will not abandon my soul to Sheol;
Nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay. Psalm 16:10 NASB
When that same passage is quoted in the New Testament it reads like this:
Because you will not abandon my soul to Hades, nor allow your Holy One to undergo decay. Acts 2:27 NASB
Pretty simple, huh?
The other New Testament references to Hades follow the same patterns and usage as the prophets of the Old Testament. For example, we saw that death and Sheol were sometimes personified, and spoken of in the same breath:
Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol?
Shall I redeem them from death?
O Death, where are your thorns?
O Sheol, where is your sting?
Compassion will be hidden from My sight. Hosea 13:14 NASB
The apostle John, in writing the book of Revelation which sits at the end of the New Testament, takes this same approach in the following verses (while, of course, using the word Hades for Sheol):
“…I have the keys of death and of Hades.” Revelation 1:18 NASB
…he who sat on it had the name Death; and Hades was following with him. Revelation 6:8 NASB
…death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them… Revelation 20:13 NASB
Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. Revelation 20:14 NASB
If the New Testament books had come to us in Hebrew instead of Greek, then each of these four verses would have read “Death and Sheol” just as the passage in Hosea did.
Another pattern of speech used by the prophets and emulated by the apostles has to do with the destruction of cities. Remember, earlier in the chapter, when I said that Jerusalem was destroyed in 586 B.C.? Well, over a century before that time the prophet Isaiah had warned of this destruction and the exile of its citizenry. He spoke at one point in this fashion:
Therefore My people go into exile for their lack of knowledge;
And their honorable men are famished,
And their multitude is parched with thirst.
Therefore Sheol has enlarged its throat and opened its mouth without measure;
And Jerusalem’s splendor, her multitude, her din of revelry and the jubilant within her, descend into it. Isaiah 5:13-14 NASB
A pretty graphic description, but that’s what you’d use if you were pleading with people to change their lives! The whole idea was for the prophet to get the people to repent so that things wouldn’t turn out that way. Jesus, being a prophet Himself, followed the same speech pattern in warning the citizens of His day:
“And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day.” Matthew 11:23 NASB
The warnings of Isaiah were proved valid in 586 B.C. when King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon destroyed Jerusalem. The warnings of Jesus proved valid when the Romans crushed the Jewish nation. The most notable point of this campaign was the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. – written about in any encyclopedia you may have. It was the business of the prophets to warn people how to keep out of Sheol (Hades) – that is, to postpone death by living a long and healthy life.
Another expression used both with Sheol in the Old Testament and Hades in the New Testament has to do with gates. You may remember that Hezekiah spoke about the possibility of premature death in these terms:
“In the middle of my life
I am to enter the gates of Sheol;
I am to be deprived of the rest of my years.” Isaiah 38:10 NASB
In ancient times, great cities had walls for protection with gates to control access. Naturally, the gates would be heavily fortified. Therefore, to “enter the gates of Sheol (or Hades)” would be a figure of speech about dying. The “city” of Sheol (Hades) had gates so powerful that once you entered, there was no getting out. Oh yes, we’ve talked about a few folks being raised from the dead, but they always had to eventually return. These gates had proven through history to be the strongest gates known to humanity. Jesus uses the same expression but at the same time shows that He has a greater power in this New Testament passage:
” …upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” Matthew 16:18 NASB
He is saying, of course, that the gates of Sheol (or Hades) would not prevail. Given all that you have now learned from the Scriptures about Sheol (Hades), can’t you feel with the disciples what a remarkable and stunning statement this was?
No one had ever spoken of this kind of power over the realm of the dead. To this point in human existence, the gates of death had proven impregnable. Hades (Sheol) was a “city” whose population only increased. It never diminished. The best humanity had been able to hope for was to stay away from these gates as long as possible. Jesus was talking about a power no one had ever exercised before. We are getting hints as to how great and magnificent would be God’s solution to the heretofore universal power of death.
The purpose of this chapter has been to reveal why the word Sheol appears in the Old Testament but not the New Testament (and, conversely, why the word Hades appears in the New Testament but not the Old). The answer is that Old Testament books have been translated from Hebrew and New Testament books have been translated from Greek. When you realize that the words Hades and Sheol are like the words Messiah and Christ, you see the concept of a place to which all humans descended at death in both testaments.
Therefore, we now have the full Bible picture of what happened to the dead before the work of Jesus Christ. We have taken into account both Old and New Testaments. The writers of the New Testament fully embraced the Hebrew (Old Testament) outlook. This is no surprise, for the writers of the New Testament were themselves Hebrews through and through. Jesus and His apostles staked their lives on what the prophets had written.
So, you may now revise your challenge to me to say, “All you have proven so far is that everyone is going to Hades.” Even as you hear yourself say that, however, you are shaking off the man-made traditions you have been taught. The Bible’s true message is contrasting itself with traditional, though erroneous theories. “What of hell?” you ask. We’ll get to that in a later chapter. For now, recognize that in all the Bible verses I have paraded before you, the word hell has not appeared. Neither has there been in any of these verses a notion that there was more than one place to go when one died. The notion of some going down at death while others went up is simply not biblical!
If you believe the Bible, the issue that has the most urgency for you at this point is, “What will stop this death march to the netherworld?” Whether you call it Sheol or Hades, according to the Bible it’s an insurmountable problem for every human being!
But before we begin to peel back the wrapping on God’s solution, we must take one more step of preliminary work. Can your patience bear it?
End of Chapter Five