Journey to the Centre of the Earth...
Why this story matters
(What was Jesus doing between his death and resurrection?)
(Page 2 of 8)
Sorting out the words for where the spirits of the dead went
Before we can talk about what Jesus was doing during these three days, we need to briefly look at the differences between the various words used by Christians to denote where the spirits of the dead went. The main words are sheol, hades, and hell. We’ll start with the Hebrew sheol.
In the early books of the Hebrew Bible, little thought was given to any kind of afterlife at all. In the book, The History of Hell, Alice K. Turner writes:
“The Jews, judged solely by the evidence of the Old Testament, were either the least morbid or the least imaginative of the Mediterranean peoples. Unlike their neighbors, they had no relationship with the dead; they did not worship them, sacrifice to them, visit them, hope to reunite with them in the afterlife, nor anticipate any kind of interaction with Yahweh after death….” (Harcourt Brace & Company, New York, 1993, p. 40)
On the rare occasions when the state of the dead was mentioned, there wasn’t much going on there: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going" (Eccl. 9:10 NASB). There isn’t even consciousness: "For the living know that they shall die, but the dead know not any thing; they have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten” (Eccl. 9:5).
Later Jewish writings showed a slightly expanded notion of the afterlife, probably due to the influence of other cultures. In the book of 1st Samuel, for example, King Saul is able to communicate with the spirit of his predecessor, Samuel (1 Samuel 28:7-19). And later still, the prophets of Yahweh introduced ideas of a kind of resurrection, although these ideas were vague.
Eventually, with the conquest of Alexander the Great, there came an influence of Greek culture. The Greek understanding of the afterlife included a place of departed spirits where existence continued in some vague form. This place was called Hades.
Greek notions of the afterlife were more developed. Their ideas came from epic poems like Homer’s The Odyssey and Hesiod’s Theogony. They basically had two names for the realm of the dead: hades and tartarus. When the gospels were written they were written in Greek. The authors used both of these words to denote different realms of the dead and added a third, gehenna. The place where most departed spirits went was Hades. In Greek mythology, Hades was named after its ruler, the god Hades, who worked along side his brothers, Zeus and Poseidon, to overthrow the Titans. After defeating the Titans, they drew lots to see which realm of the cosmos each would rule over. Zeus got the heavens, Poseidon the sea, and Hades got the underworld, the realm of the dead.
Tartarus was a place much lower than hades. Hesiod described Tartarus as the place where the Titans were thrown down after they lost their battle in the heavens. Tartarus is referred to in the New Testament in 2nd Peter, where we see the influence of the Greek poets on Jewish thought:
“For if God didn't spare the angels who sinned, but threw them down into Tartarus and delivered them to be kept in chains of darkness until judgment;” (2 Peter 2:4).
And the word, gehenna, actually refers to a place called the Valley of Hinnom, where a municipal, all purpose, garbage dump was situated. Dead bodies were dumped there and it’s where child sacrifices were purportedly made to the god Molech. It was said to be perpetually on fire, and this is why Christians associate gehenna most closely with the everlasting torment of hell fire.
Many Christians don’t realize that their theology has traditionally included two different understandings of hell. The first hell is a temporary hell where spirits of the bad people went to await final judgment. The second hell is a final hell, where spirits of bad people will go at the end of time. This includes all the sinners in hades and all the wicked angels that Peter mentioned who are in chains in tartarus. We can see this clearly from the book of Revelation:
“Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:12-15 my emphasis)
This final hell, then, is called gehenna in the New Testament, the lake of fire. The temporary hell is part of the abode of the dead (hades), where spirits went when they died. Jesus mentioned hades in his famous story of Lazarus and the rich man, both of whom died at the same time. This is not the same Lazarus who was friends with Jesus and whom Jesus brought back to life after four days (John 11:1-43). The Lazarus in Jesus' story was a beggar. When he died, he went to a place called Abraham’s Bosom, where he was comforted by the great Bible hero, Abraham. The rich man, on the other hand, went to a place of torment that Jesus specifically referred to as "hades" in the story:
“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side." (Luke 16:22-23)
The traditional view from the early days of Christianity was that hades was split into two sections, as inferred from Jesus’ story. The spirits of the wicked went to a section of torment, while the spirits of the righteous went to a section of relative bliss. This idea helps to solve a very big problem in Christian theology: What happened to people who died before Jesus came to save the world?