13 August 2008

Descended into hell? (Pt 1): Considering Hell, Hades and Sheol

The Apostles Creed is often recited in many churches, and many people say it without much thought to what is being said or meant. Those who do think on it tend to have an issue with one line in particular, "He descended into hell," which causes some to even avoid saying the creed altogether. In some denominations, this line has been entirely removed from the creed.

What is the big deal? What is all of the fuss about?

The fuss is due to our misunderstanding of the language of the creed translation, in conjunction with the Scriptures, and the foundation for what is being said in this line. This misunderstanding causes churches to either drop the line, or reinterpret the meaning of it, as is the case in most Reformed churches these days.

In his Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem writes:

...unlike every other phrase in the Creed, it represents not some major doctrine on which all Christians agree, but rather a statement about which most Christians seem to disagree. It is at best confusing and in most cases misleading for modern Christians. My own judgment is that there would be all gain and no loss if it were dropped from the Creed once for all (Systematic Theology, Zondervan, 1994, pp. 583-594)
I would disagree with this comment, as it does cause us to lose something that has actually already been lost to the modern reader.

When it says he descended into hell, are we to understand that Jesus went to what we would understand as the lake of fire, that place of everlasting fire that is said to be the ultimate judgment? The problem we have has it's root in the misunderstanding of the English term hell. The KJV Bible has been one of the main culprits for this misunderstanding, with it being one of the most predominant English Bible for centuries. It used the term "hell" in most all cases for the original terms Sheol, Hades and Gehenna, equating them all with the understanding of the lake of fire. However, that was not the traditional Jewish thought on the matter, and we as Greek thinking modern pew warmers, have lost the understanding of these terms.

Sheol is the Hebrew word for the place of the dead, and Hades is the Greek counterpart to it. Both describe a place in the Jewish understanding, and that place is not equivalent to the lake of fire. Likewise, Gehenna is the name of a literal place of burning, but was most often used by Christ as a term of coming judgment upon Jerusalem, and was likewise not to necessarily equated with the lake of fire spiritual judgment.
The idea which most Christians have attached to the word hell, is a place of eternal punishment for all the wicked. Wherever they meet with this word in reading their Bibles, it calls up the idea of such a place of punishment…

There is one fact, which deserves attention at the outset, of which many readers of the Bible are ignorant. The fact I allude to, is, that the word hell does not occur once in all of the Old Testament, where it means a place of eternal misery for the wicked. The fact is indisputable; no man can doubt it who will take the trouble to examine the matter for himself. (Walter Balfour, An Inquiry into the Scriptural Import of the Words Sheol, Hades, Tartarus, and Gehenna: All Translated Hell, in the Common English Version. 2nd ed.
So, if hell (i.e. lake of fire) is not found in the Old Testament, then what do we make of all of the uses of Sheol that have been translated as hell? Let us look at the definition of the Hebrew term Sheol from the Strong's Concordance:
1) sheol
1a) the underworld
1b) Sheol-the OT designation for the abode of the dead
1b1) place of no return
1b2) without praise of God
1b3) wicked sent there for punishment
1b4) righteous not abandoned to it
1b5) of the place of exile (fig)
1b6) of extreme degradation in sin
So, as we can see, it is not necessarily to be considered as the lake of fire, but we see many aspects of what it means. It is a place, the abode of all the dead, righteous and unrighteous where there is no return (that they seem to know of).

So, going back to the Creed, if we were to go along with the Greek translation instead as some churches use, which says "he descended into Hades" then we get a different understanding of what is being said. He did not descend to the lake of fire, he descended to the realm of the dead. Some other translations actually say "he descended to the dead," which is applicable too.

A further definition is given from the Easton’s Revised Bible Dictionary (slightly edited for pertinence):
Derived from the Saxon helan, to cover; hence the covered or the invisible place. In Scripture there are three words so rendered:

1. Sheol, occurring in the Old Testament sixty-five times. It is rendered "grave" thirty-one times (Gen. 37:35; 42:38; 44:29, 31; 1 Sam. 2:6 etc.). The Revisers have retained this rendering in the historical books with the original word in the margin, while in the poetical books they have reversed this rule. In thirty-one cases in the Authorized Version this word is rendered "hell," the place of disembodied spirits. The inhabitants of sheol are "the congregation of the dead" (Prov. 21:16)

It is:
a. the abode of the wicked (Num. 16:33; Job 24:19; Ps 9:17; 31:17 etc.);
b. of the good (Ps. 16:10; 30:3; 49:15; 86:13 etc.).
Sheol is described as:
a. deep (Job 11:8)
b. dark (Job 10:21,22)
c. with bars (Job 17:16)
d. The dead "go down" to it (Num. 16:30, 33; Ezek. 31:15, 16, 17)
2. The Greek word hades of the New Testament has the same scope of signification as Sheol of the Old Testament. It is a prison (1Pet. 3:19) with gates and bars and locks (Matt. 16:18; Rev. 1:18) and it is downward (Matt 11:23; Luke 10:15). The righteous and the wicked are separated. The blessed dead are in that part of hades called paradise (Luke 23:43). They are also said to be in Abraham’s bosom (Luke 16:22).
I hope you will take a moment and look up the various passages used to get a better understanding of the use of the word and descriptions found in the Scriptures. I wish to end here, feeling there is enough of a foundation to get most people thinking further. I hope to show that if we were to follow the advice of Grudem or the practice of some churches these days who remove the line, that we are in fact removing an essential doctrine of redemption and salvation.

In part two I will focus on building the background of this place, with many examples of Jewish literature talking on this subject in hopes of showing what the common thought was that came to highly influence both the Scriptures and the Creed.

View the other parts of the topic

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10