Hades is not Hell: Problems of the U.S. Apostles’ Creed and the Westminster Confession of Faith
Non Christians who died are in Hades, not Hell. Jesus went to Hades to preach the Gospel. In Hades, conversion opportunities are given to the dead.
Only Heaven and Hell? No!
Many people have been taught that the only worlds after death are Heaven and Hell. They think that when people die, Christians go to Heaven and non-Christians go immediately to Hell. But this is not what the Bible teaches.
According to the Bible, Christians go to Heaven after death, and non-Christians go to Hades which is different from Hell. Hades is the temporary place to keep the general dead people until God’s final judgment of the end of the world. Hell is the place of punishment after the final judgment. Heaven is the eternal place for God’s people.
As we shall see later, in the 4th century people began to confuse Hades with Hell. Since then, the concept of Hades, as the world where non-Christians go after death, has disappeared from the minds of Western Christians. As a result, people thought the only worlds after death to be Heaven and Hell.
However, the ancient Hebrews regarded Hades to be different from Hell. Hades is a Greek word. In Hebrew it is Sheol. Hades in the New Testament and Sheol in the Old Testament have exactly the same meaning, because the Septuagint, which is the Greek Old Testament used among Greek Jews in Jesus time, translated every Sheol in the Hebrew Old Testament into Hades.
Hades Was for All Dead People
In Old Testament times, Hades was a place where every dead person went. For example, when Jacob, forefather of the Israelites, heard the news that his beloved son Joseph had died, Jacob said: “in mourning will I go down to Sheol to my son.” (Genesis 37:35) In Jacob’s understanding, Joseph went to Sheol, in spite of his pious faith in God. It was a general understanding among Jews that all those who died were to go down to Sheol. Obviously, Sheol is not Heaven, for it is said to be beneath the earth. Sheol is not Hell either, because it was a destination for believers as much as it was for non-believers. Before Christ, Sheol was the world for all the dead.
King David said that, when he felt death was near, “my life draws near to Sheol” (Psalm 88:3, NRSV). In Ecclesiastes, King Solomon refers to “Sheol” as the world where everybody goes after death (9:10). When King Saul went astray and asked a female medium to bring up the late Prophet Samuel, the medium said, “I see a god-like being coming up out of the earth.” (I Samuel 28:13) Samuel came up from Sheol.
Not only the wicked, but also the righteous, including Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Isaiah, Jeremiah and all other believers and prophets, were destined for Sheol after death, because it was before Jesus died on the cross.
The ancient Jews had thought that the vast Sheol was divided into several parts. The Book of Enoch, an ancient Jewish document, mentions that inside Sheol (Hades) there are four compartments: one for the righteous (believers of God), and the other three for other dead people. Hades was thus the place for all who died.
But the saints of the Old Testament times are now not in Hades (Sheol), but in Heaven, as the Bible states:
“When he (Jesus) ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.” (Ephesians 4:8–9)
The “captives” whom Jesus led to Heaven were “spirits in captivity (in Hades)” (I Peter 3:19). When Jesus ascended to Heaven, they were taken to Heaven with Jesus. Hades is thus a completely different place from Hell.
Hades is Temporary
After Jesus’ ascension, Christians go to Heaven after their physical death and enter God’s glory and bliss. Apostle Paul writes, “We are…well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.” (II Corinthians 5:8). The Book of Revelation states that Christian martyrs are serving at the altar of Heaven (6:9, 8:3).
On the other hand, dead non-Christians now go to Hades. And according to what they sowed on earth, some souls receive comfort, and some receive discipline or punishment. Hades exists for them to think back on their lives on earth. They are to be left there until God’s final judgment of the end of the world, when they will all be brought out to the court of God’s judgment and be told their final destination. After that, the empty Hades will be abandoned to Hell, as the Bible states:
“Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire (Hell). The lake of fire (=Hell) is the second death.” (Revelation 20:14)
It is thus obvious that Hades is different from Hell. Hades is temporary until the end of the world. Hell, meanwhile, remains the final place of punishment for the end of the world after God’s final judgment. Hell is already in preparation (Matthew 25:41), but no one is yet in it. Thus, Christians go to Heaven after death, and non-Christians go to Hades to await their final judgment.
Mistake in the U.S. Apostles’ Creed
Then, why have Christians ever been taught that Christians go to Heaven and non-Christians go to Hell right after death? The Bible states that Jesus died on the cross and then descended to Hades. The original Greek text of Acts 2:31 is:
“He (David), foreseeing this, spoke concerning the resurrection of Christ, that His soul was not left in Hades.”
The Bible clearly states that Jesus descended to Hades, not Hell. However, the well-used Apostles’ Creed in the U.S. states, “he descended to Hell.” The English version of the Apostles’ Creed of the Catholic Church states the same. Why did this happen?
The Old Roman Creed in the 2nd century and the Necene Creed in 325 simply stated, “Jesus… was crucified and buried, on the third day rose again from the dead” without mentioning either Hades or Hell. Eventually, however, the confusion of Hades with Hell began among Roman Christians. Later, in the latter half of the 4th century the Apostles’ Creed in Latin added the phrase, “he descended to Hell (inferos in Latin)”.
The so-called Apostles’ Creed is not what the apostles of Jesus wrote. It was formed in the latter half of the 4th century, when the confusion of Hades with Hell began. The concept of Hades disappeared from the minds of Western Christians. People began to think that the only worlds after death are Heaven and Hell.
In reality, the worlds after death are Heaven, Hades and Hell. Heaven is eternal. Hades is before the final judgment of the end of the world. Hell is the punishment after the final judgment. The Apostles’ Creed of the Church of England and others states, “he descended to the dead,” avoiding the word “Hell”.
The Apostles’ Creed of both the Catholic Church and Protestant Church in Japan states, “he descended to Hades.” The Japanese translators never translated it into “Hell”, because they were based on the biblical text. They understood the biblical concept of Hades, for in their tradition they have a similar concept to Hades.
The Messianic Jews do not use the Apostles’ Creed which states “he descended to Hell,” because it’s not biblical: the Bible states that Jesus descended to Sheol (Hebrew word for Hades).
Confusion of Hades with Hell
In the Western world, the confusion of Hades with Hell began very early in the Christian tradition. After the 4th century, Westerners thought that Christians would go to Heaven after death, and non-Christians would go immediately to Hell.
Later, the Catholic Church invented the teaching of Purgatory, which is a place for incomplete Christians to be purified before going up to Heaven. Purgatory is not a place for non-Christians. In Dante’s Divine Comedy of the 14th century, there are mentions of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory. Purgatory is a teaching of the Roman Catholic, not of the Protestant or the Orthodox. The rest are only Heaven and Hell. Hades disappeared from people’s minds.
In the 16th century, the Protestant Church published the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. It also mistranslated Hades into Hell. In the 20th century, the Living Bible became a bestseller in many countries, but it also translated Hades into Hell. The confusion of Hades with Hell became widespread.
Some Bible teachers think that’s a problem, but they are in the minority. In his book, Rex Humbard, a pioneer of American television evangelism, clearly distinguished Hades from Hell, and explained the difference between the two. However, the identification of Hades with Hell is still strong. The confusion between the two has led to a very chaotic response in Christianity concerning the concept of life after death as the following teachings are presented.
(1) The only worlds after death are Heaven and Hell.
(2) “The Judgment after death” (Hebrews 9:27) is immediately after death. People are divided either into Heaven or Hell at the time of death.
(3) Non-Christians go to Hell immediately after death. There is no postmortem opportunity for their conversion.
Jesus in Hades Preached the Gospel
The Bible tells us that Jesus descended to Hades, not Hell, to preach the Gospel to the dead there.
“Being put to death in the flesh… He (Jesus) went and preached to the spirits in prison… the gospel was preached also to those who are dead.” (I Peter 3:18–4:6)
However, as confusion over Hades and Hell grew, various odd interpretations emerged. One such interpretation is that Jesus preached condemnation there, instead of the Good News. Another is that these verses refer not to Jesus’ preaching in Hades, but Jesus was spiritually in Noah’s preaching to the people in Noah’s time who are now in Hades.
An American pastor writes, “Some people think I Peter 3:18–4:6 is telling us that Jesus went down into Hell and preached the Gospel to the dead. But if this were true, we should recall at least half of our missionaries and bring them home, because it would make their desperate evangelism meaningless.” Confusing Hades with Hell, he denied Jesus’ preaching of the Gospel to the dead in Hades.
A pastor, who studied theology in the U.S. and founded a mega-church in Korea, once was asked a question, “There are those who were good but died without hearing the Gospel and salvation. Is there any possibility that they could be saved after death?” Then, realizing that the only places after death are Heaven and Hell, he answered, “Those who did not believe in Jesus in their lives on earth are not to be saved.”
However, dead non-Christians are not currently in eternal Hell, but are in temporary Hades. I Peter 3:18–4:6 tells us that Jesus descended to Hades and preached the Good News to the people who had died prior to Noah’s Great Flood. Jesus gave them a conversion opportunity. If so, we can expect to see a postmortem opportunity for conversion to the dead after the Great Flood.
Mistake in the Westminster Confession of Faith
This postmortem opportunity for conversion is also called a “Second Chance”. The phrase Second Chance usually describes the opportunity to start over, while here it describes the opportunity for salvation after death, postmortem evangelism and posthumous conversion (i.e. the opportunity for salvation).
This is different from Universalism which teaches that all people will be saved. Second Chance is the belief that all who once lived on earth will have the opportunity to hear the Gospel and to be converted.
Those, who think Heaven and Hell are the only worlds after death, deny a Second Chance for the dead. In 1646, after confusing Hades with Hell, the famous Westminster Confession of Faith was published. A pastor had a lecture denying the Second Chance with the reason that the Westminster Confession of Faith mentions:
“The souls of the righteous… are received into the highest heavens… And the souls of the wicked are cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day. Beside these two places, for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledgeth none.”
But this confession is a result of the confusion of Hades with Hell in the dark medieval ages. The dead non-Christians are actually not in Hell, but in Hades. We should now have the right perception of the world after death.
In Japan, the translators of the New Translation Bible, a popular Bible known as loyal to the original text, distinguished Hades from Hell and wrote in the afterword of the Bible, “Hades in the New Testament means the intermediate place for the dead to wait for the final judgment at the end of the world, and Gehenna (Hell) means the place of torment for sinners after the ultimate judgment of God.” This is the biblical concept of the worlds after death.
Judgment Immediately After Death?
The confusion of Hades with Hell also led people to believe that the “judgment after death” of Hebrews 9:27 comes immediately after death.
Denialists of the Second Chance often use that verse. An American pastor writes: “The Bible does not indicate that people get an opportunity to repent or to put faith in Jesus after they die. Hebrews 9:27 says, ‘People are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.’” A church website also mentions, “The Bible is clear that death is the end of all chances. Hebrews 9:27 tells us that we die, and then face judgment… Once a person dies, there are no more chances.”
However, Hebrews 9:27 does not refer to such a judgment immediately after death. The judgment is actually God’s final judgment as mentioned in Revelation 20:11–15. In God’s court at the end of the world, people’s final destination will be determined, not immediately after death.
No Second Chances?
The identification of Hades with Hell has also misled the interpretation of the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31) that Jesus himself told. The story is that the rich man, who was self-centered, died and went immediately to a place of torment. The rich man showed his willingness to do good there, but he failed to accomplish it.
The original Greek text states that the rich man went to a place in “Hades”. But the King James Version, the Living Bible and some other Bibles translated that word into “Hell”. This mistranslation has led people to think that there are no second chances after death.
An American music group sings a song entitled “No Second Chances” with the words, “The rich man died he felt the torment of hell… Give me one more chance to do things right. Just one more chance, I’ll follow the light. But there’s no second chances.” This song mentions “hell” as the place where the rich man went; however, Rex Humbard claims that it was not Hell but a compartment called the Place of Torment within Hades.
Billy Graham, an American evangelist, also states that the rich man was in a compartment of Hades. However, even in such cases that distinguish Hades from Hell, the distinction is still obscure in many cases. Hades is often portrayed as an eternal place of torment, similar to Hell.
As one pastor taught, “The Bible tells the story of a man who did not believe in God even when he died. The rich man was tortured, but never repented, only asking Abraham to send Lazarus to his family. This story tells us that the human mind does not change with each death”. He interpreted the story negatively and denied a Second Chance.
But the story does not teach us anything negative. Please remember that the rich man entered temporary Hades, not eternal Hell. One cannot have normal mental activity in Hell because the torment is so intense. While in Hades, even in the Place of Torment, its sufferings are of a disciplining nature and are restricted to the extent one can have conversation and normal mental activity. The rich man regretted his actions and showed his love for his brothers on earth. Even if the rich man’s request was granted, there was no gain for him. But he craved it; he was changed. It made a strong impression on Jesus.
Hades was neither final nor eternal, but a temporary place until the end of the world. This story is also not a parable, but a true story. When Jesus mentioned parables, he never used real names, but instead just said, “One man,” etc. However here, Jesus referred to actual names Abraham and Lazarus. When he used real names, they were always true stories. It was a true story in the Old Testament times. In God’s court of final judgment which will determine the final destiny of the dead, the rich man’s love will surely be a matter for God’s consideration.
Opportunity After Death
It is very important to understand that Hades is different from Hell, and that Jesus went to Hades to preach the Gospel to the dead, as mentioned in I Peter 3:18–4:6.
As for these verses, church fathers and historians in the 2nd-3rd centuries such as Hippolytus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen noted that Jesus descended to Hades to preach the Gospel, and that the conversion opportunity after death was the understanding of the early Christian faith.
William Barclay, a professor at the University of Glasgow in the UK, Joel B. Green, a Professor of the Fuller Theological Seminary in the US, and others write, although not using the word Second Chance, that Jesus descended to “Hades to preach the Gospel to the dead, and that it was the understanding of the Early Christianity.”
The Catechism of the New Apostolic Church states, “Question 546: Can we help the departed attain salvation? — Yes, we can intercede in prayer for unredeemed souls and ask the Lord to help them. Likewise, we can pray that these souls come to believe in Jesus Christ.”
James Beilby, a professor at the Bethel University, teaches salvation after death in his book “Postmortem Opportunity.” Donald G. Bloesch, a professor emeritus of the Dubuque Theological Seminary in the US, and Gabriel Fackre, a professor emeritus of the Andover Newton Seminary in the US, both teach the Postmortem Evangelism that the Gospel must be preached to all people, and it is also to be preached to the dead.
Valery Kuzev, a faculty member at the Pryazovskyi State Technical University in Ukraine, writes, “I suggest that the traditional model of hell is incompatible with the idea of justice, and violates a number of ethical considerations. I put forward the Second Chance Theory”.
In their debate book “What About Those Who Have Never Heard?” (Voted one of Christianity Today’s 1996 Books of the Year), three theologians, Ronald Nash, Gabriel Fackre and John Sanders argue whether or not there is conversion opportunity after death.
Ronald Nash argues that the receptive knowledge of Jesus Christ in this life is necessary to salvation. Meanwhile, Gabriel Fackre advocates divine perseverance, with the expectation that those who die unevangelized receive an opportunity for salvation after death. John Sanders asserted that though God saves people only through the work of Jesus Christ, some may be saved even if they do not know about Christ.
There have been such serious debates recently among church leaders, without calling someone a “heretic”. We should biblically consider a true understanding of the worlds after death.
Prayer for Dead Non-Christians
Jeffrey A. Trumbower writes in his book “Rescue for the Dead: The Posthumous Salvation of Non-Christians in Early Christianity” with many examples that there are numerous records of many early Christians who prayed for the salvation of dead non-Christians.
Likewise, we can pray for our ancestors, relatives, family and loved ones who passed away unevangelized to receive the opportunity for salvation after death.
Many people oppose the Second Chance, saying, “If there were a Second Chance, people would think, ‘OK, I can convert after death’”. Certainly it is a blessing to convert and believe in Jesus in this life if you heard the Gospel. But there are a lot of people in this world who have died without hearing anything about Jesus. If Second Chances are given to them, it would fulfill God’s love and fairness.
We can also say that it would be best to convert in this life if we hear the Gospel of Christ. If you convert in this life, you will be blessed and after your death, you will go to Heaven and enter God’s bliss. But if you do not convert, your life will not be blessed and after your death, you will go down to Hades (Sheol) to reap what you sowed on earth and wait there for God’s final judgment of God. You do not know if you can really convert there or not, because your heart is naked before God’s eyes.
It is clear which is better. If we draw this picture to seekers, they will not postpone their conversion. Moreover, God says, “(I will show) mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments” (Exodus 20:6).
If you follow the teachings of God, He will give his mercy and love to thousands of your generations, including your descendants, ancestors, relatives and family members. Your walk in Christ will give pedigree blessings to the souls of Hades. If we preach this to seekers, then they will not postpone their conversion. The Bible says:
“If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved… Christ died and rose and lived again, that He might be Lord of both the dead (in Hades) and the living.” (Romans 10:9, 14:9)
Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection were not only for the living, but also for the dead, “that He might be Lord” of both. If the dead in Hades confess “the Lord Jesus” “Jesus is Lord”, they “will be saved”. The Bible clearly states that the Gospel of Jesus is in fact also for those in Hades. There are more biblical verses that mention Second Chance. For details, please read my next article “Second Chance for the Dead”.
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