When the Scriptures speak about the underworld, the realm of the dead, they use identical terms to those used by the surrounding culture. This includes the names Sheol or Hades, as well as references to the realm under or beneath the earth. This is not just the use of certain borrowed words or terms or even analogies. In the ancient world, there was a well-developed sense of the underworld, of places in this world in which it became present, and of points of access in this world which led there. Again, this sense did not consist of an ever-increasing series of metaphors and analogies or of cleverly-spun symbolic tales. The ancients firmly held that their descriptions of the underworld in general and its geography, in particular, were the product of real experience. This includes not only the ongoing experience of spiritual beings who were denizens of this underworld but also particularly visionary experiences and voyages of beings who entered the underworld and returned to tell the tale.
The Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament do not stand opposed to this literature and these understandings or even outside of it. Rather, they assume, presuppose, and reference it. Apocalyptic literature within the Scriptures, from the Second Temple period and early Christian sources preserved by the Church not only include this material but refine and add to it in recording further visionary experiences and teachings regarding the underworld. The hymnography of the Church paints within this larger tapestry when it speaks of the realm and powers of darkness, most especially in speaking of Christ’s invasion of this realm through his sacrificial death. In place of this richness, modernity has substituted merely a vague concept of ‘hell’ consisting of unending torture.
One of, if not the central concern of the Torah is the purification and protection of sacred space. The tabernacle and later temple were sacred spaces in which Yahweh, the God of Israel dwelt. When this sacred space was profaned, at times Yahweh broke out in the camp or among the people in destruction as a warning. Ultimately, its profanation led to the departure of Yahweh and the exile of the people. Both tabernacle and temple were constructed and decorated in order to depict their status as Paradise, the place where God dwells. Where God is present, that place becomes sacred space, holy ground, and is Paradise.
Less discussed is the parallel reality of profane space. Sin and wickedness leave a taint and corruption on the places where they take place. Where this is extreme and involves the evils of the spiritual realm, a physical place can become the underworld, Sheol or Hades, in the same sense that sacred space becomes Paradise. The most obvious example of this in the Scriptures, though there are several within and outside the Bible, is the Valley of Hinnom, or Gehenna (‘ge’ being Hebrew for valley). This valley is an actual, physical, geographic locale. It was originally named after a man, Hinnom, whose sons dwelt there (Josh 15:8). It later came to be the site of one of Judah’s greatest abominations which led directly to the exile. To wit, it was the place at which high places were built for the worship of foreign gods and where children were sacrificed by fire (Jer 7:30-34; Jer 19:1-6; 2 Kgs/4 Kgdms 23:10).
Note that Jeremiah prophesies that a part of the judgment coming upon Judah is that they will end up interred in the Valley of Hinnom or worse, their bodies will be left there to rot in the open and be consumed by beasts. This is in sharp contrast to the desired fate at death of resting with one’s fathers. This latter also had a physical, geographical sense in the location of burial in tombs beside one’s ancestors (eg. Joseph’s bones being returned to Canaan). The idea of resting in the bosom of Abraham or Gehenna, of Paradise and Sheol or Hades, were localized in these places. The tombs of the prophets were sacred space, made so by the presence of the fathers there.
In addition to places where the underworld overlapped with regions of this world, there were also numerous places, generally, caves and pits in the earth, which were considered to be gateways to Sheol or Hades. Mesopotamian sources describe demons who rise up from Sheol through cracks in the earth. Homer presents Odysseus as knowing of a cave, at which he can offer the blood of black goats to draw shades up out of Hades in order to communicate with them. One such entrance to the underworld is referenced directly in the New Testament. Matthew 16:18 is a verse that has been the subject of intense theological interest, though mostly due to the rise of the papacy. The reference there to the gates of Hades which will not prevail against the Church has received far less attention.
St. Peter’s profession of Jesus’ identity as the Christ, unlike many episodes in the Gospels, has a clearly listed location at which it takes place. The interaction happens in the area of Caesarea Philippi. This means that it happens within view of the site of Banias. At the foot of Mt. Hermon, literally, the cursed mountain is a spring from which flows the Banias River, a tributary of the Jordan. From the earliest recorded history, this place was a site of worship, first to Baal-Hermon (sometimes Baal-Gad). The Seleucids who followed Alexander the Great incorporated it into Greek modes of worship and built a massive temple complex there dedicated to the god Pan and the water nymphs, changing the name to Panias. The present name, Banias, is the Arabic pronunciation of the place name. It was believed that the cave from which the spring originally flowed was a gateway to Hades. Christ’s reference is therefore quite plainly to this temple, in contrast to his Church, the gates of Paradise to the gates of Hades.
Within Sheol or Hades there is a palace in which dwells its ruler. Depending on the background of an individual text, this figure will be Enlil, Osiris, Baal, or Hades. In most cases, the ruler of the underworld has had to build his palace there due to the hostile actions of other divine beings. The case of Baal is particularly relevant to the presentation in the Scriptures. Isaiah and Ezekiel use imagery drawn from the Baal Cycle to describe the Devil’s curse after his failed insurrection against God Most High (Gen 3:14-15; Is 14:11-20; Ezek 28:14-18). The Baal Cycle itself describes, rather propagandistically, the success of Baal’s insurrection against the Most High, followed by his descent to the underworld where he defeats Mot, the god of death, and then decides to build his palace there rather than the heights of heaven. Psalm 24 quite deliberately mocks this propaganda as it depicts Christ’s descent into Hades after his death on the cross and his invasion of the Devil’s palace and his seat of power. The gates of this palace are nearly universally described as brazen, or made of brass, as a way of describing their brilliant shine but weakness and falsity.
The underworld is depicted as containing certain bodies of water. Possibly the most well-known of these, from Greek traditions, is the river Styx. Modern conceptions of “hell” typically focus solely on fire and on a lack of water for refreshment, likely taking a cue from Luke 16:24. It should not be forgotten, however, that in the ancient world water was associated with chaos and destruction. The Styx represents a more nuanced version of this theme in being associated with forgetting and loss of self. These represent a loss of person or personhood which was the chief theme of the state of the dead beyond a blessed few in ancient religion.
Another, less well-known body of water in the underworld is the Acherusian Lake. This is a lake into which the Styx flows which served similar purposes originally. This lake corresponds, as does the Valley of Hinnom, to an actual lake in Thesprotia. Plato, however, makes particular use of the lake in the underworld (Phaedo 113a). For Plato, this is the place where souls are washed to forget their former life so that they can be reincarnated. In early Christian literature, the Acherusian Lake comes to be associated not with forgetting or reincarnation but with purification. Built into Christianity from the beginning was the understanding that those in Hades could find salvation before the last judgment through the prayers of the saints. In these early writings, preserved in the Orthodox Church, their salvation takes the form of baptism in the Acherusian Lake. So, in the Greek Life of Adam and Eve, at Adam’s death, the angels, the sun, and the moon offer incense and prayers to the Father on Adam’s behalf. In response, he is taken to the Acherusian Lake and immersed in its waters three times. The lake is described similarly in a number of other texts including the Apocalypse of Paul and the Apocalypse of Peter.
Within the underworld, there was a region which was, at least compared to the rest of Hades, more pleasant. This realm, the Elysian Fields in most Greek accounts, was the realm of the relatively few blessed humans who had somehow merited a better post-death existence. A similar region likewise existed in the conception of Sheol in Ancient Israel, the Second Temple period, and early Christian reflection. This region was the abode of the righteous and was, in the underworld, the region associated with the shrines of the fathers on earth. It is therefore described, for example, as the bosom of Abraham. It is the place where the righteous fathers dwell who have not been abandoned, even in Sheol, by Yahweh the God of Israel. This is the region of Hades depicted in Orthodox iconography of the Harrowing of Hades. It is this region to which Christ comes during his rest in the tomb, after breaking down the gates of the Devil’s palace, binding him, and stripping him of his power. This region of the underworld is the subject of a second exodus as the righteous dead are led from Hades to Paradise. Some early Christian literature allows that certain virtuous men and women of antiquity had also been allowed to dwell in this region and embraced Christ at the time of his descent.
A final region of the underworld takes the form of prison for certain primordial spiritual beings who have been confined there as punishment. In Mesopotamian stories, the apkallu shared the secrets of the gods with humanity before the flood, ultimately intermarrying with them to produce a race of kings. As punishment, the apkallu were confined by the gods to the Abyss, the depths of the sea which lie beneath the waters in the way in which the underworld lies beneath the earth. In Greek stories, this role is fulfilled by Prometheus and by the titans who were likewise punished with confinement within Tartarus, a dark pit beneath Hades.
Within the Scriptures, Second Temple literature, and early Christian writings these traditions were understood as descriptions of the sin of Genesis 4-6. A group of angelic beings, often designated as ‘watchers’ as the term is used in Daniel (4:13, 17, 23), reveals cultural and technological secrets to the descendants of Cain in order to hasten humanity’s self-destruction. This culminates in their production, with human women, of a race of giant tyrants. In response, they are likewise confined to the Abyss along with the disembodied spirits of most of their giant progeny, as narrated in 1 Enoch and Jubilees amongst other examples. New Testament writers refer to this explicitly. St. Peter speaks of these rebellious angels being imprisoned in Tartarus (2 Pet 2:4). In his other letter, he describes Christ as pronouncing their doom to them during his descent to Hades in parallel to a similar description by Enoch (1 Pet 3:19-20). Jude likewise references their imprisonment (v. 6) and quotes 1 Enoch directly (v. 14-15). They will remain imprisoned until the time of the last judgment, at which point they, like the Devil (Rev 20:3), will be released for a short time (Rev 9:1-11).
The Scriptures also describe the final fate of the underworld. This fate explains the two sets of imagery that are used in Scripture to describe the state of those who, at Christ’s judgment seat, receive eternal condemnation. The first set of imagery utilizes outer darkness, being shut out of the kingdom, the closing of doors and gates, and other imagery of separation (eg. Matt 8:12; 22:13; 25:30). In the world to come, the new heavens and the new earth will have become one. The knowledge of God will cover the earth as the water covers the sea (Hab 2:14). All of the renewed creation will be sacred space in which the Triune God will dwell (Rev 21:22). This means that the entire earth will have been purified, including the Valley of Hinnom, Mt. Hermon, and all other places. The gates from the underworld will be closed and it will be cut off from the realm of the living. There will be no further passing from one to the other.
The other set of imagery surrounds the lake of fire (Matt 25:41; Rev 20:10-15). The imagery of the lake of fire prepared for ‘the devil and his angels’ is not found anywhere in the Hebrew Scriptures or Christian Old Testament proper. It seems to reflect clearly the Enochic literature which first describes this lake as the fate of rebellious angelic beings (eg. 1 Enoch 21). St. John describes Hades itself, after its being cut off from the new creation, as being thrown into the lake of fire (Rev 20:14). It is this event, after Christ’s last judgment, which transforms the underworld as heretofore described into the fate of wicked beings, both angelic and humans who have refused repentance and hardened themselves in rebellion, in a state of tormenting flame.
That the imagery here used is once again a river (of fire flowing from the judgment seat of Christ, Dan 7:10) flowing into a lake (here also of fire). On one hand, the results of this condemnation are the same: loss of humanity, loss of personhood, madness, and darkness. In Hades, this diminishment and madness come from chaos embraced by human persons in rebellion against God’s divine order and justice. In that day, chaos will have been banished and God’s justice will have been established over all that is. This eternal torment, then, comes not from the waters of chaos, but from the fires of God’s own holiness. The consuming fire of Yahweh our God will have purified the righteous but will torment the wicked, both angels and men (Deut 4:24; Heb 12:28-29).