In the Old Testament, a place called Sheol is described as the common receptacle of both the righteous and the wicked when they die1:
- wicked: Numbers 16:30-33, Psalm 9:17
- righteous: Genesis 37:35; 42:38; 44:29, 31, 1 Kings 2:6, 9, Job 14:13; 17:13, Psalm 9:17; 31:17; 49:14, Isaiah 38:10
- all men: Psalm 89:48; Ecclesiastes 9:10
- Jesus: Psalm 16:10; Acts 2:27, 31
Once a man goes to Sheol, he comes up no more until the resurrection at the judgment (Job 7:9, 10, 14:12-14). Until that point, Sheol is a dark unseen place (Job 17:13). Sheol is a silent place (Psalm 115:17, 1 Samuel 2:9). There is no knowledge in Sheol (Ecclesiastes 9:4-6, 10). There is no praise in Sheol (Psalm 6:5, 88:10-12, 115:17, Isaiah 38:18-19). Sheol is a place where one's body goes and does nothing until he or she is bodily resurrected at the last day (Job 19:25-27). For more information about the Jewish Sheol, see the Jewish Encyclopedia.
New Testament Translations
In the 3rd century BC, the Greek King of Egypt commissioned 72 Jewish scholars to translate the Torah into Greek. The final work was named the Septuagint, named for the (roughly) seventy scholars that translated the Old Testament into Greek.
When translating these Old Testament verses about Sheol, the Jewish scholars opted to use the word "ᾅδης" (hades).
"In Greek mythology Hades was the god of the underworld, and then the name of the nether world itself. Charon ferried the souls of the dead across the rivers Styx or Acheron into his abode, where the watchdog Cerberus guarded the gate so that none might escape. The pagan myth contained all the elements of the medieval eschatology: there was the pleasant Elysium, the gloomy and miserable Tartarus, and even the Plains of Asphodel, where ghosts could wander who were suited for neither of the above. Ruling beside the god was his queen Proserpine (or Persephone), whom he had raped from the world above." (Edward Fudge, The Fire That Consumes, 1989, p. 205)
The etymology of this word likely comes from the Greek word "idein" which means "to see" preceded by "a" which means "the opposite." Hence Hades in both Greek mythology and in the Jewish translation of the Old Testament is an unseen realm. Therefore, when we read Hades in the New Testament, we should think not of the Greek version of hell, but of the Old Testament notion of the grave. Unfortunately, this Greek influence already had crept into Jewish theology in the first century.
The Greek word hades came into Biblical use when the translators of the Septuagint chose it to render the Hebrew sheol. The problem is that hades was used in the Greek world in a vastly different way than sheol. While sheol in the Old Testament is the realm of the dead, where, as we have seen, the deceased are in an unconscious state, hades in Greek mythology is the underworld, where the conscious souls of the dead are divided in two major regions, one a place of torment and the other of blessedness. ... This Greek conception of hades influenced Hellenistic Jews, during the intertestamental period, to adopt the belief in the immortality of the soul and the idea of a spatial separation in the underworld between the righteous and the godless. The souls of the righteous proceeded immediately after death to heavenly felicity, there to await the resurrection, while the souls of the godless went to a place of torment in hades. The popular acceptance of this scenario is reflected in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus... This view of hades as a place of torment for the wicked eventually entered into the Christian Church and influenced even Bible translators. (Immortality or Resurrection?, Samuele Bacchiocchi, Seventh-day Adventist, Ch 5: State of the Dead)
It was widely believed by the Jews at Jesus' time that the righteous dead would depart to the place of Abraham. John Lightfoot recounts a story from the intertestamental period:
There was a woman the mother of seven martyrs (so we find it also in 2 Macc 7). When six of her sons were slain, and the youngest brought out, in order to it, though but a child of two years and a half old, "The mother saith to Caesar, By the life of thy head, I beseech thee, O Caesar, let me embrace and kiss my child. This being permitted her, she plucked out her breasts and gave it suck. Then she; By the life of thy head, I entreat thee, O Caesar, that thou wouldest first kill me, and then the child. Caesar answered, I will not yield to thee in this matter, for it is written in your own law, The heifer or sheep with its young one, thou shalt not kill on the same day. To whom she; O thou foolish of all mortals, hast thou performed all the commands, that this only is wanting? He forthwith commands that the child should be killed. The mother, running into the embraces of her little son, kissed him and said Go thou, O my son, to Abraham my father and tell him, Thus saith my mother, Do not thou boast, saying, I built an alter and offered my son, Isaac. For my mother hath built seven altars, and offered seven sons in one day."
Did the Jews of Jesus time believe that the righteous dead were living with God? Or did they believe that they were in the grave. Some have argued that Abraham's Bosom is synonymous with limbus patrum, or the Limbo of the Patriarchs. This is the place where Abraham and all other righteous of the Old Testament rested until Jesus came to resurrect them.
Peter in Acts 2:29, 34 explains that when David died, he was buried, and his tomb is here today; David did not ascend into heaven. It is reasonable to assume that a man after God's own heart should be where Abraham should be upon death: Sheol.
Fortunately for our investigation, we have Jewish writings that illuminate the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Especially revealing is the "Discourse to the Greeks Concerning Hades," written by Josephus, the famous Jewish historian who lived during New Testament times (died about A. D. 100) [see: Josephus, Discourse to the Greeks Concerning Hades, in Josephus Complete Works, trans. William Whiston, 1974, p. 637]. His discourse parallels very closely the narrative of the rich man and Lazarus. In it Josephus explains that "Hades is a subterraneous region where the light of this world does not shine. . . . This region is allowed as a place of custody for souls, in which angels are appointed as guardians to them, who distribute to them temporary punishments, agreeable to every one's behavior and manners." Josephus points out, however, that hades is divided into two regions. One is "the region of light" where the souls of the righteous dead are brought by angels to the "place we call The Bosom of Abraham." The second region is in "perpetual darkness," and the souls of the ungodly are dragged by force "by the angels allotted for punishment." These angels drag the ungodly "into the neighborhood of hell itself," so that they can see and feel the heat of the flames. But they are not thrown into hell itself until after the final judgment. "A chaos deep and large is fixed between them; insomuch that a just man that hath compassion upon them, cannot be admitted, nor can one that is unjust, if he were bold enough to attempt it, pass over it."(Immortality or Resurrection?, Samuele Bacchiocchi, Seventh-day Adventist, Ch 5: State of the Dead)