Surprised by Hell: Hades and Tartarus

Most of the time I agree with N. T. Wright. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I’m not sure. And I’m not sure about Wright’s views on hell.

He dismisses the orthodox view of eternal, conscious torment but also dismisses the conditionalist (or annihilationalist) view that the lost are destroyed at the Eschaton in an agonizing process, preferring instead a theory of an eternal existence of worshiping the wrong thing.

Some years ago, I read Ed Fudge’s masterful The Fire that Consumes, which is the most comprehensive defense there is of the conditionalist view, which is that only God is immortal and he has promised immortality only to the saved. Hence, the lost are not immortal and they do not have an eternal existence.

When I take on these studies, I like to independently do my research. Rather than going back over Fudge’s book, I’ve decided to figure it out for myself. I might take a look at his book when I’m done, but I’d rather avoid being biased by reading just his point of view. (You have to watch those lawyers, you know!)

And the way I like to do this is by doing word studies. I check out every use of certain key words and see if they paint a consistent picture. This way, an author can’t slip something past me by only citing only the verses that support his view.

Therefore, this post will be the first of several word studies, looking to see just how the Biblical writers describe the fate of the damned.

The traditional view

To start, let’s just quickly review the orthodox view of where the dead are. As the theory goes, after we die and before Jesus returns, we go either to Paradise or Tartarus, both of which are a part of Hades. Then after the Judgment, those in Paradise go to heaven and those in Tartarus go to hell.

Now, there are obviously some problems with this theory —

* Why wait on Judgment if the souls are already sorted between lost and saved? No one is going to be surprised! And Matthew 25 predicts surprise.

* This theory is astonishingly similar to Greek mythology, which seems just too weird.

* Where’s the new heaven and new earth?

And so, we need to talk about “Hades.”


“Hades” is often translated in the English translations as “the grave” or “the depths,” but it has a more definite meaning. The Greeks used “Hades” to refer to the god of the underworld, where the dead live, both good and bad. They also referred to the underworld itself as Hades.

Hades contained such places as Tartarus, where evil people are tormented after they die, but also the Elysian Fields, where the righteous would live in perpetual bliss, which is much like the Jewish Paradise.

In the Septuagint, sheol is translated “Hades.” The NIV and KJV generally translate sheol as “the grave.” For example,

(Gen 42:38) But Jacob said, “My son will not go down there with you; his brother is dead and he is the only one left. If harm comes to him on the journey you are taking, you will bring my gray head down to the grave in sorrow.”

(Psa 16:9-10) Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, 10 because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay.

In the New Testament, we find “Hades” where we might have found sheol in the Hebrew.

(Mat 11:23) And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day.

The prophecy is thus, not for hell, but the death of the city (just as Sodom was destroyed). Just so,

(Mat 16:18) And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

Jesus is not speaking of conquering hell so much as death — the grave. His church will launch an assault on and defeat death.

(Alternatively, I have to note that in Caesarea Philippi where Jesus was speaking, there was a place called the Gates of Hades, where Pan was worshiped. Jesus may have been referring to defeating idolatry rather than death.)

In Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man is said to be in Hades “where he was in torment” (Luke 16:23). And so, here we see a transition from the Jewish use of sheol/Hades to refer to the grave to a separate, conscious existence outside this world.

But in Acts 2:31, Peter preaches that Jesus went to Hades when he died, plainly meaning the grave, not hell.

In Revelation, Hades appears as immediately following Death —

(Rev 6:8) I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.

The natural reading is “grave.”

(Rev 20:13-15) 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. 14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. 15 If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

The final mention of Hades is again in the company of Death, surely meaning the grave. John shows death and the grave cast into the lake of fire, not meaning that Death and the Grave are to be eternally tortured, but that they’re to be destroyed.

Now Tartarus makes but one appearance in the scriptures —

(2 Pet 2:4) For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell [Tartarus], putting them into gloomy dungeons to be held for judgment;

Nothing says that lost human souls wind up in Tartarus pending Judgment Day. This one passage speaks only of angels.

Therefore, while it’s easy enough to see where the orthodox view of Paradise and Tartarus comes from, the traditional theory is hardly proven. And if we accept that time is a created part of this universe, we don’t really need a two-story Hades to store souls in until Judgment Day.

We’ll be coming back to the rich man and Lazarus. For the rest of it, all we’re told about Hades is that people die and go to the grave and the lost suffer torment — but we haven’t yet been told for how long. Next, we have to talk about Gehenna.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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5 Responses to Surprised by Hell: Hades and Tartarus

  1. Alan says:

    The immediate passage of souls at death to an intermediate place awaiting judgment is suggested from passages like these:
    1) What Jesus told the thief on the cross (Today you will be with me in paradise)
    2) The souls of martyrs, in Rev 6:9-11
    3) Saul and the witchess of Endor calling Samuel up , 1 Sam 28
    4) Jesus' parable of Lazarus.
    5) David and his first son through Bathsheba (1 Sam 12:23)
    6) The command against consulting the dead, Deut 18:11
    and probably some others. I guess that you'll eventually get to these…

  2. Jay Guin says:

    I addressed the thief on the cross in —

    Where Are the Dead before the Second Coming, Part 1

    Where Are the Dead before the Second Coming? Part 2

    I dealt with Rev 6 at /2008/06/28/surprised-by-ho

    Regarding Samuel, you're thinking in terms of our present time-space universe. Heavenly time does not correspond to earthly time. There's no reason at all that Samuel or Elijah or Moses couldn't visit earth from the (to us) future new heaven and new earth.

    This is explained at /2007/10/28/the-new-perspec

    I'll be getting to the rich man and Lazarus in future posts.

    In 2 Sam 12:23, David says his son will not return to him but he can do to him. If God takes them both to the new heaven and new earth on death, then at his death, David will go to his dead son.

    I'm not sure that anyone can consult the dead really — unless God allows it for God's own purposes. But even so, we are not so far from the new heaven and new earth as you imagine.

    It's hard to explain, but clearly the physics of the new heaven and new earth will be different from ours, as I explain at /2007/10/28/the-new-perspec

    I need to expand a bit on this as I'm sure it's far from obvious to many readers. I'll post something later dealing with the physics of the new heaven and new earth — which will hopefully explain how the dead aren't that far removed for us today, despite getting a free pass to the end of time.

  3. gracehead says:


    at the risk of sounding nit-picky …

    Hell (as a place of unending torment) is a teaching, like purgatory, that has no basis in scripture. It is a tradition that has become orthodox, but scripture as in most cases runs contrary to tradition. Consider John 3:16 … "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, so that as many as believe in Him may not PERISH but have Eternal Life."

    Life is a gift … we are not owed life, but we each have it for a time. But it is inherently TEMPORARY … having a beginning and an end. The doctrine of hell depicts no end … no "PERISHING" … but continued and unending conscious torment.

    In reality, to accept the very Life of God is to be made alive by His life … a Life that is unending and unbeginning .. .ETERNAL. To reject that Life is to remain temporal … having no Eternal destiny.

    To perish is to be UNFORMED to nothing .. and those that receive the second death to be made "no more" will have no thoughts to realize they have received it or not. Thoughts perish with the perishing

    The serpent said: "You shall surely not die." … and the church has been repeating the refrain, even when such teaching goes against the most popular verse … John 3:16.

    Perish means perish.

    Consider this:
    1/14/06 – From God the Father
    …Shall I, even I, torment My beloved, they who are tormented continually by he who is, and has, torment in his vesture? Satan is the tormentor. … Become, again, a child of God, and learn to walk uprightly, leading others into love, by love, not fear.MORE of this letter about unbiblical "hell" HERE

    18 reasons why in a single verse

    Theological Myth – Unending conscious torture

  4. Alan says:

    I’ll post something later dealing with the physics of the new heaven and new earth — which will hopefully explain how the dead aren’t that far removed for us today, despite getting a free pass to the end of time.

    I think that is the most rational explanation of what happens between death and final judgment. In that scheme, the various passages about paradise, sleeping souls etc can be taken as a way to accomodate inexpressible concepts about life outside of physical space-time, in metaphors that the average human can comprehend and relate to.

  5. linda shidell says:

    What about 2 Peter 2:9? The unrighteous are being kept under punishment for the day of judgement. Sounds like the ungodly are being tormented now.linda

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