Hades in the NET Bible

Michael H. Burer's picture


In this second post about words related to the recent controversy over Rob Bell and his book Love Wins, I examine the word “hades” in the NET Bible. (See the first post on sheol in the NET Bible here.) Again, my goal is to get a better sense for what we are doing with these passages so we can be sure the NET Bible is helping the church with our translations of these key passages.

In contemporary English when we hear the word “Hades,” we often equate this with the traditional concept of “hell,” that is, a fiery place of punishment for those who reject God. This perceived similarity is in some ways incorrect, as the Greek term had its own meaning and history. From the time of Homer it was used as a proper name to refer to Hades, the god of the Underworld, as well as to the realm of the dead over which he ruled. In this sense the word has many similarities to the Hebrew term sheol. This connection is strong enough that in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures completed during the third century B.C., the translators used the Greek term hades to translate the Hebrew word sheol almost every time it occurs (61 out of 65 times). However, because of the ideas about the afterlife which developed in between the testaments, concepts of blessings for the righteous and torment for the wicked were attached to this word, and hints of these developments can be seen in the New Testament.

The word hades (ᾅδης) only occurs ten times in the New Testament: Matt 11:23; 16:18; Luke 10:15; 16:23; Acts 2:27, 31; Rev 1:18; 6:8; 20:13, 14. All of the references except one can be well understood to mean the equivalent of the Hebrew concept of sheol, that is, the dwelling place of the dead. This is especially so with the passages from Revelation; in each one death and Hades are used in parallel, without any idea of eternal torment or suffering. In the last occurrence in Revelation, for example, death and Hades themselves are thrown into the lake of fire, which many theologians would argue is this book’s representation of hell. The passage that is slightly different is Luke 16:23, found in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Here the passage states, “And in hell, as he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far off with Lazarus at his side.” This is the only New Testament passage that explicitly connects hades and torment or punishment. (The following verse explains this torment as the result of fire.) So here one could properly speak of Hades as what we presently understand by the concept of hell. As far as our translation is concerned, we translate hades as “Hades” nine out of the ten occurrences. It is only in Luke 16:23 that we translate this word as “hell.” In most every location (except for the last three references in Revelation) we have a note explaining that the Greek term hades is equivalent to the Hebrew term sheol. 

As I look at what we have done in the NET Bible, I think we have done a good job. The one place where this word is used in the context of torment and punishment, we translate it as “hell,” which is quite appropriate given what the contemporary reader understands from that term. The question in my mind is, what does the contemporary reader understand when they read the word “Hades”? We explain the term most of the time it occurs, which is helpful, but I wonder if a different translation would be more understandable. Frankly, though, the problem with changing “Hades” to something else would be the poetry of the passages. Take for example Matt 11:23:

And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be thrown down to Hades! For if the miracles done among you had been done in Sodom, it would have continued to this day. 

This passage has great rhetorical power with the juxtaposition of the two phrases in the first half. There is a great parallel between “exalted” and “thrown down” and then again between “heaven” and “Hades.” If we were to change “Hades” to “the place of the dead” or “the underworld,” the rhetorical power of the passage would suffer. So I am not inclined to change anything at present. This is a very similar issue to the use of sheol, but it is slightly different in one respect: My impression is that a contemporary reader would more likely understand “Hades” correctly than they would “Sheol.” So I would argue for some changes in the Old Testament with the use of that term, but I would not argue for changes in the New Testament with the use of “Hades.” 

Let me know if you agree or disagree in the comments.



I am all in favor of leaving the word as “Hades” in the translated text and then clarifying it, if necessary, in a footnote. We see far too much incorporation of interpretation into the biblical text these days, even though the selected interpretations may not be correct.

I am a bit confused in the case of Matthew 11:23, because the NET notes say: “In the OT, Hades was known as Sheol. It is the place where the unrighteous will reside.” Yet I see no evidence in your post that you would restrict Hades to the unrighteous dead. So, I think there is sometimes more confusion over who is assigned to these various named places than there is over whether the names should be transliterated or replaced with a descriptive phrase. Could you say a little about that issue?

Thanks for your work on explaining all these terms!


Michael H. Burer's picture

Thank you for your comment, as I had never noticed this before. (We make a similar statement in Luke and Revelation, where the term occurs as well.) It would be better if we said something like, "the place where the dead reside," as that is more in keeping with the meaning of the term. So I'll likely modify the notes accordingly.

As to the other issue you mention about who is assigned to these places, as you can imagine it is a complicated issue. We tend to think of hell, for example, as a place that exists currently, where unrighteous souls are punished after death (like the rich man in Luke 16) . But there is a real sense in which hell (and heaven, for that matter) does not exist yet in its final, ultimate form. That won't occur until the final defeat of death and Satan in the Lake of Fire and the second death, as described in Revelation. So I would say that at present Hades/hell does exist, and it does serve as a place of punishment for those who die without Christ as savior. But it is temporary and will one day be supplanted by an even more terrible place, Hell in its final eschatological sense, which will then exist forever under God's judgment. 

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