Cursory Remarks on the Word Hades


Adapted from Vol. IV,  Orthodox Church Magazine (Anglican), April 1803



The communication of your very respectable conrrespondent, the London Curate, in your Number for February last, “on the common receptacle of departed spirits,” has excited my attention to the meaning of the word Hades, as it occurs in scripture.  I send you the result of my investigation, not so much with the idea of throwing any new light on the subject, as with the view of giving a specimen of the use, which, as I conceive, ought to be made of such ingenious invitations to theological discussion: 

The opinion entertained y Bishop Horsley, that the word hades signified the “place appointed for the habitation of departed souls, in the interval between death and the general resurrection,” is that which was held by Lord Chancellor King, in his “History of the Apostles’ Creed,” in which is contained a long and learned dissertation on the subject.  Dr. Hey, however, who will seldom be found to advance an opinion unsupported by good reasons, says, “a word answering exactly and properly to the word hades would express the habitation of man after death, and so include the receptacle of bodies as well as of souls.”  Norris’s Lecures, vol. 2. p. 377.  Dr. Hey refers to Lord King’s opinion, which he things to be scarecely correct. This is said in a note.  In the text of which the note may considered as a correction, Dr. Hey had said, that “h yuxh eij ada may either mean the body in the grave, or the soul in the place of departed souls, nor both; that is, the man in the state of men after death.”  As the doctrines, which have any dependence on the sense of this word, will remain much the same whichever of the sense now mentioned be admitted, it may seem of no great consequence to determine which of them is the true one. I am of opinion, however, that it is always worth a student’s while to obtain as accurate a knowledge of the sense of scriptural words, as he possible can.  The way then, seems to be, to examine the context of the several passages of the Old and New Testament, in which the word sheol in Hebrew and hades in Greek occurs; for, in the Septuagint, the latter is generally, if not always, the translation of the former. 

The result of that examination, so far as I have proceeded in it, is, that it sometimes signifies the place or state of departed souls, and sometimes the place or state of the dead, without meaning to distinguish between the soul and the body; but that is never clearly signifies the grave, or the place of the dead body only, tho’ often rendered in that sense by our translators.   

The common Lexicons, indeed, interpret the Hebrew word sheol by sepulchrum, and it is generally, if not always, so interpreted in the Latin translation of the Old Testament by Tremellius and Junius.  This interpretation, however, is not, in ay of the place which I have examined, supported by the context.  The Latin Vulgate generally, if n ot always, translates sheol and hades by in infernum or ad inferos, which seems accurate, whether we consider it as the place of the departed soul only, or of the man, as compounded of soul and body.  Indeed, we ought to consider, that, when this word was first made use of, the distinction between soul and body was not understood exactly in the same sense in which it is understood at present. The ancients seem to have had no notion of a soul, which had not at least the form of a body. In their infernal regions, the shades, however purified and refined, retained the appearance of the living man on earth. Even in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, as delivered in the Scriptures, they are both represented in hades as possessed of their bodily limbs and organs. The truth is, we do not know how to speak intelligibly of the human soul, any more than of the Deity, or other spiritual beings, without attributing to it the form, tho’ not the grossness, of the body. 

Mr. Green, in his translation of the Pslams, generally renders sheol and hades by grave. He does this even in Psalm 16:10, where, if any where, as it should seem the rendering of it by a word, which denotes the receptacle of departed souls, is peculiarly proper. Near the beginning fo the 88th Psalm, as it stands in the translation adopted into the Liturgy, occur the words hell, pit, and grave, answering to adhj, laxxoj, and tafoj in the Greek.  This distinction is preserved in the Latin Vulgate by the words infernum, lacus, and sepulchrum; but in the translation by Tremellius and Junius, they are all rendered by the word sepulchrum.  In our Bible translation, as also in that by Mr. Green, the rendering is made by the words grave, pit, and grave. 

Mr. Green says, “I have not adhered so strictly to the original, as always to translate the same Hebrew by the same English word”; and it appears by this, that neither does our Bible translation aim at this exactness. It seems to me, however, that, in a translaton of the Holy Scriptures, scriptures “given by inspiration of God,” this exactness, supposing the sense of the original word to be the same, well deserves to be attended to; for, in many cases, we have no means of knowing what may be the consequence of departing from it. In the following passage, and its parallels, the word grave is a translation of sheol and hades.  “If mischief befall him by the way in which ye go, then shall ye bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave” (Gen. 42:38).  Here, it must be acknowledged, the word grave sufficiently expresses the meaning, and the English reader, perhaps, would be unwilling to have it changed; yet here, as in other places, it would be more exact to say, “with sorrow to the dead,” or “with sorrow to the mansions of the dead.” 

Some mischief has actually ensued frm confounding the words hades and gehenna, and translating both by the word ehll; for hence has arisen the opinion, that our Saviour, after his decease, went into the place of torment; an opinion, for which tere is not any just ground, and which is likely to lead into other errors.  We may, I think, venture to affirm, that the word hades is never uses to signify the place of torment.  In the Old Testament, in which the knowledge of future rewards rewards and punishments was not clarly revealed, we are not likely to find it in that sense, (nor is there, that I know of, any word in the Old testament, which has that sense,) tho’ it seems sometimes to have been so nderstood by our translators; nor is it by any means clear, that it ever has that sense even in the New Testament.  The only passage in the New Testament, in which with any appearance of reason it has been thought to have that sense, is in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus; and even there, it is evidently comprehends the state of both the happy and the miserable; for Lazarus, was well as the rich man, was in hades, tho’ there was a great gulf between them. The words heaven and hell, however, are so frequently used in contrast, that it seems scarcely possible so to change the common use of the word hell, as that it may not signify the place of torment; otherwise, I should prefer to have the word hades in both the Old the New Testament always translated hell, according to the original meaning of that word, and to express the place of torment by the Scriptural word gehenna. I propose, therefore, that only the latter word be translated hell, and that, wherever the word hades occurs, it be either left untranslated, (which, as in the case of Logos, and a few other words, might be best of all,) or translated by a term or terms which denote the state of the dead; without noticing the distinction, it may not always appear whether the state of departed souls, or the state of the dead, is spoken of, yet no erroneous notion will be thus conveyed.

This might be the case, if we proceeded further; for, at present, it does not seem to be clearly ascertained in what places the word hades signifies the state of departed souls, and in what it signifies merely the state of the dead.  In the Creed for instance, where the state of departed souls is evidently set meant, instead of saying, “he descended into hell,” an expression, I fear, which generally excites a wrong idea, I would say, “he descended into hades,” or “he descended to the mansion of the dead.” In all the passages of the New Testament, in which, according to the table given by the London Curate, the word hades occurs, the translation of it by these latter terms may, I think, be admitted with propriety; and with respect to the passages of the Old Testament, in which it occurs, the propriety will probably be still more evident. 

I am not aware that so much inconvenience can arise from translating hades by the grave, as from translating it by the word hell, though, as we have seen it be not the right sense of it. We ought, however, as I have said, always to aim at exactness in our translation of Scripture, even in cases where we see no reason to apprehend inconvenience from the want of it; and, when the proper time for a new translation of the Scriptures shall arrives, these particulars, in common with others of the like kind, will probably not be unattended to. 

April 9, 1803.  I am, Gentlemen, your, &c. E. Pearson. 

P.S. If there be any word or expression of the O.T. Which signifies the place of torment, or what we vulgarly call hell, it seems to be the “house or assembly of the giants,” so called in reference to the supposed situation of the disobedient rase of men before the flood; see Gen. 6:4.  It must be acknowledged, that Mr. Mede (B. 1. Dis. 7) has given plausible reasons for such an acceptation of this expression, as it occurs in Prov. 16:16, which, however, our translators render “the congregation of the dead.”  Both the Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate render it “the congregation of the giants.” In Prov. 2:18, where the Heb word is also giants, and which our translators also render “the dead,” the Septuagint uses the word hades with a periphrasis, para tw adw meta twn ghgenwn, “in hades with the giants.”  In the parallel passages, Prov. 7:27, and Prov 9:18, where sheol is in the original, the Septuagint, as usual, has hades, and our translation has hell.  In both these passages, Tremellius and Junius have sepulchrum, which, as before, I take to be wrong.  In all the three passages, the Lat. Vulgate has “ad inferas,” which, on the whole, as being an indeterminate expression, I still think to be right. In the last, the Septuagint render it by ghgeneij giants, while, as before, our translators render it “the dead.”


Top of page

To receive Kurt Simmons’ e-mail newsletter, The Sword & The Plow, click the Subscribe link:



All rights reserved.