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Hell, Hades, Gehenna, and the Realm of the Dead (Acts 2:27)

Hell is a slippery concept; and no, I’m not talking about recent debates. I am talking about what the word ᾅδης means.

I was reminded of this in reading the NIV of Acts 2:27. Peter cites Ps 16:10 as fulfilled in Christ. “You will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, you will not let your holy one see decay.” Why did the NIV switch from “grave” (1984) to “realm of the dead”? (I was not on the CBT when this change was made, so I was not part of the discussion.)

ᾅδης occurs ten times in the New Testament. In eight the NIV translates ᾅδης as “Hades.” In Acts 2:27 and in Peter’s following comment (v 31), it translates ᾅδης as the “realm of the dead.” In our passage, most translations simply write ”Hades” (NASB, NRSV, HCSB, NET) or “Hell” (ESV, KJV).

Sheol, the Old Testament word, is the place where all dead go, whether righteous or unrighteous. It is a place of shadowy existence. (Can we use this phrase, “shadowy,” any more without hearing the voice of Gandalf?) This is why the rich man could see Lazarus in the parable (Luke 16:23). This is the context of Ps 16:10, and reflects David’s conviction that God will not abandon him to the realm of the dead, the place of decay, and prophetically sees that God will likewise not abandon the Davidic Messiah.

Hades, on the other hand, is a transliteration of a Greek concept (obviously), referring first to the god of the underworld, and then eventually his domain, the realm of the dead, the grave, and death. ᾅδης was chosen as the primary translation of the Hebrew Sheol.

Verbrugge explains ᾅδης in the LXX as “a land of darkness, in which God is not remembered (Job 26:5–6; cf. 10:21–22; Ps. 6:5; 30:3, 9; 115:17; Prov. 1:12; 27:20; Isa. 5:14) … [where] there is no proclamation or praise (Isa. 38:18; cf. Ps. 88:11).” (NIDNTT-A, 16). In the New Testament we see it has become an underground prison (Matt 16:18; Rev 1:18), a place of torment that will eventually be thrown into the lake of fire and destroyed (Rev 20:14).

The other word connected with the topic of hell is Gehenna. The word is the Greek form of the Aramaic name of the valley to the south of Jerusalem, “the valley of the son[s] of Hinnom.” It is a place of child sacrifices (2 Kings 16:3; 21:6), a desecration that easily lent itself as the name and picture of God’s judgment (Jer 7:32), a fiery abyss (Matt 25:41; 13:42, 50). It is a temporary place (or state) that will give up its dead in final punishment and judgment. In 1 Pet 3:19 it clearly is a place for only the ungodly.

When you hear the word “hell,” what do you see? My guess is that most see pictures of Dante’s inferno, and biblically you see Gehenna, the valley used for child sacrifice and a garbage dump, whose fires and stench were a constant reminder of the punishment for sin.

This is not what David sees. He sees Sheol as a place of shadowy existence, a place of “decay” (Ps 16:10b). By changing from “Hades” to “realm of the dead,” the NIV is helping us not be anachronistic in our images. The NLT is agreeing with the NIV when it translates, “For you will not leave my soul among the dead.” That is certainly the point of the Psalmist and of Peter.

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