The word “Hades” first appears in the Bible at Mt. 11:23, and the translators capitalized it, as the proper name of a place. “And thou, Capernaum, shalt thou be exalted unto heaven? thou shalt go down unto Hades: for if the mighty works had been done in Sodom which were done in thee, it would have remained until this day.” From this we learn that Hades is not heaven, and in fact it can refer to a place quite the opposite of heaven, a place which is “down” and which will contain sinful people, such as the inhabitants of faithless Capernaum, (cf. Lk. 10:15).
That one reference does not give us the full explanation of Hades, a word meaning “hidden” or “unseen.” The KJV in that passage (Mt. 11:23) uses “hell” (uncapitalized), a word which in prior ages also sometimes meant “hidden” or “covered,” as when a farmer “helled” his potatoes, or “helled” his shed with a roof. But these days the word has practically lost that meaning completely, and it is therefore clearer to use the word Hades, as does the ASV, NKJV, et al. For that reason, in teaching others with the KJV, I would be sure to explain the older meaning of the word “hell” and compare it to “Hades.”
We must look to the other passages which use this word in order to get a full understanding of its meaning. Fortunately, a survey of these passages reveals much:
From Acts 2:27 we learn that Hades does not contain only the unrighteous dead, but evidently also contains a part or an area for righteous spirits, such as that of our Lord. “Because thou wilt not leave my soul unto Hades, Neither wilt thou give thy Holy One to see corruption.” In this passage, the statement is applied to Jesus, that his soul would not be “left in Hades,” indicating that it would be there, but would not be abandoned or allowed to remain there, (see Acts 2:31). And so Hades must consist of two distinct areas or sections, one for the faithful and another for the unrighteous. The “unseen realm” awaits all.
That Hades is a place from which there is no return is clear from our Lord’s statement that the “gates of Hades would not prevail against” the church, or, more specifically, his establishment of the church, (Mt. 16:18). Gates prevent access or entry. It would seem that Jesus was saying that neither his own entry into Hades nor the entry of his disciples after him would destroy or prevail over his church. As real and certain as Hades is, the church would be established and will continue regardless.
These considerations are further supported by the use of the word Hades in our Lord’s account of the rich man and Lazarus, (Lk. 16:19-31). In that realm can be seen both a place of of comfort, figuratively depicted as “Abraham’s bosom,” and a place of “torments” (vs. 23). The reference to Tartarus in 1 Pet. 2:4 appears to refer to this latter part of Hades, the place of torments. In Lk. 16 we see the certainty of going to one place or the other, depending on whether we are righteous or unrighteous in earthly life, (vs. 25). And we see the impossibility of changing places or coming back from there, even despite the pitiful and urgent pleas emanating from that place of torments, (vs. 26ff).
The only person with the power or ability to ever come out of Hades is Jesus Christ. “Behold, I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades,” (Rev. 1:18). Again in this passage, Hades is pictured as a type of waiting or holding area from which people may wish to escape, but the only one with the key is Jesus Christ. “Death and Hades” are inseparably connected because one follows the other assuredly, absolutely. “And I saw, and behold, a pale horse: and he that sat upon him, his name was Death; and Hades followed with him,” (Rev. 6:8). After death, the hadean realm awaits all people.
There is coming a day when Hades will be emptied. That day is variously described as the “day of the Lord,” (2 Pet. 3:10) or the “day of judgment,” (Acts 17:31). “And the sea gave up the dead that were in it; and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works,” (Rev. 20:13; cf. Rev. 20:14).
These are the verses in the Bible which mention Hades. They describe it as a place or realm currently unseen or hidden from our view. It is a place consisting of two areas, one for the righteous dead and another for the unrighteous. All the dead go there, and only one has ever left, namely Jesus Christ. He alone has the means of escape. There is no changing places once one is in Hades, and when Hades is finally emptied, at that time comes the great judgment day. Christians should not fear Hades, since to them it will be a place of great comfort and safety.
-by Robert C. Veil, Jr.