Q&R with Brad Jersak: Is death/hades a servant of God or an enemy?
Hi Dr. Brad,
I am reading your book: Her Gates Will Never Be Shut and I read there about the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. As I understand it, hades is a servant of God for pedagogical purposes, in order to “complete the course” of un-repentant people for causing thirst for the Water of Life and God’s Banquet, leading them to humility and repentance.
My question comes because I have read the Apostle Paul saying that death is the last enemy of God to be destroyed. So Death / Hades is considered somehow an enemy, meanwhile following the above logic, it looks like it is a servant for accomplishing God’s purpose.
Another question comes to me because I have heard many hymns or sermons from the early fathers of the church (e.g. the Paschal Homily of Saint John Chrysostom). These hymns or sermons say hades is destroyed or at least lost its power when Christ descended there and rose again at the Resurrection. This question comes to my mind: Is it still hades with the same power as before Christ Descending into it and His Resurrection, or something changed?
As always, your answers are much appreciated.
Servant of God? Not so much. Though that would be one way to think about it, especially in that context. But I do not think we should read that parable without reference to its punchline in the conquest of death and hades through the Cross of Christ and his Resurrection. And I certainly not literalize or totalize the parable. See my article HERE.
I would regard hades as the personification of death as a defeated enemy.
Very good question. Let’s play out the developing history of hades as an extra-biblical and biblical word, a Jewish metaphorical ‘place’ and a Christian anthropomorphism. Hades is not just one thing and the biblical testimony of what has become of hades is not uniform.
Hades as the Jewish Sheol
First, from an ancient Jewish perspective, hades is the Greek word they chose to translate the Hebrew word sheol. Sheolfor the Jews was the grave, the place and realm of death, a gloomy destination from which both the Psalmist and Jonah hope to be delivered. The cry to be delivered from sheol can refer to either being saved from dying when in peril and also the hope that they will not be abandoned in death, whatever it is (whether a shadowy existence or dissolution into non-being). The alternative hope is for paradise, although Judaism did not seem to have a robust view of resurrection until the intertestamental period and pseudo-Daniel. Again, for Jews of that time, hades = sheol = the grave. So the Jewish hades is not literally a ‘place’ so much as a state of being after death.
Hades as the Greek god & underworld
Second, hades in Greek mythology is god of the dead and the king of the underworld, and the underworld itself is also called hades. Greek philosophers did not treat their pantheon of gods so much as embodiments of human realities, though the population did offer sacrifices in their temples. NT scholars sometimes treat the world of the Jewish gospels as isolated from Greek culture but in fact, a process of Hellenization had been going on for 100s of years by the time we get to Christ.
In borrowing the word hades from the Greeks, hades does seem to adopt and adapt the term hades as a personification of death and the realm of death so that the fiery torments of Greek (and Babylonian) mythology enter the Jewish imagination concerning the afterlife, including Jesus’ parable.
Hades as the Conquered Enemy of Christ
With the death and resurrection of Christ, the first Christians’ understanding of death and hades radically shifted, although it is not uniform. For some, the emphasis is on how hades as death personified has been defeated (along with Beelzebub, prince of the demons) and hades as an underworld of fiery torment has been ransacked and emptied.
Hades already defeated: This reflects Christ’s prophecy that he would bind the strongman (satan) and plunder his goods (those in bondage to him). Authors such as Paul (in Ephesians) and Peter (in his epistles) imagine Christ descending into hades and bringing back the captives. Death, in that sense, was transfigured from a dreadful destination into a doorway to eternal life. And so now we are freed from both our lifelong bondage to death and the fear of death (according to Hebrews 2). They took Jesus seriously when he promised that those who believe in him will not die… that is, we may ‘fall asleep’ or ‘depart’ but actually dying in the old sense is a done deal.
Hades yet to be defeated: For others, hades still awaits a future demise since people still die. They lean on those passages such as 1 Corinthians 15 where death is an enemy that will ultimately be vanquished so that death is no more. They think about death and hades being gathered up and thrown in the Lake of Fire at the end of days. The point is the same: life reigns.
So perhaps we could say that Christ has conquered and repurposed death and hades, reframing and redeeming them for his glorious purposes. In that renewed sense, we may even learn to welcome death as a ‘friend,’ but ultimately, the grief and loss involved, the tears we shed, will come to a finale when life overcomes death and permanently banishes hades from the scene.