The ancient Greeks—speaking rather broadly here—would come to know the realm of the dead as Hades—named for the god who ruled it. It had various gates through which souls passed—one being the infamous River Styx. Should a living mortal seek to pass through the gates of Hades, it would be a death sentence. Even the epic, homeric hero Odysseus refused to enter Hades himself when he sought the wisdom of a dead prophet. Very few heroes in Greek mythology entered Hades and returned: Theseus and Herakles—known more popularly by his Latin name Hercules. The Greek poet Euripides writes that Herakles went down into Hades and brought back the noble princess, Alcestis, who was only there in the first place because she offered her own life that her husband would be spared.
Before the Greeks, the ancient Hebrews also believed in a realm of the dead. They called it Sheol. Sheol is seen during the rebellion of Korah—a descendent of Jacob’s son Reuben, who assembled 250 men from the leadership of Israel and sought to overthrow Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. We read in Numbers that “the ground opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the people who belonged to Korah and all their goods.” When Jacob thinks that his son Joseph has died, his other sons try to comfort him, but he says: “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” And when he thinks that Benjamin’s life is in danger, he says: “If you take this one also from me, and harm happens to him, you will bring down my gray hairs in evil to Sheol.” After King David’s son died at seven days old, the first child that he had with Bathsheba, he tells his servants, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said: Who knows whether Yahweh will be gracious to me, that the child may live? But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.” Job says, “As the cloud fades and vanishes, so he who goes down to Sheol does not come up; he returns no more to his house, nor does his place know him anymore.” After Hezekiah was healed by Yahweh from a terminal illness, he says, “I said, In the middle of my days I must depart; I am consigned to the GATES of Sheol for the rest of my years. I said, I shall not see Yahweh, Yahweh in the land of the living; I shall look on man no more among the inhabitants of the world.”
Our God is everlasting
However, as much as we hear about Sheol, we also hear a lot about how our God, Yahweh is everlasting—the living God with power even over Sheol. Yahweh speaks through the prophet Hosea concerning his people, Israel, saying, “Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol? Shall I redeem them from Death? O Death, where are your plagues? O Sheol, where is your sting?” Paul will play on this passage from Hosea chapter 13, when writes something very similar in 1 Corinthians 15 in a beautiful discourse on the resurrection from the dead. Even King David writes, in Psalm 23, that he will dwell in the house of Yahweh forever. Daniel writes, “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake.”
Even amid Greek persecution of the post-exilic Judeans under the oppression of the Seleucid emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes, at the beginning of the second century BC, God’s people refused to turn from him. Facing annihilation, the Maccabean martyrs trusted that God would vindicate them even in the face of death. They trusted that God would bring them back to life on the last day—a sentiment echoed by Martha at the death of her brother Lazarus. The realm of the dead would not have the last word. This understanding of God’s salvation continued even under Roman rule. They trusted the words of the prophets and followed their leaders who trusted in God.
Then Jesus appears on the scene, and he can’t be ignored. He has many followers, but nobody really knows what to make of him. Matthew writes, “Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?'” And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’” John, who was killed by Herod earlier in the narrative and Ezekiel and Jeremiah, known for their prophetic ministries during the Babylonian Captivity. The comparison is almost ominous. They believe him to be wise, intelligent, a godly man, a moral man, a great leader, one who performs miracles in the name of their God. But many of these have arisen in their midst over the last thousand years and Sheol got the better of them—Jesus appears no different. He might be great, but he is susceptible to Sheol just like everybody else, just like Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and John the Baptist.
This is what the people believe, but Jesus makes the distinction between his disciples and the rest of the people. “He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?'” After all they’re the ones to whom the mysteries of the reign of heaven are being revealed. Simon replies, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Not the son of Hades—the son of the living God. Jesus responds, “Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” Jesus’ identity is not something that can be attained by a human’s own strength—by someone whose fate lies with Sheol. It has to be revealed to us by God himself. It’s important to note here that Jesus doesn’t praise Peter for his insight—he calls him blessed.
Jesus continues: “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” Or better yet, the gates of Hades shall not launch an assault against it. He continues, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven”—or the reign of Heaven. This is in sharp contrast to what Jesus says about the Pharisees in Matthew chapter 23: he says, “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites (that is play-actors), for you shut the reign of heaven before men. For you neither are entering nor are you allowing to enter those who are trying to enter.” But to his disciples, he continues, “and whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven.’ Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.”
So, the action on earth is the actualization of the reality of something that’s already happened. The church, the priesthood of all believers, is the mechanism through which God works, and Hades—Sheol—doesn’t stand a chance. Jesus doesn’t just save us from Hades, he completely dominates it in his death and resurrection.
Death, which we all must face, which loved ones—people who are so close to us—have already faced, which we have brought upon ourselves with our sin—our disobedience—Jesus our champion has already saved us from it. Like the ancient Greek heroes Jesus went into the depths of death’s realm itself, but he didn’t only return, he defeated death altogether. As we see in Revelation 20—at the Great White Throne Judgment—John writes that even “Death and Hades were throne into the lake of fire.” Though we deserve death, we’re not sequestered to some realm of the dead as guilty mortals for all of eternity, rather as Paul says, in Christ, we put on immortality. Jesus has conquered Sheol; he’s conquered Hades. So, we will live in New Creation, as New Creation ourselves with his victory which becomes our victory forever.