The popular conception of life after death—inasmuch as the idea is still entertained by the average person—undoubtedly draws on Christianity, but in a muddled fashion. Confusion on the subject is so pervasive that even professing Christians are liable to use terms such as “Heaven” and “Hell” in ways that do not conform to biblical teaching. Particularly common is the belief that people go to Heaven or Hell right after they die. If true, the implication would be that people are judged by God immediately following death. However, this is at odds with the clear teaching of Scripture, which holds that the Judgment will only take place after Christ’s return (Matthew 25:31‒32, 2 Thessalonians 1:7‒10, 2 Timothy 4:1). Thus the popular account of life after death stands in need of correction.
Article III deals with Christ’s descent into Hell rather than the nature of Heaven and Hell broadly speaking. Even so, arriving at an informed understanding of the Article requires one to know what the relevant terms mean, as Browne recognizes. A fair bit of his exposition of this Article is therefore devoted to clearing up common misunderstandings.
Browne first explains the provenance of the term “Hell” as it appears in the Article:
The word “Hell,” as used in the Article, is plainly borrowed from the Apostles’ Creed; for it appears that the first five Articles of the Church are little more than an amplification of the Articles of the Creed, intended to set forth, that the Church of England continued truly Catholic in its doctrines, whilst it was constrained to protest against the corruptions of some branches of the Church. In the Latin, the word used is either “inferi” or “inferna.” The Greek corresponding to this was either τὰ κατώτατα or ᾅδης; the former referring to Eph. iv. 9, the latter to Acts ii. 27. It has, however, generally been admitted, and may fairly be assumed, that the Greek word ᾅδης is the word of Scripture, which both the Creed and the Article render inferi and hell; and it has been observed, that, according to their derivations, these words answer to one another. ᾍδης is something unseen, from ἀ and εἶδον. Inferi is the Latin from the Greek word ἔνεροι or ἔν ϝεροι, i. e. those beneath the earth, the Manes or Spirits of the dead. Hell is from the same root as hole and hellier (i. e. a roofer, a coverer), and signifies the covered or hidden place, the Saxon root being helan, to cover.
The term ᾍδης, rendered as “Hades,” historically refers to “that place to which the Ghosts or Manes of the dead went after their burial.” The same term was adopted by the Jews as a translation of the Hebrew שְׁאוֹל, or “Sheol.” As Browne observes, the fact that the biblical term γέεννα (Gehenna) is also typically translated as “Hell” is a great source of confusion:
There is indeed another word in the new Testament often rendered in the English by hell. That word is γέεννα; and some confusion arises from this indiscriminate translation. As, however, neither the Creeds nor the Church have been wont to use γέεννα, to express the place to which our Lord went after His death, we may lay aside the consideration of the word at present; merely observing that it is the proper term in the new Testament for the state or place of damned souls and apostate spirits.
Hence it is more accurate to say Christ descended to Hades, the place of departed spirits broadly speaking, rather than the realm of damned souls, i.e., Gehenna, specifically. Browne goes on to say that those departed souls in a state of “happiness” rather than “misery” were said by the Jews to reside in “the Garden of Eden” or “in Abraham’s bosom” (as in Luke 16:22), and Christ refers to it as “Paradise” in Luke 23:43.
Those who die, then, depart to Hades, and more specifically either to Paradise or Gehenna. As yet, no human other than Christ is in Heaven, for “no one hath ascended up to Heaven but He that came down from Heaven, even the Son of Man which is in Heaven” (John 3:13). It is only after the resurrection of the dead and the Judgment that all will go to their final resting place of either eternal joy or eternal damnation. This was the commonly held patristic view in the early church, as Browne attests.
It could be said there are only minimal (at best) practical implications in saying a person’s departed loved ones in Christ are in Paradise rather than Heaven. Either way they are “in a better place,” so what value is there in quibbling over terminology? I would answer that their state after death may be a “better” place, but it is not the best place. In other words, our disembodied souls subsisting after death is merely an intermediate state, whilst our ultimate state will only obtain when our physical bodies have been resurrected. So it is taught by Scripture and the Christian tradition, and so we ought to remember—even after death the best is still yet to come, as we await that embodied glory promised to us.
- For a recent account of Heaven in the Thomistic tradition, see Christopher M. Brown, Eternal Life and Human Happiness in Heaven: Philosophical Problems, Thomistic Solutions (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2021). ↑
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