The notion of two separate places for the afterlife, Heaven and Hell, does not exist in the NT. In fact, it takes about twelve centuries to take the form which it now has. If you have 20 minutes, I believe that I can trace the development during the formative period of Heaven and Hell that will enable you to sort out all the confusion.
Ready? Let's go.
In my early religious formation, the Ursuline Sisters at Holy Cross Catholic Grade School used the Baltimore Catechism to introduce us to the notion that Jesus visited Hades following his death on the cross.
Q 85. Where did Christ's soul go after His death?
A. After Christ's death His soul descended into hell.
You can notice here that ᾅδης (Hades) is here translated as “hell.” This causes lots of misunderstanding today because Christians are routinely taught that only unrepentant sinners go to hell. The phrase “descended into Hades” would have been more appropriate here, because second-century converts brought their notion of ᾅδης (Hades) with them when they entered the Jesus movement. According to their understanding, the “immortal soul separates from the body at death” and “the soul migrates into the realm of Hades.” Whether one was a Greek or a Jew, an Egyptian or a Persian, male or female, great or unimportant, virtuous or filled with vices, this made no difference. Every soul was warehoused in the final resting place known as Hades.
The Church Fathers had two choices. They could condemn Hades as a pagan superstition unworthy of their attention, or they could offer a narrative whereby Jesus took an active role in refashioning Hades. After carefully considering their pastoral options, the Church Fathers chose the second course of action.
In the Gospels, Jesus says absolutely nothing about his preaching mission in Hades. Even when Jesus was raised from the dead on the third day and was making appearances to his disciples, still Jesus is absolutely silent regarding his presence and/or his successes in Hades. Accordingly the early Church Fathers were entering into brand new territory when they began to preach to their congregations about how the soul of Jesus descended into Hades as soon as his body died on the cross. Why would Jesus want to visit Hades? Various reasons were brought forward. I present three distinct responses to this issue in chronical order.
Phase #1: Jesus preaches to those drowned at the time of Noah
Within ancient Judaism, the living had no contact with the dead; hence, in principal, Jesus had no possibility of preaching to those who drowned at the time of Noah’s flood. During the first quarter of the second century; however, a new epistle, 1 Peter, was first circulated that gave an entire new slant to the efficacy of the death of Jesus. According to the author of this epistle, Jesus’ death afforded him the opportunity to offer his message to those who had died and were abiding in Hades (as shown in the pic) awaiting the general resurrection of the dead on the last day. In 1 Peter, one finds the phrase “Christ also suffered for sins” (3:18) being used in connection with the explanation that “he was put to death in the flesh . . . and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison [ἐν φυλακῇ πνεύμασιν] who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah” (3:18-20). The phrase “spirits in prison” makes reference to the those whose souls were imprisoned in Hades after their deaths.
In Acts 2:23, Peter says that Christ “was not abandoned by God in Hades [οὔτε ἐνκατελείφθη εἰς Ἅιδην].” This is Good News indeed. If Jesus “was not abandoned by God” in the realm of the dead, then the possibility exists that still others might be able to escape the terror of Death. In Acts, a late first-century document, Peter says nothing about Jesus preaching in Hades. In 1 Peter, however, those to whom he preached are expressly identified as those who “did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark” (3:20). The death of Jesus thus afforded him access to Hades wherein he “made a proclamation” of the Good News to those who drowned at the time of Noah’s flood. The implied meaning here appears to be that those who died in the flood without the benefit of a prophet’s warning were now being given a “second chance,” for, in their midst, the Jewish prophet Jesus who had just died and who was well disposed toward Gentiles was calling upon them to return to the ways of the living God. It is almost as if Jesus (or someone acting in his name) was aware that there was an injustice done in so far as God failed to send them a prophet to warn them; hence, Jesus was continuing “his Father’s work” by rectifying this oversight. More on this will be offered later.
Phase #2: Jesus preaches to all Israelites who died before him
Justin Martyr (d. 165 C.E.) makes reference of Jesus’ mission to those who had died. In this case, however, it is not the sinners of Noah’s generation who are recipients of the Good News but the Jews who had died prior to the coming of Jesus: “The Lord God remembered his dead people of Israel who lay in their graves, and he descended to preach to them his salvation” (Dial. 72.4). The intent here appears to be that the good news of the soon-to-arrive Kingdom of God was being shared with the hundreds of thousands of those Jews from Abraham to John the Baptist. Even though they are admittedly dead, “laying in their graves,” they receive the message of God’s future salvation intended for those “sleeping” in hope. Here again the presumption is that Jesus died and, as a result, he had an opportunity to preach the Good News to those who had died without having the opportunity to hear the Good News of Jesus. Justin Martyr is thus strongly influenced with the Greek perspective on the condition of the dead but he retains the Jewish notion that the dead “lay in their graves” (as opposed to having their souls gathered in Hades) .
Clement of Alexandria (d. 215 C.E.) further extended the mission to the dead. In his way of thinking, Jesus preached his Good News to the righteous Jews in Hades (as just noted), but then, by way of extending the mission to the dead, Clement tells us that the Apostles, following their own deaths, descended into Hades where they preached to the pagan philosophers who had lived righteous lives (Strom. VI, 6:45, 5). Thus, 1 Peter, Justin Martyr, and Clement of Alexander form something of progressive stepping stones whereby the efficacy of Jesus’ prophetic message was gradually understood to have reached backward in time to liberate progressively larger groups of those righteous persons who had died without the saving benefit of have heard the Good News preached by Jesus. What is evident here also is that Jesus is not able to preach to the dead by virtue of his divinity. If this were the case, then the Apostles would not be able to preach to the dead philosophers.
Phase #3: Jesus completes a commando raid that binds Hades
Within Greek mythology, Hades, as the god of the dead, was a fearsome figure to those still living; in no hurry to meet him, they were reluctant to swear oaths in his name, and averted their faces when sacrificing to him. Since to many, simply to say the word "Hades" was frightening, thus euphemisms were pressed into use. Since precious minerals come from under the earth (i.e., the "underworld" ruled by Hades), he was considered to have control of these as well, and as such the Greeks referred to him as Πλούτων (Greek Plouton; Latin PLVTO, Pluto, "the rich guy").
The third-century Gospel of Bartholomew offers the first instance wherein Jesus’ foray into Hades was fully dramatized. The Gospel portrays the “King of Glory” as menacingly descending the stairs of a thousand steps leading down into the depths of the underworld. Hades, the god of the underworld, is depicted as trembling uncontrollably as he becomes aware of who is descending. Having arrived, Jesus “shattered the iron bars” of the gates of Hades and then challenges the god Hades himself and pummels him “with a hundred blows and bound him with fetters that cannot be loosed” (19). Thus, the god who produced trembling whenever his name was mentioned was now being depicted as shaken up by the approach of Jesus. And this trembling was for good reason—Jesus totally decommissions Hades.
In sum, the Gospel of Bartholomew dramatizes the commando rescue operation undertaken by Jesus in order to save “Adam and all the patriarchs” (9). When Jesus meets Adam, Jesus specifically says to him, “I was hung upon the cross for your sake and for the sake of your children” (22).
Hades is the pagan god assigned to guard the underworld. Hades has no role in judging or punishing those who have died; rather, his role is limited to guarding the gates so as to prevent the dead from returning to the land of the living. By destroying the gates and the gate-keeper, Jesus demonstrates that he now has divine powers that enable him to violently bind Hades and to replace his administration over those who have died.
The earlier preaching missions of Jesus in Hades enabled those who trusted in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to cultivate that “faith in Jesus” that would guarantee their pardon at the final judgment. Until then, however, they were sequestered in Hades. Now, however, from the third century on forward, (a) Jesus would proclaim his complete victory over Hades and Death, (b) Jesus would extend his saving grace all the way back to Adam and Eve, and, (c) with the gates of Hades shattered, Jesus would exit Hades on Easter Sunday, not alone, but accompanied by an untold number of his “holy ones.”
What is plain to observe is that the Gospel of Bartholomew firmly centers the efficacy of Jesus upon his preaching mission—“that I might come down on earth to heal the sin of the ignorant and give to [all] men the truth of God” (sec. 65). Secondly, the Gospel of Bartholomew tacitly acknowledges the earlier affirmation of Clement of Alexandria that the souls awaiting the resurrection in Hades are not abandoned by God but to them is revealed the fullest extent of God’s plan to offer salvation to all his children. Thirdly, when Jesus takes the souls of many of the righteous with him into Heaven, this acts like an added insurance that many of the righteous will not remain in Hades but will ascend into Heaven to prepare themselves to be with Jesus at his Parousia. Those who remain in Hades will eventually be reduced to only the damned. As of yet, however, the souls of the damned are not yet being punished in Hades, but this too will gradually change (as will be explained shortly).
[The medieval art shown here presents this event. One can see the gates that Jesus has torn off their hinges. Jesus walks over the defeated body of Hades as he reaches out to take hold of Adam in order to free him from his captivity in Hades. The king of the underworld is crawling in the dust as a defeated and naked fallen angel who is powerless to oppose Jesus.]
The Gospel of Bartholomew marks a high point in so far as the efficacy of Jesus’ preaching gets extended backward in time all the way to Adam. This would imply that those who did not hear the Good News during their lifetime would now be given the opportunity, never the less, to hear it in the afterlife, either from Jesus himself or from his disciples.
With this fabulous mission in mind, the phrase, κατάβασις εἰς ἃδου “he descended into Hades,” was added to the Apostles’ Creed during the fourth century. This had the effect of making it appear as though the Apostles believed that Jesus had a mission to preach in Hades. They didn't, of course. Nonetheless, they believed that Saint Peter wrote the two epistles that bore his name. [We now know that he did not.] Hence, the fourth century bishops decided to expand the Apostles' Creed to remedy an oversight of earlier Christians.
A glance at the vocabulary
In popular Hellenistic folklore, Hades is the name given to the place and to the Greek god assigned to rule the Underworld. Hades has no intentions of judging or punishing those who have died; rather, his role is limited to guarding the gates such that the dead cannot return to the land of the living. From the Greek perspective, the souls of all the dead go to Hades no matter where they died or what they believed about life after death. In Greek literature, Hades is normally presented as a dark, damp, and joyless place.
In medieval Christian thought, Hades gets transformed into the place where the damned are tormented while awaiting the Final Judgment. Instead of the Greek god Hades, Satan is now imagined to be in charge and the fallen angels find their amusement in torturing the damned. In this study, I use the term “hell” to designate this latter development within Christian circles.
All in all, there are ten occurrences of ᾅδης (Hades) in the Christian Scriptures (Matt 11:23; 16:18; Luke 10:15; 16:23; Act 2:27, 31; Rev 1:18; 6:8; 20:13, 14). Greek speakers would have used the Septuagint, the certified second-century B.C.E. Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. In the Septuagint, the Greek term ᾅδης (Hades) is used to translate the Hebrew term שאול (Sheol) in almost all instances, only three of them are not matched with Hades: Job 24:19 (γῆ, "earth, land"2), Proverbs 23:14 (θάνατος, "death"3) and Ezekiel 32:21 (βόθρου4 or λάκκος,5 "pit".) This is a clear indication that the official translators regarded ᾅδης (Hades) as a near equivalent to שאול (Sheol). It also indicates that the intended readers of the Septuagint would ordinarily understand ᾅδης (Hades) as the abode of the souls of the dead in Greek culture; hence, they would understand this word as part of their familiarity with Greek language and would not be puzzled when they encountered this term in the Septuagint.
The writers of the Christian Scriptures undoubtedly were familiar with ᾅδης (Hades) because they had participated in a synagogue where they heard parts of the Septuagint being read and explained on every Sabbath. Greek scriptures were in wide use during the Second Temple period, because most Jews in the diaspora could not read Hebrew. The text of the Greek Old Testament is quoted more often than the original Hebrew Bible text in the Greek New Testament (particularly the Pauline epistles) by the Apostolic Fathers, and later by the Greek Church Fathers.
Conclusion: the grand summary
I.H. Gorski, in the New Catholic Encyclopedia presents a nuanced picture of Hades based upon Joachim Jeremias (1935), et al.:
In the New Testament, Hades, formerly translated as hell, has a
neutral character in contrast to gehenna, which is the place where the
wicked are punished [following the final judgment]. . . . Hades is not
to be equated with Gehenna, for the good as well as the bad descend to
Hades/Sheol (Mt 12.40; Acts 2.27, 31; Rom 10.7; Eph 4.9); Christ, too,
descended into Hades (Acts 2.24; 1 Peter 3.19); (See descent of christ
into hell). With the resurrection of the dead on the last day, Hades
will cease to exist (Rev 20.13–14). There seems to be only one
reference in the New Testament to Hades as a place of punishment for
the wicked (Luke 16.22) . . . .
I sincerely hope that my history of the formation of Heaven and Hell has turned on your lights!