Revelations 6:8 — the bit about Death riding a pale horse — comes up at the beginning of Agatha Christie’s The Pale Horse, though when I looked it up, only the King James Version specifies And Hell followed with him. All the other, more recent English translations will refer to Hades, Gehenna, Sheol, the grave and so on.
What’s that about?
Why is Hell sometimes translated as Hades, or the grave? What is it exactly that follows Death on his pale horse?
Inferno, and other places to avoid
Hell is a big place.
When you’re a cloistered monk (or nun) in the Middle Ages, you end up doing a lot of quotidian crap, usually cleaning things, because everything is dirty, and during all that scrubbing and sweeping and scraping and buffing, one gets to thinking. Lots of thinking.
Hades: Many of the interpretations of Revelation 6:8 specify Hades instead of Hell. Hades* refers to the Hell-of-the-damned (also called Inferno) to differentiate it from the place where Jesus visits during the Harrowing of Hell (the Hell-of-those-stuck-waiting-in-line or Sheol see below) Hades is the brig down in the bilge. The Bottom of the Abyss. The Land Way Down Under. This is where the notorious lake of fire** is the identifying landmark. No-one goes to Hades, not even Jesus, because there are evidently places — and souls — that even the Christ will not touch.
Sheol: is the place in Hell where Jesus did go during the Harrowing of Hell. It is not the Hell-of-the-Damned. Rather Sheol is the great waiting hall where the freshly deceased (shades) are collected to await judgement. Not all tethers between shades and the material world are entirely severed, and there are practices (magics forbidden in Judeo-Christian traditions) by which shades can be contacted by the living. Ghosts and spirits who escape to walk the earth again are possibly escapees from Sheol. It’s no wonder they might: Sheol is a dark murky place where souls wait a long, long time. Often they wait long enough to forget their mortal lives entirely. This is closely related to:
Purgatory: is the where shades not so offensive as to be damned but not nice enough to be admitted to Heaven go to be purged of their sins. Accounts suggest sin-purging an unpleasant process where the heat of Hades (see above) is blasted through shades to burn off the sinny bits. Cleansing souls is kinda like degreasing a grill. The souls in purgatory will eventually ascend to Heaven. Eventually. When the Second Coming happens, right around the time of the Rapture, the purified shades of Purgatory get to ascend. That is to say as of yet, according to most churches, no-one has yet been redeemed through the Purgatory purification system. One hopes that souls don’t have to be continuously fire-blasted through the entire time. Maybe clean souls wait in an outgoing lounge.
Limbo: Some souls are unworthy of the glories of Heaven, but are also undeserving of the eternal torments of Hades. So what happens to them? They are stuck on the fringes of Hell, or the limbus, ergo Limbo. The Limbo of the Patriarchs originally was the waiting place of the old testament figures who were not able to ascend, specifically Adam and Eve. In some denominations Jesus comes to the Limbo of the Patriarchs as well as Sheol to gather them to Heaven. The Limbo of the Patriarchs still serves several other functions, depending on the theologian being asked: It can be a waiting area for those who’ve served time in Purgatory. It is the waiting place for Jews (who have not recognized the Christ and hence do not get salvation). It is the waiting place for those parishoners of the wrong denomination (though many churches proclaim that outsiders worship false gods and are to be damned). It is the waiting place for non-believers who led good lives. It is the waiting place for unpopular historical Christian figures some find too loathsome to share Heaven with (e.g. Mary I, Jerry Falwell, Cotton Mather and so on.
Then there’s the Limbo of the Infants. Children under seven are incapable of sin, even when they push little brothers down the well. Seven is the age of reason, the point when children are, in God’s eyes, expected to know right from wrong. But even toddlers and infants are burdened with original sin (the sin of Eve, the wages of whom are exacted on all her descendents). So unbaptised children cannot ascend to Heaven, even though they are incapable of wrongdoing. They all go here. Theologians seem to believe that they won’t ascend to Heaven during the Second Coming but they won’t, which is to say they expect Hell’s toddlers will stay there forever, but maybe Jesus will be nice.
To add confusion, Hell, Hades, Limbo, Sheol, Gehenna and The Grave are all pretty interchangable depending on where a given translator wants to send whom. They’re all inconsistent translations of the same handful of words, themselves used without clear logic within original texts.
Continuation of consciousness — the idea that we all continue to exist after death — is the more common view within the spectum of Christian denominations, but a few see that continuance as part of the benefit of being Christian. We see this in language such as I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die or For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life. There is a lot of interchange between damnation and death and between salvation and life. Hence we’ll sometimes see the phrases for Hell translated to the grave
Then there’s Gehenna, the physical location of the burning pits of the Hebrews, where they processed garbage and refuse. The dead bodies of criminals, beggars, orphans and all others forsaken were tossed into the fire pits with the other waste, which provides a confusing dual message of You too will be bacteria food and Expect to go to someplace awful and fiery when you die., hence Gehenna references get interpreted along two discrete lines.
Of course, between the notion that the promise of Christ = immortality (and no-Christ = mortal oblivion) and the notion that to accept the Christ you drink Jesus’ blood, there are conspicuous undertones of vampirism or some other kind of necromancy. Bleh!
* Interestingly this is named after not the Greek underworld, but the not-so-evil god that managed all things subterrainian, including the dead.. The Greek underworld-of-the-damned was the harder-to-pronounce Tartarus, the supermax where the Titans were locked away. Tartarus also housed the all the murderers and rapists and youth-corrupting philosophers who encouraged children to question the orthodoxy. Everyone else, more or less, were admitted to the Elysian Fields, Classic-Greek-Heaven featuring a strong dose of Arcadia. Think of Rivendell during giant-orgy-party month. Every month.
Some people who really pissed off the Olympians were issued a special hell reserved just for them. Sisyphus and Tantalus are the two that are well known. I haven’t been able to find any others whose case files have been declassified.
Oh, yeah, Hades is also the god of gold, silver, diamonds and plutonium (i.e. all the minerals) his crib is one of the swankiest ever.
** The lake of fire at the basin of Hell appears multiple times in Revelations. It’s the same place as the lake of fire in the Egyptian Book of the Dead.
Egyptians also go through a judgement process, conducted by Anubis. The newly-dead’s heart is weighed against the feather of truth, in what is often regarded a measuring of the virtue of the soul, but smacks to me as a form of lie-detector, since during the weighing, Anubis questions the demise in what is called the negative confession (the soul must answer negatively to all questions or face audit). Anubis does some math and and then reports to Osiris that the heart is accurate witness.
When the math proves unfavorable, or the heart is not accurate witness, the soul is dropped into the alleged lake of fire, the home of Ammit the Devourer of Souls, whose job is the goat of the underworld, consuming souls as part of the great recycling process.
Those who pass the negative confession still have a dangerous journey ahead of them with many demon-guarded gateways. To classic Egyptians, this life is only a modest step in a far longer epic. The next level is harder, with tougher challenges, more complex platforming and bigger boss monsters.
Edits: Clarity, typos, misplaced punctuation, et. al.