A 19th-century interpretation of Charon's crossing by Alexander Litvchenko.

The Underground Chambers

Throughout the Bible there are five different words used to designate the prison houses of the


Sheol—an Old Testament Hebrew word

Hades—a New Testament Greek word

Gehenna—a New Testament word

Tartaroo—a New Testament Greek word

Abyss—a New Testament Greek word


The word Sheol is used sixty-five times in the Old Testament. It is translated as “hell” thirty-one times in the Bible, thirty-one times as “grave,” and three times as "pit." The word Hades is translated as “hell“ ten times in the New Testament. It is also found in 1 Corinthians 15:15, where the English word is grave. The only exception is Revelation 6:8. In that passage the pale rider is Death, and hell (Hades) follows him.


By definition the word Hades is “the region of departed spirits of the lost (but including the blessed dead in periods preceding the ascension of Christ).

The third word, tartaroo, is a Greek word translated as “hell“ and found in only one place:

2 Peter 2:3-4 For if God did not spare the angels who sinned, but cast them down to hell and delivered them into the chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment.



"Sheol" in the Hebrew Bible, is called "Hades" in the New Testament since the New Testament is written in Greek.

For example: The Hebrew phrase  (you will not abandon my soul to Sheol) in Psalm 16:10 is quoted in Acts 2:27 as  (you will not abandon my soul to Hades)

She'o translated as "grave", "pit", or "abode of the dead", is the underworld of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. It is a place of darkness to which all the dead go, both the righteous and the unrighteous, regardless of the moral choices made in life, a place of stillness and darkness cut off from God.


The inhabitants of Sheol were the "shades" (rephaim), entities without personality or strength. Under some circumstances they could be contacted by the living, as the Witch of Endor contacts the shade of Samuel for Saul, but such practices are forbidden (Deuteronomy 18:10).


While the Old Testament writings describe Sheol as the permanent place of the dead, in the Second Temple period (roughly 500 BCE-70 CE) a more diverse set of ideas developed:

·        In some texts, Sheol is the home of both the righteous and the wicked, separated into respective compartments;

·         in others, it was a place of punishment, meant for the wicked dead alone.


This confusion can be removed when we understand that the righteous who accepted Jesus during Jesus’ visit to Sheol, were taken to Paradise from Abraham’s bosom leaving it empty. From then on those saved through faith in Christ went directly to Paradise while those who are unsaved but righteous in accordance with the law went to this compartment and still remains there awaiting resurrection and judgment.


When the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek in ancient Alexandria around 200 BC the word "Hades" (the Greek underworld) was substituted for Sheol, and this is reflected in the New Testament where Hades is both the underworld of the dead and the personification of the evil it represents.


Many modern English versions, such as the New International Version, translate Sheol as "grave" or simply transliterate "Hades". It is generally agreed that both Sheol and Hades do not typically refer to the place of eternal punishment, but to the grave, the temporary abode of the dead, the underworld. It is not hell since hell denotes the place of punishment after the judgment. Greek, uses the word  (kolasis - literally, "punishment"; cf. Matthew 25:46, which speaks of "everlasting kolasis") to refer to what nowadays is usually meant by "hell" in English.


Charon and the the obolus

In Greek mythology, Charon or Kharon (Xdpwv) is the ferryman of Hades who carries souls of the newly deceased across the rivers Styx and Acheron that divided the world of the living from the world of the dead. Styx is said winds around Hades nine times. Its name comes from the Greek word stugein which means hate.


A coin to pay Charon for passage, usually an obolus or danake, was sometimes placed in or on the mouth of a dead person. Some authors say that those who could not pay the fee, or those whose bodies were left unburied, had to wander the shores for one hundred years. In the catabasis mytheme, heroes —such as Heracles, Orpheus, Aeneas, Dante, Dionysus and Psyche — journey to the underworld and return, still alive, conveyed by the boat of Charon.


Charon and Psyche (1883), a pre-Raphaelite interpretation of the myth by John Roddam Spencer Starihope

Other early Jewish works adapt the Greek mythical picture of Hades to identify the righteous dead as being separated from unrighteous in the fires by a river or chasm. In the pseudo- epigraphical Apocalypse of Zephaniah the river has a ferryman equivalent to Charon in Greek myth, but replaced by an angel. On the other side in the Bosom of Abraham: "You have escaped from the Abyss and Hades, now you will cross over the crossing place... to all the righteous ones, namely Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Enoch, Elijah and David". in this myth

Abraham was not idle in the Bosom of Abraham; he acted as intercessor for those in the fiery part of Hades.


Following the analogy of the redemption of Israel into Canaan this abyss can be compared to the river Jordan.

Charon as depicted by Michelangelo in his fresco in the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel




Charon's obol as viaticum

In Latin, Charon’s obol is sometimes called a viaticum, which in everyday usage means “provision for a journey” (from via, “way, road, journey”), encompassing food, money and other supplies. The same word can refer to the living allowance granted to those stripped of their property and condemned to exile, and by metaphorical extension to preparing for death at the end of life's journey.

Drawing on this metaphorical sense of “provision for the journey into death,“ ecclesiastical Latin borrowed the term viaticum for the form of Eucharist that is placed in the mouth of the believer at the point of death as provision for the soul's passage to eternal life.


The earliest literary evidence of this Christian usage for viaticum appears in Paulinus’s account of the death of St. Ambrose in 397 A.D. The 7th-century Synodus Hibernensis offers an etymological explanation: “This word ‘viaticum’ is the name of communion, that is to say, ‘the guardianship of the way,’ for it guards the soul until it shall stand before the judgment-seat of Christ.“(Synodus Hibernensis preserved in the 8th-century Collectio canonum Hibernensis), book 2, chapter 16 p. 20 in the edition of Wasserschleben, cited in Smith, A Dictionary of Christian Antiquities, p. 2014.)


Thomas Aquinas explained the term as “a prefiguration of the fruit of God, which will be in the promised land. And because of this it is called the viaticum, since it provides us with the way of getting there"; the idea of Christians as “travelers in search of salvation" finds early expression in the Confessions of St. Augustine.