What is the gulf that separates Lazarus from the rich man in Luke 16? Were some souls taken out of the gulf of Hades by Jesus?
The gulf of Hades is a teaching that has gained popularity, especially on the internet. It's a more informed theory on the state of the dead because it recognizes the spiritual underworld of Hades, as taught in the New Testament.
However there are two parts of the theory that we will scrutinize. First, that people couldn't go to heaven in the Old Testament, and second, that Jesus later brought them into heaven at his ascension. The gulf of Hades theory is built upon these two beliefs.
The term "gulf of Hades" comes from Luke 16, which describes Lazarus and the rich man separated by a impassable gulf, or chasm, "And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence" (Luke 16.26 KJV bible).
This verse is one of the rare places in the bible when we are given a vision of the afterlife. Jesus describes a spiritual gulf or separation between a wealthy man who lived very selfishly, and a poor man who was righteous. On one side of this gulf is the rich man in torment, and on the other side of the gulf is Lazarus being comforted in the "bosom of Abraham".
Like many places in the bible we are given a glimpse into something supernatural without a lot of explanation. What is this gulf? Does it still exist? Who is being separated and why? The gulf of Hades in Luke 16 leaves us with more questions than answers.
The fundamental question is what does the gulf separate. Is it separating two different groups of people in Hades? Or does the gulf separate Paradise from Hades? Luke 16 only identifies one side of the gulf as Hades, and the other side of the gulf as Abraham's bosom. So the question is what are these two sides that the gulf separates?
To understand the gulf of Hades, we need to know whether the saints from the Old Testament had gone to heaven when they died. Some of them apparently did, because Elijah gets taken up to heaven, and doesn't come back, "Behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven" (2nd Kings 2.11 KJV bible).
We also know that Moses appears with Elijah on the Mt. of Transfiguration (Matthew 17.2-3). If the two appear together at the same time with Jesus, then Moses was probably in heaven with Elijah at that time. We can assume Moses went to heaven.
There is also an Old Testament reference to the redemption of Abraham, "Therefore thus saith the LORD, who redeemed Abraham, concerning the house of Jacob" (Isaiah 29.22 KJV bible). If the Lord had redeemed Abraham, and he went to heaven, then Abraham's bosom is probably not Hades.
Under the first covenant, much of what was established by God, including the sacrifices and priesthood, were place holders. These temporary place holders looked forward to what would be fulfilled in Christ.
The redemption of the Old Testament saints wasn't separate from Christ, because they were part of the overall plan of salvation. God forgave their sins and accepted them before Jesus' time. This forgiveness was prior to the blood of the new covenant which is the fulfillment we have now. They had foregiveness, but it came before the fulfillment of God's plan.
This is why Jesus forgives sin before his crucifixion. Such authority has always been with God, "But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (then saith he to the sick of the palsy,) Arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thine house" (Matthew 9.6 KJV bible).
We also need to consider whether Jesus set people free from Hades, and brought them to heaven at his ascension. We know that Jesus first descended into Hades as he bore the trangressions of others (Matthew 12.40). We also know that while he was in Hades, he proclaimed good news unto the souls of the dead.
"Who shall give account to him that is ready to judge the quick and the dead. For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit" (1st Peter 4.5-6 KJV bible).
However, can we assume that this "good news" to the dead was an opportunity for salvation? Or was it something else? Notice how Peter speaks of them being "judged according to men in the flesh". This suggests that the good news to the dead was for the future resurrection, when they would be freed from death and Hades (see Can Unbelievers be Saved?).
Another verse that's sometimes used to support the gulf of Hades theory is Ephesians 4.8, "Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men" (Ephesians 4.8 KJV bible).
Some have interpreted this verse as a description of the "harrowing of hell". In the harrowing of hell its believed that Jesus went into the underworld and delivered many souls out of Hades. These were the souls from the beginning of the world who had not received a chance for salvation. It's believed that he led these captives out of captivity.
However, the idea that Jesus led captives out of Hades is a loose interpretation of the verse. The verse literally says that he took "captivity captive". While this captivity can be interpreted in different ways, its not a clear description of souls being led up to heaven.
What's being expressed in Ephesians 4.8 is that Christ made captive the captivity of sin and death. In other words, for those who believe upon him, he removes the captivity of sin and death, giving them eternal life. Captivity is taken captive by faith, and this is the gift of salvation for believers.
The gulf of Hades is an interesting theory, that shows a more advanced knowledge of the bible. However, the most natural meaning of the gulf in Luke 16 is that it separates those who are in heaven, and those who are in Hades. Hades and heaven are the two spiritual, not physical, realms of the dead. The gulf of Luke 16 continues to be a spiritual barrier that separates the souls in Hades from the redeemed in Paradise.
"And he said to Jesus, Lord, remember me when You come in Your kingdom. And Jesus said to him, Truly I say to you, Today you will be with Me in Paradise" (Luke 23.42-43 LITV bible).
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