Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels....' (Matthew 25:41 ESV)The eternal fire does not appear to have been created for man. It was created for the evil angels, presumably soon after their fall, and is in existence now. However I contend that it is currently empty. Hell is also described as the hell of fire (Mat 5:22), the eternal fire (Mat 25:41), unquenchable fire (Mar 9:23), the lake of fire that burns with sulfur (Rev 19:20; 20:10,14-15). It is a place where the inhabitants will be tormented day and night forever and ever (Rev 20:10), where both soul and body are destroyed by God (Mat 10:28).
So what happens to man? Man was not created to die. Death, both man and sentient animals, came as a result of the fall.
And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, "...but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that [or when] you eat of it you shall surely die." (Genesis 2:16-17)When humans died they went to Sheol. Sheol is translated into Greek as Hades in the Septuagint and the bible uses this word in the New Testament. Hades may be used in the context of suffering (or punishment) after death. That is an appropriate albeit restricted meaning, and Hades is generally the place of the dead. A helpful bible translation would use Hades in both the Old and New Testaments to help with interpretation and understanding. Scripture clearly understands Hades to be a real place. It may have metaphorical meaning but words that are used as metaphors also have a literal meaning. Using head as a metaphor for leader does not deny that head refers to a part of the body as well.
Both the good and evil went to Hades, but there is distinction between them. The wicked were cast into the pit (a word that meant a hole in the ground (Gen 37:19)) which was descriptive of the part of Hades that was unpleasant and reserved for evil men. The New Testament equivalent is Abyss—also a word (like pit) that can have both Hades and non Hades connotations.
Of Isaac it is said: "...and Isaac expired and died and he was gathered to his people.” (Gen 35:29). Jacob said, "No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning." (Gen 37:35). From this we can see that Jacob expected that he would descend to Sheol at his death. But we also know that Isaac and Jacob will be in heaven by Jesus' comments: "I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven,..." (Mat 8:11).
The stories of Enoch and Elijah also give clues about the realm of the dead. That they were taken to heaven is somewhat out of the ordinary; not just the way in which they went, but the fact they went to heaven and not Sheol.
Further information about Hades comes indirectly from Jesus when he tells the story of Lazarus and the rich man.
There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.' But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.' And he said, 'Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father's house—for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.' But Abraham said, 'They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.' And he said, 'No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' He said to him, 'If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.' (Luke 16:19-31 ESV)From this we learn that Lazarus goes to Abraham's side and the rich man goes to Hades. Whereas Lazarus is comforted the rich man is in torment. And it was not possible to cross the chasm that separated them. Note that Paradise is used for a pleasant place, but it is the context that explains this word. Paradise also refers to heaven (2 Corinthians), the new earth at the end of the age (Revelation) and possibly Eden.
Interestingly Jesus did not ascend into heaven immediately following his death. Peter quoting David says:
I saw the Lord always before me,/Peter shows that this passage applies to Jesus and that Jesus descended to Hades and was resurrected:
for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken;/
therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;/
my flesh also will dwell in hope./
for you will not abandon my soul to Hades,/
or let your Holy One see corruption./
You have made known to me the paths of life;/
you will make me full of gladness with your presence.' (Acts 2:25-28 ESV)
Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. (Acts 2:29-32 ESV)After his resurrection Jesus said to Mary:
Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, "I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God." (John 20:17 ESV)One of the criminals on the cross went to paradise which we can see from the above was not heaven. His destination corresponds to Luke 16 where Abraham is said to be in Paradise (as previously mentioned).
And he [one of the criminals] said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." And he said to him, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." (Luke 23:42-43 ESV)Presumably Peter's enigmatic statement in his first letter corresponds to the period between Jesus' death and resurrection.
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison,... (1 Peter 3:18-19 ESV)The dead have some semblance of consciousness in Hades. This can be seen in many passages in the Old Testament. It is also alluded to by Jesus' comments about Abraham (who was in Paradise).
Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad. (John 8:56 ESV)To summarise: hell was created for the fallen angels; Hades (Sheol) was created for man because of the fall and the subsequent pending death; man goes to Hades at death, the righteous to Paradise and the wicked to the Abyss (pit); Some fallen angels are in Tartarus which is the deepest part of the Abyss; inhabitants of Hades are conscious; Jesus descended to Hades at his death then rose on the third day and did not go to heaven during that time,...
more to follow.