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Acts 2:24 (NIV):

But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.

It is my understanding that the word translated 'agony' is ὠδῖνας. I don't understand what this means: how can one be in pain while dead? What does this passage mean?

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Nowhere in this passage does it say anyone is in heaven or hell. Also, this passage is talking specifically about Jesus, and applying it to anyone else requires eisegesis. For these reasons, I downvoted this question. We expect questions and answers to start only from the text and to 'show their work' (we're a little different from other sites), but this question brings a myriad of unsupported assumptions to the text. –  Daи Jan 1 at 19:38
I've edited the assumptions out of this post to show what we're looking for in good questions. –  Daи Jan 1 at 19:51
And I also removed my DV after making the edit. –  Daи Jan 1 at 19:57
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2 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Be careful not to bring theological and cultural assumptions to the text, namely that Hades and heaven are separate places (and the corresponding ideas about what they are).1 The notions of 'heaven' and 'hell' in Western culture were foreign in the mindset of first-century Judea, and thus reading these ideas back into the text is anachronistic.2

What is likely occurring in this passage is a wordplay in the Greek language between ἀνέστησεν and ὠδῖνας.

ὃν ὁ θεὸς ἀνέστησεν λύσας τὰς ὠδῖνας τοῦ θανάτου, καθότι οὐκ ἦν δυνατὸν κρατεῖσθαι αὐτὸν ὑπʼ αὐτοῦ.3

...whom God raised up, having loosed the (birth-)pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.

ἀνέστησεν is the aorist active indicative 3rd person singular form of ἀνίστημι, literally meaning "to cause to stand or be erect, raise, erect, raise up", but also carrying the connotations of being brought "back to life from the dead" and "to cause to be born."4

ὠδῖνας is the accusative plural form of the noun ὠδίν, which refers specifically to the "experience of pains associated with childbirth."5

The NET translators point out that

The term [ὠδῖνας] is frequently used to describe pains associated with giving birth (see Rev 12:2). So there is irony here in the mixed metaphor.6

Keeping in mind that this passage occurs in the midst of a speech, Peter goes on to state that

[the patriarch David] foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption (Acts 2:31, ESV).

Nowhere in this context does it state that the Jesus went to 'heaven' (the applicability of this passage to anyone other than Jesus is not supported by the text and requires eisegesis). The result of not being "abandoned to Hades" was "the resurrection," i.e. a bodily resurrection (not a disembodied resurrection to a spiritual 'heaven'). N.T. Wright explains:

Remember, resurrection does not mean being “raised to heaven” or “taken up in glory.” Neither Elijah nor Enoch had been resurrected in the sense that Daniel, 2 Maccabees and the rabbis meant it; nor, for that matter, had anyone else. Resurrection will happen only to people who are already dead. To speak of the destruction of the body and the continuing existence, however blessed, of something else (call it a “soul” for the sake of argument) is not to speak of resurrection, but simply of death itself. Resurrection” is not simply death from another viewpoint; it is the reversal of death, its cancellation, the destruction of its power.7

So the idea here is the underlying worldview of a bodily resurrection, so that the death of Jesus is really a birth process (along with its associated pains) for new and everlasting life in a reality in which death no longer has power.

1 Cf. Luke 16:19-31 and note that both men went to Hades. Also note that death and Hades are thrown into the lake of fire in Revelation 20:14. Traditional Western Christian ideas about 'heaven' and 'hell' are simply incompatible with Biblical texts and their historical context, and must be eisegetically and anachronistically read back into the text to find support for them.

2 N.T. Wright. "The Resurrection of Resurrection" (Bible Review, August 2000), retrieved from http://ntwrightpage.com/Wright_BR_Resurrection.htm. In fact, the notion of a disembodied immortality which is popular in many Christian churches that teach the future hope as 'going to heaven' after death has more in common with Platonism than early Jewish or Christian thought.

3 Eberhard Nestle et al., The Greek New Testament, 27th ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1993), 324, emphasis mine.

4 William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 83.

5 Ibid., 1102.

6 Biblical Studies Press, The NET Bible First Edition Notes (Biblical Studies Press, 2006), Ac 2:24.

7 Wright, retrieved from http://ntwrightpage.com/Wright_BR_Resurrection.htm.

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A conversation about this post was migrated to chat. –  Daи Jan 3 at 2:31
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The Greek word appears four times in the Christian New Testament, and in every case (except Acts 2:24) the reference is to the agony and pain associated with birth pangs.

Thus if we read the New Testament in Greek, and we come to this passage at hand, we have this idea that sin somehow sires death; that is the birth pangs of sin are death according to James.

James 1:15 (NASB)
15 Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.

Jesus suffered this death - the sin in his body "gave birth" to death (thus the agony). That is, the body of Jesus was made to be the sin of the world (2 Cor 5:21 and 1 Pet 2:24), and therefore as a result his body was "broken" - that is, not only was his body separated from his mortal life, but his eternal life as well. In another passage of the New Testament, we read that his eternal life was "indestructible" - that is, the person not only possessed mortal life as any other human being, but also possessed eternal life, which, because it is indestructible, cannot be held captive by the power of sin, which results ("gives birth") to death. The gist of Peter's statement in Acts 2:24 was along these lines, because the eternal life of Jesus was indestructible.

Hebrews 7:15-16 (NASB)
15 And this is clearer still, if another priest arises according to the likeness of Melchizedek, 16 who has become such not on the basis of a law of [a]physical requirement, but according to the power of an indestructible life.

In other words, the body of Jesus was made to be the sin of the world, and his body then "gave birth" to death (the agony). But since the person had not only mortal life, but eternal life as well, his indestructible eternal life "killed" death through his body. Thus death could not contain eternal life in its power. The mortal Jesus, who died, had possessed eternal life, which was indestructible. Not withstanding that his body "gave birth" to death, it was his Spirit that gave birth to his eternal life - which is why Mary had conceived through the Holy Spirit - and this eternal life is what "killed" death through his bodily resurrection.

Not to be vulgar or flippant (and these words are spoken with utmost reverence and deep respect), but his body was the Trojan Horse of eternal life, that, when brought into the Troy of Death, was "broken" and disgorged eternal life, and thereby conquered death and its power, which is sin. The purpose of the operation was to redeem and save those held captive by the power of death and its ruler (Heb 2:14). The motive, of course, was love.

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