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Romans 10:5-7 (ESV):

5 For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. 6 But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) 7 “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).

Did Paul believe in the existence of an 'abyss' storing the souls/spirits of those who have passed away? Additionally, did Paul believe that Jesus actually, literally visited that place between his death and resurrection?

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  • The spiritual worldview of those living in the time of the second temple is/was radically different to those post reformation theologians that penned the traditional doctrines many adhere to. That’s where books like Enoch 1 help - they help give us a ‘glimpse’ of the ‘thinking’ at that time. As do many recent findings such as those from around the Dead Sea. So the answer is definitely yes! - which the answers so far are also pointing to. – Dave May 12 at 4:57
  • abussos Strong 12 9 references // 1, Luke ; 1, Romans ; 7 in Revelation. – Nigel J May 12 at 6:41
  • It would be helpful to understand what an "abyss" is. Word Hippo defines it: "a deep and seemingly bottomless chasm". The word "seemingly" is standing out above the other words in the definition. An abyss is, in other words, not bottomless. It just seems to be so. The best example would be the Mariana Trench. Space is bottomless, so that may not be it. Time, as a concept, is bottomless. But time, as in human history, is not bottomless, but could probably be said to be so, depending on with whom the issue is being discussed. – Constantthin May 14 at 10:09
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A straightforward rendering of Paul's statement here is that he is making a reference to what the Jews called Sheol.

Usage of the Greek word ἄβυσσος (rendered in English as "abyss") includes:

the abyss, unfathomable depth, an especially Jewish conception, the home of the dead and of evil spirits (see here)

Sheol

Soldarnal offers an excellent description of Sheol here. To the people who wrote the New Testament, Sheol (Hades in Greek) is where the spirit/pneuma went at death.

JewishEncyclopedia provides the following helpful statements on Sheol:

It connotes the place where those that had died were believed to be congregated

[Sheol] seems to have been viewed as divided into compartments...one beneath the other

Here the dead meet.

In the compartments of Sheol, one is often presented as a place of rest for the righteous, and one a place of anguish for the wicked.

Hippolytus' discourse to the Greeks concerning Hades (often incorrectly attributed to Josephus) is another useful reference--it provides quite the description of Hades ("Hades" is used in the LXX for "Sheol"), and fits quite well with Paul's use of "abyss" (see here). This isn't a 1st century Jewish source but a very early Christian treatise saturated with Jewish concepts.

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The Grave

Sheol (and presumably Paul's "abyss") are not references to the grave. Sheol is where the spirit goes; the grave (Qever) is where the body goes.

See discussion on the distinction between Sheol and Qever discussed on this site here.

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The resurrection

As noted in Ezekiel 37:

5 Thus saith the Lord God unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live:

6 And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live; and ye shall know that I am the Lord.

These elements will return together in the resurrection (Note that this view was held by the Pharisees but not the Sadduccees in the 1st century. Also note that the word for "breath" and "spirit" are the same in Hebrew as they are in Greek).

This means that to those who believed in resurrection (including the Pharisees) Sheol was a place of temporary residence. Paul, as a Pharisee, would have believed in Sheol and that the spirit/pneuma of Jesus went there when Jesus died.

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Conclusion

Did Paul believe in the existence of an 'abyss' storing the souls/spirits of those who have passed away?

If this is read as a reference to Sheol (I believe it should be), then yes.

--

Did Paul believe that Jesus actually, literally visited that place between his death and resurrection?

Yes, that's what Sheol would have meant to Paul.

P1: The spirits of the dead go to Sheol (argued above)

P2: Jesus died (1 Cor. 15:3)

P3: The spirits of the dead leave Sheol upon resurrection (argued above)

P4: Jesus was resurrected (1 Cor. 15:4)

C1: The spirit of Jesus went to Sheol

C2: The spirit of Jesus is no longer in Sheol

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  • About to delete my answer. Should have waited – Nihil Sine Deo May 12 at 1:53
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    @NihilSineDeo no worries, I think your answer contributes several great pieces of context I didn't include in mine. – Hold To The Rod May 12 at 1:55
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In the exchange with Jesus, Luke records the words of the demons

“And they begged him not to command them to depart into the abyss.” ‭‭Luke‬ ‭8:31‬ ‭

It’s the same Greek word αβυσσον

It is also described/mentioned in the book of Revelation. Did Paul believe in Biblical cosmology? That there was a deep abyss under the earth? Of course he did. He didn’t ascribe to the modern version of cosmology with a vacuum of space.

Did Paul believe Jesus visited there?

It doesn’t say Paul mentioned it in the NT but Peter did

“in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison,” ‭‭1 Peter‬ ‭3:19‬ ‭

Together with the greater context of Jude it is clear Jesus went to proclaim His victory to those locked up in chains (not preach as we understand but proclaim). And given Peter and Paul read Enoch and Jude, Peter and Paul making reference to the abyss and other details of the Biblical cosmology, it’s not unfathomable that they believed in the abyss. Certainly Paul would have pulled Peter aside if Peter was wrong about this proclaiming of Jesus but Paul makes no mention of this. It must have been a widespread consensus view that Jesus did this. Certainly seems plausible.

It’s enough for me that Peter mentions it. I believe it many years later, Paul almost certainly did

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  • 1
    Helpful references to Luke 8:31 & 1 Peter 3:19, upvoted +1 – Hold To The Rod May 12 at 1:57
  • See Romans 10:7 η τις καταβησεται εις την αβυσσον who shall descend into the abyss ? – Nigel J May 12 at 6:42
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Did Paul believe in a place called "[the] abyss" that houses the [spirits] of the dead (Rom. 10:17)?

Answer: Absolutely.

It seems very unlikely that anyone -- especially the apostles, were unfamiliar with the flames of Hades; this appears to be exactly what Romans 10:17 refers to:

Romans 10:17: “But the righteousness based on faith speaks as follows: ‘DO NOT SAY IN YOUR HEART, “WHO WILL ASCEND INTO HEAVEN?” (that is, to bring Christ down), or “WHO WILL DESCEND INTO THE ABYSS?” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead)’” (cf. Deu. 30:13).

While the apostle is rhetorically admonishing the faithful not to ponder such questions as “Who will be saved and who will be lost?” Scripture appears to tip its hand to reveal that the spirits of the lost will “descend into the abyss.” As well, the parenthetical reference to Christ being raised “from the dead” also implies that the dead were once human, and are now spirits languishing in Hades, a chasm of horrors and prelude to Hell.

Most will agree that demons are Satan’s lieutenants, those that carry out his evil designs. During the first century A.D., these beings were fully capable of identifying themselves, and of communicating with the living (Mk. 5:7-12, cf. Acts 19:14-16). In the Gospel of Luke, we read of Christ encountering a demon-possessed man in the country of the Gerasenes. One of the passages reads as follows:

Luke 8:31: “[The demons] were imploring Him not to command them to go away into the abyss” (emphasis added).

Demons were highly perceptive; they immediately recognized the deity of Christ, and thus dared not disobey Him. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of unsuspecting human victims who fell prey to their devious manipulations. To those poor souls who were demon-possessed, the experience must have been horrific. The term “abyss” is used frequently in the Book of Revelation (9:2, 11:7, 20:1) as the ultimate destination of those that oppose God and Man. What is interesting for this purpose is that, as demonstrated above, the same word, “abyss,” is used in Romans.

More than a few theologians believe that the most reasonable explanation for demons is that they are the spirits of fallen angels (cf. 2 Peter 4:2, Jude v. 6). While this stance seems plausible -- and is undeniably tempting, many believe that this view does not accurately reflect the biblical record.

References to "sons of God" in the O/T, while sometimes referring to angelic majesties (eg. Job 1:6, 2:1, 38:7, etc.), is speaking about godly lineages of people, not "fallen angels." Note that this same term is used throughout the N/T to refer to the faithful as well. The phrase "daughters of men" generally indicates the offspring of those who had no godly inclinations. The apostles would have understood the distinction without any reservations.

It seems that the spirits of the lost appear to be comprised of those who were at one time human, those uncleansed by the Blood of Christ. Angels are ministering spirits; they serve the will of God (Genesis 18:2, 19:1, esp. Heb. 1:14). These heavenly creatures possess no sexual component. Only a purely carnal perspective of these celestial majesties could possibly believe otherwise:

Matthew 22:30: "For in the resurrection [the saved] neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven."

This is the only interpretation that makes sense. Further, angels have absolutely no desire to inhabit the lives of others; they are otherwise purely spiritual beings. None of the apostles including Paul could possibly have been unaware of this fact.

Demons, on the other hand, are always seeking to commandeer living human hosts:

Luke 11:24-26: “When the unclean spirit goes out of a man, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and not finding any, it says, ‘I will return to my house [human host] from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds it swept and put in order. Then it goes and takes along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they go in and live there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first.”

Demons would like nothing more than to possess human beings at every turn, given the opportunity. Why? Because inhabiting a human being -- indeed, inhabiting unclean animals like pigs, is preferable to the torment of the abyss: Hades.

In the Gospel of Mark (5:12-13), unclean spirits that possessed one (of two) man implored Christ that they be allowed to enter into a herd of nearby swine, animals considered unclean under the Law of Moses.

Demons are portrayed as emerging from the underworld or dust of the earth: the dwelling place of the dead. A passage from the Book of Isaiah reveals a glimpse of this:

Isaiah 29:4: “Then you will be brought low; From the earth you will speak, And from the dust where you are prostrate Your words will come. Your voice will also be like that of a spirit from the ground, And your speech will whisper from the dust.”

In the Gospel of Matthew, we read of Christ’s final message, first to the saved:

Matthew 25:34: “Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’"

However, the next passages refer to those who are lost eternally:

Matthew 25:41: "Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels.’”

The “accursed ones” and "the devil and his angels [messengers]" in the latter passage are denounced for their absence of compassion. Nonetheless, since all of the earlier passages of Matthew 25 contrast human beings (angels appear nowhere) who were prepared (Parable of the Ten Virgins), faithful and obedient (Parable of the Talents), with those unprepared, unfaithful and disobedient, it can hardly be argued that the “accursed ones” were not human beings. They were those who would be cast into the eternal fire “prepared for the Devil and his angels.”

Here, let us observe a passage from John's Gospel as Christ is speaking to a hostile, faithless audience. Note the strong language He uses to describe them:

John 8:44: “You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him."

Just what, precisely, is the distinction between "the Devil and his angels [messengers]" (Matt. 25:41) and "children of the Devil" (Jn. 8:44)? Only this: the first group has no chance whatsoever, while the second may receive the eternal gift offered by Christ.

It appears that if the Son of God characterizes lost human spirits in this manner, then it is rather difficult to escape the conclusion that fundamentally, those outside the blood of Christ have become unclean spirits or demons.

Indeed, Paul and the apostles believed that "the abyss" constrained the spirits of the lost dead, which will eventually be cast into the Lake of Fire.

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Did Paul believe in the existence of an 'abyss' storing the souls/spirits of those who have passed away?

As usual, this answer will break away from what's mainstream, but what else is new?

It's no question that the common understanding, even the Jewish one, of the term "Abyss" is that it refers to "the home of the dead and of evil spirits:"

Strong's Concordance
"abussos: boundless, bottomless . . . the abyss, unfathomable depth, an especially Jewish conception, the home of the dead and of evil spirits."
(Strong's Concordance, by James Strong, S.T.D., L.L.D., Cincinnati: Jennings & Graham, 1890.)

However, we are instructed to "no longer hold on to Jewish legends:"

Titus 1:14
14and no longer hold on to Jewish legends and to human commandments which come from people who have rejected the truth.
(Good News Bible: Today’s English Version. New York: United Bible Societies, 1992.)

There is a distinction, then, between Jewish legends and Scriptural truth. We must then understand the word "Abyss" by its Scriptural usage, and examine if the "Abyss" of Jewish legend conforms to this.

We should understand that when the body dies, it is reduced to dust:

Job 7:21(b)
21bFor I will soon lie down in the dust; you will search for me, but I will be no more."
(The Holy Bible: New International Version. Colorado Springs, Colorado: Biblica, Inc. 2011.)

The soul, likewise, is joined to the dust:

Ps. 119:25
25My soul is joined to the dust: O give me life, in keeping with your word.
(The Bible in Basic English. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2006.)

When this happens, the spirit returns to God:

Eccles. 12:7
7Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it.
(Holy Bible: New King James Version. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982.)

Our understanding, then, of the "Abyss" should conform with the Scriptural truth that the bodies and souls of the dead remain in the dust, and that the spirits of the dead return to God.

It is clear, then, that terms such as "Abyss," "Sheol" and "Hades," in the context of the Bible, do not refer to a literal land of the dead, in the sense that it is a realm where spirits and souls are housed. Instead, as translated from Aramaic in this and in related Biblical passages, these refer to the grave:

Rom. 10:7
7Or, Who descendeth to the abyss of the grave, and bringeth up Messiah from the place of the dead?
(A Literal Translation from the Syriac Peshito Version, by James Murdock, D.D., New York: Stanford and Swords, 1852.)
Acts 2:31
31So he foresaw and spoke concerning the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in the grave, neither did his body see corruption.
(Holy Bible from the Ancient Eastern Text: George M. Lamsa’s Translation from the Aramaic of the Peshitta. Philadelphia USA: A.J. Holman Co., 1968.)
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  • curious why you prioritize the rendering from the Peshitta over that of the Greek text? Separately, is your position that the Old Testament references to Sheol are legends, or that they've simply been misinterpreted? – Hold To The Rod May 13 at 13:42
  • @HoldToTheRod I am not prioritizing the Peshitta over the Greek, merely using the Peshitta to better understand the Greek, how such terms would have been understood by believers in such a way that does not self-contradict. My position on Sheol is identical with that of Hades in that they are "the place of the dead" as far as the Scripture allows. ie. the grave. – carsonfel May 13 at 14:22

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