Where did Jesus Go When He Died?
Did Jesus’ Spirit go somewhere when He was in the tomb? What does that mean for us today? What’s the difference between Hell and Hades?
Where Did Jesus’s Spirit Go?
As we read through the Gospel accounts of Jesus death and resurrection, we know that Jesus died, and then was buried in a tomb, and on the third day rose again. So, we can be quite certain about where the body of Jesus was during that time, it was sealed in the tomb awaiting resurrection. But what about Jesus’s spirit, did it go somewhere? 1 Peter 3:18 writes about how Jesus was put to death in the flesh, and went to proclaim to the spirits who were in prison. Paul writes in Ephesians 4 that Jesus descended before ascending and led a host of captives on high.
Putting these together it could mean that after Jesus died, His spirit descended into death, but does this mean that Jesus went to hell? We commonly hold to the idea that there are two places we can go after we die, in English we commonly refer to them simply as heaven, a place of eternal life and blessing which is up, and hell, which is down and a place of eternal punishment.
Where Did People Go?
But let’s step back from that understanding for a moment. In Jesus’ day, prior to the resurrection, the full regenerative work of mankind had not been completed. No human being could enter into the holiness of heaven without having their sin atoned for, which was completed by Jesus on the cross when he took the penalty for the sin of mankind, Romans 4:25 then tells us that He was risen for our justification, the process of making us right or righteous before God, which is the thing needed for us to enter into heaven. So then a fair question to ask would be where did people go when they died before Christ came? And the Bible actually has a lot to say about that.
The Place of the Dead
There is some language we need to know in order to help understand this. First, the Bible talks about the place of the dead. In Hebrew the word is sheol, and in Greek the word used is hades. These are typically neutral terms for the place of the dead, meaning that they do not differentiate between a place for the good and a place for the wicked, except for in a few passages which reference the lowest hell. In the New Testament we get a little more detail on this separation from the Greek language.
Hades is the place for the dead, which includes what in the Greek is called “paradisos” meaning Paradise, also called Abrahams’s side or bosom. This is the place that those who believed God’s promise would go. Then there were two others, the Greek word tartaroo was used in 2 Peter 2:4 and translates as the deepest abyss of hades, this use is only used here and in relation to where the fallen angels had been cast down to, the other word we find in the Greek is the word gehenna, which refers to a place of everlasting torment, this is the term used when the Lord Jesus talks about the place for those who reject him. Part of the problem with this is, so many of the English translators have used the word hell interchangeably for the place of the dead (Sheol or hades) and for the place of eternal torment, gehenna. This of course creates a lot of confusion when we consider what happened to Jesus as His body lay in the tomb.
The Spirit Went to the Place of the Dead
From what we can put together from the scripture, our understanding is simply this. Before the redemptive work of Christ, when a person died, their spirit went to the place of the dead. From Luke 16, the account of the rich man and Lazarus, we understand that for those who loved God, and believed His promises, they died and went to a place of blessing in hades, called paradise, this is not to be confused with heaven, as access to heaven was not yet available to mankind. Those who died in wickedness and sin, not believing in the promises of God, they went to the lower parts of hades or sheol, which was a place of torment, but not an eternal destination. And though it is described as bearing a lot of similarity to the lake of fire described in the book of Revelation, it is not the same place that Christ referred to when he referenced the place of eternal torment, or gehenna in Greek.
The Paradise Side of Death
When Peter and Paul respectively mention Jesus as descending, it is into the place of the dead only, Hades, and in that, only the paradise side of death, so that upon his resurrection he could lead those still held captive by death into eternal life, which would be Paul’s Ephesians reference to Psalm 68 when he writes “When He ascended on high he led a host of captives, and He gave gifts to men.” Those who believed in the promise of the coming messiah but died before Christ came, were still counted righteous by their faith, Habakkuk 2:4, and then on the third day were offered the justification that comes with the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. It’s also why Jesus could say to the repentant thief on the cross in Luke 23:43 “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Present With the Lord
Today, for those who believe in Christ, there is no need for paradise, the positive side of the place of the dead. Paul writes very clearly in 2 Corinthians 5:8 that when a believer dies physically, their spirit is absent from the body and present with the Lord in heaven. For those that die without believing in Jesus, their spirits go to the place of the dead, the lowest parts, and await the time when Jesus will judge all the earth, at which time the Bible tells us in Revelation 20, that all those who were in the place of the dead will be judged according to what they had done, and anyone who has not accepted the gift of salvation, who has not believed in Jesus Christ, will be cast for eternity into the lake of fire, the second death, which is what we most accurately understand and define as hell.
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Stephen March is the President of FBH International and HopeStreamRadio. He graduated from the Broadcasting Program at Niagara College in 2001, and has previously worked in television production and post-production. Stephen lives in St. Catharines, Ontario, with his wife Corinne and their four children. He serves as an elder at Scottlea Gospel Chapel.
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