What happened to Jesus after He died? Every Sunday millions of Christians recite the Apostles Creed, which states: “He descended into hell, on the third day He rose from the dead.” Jesus went to hell? The Bible says that?? And then, as I pointed out in my article from last week, Jesus promised the dying thief on the cross: “Truly I say to you, Today you will be with Me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). OK, so which is it? Or are both true, and we just have a misunderstanding about some terminology?
I am convinced that Jesus went to paradise right after He died, according to Luke 23:43. And I believe that the Apostles Creed, while not on the same par as Holy Scripture, gives us a nice summary of the truth contained in Scripture — truth that all Christians have always believed everywhere.
As I have studied the Bible, I think there is a difference between the abode of the dead before the crucifixion of Jesus and afterward. In the Old Testament, as far as the OT saints understood things, they were all going to die and go to a place called in the Hebrew language “sheol.” Sheol is not described in very vivid details in the OT.
Apparently God did not see fit to reveal much to Abraham or Moses about this place for the dead. Though sheol in the OT is often presented as a place of darkness and woe, there are passages that tell us it is also a place of conscious activity (Isaiah 14:9-11; Ezekiel 32:21). (In some English translations “sheol” is translated as “hell,” regrettably.)
Samuel continued to exist in sheol and was allowed to return to earth to warn King Saul (1 Samuel 28:13-19). King David, while mourning the death of his infant son, received some comfort when thinking about the afterlife: “But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me” (2 Samuel 12:23). How is this hopeful? It is hopeful for David because he knows he will see his son in sheol.
The joyful expectation of all those who believed in the only true God was not that they would die and go be with God in heaven. Instead, they looked forward to a resurrection and a kingdom here on the earth (Job 19:25-27; Daniel 12:2-3). The OT sometimes uses “phenomenological language” illustrating how the dead appear to us, the living. Ecclesiastes 9:5 says that “the dead know nothing.”
But we must remember that the author of Ecclesiastes is speaking as a man “under the sun” (1:3). It appears to humans unaided by divine revelation that the dead are asleep or unconscious. However, in the same breath, the author declares in 9:5-6 that the dead “have no more reward” and “nevermore will they have a share in anything done under the sun.” If we believe that the dead are extinct or unconscious, then do we also believe that they will never have a reward either? There is no future giving out of rewards? Of course not. As stated before, Ecclesiastes is stating how things appear to us here on earth.
In the New Testament we receive more revelation from God. Jesus tells us that the soul exists after death (Matthew 10:28). Revelation 6:9-10 tells us that the souls of the martyrs are under the altar of God and they are praising God. Jesus affirms in John 5:24 and 11:25-26 that those who believe in Him have (present tense) everlasting life, will never come into condemnation, and have already passed from death to life. He states that those who believe in Him will NEVER die (11:26). He’s not talking about the death of the body. Jesus is telling us our souls will continue to exist consciously apart from our physical death.
Then Jesus tells an interesting story in Luke 16:19-31. He “pulls back the curtain” and shows us what life is like after death, before the cross. While I personally believe Jesus is telling a true story here, others believe it is a parable. It doesn’t matter much; a parable is always a true-to-life story about real things that really happen to real people.
In the story one man, Lazarus, dies and is carried by the angels to “Abraham’s bosom” (16:22). This is a place where he is with the patriarch Abraham. The other man dies and 16:23 tells us: “And being in torments in Hades he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.”
It appears that all of the dead are in roughly the same place. In the OT it was called “sheol.” When the OT was translated into Greek about 200 years before Christ, the Jewish scholars translated “sheol” with the word “hades.” Sheol/hades is the same place: the world of the dead. One compartment was for the righteous dead; the other compartment was for the lost in torment.
The OT predicted that the Messiah Himself would one day descend into sheol/hades (Psalm 16:10). Peter quoted this passage on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:27) to prove that Jesus would be resurrected. If His soul would not be left in hades, then that means His soul had to descend there to begin with. Jesus Himself predicted that He would go to hades while His body would be in the tomb (Matthew 12:40).
Jesus, being God Almighty (John 1:1-3; 20:28), was not unconscious during the time His body was dead. The Bible tells us He descended into hades where the righteous OT saints were dwelling. That was the paradise where He took the believing thief (Luke 23:43).
The Apostle Paul tells us many years after the Crucifixion that he was taken up to heaven, the abode of God, where he received visions and revelation (2 Corinthians 12:4). This place he calls “paradise.” If Jesus descended to hades and took the thief with Him to paradise, how is paradise now in heaven?
Paul gives us a clue in Ephesians 4:8-9. There the apostle tells us that Christ descended to the “lower parts of the earth,” ascended, led “captivity captive,” and from heaven gave gifts to men. From this I gather that after His resurrection, Jesus ascended to heaven, and emptied sheol/hades of the righteous dead. He took all of them from “Abraham’s bosom/paradise” and relocated all of them to heaven after His Resurrection. Today, the moment a Christian dies he or she is immediately transported to heaven and dwells with Christ forever (Philippians 1:21; 2 Corinthians 5:6-8).
I believe the Apostles Creed is correct and affirms what the Bible teaches. Jesus did descend after His death. The old English states He went to “hell.” Hell in old English meant the nether world, the world of the dead. (I will deal with the eternal conscious state of the lost in a future article.) And the OT view of sheol meets that description of the nether world. In Greek and Latin the Apostles Creed merely says the same thing: that Christ went to the “katotata” or “ad inferos” (the underworld, the world of the dead).
But thank God He did not stay there. On the third day, Jesus rose from the dead, and when He ascended to heaven He led “captivity captive” and transported paradise to heaven where all who trust in Christ will be with Him forever.