Where was Jesus between His death and resurrection? He told them He had “not yet returned to His father in heaven” (Jn. 20:17NIV1984) and He could not have gone to hell, so where was He?
The Bible indicates that Christ’s spirit went to heaven when He died. He told the thief on the cross, “today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk. 23:43NIV). Paradise (“paradeisos” in Greek; Strong’s reference number 3857) is the same place as the “third heaven” (2 Cor. 12:2,4) and means the dwelling place of God (Mt. 6:9). In Biblical times there was a concept of three heavens: the first heaven was the atmosphere (Heb. 4:14) and the second heaven the stars and galaxies. This means that He went to heaven after He died. This is consistent with the fact that just before He died Jesus called out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Lk. 23:46).
As the Greek word translated “returned” in Jn. 20:17NIV (“anabaino”; Strong’s reference number 305), means “to ascend” (NIV Study Notes); it has been changed to “ascended” in the most recent translation of the NIV Bible (2010). The context of this verse is that Mary Magdalene was probably worried that she would not be blessed when Jesus was no longer with her physically. He responded “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (Jn. 20:17NIV2010). She didn’t need to cling to Him as He would be around for another 40 days before He ascended back to heaven (Lk. 24:50-51; Acts 1:3, 9-11).
The idea that Jesus went to hell between His death and resurrection comes from Article 5 of the so-called “Apostles’ creed”: “… He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. The third day He arose again from the dead[i] …”. The creed was apparently used as a summary of Christian doctrine for baptismal candidates in the churches of Rome. Presumably Article 5 was derived from interpretations of Psalm 16:10, Acts 2:27,31, Eph. 4:9 and 1 Peter 3:19. It has been stated that the purpose of Article 5 was to declare that Christ had a human soul that departed from His body when He died[ii]. Also, in the Middle Ages, the words “hell” and “hades” become confused. Consequently, the King James Bible incorrectly used “hell” instead of “hades” in Psalm 16:10 and Acts 2:27,31. “Hell” (“genna”; Strong’s reference number 1067) is the place or state of everlasting punishment. “Hades” (“hades”; Strong’s reference number 86) is the place or state of the spirits of unbelievers after death—it is also a place of torment (Lk. 16:23-31).
Before Jesus’ ascension, the spirits of all people went to Hades (“Sheol” in Hebrew) (Ps. 89:48). After His ascension, only the spirits of unbelievers go to Hades, while the spirits of believers go directly to be with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:1-8). After the final judgment, those in Hades will be cast into hell, which is also known as the “lake of fire” (Rev. 20:14).
Ephesians 4:9 states: “What does ‘He ascended’ mean except that He also descended to the lower, earthly regions?”. This means that the Lord’s ascension necessitated a previous descent from heaven to earth, but not to hell. The word “lower” refers to the fact that the earth is beneath the heavens. A similar thought is given in: “Sing for joy, O heavens, for the LORD has done this; shout aloud, O earth beneath” (Is. 44:23).
According to 1 Peter 3:18-20, “He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.” This passage is difficult to understand. The interpretation that best fits the context is that by the Holy Spirit, Christ preached through Noah (Gen. 6:3; 1 Pt. 1:10-11; 2 Pt.2:5) to people who were now spirits in hades because they had rejected Noah’s message. The Bible teaches that there is no second chance for salvation after death—“Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Heb. 9:27). So Christ didn’t preach to spirits in hades. Furthermore, there is no evidence in the Bible of “purgatory”: a place or condition of temporal punishment before one goes to heaven. Therefore, there is no benefit of prayer for the dead or baptism of the dead—these are merely human traditions with no Biblical basis.
So Jesus did not go to Hell between His death and resurrection. Instead, His spirit was with the Father in heaven.
Written, August 2006
[i] <www.reformed.org/documents/apostles_creed.html; 28 July 2006>
[ii] <www.reformed.org/documents/apostles_creed_dodds.html#ARTICLE_5; 28 July 2006>