Observations on life; particularly spiritual

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>

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4 responses

  1. Comment by Samson Banda:
    I do not follow the concept that Christians who die directly go to be with the Lord for 1 Cor. 15:18 says “then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished” only to be resurrected on Christ’s second coming.
    As for Luke 23:43 it’s a translation error, a comma before “today” is incorrect. It should have been “verily I say unto thee today, shalt thou be with me in paradise”. You can verify at any public library from the original Greek Bible it says “verily I say to thee, with me shalt thou be in paradise”. Thus Jesus was only stressing the time of making the promise not the time he wil be in paradise. Consequently, the thief at the cross is dead and buried.

    January 17, 2011 at 8:02 pm

    • You wrote: “I do not follow the concept that Christians who die, directly go to be with the Lord”.
      Death involves two things:
      • First, the end of physical life (when breathing and heartbeat cease). Then the body is buried.
      • Second, the separation of the human spirit from the body. The spirit is the unseen part of a person (1 Thessalonians 5:23). This is the key to understanding this topic.
      For a Christian, at death the spirit goes to be with the Lord and the body decays until the resurrection (when the spirit is reunited with a new body).
      For example, when Jesus and Stephen died, their spirits went to heaven:
      • When Jesus died, Luke 23:46 (KJV) : “And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit: and having said thus, He gave up the ghost.”
      • When Stephen died, Acts 7:59 (KJV): “And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
      Other verses that say that when Christians die, their spirit goes directly to be with the Lord are:
      2 Corinthians 5:6, 8-9 (KJV) “Therefore we are always confident, knowing that, whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord: … We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord. Wherefore we labour, that, whether present or absent, we may be accepted of Him.”
      Philippines 1:23-24 (KJV) “For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better: Nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you.”
      Two verses
      You mention two verses: 1 Cor. 15:18 and Luke 23:43
      In the KJV version of the Bible, these say:
      1 Cor. 15:18 “Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished.”
      Luke 23:43 “And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.”
      1 Cor. 15:18
      The verse deals with the resurrection of the body and not with death.
      You say that 1 Cor. 15:18 means that believers are resurrected at Christ’s second coming. This is true, but that is not what the verse is saying. Clearly, the statement in v.18 is not true because it assumes that Christ was not raised from the dead (v.17).
      The topic of this passage is the resurrection of the body. What verse 17-18 says is that if Christ was not raised from the dead, then believers who have already died will not be raised either. However, as the Bible teaches that Christ was resurrected, then believers who have already died will also be resurrected at the rapture.
      Luke 23:43
      Luke 23:43 (KJV) “And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.”
      This verse deals with what happened to the spirit of the thief on the cross after his death.
      The saying “Verily I say unto Thee” (or similar) occurs 77 times in the gospels of the KJV. It was a well known statement that introduced something that was important. As this was always said in the present tense, there is no need to add the word “today” after it to indicate the timing of when it was said. In fact, “today” is not used in this way in any of the other 76 occurrences.
      Jesus used a similar sentence structure when He spoke to Peter in Mark 14:30
      Mark 14:30 (JKJV) “And Jesus saith unto him, Verily I say unto thee, That this day, even in this night, before the cock crow twice, thou shalt deny me thrice.”
      Here it is clear that the “this day” primarily refers to when Peter would deny the Lord, not when Jesus spoke these words.
      In Luke 23:43 you say that the comma should be after “today”, and that this is how it is in the original Greek Bible. However, I can find no evidence to support this. The three main Greek texts of the New Testament are the Byzantine/Received text, the Majority text and the Alexandrian text. I have a copy of each of these Greek texts and the equivalent English words in the following books:
      • Green (1986) The interlinear Bible, Hendrickson Publishers. This is an Alexandrian text.
      • Marshall (1993) The interlinear NASB/NIV parallel New Testament in Greek and English, Zondervan Publishing House. This is a /Received text, which also indicates how the Majority text differs.
      In each of the above books, the translators of the Greek language have placed the comma before “today” in Luke 23:43 and not after it.
      Similarly, in the following Bible translations, the comma is placed before “today” in Luke 23:43 and not after it.
      Luke 23:43 (KJV) And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.
      Luke 23:43 (NKJV) And Jesus said unto him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in paradise.”
      Luke 23:43 (NIV) Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
      Luke 23:43 (NASB) And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in paradise.”

      January 17, 2011 at 8:08 pm

  2. Comment by Sissai Felelde:
    Do the words “tomb”, “grave”, “hell” and “hades” have the same meaning?

    January 17, 2011 at 8:26 pm

    • You ask about whether the words “tomb”, “grave”, “hell” and “hades” have the same meaning. I think, that “tomb” and “grave” have a similar meaning, but that “hades” and “hell” are different, but related. “Hades” is the place or state of the spirits of unbelievers after death, while “hell” is the place of everlasting punishment (or the lake of fire).
      You are right, hell is a real place. The point I was making in the article was that Jesus has not been to hell.

      January 17, 2011 at 8:28 pm

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