What happened to Jesus after He died?


Have you ever wondered about the day after Good Friday and the day before Easter? The question is this: What happened to Jesus after He was crucified but before He was resurrected?

You might say that He was sealed in the tomb. That was true of his body, but what about Him? His essence, his soul? How can the Son of God, the One through whom all things were made and in whom all things hold together, how can He simply go out of existence, even for the space of time from when He died until early on that Sunday morning?

There are a couple of different beliefs about this as Christians have wrestled with the question.

One response is this: Jesus told the thief on the cross “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” If we think Jesus was talking about a literal “today,” this specific 24-hour period, then we would say the answer to the question is that Jesus went immediately to heaven and stayed there until He rose from the dead on Easter morning. There is an issue with this, though. In the resurrection account as recorded in the Gospel of John, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene and he warns her, “Do not hold onto me, for I have not yet returned to the Father.” That makes it seem like Jesus’ spirit did not go from the cross to heaven immediately.

There is another belief, and it is a church tradition that goes back to at least the fourth century. Some have said that Jesus’ spirit stormed the gates of hell and He preached salvation to the souls that were imprisoned there. This is in the Apostles’ Creed in the line, “He descended to the dead.”

Every once in awhile, someone in the church asks me about this belief and where it may be found in the Bible. Before I answer that, I want to admit to you that the Biblical evidence is a bit thin on this point, but there are generally two places that are referenced.

The first place to go to read about this is I Peter 4:6. Peter is telling the Christians not to join in the general moral depravity of those around them. He says they will have to go before the Judge and give an account for their lives. And then he says, “For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead …” Peter refers to someone going to the place of the dead to preach to them. Who went to preach to them, and when did they do so? One of the streams of interpretation in the early church said that Jesus went to them to preach, and He did that on Holy Saturday, the day after He died on a cross and before He was resurrected.

The second place to go for biblical evidence of Jesus going to hell is in the Book of Ephesians, 4:9. Paul is really writing about Jesus ascending to the heavens. He quotes a Psalm – Psalm 68, saying, “When he ascended on high He led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.”

Then he says, “What does he ascended mean except that he also descended to the depths of the earth?”

It is hard to nail down a whole theological doctrine based on those two verses, so there is not really a clear answer biblically to the question of what happened to Jesus’ soul in between dying and being raised.

Having said that, if you push me to give an answer to the question, I line up with the Apostles’ Creed and affirm that He descended to the dead. I find it to be a compelling thought that Jesus went down, all the way down in the human experience, dying carrying our sin, going to storm hell’s gates on behalf of the souls held in captivity there. There is a verse in Psalm 139 that says, “If I go up to the heavens, you are there, if I make my bed in Sheol (the depths), you are there.”

I know people who have made their bed in hell. In truth, there’s probably a time in everyone’s life when that is an apt description of where we’ve been. I find it comforting that there is no place I can go apart from the presence of Jesus Christ. Yes, I can cut myself off from Him, but even in the worst hellhole of my own making, Jesus Christ will come and seek me out.

On this Holy Saturday, the day of waiting in expectation, the day when the apostles hid and the women gathered together their spices and ointments to anoint a dead body the following day, the day when the Sanhedrin asked for the tomb to be sealed and the Roman guards were posted to keep the body from being stolen, I find comfort in the idea that Jesus Christ descends to the dead in hell, challenging the enemy of our souls, who is no contest for the Son of God. I find it a good thought that in our sickness and confusion and isolation, we trust in the One who holds the keys of hell and of death, Jesus, our Champion, our Savior, our Friend.

Derek Russell is pastor of the Hillsboro Global Methodist Church. He loves Jesus, family, dogs and football.

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