Where Was Jesus After He Died On The Cross?

Title: Where Was Jesus After He Died on the Cross?

Text: 1 Peter 3:18-19, 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, Luke 23:42-43

Time: March 19th, 2013



We’re less than two weeks away from Easter Sunday 2013, coming closer to spring, although it still feels like winter with snow and sleet.  I’ve been dealing with different aspects of the Easter theme this year, so I’ll continue in that same direction this morning. Today, I’d like to tackle the difficult question of where Christ was during the three days between his death on the cross and his glorious resurrection from the tomb on Easter Sunday morning. Where did he go after he spoke these words on the cross at his final moment, “Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit,” Luke 23:46. If you remember last message, we got into this issue in dealing with the separation of mind and body of Christ after his death on the cross. I was explaining how the physical, material body of Jesus was placed in the tomb after his crucifixion, but that his soul or spirit had long since left and gone off to some other place. If you remember, I couldn’t say exactly where the mind and soul or spirit of Jesus went after his death on the cross. Matthew 27:50 says, “And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit,” but it doesn’t say exactly where his spirit went from there. So what we have to do is piece together a number of different clues or hints in the New Testament in order to come up with a likely place where Jesus was in the spirit, while his physical, material body lie in the stone cold tomb. Now in addition to biblical passages found in the New Testament, we’ll also consider the famous “Apostle’s Creed” and see if it helps us in understanding the whereabouts of Jesus for the three days before his resurrection. Why consider the Apostle’s Creed? Because it’s a very old and very popular summary of the teachings of Christianity that practically all branches of Christianity follow. What specific content does it contain that is related to the question of where Jesus was during the interval between the cross and the resurrection? Only this simple, yet important phrase, “He (Jesus) was crucified, dead and was buried; he descended into hell. He rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven.” Now anyone from a traditional or main line church has said this phrase while reciting the Apostle’s Creed. Most people say it without thinking much about it. Today we’ll take a closer look at it and see if it helps us understand the whereabouts of Jesus during the end of Holy Week. And we’ll mostly explore what the Bible itself says about this question, since as Christians we look primarily to it as our authoritative source for truth, not man-made commentary. So it should be an interesting time as we reflect deeply about our Easter faith this year. Please join me.


First, did Jesus go to hell like the Apostle’s Creed seems to say? 1 Peter 3:18-19, “. . . 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.” Now it must be said right off the bat that this is one of the more difficult passages in the whole New Testament (I’m not comparing it with difficult to understand Old Testament passages, because there are a lot of those!). But this passage seems, on the surface, to imply that after the death of Jesus on the cross, after he committed his spirit into the hands of God the Father, after he gave up his spirit, that he then went to hell and preached to the occupants therein. I’ve been a Christian over thirty years now, both as a layperson and also a member of the clergy, and I’ve heard lots of different things said about this idea of Christ traveling to hell and preaching or teaching there during the interval between his death and resurrection. Some people say he showed himself to demons bound there awaiting the final judgment, others say he spoke to the unbelievers who died from earth, and some even say he set free the Old Testament saints who lived in a separate chamber in the netherworld awaiting release. All of these images or pictures are very strange, yet isn’t that what the Apostle’s Creed says, “And he descended into hell.” So then, it must be that it happened, right? Well, maybe. The problem is that the earliest forms of the Apostle’s Creed don’t contain the phrase, “He descended into hell,” they exclude it. Then later, after the 6th Century, it was added. Every other part of the Creed is a major and important Christian doctrine, except for this phrase, which is neither an important doctrine, nor is it something agreed upon by all Christians or understood exactly the same way. And the verse in 1 Peter is hard to understand too. What does it mean that Christ by the Spirit went and preached to the spirits in prison? It doesn’t say that he went to hell or that he preached to demons or even unbelievers there. Now the rest of the verse talks about the people at the time of Noah, “who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built,” 1 Peter 3:20. So the verse might mean something like, “Christ was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit – the same Spirit who taught people in the Old Testament through Noah and the other holy prophets.” The verse might not have anything to do with preaching in hell. Nevertheless, Christ could have visited hell in the spirit for whatever reason, as the later addition to the Apostle’s Creed says; but it’s hard to tell for sure. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. At this point we just don’t know for sure. But let’s look at another possibility.


Second, did Jesus stay in the grave or in the ground as some people think. 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, “Now, brothers, I wan to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, and that was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” The simplest understanding of where Jesus was for the three days from the time of his death on the cross until his resurrection on Easter Sunday morning is that he was in the tomb. The Apostle Paul’s simple affirmation that Christ died, was buried, and was raised on the third day doesn’t mention anything about Jesus going here or there, to heaven or hell or anywhere else. So might we conclude, in the name of simplicity, that Jesus may have simply stayed body, mind and soul in the tomb awaiting resurrection? This might even be the original understanding for the phrase in the Apostle’s Creed, “He descended into hell.” It might have started out as meaning something like, “He was put down into the ground,” or “He descended into hades” — Greek word for hell or the ground or “down there.” Later, people might have started interpreting the word hades to mean the real spiritual hell, and so the Apostle’s Creed started to take on that meaning later. It’s hard to say. But if all of Jesus simply remained in the grave, the Creed seems to repeat itself. For example, it says, “He was buried,” but why would it then next say, “He was lowered into the earth,” or “He was placed in the ground,” or something similar? That’s a repeat of the same idea. Also, the New Testament implies that Jesus committed his spirit to God the Father at death, not to the grave: “Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit,” Luke 23:46. The Apostle Paul teaches that to be absent from the body is to be in the presence of the Lord, 2 Corinthians 5:6-8. All the New Testament biblical evidence points to Christ’s spirit present and active during the three days between his death and resurrection. Now the Bible doesn’t spell out exactly what Jesus was doing during those three days, but it seems to imply that he wasn’t just sleeping the sleep of death in the tomb waiting for resurrection. So for these and other reasons I find it hard to believe that Jesus was fully confined to the tomb body, mind and soul for three days. There seems to be something more going on. Let’s look at a better solution.


Third, did Jesus go to heaven during the three days between death and resurrection? Luke 23:42-43, “Then he (the thief on the cross) said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus answered him, ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.’” According to Jesus himself, he would be in paradise that day! That’s what he promised the repentant thief on the cross – he’d be with Jesus in paradise that same day! Here’s the answer, at least part of the answer, to where Jesus was during the three days between his death and resurrection: he was in paradise. Paradise in another word for heaven, the spiritual blessed realm. Without getting into a lot of technical information, it doesn’t necessarily mean the “highest” heaven. We know from other references in the New Testament that there are supposedly different levels of heaven. For example, the Apostle Paul claims he was caught up in the “third” heaven, 2 Corinthians 12:2, so then, again, there might be degrees or levels of heaven. But what we do know from the simple statement of Jesus to the thief on the cross is that he would be visiting paradise or heaven that day. So it couldn’t be that Jesus was asleep in the grave for three days awaiting resurrection. Might Jesus have gone both to hell and to heaven during the three days? Possibly, although like I said before, I’m not convinced that he visited hell because it doesn’t seem to be something the early church affirmed, neither is it clear that the New Testament teaches such a thing. Yes, the Apostle’s Creed seems to be saying Jesus visited hell, but it was only a later addition to the Creed that says this. Yes, the Creed has been around for a long time, but it still might have been corrupted by the additional phrase about hell. I’m not saying that Jesus didn’t carry out business in hell for some reason at some point during the three days, but again, it’s hard to know what he exactly did even if he was there, or how long he stayed. What we do know for sure is that he was in heaven or paradise during the three days, because he himself said so. And since this is the clearest thing we can know about where Christ was in between death and resurrection, this is about the only thing we can say for sure about his whereabouts. This will be something, among many things, that we’ll have to ask the Lord when we see him face-to-face in heaven. I’ve got many questions, as I’m sure you do also, that we can ask once we get there. But for now we’ll just have to piece together bits and pieces from here and there and come up with a best guess. My best guess is that Jesus was mostly in heaven during the whole time.


Now some people have speculated that Jesus continued to suffer even after his death on the cross, and that the torture and crucifixion of Christ only represented his mental and physical suffering. After he died, they say, he continued to suffer worse through spiritually suffering by going to hell in our place and tasting eternal damnation for us, so that we might never experience it ourselves. Some people see this as the full suffering and substitutionary atonement for us of Jesus Christ. They also see that on resurrection morning Jesus was not only raised to life bodily from the grave, but also raised spiritually from hell. The late Christian singer Keith Green in his song, The Victor,” sings, “Swallowed into earth’s dark womb, death has triumphed, that’s what they say. But tried to hold him in the tomb, the Son of Life rose on the third day. Just look the gates of hell they’re falling, crumbling from the inside out. He’s bursting through the walls with laughter. Listen to the angels shout. . . . His plan of battle, you know it fooled them all. They led him off to prison to die. But as he entered hades hall, he broke those hellish chains with a cry. Just listen to those demons screaming. See him bruise the serpent’s head. The prisoners of hell he’s redeeming, all the power of death is dead. It is finished. He has done it. Life conquered death, Jesus Christ has won it.” I’m not exactly sure what Keith Green is trying to say with this song, but it seems he’s trying to describe Jesus going to hell, taking care of business there, and then raising from the dead on Easter Sunday. Now that’s possible, I’m not saying that it didn’t happen. I’m just saying that it’s not clear that it happened exactly that way. What is clear, what is certain from the New Testament gospel accounts, is Jesus promised a thief on the cross that he’d be with him in paradise at the moment of death. I think that’s what we have to remember and emphasize, apart from whatever else Jesus might have done during the three days between his death and resurrection. The important thing for us to remember is that Jesus promised everyone, all who believe, that at death we are immediately ushered into the presence of the God. That’s what the Apostle Paul and others teach also in the New Testament. Let’s not get confused with what isn’t clear in the Bible, and miss what is clear. What is clear is that you and I and everyone who believes in Jesus will be brought into the immediate presence of God when we die. We have everything to look forward to at death, and nothing to fear. Amen.


One Response to “Where Was Jesus After He Died On The Cross?”

  1. Where Was Jesus After He Died On The Cross? | ChristianBookBarn.com Says:

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