Tough Questions: Where did Jesus go when he died?
Dates & Seasons
“But what actually happened to Jesus between Good Friday and Easter Sunday? The fact that Jesus’ body was in the tomb is undisputed, but there are various conjectures about what happened to Jesus’ spirit, or soul,” says The Rev’d Charlie Lacey from St Andrew’s, Springfield
We are about to enter Holy Week, when we will remember the events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion. Then, on Easter Sunday, we will celebrate the wondrous victory of his resurrection. Good Friday ends with Jesus in the tomb and Easter Sunday begins with a small group of women discovering that the tomb was empty. But what actually happened to Jesus between Good Friday and Easter Sunday?
The fact that Jesus’ body was in the tomb is undisputed, but there are various conjectures about what happened to Jesus’ spirit, or soul. Prior to 1979, the Book of Common Prayer (BCP), included a line in the Apostles’ Creed that stated, “He descended into hell.” This has caused many to surmise that Jesus went to hell.
However, this view is neither supported by scripture, nor by the original version of the Apostles’ Creed. The Apostles’ Creed was written some time in the second century, but the line, “he descended into hell”, does not appear until 390 AD. Moreover, the word translated “hell” is not intended to mean hell as some understand it. In the New Testament, the word Gehenna describes a place of final judgement and separation from God. However, the word that is used in the creed is Sheol or Hades, which are more general terms for the place where dead people go. The BCP’s current rendering, “he descended to the dead”, is therefore more faithful to the original understanding of this phrase.
There are several verses from the New Testament (Ephesians 4.8-10 and 1 Peter 3.18-20, in particular), that some have taken to mean that Jesus made an appearance in hell. Notwithstanding, there are more plausible interpretations of these verses, however, that is beyond the scope of this article. Similarly, the purpose of this article is not to explore what hell actually is.
When Jesus was on the cross, he said to the criminal hanging next to him, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” which seems to suggest that Jesus’ spirit would pass immediately into the presence of God. That having been said, one has to question what “today” actually means to someone who has passed through the veil of death and beyond the limitations of time as we know it.
In Luke 23.46, Jesus cries out “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit,” which seems to anticipate an immediate end to his suffering. Even more striking are Jesus’ last words “It is finished,” from John 19.30. The work of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world was “finished” on the cross. To suggest that Jesus subsequently went to hell is tantamount to saying that what he did on the cross was not enough!
The Bible does not tell us what happened to Jesus’ soul whilst his body was in the grave, but the foregoing analysis demonstrates that he was not in hell (whatever, or wherever that may be). What we can be sure of is that Jesus was under the power of death until the third day. It is possible that Jesus’ spirit passed immediately into God’s presence and was then reunited with his body at the time of his resurrection. Another possibility, though harder for us to grasp, is that time as we know it does not exist beyond death. If that is the case, Jesus might feasibly have passed through the veil of death and straight onto his resurrection.
The truth is, we cannot know these things for sure, it is therefore prudent to focus on what we can be sure of, namely, that Jesus died on a cross and rose from the dead on the third day, so that sinful human beings who put their trust in Jesus will be forgiven and reconciled to God forever.
First published on the St Andrew’s, Springfield website in April 2023.Jump to next article