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Did Jesus Really Descend into Hades (Sheol)?

Updated: May 13, 2023

Let us begin with a secular definition of Death – “a permanent cession of all vital functions; the end of life.” Meriam Webster. This meaning leaves out the Christian viewpoint of what life really is. When God created man, “Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. . . ” (Genesis 1:26, ESV).

God created us with a physical body and a spiritual soul. The two were to be as one, so that Death to a Christian is the dying of the physical body and the separation of the soul from that body. However, we also find in Scripture, “. . . you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—” (Ephesians 2:1–2, ESV). God made human beings to be embodied souls and ensouled bodies, and death rips this union apart.

So, what happens after death?

The Old Testament explains there are more than one meaning of the word “Sheol.” It tells us that it is a place to go for both the righteous and the wicked. For the righteous we read the following:

All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” Thus his father wept for him.” (Genesis 37:35, ESV)

The king said to her, “Do not be afraid. What do you see?” And the woman said to Saul, “I see a god coming up out of the earth.” He said to her, “What is his appearance?” And she said, “An old man is coming up, and he is wrapped in a robe.” And Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground and paid homage.” (1 Samuel 28:13–14, ESV)

Yet for the wicked, the unrighteous:

O Lord, let me not be put to shame, for I call upon you; let the wicked be put to shame; let them go silently to Sheol.” (Psalm 31:17, ESV)

But if the Lord creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall know that these men have despised the Lord.” And as soon as he had finished speaking all these words, the ground under them split apart. And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the people who belonged to Korah and all their goods. So they and all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol, and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly.” (Numbers 16:30–33, ESV)

I said, In the middle of my days I must depart; I am consigned to the gates of Sheol for the rest of my years.” (Isaiah 38:10, ESV)

As I mentioned, throughout the Old Testament, the writers refer to Sheol as a place that both the righteous and unrighteous would go upon death. Of course, the physical body would be placed in the ground, but its soul would go to Sheol as a holding place. Why? Christ had not come to redeem His elect. He needed to go through the propitiation His Father demanded to redeem these and our souls.

The New Testament gives us a look into this. The Hebrew word Sheol translates into the Greek word meaning Hades (Hadas). Luke gives us a great look into this, depicting two sides of Hades (Sheol) in Luke 16:19–31, where he shares the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus.

In that story, we can see the chasm that separates the two sides. On the one side, Abraham’s side, the Old Testament saints are in a place of comfort and rest (Greek – Elysium), while the unrighteous are already receiving torment even before final judgement. This is likely where the Catholics and others find Purgatory. But that’s a whole other study and no you cannot buy indulgences to get them out.

So, where did Jesus go when He died? “Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last.” (Luke 23:46, ESV). We know that Joseph of ‘Arimathea placed Him in the tomb and sealed it (Luke 23:50). That would be the OT teaching of under the ground.

But what about His Soul? This appears to be a simple answer as we find in Luke’s Gospel. “And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43, ESV). However, we must exegete this carefully keeping this in context. He did not say that He would be with His Father today, but the thief would be with Him in paradise. The Greek translation for paradise is often used as meaning Heaven. However, it is also translated as garden, or orchard. In keeping with the preceding, Abraham’s side in a place of comfort and rest, we can easily see this time paradise means just that so that the thief would be with Him as He went to visit and preach to those in Hades. He rips the gate off to liberate the Old Testament Saints that received a promise of rescue.

But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me. Selah” (Psalm 49:15, ESV)

For great is your steadfast love toward me; you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.” (Psalm 86:13, ESV)

Bottom line is that Christ descended into Abraham’s region of Hades, the place of comfort and rest, “the lower parts of the earth. It is there that he freed the Old Testament Saints (the Elect). It is there that He proclaimed or preached to the spirits in prison (1 Peter 3:19). However, He did not descend into the place that the "Rich Man" was in being tormented. There is another Greek word for the Hell people think about when they ponder this question, Gehenna or Gahanna, which is also called, “The Lake of Fire.”

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matthew 25:41, ESV)

No Scriptural references to this Geena exist until we see this place mentioned in Revelation 19:20-21 and 20:10-15. We’ll get there in our Adult Bible Study.

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