What happened to Jesus when he died? His body was removed from the cross and taken to a tomb where it lay for three days before the resurrection. That’s just his body though, a shell that carried his soul, the real Jesus. Did his soul die too? That’s not what the Bible teaches.
When Jesus died two others, both criminals were crucified alongside him. One of them was probably still cursing Jesus with his dying breath, as they both had done initially, but the other man had recognised the truth of who Jesus was. Seeing the way he died and the words he spoke he realised that this was no ordinary man. He understood what perhaps he had heard in many rumours. Jesus of Nazareth was his God. A sign had been placed above Jesus saying mockingly that he was King of the Jews. He was more than that. He was, and is, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
The criminal who saw the truth about Jesus asked him for something special, seeing his wretched state. He said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (1) Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (2) You might assume this was a promise that Jesus would take the criminal to heaven but that’s not where Paradise was. Every Jew was taught that Paradise was somewhere completely different.
There are many names in the Bible for hell, hell itself, Gehenna and Sheol (or Hades in Greek). There are different connotations to each name but it’s Sheol that I want to mention. Jews regarded Sheol as being in two parts, what we call Upper Sheol and Lower Sheol, and it was a place where all dead people used to go. Simply put, those who lived a bad life, the unrighteous, went to Lower Sheol while the righteous dead went to Upper Sheol which was a place of comfort. Upper Sheol was known by Jews as Paradise.
The idea is seen in a parable Jesus spoke, of which this is a part, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side.” (3)
Lazarus was being comforted while the rich man was in torment, two entirely post-death experiences. We should also note that Abraham, the great Biblical patriarch was in Upper Sheol. As would be Isaac, Jacob, David, Solomon, Samuel, Samson, Gideon, Sarah, Rachel, Rebekah, Ruth, Rahab and all the other righteous people from Old Testament days. It was to these people that Christians believe Jesus went when he died. His soul entered Upper Sheol or Paradise, and at his resurrection, he destroyed the barrier that was imprisoning the righteous dead. The Bible says, “When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people. (What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions?” (4)
Jesus defeated death. The Bible wonderfully declares, “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (5) Today, those who put their trust in Jesus need have no fear of death. When we die we go to be “at home with the Lord.” (6) There is no Upper Sheol for us, just home, home with the Lord Jesus who died for us when he was crucified, paying the penalty for our sins.
Did you notice in what I’ve said that it’s the righteous dead who were freed from their captivity in Upper Sheol, not the unrighteous? I’ll leave you to ponder that.
- Luke 23:42
- Luke 23:43
- Luke 16:19-22
- Ephesians 4:8,9
- 1 Corinthians 15:54,55
- 2 Corinthians 5:6