Where did Jesus go when he died?
When Jesus went to the Cross for us, he paid the penalty for our sins, and he made a way for us to be eternally reconciled to God. And on the third day, he rose in victory.
But we’re left with the question: where did Jesus go for those 3 days?
The bible doesn’t really answer that question directly. So followers of Jesus have developed a few different views. Through the generations, this has led to a lot of healthy discussion and contemplation. It has also led to a lot of confusion.
So what can we definitely say about Jesus’ time in the grave? What happened between Good Friday and Easter Sunday?
Did Jesus go to Hell?
Part of the confusion in answering this question revolves around a misunderstanding of the word “hell” in the Apostle’s Creed. Even if you don’t know the Apostle’s Creed, it has probably shaped your thinking about what happened to Jesus during the 3 days of his death.
The Apostle’s Creed is a set of beliefs established by early church leaders to clarify some of the teaching of Scripture. Often times, whenever a new false teaching arose, a new creed came to refute it and bring clarity.
But over the course of time, what was clear to the original audience has become less so to us–particularly when we translated the creed from Latin and Greek to English.
Here’s the line that gives us trouble.
“[Jesus] suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again.”
The English word “hell” here is misleading, because that brings along images of suffering and fire. However, in the original languages, the word simply means “lower.” It’s often used to describe the lower realm–the realm of the dead. The Hebrews often referred to it as Sheol.
In the Jewish tradition of Jesus’ time, people understood Sheol as consisting of two different realms. There was a place of comfort they called Abraham’s Bosom (Luke 16:22). And there was a place of judgment, which is what we would commonly think of as hell.
But what did Jesus do when he was in Sheol? And where exactly was that? Here are a few different views, some of which I think are better than others.
View #1: Jesus suffered God’s wrath for 3 days.
Some believe that when Jesus died, he spent the next 3 days suffering for the sins of the world. They believe that Jesus literally went to hell and back over the weekend.
Some cite Jesus’ words in Matthew 12:38-41, where Jesus compares himself to Jonah as support for this view. Since Jonah suffered for 3 days in the belly of a large fish, that’s probably what Jesus did in the depths of the earth.
However, there are other truths in Scripture that seem to contradict this interpretation. Because when Jesus died, he had fulfilled every requirement to unite humanity back with God. There was no suffering left for him to do.
From the Cross, Jesus uttered 3 words that show us that the next 3 days were not spent in suffering: It is finished.
(BTW, yes, I realize that it’s actually just one word in the Greek. I just thought it was a cool play on words, okay?)
But my point is that Jesus had done it. It was finished. There was no more suffering left to do in order to accomplish all that God had planned.
Furthermore, while Jesus is hanging on the Cross, he says to one of the robbers on the cross next to him, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
Wherever Jesus went when he died, we know that it was a place of comfort.
View #2: Jesus spent 3 days declaring victory over Satan.
In this view, when Jesus died, he went down into hell to do a victory lap. He spent the time between Friday and Sunday declaring his eternal victory of Satan and the forces of darkness.
Supporters of this view draw from Peter’s words.
“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water.” (1 Peter 3:18-20)
This view interprets “spirits in prison” as Satan and his fallen angels in hell. However, these verses more likely refer to the work of Jesus’ Spirit (AKA the Holy Spirit) in the life of Noah.
This work that God did all those years prior in Noah’s heart led to him being saved from the flood. And saving Noah was rooted in an ultimate purpose to bring salvation to all peoples through Jesus.
This passage isn’t the clearest couple of verses we have in the bible. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not incredibly clear on what all they mean. But I don’t think they mean that Jesus threw a 3 day parade for himself in hell.
View #3: Jesus spent 3 days preaching to Old Testament believers.
Others believe that when Jesus died, he went to Abraham’s Bosom (the good place).
And while he was there, Jesus explained the meaning of his life and death to the people who had been followers of God before Jesus’ time on earth. He finally revealed the fullness of his plan to all those who had died in faith throughout the generations.
This view cites the same verses from 1 Peter 3, saying that the spirits in prison were the Old Testament believers. But that’s hard to reconcile with the idea of them being in prison, when Abraham’s Bosom was a place of comfort.
Holders of this view also cite Peter’s later words in 1 Peter 4.
“For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.” (1 Peter 4:6)
In this interpretation, “those who are dead” are those who had faith in God during Old Testament times who only received the message of Jesus after they had died in faith.
Again, this is not the clearest verse we have in the bible, and I’m not 100 percent sure what all it’s referring to. But it may refer to those who are dead now but heard and believed the gospel while they were still alive. They now experience life with Jesus.
At the very least, this view makes a lot of sense and seems consistent with the other biblical data we have.
View #4: Jesus spent 3 days comforted in the presence of the Father.
This view is a little more sparing in the details–which I think is a good thing, given that we aren’t given a ton of details by Scripture. So this view simply states that Jesus spent the time between Friday and Sunday in the presence of God the Father, and that it was a place of comfort.
Just before Jesus died, he said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46)
This seems to indicate that Jesus anticipated being in the presence of God the Father–in the paradise he referenced to the criminal beside him.
It also shows us the spirit of surrender that Jesus had. He was committing his spirit into the hands of the Father. And when he was in the presence of the Father, he experienced comfort.
And this is the same comfort that we look forward to when our time on this earth is done. We can look forward on that day with a sense of both surrender and comfort.
Paul puts it this way.
“Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 5:8)
Since Jesus is human, he is the perfect example of how life should be lived. This is also true in the way he died. He died without fear. He died without focusing on the pain and the hurt of this life. He died focusing on the Father who would soon usher him into his presence.
Moral of the Story: Jesus Didn’t Stay Dead.
At the end of the day, we don’t know exactly where Jesus went when he died, what he did, or what it was like. This is certainly something I want to ask when I see him face-to-face.
But here’s the most important thing. Wherever he was, he didn’t stay there. Jesus didn’t stay dead. On the third day, he rose. And his resurrection gives us hope that we will one day be raised to new life in him.
Here’s what Paul says when he talks about the future hope we have because of Jesus’ resurrection.
“When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’
‘O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?’”
(1 Corinthians 15:54-55)
Death is defeated. Jesus has overcome!