Volume 11, Issue 1: Stauron
After the Cross
"Was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into Hades"The Apostles' Creed.
"Jesus said unto him, `Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.'"
Where was the soul of Jesus, those three days between His death and resurrection? The Christian church has for centuries confessed that "He descended into Hades." This confession reflects the New Testament preaching of the Apostle Peter: "He foresaw and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption" (Acts 2:31, RSV). When Jesus died, His soul descended into Hades.
Where is Hades? Speaking of His death, Jesus prophesied, "For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale's belly, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Matt. 12:40). Hades is thus in the heart of the earth. This is consistent with what Christ said elsewhere, "And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades" (Matt. 11:23, RSV). Hades is down, beneath our feet, subterranean.
Hades is apparently the New Testament equivalent of Sheol (cf. Acts 2:27, Psa. 16:10), the Old Testament place of the departed dead. Sheol is described as a pit, a region dark and deep (Psa. 88:3-6), subterranean (Amos 9:2), where there is "no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom" (Eccl. 9:10). All of the dead expected to go there, including righteous men like Jacob and Job (Gen. 37:35, Job 10:20-22). It was especially considered the destination of the wicked (Psa. 49:14), though, unlike the wicked, the godly expected to be redeemed from it (Psa. 49:15; Job 19:25-27). But we must not think that Sheol designates a neutral place, where all the dead, righteous and wicked, are alike together. For death is the great divider of men, and no neutral place would both contain the trees of Eden (Ezek. 31:18) as well as experience God's burning anger (Deut. 32:22).
If we carefully consider the New Testament treatment of the word Hades, these facts all come into focus. The clearest treatment of Hades is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Jesus taught, "The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom. And he called out, `Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.' But Abraham said, `Son . . . between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from
there to us'" (Luke 16:22-26, RSV).1 From this passage we note that, though distantly
separated by an impassable chasm, Abraham and the rich man are in the same general location, close enough to communicate. On the side of the rich man, it is a place of fire and torment, properly named Hades; on the other side Lazarus is with Abraham, in a place of comfort (and apparently water), a paradise.
This information is consistent with the Old Testament descriptions of Sheol, but equally significant, it is consistent with
the first-century understanding of Hades. In Virgil's Aeneid, book six,2 Hades is the
underworld place of the dead. It is divided in halves: the right side is Elysium, paradise, a land of green woods, water, and music, where the righteous are at rest; the left side is
Tartarus,3 a deep place of darkness, fire, and the torment of the wicked.
Though we must not take our doctrine from outside of the scriptures, we should note that Jesus and the writers of the New Testament used the word Hades freely, without re-interpretation. The Jews would have understood this term in light of its parallels with Sheol, and the pagans (and Jews educated in pagan literature) would have understood it in terms of their poetry.
This helps explain how Jesus could descend into Hades, yet at the same time be with the thief in paradise. Indeed, Christ descended into Hades in order to go to paradise. Why? Certainly not to suffer torment; with His death on the cross his sufferings for our redemption were finished. Rather, Christ descended to fulfill the hope of the righteous saints, to redeem them from Sheol. He went into Hades to take paradise into heaven (2 Cor. 12:2, 4), to lead captivity captive by His ascension (Eph. 4:8). The saints of old "received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect" (Heb. 11:39-40). With the righteous redeemed from it, Hades may now be cast into Hell (Rev. 20:14).
By Christ's resurrection and ascension all things are made new. The righteous no longer go down into the paradise of the underworld, but up into the paradise of heaven (cf. Rev. 2:7; 22:2). Jesus went into His Father's house to prepare a place for His disciples, that we may be where He is.