Citrusdal | Clanwilliam | Graafwater | Kompas Gemeente Vredendal | Somerset-Wes

Joseph bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud and laid him in a tomb that had been cut out of the rock. And he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. (Mark 15:46)

We all know that Jesus died. “‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’ And having said this he breathed his last” (Luke 23:46). But what happened after he died? We know that his body was laid in Joseph’s tomb, but what about his human soul? 

Reflecting on this question not only sheds light on the Bible’s teaching about death and the afterlife, but it also is a great encouragement to us, who must face death and seek to do so without fear.

What Is Death?

First of all, what exactly is death? Death is separation, a dividing of things that ought to be united. Fundamentally, it is separation from God. Paul suggests as much in Ephesians 2:1–2, “You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked.” To walk in sin is to be dead, to be enslaved to dark powers, to be separated from God, to be children of his wrath. This type of separation is an estrangement, a hostility, an alienation from the life and hope of the living God. In this sense, all of us, by nature, are born dead, and it is this death that Jesus endured in his suffering on the cross. 

But of course, death is more than just separation from God. Death also marks the separation of the soul from the body. God made human beings to be embodied souls and ensouled bodies, and death rips this union asunder. But what happens to these two parts after they’re separated? Psalm 16:10 gives us a window into the biblical teaching. You will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.

“God made human beings to be embodied souls and ensouled bodies. Death rips this union asunder.”

This passage directs us to the normal account of what happened when a human being died prior to the death and resurrection of Jesus. The soul was abandoned “to Sheol,” and the body saw corruption or decayed. 

In Acts 2:29–31, Peter tells us that David, in writing this psalm, foresaw the resurrection of Christ, “that he was not abandoned to Hades [that is, his soul wasn’t], nor did his flesh see corruption” (notice that Peter reads the second line as a reference to Jesus’s body or flesh). Thus, prior to Jesus, at death, souls normally went to Sheol (or Hades), and bodies (flesh) decayed. We’re all familiar with the latter, but the former is more opaque. A quick Bible study will show us why Peter thinks that David’s prophecy in Psalm 16 is such good news.

What Is Sheol?

In the Old Testament, Sheol is the place of the souls of the dead, both the righteous (like Jacob, Genesis 37:35, and Samuel, 1 Samuel 28:13–14) and the wicked (Psalm 31:17). In the New Testament, the Hebrew word Sheol is translated as Hades, and the description of Sheol in the Old and New Testaments bears some resemblance to the Hades of Greek mythology. It is under the earth (Numbers 16:30–33), and it is like a city with gates (Isaiah 38:10) and bars (Job 17:16). It is a land of darkness — a place where shades, the shadowy souls of men, dwell (Isaiah 14:926:14). It is the land of forgetfulness (Psalm 88:12), where no work is done and no wisdom exists (Ecclesiastes 9:10). Most significantly, Sheol is a place where no one praises God (Psalm 6:588:10–11115:17Isaiah 38:18).

In the New Testament, the most extended depiction of the afterlife is found in Luke 16:19–31. There we learn that, like the Hades of Greek mythology, the biblical Sheol has two compartments: Hades proper (where the rich man is sent, Luke 16:23) and “Abraham’s bosom” (where the angels carry Lazarus, Luke 16:22). Hades proper is a place of torment, where fire causes anguish to the souls imprisoned there. Abraham’s bosom, on the other hand, while within shouting distance of Hades, is separated from it by “a great chasm” (Luke 16:26) and is, like the Greek Elysium, a place of comfort and rest. 

While much mystery remains, the picture begins to take shape. All dead souls go down to Sheol/Hades, but Sheol is divided into two distinct sides, one for the righteous and one for the wicked. The righteous who died prior to Christ dwelt in Sheol with Abraham, and though they were cut off from the land of the living (and therefore from the worship of Yahweh on earth), they were not tormented as the wicked were. 

Where Did Jesus Go When He Died?

“Following His death for sin, Jesus journeys to Hades, to the City of Death, and rips its gates off the hinges.”

What, then, does this tell us about where Jesus was on during the 3 days in the grave? Based on Jesus’s words to the thief on the cross in Luke 23:43, some Christians believe, that after His death, Jesus’s soul went to heaven to be in the presence of the Father. But Luke 23:43 doesn’t say that Jesus would be in the presence of God; it says he would be in the presence of the thief (“Today you will be with me in paradise”), and based on the Old Testament and Luke 16, it seems likely that the now-repentant thief would be at Abraham’s side, a place of comfort and rest for the righteous dead, which Jesus here calls “paradise.” 

Following his death for sin, then, Jesus journeys to Hades, to the City of Death, and rips its gates off the hinges. He liberates Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, John the Baptist, and the rest of the Old Testament faithful, ransoming them from the power of Sheol (Psalm 49:1586:1389:48). They had waited there for so long, not having received what was promised, so that their spirits would be made perfect along with the saints of the new covenant (Hebrews 11:39–4012:23). 

After his resurrection, Jesus ascends to heaven and brings the ransomed dead with him. Now paradise is no longer the place of torment, but is up in the third heaven, the highest heaven, where God dwells (2 Corinthians 12:2–4). 

Now, in the church age, when the righteous die, they aren’t merely carried by angels to Abraham’s bosom; they depart to be with Christ, which is far better (Philippians 1:23).

The wicked, however, remain in Hades in torment, until the final judgment, when Hades gives up the dead who dwell there, and they are judged according to their deeds, and then Death and Hades are thrown into hell, into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:13–15).

To Whom Did Jesus Preach the Gospel? 

Did you know the answer to that question may be found in the story of the flood in Genesis 6? There is this strange verse tucked into the Flood story in Genesis 6:4 – “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.” The verses that follow talk about God seeing the wickedness of mankind and his decision to send a flood to get a fresh start with humanity. For thousands of years people have debated who these “sons of God” were and what their nature was.

One source we have that tries to clear some of this up is the book of Enoch. We normally wouldn’t take much stock in a book that is written under a fictitious pseudonym but there are reasons to think it is valid on this issue (more on that in a minute). The book of Enoch, written around 300 B.C. is written as if by someone of the past (namely Noah’s great-grandfather Enoch). The book of Enoch says these were angels who came down and had relations with women on the earth and who were a bad influence on mankind, trying to lead them astray. The author of 1 Enoch says that God took these rebellious angels and locked them up in prison for their wickedness and rebellion.

“And the Lord said unto Michael: ‘Go, bind Semjâzâ and his associates who have united themselves with women so as to have defiled themselves with them in all their uncleanness. And when their sons have slain one another, and they have seen the destruction of their beloved ones, bind them fast for seventy generations in the valleys of the earth, till the day of their judgment and of their consummation, till the judgment that is for ever and ever is consummated. In those days they shall be led off to the abyss of fire: and to the torment and the prison in which they shall be confined for ever. And whosoever shall be condemned and destroyed will from thenceforth be bound together with them to the end of all generations. And destroy all the spirits of the reprobate and the children of the Watchers (angels), because they have wronged mankind…” (1 Enoch 10:11-16).

What does this have to do with Jesus in the grave? Peter references 1 Enoch in 1 Peter 3:18-20 when he wrote about what happened after Jesus died,

“For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, 19through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison 20who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.”

Many have interpreted these verses to say some people got a second chance to obey the Gospel after they died. What else would Jesus preach than the Gospel? There are a few faulty assumptions that take place when we read 1 Peter with no knowledge of the book of Enoch (which Peter certainly had based on this text and 2 Peter 2:4 which specifically references angels put into prison by God).

The first faulty assumption is that these spirits are the spirits of men. Enoch makes it clear that the spirits put in prison in the days of Noah were disobedient angels (as does Peter in the verses just referenced).

The second faulty assumption people have brought to this text is that the message Jesus would preach would be the gospel, thus giving these spirits a second chance. Enoch tells us these spirits are awaiting judgment. So Jesus preached to these fallen angels a message of triumph and judgment. We would assume Jesus let them know that although they tried to lead mankind astray, God had the final word through what Jesus came to do and is now accomplishing in the world. Jesus preached to these disobedient spirits a message of victory and the finality of their own defeat. This, according to Peter, is what Jesus did while in the grave.

So, while we would normally not give Enoch much thought or weight, Peter deemed it fit in this instance through inspiration and so in this instance we can gain insight from Enoch and Peter on these matters.

Why does this matter? It should encourage us as Christians to know that:

  • Christ has paved the way for death to not be the final say.
  • It should encourage us to know that he is putting all things under his feet and subduing those powers that seek to harm us.
  • It should embolden us to know that our God has the power to put under lock and key those who seek our destruction and give us courage to move forward and accomplish God’s purposes for our lives without fear. I get the same feeling from knowing these verses in context that I do when I read 1 Cor 15:54-58,

So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O Death, where is your sting?
O Hades, where is your victory?”
The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.

Good News for Us

What implications does this have us today? Christ’s journey to Hades demonstrates that He was indeed made like us in every way. Not only did He bear the wrath of God on our behalf; He endured death, the separation of His soul from His body. His body was in Joseph’s tomb (Luke 23:50–53), and his soul was three days in Sheol, “in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40).

“When we die, we join with the angelic choir and the saints of old to sing praises to the Lamb.”

But as Psalm 16 makes clear, Jesus is not only like us, but different.

  • Jesus’s body was buried, like ours, but it did not decay.
  • Jesus’s soul went to Hades, like the Old Testament saints’, but wasn’t abandoned there.
  • God raised Him from the dead, reunited His soul with a now-glorified body, so that He is the firstfruits of the resurrection harvest. 

And this is good news for us, because those in Christ now bypass the land of forgetfulness, where no one praises God. Instead, when we die, we join with the angelic choir and the saints of old to sing praises to the Lamb who was slain for us and our salvation.

The Lord is risen. The Lord is risen indeed.