On a Friday evening, Jesus sacrificed His life and was put into a grave. However, His body was raised that Sunday morning, and He came out of the tomb. So where was Jesus’s spirit when His body was in the grave? The Bible doesn’t truly answer that question but provides some clues. Let’s look deeper into those clues and another ancient source’s thoughts.
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all record Jesus’ crucifixion. The three synoptic gospels record that two other people were crucified with Jesus that day. However, Luke shares a detail that’s missing from the other accounts. In Luke 23:40-42, we read that one of the thieves crucified with Jesus recognized Him and prayed that Jesus would remember him when he came into His kingdom.
Luke 23:43 tells us that Jesus responded, saying, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” The word “paradise” in this verse means “garden.” In Genesis 2:8, the Septuagint writers used this term for the Garden of Eden. The IVP Bible Background Commentary says the Jews of Jesus’ time compared Paradise with Gehenna. Paradise was the home of the righteous when they died, while Gehenna was the wicked’s residence.
Jesus promised the repentant thief that they would be together in Paradise. Not in the future, but that day. Believers look forward to the transformation and resurrection of their bodies. However, that resurrection is in the future while waiting for Jesus’ return. So this passage tells us that Jesus was in Paradise during the time between His death and resurrection.
Preaching in prison.
Many believe another passage in the Bible says something about Jesus’ whereabouts during the time between His death and resurrection. 1 Peter 3:18-22 discusses Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection and ascension into heaven. Part of this passage is challenging to understand and has generated various interpretations throughout the years.
In this verse, Peter says Jesus was dead in the body but made alive in the spirit. Afterward, he went and proclaimed to the imprisoned spirits, those who were disobedient when God patiently waited in the days of Noah while he was building the ark. However, this verse raises several questions: who were these trapped spirits, what did Jesus say to them, where were they, and when did Jesus proclaim to them? Jude 1:6 seems to answer some of these questions, saying, “And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their proper dwelling — these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day.”
The imprisoned spirits that Jesus proclaimed to are fallen angels, perhaps from the time of Noah, awaiting judgment in prison. But what did Jesus say to these spirits? It seems unlikely that He would proclaim the gospel to them as some have believed. Instead, He’s likely claiming His victory over them and their rebellion against God. Colossians 2:15 reminds us that by means of the cross, He defeated Satan and the angels aligned with Him.
We don’t know when this proclamation happened, but Peter said it was after Jesus was put to death in the body and was made alive in the spirit; after His death in the body indicates that it was after Jesus’ death on the cross. Still, what does it mean to be made alive in the spirit? Some see this as a reference to His resurrection. If so, that would push this occurrence to after His resurrection and wouldn’t have anything to do with the time between Jesus’ death and resurrection.
On the other hand, if it refers to something that happened at Jesus’ death, it would be easy to see Jesus paying a visit to the imprisoned spirits before His resurrection. Whatever way we understand this verse, it doesn’t give any support for the popular idea that Jesus was imprisoned in hell during that time. For that, we’ll have to look to another passage.
The Apostle’s Creed is an early Christian belief statement of unknown origin and date. This creed states that Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried. Afterward, He descended into hell but rose again on the third day. The idea of Jesus descending into hell is controversial, so some denominations remove it. Others edit it to say that Jesus plunged to the death.
Recognizing that the Apostle’s Creed isn’t scripture and never was considered scripture is essential. It’s primarily based on scripture, except for the statement about Jesus falling into hell. Nothing like this is found in scripture. The closest would be in 1 Peter 3:18-22. Some also believe there’s a reference in Ephesians 4:9, but it more likely refers to His incarnation. However, the Bible is clear that Jesus wasn’t a prisoner in hell for those three days. Colossians 2:15 says the opposite. It says that Jesus disarmed the powers and authorities, making a public spectacle of them and triumphing over them by the cross. At the cross, Satan and those who followed him were defeated. If Jesus descended into hell, it was as a triumphant conqueror, not a chained prisoner.
What does this mean?
Ultimately, we can’t know precisely what Jesus did during those three days besides visiting Paradise. In Paradise, we see Him greeting those who came before Him and the repentant thief who came with Him. Jesus’ resurrection is a glorious victory and triumph for every believer. According to the Bible, specifically 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, Jesus died, was buried and rose again. Though we don’t know where Jesus went during the time between His death and resurrection, His resurrection proves who Jesus is.
Jesus’ resurrection shows that God accepted Jesus’ sacrifice for us. It also shows that God has the power to raise people from the dead. It’s a guarantee that those who believe in Jesus won’t stay dead but will be resurrected to have eternal life. We should be grateful that Jesus loved us so much that He died for our transgressions. Because of His sacrifice, we will have eternal life and see Jesus in heaven.