Holy Week: Saturday, April 16
As we cover the events of Holy Week, we know that Jesus died on Good Friday and was buried that evening (Matthew 27:57-61). And we know that He rose from the grave on Easter morning (Matthew 28:1-10). But what happened in between those days is less clear. Where did Jesus go on Holy Saturday?
The Bible doesn’t give many details about what happened that day, other than the fact that the tomb was guarded and sealed (Matthew 27:62-66). On Saturday, Jesus’s body was in the tomb.
However, on Good Friday, as Jesus was hanging on the cross, He told one of the criminals being crucified beside Him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). And then, as Jesus died, He called out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). So, although Jesus’s dead body was in the tomb, His spirit went to be in paradise on Friday.
Right now, some of you may be wondering: if that’s the case, why does the Apostles’ Creed say that Jesus “descended into Hell” between His death and resurrection? Well, buckle up, because we’ve got some explaining to do.
To begin with, let’s talk about Hades. “Hades” is a Greek word that means “the place of the dead.” Where the Greek New Testament uses “Hades,” the Old Testament uses the Hebrew word “Sheol,” which also means “the place of the dead.” The two words are interchangeable, as can be seen in Psalm 16:10 and Acts 2:31.
Although it is common to think of “Hades” as just a more polite-sounding term for “Hell”—the “lake of fire” or “second death” where unrepentant sinners will be punished for all eternity—that is technically not the case. We know that Hades and Hell are not the same place because Revelation 20:14 says that “Hades” is thrown into “the lake of fire” at the final judgment. So, you could say that Hades becomes part of the lake of fire, but it is not that way initially.
We also know that Hades/Sheol is not a place of eternal punishment because, in the Old Testament, both righteous and unrighteous people are described as going down to “the place of the dead.” It was where all dead people went. In fact, many scholars think that there are two parts of “the place of the dead”: one part that is a place of comfort for righteous people, and one part where unrighteous people live in anguish. Jesus Himself talked about just such a division (Luke 16:19-31).
So, it seems that Hades/Sheol is a place that, at least before Jesus’s death and resurrection, all dead people went to. Some went to a pleasant part to await resurrection, while others went to an unpleasant part to await judgment.
There are a couple of places in Scripture that suggest Jesus went to this “place of the dead” between His death and resurrection. One of those is Ephesians 4:8-10:
“Therefore it says, ‘When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.’ (In saying, ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)”
The phrase “he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth” could refer to Jesus coming down to earth and living as a human (Philippians 2:5-7). However, other translations instead say that He “descended into the lower parts of the earth.” That suggests that Jesus went down not to earth, but into the earth, to “the place of the dead.” The Bible repeatedly says that Sheol/Hades is a place that people went “down” to (Job 21:13; Luke 10:15), so calling it “the lower parts of the earth” would make sense.
And then 1 Peter 3:18-20 and 1 Peter 4:5-6 talk about Jesus going “in the spirit” to “the spirits in prison” and preaching the gospel “even to those who are dead.” Again, this is not 100 percent clear, but it seems likely that Jesus went in spirit to “the place of the dead” between His death and resurrection, preaching to those who had already died. Those on the good side of Hades/Sheol had trusted God and were considered righteous before Jesus came (Genesis 15:6; Hebrews 11:1-40); He was able to proclaim to them the good news that He had paid for their sins on the cross. When Jesus told the criminal on the cross that “today you will be with me in paradise,” He may have been referring to this good side of Hades/Sheol.
That is why the Apostle’s Creed talks about Jesus descending between His death and resurrection. However, where some English versions of the Apostles’ Creed say “descended into Hell,” a more accurate translation would be “descended to those below,” or to “the place of the dead.” That’s why other versions of the Apostles’ Creed do not say “Hell”; they either say Jesus “descended to the dead” or leave the line out entirely.
Remember that the Apostles’ Creed is not Scripture. Although it is a helpful reminder of the core truths that all Christians should be able to agree on, it is not infallible, and this difference in wording is a prime example of that.
Saying that Jesus “descended into Hell” can give the impression that Jesus was punished in Hell for our sins, but that is not the case; He paid for our sins fully on the cross, and stated at His death that “It is finished” (John 19:30). We are saved by His blood (Ephesians 1:7), and not by any actions of His spirit after death.
Also, saying that Jesus preached to the dead does not mean that dead people get a second chance. Jesus could go proclaim the good news to those who were saved through faith, but those who rejected God in life have no way of changing their situation after death (Luke 16:25-26).
To summarize: while Jesus’s body was in the tomb, His spirit went to be in what He called “paradise.” This “paradise” may have been the good side of “the place of the dead,” or Hades/Sheol. But He did not go to Hell to be punished. And, most important to our own lives today, there is no second chance to accept Jesus as Savior after death. The application is to trust in the gospel now, and share the good news of Easter with others while you can.