Sermon title:

Jesus Said He Didn’t Go to Heaven When He Died—So, Where Did He Go?

Immanuel Baptist Church – Sunday, July 19, 2020

Through our sermons in recent weeks

we’ve followed our Lord Jesus to the cross.

And, a few weeks ago on Resurrection Sunday,

we looked at the scriptures where

the Lord’s body was laid to rest in a tomb—

sealed and guarded by a troop

of probably 16 Roman soldiers.

And then, on the third day, Christ rose from the dead.

The disciples found the tomb empty,

and Jesus appeared to them

and let them know he was alive.

He showed them the nail wounds on his hands and his feet

and the gash in his side,

where a Roman soldier had pierced him

with a spear, to verify that he was dead.

But, where was Jesus in the meantime,

while his body lay on a cold slab in the tomb?

There are all sorts of theories and interpretations—

some based on the Bible,

and some based on people’s imaginations.

I’ll tell you what I believe to be the case,

based on the Bible,

but I admit that there are other interpretations.

Did Jesus cease to exist for three days,

from his death on the cross,

until he rose from the grave?

Or, did he immediately ascend to heaven

after he died on the cross?

Or, if not heaven, where did he go?

The so-called Apostles Creed,

is actually not found in the Bible,

but it says Jesus

suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.

He descended into Hell; the third day He rose again from the dead;

And some people draw from that creed

the belief that Jesus suffered in hell for our sins—

but that false belief is contrary to the Bible.

As our Lord was dying on the cross, at John 19:30,

Christ said, “It is finished!”

His death on the cross paid for our sins,

and he did not need to suffer after death

on top of that.

The misunderstanding can be traced to the fact

that the King James Bible

translates 4 different words as “hell.”

Those words are Sheol, Hades, Gehenna and Tartarus.

They mean different things,

and, so, many modern translations render them

with different expressions,

but the King James Bible translated

all of them by the same word—“hell.”

And that leads to confusion.

So, before we look at

where the Bible says

Jesus went when he died,

I should explain a bit about these words

that the King James Bible translates as “hell.”

The Greek word Tartarus appears only once

in the whole Bible.

And, as we’ll see in a few minutes,

the Bible never speaks of humans being sent there—

only rebellious angels.

The Greek word Gehenna originally referred to

a valley outside Jerusalem

where idol worshipers burned their children

as human sacrifices—

and that later became a place for burning trash.

The Bible uses Gehenna to mean,

a place of eternal fiery punishment.

The Hebrew Sheol and the Greek Hades

both refer to the place

where all humans went when they died—

both bad people and good

before Jesus opened the way to heaven.

Hades and Sheol are translated sometimes as “hell”

but other times simply as “the grave.”

As for Jesus, his body,

remained on the cross,

until Joseph of Arimathea

hastily laid it in a tomb

he had carved out for himself.

But Jesus’ spirit left his body at death.

Luke 23:46 tells us,

Jesus called out in a loud voice, “Father, into Your hands I commit My Spirit.” And when He had said this, He breathed His last.

Matthew 27:50 says,

Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.

Where did his spirit go?

Some people think Jesus’ spirit

immediately went to heaven.

But that’s not what the Bible says.

On the third day after his death,

when he appeared to Mary Magdalene

near the empty tomb,

John 20:17 says Jesus told her,

"Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father."

So, three days after his death,

he had not yet ascended to heaven.

Where was he those three days?

None of the Gospel accounts fill in that gap for us.

None of them tell us what our Lord was doing

during those 3 days his body lay in the tomb.

We have to piece it together

from what we find elsewhere

in the Old and New Testaments.

And that’s why it’s so difficult to know for sure.

And that’s why there are so many

theories and interpretations.

The 4 Gospels tell us what others were doing

while Christ’s body was in the tomb—

the soldiers were guarding the tomb,

the Apostles were all sheltering in place,

and resting on the Jewish Sabbath,

the women were waiting,

so they could go back to the tomb on Sunday

and prepare Jesus’ body properly for burial—

but none of the Gospels tells us

where Jesus’ spirit went for those 3 days.

Except the Gospel of Luke.

We find a clue in what our Lord said

to one of the criminals who were nailed up

on their own crosses to his left and right.

Shortly before Jesus died,

Luke 23:42 says that one of the criminals,

said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

43Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Today you will be with me in paradise,”

So, Jesus told that dying man,

Today you will be with me in paradise.”

That tells us that man’s spirit was going to paradise

when he died, and it also tells us where Jesus went:

Today you will be with me in paradise.”

Jesus was going to paradise, too.

But Jesus was not yet ascending to the Father.

So, where was that paradise?

Obviously, it was not on earth.

But it wasn’t in God’s presence in heaven, either,

because Jesus was not yet ascending to the Father.


In fact, Jesus had said earlier, at John 3:13, that

no one has ever gone up to heaven

except the Son of Man,

who came down from heaven."

So, apparently, none of the Old Testament saints—

none of the ancient patriarchs or prophets—

went to heaven.

Jesus said,

no one has ever gone up to heaven

except the Son of Man,

who came down from heaven."

And the Apostle Peter confirms that at Acts 2:34

where he says about ancient King David,

‘a man after God’s own heart,’ that

David did not ascend into the heavens”

when he died.


Now, some might object to that,

because the Old Testament says at 2 Kings 2:1 that

the LORD took Elijah up to heaven

in a whirlwind.”

The Bible speaks of several levels of “heaven.”

Revelation 19:17 says the birds fly in “mid-heaven.”

So, the whirlwind may have taken Elijah

to the heights of heaven where the birds fly.

But it didn’t take him into God’s presence

in the highest heaven, because Jesus said,

no one has ever gone up to heaven

except the Son of Man,

who came down from heaven."

In 2 Corinthians Chapter 12, the Apostle Paul speaks of

paradise being in the “third heaven.

The Old Testament mentions

“the heaven of heavens.”

But Jesus, according to his own words,

was the first man to ascend

to heaven where God the Father is.

So, we know that David, Elijah

and other faithful men of old did not go to heaven.

Rather, the Bible says

they went to the realm of the dead,

which in Hebrew is “Sheol”

and in Greek is “Hades.”

Popular culture has turned Hades into a domain

ruled over by Satan the Devil,

where his demons are in control,

and where the demons run wild,

sticking dead people with pitchforks,

and so on.

But those notions are not found in the Bible at all.

Rather, they come from imaginary writings

like Dante’s Inferno.

The Bible uses Sheol and Hades

to mean simply the realm of the dead

And before Christ opened the way to heaven,

everyone who died went to that realm of the dead,

the place of departed spirits,

called Sheol and Hades.

At Genesis 37:35, when the faithful patriarch Jacob

thought his son Joseph was dead,

he refused to be comforted; and he said, For I will go down into the grave unto my son mourning.”

And “the grave” there was that same word

that is translated in other verses as “hell.”

In fact, Brenton Septuagint Translation says,

he would not be comforted, saying, I will go down to my son mourning to Hades.”

And the Douay-Rheims translation says,

he would not receive comfort, but said: I will go down to my son into hell, mourning”

So, faithful Jacob expected

that his son Joseph went to Hades or hell,

and that he himself would go there, too.

Good and bad people all went to Sheol or Hades,

the realm of the dead,

the place of departed spirits,

sometimes translated as “hell” in the King James Bible,

but also translated as “the grave.”


And, apparently, Sheol or Hades was divided

into two parts:

one part where faithful men like Abraham

enjoyed blessings,

and another part where the wicked faced torment.

At least, that is what we glean from Jesus’ illustration

of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus

in Luke chapter 16, where he says,

22One day the beggar died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. And the rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham from afar, with Lazarus by his side.

The good people and the bad

were each in a different part of Sheol, Hades

or “hell” in the King James Version,

in Jesus’ illustration.

The part where the good people went—

by Abraham’s side—

was apparently what Jesus called “Paradise,”

when he told the thief on the cross

“today you will be with me in Paradise.”

So, Jesus went there, too, when he died.

And that’s what the Apostle Peter indicated, when he

applied to Jesus the prophecy of Psalm 16:10.

In Psalm 16:10 King David wrote,

“thou wilt not leave my soul in hell,”

and at Acts 2:27, Peter indicated that was

written prophetically of Jesus.

At Acts 2:27 Peter indicated Jesus

was not left in “Hell,”—

--the realm of the dead,--

when he said,

You will not abandon my soul to Hades” or,

as the KJV puts it,

For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell.”

God the Father did not leave Jesus’ soul there.

In fact, when Christ ascended to heaven,

he apparently took with him the righteous dead,

from Hades/Sheol/Hell/

and took them with him to heaven.

So, we read at Ephesians 4:8,

When he went up to the very heights,

he took many captives with him;

he gave gifts to people.” 9 Now, what does “he went up” mean? It means that first he came down to the lowest depths of the earth.

Many understand this to mean

that Jesus went down to the lowest depths of hell

or the grave,

and took everyone in Paradise

captive with him

when he went up to heaven.

So, it seems that the Apostles Creed was accurate

when it said Jesus went to hell—

but not to be tormented there,

but rather to take the righteous Old Testament dead

with him, when he opened the way to heaven.

But, it seems Christ also dealt with the unrighteous.

1 Peter 3:18 says,

18...He was put to death in the body but made alive in the spirit, 19in which He also 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.

Who were these “spirits in prison”?

Some believe the “spirits in prison”

were the spirits of wicked humans

who died in the Flood of Noah’s day.

Some believe they were spirit persons—angels—

who rebelled against God before the Flood.

They cite Jude 1:6, which says,

the angels who did not stay within their own domain, but abandoned their proper dwelling, He keeps under darkness, in eternal chains for judgment on that great day.”

Many translations say Jesus made a “proclamation”

to these “spirits in prison”

rather than “preached” to them—

likely proclaiming his victory at the cross

that enabled him

to free the righteous dead from Hades

and take them to heaven with him.


These Bible passages all give us some indication

of where our Lord Jesus went, and what he did,

while his body lay in the tomb for 3 days.

But, why are there still so many uncertainties—

so many open questions

and different interpretations

about these matters?

It’s not as if the Bible is flawed,

or God accidentally left out important details.

The Bible gives us everything we need to know

to turn to Christ for salvation

and to walk in his ways as faithful followers.

But God never intended for us

to see clearly at this time

everything that goes on in the invisible realm.

Deuteronomy 29:29 says,

The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.

God has revealed many things to us through the Bible,

but there are many other “secret things”

that belong only to the Lord at this time.

That’s intentional on God’s part.

He tells us what we need to know,

but doesn’t yet tell us things

that we would like to know

just to satisfy our curiosity.

There are limits to our theology

because we can’t see heavenly things.

And God left it that way, intentionally.

The Apostle Paul made that clear

at 1 Corinthians 13:12 where he said,

according to the King James Version,

For now we see through a glass, darkly;

but then face to face:

now I know in part;

but then shall I know

even as also I am known.”

Or, as the New International Version renders the same verse,

Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror;

then we shall see face to face.

Now I know in part;

then I shall know fully,

even as I am fully known.”

A mirror came to be called a “looking glass

back in the 1500’s.

Back in Bible days people often used mirrors

that were made of polished metal.

You could see yourself in those metal mirrors,

but not very clearly.

And that’s what Paul is saying

about our inability to see heavenly things clearly

while we are still living here on earth.

When we get to heaven, we’ll see face-to-face,

but, for now, we see just a poor reflection

of heavenly things.

In the meantime, our job is to trust and obey.

There’s no uncertainty about our going to heaven,

if we belong to Christ.

1 John 5:13 says,

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.”

If you don’t know Jesus,

you need to turn to him in prayer

and tell him that you accept his free gift

of salvation from your sins,

and tell him that you will follow him

and obey him as your Lord.

Trust Jesus to save you,

and obey him as your Lord and Master.

You can speak that prayer in your heart right now.

You can just say to him,

“Jesus, I trust you to save me,

and I’ll follow you as my Lord.”

He will save you from your sins.

You will belong to Christ.

And you will know that you have

eternal life in heaven ahead of you.