Around the time Jesus was born, Jewish believers held several different views on what happens to a person when you die. The Pharisees were known for believing in a resurrection, but another group called the Sadducees disagreed. They were “Sad You See,” because they held that once a person died there was no hope beyond the grave.
In Matthew 22:22-33, Jesus takes the side of the Pharisees. Kind of. Even though Jesus whole-heartedly agrees with them that resurrection is REAL, Jesus knows that resurrection isn’t just going to happen to us at the “End of Time” as the Pharisees said, but NOW. Today. Starting in His life.
Jesus pretty much blows open the idea of resurrection in John 11 when he says, standing outside the tomb of his buddy Lazarus, “I am the resurrection and the life” (v. 25).
For most of Judaism’s history, the majority of Jews seem to have believed in this place called Sheol (see Psalm 16:10, Hosea 13:14). In Sheol a person was still alive. Kind of. The Bible imagines it as a kind of prison. It was a shadowy place, better than the grave, but far, far from the way Jesus refers to heaven as “Paradise” (Luke 23:43).
Which brings me to some questions. Ever since I’ve been a pastor, I’ve known people who have struggled with the line in the Apostle’s Creed “he descended to the dead” or “he descended into hell”. Why would Jesus the Son of God do this? What does it mean?
One interpretation is that after Jesus died on the cross, Jesus himself went to Sheol. How come? The short answer (the good news answer!) is so that you and I would never have to! Jesus came to unite us to God. He came to remove the consequences for sin forever. Even King David praises God whom he knew would not “abandon him to Sheol” (Psalm 16:10). Jesus endured this… to save us from having to.
Another reason Jesus went there, according to 1 Peter, was to “preach to those in prison who disobeyed long ago” (3:19-20). For all of those who lived before Christ and who never got to hear the joyful hope of the Gospel, Jesus went. To them. He went as the King to announce that his saving love reaches EVERYONE.
When we say Jesus “descended into hell”, I believe that we are confessing A) Jesus took our place and B) Jesus will go to even the deepest, darkest places of Creation TODAY to be who he truly is --the Savior of All.
Because of Christ, we can praise God with the Psalmist! “Great is your love toward me; you have delivered me from the depths of Sheol” (Psalm 86:13). Now that’s some good news! Alleluia!
In Easter hope,