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The Place of the Dead before the Resurrection

As we stated above, the Bible is progressive in its teaching about the afterlife. We learn most of our theology regarding heaven and hell from the teaching of Jesus and from the last two chapters of Revelation. Most of the songs that are sung at church are based upon what we read in Revelation 21 and 22. However, when we read what the Bible says about the abode of the dead, we find that there are three stages of the afterlife for the righteous and two for the unrighteous. The first stage for the righteous is taken from Genesis through the resurrection of Jesus. The second stage is called present or temporary heaven.

The final stage takes place on a new heaven and a new earth, “Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away” (Rev. 21:1). Most of us do not spend very much time concentrating on the new heaven and new earth. Note: Randy Alcorn has written extensively about life on the new heaven and new earth.

Up until the resurrection of Jesus, the souls and spirit of the dead went to a place called Sheol in the Hebrew or Hades in the Greek. It was a two-chamber area with the righteous in one compartment and the unrighteous in another which was separated by a “great gulf fixed”. We read about this place in the story about the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Several times in the Old Testament, the word “Sheol” has been incorrectly translated “grave”. Since the unrighteous (unsaved) who die today go to Hades (Sheol), we usually think of Hades as hell.

The first Old Testament reference to Sheol is found in a statement that Jacob made after he received the report about his son, Joseph. He assumed that wild animals had destroyed the body. This is what he said: “‘For I shall go down into the grave (Sheol) to my son in mourning.’ Thus, his father wept for him” (Gen. 37:35). Jacob was going to join his son and he did not think of his son as being in a grave. Where was he going to join him – in the abode of the souls.

We read in Numbers chapter sixteen about what happed to the rebellious Korah, Dathan, and Abiram and their families. “But if the LORD creates a new thing, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into the pit (Sheol), then you will understand that these men have rejected the LORD” (Num. 16:30). Here, we read about the unrighteous going to a chamber of Sheol which is created for them and is called the pit.

One of the most interesting verses is Psalm 16:10. “For You will not leave my soul in Sheol, Nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption.” David is writing in the first person about Jesus. Peter confirms this in the sermon at Pentecost. “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death; whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it. For David says concerning Him:..’For You will not leave my soul in Hades, Nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption’” (Acts 2:22-25a, 27).

Did Jesus suffer in Hell during the three days that he was in the grave? The Scriptures say no but His soul was in Hades rather than hell. He was in what the Old Testament referred to as Sheol, a place that Jesus called Abraham’s bosom. However, Jesus, being God, was Lord over both chambers of Hades and therefore was free to pass between the chambers.

These verses have been misinterpreted by many. One form of the Apostle’s Creed states: “He descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead“. Jesus did not suffer in hell during the three days, he suffered at the hands of Satan and his demons while on the cross from noon until 3:00 P.M.. After that he said “it is finished.” Note: For more information on this read, my article about The Crucifixion.

Jesus revealed the most information that we have about Sheol/Hades in his story about the rich man and Lazarus. “There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, the dogs came and licked his sores. So it was that the beggar died and was carried by the angels to Abraham”s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. ‘Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted, and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us'” (Luke 16:19-26).

“Then he said, ‘I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one risen from the dead'” (Luke 16:27-31).

Now let us see what we can learn from these people and we can assume the same about those who are now in heaven and hell. (1) We see that they have some form of a body. (2) Lazarus was carried (escorted) by angels to Paradise. (3) “Lazarus is with Abraham (and, by inference, others); the rich man is by himself (no one else is mentioned).” (4) “Both the rich man and Abraham reasoned and communicated, and they maintained their distinct identities from earth (as did Lazarus).” (5) The rich man remembers that he had brothers. “This indicates consciousness after death and clear memory of Earth and people on Earth” (6) There were flames where the rich man was. (7) The rich man could feel pain. (8) The two compartments are separated and no one except Jesus could cross between them.

The next passage that we will look at was a conversation between Jesus and the thief that took place on the cross. The thief is pleading to Jesus, “Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus answered him, ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise’” (Luke 23:42-43, NIV). Jesus referred to the place where they were going as paradise. From previous Scriptures we know that Jesus spends three days in Sheol/Hades. We, therefore, conclude that Jesus was taking the thief with Him to Abraham’s Bosom.

It is now time for us to answer a very important question. Why were the people who were in Abraham’s Bosom not in heaven with the Father? The answer lies with the concept of redemption. They were saved on credit and had not yet received their full redemption. They are waiting for Jesus to pay for all their sins on the cross. It also, has to do with the complete fulfillment of the Mosaic Law. The Mosaic Law was a shadow or picture of all the work to be completed on the cross and the Mosaic Law had to be completely fulfilled. Jesus fulfilled every letter of it. We see this in the construction of the wilderness tabernacle and also in the ark of the covenant and the mercy seat.

The writer of the book of Hebrews makes it very clear that the tabernacle, priesthood, and animal sacrifices were prophetic shadows or types that were later fulfilled in the life of Christ. “Then have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them. Make this tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you” (Ex. 25:9, NIV).

Notice that the wilderness tabernacle was to be patterned after another tabernacle. In Hebrews chapters 8-10, the writer states very clearly that the wilderness tabernacle was patterned after the Lamb of God who is in heaven. Let us not forget that Christ, the Lamb of God, was slain in the mind of God before the foundation of the world (I Peter 1:19-20). It is fitting that the wilderness tabernacle was patterned after Christ, and that it foreshadowed Christ and the work that He was to complete on the cross. The writer of Hebrews makes this statement concerning Jesus: ”Who serve the copy and shadow of the heavenly things, as Moses was divinely instructed when he was about to make the tabernacle. For He said, ‘See that you make all things according to the pattern shown you on the mountain’” (Heb. 8:5).

“After this, Jesus, knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, said, ‘I thirst!’ Now a vessel full of sour wine was sitting there; and they filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on hyssop, and put it to His mouth. So, when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, ‘It is finished!’? And bowing His head, He gave up His spirit.” (John 19:28-30). The redemption process was finished because Jesus had paid for our sins with His blood.

We usually overlook the events that happened next because we usually do not study it in context. “Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many” (Matt. 27:51-53). The veil was rent from top to bottom symbolizing that the people could now have access to God. Before this happened, they had to approach God through a Priest. Also, notice that some of the graves were opened. However, the people did not come out until after Jesus was resurrected. Jesus was the first fruit of the resurrection and these people followed with resurrected bodies.

Now let us look at some the things that Jesus did while in Sheol/Hades. Peter tells us of his visit to the hell compartment. “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water” (1 Peter 3:18-20). Jesus had defeated Satan and his demons on the cross and now, being Devine, He crosses the “great gulf fixed” to announce this to his enemies.

Mary of Magdalene was the first to see Jesus after His resurrection. Jesus said to her, ‘Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God'” (John 20:17). First, we should see that Jesus confirmed that He had not been with the Father. But it is obvious that He is going at that time to heaven. Why? He went to take his blood to the heavenly temple and to place it on the mercy seat.

We read these words in Hebrews. “Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:12). When did Jesus enter the Most Holy Place? There was no way that He could have entered the Holy Place in the temple in Jerusalem. He entered the Holy Place in the temple in heaven placing his blood on the mercy seat, thereby, completely satisfying the Mosaic Law.

A short time after Jesus met Mary Magdalene, He met the other women who had come to the tomb. “And as they went to tell His disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, ‘Rejoice!’ So, they came and held Him by the feet and worshiped Him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. Go and tell My brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see Me'” (Matt. 28:8-10).

Now let’s return to those who were resurrected from their tombs and who came into the streets of Jerusalem. Jesus’ resurrection was the fulfillment of the Feast of the First Fruits. We read of this Feast in Leviticus. And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘When you come into the land which I give to you, and reap its harvest, then you shall bring a sheaf of the first fruits of your harvest to the priest. He shall wave the sheaf before the LORD, to be accepted on your behalf; on the day after the Sabbath the priest shall wave it” (Lev. 23:9-10). The resurrected saints were offered to the Father as a sheaf offering thereby fulfilling the requirement of the Feast. At some point in time, they became the first of the resurrected saints to enter heaven.

Sometime later, Jesus moved all those in Abraham’s bosom to heaven because all of the requirements of redemption and the completion of the Law had been fulfilled. The unsaved were left in the flames of the other compartment of Sheol/Hades and this is why we think of Hades as Hell. Many believe that Paul’s letter to the Ephesians spoke of the move to heaven. “For it says: When He ascended on high, He took prisoners into captivity; He gave gifts to people. But what does ‘He ascended’ mean except that He descended to the lower parts of the earth? The One who descended is the same as the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things” (Eph. 4:8-10, HCSB).

Now we move to the second abode of the righteous which is called the intermediate heaven. This is where the saved go today when they die. Sometime in the future, there will be a New Heaven and a New Earth.