When Jesus met with Moses and Elijah on the mount of transfiguration they spoke to Him about His ‘decease’, that is, His ‘exit’ or His ‘exodus’. Jesus, upon death, put off His human body, and for a period of three days and three nights His body remained in the tomb of Joseph, after which His spirit returned to His body and He was raised from the dead.
What occurred during these three days is a matter of much enquiry.
“But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matt 12:39-40 NKJV)
For three days and three nights (See appendix 1 for a discussion re: the three days and three nights), Jesus was ‘in the heart of the earth’. His body was in the tomb, but where was His spirit during these three days and nights?
The following Scriptures are some portions of the Bible cited in reference to this period in Christ’s redemptive history.
Ephesians 4:8-10 – Christ descended
These verses imply that Christ at some point during the exodus ‘descended’ into the ‘lower parts of the earth. This is where the Scriptures assign the dead. It is a place referred to as “sheol” (‘hell’ in the KJV). Many commentators further define this place by dividing it into two separate compartments, one called ‘Paradise’ or ‘Abraham’s bosom’ for the righteous who were awaiting the Messiah, the other called ‘Hades’ (Luke 16:19-31), with a great gulf between them.
Commentators are generally agreed (though not all) that at some point during the three days and nights Christ descended into the ‘lower parts of the earth’, releasing the Old Testament saints from ‘Abraham’s bosom’ and lifting them into the Third Heaven (also referred to as Paradise. 2 Cor 12:1-4; Rev 2:7, 22:2). Old Testament saints knew that they would be delivered from Sheol, the place of departed spirits (Ps 49:14-15; Hosea 13:14). It was at this time that this deliverance took place. (An unusual occurrence is recorded in this respect in Matthew 27:52-53.)
In regard to this decent into hell some cite Psalm 88 as a prophetic description of the assault that Christ faced in Hell as He was, as our substitute, separated from the Father. He took our place of punishment. His separation was our reconciliation. Death however could not hold the innocent Christ, and its power was broken at this time.
Some also suppose that 1 Peter 3:18-22; 4:6 refers to Christ Himself making some form or declaration or proclamation in these hellish regions to its inhabitants. A more conservative explanation of these Scriptures is that they simply refer to the souls of those who were alive in Noah’s day, and that they describe the Spirit of Christ preaching through Noah in those days, and in no way imply a preaching to departed spirits in the region of the dead). This is the most acceptable interpretation in the light of the whole testimony of Scripture.
A popularised picture of Christ descending into hell and facing a showdown with the devil is sometimes portrayed, but holds no real Scriptural weight, the main reason being that satan does not reside in hell, but in the spiritual world of the earth. Also, Christ did not have to wrestle with satan to obtain anything, it was a matter of authority which was automatically transferred as a result of the atonement. The devil had neither strength nor authority to resist. It was a perfect victory!
Ephesians 4:8 – He ascended up on high, he led captivity captive
At some point during these three days (or possibly very soon afterwards (John 20:17)), Christ ascended to the Father. Some say that He did this immediately and spent the three days and three nights of the exodus in Heaven. This is implied in the Scriptures where Jesus suggests that He is going “unto the Father”, not to Hades (John 13:1,36; 14:1-6,28; 16:5,16-22; 17:11,13) and the fact that He said to the repentant thief on the cross, “Today, you will be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:39-43), which is spoken of elsewhere in the New Testament as being ‘up’.
Certainly at some point Christ did ascend into Heaven with His blood, and make a perfect and final atonement once-for-all in the heavenly sanctuary (Hebrews 9:11-12). The book of Hebrews speaks clearly about these things, and of Christ’s perfect Priesthood. He was both the Offerer and the Offering for a perfect atonement for all time.
In respect to “leading captivity captive” the following descriptions are given.
- Christ conquered satan, spoiling principalities and powers, stripping them of all authority (Colossians 2:14; Hebrews 2:9-15). In ancient times, victorious kings, after returning from the battle, led their captives in a triumphant march into the city and then threw out as gifts to the citizens spoils of the battle. Christ made an open show of His enemies, and of all that held men captive; sin, sickness, the curse, demons and death. Christ led this ‘captivity captive’ parading these miserable impostors before all. As the Amplified translates it, “He led a train of vanquished foes!”.
- Those who were held ‘captive’ in Hades, awaiting their redemption were led out of bondage, with Christ leading a “host of captives’ (Weymouth and NLT) to heaven, thus leading captivity captive and delivering them to the Father.
Psalm 16:10; Acts 2:29-31 – He returned to His incorruptible Body
At the conclusion of His exodus the spirit of Christ returned to His Body. As Christ’s spirit accomplished His aims, His body lay in Joseph’s tomb. It did not corrupt during this time, and upon the return of His spirit to His body, His body was raised from the dead in a resurrected and glorified state.