Bible Studies/Jesus in hades
Does it say anywhere that Jesus went to Hades
to liberate trapped souls?
Thanks for your help.
You asked, “Does it say anywhere that Jesus went to Hades to liberate trapped souls?”
I think it does. I’ll warn you that this is a contentious issue in certain circles, so my answer will not be liked by some people you ask. However, let’s just say that I will give my best shot at providing evidence in favor of the answer “yes.”
Let’s take this step by step. First, what is Hades?
Hades is the underworld of the dead. Although Hades is a Greek word and a Greek concept, it corresponds reasonably well with many OT depictions of Sheol as a shadowy underworld place of the dead (see Gen 37:35; 42:38; 44:29, 31; Num 16:30, 33; Deu 32:22; 1Sa 2:6; 2Sa 22:6; 1Ki 2:6; 2:9; Job 7:9; 11:8; 14:13; 17:13, 16; 21:13; 24:19; 26:6; Psa 6:5; 9:17; 16:10; 18:5; 30:3; 31:17; 49:14, 15; 55:15; 86:13; 88:3; 89:48; 116:3; 139:8; 141:7; Pro 1:12; 5:5; 7:27; 9:18; 15:11, 24; 23:14; 27:20; 30:16; Ecc 9:10; Isa 5:14; 7:11; 14:9, 11, 15; 28:15, 18; 38:10, 18; 57:9; Eze 31:15, 16, 17; 32:21, 27; Hos 13:14; Amo 9:2; Jon 2:2; Hab 2:5).
Sheol is also known as “the pit”: Psa 7:15; 28:1; 30:3; 40:2; 88:4, 6; 143:7; Pro 1:12; 28:17; Isa 14:15, 19; 24:22; 38:18; Lam 3:53, 55; Eze 26:20; 31:14, 16; 32:18, 23, 24, 25, 29, 30. There is a definite conceptual connection between the pit, symbolically pictured as a deep well or cistern, and the function of imprisonment. See esp. Isa 24:21-22, but also the story of Jeremiah, which shows that people were sometimes literally imprisoned in a pit (Jer 38:6-13). The conception—which wasn’t necessarily taken with unreflected literalness by those who used the terms—is that when people die, a shadowy, impotent ghost of their personality goes down to the underworld, where it remains imprisoned (e.g. Isa. 14:9-10; 24:21-22). Be aware that certain translations of the OT are a little embarrassed by the idea of an underworld, so they under-translate Sheol as “the grave.” But if you look at all the references above, you’ll see that there is unmistakably the concept of an underworld where the souls of the dead are trapped in a state of powerlessness, no longer having bodies to do things with.
The Greeks symbolized the idea that the dead are trapped or imprisoned in Hades with their myth that Cerberus, a great, ferocious, monstrous dog with three heads, guarded the entrance so that no one could escape.
Second, is it affirmed in Scripture that Jesus went to Hades? Yes. Peter says, as he is preaching about Jesus at Pentecost (Acts 2:23-33):
23 This man, in the specific will and foreknowledge of God, was given over to you by the hand of lawless people. And you killed him by hanging him on a cross. 24 But God has resurrected him! God freed him from the agony of death, because it wasn’t possible for him remain in its power. 25 After all, David says, referring to Jesus,
I’ve always had the Lord right in front of me:
He is at my right side, so I’m not going to lose my confidence.
26 That’s why my heart is glad and my tongue celebrates,
And my body itself is still going to live in hope.
27 Because you’re not going to leave my soul in Hades [translating the Hebrew Sheol in the Psalm],
And you’re not going to give your holy one over to face decay:
28 You’ve shown me the paths of life, and
You’re going to fill me full of joy with your presence.
29 Gentlemen, brothers! I can tell you with confidence about our ancestor, David: he not only died and was buried, but his tomb is with us to this day. 30 But he was a prophet. And he knew that God had sworn an oath to him: that his descendant, who would come from his own body, was going to sit on his throne. 31 And because he knew ahead of time about the resurrection of Messiah, he said,
He wasn’t abandoned to Hades,
And his flesh didn’t experience decay.
32 This is Jesus: God has raised him. We’re all witnesses of it: 33 he’s been raised up to God’s right side.
Paul uses the same psalm in his preaching at Pisidian Antioch:
32 So we’re bringing you the good news: that God’s promise to our ancestors has come true! 33God has fulfilled it for us, their children, by resurrecting Jesus. Just as scripture says in the second Psalm,
You’re my Son—
I’ve become your Father today!
34 Because God has raised him from among the dead, and he’s never going back to decay. Just as it says,
I’m going to give you the holy and sure blessings I promised to David.
35 And it also says in another place [i.e. Ps. 16:10],
You’re not going to allow your holy one to experience decay.
36 Now David, after serving God’s purpose in his own generation, did die. And he was laid beside his ancestors and experienced decay. 37 But the One that God has raised has not experienced decay.
Paul in Romans 10:6-7 implicitly affirms that Jesus went to the underworld when he died, using the related term “the abyss” (i.e. the bottomless place):
6 But the right living that comes out of faith puts it like this:
Don’t say in your heart, “Who is going to go up into heaven?”
(That is, to bring Christ down.)
7 And don’t say, “Who is going to go down into the abyss?”
(That is, to bring Christ up from among the dead.)
Let’s review the bidding.
- Hades is a Greek word and concept, imagined as a subterranean prison for the shadowy souls of the dead.
- Hades and Sheol are sometimes pictured similarly, and Hades is often used by ancient translations from Hebrew into Greek (including ones found in the New Testament) to translate the Hebrew word Sheol.
- Sheol and “the pit” are often used synonymously in the OT, and “the pit” is particularly associated with the idea of imprisonment.
- Jesus is said in the NT to have gone to Hades when he died and to have come out of Hades when he rose from among the dead. Paul similarly speaks in Rom. 10:6 in terms of Christ rising from the abyss when he was resurrected.
Now we can set about answering the key question: Is it said in the NT that Jesus “went to Hades to liberate trapped souls?”
I immediately think of four passages, one from Matthew’s Gospel, two from 1 Peter, and one from Revelation:
50 …Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and gave out his last breath. 51 Suddenly the great veil in the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The ground shook, and rocks were being split apart. 52 Tombs were being opened up, and the bodies of many dead holy ones were raised. 53 They went out of the tombs after Jesus was raised, and went into the holy city and appeared to a lot of people. (Mt. 27:50-51)
18…Christ…was put to death in the flesh, but he was brought to life by the Spirit. 19 By the Spirit, he also went and preached to the spirits in prison. 20 They’d been disobedient, back in Noah’s day. That was when God’s patience was stretched thin, and the ark was being built. A very few people (eight lives) were saved in the flood. 21 This corresponds to baptism, which now saves you, too. (1 Pet. 3:18-21)
6 After all, that’s why even the dead have had the good news preached to them: even though they’ve been judged the human way as physical people, they can live God’s way in the spirit. [Literally: “…in order that they, having been judged according to human beings in the flesh, might live in the spirit/ Spirit according to God.”] (1 Pet. 4:6)
17 When I saw him [Jesus Christ], I fell at his feet like a dead man. And he laid his hand on me and said, “Don’t be afraid. I’m the first and the last, 18 the Living One. I was dead, but look—I’m alive, forever and ever! I have the keys of Death and Hades. (Rev. 1:17-18)
Let’s talk about this last passage first. I want to observe two things about it. (1) The reference to keys underlines the concept that Hades is a prison, and Christ’s possession of them says, in symbolic terms, that he has the ability and authority to release people from there as well as to consign people there. (2) Although there is no “because” making an explicit connection in v. 18, it is entirely reasonable to conclude that Jesus has this ability and authority to release people from Hades because of his submission to death on the cross and his resurrection. It is as though his death—which can be pictured as his going to Hades—has resulted in his acquisition of the keys to Hades.
Did he, then, take people with him from among the dead, when he rose “from among the dead”? The Mt. 27:50-51 passage seems plainly to say so. It does not mention Hades, but it does, fascinatingly, point to a miraculous occurrence at the moment Jesus died: the tombs of many well-known people of faith from olden times physically broke open. People began having visions of the old faithful ones after his resurrection, but the symbolic miracle—the breaking open of the tombs—occurred when Jesus died. In the context, the implicit significance is that the faithful dead are free to come out—they are no longer trapped in their tombs. At the same moment, says Matthew, the veil of the Temple ripped in two from top to bottom—another symbolic miracle that equally bespeaks the removal of a barrier. Now, this miracle suggests, access into God’s immediate presence has become possible for human beings. That is to say, access to heaven has been made possible by Jesus’ death.
Finally, putting the two 1 Peter remarks together tells a story of Jesus announcing the good news of his victory over death (which he achieved by living faithfully as a sinless human being and giving his life as a sacrifice on the cross) to those who had died. The clear implication of 1 Pet. 4:6 is that this preaching of the defeat of death by Jesus gained some converts.
If you look at the matter in a general way, the answer to the question, did Jesus “go to Hades to liberate trapped souls?” is already yes, even without all of this study. This is because for the NT authors and Jesus, death is equivalent to going to the prison house of Hades (or, in Hebrew terms, Sheol). Analogously, resurrection, the hope of all faithful people, is equivalent to being freed from Hades/Sheol. Did Jesus die so that he could resurrect people to everlasting life and ultimately put an end to death (1 Cor. 15:20-26; Heb. 2:14-15; Rev. 20:4-5; 14; 21:4; 22:1-5)? Yes, he did.
Beyond this, however, did Jesus accomplish release from Hades/Sheol in some kind of immediately effective way when he died and “went to Hades,” so that it is not only true that he will raise all the faithful (and, indeed, the unfaithful) at “the last day,” as he says he will do in Jn. 5:25-29, but that some of the faithful already dead were released from Hades at the time of his death and resurrection itself? The Matthew 27 passage seems, without using the word Hades, to be saying exactly that.
I will only say two things more.
First, the measurement of time in this world requires clocks and people to read them. In the mysterious realm that is the gap between death and resurrection for us flesh-and-blood human beings, there is no knowing what sense of time there may be, if any. For God, after all, a day is no different from a thousand years, and a thousand years is no different from a day (Ps. 90:4; 2 Pet. 3:8). God is the creator of space-time, and, in a sense, all moments that ever were or ever have been, no less than all places in the wide realm of creation, are equally local to God’s awareness and presence. Given these two facts (our ignorance of what consciousness the dead may or may not have, and the non-ultimate status of time), it’s hard to make dogmatic pronouncements about the “when” of Christ’s freeing of the captives of Hades. I think it is completely acceptable, however, to imagine that Jesus brought with him many souls redeemed from Hades when he went to heaven to present his perfect self-offering to God the Father (see Heb. 5:5-10; Rev. 4—5)
Finally, I suspect that you will find, if you ask various evangelical authorities, some that aggressively resist this interpretation. My comment is that they probably have an ax to grind, a hidden (or maybe not-so-hidden) agenda that prejudices them against finding a “yes” answer to your question. And that is that they do not want to open the door, even slightly, to the idea that there may be some kind of “second chance” after death for human beings. And this reluctance comes from their desire to be able to back people into a corner with their preaching. Some preachers and teachers, in other words, are afraid that if they admit of a “yes” answer to this question, someone who hears the gospel message may go away thinking that accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior is not a matter of right-now eternal-life-and-death urgency. Urgent as the gospel may be, desire to retain more persuasive power over people is never an appropriate reason to refuse an interpretation of a passage or passages.