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Where Did Jesus Go When He Died?

Did Jesus Christ have to go to to hell to pay for our sins? Where was Jesus while His body lay in the tomb for three days? In order to find the answer to these questions, a few background facts in the Bible have to be understood first.

Before Jesus Christ ascended to heaven (Acts 1:9), God's children went to a place called "Abraham's bosom" when they died rather than going straight to heaven. When Jesus told the person next to him on the cross, "Today you will be with Me in Paradise" (Luke 23:42) it is most likely that “Paradise” referred to “Abraham's bosom”. Jesus' account of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:22-26) gives us a contrast between Abraham's bosom and the place where the unsaved go, a place the Bible calls "hell". The Bible seems to indicate that when Jesus died He "descended down into the earth" (Ephesians 4:9) to Abraham's bosom and "led captivity captive" (Ephesians 4:8); that is, He led everyone in Abraham's bosom to the presence of God in heaven. Ever since Jesus ascended to heaven, God’s children go straight to heaven rather than going to Abraham’s bosom when they die.

The place the Bible calls “hell” is where all the unsaved people wait for the final judgment at the end of time, after which they will go to "the lake which burns with fire and brimstone" (Revelation 21:8). One fact that is often overlooked is that the lake of fire is the final destination of the unsaved, not the place the Bible refers to as "hell" (the New Testament Greek word Hades and the Old Testament Hebrew word Shoel are both translated "hell" in English). The Bible seems to indicate that nobody has been to the lake of fire yet. Even fallen angels are waiting in hell for the final judgment: “For if God did not spare the angels who sinned, but cast them down to hell and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment...” (2 Peter 2:4) After the "Great White Throne" Judgment (Revelation 20:11) the unsaved will be cast into the lake of fire: “And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:15)

The passage that states Jesus descended “down into the earth” has led some to think that Jesus had to go to hell to pay for our sins; but the differentiation between “hell” and the “lake of fire”, along with passages in Hebrew chapter 9, clear up this misunderstanding. Rather than going to hell to pay for our sins, the book of Hebrews states that Jesus went to "the Most Holy Place" in heaven, and there He offered "His own blood" to pay for our sins and obtain "eternal redemption" for everyone who trusts in Him (Hebrews 9:12). The steps of Jesus into "the Most Holy Place" in heaven were foreshadowed for 1,500 years during Israel’s annual Day of Atonement when the high priest entered the “the holy place made with hands” (Hebrews 9:24) in the temple in Jerusalem and sprinkled blood from an animal sacrifice on the mercy seat (Leviticus 16).

We can’t be certain what the Bible means when it says Jesus descended “down into the earth”, but one fact that we can be certain of is that Jesus Christ bore the penalty for our sins on the cross. He "bore our sins in His own body on the tree..." (1 Peter 2:24) All the Old Testament animal sacrifices were a foreshadow of the final sacrifice of Jesus Christ. That is why Jesus Christ was called "the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world." (John 1:29) The book of Hebrews explains how the final sacrifice of Jesus Christ replaced the Old Testament sacrifices: "But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. 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. For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? ... ... once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment, so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation." (Hebrews 9:11-28)

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