Yesterday, being Good Friday, marks the 1,985th year since Jesus died on the cross (April 3, 33AD). There has been much debate regarding where Jesus' spirit went and stayed for the three days that he was in the tomb. At the very least, we know that he told the thief on the cross, "Today shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). But where is this paradise? It is hell or at least a portion of hell?
The key to understanding the word paradise is reading the greatest commentary ever written on Scripture, and that is Scripture itself. The Greek word for paradise is paradeisos. The word typically denotes a garden or pleasurable ground. Many Christians do not realize is that this word is used in two other Bible passages! Paul uses it to describe a heavenly encounter when a man (most likely himself) was caught up into heaven, which he calls "paradise." It was a place of glory beyond human comprehension and description. In Revelation 2:7, John defines the paradise of God containing the tree of life. My conclusion is that the Bible never describes paradise as a place of prison, torment, or hell. I believe paradise to be the same place as the home of God, heaven. When Jesus told the thief, "Today shalt thou be with me in paradise,” he was saying they would be together in the presence of God the Father in Heaven.
But this raises another question. If Jesus went to heaven when he died, why did he tell Mary, "Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God" (John 20:17). The answer is a translation issue. Jesus was not telling Mary not to touch him as the English in the King James Version suggests, but he was rather telling her to "stop touching me" or "let me go" so he could go do the work of the Father prior to his ascension on the Mount of Olives. The Greek language bears this out more clearly. The other factor is the topic of the ascension, which is a specific reference to Jesus' departure from the Mount of Olives forty days after his resurrection (Acts 1:9). During those forty days, Jesus went about proving he was resurrected. This is why he wanted Mary to let go of him. He had people to meet and the will of the Father to accomplish prior to the Ascension.
Peter is the only other New Testament author who makes reference to where Jesus' spirit was during the three days before his resurrection in 1 Peter 3:18-22. The King James Version says that Jesus "preached" to the spirits in prison (v.19); however, the Greek word used is not the New Testament word for preaching the gospel. It simply means "to herald a message.” Sometime between Jesus' death and resurrection, Jesus heralded a message to "the spirits in prison." The word "spirits" (pneuma) is never used in the Bible to describe deceased human beings. Scripture uses another word for them, "souls" (1 Peter 3:20). “Spirits” are usually a reference to angels or fallen angles, which we call demons. I believe that Jesus went to the fallen angels that are in chains, according to Jude 6, and declared to them what he had accomplished. Jesus did this to declare victory over Satan and his hosts (Colossians 2:15), who might have been celebrating the crucifixion.
There are some who attempt to link the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16 to Ephesians 4:8-10 as evidence of a "Hell Compartmental Theory." I would just point out that I believe that the Luke 16 account is a parable. A parable is a true-to-life story used to illustrate or illuminate a truth. Building doctrinal truth about hell is not best suited for parables or allegories. Second, many fail to realize that Ephesians 4:8-10 is actually a quote from Psalm 68:18, the warrior's Psalm. It is filled with military language. David wrote about God as a victorious military leader who takes his throne in Zion. I do not see how Paul's quoting of this Psalm is related to the presence of Jesus spirit when his body was in the grave for three days. Rather, it is a reference to the triumphal King ascending to Zion. Paul then incorporates the church's presence in that process (4:11-12).
On a final note, Acts 2:31 says that Jesus went to “hell.” The Greek word (hades) is not a reference to Hell, the place of torment for lost sinners. Hades broadly refers to the grave or the realm of the dead, a temporary place where the dead await resurrection.
Of course, all this discussion is a moot point unless you know Christ as Savior. Why did Jesus die on that cross 1985 years ago? What is Easter all about? Find the answer here: