How do we know the limits of the cross – for its arms are wide – all embracing – accepting the sins of everyone irrespective of color or creed? The cross is empty and a great silence reigns on the earth, a great silence and a great stillness – because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and has raised up all who have fallen asleep since the world began. “I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am life of the dead”. The Chief Priests and other Jewish elders were running around sealing the tomb and posting a guard as if they stop God also in raising the Messiah back to life while on the other hand the eleven disciples were hiding for fear of the Jews (John 20:19). There was another battle being waged by the forces of evil and darkness to hold the Savior under the pangs of death – for He did die – though not because of anything that He had done. So what was silent about this particular Saturday?
What is death – Lord Jesus is life of the dead for He declared “I am the resurrection and the life. he who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die” (John 11:25-26). Adam and Eve were warned by God to not eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil “for the day you eat, you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17) and it is argued that they lived many years after that also. Death is separation from God and their hiding from God was their death. Apostle Paul proclaimed that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23) and death or separation from God has two aspects. First, physical death when the soul and spirit of man leaves the body and this body, that was the temporary abode for the man, is buried or disposed by other means. Jews believe that the spirit of a man leaves the body at death but remains hovering nearby for three days to seek a chance to re-enter the body.
Apostle John was provided a glimpse of the day of judgement and life after death when all the dead appear before the ‘Great White Throne of Judgement’ and those not found in the “Book of Life” was cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:11-15). Where is this lake of fire situated? Lord Jesus answered the Pharisees, “who were lovers of money and also derided Him” about righteousness through the story of a beggar named Lazarus and a rich man (Luke 16:14, 19-31). The beggar longed to be fed the crumbs of the rich man’s table who was “clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously”. Both died and the beggar reached in to Abraham’s bosom, an equivalent to being in paradise as per Jewish belief, while the rich man was in “torment in Hades, and saw Abraham afar off”. Thus after death both could see each other while one was suffering the other was safe and happy. The hell fires or paradise are both interim locations between the first death and the day of judgement.
What is the location of hell and paradise? – Is it the grave? – King Solomon exclaimed that the grave along with three other things is never satisfied and never says enough (Proverbs 30:15-16). On the other hand the Psalmist puts across his state at getting no answer to his prayers “I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom You remember no more, who are cut off from Your care. You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths” (Psalm 88:5-6). The words used and translated as grave are in Hebrew ‘sheol’ and in Greek ‘Hades’, whereas in actual fact it is not the correct meaning. This is further confirmed from Proverbs 30:15-16, where it iterates that a grave is never satisfied and always seeks more of the dead. A grave would accommodate one body except in a mass grave where than one bodies are buried and the bodies being unclaimed by the kith and kin or in a massive tragedy or calamity. In Isaiah 5:14 the same Hebrew word ‘sheol’ has been translated differently as death, hell and the grave- opening its mouth wide and enlarged itself. Thus sheol or Hades is the same thing in both Hebrew and Greek – hell and it is not the grave.
The Psalmist provides the answer as having been placed in ‘the lowest pit, in darkness, in depth’ (Psalm 88:6) and a pit is below the earth only and not above it and only that will account for the darkness and depths mentioned. Satan represented as the serpent to beguile Eve was cursed to eat dust and that would again be under the earth only and in darkness. But God has not ceded control of any part of the creation to anyone and none can hide from His watchful eyes and control, even in hell for He is there also (Psalm 139:8). Since death caused separation from God and final decision is only expected on the day of judgement by the Lord, the dead were held in transit – the righteous ones in paradise and the sinners in hell fires. The fire in hell is never quenched (Mark 9:44) and the fuel of this fire is sin and the sinners entering it will keep it burning and eventually Satan will be condemned to this fire.
Why should Lord Jesus be in hell since He was and is God? – There are two aspects to the sacrificial death of Lord Jesus. Firstly, our Savior became man to become a sin offering for propitiation of our sins and the past present and future sins of all mankind were placed on Him and we received His righteousness. He was sinless and it is not His but our sins that brought Him to the earth and beyond into hell. He was our sin offering and the Law as given by God to Moses for sin offering was clear “the bodies of those animals, whose blood is brought in to the sanctuary by the High Priest for sin, are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the camp” (Hebrews 13:11-12). The suffering was outside Jerusalem to fulfill this but the second part of our punishment for sin – of going into the hell fires till the day of judgement also had to be undertaken by Him. Secondly, Lord Jesus Himself had provided the clue to this “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” (Matthew 12:40). As death is separation from God life is being in the presence of God and the Messiah proclaimed “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me hall never die” (John 11:25-26). All those who had died in the past and were in transit, in hell fires or paradise were held captive there by Satan for death entered human race due to sin brought by Satan. As Lazarus the beggar was and even the thief on the cross was promised by the Lord “today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43) and though all these were in paradise, they were still separated from God. To give life to the dead they had to be led in to the presence of God after being rescued from the captivity.
Apostle Paul states “he who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things” (Ephesians 4:10). The going of Lord Jesus into hell was essential to cancel out the ‘sting of death’ that caused the separation from God.
What did Lord Jesus do in hell/Hades? – There are three categories of souls that were present in the darkness of hell at that time – firstly, the righteous ones in paradise; then the sinners in hell fires and thirdly Satan and the evil spirits condemned by God into this darkness. Three events take place in hell when Lord Jesus was there. The first part is completion of the act of salvation wherein He drinks up the final residue of the ‘cup of wrath of God’ by being dragged into the hell fires by our sins. Separation from sin sears our souls and that is the agony of the fire and the Savior had to suffer in that fire to save us from going in there. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, the three Hebrew captives with Daniel were thrown into the seven times strong fire for refusing to bow down before the golden idol. King Nebuchadnezzar looked into the blazing furnace and was astonished to see four persons ‘walking around in the fire while only three were thrown in’ an d the “form of the fourth is like the Son of God”. When they were taken out from the furnace, on their bodies “the fire had no power, nor was an hair of their head singed, neither were their coats changed, nor the smell of fire had passed on them” (Daniel 3:25; 27). In similar manner Lord Jesus suffered to end our suffering.
Secondly, our sins dragged Him under and into the hell fires but since He was sinless the fire itself could neither touch Him nor hold onto Him. And “God raised Him up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it” (Acts 2:24). Satan would have succeeded if Lord Jesus was held in Paradise also, for that would have kept the Son away from the Father stopping the process of salvation midway. This is further illustrated by Apostle Peter while explaining the process of salvation that “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” (1 Peter 3:18-19). Salvation thus included suffering for sins – death- which would include all sufferings for sin; being made alive by the Holy Spirit – through end of these sufferings and finally the preaching to the spirits in prison – held captive under the power of death and Satan. His coming back to life involved His coming out of the clutches of death and hell fires under the intervention of the Holy Spirit, where He was due to sin heaped on Him.
Thirdly, ‘He preached to the spirits in prison’ and all the three categories of souls present there were in prison. Having entered the hell fires and not suffering its effect, the Messiah having been thus recognized by the suffering souls, there would have been a pain filled outcry from all to show them mercy. When and how this mercy will be or has been shown to these suffering souls can only be known to the Lord Himself. The second group to be confronted would be the evil spirits who had recognized His authority over them and cried out “What have we to do with You, Jesus, You Son of God? Have You come here to torment us before the time?” (Matthew 8:29) The forces of darkness were and are aware of His Divine authority and power over them; His authority of judgement on the appointed day and their suffering torment in the fires. Since they know their fate but are controlled by Satan there would be no effect of this preaching on them. The third category of people- those in the paradise would have been rejoicing at His entry into the fires, having recognized Him even there and followed Him to their rightful place in heaven in the presence of God.
Lord Jesus’ entry into paradise was the assurance to the captives there of the end of their captivity and as a result of this “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” (Matthew 27:52-53). Apostle John witnessed this in heaven after having seen the “Risen Lord” on the earth and he heard the ‘voice of the Alpha and the Omega’ declaring “I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and of Death” (Revelation 1:18). Lord Jesus ‘led the captivity captive and gave gifts to men” (Ephesians 4:8) – the gifts of being present before the throne of the Most High God in heaven and a mansion to live in.
Actions of Disciples on Saturday and Teachings for us – The disciples were overpowered by fear of death and were scattered and fled – after deserting the “Savior in captivity” of the Chief Priests and Romans (Matthew 26:56). However Lord Jesus found them together in place, hiding for fear of the Jews (John 20:19) and this probably happened during Friday night. All during the Silent Saturday the disciples would be struggling to overcome their personal demons of fear and doubt – fear and doubt of their future, felling of shame at their actions and then remembering His love of the past three years showered on them abundantly. In this despondent state they would share with each other the happenings of the past, especially the mysteries revealed to the three –Peter, John and Andrew – and His teachings.
The sharing of knowledge about the teachings of Lord Jesus would probably have provided them some consolation for He had foretold His suffering and that “they will kill Him, and on the third day He will be raised up” (Matthew 17:22-23). Though they were all ‘hiding for fear of the Jews’ they were together, in humble submission in repentance seeking forgiveness and in prayer; and nothing is impossible for believers who surrender to God in humble submission (Genesis 11:6).
In today’s times, when persecution of the believers is on the rise all around us, it is imperative that we also adopt the same attitude as that of the disciples then. We must avoid strife within and without, fervently pray and wait patiently for intervention of the Living God to end this for the day of judgement draws near. However, we must never give up on the basic essential task of reaching out to the ‘lost souls’ to bring them into the Light of the world.
It is said “you are more sinful than you ever dared believe and you are more loved than you ever dared hope”. God’s love is evident in the Scripture as revealed through His Son and one who believes becomes the heir to abundant riches in Christ Jesus here on the earth as well as in heavenly places.
The Author and Finisher of this saga made a triumphant exit from “the heart of the earth” to make a triumphant entry into His heavenly abode “Higher than the heavens” to open the doors for us! Are we willing to believe and receive these blessings!