In John 3:13, the Lord Jesus said, “And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of Man which is in heaven.” If no one had yet “ascended up to heaven” when Jesus was here on earth, then the question is: “Where did the Old Testament saints go when they died?”
Before his death, King David said to his son Solomon, “I go the way of all the earth” (2 Kings 2:2). Before Jesus opened the way to heaven to lost humanity by His death, burial and resurrection, all who died went to the same place. According to the Bible, this place was called “Sheol,” which means “the place of the dead.”
The Hebrew word for “Sheol” appears 65 times in the Old Testament. It is translated “hell” 31 times, “grave” 31 times, and “pit” 3 times. Although David was aware that he was going to Sheol when he died, he believed that his soul would not be left in Sheol, but one day delivered by the coming Messiah (Psalm 16:9-10).
It appears that Sheol was divided into two parts. One side was “hell” or “torment”; the other side was “paradise.” In the Old Testament, the unrighteous went to the torment side of Sheol when they died; however, when the righteous died they went to the paradise side of Sheol.
This truth is clearly illustrated in Luke 16:19-31. Here, Jesus tells of the death of both a righteous beggar named “Lazarus” and an unrighteous rich man. According to Jesus, when the beggar died he “was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom” on the paradise side of Sheol. On the other hand, when the unrighteous rich man died he lifted “up his eyes” in hell, “being in torment” on the other side of Sheol. Between the two sides “there [was] a great gulf fixed” so that no one could pass from one side to the other, a fact that was pointed out to the rich man when he asked Abraham to send Lazarus over to touch the tip of his tongue with a drop of water.
Have you ever wondered where Jesus was during the time between His death on the cross and His resurrection from the dead? In His first post-resurrection appearance, Jesus instructed Mary, “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father” (John 17:3). If He had not yet ascended to His Father, then where was He during the time His body was entombed?
When dying for our sins on the Cross of Calvary, Jesus promised the dying thief on the cross next to Him, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Notice, Jesus did not promise the thief, “Today you will be with me in Heaven,” but, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” From the time He “gave up the ghost” on the cross till He rose from the dead that first Easter Sunday Morning, Jesus was in the paradise side of Sheol.
In the Old Testament, Sheol was understood to be located underneath the earth. It was depicted as an underground region or “pit” (Numbers 16:30, 33; Amos 9:2). This explains why Jesus said, “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40).
According to the Apostle Peter, Jesus was preaching “unto the spirits in prison” during His time in Sheol (1 Peter 3:19). When He arose from the dead, Paul teaches that Christ, having “descended first into the lower parts of the earth,” then “ascended up on high [leading] captivity captive” (Ephesians 4:8-10). In other words, just as King David had predicted, he and all of the righteous souls imprisoned in “the place of the dead” were delivered from Sheol and taken to Heaven with Jesus when our resurrected Lord ascended to His Father.
Following our Lord’s resurrection and His deliverance of all of the righteous souls from Sheol, all of Sheol became torment. There is no longer a paradise side to Sheol. This explains why the ancient Prophet Isaiah taught that “hell [has] enlarged herself” (Isaiah 5:14). Today, when an unbeliever dies they go to Hell, but when a believer dies they go to Heaven. Instead of going to paradise like Old Testament believers, we go straight to be with the Lord, as the Apostle Paul assured us—“To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8).
The Bible teaches us that God became a man in the man Christ Jesus in order to die for mankind on the Cross of Calvary (Hebrews 2:14-15). God had to become a man in order to receive a mortal body to offer up as a sacrifice for the sins of the world (Hebrews 10:5-10). Without a mortal body Christ could have neither died nor offered Himself up as a substitute for mortal men.
Once God became a man and died in our stead in the person of Jesus Christ, the devil had but one chance to defeat God’s plan of salvation. He had to hold Christ in Sheol, just as he had all who had died before Christ. However, when Jesus rose from the dead on that first Easter Sunday Morning, He not only destroyed “him that had the power of death, that is, the devil,” but He also delivered us from the “fear of death.”
Christians need never fear death, since the devil can no longer hold any of us who believe in the resurrected Christ in the grave—Sheol. When Jesus rose from the dead on that first Easter Sunday Morning, He kicked the backdoor out of death and arose from the dead with the devil’s keys swinging on His hip. As Jesus explained to the Apostle John on the Island of Patmos, Christians need not fear death, since Christ has risen from the dead to live forevermore with “the keys of hell and of death” in His sole possession (Revelation 1:17-18).