Have you ever wondered what happened to the Israelites when they died? Or what will happen to us? Do we lie immobile in the tomb until the final day? Or are we instantaneously reunited with the one who purchased us? Dante holds an interesting view, and comments accordingly in The Divine Comedy,
“I [Virgil] saw One come in majesty and awe, And on His head were crowns of victory. Our great first father’s spirit He did withdraw, And righteous Abel, Noah who built the ark, Moses who gave and who obeyed the Law, King David, Abraham the Patriarch, Israel with his father and generation, Rachel, for whom he did such deeds of mark, With many another of His chosen nation; These did He bless; and know, that ere that day No human soul had ever seen salvation.” (Dante, pp. 92-93)
Essentially, Dante (through Virgil) is claiming that after His death, Christ ‘descended into hell’ and rescued all those who trusted him prior to that point. Proponents of this view would cite Luke 16:19-31, the story of the rich man and Lazarus. The argument says that since the rich man in Hell could speak to Lazarus (at Abraham’s side), Abraham and Lazarus must not be in Heaven. Instead, they’d continue, Lazarus is in Sheol –a Hebrew word meaning Hell or the underworld. However, Lazarus is not in Hell – he is in a section of Sheol that is separated by “a great chasm” (Luke 16:26) from the Hell section of Sheol. This is referred to as “Abraham’s Bosom,” because of verse 22 of Luke 16. “The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side.” This would perhaps be backed by the definition of Sheol, which extends from Hell to simply a term used (often by David) to refer to the depths of despair. (cf. Ps. 139:8, Ps. 18:5, others)
Sheol was thought to possibly be a physical place, inside the earth. Numbers 16:31-33 supports this view in recording the results of Korah’s rebellion:
“And as soon as he has finished speaking all these words, the ground under them split apart. 32And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the people who belonged to Korah and all their goods. 33So they and all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol, and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly.”
Finally, those who favor this view would cite Psalm 68:18 “You ascended on high, leading a host of captives in your train” saying that the “host of captives” were those in Abraham’s Bosom, in the “Light Side” of Sheol, if you will.
The position is summed up well by Jon Payne in a letter to his congregation:
“The Roman Catholic position was solidified at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) where they determined that “he descended into hell” meant that after Christ died His body went into the grave and His soul into hell. He did not, however, enter hell in order to undergo more suffering. Rather, Christ descended into hell as a victorious Savior and King, heralding His truth, proclaiming victory, subduing the devil and his minions, and freeing Old Covenant believers, not from suffering, but from a state of limbo where the beatific vision and glory of God had been withheld from them. Furthermore, the Roman Catholic Church held that Christ liberated all those who were dwelling in purgatory and for whom, up until His death, was no access to heaven. The Eastern or Greek Orthodox Church possessed a similar position, espousing that Christ, in His spirit, descended into hell to rescue the Old Covenant people of God, along with the thief on the cross, and usher them into paradise. Of course, most poor interpretations of this little four-word phrase were based on a faulty understanding of passages such as Acts 2:27, Ephesians 4:9, and I Peter 3:18-20.” (Payne)
And Calvin says,
‘Others [say] that Christ descended to the souls of the patriarchs who died under the law, to announce his accomplished redemption, and bring them out of the prison in which they were confined. To this effect they wrest the passage in the psalms “He has broken the gates of brass, and cut the bars of iron in sunder” (Ps. 107:16); and also the passage in Zechariah, “I have sent forth thy prisoners out of the pit wherein is no water” (Zech. 9:11)’ (Calvin, p. 330)
However, I would disagree with this view. If all those who died before Christ’s ultimate death were placed aside in an Upper Sheol (which, by the way, seems to make no sense – Sheol by definition means “low place”) then what of Enoch and Elijah? Elijah was taken into heaven by chariots of fire “And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.” Is Elijah taken up to heaven, only to be plunged back down into the depths of the earth? Does the chariot of fire make a celestial u-turn? Or is Elijah of a special class? An elite group? Why then did Moses, the greatest prophet of all time (Deut. 33) not receive this privilege?
And the impression given from Luke’s language (and Luke was not just any writer) is not that Abraham’s Side is Sheol, but rather that ‘Abraham’s side’ is a seat at a feast table. Some feast if it’s taking place in Sheol.
And Luke’s lack of detail shows that this is no physical place – rather, the few characteristics he mentions are solely to support the parable. The “great chasm” signifies not a physical span but rather the eternal distance between heaven and hell; the inseparable divide that is fixed after death. The rich man will never be granted a drink, he will never be relieved, hence the divide.
Paul explains Psalm 68 in Ephesians 4:8,
‘But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says
“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.”’
He goes on to delineate the gifts given to the different members of the church. Basically what Paul is saying is that Christ “descended” (vs. 9) into Hell and then ascended, he led on high a host of captives – all the elect, not only those who awaited his coming, and he gave gifts to each member of his kingdom.
Calvin continues from above,
‘Though this fable has the countenance of great authors, and is now also seriously defended by many as truth, it is nothing but a fable. To conclude from it that the souls of the dead are in prison is childish. And what occasion was there that the soul of Christ should go down thither to set them at liberty? I readily admit that Christ illumined them by the power of his Spirit, enabling them to perceive that the grace of which they had only a foretaste was then manifested to the world. And to this not improbably the passage of Peter may be applied, wherein he says, that Christ “went and preached to the spirits that were in prison” (or rather “a watch-tower”) (1 Pet. 3:19). The purport of the context is, that believers who had died before that time were partakers of the same grace with ourselves: for he celebrates the power of Christ’s death, in that he penetrated even to the dead, pious souls obtaining an immediate view of that visitation for which they had anxiously waited; while, on the other hand, the reprobate were more clearly convinced that they were completely excluded from salvation. Although the passage in Peter is not perfectly definite, we must not interpret as if he made no distinction between the righteous and the wicked: he only means to intimate, that the death of Christ was made known to both.’ (Calvin, p. 331)
The point is that those who came before Christ were not refused the privilege of Heaven simply because the physical sacrifice had not yet been made. They had been redeemed, justified, and purchased. It is not as if God must await the result of the Crucifixion, hoping that Christ will succeed but all the while biting divine fingernails; – no, the Sovereign Yahweh of the Universe is not bound by time and will not be surprised by His own plan being carried out. The words of Christ echo still through eternity past, present and future, indeed, Abraham could hear “It is finished” as clearly as could the those surrounding the cross. To place the souls of those who precede Christ in a type of Limbo is to grossly diminish the sovereignty of God and his miraculous grace.
Calvin, J. (2008). Institutes of the Christian Religion (2nd Printing ed.). (H. Beveridge, Trans.) Peabody, Massachusetts, United States of America: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.
Dante. (1949). The Divine Comedy: Hell (25th Printing ed., Vol. I). (D. L. Sayers, Trans.) Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd.
Payne, J. D. (n.d.). He Descended Into Hell. Retrieved from www.grace-pca.net: http://www.grace-pca.net/GenericPage/DisplayPage.aspx?guid=1CF8C5FB-8AAE-4EF4-8C04-2E1C73B937B8