A Brief Guide to Answering Questions about Jesus' Death and ResurrectionWhere did Jesus go after He died on the cross? Are there literal keys to death and Hades? Does death still have a sting after Jesus' resurrection?
1. Where did Jesus go after He died on the cross?
This question has generated a lot of speculation and confusion over church history. What has contributed to this confusion is a line from The Apostles’ Creed, which reads, “[He] was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended into hell.” Other versions read, “He descended to the dead.” Whatever translation one prefers, The Apostles’ Creed gives the impression that Jesus went to a place “down below.” One reason that many hold to this position is that they believe that Jesus went down to the realm of the dead in order to wrestle with Satan. We have actually seen church theater programs depict this scene as truth!
While several passages can be consulted, it will suffice to consider Luke 23:39-43 and John 19:30. As it pertains to the former passage, it is significant to note what Jesus says to the criminal speaking with Jesus. After acknowledging Jesus as king, Jesus says to the man, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Three key terms stick out; they are italicized in the quote you just read. These three terms – “today”, “me”, “Paradise” – suggest that after Jesus breathed His last breath, His spirit was taken to Paradise in the Father’s presence. Thus, Jesus’ spirit remained at the Father’s side until that Sunday, but His body remained in the grave. Then, Jesus’ spirit returned and united with His resurrected body on Sunday morning. So, in response to The Apostles’ Creed, Jesus did not descend to hell. Rather, He went to the Father’s right hand until His resurrection.
It is also important to consider what Jesus’ meant when He cried out, “It is finished” (John 19:30). Jesus was able to say this because all that was required to atone for sin, to forgive sin, to conquer Satan, and to overcome the world was accomplished through Jesus’ death on the cross. Therefore, there was no need for Jesus to continue battling with Satan in hell, as some suppose. Jesus definitively atoned for sin and delivered a death blow to Satan at the cross. There was nothing left to be done.
2. Are there Literal Keys to Death and Hades?
The expression, “the keys to Death and Hades,” comes from Revelation 1:18. Since Revelation is part of the apocalyptic genre, much of the language in this books comes in the form of imagery and symbolism. So, in this instance, when Jesus says, “I have the keys to Death and Hades,” He is using the imagery of keys to say something profound. To see this, we need to realize what the possession of keys meant.
To possess keys meant that one had authority and power over an area. It is similar to our homes today. To be in possession of keys means that one has authority of who can come and go. Jesus takes this idea and applies it to Death. Here is the logic: because Jesus overcame death in His resurrection, Jesus demonstrated His lordship over death (cf. Acts 2:24). Death is no longer master. Rather, Jesus is Lord over death. It is in this way that Jesus has the keys to Death and Hades. He determines who is released from death and who remains. The effect is that, because Jesus has the keys, He has the power to raise people from the grave. It is this power that enables the future resurrection of the dead. For all those who have died in Christ Jesus, we will rise from the dead because Jesus has the keys of Death and Hades.
3. Does Death still have a Sting after Jesus’ Resurrection?
If you were to base your answer to this question off of contemporary Christian songwriters, then “No,” death no longer has a sting. Many people think that because Jesus has risen from the dead, death’s sting has been removed. However, that is not what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:54-56. The text is quite clear. Death’s sting will be eradicated once Christians are raised with resurrected bodies. There are two crucial markers that make this plain (“when” and “then”). In verse 54 Paul says, “When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written…” Therefore, death still has a sting in the present.
This may not be as triumphalistic as Christians would like. In our opinion, we think this is partly due to the fact that Western Christians live in great affluence. We are used to having the upper hand on life, so we are quick to equate that to our Christian walk. However, if you ask Christians in the Global South who are used to suffering and injustice, their opinion on “death’s sting” will be different. They will quickly point out the sting of death. Nevertheless, deep down we all know that death stings. We feel this when a loved one or someone we know dies. It hurts. There is still a blow. In this way, death still has a sting. But on the day when Jesus’ returns and raises us from the dead, then we will never again taste death’s touch. We will be free from death’s sting. Then will come to pass the saying, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” Death will be no more because our resurrected bodies will be free of sin.