Q&R with Brad Jersak: What happened to souls before Christ conquered death?


“What was happening to all those (During their incarceration) who died prior to Christ’s descent and deliverance of the so-called captives?”


That’s quite easy to answer! I don’t know. It really is a mystery. 

But I suppose we can say a little bit in ignorance. 
I think we can say a little bit why it’s a mystery:

One reason: Nobody who experienced it directly and came back ever described it. (Namely, Jesus and the people he raised from the dead). Modern descriptions from near-death experiences are so completely personal that I would regard them as saying very little about the nature of the afterlife and more about the experiencers’ own psyche, revealing the hopes and dreams already there in their hearts.  

Second reason: Those who have not literally been “there” describe it poetically or metaphorically, because human words and human imagery cannot adequately express the mystery of non-material life. 

Third reason: There is a big question about time here. Once the Incarnation occurs, all of Reality (creation and time) revolves around the Cross as our “axis mundi” so that “before” becomes sort of meaningless. 

That said, metaphors and poetry and figurative descriptions are not empty. They communicate something. In the OT, sheol is variously described as the place of the dead, a place of gloom and darkness, a place of longing, a place of grief OR a state where those there are not even conscious or remembered. In other words, even in the Jewish conception of sheol, they seem aware that it’s a state of being but not a literal place and they don’t agree on what that state is. 

My suspicion (only) is that we should first regard sheol or hades as our fearful expectations about death and how that affects us now. Namely, it’s not about a place or timelines. Rather: 

  • * While God has never turned from us, in our turning and wandering, death becomes terrifying to us. And in that terror, we try to medicate our fear of death with a never-ending list of attachments to the world system. In that way, death becomes our master in this life, a kingdom in which we find ourselves in chains of dread and despair. 
  • * That apart from Christ’s death and resurrection, these fears would actually be realized in a terrible descent into non-being. So hades, both as dread/slavery in this life and non-being in the next, does need to be conquered in reality for all those who were “In Adam” under the shroud of death.
  • *That because of Christ’s death and resurrection, we are freed from the dread possibility of non-being and the real slavery to fear involved. His resurrection means we are free. In fact, in the early church, their chief argument for the resurrection was their own lack of fear. 

Maybe the best way to conclude my speculation from Hebrews 2:

  • 14 Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.  
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