Before Jesus came, where did people go after death?

Q. Where did people go after their death prior to Jesus being crucified on the cross?

As I say in this post in response to a similar question, the Bible doesn’t tell us nearly as much as we would like about things like this. However, it does give us a couple of tantalizing hints.

Peter writes in his first letter, “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit, in which also he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah when the ark was being built.”

This suggests that the people who had perished centuries before in the great flood had been kept “on hold” somewhere (it’s hard for us to imagine or describe exactly where), and that Jesus, between his death and resurrection, went in the Spirit and preached the gospel to them.  Perhaps these people, because of the great wickedness on the earth at the time when they lived, were considered not to have had a reasonable opportunity to respond to God, and so Jesus came and proclaimed the gospel to them in its fullness, in light of his just-completed death on the cross. We don’t know for sure, and we shouldn’t speculate too much, but as I said, there are hints like this in the Bible.

Paul gives us another one. He seems to suggest that some of those who heard the gospel under these circumstances responded positively.  In Ephesians he quotes from Psalm 68, “When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train,” and then applies these words to Christ: “What does ‘he ascended’ mean except that he also descended to the depths of the earth?”  The “captives” would be the souls whom Jesus led out of their “imprisonment” after they responded positively to the gospel when he proclaimed it.

Even though Peter doesn’t mention people from other historical periods (since his concern in this part of the letter is to develop an analogy between baptism and rescue from the flood in the ark), it’s possible that between his death and resurrection Jesus also proclaimed the gospel to other “imprisoned spirits” who had lived at different times.  Peter says more generally later in his letter that “the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regards to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.”

So perhaps the answer to your question is that people’s spirits were kept waiting somewhere (again, it’s hard to describe exactly where) to get the chance to hear the good news of Jesus clearly and to have the opportunity to respond. However, someone else might argue, appealing to other things the Bible says, that people who lived in the time before Jesus would have been sent directly to the place of their eternal destiny after they died, based on how they responded to the light they did have—that is, how they responded to the evidence of God in creation, the dictates of their conscience, and whatever they might have heard about God’s promise to send a Savior in the future. So I think your question is one we don’t have a clear and definitive answer to. Instead, we need to fall back on what the Bible does say unambiguously and clearly: that God is just and fair, and that God “does not want anyone to perish, but all to come to repentance.”

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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