Did Jesus Descend to Hell, Sheol, or Paradise After His Death?

Jesus descended to, and led captives from, Sheol

(photo: Jaume Huguet, “The Last Judgment”, c. 1470)

Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman (during His Anglican days) commented :

Our Savior, as we suppose, did not go to the abyss assigned to the fallen angels, but to those mysterious mansions where the souls of all men await the judgment. That He went to the abode of blessed spirits is evident, from His words addressed to the robber on the cross, when He also called it Paradise; that He went to some other place besides Paradise may be conjectured from St. Peter’s saying, ‘He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who had once been disobedient’ (1 Pet. 3:19-20). The circumstances, then, that these two abodes of disembodied good and bad, are called by one name, Hades . . . seems clearly to show that Paradise is not the same as Heaven, but a resting-place at the foot of it. Let it be further remarked, that Samuel, when brought from the dead, in the witch’s cavern, said, ‘Why hast thou disquieted me, to bring me up?’ (1 Sam. 28:15), words which would seem quite inconsistent with his being then already in Heaven. (Sermon: “The Intermediate State,” 1836; my italics)

I utilized this passage in my book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism, and received a rather colorful and animated letter from an anti-Catholic critic:

You quote Cardinal Newman with approval, referring to Paradise as a temporary abode of the dead, while they await judgment, but not Heaven. That is a disgusting jesuitical trick. Your apostasy has turned you into a vile and underhanded man. I hope your popish rewards are worth it.

Be that as it may, I shall further explain my reasoning. Paradise can certainly be used as meaning heaven. The online Dictionary.com (“Paradise”) states:


1. heaven, as the final abode of the righteous.

2.an intermediate place for the departed souls of the righteous awaiting resurrection.

3. (often initial capital letter) Eden (def 1).

Merriam-Webster online provides a very similar definition. When multiple meanings of words exist, then context is supremely important to determine the meaning.

The New Bible Dictionary (edited by J. D. Douglas, Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1962, “Paradise”: 934-935), a very reputable Protestant reference work, states:

In Lk. 23:43 the word ‘paradise’ is used by Jesus for the place where souls go immediately after death, cf. the concealed paradise in later Jewish thought. The same idea is also present in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk. 16:19-31).

The same article cites the other two instances in the New Testament (2 Cor 12:2-4 and Rev 2:7) as referring to “heaven.” Let’s look at these three passages:

Luke 23:42-43 (RSV) And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” [43] And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

2 Corinthians 12:2-3 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. [3] And I know that this man was caught up into Paradise — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows —

Revelation 2:7 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.

Jesus didn’t ascend to heaven until some forty days (Acts 1:1-11) after His Resurrection, which was on a different day than His death. Therefore, He couldn’t be referring to heaven on the cross (Lk 23:42-43), in talking to the thief next to him.

But in 2 Corinthians, note how St. Paul uses paradise (Gk: paradeisos) and third heaven interchangeably. It’s a different meaning than in Luke 23:43. Likewise, paradise in Revelation 2:7 is heaven, since we know by Revelation 22:2, 14, 19 that the “tree of life” is located in heaven.

Other lexicons agree. Kittel notes these different meanings, etc.

In this regard, another passage is directly related to 1 Peter 3:19-20: mentioned by Cardinal Newman:

Ephesians 4:8-10 Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” [9] (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? [10] He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)

With this elaboration of the word paradise in Scripture, it becomes quite clear where Jesus went after His death. It was Sheol: the Hebrew word for the netherworld, or abode of the dead (Greek: Hades). The “good” part of Sheol (Lk 16:19-31) is also called “paradise.”

The only confusion remaining is the reference in the Apostles’ Creed: “He descended into Hell.” The word hell actually has a wide latitude in theological usage. The Catechism of the Catholic Church elaborates:

633 Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, “hell” – Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek - because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God. Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the Redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into “Abraham's bosom” . . .

Hades / Sheol is distinct from the biblical Greek place, gehenna, which refers to “’the unquenchable fire’ reserved for those who to the end of their lives refuse to believe” (CCC 1034). Accordingly, the 1910 Catholic Encyclopedia (“Hell”) states that  “Theologians distinguish four meanings”: 1) everlasting fire and punishment (Gehenna), 2) limbo, 3) limbo of the fathers (limbus patrum), or Hades / Sheol, and 4) purgatory.

Jesus descended to, and led captives from Sheol, not Gehenna.; also known as “paradise.”