[ What was Jesus doing on Easter Saturday? ]

What happened on Easter Saturday? We don’t often talk about what was going on between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, so what was happening?  The answer traditionally has been that Jesus descended into the dead.  This is what “The Apostle’s Creed”[1] teaches when it says “he descended to the dead”[2].

The question for us is: what does this mean? What does it mean for “Easter Saturday”, a day we tend not to reflect on as much, sandwiched in between Good Friday and Easter Sunday?  I recently finished a book by Matthew Y. Emerson called, “He Descended to the dead: An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday”; am currently reading “Death and the Afterlife: Biblical perspectives on ultimate questions” by Paul R. Williamson, and have thought around these issues for a while now.  To keep this post brief, I am going to summarise my thoughts (some of which have been influenced and stimulated particularly by reading Emerson) and won’t be able to go into great depth regarding scholarly research and looking at other views.  A relief to all, I am sure.

Here goes!

  1. What happens when we die? Jewish belief, in common with other cultures of the day, was that the body remains in the grave, but the soul goes to the realm of the dead.  Distinctive in Jewish thought, however, was that this was an intermediate state awaiting the day of resurrection when all be raised, receive new bodies and either live for ever in eternal life with the Lord in the new heavens and the new earth, or away from him in eternal condemnation, in Hell.  As such Jesus’ body was in the tomb, while his soul went to the realm of the dead.  The game changer, however, was that he didn’t stay dead but was raised bodily on Easter Sunday.  Israel had the hope of resurrection at the end of the world, but with Jesus, the first fruits of that new world came earlier than anyone expected.
  2. With the cry on the cross of “It is finished!” Jesus was resting following his completed work of salvation. As such, he is mirroring the 7th day rest God took following His work of creation.  It was, after all, the Sabbath day, a day of rest from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown.  As Tom Wright has also pointed out, that means day 8, Resurrection day, is the first day of new creation.
  3. The understanding of the universe in the ancient world worked on a three-tier scale: Heaven, the earth and the underworld. This should not be understood literally but metaphorically.  In the Incarnation, Jesus came from Heaven-earth; lived on this earth; and then descended to the realm of the dead when he died.  As such he is supreme in all areas of the universe.
  4. In Revelation 1:17-18 the risen Lord encounters John. John writes,

17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: ‘Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. 18 I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.

On Easter Saturday Jesus went to the realm of the dead and has come through both it, and death itself, and now holds the keys to death and Hades.  Death has lost its sting because although it is the final enemy for the Christian, it is a defeated enemy, as Jesus went through death and out the other side into resurrection life.  This awaits us who will follow in his footsteps.

  1. I have long suspected the nature of the afterlife itself changed with Jesus dying and descending to the dead. Emerson has helped solidify my thinking here.  To keep a long discussion short – in the Old Testament the afterlife was a shadowy, murky existence known as Sheol which in Greek thought could also be termed Hades.  It seems there were different compartments here – for the righteous and the unrighteous.   But with Jesus, everything changed.  The righteous are no longer in a compartment but are with Christ in Paradise.  This seems to be what we read in Ephesians 4:7-10 which says:

But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says:

‘When he ascended on high,
he took many captives
and gave gifts to his people.’

(What does ‘he ascended’ mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? 10 He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.)

This is what Jesus promised the thief on the cross in Luke 23:43, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.’  We, too, will also know the joy of being with the Lord when we die!

Therefore, Paul can write in Philippians 1:21: For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain and in v.23, I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.

  1. Although this is the end of his humiliation it is also the beginning of his exaltation as what follows is resurrection, ascension, being seated at the right hand of the Father and pouring out the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:29-33). The big date in history that now remains is Jesus’ return and the day when all will be raised

In conclusion there are several things I would highlight for us to reflect on and rejoice in:

  1. Jesus was truly and fully human.He lived, he died, was buried and went to the place of the dead as all humans do.  Sometimes we can struggle to really grasp the humanity of Christ.
  2. Jesus’s death saw him accomplish salvation and the resurrection vindicated his death as he conquered death itself.We need not be afraid of death; Jesus holds the keys – He has overcome the grave.
  3. When we die, we go to be with Christ.That’s the hope we have when we face death, but we also have the hope that, just as he was raised from the dead, so we too will be raised bodily and rule and reign with Him forever and ever.
  4. Jesus’ work of salvation is one on a cosmic, universal scale encompassing all time and space.There is no area untouched by the events of that Easter weekend which changed everything, forever.  What a privilege for us as a church to be ministers of the gospel, preachers of reconciliation, holding out the hope to a world of forgiveness of sins, peace with God and life eternal.



Written by Andrew Larkin, Andrew is one of the elders/leaders at Redeemer Church.

[1] The Apostle’s Creed is a statement of faith written in the second century which was not written by the apostles but based on their teaching.  It has been used by the church throughout history as a summary of what Christians believe.

[2] https://www.churchofengland.org/our-faith/what-we-believe/apostles-creed

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