We will examine Ephesians 4:8 and 9, “When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive and gave gifts to men. Now this expression, ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean except that He also descended into the lower parts of the earth”. We should note that He ascended into heaven after His resurrection, from the earth. Therefore He first descended into the lower parts of the earth. He could only descend to the place from which He ascended. The comparison has to be logical and orderly. Therefore, this ascension does not show any meaning of Him having been in hell. Also, the early creeds did not say “He descended into hell”. This belief did not arise in a creed until the sixth century, in the Athanasian Creed of the Roman Catholic Church that is also now used in the Anglican churches. The use of that creed with its belief that Jesus descended into hell in death, led many other denominations and believers to take on that doctrine. However, it was not the belief of the early church. Neither is it a belief that can be found in the Bible or in this verse in particular. Jesus did not descend into hell as there is no indication He was ever in hell. Ephesians 4:9 does not give a meaning that He went into the middle of the earth, which is what some preachers have taught. The middle of the earth is full of material fire. We should ask ourselves, “How could spirits of men, that are not material, be placed in material fire?” In any case, nowhere in the Bible is it stated that hell is in the middle of the earth. Rather, it is a place distinct from the earth. This passage of scripture refers to Psalm 68:18, “You have ascended on high, you have led captivity captive; you have received gifts among men”. The meaning in the Psalm was about earthly kings at that time who, after they won in battle, received or took gifts so that they could then be distributed to men. The Psalm uses that historical event as a metaphor for describing the power and authority of God. We should remember that the Psalms are poetry and the language is flowery. Looking at Ephesians 4:11 “He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists and some pastors and teachers”, we see that Paul quotes the Old Testament to show that Christ was victorious in a spiritual way. He took the spoils of battle. He was victorious on the cross. He defeated sin, the power of the law bringing death, Satan and his demons, Romans 6:10, “The death He died He died to sin once for all”; Romans 8:2-3, “Because through Christ Jesus the law of the spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man”; Revelation 1:18, “I hold the keys of death and Hades”; Colossians 2:14,15, “Having cancelled the written code (of the Law), with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross, and having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross”; Hebrews 2:14b,15, “So that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death”. Thus He was able to give gifts to believers who in the exercise of these gifts can be victorious over the enemies of the gospel, i.e. Satan and men whose eyes are blinded, Ephesians 6:12, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places”. This was what David did in Psalm 68, when he, through his armies, robbed his enemy of their gifts and gave them to his men. This is what the Psalm is based upon. Let us look at the following:
- What Happens After death: In the Old Testament, the souls of believers went to heaven. This is known by reading Luke 23:43, where as Jesus hung upon the cross He said to the dying thief, “Today, you will be with Me in Paradise”. We read about Paul’s visit to the third heaven in 2 Corinthians 12:2,4. He did not know if he went while leaving his body or whether he was in the Spirit in a vision. It was very real. Again, in Luke 16:23, we read of Lazarus, who after he died was in “Abraham’s bosom” which is a description of heaven and never a descent to Hell. There is no mention in the Scriptures of any intermediate place. The Purgatory of the Roman Catholic Church is not found in the Scriptures and neither is the place Paradise as taught often by Protestant believers, found in the New Testament or indeed in the Old Testament.
In Revelation 13:8, there is a picture of Christ and the book of life belonging to the Lamb “that was slain before the creation of the world”. Abraham’s bosom is in the kingdom of heaven, according to Matthew 8:11. There it says, “Many shall come from the east and west and sit down at the table in the Kingdom of heaven with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”. The portion in Luke 23:46 where Jesus as He died on the cross cried, “Father, into Your hands I commend My spirit”. He died as a man. His spirit would go to the same place as other men, believers, who died under the Law, went. “Descended into Hell” is not in early Apostles’ Creeds. It was added a few hundred years later. A creed is only a human confession of faith and not inspired. It is what men have discovered for themselves from the Holy Scriptures.
- “Into the Lower Parts of the Earth”: Ephesians 4:8-10 “‘He ascended’, what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth?” Early churchmen believed that Hell was in the middle of the earth. It could never be the interior of the earth, which it would have to be if this meaning is to be received. Even modern Charismatic preachers have taught this. The souls of the wicked dead are not material, so they could never go “down” into some underground area or even into the middle of the earth that consists of material “fire”! Hell is not in the earth but “under” the earth, as in Philippians 2:10, “every knee should bow, of beings in heaven and beings in earth and beings under the earth”. Today’s English reads, “in heaven, on earth and in the world below, will fall on their knees”.
- A reference to the “grave”. Ps.139:15 a woman’s womb is described as “lowest parts of the earth”. “My frame was not hidden from You, When I was made in secret, And skilfully wrought in the depths of the earth”. The forming of the psalmist took place inside the woman and not down under the earth.
- He “ascended” into heaven itself, the very dwelling place of God. Therefore to speak of a descent (from the very heavens obviously} can only mean to the realms of this earth. Further, His descent to the lower parts of the earth can only mean to experience the humiliation of becoming a man and then the shame and ignominy of the Cross. He died and because of His obedience unto death for our redemption, God raised Him from the dead and received Him into glory where He sat upon the right hand of the Father. Such was His ascent, the opposite of His descent.
- “Led captivity captive”. This does not mean the leading of friends into heaven out of “Paradise” that some think is part of Hell. Rather, it means bringing foes into bondage. It refers to His conquering the forces of evil, as in Psalm 68:18 “You have ascended on high You have led captive Your captives; You have received gifts among men, Even among the rebellious also that the Lord God may dwell there”. See Numbers 10:35 regarding the Ark and the enemies who were scattered. Also, Deuteronomy 33:2 where Moses said, “The Lord came from Sinai, He shone forth… He came from the midst of ten thousand holy ones”. Again, Habakkuk 3:3 “…And the Holy one came from Mount Paran. His glory covers the heavens and the earth is full of His praise”. We can look at Exodus 19 and Psalm 48. Consider Psalm 24:7-10 that speaks of:- a. The ascension of Christ into heaven, when it is spoken, “Lift up your heads O you gates Who is the King of glory? The Lord of hosts He is the King of glory”. b. Also, its association with the Day of Pentecost, Acts 2:33, “Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear”.
Looking at Ephesians 4 again, we have to say that Christians are not captives in heaven and neither were Old Testament believers captives in Paradise, in Hades. A captive has been forced into a place or position. Old Testament and New Testament believers were never forced into a place after death against their own free will. They are and were servants of God. They are taken care of by Him in grace and not in being forced. It is as Jesus said in Matthew 23:37, “How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings and you would not”, showing love and concern. Also, the love and grace of God is revealed in 2 Peter 3:9, “It is not His will for any to be lost”.
- Psalm 68 and WOMEN. Verse 1 reads “Let God arise His enemies be scattered”. This refers to certain things as in verse 8, Sinai. In verses 12-14 kings were scattered. Verses 15,16 mention “mountains”, verses 16,17-27 show a victorious procession and verses 28-35 reveal God as King, strong, saying He is “awesome from Your sanctuary”, a strength to His people. Let us note that in the middle of all this is this verse, 11, “The Lord gave the command (Word). The women who proclaim the good tidings are a great host”. I have eleven different translations showing that it is “Women” here who preach. Let us not despise the ministry of preaching by women.
- “Gave Gifts to Men”. Perhaps the Psalm, 68, that is quoted, refers to Israel’s enemies. In the Psalm we see the Lord seated enthroned in Zion, in the Tabernacle, as if He were at Mount Sinai.
MEANING OF SOUL SLEEP
To be dead is to be “asleep”. Does this mean the believer is to be asleep, unconscious of anything although in heaven? How could this be when we consider the Scriptures. There are examples of men who have died being conscious after death, between death and the resurrection. We see this in Luke 16:22-25, in the case of the rich man and Lazarus. Jesus specifically mentioned the name, “Lazarus” showing it was not a parable he was telling but rather a true story that He as God would know about. The rich man died and was buried. Jesus said he was in Hades, the place of the unbelieving dead, being in torment. He felt. He could see. He looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus also. He spoke. How could it be said he was asleep in death? In Mark 9:42-49 He taught that “It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched’.” When Lazarus was dead, Jesus said he was asleep, John 11:12-14. He did not say he was unconscious and not knowing anything. In fact we can see what happened to Lazarus if we look at what happened to Enoch after he left this earth we see he was taken to be with God. Genesis 5:24; Hebrews 11:5, “By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death”. He kept on in life that always means a consciousness and a vibrant living, not a state of being asleep. David spoke of bliss in God’s presence after death, Psalm 16:10,11. It was prophetical of the Lord Jesus but it was also to be David’s own testimony. He said, “You will not abandon my soul to Sheol; Neither will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay. You will make known to me the path of life; In Your presence is fullness of joy; In Your right hand there are pleasures forever.” When the child that Bathsheba bore to David through his adultery with her, died, he said, “I shall go to him, but he will not return to me”. He knew that in the after life, he would meet again with that child, 2 Samuel 12:23. He recognized that after his death, he would be in a state of consciousness. These are all Old Testament saints. There was Elijah who was taken up into heaven, 2 Kings 2:1. There is mention of any intermediate state. This is confirmed by the record of Moses and Elijah who were conscious on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:3) long after their time on earth. They were conscious. They spoke with Jesus. They were able to leave heaven and come to earth for a time. There bodies were asleep but their spirits were alive. There is the striking proof of consciousness after death in what Jesus said about going to the Father at death, Luke 23:46. He had promised the repentant thief that he would be with Him in paradise the very day he died, Luke 23:43. We come to the New Testament saints. Paul said it was far better to die and be with Christ, Philippians 1:23. He stated clearly that when we are “absent from the body”, “we are present with the Lord”, as in 2 Corinthians 5:8. The writer of Hebrews refers to heaven as a place where “the spirits of just men (are) made perfect”, as in Hebrews 12:23. What a glorious state these believers are in after death. We see them in heaven, as the “souls” of those martyred during the tribulation being conscious in heaven, singing and praying to God, Revelation 6:9. They had experienced great tribulation on earth. All have some tribulations, as Jesus has said, “In the world you shall have tribulation but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world”. Millions had experienced great tribulation before they died. They are now in heaven rejoicing in the praises of the Lord Jesus Christ. What would happen to Paul after he died was such a living hope that he longed to be with the Lord, as in Philippians 1:23. He said, “But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better”. Paul would rather, “put on over” (“ep-en-duein”, the Greek), a new spiritual, heavenly body in heaven, 2 Corinthians 5:2,4. By using “put on over” Paul is saying that we put our heavenly habitation on over the earthly house like an overcoat. He further underlines the immediate succession between the two kinds of bodies. There is no more a physical body, it is in the grave and there is not yet the resurrection body like that of Christ’s. It was not speaking about “putting off” the old body, as it was dead and in the grave. Rather, it was a “putting on over” something heavenly for the spirit that went to heaven. This would probably be a spirit kind of body and not a material body. The material body, as Jesus received at His resurrection will be given to the believer at the coming of the Lord for the resurrection of the dead and the changing of the living saints, as in 1 Corinthians 15:52-54 and 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18. 2 Corinthians 5:8, “As long as the body is our home, we are away from the Lord”. Verse 9, “what we would much rather have is that we should be away from the body and make our home with the Lord. And this being so, our earnest endeavour is that – whether still in the body or away from it – we should be found acceptable in Christ’s sight”. At this time the believer who has died is given the spiritual body and he is no longer absent from the Lord but present with Him in heaven. Verse 14, “house not made by human hands”, is received at death. 2 Corinthians 5:1, “When the time shall come for the dwelling which is ours upon earth – mere tent as it is – to be falling to pieces, there stands ready for us a habitation which has God for its maker, a dwelling not made by human hands but one lasting eternally, with its site in the heavens”. This house we receive at death is a “temporary phase of the eternal body of the deceased, just as the physical body is a temporary phase of the eternal body of the survivors” until the Second Coming. If living, that body will be changed and if in the grave, the Lord will restore the atoms to a new immortal body. 1 Corinthians 15:51-55. “And here I am unfolding to you – mark it well – a truth kept hidden hitherto. Not all of us will be sleeping in death but we shall all be changed. It will happen in an instant, at the flicker of an eyelid, when the time comes for the last trumpet to sound forth. And it will sound forth. The dead will be raised to life freed from corruption and we shall find ourselves changed. For so it must be: this corruptible nature of ours is destined to clothe itself with incorruptible life, this mortal nature with immortality. Then, when this corruptible nature has put on its incorruptible garment, this mortal nature its immortality, what is said in scripture will find its fulfilment: ‘Death has been swallowed up; victory has come’; and, ‘Death, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting?’” In 1 Corinthians 15:53,54, believers “put on” (“en-duein”), their resurrection bodies. This is both the dead and the living. This is at the Second Coming and see 1Thess.4:14-18. Also, Phil.3:21, a glorious body like the Lord’s. The Spirit is within us now and will not leave us at death. There will be no interruption in this at death for a further continuation at the Second Coming. That is against all thoughts of Eternal Life and the Spirit within us now. 2 Corinthians 5, shows transformation at death, while 1 Corinthians 15 shows the hope of the Church, the resurrection of the body at the second coming. Jesus said to Martha, John 11:23,24 not about the resurrection day but as in verses 25,26 “’I am the resurrection and I am the life,’ was Jesus’ rejoinder. ‘Whoever believes in me will lay hold of life, even though he die and no one laying hold of life and believing in me will ever die, to all eternity. Do you believe this’?” We received new life the minute we believed on Jesus. Ephesians 2:6; Colossians 3:1,2,6; Colossians 2:20; Romans 6:5,6. Galatians 2:19. It is impossible for this “eternal” life to disappear out of our beings at death of the physical body. We have eternal life, now and for always, through death into eternity. In 1 Thessalonians 4:14 the scripture clarifies the position of the dead in Christ, “After all, we believe that Jesus went to his death and rose again. And just so will God bring back, with Jesus by his side, those who were in communion with him when they went to their rest.” To be in communion with Him means their spirit is alive after death, not unconscious and not asleep. Rest for the believer is enlarged upon in Hebrews 3:11-4:11. This rest, the rest of God, begins for us at the time of salvation. We continue in this rest at the time of death. At the second coming of Christ, we enter into the eternal state of rest in a “new heavens and a new earth”.