The Day Jesus Stayed Dead

Waiting in the Heartache of Holy Saturday

For centuries, Christians called the day between Jesus’s death and resurrection Holy Saturday. For many of us, however, the day has become just another normal Saturday. We may have some sober reflections on Good Friday, but by the next morning we are buying groceries, cleaning the house, and getting ready for an Easter celebration. After all, Jesus knew he would be raised, and we all know what’s coming. So why not get on with the joy?

The problem is that Scripture tells the story differently. The Father did not raise Jesus directly from the cross. There was a day in between. A pause. A spacer. At the center of the earliest summary of the gospel, there sits the silence of Holy Saturday. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day . . .” (1 Corinthians 15:3–4). First importance! Died. Buried. Raised — but not until the third day. Why so long? What’s the meaning of this dead-stop Saturday? What does it matter to us to mark this silent Sabbath?

A reliable way to realize the importance of Holy Saturday is to approach it through the perspective of the first disciples. Every year, many of us sing, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” We enter the story through the characters of the Passion narrative and, indeed, it causes us to tremble. On Easter, many of us rise to sing, “Jesus Christ is risen today!” even though it’s now 2020. We feel the burning hearts of his disciples on the Emmaus road, or the tearful joy of Mary, and know Easter to be our story as well. So once we grant the historical reality, the narrative necessity, of Holy Saturday, we can approach its meaning in the same way, through those who were there.

What Happened on Holy Saturday?

Jesus predicted this day when he said, “Just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will be the Son of Man in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40). A quick look at Jonah’s prayer reveals, “Out of the belly of Sheol, I cried, and you heard my voice. . . . I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever” (Jonah 2:2, 6). After Jesus’s human body expired on the cross, his human soul entered the realm, or state, of departed spirits.

Known in Hebrew as Sheol, and in Greek as Hades, this was a disembodied state of shadowy existence. (This Hades is not the same as the hell which is the “lake of fire” in Revelation 20:10, 14–15). Scripture describes it as under the deepest sea (Jonah 2:3), or in the heart of the earth (Deuteronomy 32:22), and so it is also described as the abyss (Romans 10:7) or even the pit (Psalm 30:3). These scriptural descriptions are written as poetic allusions because the living can only speculate about this unseen realm. In Sheol, one is conscious but isolated, cut off from the worshiping community, forgotten by the living, without hope of returning. This was death, and Jesus entered it. Thirty-five times in the New Testament we read that Jesus was raised ek nekron, literally “out from dead” — out of the state of death and the lonely company of the dead ones.

Between the cross and the empty tomb, Jesus’s soul entered the state of death. The Westminster Larger Catechism, in the answer to question 50, describes this reality succinctly: “Christ’s humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried, and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day.” Jesus remained under the power of death. He did not get rescued or resurrected immediately. His human body lay in Joseph’s tomb. His human soul was in the realm of the dead.

Through the centuries, many questions have arisen about what Jesus experienced in Sheol/Hades. Did he sleep, as if in a great Sabbath rest? Was he in “paradise” (Luke 23:43), a blissful state considered by some in Jesus’s day to be a part of Sheol, known also as Abraham’s bosom (Luke 19:22)? Was he actively tormented as if he were in hell? Was he proclaiming his triumph to the spirits of the dead and even angelic beings held “below”? These are great questions. Pursuing answers can lead us to healthy considerations of Jesus’s person and work, but also into controversy. Yet we need not have our speculations figured out to experience the biblical value of Holy Saturday.

What Does Holy Saturday Mean for Us?

Considering the first disciples’ experience of Holy Saturday gives us a meaning for the day that cuts across theological divides. First, they waited. Saturday was a Sabbath. They could not finish tending Jesus’s body for entombment (Luke 23:54–56). They felt an incompleteness.

Surely they experienced on Saturday feelings similar to those described on Sunday before the truth of Jesus’s resurrection fully dawned on them. They went over and over events, trying to make sense of the shock (Luke 24:15). Their dejected faces expressed their hearts (Luke 24:17). Jesus was dead. Could this really be the end of him? Yes, he had predicted that he would rise on the third day. But the disciples in their grief either forgot that promise or no longer believed it (or perhaps had never really understood it). The revolting sounds of Good Friday kept spilling into the eerie quiet of his absence. They waited, but with little, if any, hope. On this barren seventh day, those who loved Jesus hid behind locked doors in fear and despair (John 20:19).

We have similar feelings when we face death. No matter how strong our faith, we each experience the pang of love’s untimely sundering. This is just not how it’s supposed to be! We have been interrupted. We find ourselves waiting for the loved one’s return even though we know it cannot be. We feel the loneliness of this absence, and we may worry that our dead one is also lonely, cut off from knowing our love. We endure the waiting for reunion, haunted in the midnight by the question “Is there really anything more than this void?”

Holy Saturday tells us that Jesus entered death and stayed dead. The gap was long enough that he truly tasted death (Hebrews 2:9) and experienced the pangs of being in death’s grip (Acts 2:24). He fully entered the land from which no one returns. He undertook the great loneliness of death as part of his redeeming us. And his disciples experienced his death as if it were permanent. Stunningly, this is good news for us.

Even Darkness Is Not Dark

Because of the interval that is Holy Saturday, the hope of Psalm 139 is now grounded in Jesus’s own experience: “If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!” (Psalm 139:8). Jesus descended into death. He made all that darkness his own. Death captured Jesus as he entered it fully. But then, in the great reversal, Jesus captured death. In his rising, Christ filled that darkness with the light of his presence. He dispelled that gloom forever for those who trust him. So when we consider the crossing into of death, we can now hold fast to the truth, “Even darkness is not dark to you” (Psalm 139:12). Just as Jesus took our sins, so he has taken all our lonely dying as his own.

So we mark Holy Saturday at church now. We take time to let the gap be the gap. We spend an hour feeling the reality of this dreadful interval before hope returned. We read Psalms together, knowing Jesus prayed them, believing that they provided a script to express what Jesus would undergo.

We hear him pray, “I am a man who has no strength, like one set loose among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand” (Psalm 88:4–5). We pray in Jesus’s voice Psalm 30, Jonah 2, and Psalm 143, so that we pray through the terrible wait of the first Holy Saturday. We increase the tension in his death created by this interval. By doing so, our joy on Easter magnifies. For on Sunday we continue in Psalm 139, imagining Jesus sitting up in the tomb, getting ready to burst back into our world, and praising the Father and Spirit who sustained him through death: “I awake, and I am still with you!” (Psalm 139:18).