What was Jesus doing on Holy Saturday, the day between his death by crucifixion and his first Resurrection appearances that Easter Sunday? I started to suggest an answer in my post When did Jesus come back to life?, but I realise that my proposal raised more questions than it answered. I also touched on the issue in yesterday’s post The Communal Resurrection of Jesus. But there is more that needs to be said here, partly in response to the comments on those two posts. So, although Holy Saturday has passed for another year (except for Eastern Orthodox believers who celebrate it this coming Saturday), here is another post about what Jesus might have done on that day.
First, what happened on Friday afternoon? After hours on the cross, Jesus cried out “It is finished!”, and committed his spirit into the hands of God. His body then died, and its death was proved by the Roman soldiers. The lifeless corpse was taken down from the cross and buried in a tomb. The tomb remained sealed until Sunday morning.
But this does not imply that the soul and spirit of Jesus were dead or annihilated. The biblical picture seems to be that when humans die their souls leave their bodies and go to a place of the dead, known as Sheol or Hades. This is not a place of punishment, but one of shadowy but apparently conscious existence. And the Christian tradition reflected in the Creeds, with somewhat obscure biblical support (Acts 2:31, 1 Peter 3:19, 4:6), is that the soul of Jesus also went to Hades (for which “hell”, in older English versions of the Creeds, is a misleading translation). But apparently Jesus went there not to rest like the other dead, but to announce his victory, to preach the gospel, to break open the gates of Hades (compare Matthew 16:18), and to set free at least some of those held captive there. He seems to have transformed Hades into the Paradise which he promised to the repentant thief on the cross (Luke 23:43). This is the traditional doctrine of the Harrowing of Hell.
But when he did this, was Jesus dead or alive? Or is that question meaningful? Clearly his body did not go to Hades, which is not a place for material bodies. But his soul never died, for human souls never die when their bodies do. The apostle Peter seems to teach that Jesus went to Hades after he had been “made alive in the Spirit”, or “… the spirit” (1 Peter 3:18-19). Perhaps Peter means that Jesus was spiritually alive while this happened, but his body was still dead. Or Peter could mean that this took place after his Resurrection, but this would make the sequence of events even more obscure.
So what did happen to Jesus’ body? A normal human body would have started to decay immediately, and would soon have started to smell (compare John 11:39). But we read that the body of Jesus did not decay (Acts 2:31). Instead, as the apostle Paul writes, it seems to have been transformed into a new resurrection body, in a process analogous to a seed being planted and growing into a new plant (1 Corinthians 15:36-38). But just as in the natural this process takes time, so we can understand that time may be needed for this spiritual transformation of a body.
Meanwhile what happened to those whom Jesus released from Hades? At least some of these people can probably be identified with the “holy people who had died” who appeared in Jerusalem after Jesus’ Resurrection (Matthew 27:52-53). Now these people, unlike Jesus, had presumably mostly been dead for a long time, so their bodies would have decayed, and their bones had most likely been collected into ossuaries, according to the practice of the time. I suppose we must imagine these ossuaries breaking open, and the bones arranging themselves into skeletons and then putting on flesh, as in Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones coming to life (Ezekiel 37:7-8). But this was a process which might have taken some time.
So perhaps I will take back my suggestion that on Holy Saturday Jesus and these “holy people who had died” were simply resting and waiting for Sunday morning. Rather, the living soul of Jesus was busy freeing the souls of these saints from Hades, while in tombs on earth he was preparing their new resurrection bodies along with his own. To take the idea from Phil Groom’s comment, that day was a time not for “Rest in Peace” but for “Resurrection in Progress”. Then on Sunday morning the souls of Jesus and the other departed came together with their new bodies, and the great Resurrection took place, of Jesus and together with him of the Old Testament saints.