Jesus raised the dead. Where were their souls?

By Jenna Marie Cooper

Question Corner

Q: Regarding the people Jesus raised from the dead, where were their souls while they were dead? (Location withheld)

A: Among the many miracles Jesus performed as part of his public ministry, some of the most remarkable include his raising several recently-deceased people from the dead. In the Gospels, we read of the raising of Jairus’ young daughter (see Mt 9:18–26; Mk 5:21–43; and Lk 8:40–56), as well as the only son of a widow in the city of Nain (Lk 7:11-17). Perhaps most famously, chapter 11 of John’s Gospel recounts the raising of Jesus’ friend Lazarus, brother of Martha and Mary.

While each of these were indeed truly raised from the dead in a miraculous way, it would be more appropriate to speak of their revival rather than their resurrection. That is, Jairus’ daughter, the widow’s son and Lazarus would all eventually die a second time – and definitively. In contrast to this, when Jesus was resurrected in the proper sense of the term, he moved totally beyond death and could never die again (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 646).

To your question, it’s notable that, in accounts of Jesus raising these people from the dead, the Gospels give us plenty of what we might call human-interest details; Jesus tells Jairus to give his newly-raised daughter something to eat (Lk 8:55), and Jesus wept upon hearing of his friend Lazarus’ death (Jn 11:35). But they do not tell us clearly where these people’s souls went or what was experienced in death. In the Apostles’ Creed, we may take into account the Church’s traditional understanding of what happened on Holy Saturday, namely that Jesus descended into hell (understood in this sense as simply the underworld or the realm of the dead, rather than a freely-chosen state of separation from God), in order to triumphantly open the gates of heaven to all of God’s faithful who were awaiting their redemption from his sacrifice on the cross.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church (633) explains, “It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell.  Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him.”

The Office of Readings from the Liturgy of the Hours for Holy Saturday includes an ancient homily that contains an imaginative meditation on Jesus’ descent to the underworld during the time between his death and resurrection: “He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep.… At the sight of him, Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: ‘My Lord be with you all.’ Christ answered him: ‘And with your spirit.’ He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: ‘Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.’ … Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.’”

So, if we wish to speculate a little, my own guess is that Lazarus and the others would have – for however brief a time – shared in the hope and longing of all the other souls of the dead who were awaiting their salvation in Christ.

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Jenna Marie Cooper, who holds a licentiate in canon law, is a consecrated virgin and a canonist whose column appears weekly at OSV News. Send your questions to [email protected].