Ephesians 4.8-11 "When He ascended up on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men. (Now that He ascended, what is it but that He also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that He might fill all things.) And He gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers;
These verses are used by many who seek to prove that the dead are still alive and other extraordinary beliefs. The manipulating and twisting of the text to prove these things is very sad and blatantly wrong as we shall see. Let me take a moment to present what they attempt to make the text say, and regrettably at one time I too would have used their argument. I will present it as honestly as I can.
They say that when the Old Testament saints died they went to a paradise known as Abraham's bosom. This was one part of a region which had two compartments, on one side the damned and on the other those who were righteous. It would seem communication took place among the dead and those on the one side could speak to those on the other. The righteous were also able to hear the cries and torments of the damned and the lost able to behold Abraham and the place of blessedness the righteous were in. This state of affairs continued, they tell us for centuries, until after the Lord's resurrection when He ascended back into the presence of God from Mount Olivet. The Lord supposedly took with Him, back to heaven, the "souls" of those who were in this domain, ie "Abraham's bosom". We are told by those who hold this view that the "sheol" of the Old Testament and the "hades" of the New Testament is actually the name(s) given to this abode. Having released all the saints from "sheol/hades/Abraham's bosom", only the wicked and unrighteous were left and they alone still occupy their compartment, which is simply referred to now as "hell". I trust this is an honest representation of the view held and I submit that the text quoted above from Ephesians 4 is the one used to prove all of what I have stated above.
First of all, let me state, any fair minded person who has not been indoctrinated would freely admit the impossibility of seeing in Ephesians 4 all that I have stated above, and yet, there are those who are adamant that they can recognize all these things in the Ephesian passage. We must therefore give these verses careful consideration, remembering it matters nothing what we would like the passage to teach, but only what it actually does say.
As to the existence of these two compartments, the O.T. scriptures are completely silent. The word "sheol" appears in the O.T. 65 times and never in any one of its occurrences is there any reference made to such a place. This in itself creates great difficulty. Are we to believe that God allowed men and women of that day to die in their sins and never warn them of the torment into which they were going? Of course, neither is there any mention of a place of bliss called "Abraham's bosom" where the righteous were to be detained. Then there is the added dilemma of where righteous "souls" went before Abraham died? From Adam to Abraham is a period of some 2000 years, thousands of righteous had died during those two milleniums, but where did they end up, there could not have been an "Abraham's bosom" before Abraham existed or died?
If, as has been suggested, this place did exist full of righteous "souls", in what sense could they be said to be in captivity? Surely those saints who had died and were in this place could not be referred to as captives. In a brethren periodical publication "Precious Seed", there is an article in 2009 written by a Mr. Howard Coles of Coleford England where this text is dealt with. At the conclusion of it Mr. Coles says this, "It would be difficult to see what kind of captivity O.T. saints could possibly be in, having been saved by God". Difficult indeed, for all of this is simply surmised not plainly stated.
The problem has arisen because orthodoxy has insisted that the dead are alive. If Abraham's bosom was their abode in the O.T. but in the New Testament the souls of Christians who die go direct to heaven, this created a further dilemma. We are now faced with the unsavoury conclusion that there were saints in Abraham's bosom, in some sort of captivity, while others were in heaven itself beholding the face of God. Such a thing would never do, so a way had to be found to empty Abraham's bosom and release all these captives so they could be in heaven. Finding support for such a major event in the N.T. was nigh impossible but the inventors of this theory decided to plump for these verses in Ephesians 4 as the answer. They interpreted it to mean that the Lord Jesus at His ascension emptied this place where the saints had been held and took all its inhabitants with Him to heaven. What terrible exegesis of scripture and what false doctrine they proposed.
In the O.T. the phrase or thought of "leading captivity captive" appears twice, namely Judges 5.12 and Psalm 68.18. In both of these occurrences it is the enemies of Israel which are taken captive. It is the passage in Psalm 68 which is quoted in Ephesians 4. Here it is King David telling of the joy of Israel over their defeated enemies. The passage does not entertain the thought of captivated saints being taken into some other form of captivity. Paul knew well what a Roman triumph was. After a Roman general had accomplished a mighty victory he was afforded the honour of leading his conquered foes behind his chariot through the streets of Rome. As the procession passed by "gifts", no doubt plunder from the conquered people, was thrown out to the cheering crowd as the conqueror passed by. This no doubt is what Paul has in mind. The mighty conquering Saviour, who has defeated sin, death, and Satan entered in glorious triumph into heaven, all His enemies as it were following in captivity and through His mighty victory at Calvary He is able to give gifts to men for the edifying of the Body of Christ. In Colossians 2.15 he puts it like this " Having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it (ie the cross)."
When we are told that the One who ascended is the One who first descended into the lower parts of the earth, there is no suggestion that, as the Apostles Creed teaches, He went down into "hell" or "sheol". It simply means He went down into the grave or as He put it Himself, "So shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the centre of the earth". There is no mystery here at all.
There can be no doubt this is what the passage in Ephesians is teaching, ie the great victory of Christ over His foes at Calvary and His triumphal entry into heaven at His ascension. The leading scholars are agreed on this. I noticed recently that Charles Wesley himself held this scriptural view.
So just how exactly did those "souls" of the O.T. saints get released from "Abraham's bosom"? If, as we have shown it cannot be proved through a right understanding of Ephesians 4, just how did these "righteous souls" get to heaven? Such a momentous event would warrant a long explanation in the New Testament if it has taken place. We have searched the N.T. carefully to find a solution. but in vain. We therefore submit that the scriptures teach no such thing but rather insists that Abraham along with all other saints are dead awaiting resurrection (see on our website our literature on the state of the dead). May we respectfully request that this passage in Ephesians 4 should never be forwarded to prove the false doctrine stated above.