Another likely function of Christ’s descent has to do with the Old Testament people whom God regarded as His elect. These people were not in Heaven at the time of Jesus’ death. John 3:13 precludes such an understanding. Their expectation as expressed in the Old Testament was that they would be in Sheol. Not necessarily in a position of suffering, but definitely isolated from the visible presence of God. That is isolated until Jesus did His work.
The case for Christ’s descent for the purpose of releasing the Old Testament righteous who are captives in Sheol is more clear in scripture than any other interpretation. One verse that supports it is Ephesians 4:7-10:
But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high, he lead a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” In saying, “He ascended”, what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions of the earth? He who ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.
Once again, Sheol is referred to as the lowest or lower region. This passage connects Christ’s descent to eventually leading a “host of captives” on an ascent. One cannot help but wonder if Jesus is hinting at His descent to Sheol in Matthew 12:29:
Or how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house.
The context of this passage is a discussion of how Jesus can liberate people from demon possession. Jesus plunders Satan’s kingdom by binding the demons and setting the person free. Is Satan bound as Jesus fulfills the Law on the cross? Is Jesus’ descent into Sheol a big-time plundering of Satan’s house?
As mentioned in our discussion about Sheol in the Old Testament, the liberation of the Old Testament redeemed is prophesied in a couple of passages. First Zechariah 9:11-12:
As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.
The context of this passage is established in verse 9:
Behold your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
Clearly this whole section is about Jesus and prisoners released during his time. These released captives are the righteous people of the Old Testament. David put himself in that group in Psalm 16:10:
For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.
The ascension of Christ with the captives of Sheol is the most likely explanation for a strange, temporary resurrection of the righteous recorded in Matthew 27:52-53:
The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.
Without the connection to the release from Sheol, this passage is obscure and meaningless.