Until the resurrection of Jesus Christ, all those who died, both believers and unbelievers, went to sheol/hades. That is, their bodies were interred or otherwise destroyed, but their souls descended into what I will from this point refer to simply as Hades.
This was not the final hell that Gehenna describes. That is reserved for the end of all things, when final judgment is made on all mankind; Satan, the Antichrist, the Beast, the False Prophet, and the angels who joined Satan in his rebellion against God will be finally and forever defeated and cast into the Lake of Fire.
Some matters of interest: Hades is a place of communication among the dead. Isaiah 14:4-20 describes the eventual death and descent into Hades of the King of Babylon, who had conquered many other great nations. When he arrives, he is met by the very kings he had defeated, and they mock him. These “great ones of the earth” say to the once-King of Babylon, “Art thou also become weak as we? Are thou become like unto us?” (Isa. 14:10). In verse 11, they go on to point out that he is now just as powerless, hopeless, and helpless as they are. All his power and wealth mean nothing in Hades. In fact, he is not even accorded an honorable burial: “But thou are cast out of the grave (queber) like an abominable (despised) branch…thou shalt not be joined with them in burial” (Is. 14:18-20.)
It was possible for people to be called out of Hades for a purpose. In I Sam. 28:15-19, God allows the prophet Samuel to visit King Saul. Samuel gives Saul the message that he and his sons would die in battle the very next day, and would join him in Sheol (Hades). And so it happened. Saul, seeing that he was losing, and his sons were dead, asked his aide to kill him rather than to allow him to be captured and tortured. The aide refused, so Saul “fell upon his own sword,” and died. And all of their souls were in Hades that very day.
Luke 16:19-31 gives us the story of a rather remarkable conversation between the Rich Man and Abraham. Their deaths were separated by 1800 years, yet they were speaking with one another. The soul goes on forever.
Psalm 16:10 is a Messianic prophesy fulfill after Jesus’ death and burial: “For Thou wilt not leave My soul in Hell (Sheol); neither will Thou suffer Thine Holy One to see corruption.” In Peter’s message to the crowds at Pentecost, he quotes Psalm 16. You can compare Psalm 16:8-11 and Acts 2:25-28; he makes a direct application to Christ in Ps. 16:10 and Acts 2:31. There is no doubt that Jesus’ body would not rot in the grave; nor that His soul would be forever in Hades. He was the incorruptible One, the One who took captivity (believers in Hades) captive with Him to paradise.
Those who remained in Hades must have been stunned to see throngs of those who had occupied a place of blessing, sometimes referred to as Abraham’s bosom, leaving the abode of the dead–and leaving them still captive there. It would seem, then, that Hades was divided into at least two distinct places: The place for the unbelieving dead, and the place for those who did believe, Ps. 16:10–many of whom are mentioned in Hebrews 11, the biblical “Hall of Faith.” When Jesus rose from death, He opened the gates of heaven for all who believe in Him and have received salvation by grace through faith.
Ezek. 31:14,16,18; 32:18,24 contain prophecies of the great earthly kings of Assyria, Egypt, and more who are cast into Hades upon their deaths, to join all those who have gone before them but are now stripped of all their glory. They are said to be in the “nether parts of the earth,” or “the pit,” the very center of the earth where they await final judgment. There is no sympathy or warm welcome from those who already inhabit this place. They have nothing but mockery and taunting for these rulers who considered themselves invincible. It is clear that in Hades there is awareness of what is going on around them; there is recognition and communication.
One more clarification. It is clear that Paradise was once a part of Hades. Jesus told the thief on the next cross that he would be with Jesus that day in Paradise. We know from Eph. 4 that Jesus descended into Hades during the time between His death and resurrection, so we can assume that the thief was also there until Jesus freed them and took Paradise to His Father in heaven.
In II Cor. 12:3-4, the Apostle Paul speaks of being caught up into Paradise and there having an unspeakable experience; that is, he had no words to describe what he heard and saw. It is clear, again, that Paradise is now a part of heaven, and is no longer a part of Hades.
There is more. I believe it has been determined that Jesus preached on hell more than any other subject during His earthly ministry. It is not a place where He desires anyone to be, and in His mercy He pleaded with the people to turn to Him for the living water, the bread of life, the everlasting light and life that only He could offer.
People who say that God is an unforgiving, angry, punitive Being do not see His mercy all throughout both the Old Testament and the New. It is man who has depicted Him in such a negative way. He has warned, pleaded, begged and urged people to turn to Him, to turn away from idolatry and sin. He even offered His only begotten Son to be the perfect sacrifice for our sin.
Greater love hath no man than this, that a Man lay down His life for His friends. John 15:13. Jesus is the Friend of Sinners.