The short answer is YES, Jesus spent three days and three nights in what was then Paradise, NOT Hell itself, which was in proximity to Paradise. The reason Jesus went into paradise was to keep God’s word to all those who died believing on the coming of the Messiah. “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off and were persuaded of them, and embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the Earth” Hebrews 11:13 This is an important development for many reasons, all of those who had been dead in Christ had to receive Jesus as the Christ in Paradise. This is important, because God left none behind in salvation. It is at this place that God kept his promise to all those who had believed on the coming of the Messiah prior to their death. This is where we see God keeping his word beyond physical death. It was not enough to believe on the coming of the Christ, to perfect their salvation, Adam, Abraham and everybody else had to accept Jesus personally and directly after their death while they waited in paradise. There is an actual place called Hell or Hades and there was a place called Sheol or Paradise. For the sake of this article, let's relate to Hell as one big place with two sections. Hell and Paradise. “And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.”Luke 16:26 One side, Lets call it Hades, is for the lost. Those who never accepted Christ, or believed on the coming of the Messiah. This section of Hades, is sealed by God, so those who are in Hell will be there until they are ultimately judged and cast into the lake of fire. “And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.” Revelations 20:14–15
The other side of this space we will refer to as Sheol, or Paradise. This side is for those who died in Christ. Sheol or Paradise was the same place Jesus referred to with the thief on the cross. “And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” Luke 23:43
NOTE: There is an important observation to make about how Jesus described the encounter with the rich man and Lazarus. Many ascribe to this account as a parable, but nowhere in scripture does Jesus give specific details with names in any parable, making this account singular in all of Biblical scripture. In this account Jesus gives a rare insight into what happens on the other side, a glimpse into life after death during this dispensation of time. For those who can receive it, this account should be taken literally. Abraham describes the divide. More specifically, he and Lazarus are in comfort (Luke 16:25) They are able to SEE the rich man who is in torment in flames. Sheol and Hades are in proximity, close enough proximity that we have recognition, memory and the ability to speak (to move the air with your voice) across the divide, not to mention the retention of sensations, "Consciousness" you take it all with you. In this account we know that the rich man was in Hell or Hades, and Abraham and Lazarus were in Sheol or Paradise. This is relevant to understanding our condition after death. Life is the proofing ground for where you will spend your eternal life after you die. What seals your fate is death. Once dead, you can make no more choices. Once you die, you wake up in your judgment. “He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still.” Revelation 22:11
Once Jesus rose from the dead, the section called Paradise was no more, those who accept Christ go directly to Heaven at death. All the people who sat in Paradise were waiting on the promise of the Messiah, which Jesus fulfilled when He went to minister to those in Paradise, during the 3 days His body was in the tomb. “To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” Luke 1:79 Once Jesus left Paradise with His company, Hell expanded beyond the portion that was Paradise in order to accommodate all those who would be going to Hell as the number of men going to Hell, increases without measure. There is no more gulf, when Jesus took out the Saints, Hell filled up the expanse. “Therefore Hell hath enlarged herself, and opened her mouth without measure” Isaiah 5:14 “The Lord knoweth how to deliver the Godly out of temptations and to reserve the unjust unto the Day of Judgment to be punished” 2 Peter 2:9 This means that God knows how to take those out of Paradise, while leaving those in Hell who are supposed to be there. “Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost. And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many. Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God.” Matthew 27:50–54
There are a couple of observations in this account of Matthew, those that came out of the graves were people who were in paradise, NOT Hell. They were people from the time of Adam to all those who had died up to Christ going to paradise, because they believed on the coming of the Messiah. What we DON’T know, is if these people were reconciled with a glorified body like Christ or if they were in spirit form. This is a particularly significant distinction because it speaks to whether this group of people would have to experience the rapture or not. Nowhere in scripture is this answer given.
The New Testament Saints are all those who died after Christ ascension, which includes all those who died during Christ forty days on Earth, immediately after His initial ascension, but after His resurrection. “To whom also he shewed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God:” Acts 1:3 (also John 20:17). The group of people who died during the forty days Christ was on Earth, would have gone directly to Heaven because Jesus had already ministered to those in Paradise and that company would now be in Heaven, Paradise is no more. This same Paradise that Jesus spoke of in (Luke 16:20-31), is what the Catholic Church subscribes to as purgatory today, though Paradise no longer exists in any form. This same company from the forty days of Christ on Earth, prior to His final ascension (Acts 1:9), followed the same protocol after death, that all believers, including those today in this time must follow, death and then Heaven instantly. Those who are alive when raptured are unique in their dispensation, because this group will never experience death like everyone else does. They are transformed alive. In some way, this transition must cause physical death and resurrection simultaneously, or within moments of one another. The reason for this assertion is that it is written. “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment”Hebrews 9:27
These having this isolated exception to the way they transition from physical life to Heaven, will never enter Heaven in Spirit form without their bodies as everyone has prior to the rapture. The final company, those from the tribulation, is thought to be reunited with their bodies at the time of the Great White Throne Judgment. This is the only time, according to scripture, that the opportunity is given for such reconciliation. “And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.” Revelation 20:12–13