Did Jesus Descend into Hell?

Hell Lake of Fire

Many believe that after Jesus died on the cross, He descended into hell. The Apostle’s Creed certainly says this, but as for myself, I am undecided. Let’s look briefly at the evidence.

Acts 2:31

Peter says that God did not leave the soul of Jesus in Hades, but raised Him up from the dead. The term “Hades” does not actually refer to hell as many believe, but is “the place of the dead.”

Sometimes, it refers to the underworld where the souls of men walk around like shadows. Frequently, “Hades” simply refers to the grave. It is not a mystical place, but is simply the hole in the ground where your body goes when you die. Most translators think that is what Peter is referring to, and translate “Hades” as “the grave.”

Ephesians 4:8-10

This verse is often brought up as defense that Jesus descended into hell, but this is not the best understanding of this passage. In verse 8, Paul talks about how Jesus ascended into heaven, and to explain this, Paul reminds His readers that Jesus was simply returning to where He came from, that is, heaven.

He only ascended from earth to heaven because He first descended from heaven to earth. The descent of Jesus was not from earth into hell.

1 Peter 4:6

Some believe that this verse indicates that Jesus went into hell and preached the Gospel to those who are there. If this is true, the question of course is, “Why?” Was he giving them a second chance? Was He taunting them? Neither option makes much sense. Whatever this verse means, it must be understood in the context of other passages in the letter, such as 1 Peter 3:18-20. This text says that by the Spirit, Jesus preached to spirits who were in prison, who rebelled in the days of Noah.

While this could mean that Jesus went to hell to preach to people in prison, why are the people who were alive in the days of Noah singled out? Some believe it was Noah who was doing the preaching by the Spirit, and he was preaching about Christ, but they did not believe, and so are now dead and in prison.

This passage is notoriously difficult, and is therefore a weak foundation upon which to build any doctrine about what Jesus did or did not do after His death and before His resurrection.

Miscellaneous Passages.

Finally, some point to various other texts of Scripture such as the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), and the report that at the resurrection of Jesus, many who were formerly dead were raised to life (Matt 27:52-53) as evidence that Jesus did go preach to some spirits in hell, or in a “suburb of hell” called Abraham’s Bosom, and some were raised back to life.

Is all of this evidence conclusive one way or the other? Not really. One of the verses used against the idea that Jesus descended into hell is Luke 23:42-43 where Jesus tells the thief on the cross that today, the thief would be with Jesus in paradise.

So what do you think? Did Jesus descend into hell? If so, how long was He there? We will look at one more passage later today which might possibly shed some further light on the subject.

Edit: 04/29/2011 – Here is a post I found which explains some of the background for this belief: Did Jesus Go to Hell?


Here are other posts in this series on the death and resurrection of Jesus.

  1. Forget Christmas, It's Easter!
  2. The Physical Suffering of Jesus
  3. The Spiritual Suffering of Jesus
  4. The Love and Horror of the Cross
  5. Let this Cup Pass - Did Jesus Change His Mind?
  6. The Case for a Thursday Crucifixion
  7. Did Jesus Descend into Hell?
  8. Steps of Jesus our High Priest
  9. Good God, Bad God - On the Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement
  10. Death Precedes Resurrection
  11. Did the resurrection of Jesus really happen?
  12. Does the resurrection of Jesus prove He is God?
  13. Bored with the Resurrection of Jesus
  14. The Resurrection of Jesus is the Answer
  15. Why Jesus Wasn't Saved
  16. When the Passover Meal Includes Meat Sacrificed to Idols
  17. Why Did Jesus Wait Three Days to Rise from the Dead?
  18. The Most Beautiful Words in the Gospels
  19. Jesus Uses Doubters Too
  20. What if Jesus Had Never Been Raised?

Comments

  1. Sam says

    Have you read the book written by the guy who fell asleep on his living room floor and found himself in hell, with Jesus standing there watching people being tortured? I read that Walmart did a brisk business selling the book.

    I doubt we have enough info. to really decide if Jesus descended into what we mean by the word hell.

    • says

      I have not heard about that book. Books on hell are “hot” right now! Sorry. Bad pun.

      Anyway, you are right. There are so many unknowns about “hell” that it is dangerous to say anything definitive.

  2. Ryan says

    “The Apostle’s Creed certainly says this, but as for myself, I am undecided.”

    I was curious about this remark. If the Apostle’s Creed encapsulates the Christian faith, how can one decide against it? And if one does, is that belief adopted into the Christian faith?

    Sam said (in the first comment to this thread) that we likely do not have enough info to know. I’d say that the deposit of faith we’ve been given in the Creed is enough for us to say with certainty that Christ did, in fact, descend into Hell to atone the sins of those who died before Christ’s coming.

    Prior to Jesus’ resurrection, sacrifice for sin was animal sacrifice. But it was insufficient.

    Jesus is the perfect and complete sacrifice, the only sacrifice able to fully unite us with God. It was necessary for Him to come so that we may have eternal life. It was necessary for Him to descend to give those who died prior to His coming the chance of having eternal life, too.

    • says

      Ryan,
      Great questions. I read recently that the statement about Christ descending into hell was not part of the original “Apostle’s Creed” but was added later. I’m not sure when or why.

      But even if this is not true, the “Apostle’s Creed” was not actually written by the Apostles, nor is it found in the Bible. It is simply what some wonderful and godly people thought were key beliefs early in the life of the church. We can be helped by such a tradition, but I am not sure that it is binding.

      Anyway, I agree with you about the perfect and complete sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. I see your point about the necessity of his descent. That is interesting. So you think he went and preached to everyone who died prior to his death and resurrection? It’s possible, I suppose.

      What about people nowadays who live after the death and resurrection, but still have not heard about it? Would they also get a chance after death to hear about it?

  3. says

    Jeremy,

    As you say in your comments on Acts 2, “Hades” typically means the grave. But then, “Hades” is also what the Apostles’ Creed actually says Jesus descended into, if you go back and check the Greek (i.e., original) creed. Acts 2:31 nicely defends what’s actually in the Creed. It does not defend some interpretations of the Creed, but nothing remarkable about that.

      • says

        Jeremy,

        FWIW, in the circles I travel in these days, it’s customary to render that line of the Creed either “He descended to the dead” (slightly weasely, I feel, but you could argue it’s good DE translation) or “He descended to Hades” (which is the way we do it).
        In our youth group, the kids say the Creed every week during our worship time, in answer to the question, “Christian, in whom do you trust?” (Unchurched kids, btw, not kids reared on christianese from momma’s knee. The Creed was a baptismal formula in one form or another from at least the second century; its intended purpose was always to educate the uninitiated. We find it works very well.)

    • josh says

      Matthew 12:40(3days &nights)
      For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

      Luke 16:19-28 (Hell)
      28.For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment.

      Hebrews 2:14
      14Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil;

      • says

        Josh,

        Quoting Scripture means nothing. Anyone can quote Bible verses… even Satan!

        I am aware of these Scriptures, but do not think they refer to hell.

        And besides, you missed the most “obvious” verses, so let me add them for you:

        Ephesians 4:8-9
        Therefore He says: “When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, And gave gifts to men.” (Now this, “He ascended “– what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth?

        1 Peter 3:18-19
        For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison,

  4. Grateful Al says

    All I am sure of is that Jesus said in Revelations that he holds the keys to heaven and hell. It seems to me you have to go and take the keys from the landlord.

    • Grateful Al says

      I forgot the passage that kind of confirms the landload had held those keys:
      Rev 9:1 And the fifth angel sounded, and I saw a star fall from heaven unto the earth: and to him was given the key of the bottomless pit.

      • says

        Possibly. Of course, it all depends on how you read Revelation. If this is a prediction of the future, then the star which fell from heaven (is this really Satan?), was given the keys at that time, but not before.

        Your reading of Rev 9:1 would require a preterist reading, so that Revelation describes what happened in the past.

  5. Mark Burgher says

    Interesting.

    That ‘in Him was Life’, I wonder what effect He would have had if/when He appeared in Hades? I don’t think He needed to preach at all, in the same way the demons recognized Jesus in this life only on appearance. Walking around unfettered with keys with the jailer absent would have been enough to make the fettered cry out for release.

    The verse ‘O Death where is thy sting, O Grave (Hades) where is thy victory’ backs Rev 1:18 where He declared He has the keys of Hades and Death. If He did snatch those ‘prison’ keys and declared that He still has them, He certainly didn’t give them back so the prison no longer holds or, maybe, has no prisoners in it at all… which backs the said verse ‘O Death etc… ‘.

    The Rich Man and Lazarus story backs up the futility of relying on the Law regarding Hades and Death, notably in the messages that there was a great (un-bridgable by the Law) gulf fixed which Jesus was yet to bridge and that the mention of Moses not being able to prevent both the rich man and his relatives being in the same predicament.

    Even the vilest offenders in that predicament would join the stampede out of the prison of Hades and Death, had ‘Life’ come walking by with the keys in His possession.

    Maybe that’s the true power of the Gospel. When people now die they now meet an empty ineffective prison – difficult to get our heads round as people, in anger and unforgiveness, shout ‘go to hell. Maybe it’s universalist thoughts getting the better of me again…

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