On this website, under the “My World View” link, I use the Apostles’ Creed as a succinct statement of what I believe. I was recently asked about the statement “He descended into Hell.” Did Jesus really descend into Hell? All I could say was, “I think so, but I’ve never studied this in depth; I’ll have to get back with you with a more informed response.” The following essay captures what I’ve learned after some recent study.
The phrase “He descended into Hell” does not occur in the Bible, however, it is commonly found in the Apostles’ Creed. The Apostles’ Creed was defined over a long period of time from about A.D 200 – 750. The phase in question has been added and dropped a few times over the years and is now found in most, if not all, versions of the Creed. For example, it can be found in the “Catechism of the Catholic Church.”
The phrase remains somewhat controversial based on what I’ve read. For example, there are many websites containing very detailed studies of this topic that conclude Jesus did indeed descend into Hell after he died. On the other hand, I have a book titled “Systematic Theology” by Wayne Grudem that has a Chapter 27, Section C.2.f “Did Christ Descend Into Hell? that concludes “Concerning the doctrinal question of whether Christ did descend into hell after he died, the answer from several passages of Scripture seems clearly to be no.”
With that said, here are the notes I’ve captured on the topic and my conclusion.
Definition of a few key words used in Scripture
Hell: Is a a modern English translation of the Greek words Hades and Gehenna and the Hebrew word Sheol. The etymology of the word Hell is long and may date back as for as the Old Norse word Hel. However, Hell is not a Greek or Hebrew word.
Hades: Greek word; From Strong’s Concordance:
1) name Hades or Pluto, the god of the lower regions
2) Orcus, the nether world, the realm of the dead
3) later use of this word: the grave, death, hell
Sheol: Hebrew word; From Strong’s Concordance:
1) sheol, underworld, grave, hell, pit
a) the underworld
b) Sheol – the OT designation for the abode of the dead
1) place of no return
2) without praise of God
3) wicked sent there for punishment
4) righteous not abandoned to it
5) of the place of exile
6) of extreme degradation in sin
Gehenna: Etymology contains both Greek and Hebrew versions of the word. Translated as Hell in KJV of Bible.
1. A place or state of torment or suffering.
2. The abode of condemned souls; hell.
Key scriptures that seem to support Jesus went to Hell
Acts 2:27(KJV) – Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.
For Reasoning: Jesus can’t leave a soul in hell unless he was in hell in the first place.
Against Reasoning: The translation of the word hades/sheol should be grave in this case; not hell.
Romans 10:6-7(KJV) – 6) But the righteousness which is of faith speaketh on this wise, Say not in thine heart, Who shall ascend into heaven? (that is, to bring Christ down from above:) 7) Or, Who shall descend into the deep? (that is, to bring up Christ again from the dead.)
For Reasoning: Paul was anticipating questions that his readers may ask and, if it was not widely known that Jesus descended into hell, he would not have mentioned this anticipated question.
Against Reasoning: Again, the reasoning depends upon a different translation of the words hades/sheol other than hell.
Ephesians 4:8-10(KJV) – “8″) Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men. 9) (Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? 10) He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things.)
For Reasoning: When Jesus when to preach to some of the spirits in prison (1 Peter 3:19) he later led them out to Heaven. He could do this only if he visited Hell (or a certain part of Hell that contained non-condemned spirits).
Against Reasoning: Reasoning depends upon a translation that “lower parts of the earth” mean THE earth and refers to Jesus descending from Heaven to earth to be born a man.
1 Peter 3:18-20(KJV) – 18) For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: 19) By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; 20) Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.
For Reasoning: If Jesus preached to spirits in prison (in Hell), he must have visited Hell.
Against Reasoning: These verses could be interpreted to mean Jesus preached, via the Holy Spirit, to the disobedient people of Noah’s time while they were still alive. See link to ApologeticsPress.Org below for a more thorough explanation. This is also the same explanation that Wayne Grudem uses in his book Systematic Theology.
1 Peter 4:6(KJV) – For unto this end was the gospel preached even to the dead, that they might be judged indeed according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.
For Reasoning: This verse refers to Jesus preaching to the spirits in prison (1 Peter 3:19)
Against Reasoning: This verse could mean Jesus preached to people that are now dead but were alive when He preached to them.
Reference to different parts of Hell
Story of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16: 19-28) (ESV)
19 “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ 27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’
The story indicates that Lazarus, Abraham and the rich man were in Hades, yet the rich man was separated from Lazarus and Abraham by a great chasm. Obviously, Abraham would not be among the eternally condemned and suffering. This supports the concept there must have been two areas of Hades; one for the eternally condemned and one for others waiting for to be released to ascend to Heaven.
Tying it all together
Matthew 12:40 (ESV) – 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.
While Jesus was hanging on the cross, he spoke to the thief,
Luke 23:42-43 (ESV) – 42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Jesus said that “TODAY you will be with me in Paradise.” If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead for three days and three nights and THEN ascend into Heaven, where is Paradise? Paradise may the the location in Hades that Abraham and Lazarus were occupying in Luke 16: 19-28. Additionally, this may the the location Jesus visited when he “preached unto the spirits in prison.”
I’m inclined to believe the simplest explanation is likely to be the correct explanation. After reading the verses included herein and context around them, it takes some careful and complex reasoning to conclude that Jesus DID NOT visit Hades. Therefore, I’m inclined to believe Jesus DID visit Hades. However, this appears to be an area that, for some reason, God has left rather vague in the Word and remains a controversial question.