The Athanasian Creed and numerous versions of the Apostles Creed say so. “….. I believe in Jesus Christ …..He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended into hell …..”. Therefore, each week possibly millions of church goers declare it as so when they recite either Creed. But does that mean the answer to “Did Jesus go to hell?” is yes? Interestingly enough, the Bible does not explicitly tell us Jesus ‘went to’, ‘descended into’ or ‘visited’ hell.
But first, we should clarify a few things….
1. There are three Greek words that became “hell” in various English translations……
“hades” from the Hebrew “Sheol”, means the place of death, or the place of the dead, or simply, the grave (see footnote to Matthew 16:18)
“gehenna” refers to “the place of everlasting punishment or torment” (see footnote to Matthew 10:28 in the ESV, NLT and NKJV + other New Testament verses like Matthew 5:22, 29, 30, 18:9, 23:15; Mark 9:43; Luke 12:5; James 3:6) but is more commonly called “the fiery lake” (Revelation 19:20, 21:8 and also 20:10 in the NLT)
“tartarus” meaning dungeon (see footnote to 2 Peter 2:4) but is also translated as “the Abyss” in Luke 8:31; Revelation 9:1-2; 9:11; 11:7; 17:8; 20:1; 20:3 in the NIV and “the bottomless pit” in the NLT
2. Before he died on the Cross, Jesus told one of the criminals hanging beside him … “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43).
“Paradise” came from the Greek word “paradeisos” which means a park that is specifically an Eden (place of happiness). However, it refers to heaven as we see in two other verses: 2 Corinthians 12:4 and Revelation 2:7.
The Expanded Bible declares “Paradise” as simply another name for “Heaven”
3. The Apostles Creed wasn’t written by the apostles but contains a summary of the Good News that the apostles taught. There’s a slight problem though. There are two versions of the Apostles Creed. One includes the phrase “descended to hell” (or an equivalent) and the other omits the phrase.
From where could the idea of Jesus going to hell come?
Several verses of Scripture, at first, may seem to support the idea. Whilst not straight up saying Christ descended into hell after his death, some commentaries use them to support the notion. They include:-
“For you will not leave my soul among the dead [hades see footnote in the NLT] or allow your Holy One to rot in the grave”, said Peter quoting Psalm 16:10. Peter also reminded the crowd that David was a prophet speaking of the Messiah’s resurrection (Acts 2:30-31).
Peter didn’t say Jesus went into hades. He used David’s prophecy to emphasise that Jesus Christ’s was no ordinary death. His Spirit certainly didn’t stay in hades and the inference is that he didn’t even go there. His body didn’t even start to decay since it was resurrected on the third day.
“But faith’s way of getting right with God says, “Don’t say in your heart, ‘Who will go up to heaven?’ (to bring Christ down to earth). And don’t say, ‘Who will go down to the place of the dead?’ (to bring Christ back to life again).”
Paul was drawing on Moses’ call in Deuteronomy 30:11-14 for the people to return to the Lord. Their choice was simple – Life or Death and the choice was easy. “This command I am giving you today is not too difficult for you, and it is not beyond your reach. It is not kept in heaven, so distant that you must ask, ‘Who will go up to heaven and bring it down so we can hear it and obey?’….. No, the message is very close at hand; it is on your lips and in your heart so that you can obey it” [emphasis added].
And so, Paul, calling the people back to the Lord through faith uses Moses’ approach to emphasise that salvation is not far away. In fact, he quotes Moses “The message is very close at hand; it is on your lips and in your heart.” (Romans 10:8-10). Paul’s message is about salvation and he expands that in the remainder of the chapter. He does not mention Jesus going to hell (hades). In context he is saying, don’t even think of looking for the answer in the grave. As if you have to bring Christ back to life again. How absurd! Salvation, is very close at hand – “on your lips and in your heart”.
“….. That is why the Scriptures [ref. Psalm 68:18] say, “When he ascended to the heights, he led a crowd of captives and gave gifts to his people.” Notice that it says “he ascended.” This clearly means that Christ also descended to our lowly world [Some translations phrase it as ‘to the lower parts of the earth’]. And the same one who descended is the one who ascended higher than all the heavens, so that he might fill the entire universe with himself.”
Some commentators view this as a descent to hell or hades. However, many believe it is more appropriate to see it as a statement of the incarnation because:-
- Hell is foreign to the context of Psalm 68 where the quote originated
- A descent (to earth) makes more sense as the connection to the ascent (to heaven from earth); Scripture speaks of Christ’s ascension from the presence of his apostles (Acts 1:9)
- Consistency with other verses talking of Jesus’ descending and ascending such as
John 3:13; 6:38; 8:14; 16:28
1 Peter 3:18-20
“Christ suffered [died] for our sins once for all time. He never sinned, but he died for sinners to bring you safely home to God. He suffered physical death, but he was raised to life in the Spirit. So he went and preached to the spirits in prison — those who disobeyed God long ago when God waited patiently while Noah was building his boat. Only eight people were saved from drowning in that terrible flood.” [emphasis added]
The word for spirits in this verse comes out of the Greek word “pneuma” which means a ‘breath’ of air (breeze) and is figuratively a human spirit in this context.
If this implies Christ proclaiming his triumph and offering a 2nd chance for salvation in hades, we must determine why. And why only to this select group, “those who disobeyed God long ago when God waited patiently while Noah was building his boat”.
But even worse, if this is true then it is in discord with two other passages in the Bible:-
a) Luke 16:22-31
The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. – …. the poor man, Lazarus, died and went to the heavenly banquet next to Abraham while the rich man died and went to hades, the place of the dead. In response to the rich man’s plea for even a drip of water, Abraham tells him no one can cross the gap between heaven and hades, in either direction. Thus indicating there is no opportunity for repentance after death.
b) Hebrews 9:27
“….. each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgement”
St Augustine, 4th century philosopher proposed that the passage in 1 Peter 3 does not refer to something Christ did between his death and resurrection, but to what he did “in the spiritual realm of existence” (or “through the Spirit”) at the time of Noah. When Noah was building the ark, Christ “in spirit” was preaching through Noah to the hostile unbelievers around him.
It seems appropriate for Peter to make the connection between Noah and the larger context of
1 Peter 3:13–22. There are several parallels between the situation of Noah and the situation of Peter’s readers. Both were:
- a religious minority
- surrounded by hostile unbelievers
- facing the possibility of imminent judgment
- to witness
- finally saved
Interestingly, Hebrews 11:7b tells us that “By his faith, Noah condemned the rest of the world, and he received the righteousness that comes by faith”.
Similarly, 2 Peter 2:5 tells us “And God did not spare the ancient world—except for Noah and the seven others in his family. Noah warned the world of God’s righteous judgment. So God protected Noah when he destroyed the world of ungodly people with a vast flood”.
1 Peter 4:4-6
“Of course, your former friends are surprised when you no longer plunge into the flood of wild and destructive things they do. So they slander you. But remember that they will have to face God, who stands ready to judge everyone, both the living and the dead. That is why the Good News was preached to those who are now dead—so although they were destined to die like all people, they now live forever with God in the Spirit”
When I read that support of the notion that Jesus descended into hell included these verses I had to read them several times within the context of the chapter.
I found the logic difficult to grasp. Verse 6 doesn’t even imply who did the preaching. Neither does it tell us when. All we know is that those to whom the Good News was preached, are now dead. Was the preaching done before or after they died?
As Paul tells us, “….. everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (Romans 3:23). The curse of sin is death since way back when Adam ‘blew it’. Therefore, there are no clues in the statement “—so although they were destined to die like all people, they now live forever …..”. Except of course, that whoever those people were, they received the Good News, believed and were saved (live forever).
Naturally, I read the same verses in a variety of versions.
In the Amplified version ….. “For this is why the good news [of salvation] was preached [in their lifetimes] even to those who are dead, that though they were judged in the flesh as men are, they may live in the spirit according to [the will and purpose of] God” (1Peter 4:6 AMP).
Looking at the various segments of Scriptures that have been used to point to a notion of Jesus descending into hell did not show me Biblical evidence that supports the claim.
At the conclusion of His work, our Lord declared, “‘It is finished!’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 19:30), indicating that He had nothing left to fulfill between His death and resurrection. Luke 23:46 suggests that Jesus expected to be reunited with His Father rather than going to hell. It records ….. “Then Jesus shouted, ‘Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands!‘ And with those words he breathed his last”. Then of course there is His promise to the criminal beside him …… “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
Nothing explicit in Scripture about such an important event as Jesus descending into hell, let alone to preach to the spirits therein. For me, it’s a long stretch to see a suggestion that he did.
… just sayin’
- AMP – Amplified Bible, Copyright © 2015 by The Lockman Foundation, La Habra, CA 90631.
- MSG – The Message, Copyright © 1993, 2002, 2018 by Eugene H. Peterson
- NIV – The Holy Bible, New International Version®. Pradis CD-ROM Grand Rapids: The Zondervan Corporation, © 1973, 1978, 1984
- NLT – Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation.
- Ephesians 4 Resources, Precepts Austin – https://www.preceptaustin.org/ephesians_4_resources
- Strongs Concordance – The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible: together with Dictionaries of the Hebrew and Greek Words with references to the English words, by James Strong. Riverside Book and Bible House 93429837–8, Iowa Falls