One of the more interesting doctrinal questions among different Christian traditions is the debate over whether or not Jesus spent any time in hell between his death and resurrection. Some traditions teach that Jesus experienced torment in hell, or entered hell to rescue faithful people who had already died. Others suggest that his time in the grave was very different.
So what is the answer? Did Jesus really descend into hell? And if so, why?
Jesus did not descend to hell, the place of torment. However, Jesus did spend time in the grave and may have interacted with other spirits in the afterlife. But any such interactions would not have taken place in hell as we know it.
Why People Believe that Jesus Descended to Hell
In order to address the belief that Jesus descended into hell, we must understand how this belief originated. And so we start with the most direct affirmation of Jesus’ descent to hell, which comes not from scripture, but from the Apostles’ Creed.
The Apostles Creed
Recognized across evangelical, mainline, and Catholic traditions, the Apostles Creed is taught and recited in many churches as a concise summary of Christian beliefs. Its use in the modern church is near-universal and near uniform.
The only common variation that we observe between different traditions’ use of the Apostles Creed rests between the lines “was crucified, died, and buried,” and “on the third day he rose from the dead.” Depending on the particular version of the creed that a church promotes, we encounter one of three renderings.
In the Catholic version of the Apostles’ Creed, the phrase “he descended into hell,” appears in the space in question. However, this phrase does not appear in the oldest available versions of the creed, nor does it reflect any direct statement found in scripture. As such, later reformers applied one of two edits to this phrase.
The second version of the Apostles’ Creed reads “he descended to the dead (or depths).” This version recognizes that Jesus went somewhere during his time in the grave, and aims to portray that journey in a more Biblically accurate manner.
The third version, commonly found in mainline traditions, omits this phrase entirely, thus bypassing the controversial language altogether. In this version, the reader moves from Jesus’ burial straight to his resurrection.
Why the Change?
As previously mentioned, the Apostles’ Creed did not always contain the statement about Jesus’ descent into hell. The statement first appears in the late fourth century, over 200 years after the earliest versions of the creed began circulating.
Unlike scripture, creeds are not Spirit-breathed, inspired writings. Creeds are doctrinal statements that were written and edited over time by humans. The purpose of the creeds was twofold. First, the creeds served as a concise statement of belief that could be memorized, even in an illiterate society, and used as a framework for practicing one’s faith.
Second, creeds were often written and revised to rebut contradictory teachings and heresies that circulated around the early church. It is this second purpose that led to ongoing revision and editing of the creeds. As new ideas emerged, clarifying statements we added to the creeds to refute those ideas.
In the late fourth century, Apollinarius, Bishop of Laodicea was promoting a semi-Gnostic heresy that Jesus was not fully human. Specifically, Apollinarius taught that while Jesus had a fully human body, his soul and spirit were strictly divine, and thus he could not have made full restitution for mankind’s sins.
The church officially condemned Apollinarianism at the Council of Constantinople in 381. Some scholars believe that the statement of Jesus’ descent to hell was added to the Apostles’ Creed around this time, in order to clarify Jesus’ death and resurrection as being both a physical and spiritual event.
What Does the Bible Say?
Having explored one possible origin of this creedal phrase, let’s turn to scripture to better understand what the authoritative Word of God actually says.
Adherents to the Catholic doctrine of Jesus’ descent into hell regularly cite 1 Peter 3:18-19 as evidence. The argument goes that Jesus’ ‘going and proclaiming to the spirits in prison’ couldn’t describe anything other than a trip to hell. However, the context of the verse shows that Peter is drawing a multi-tiered comparison; first between Jesus’ death and resurrection and the act of baptism, and second between baptism and Noah’s rescue from the great flood.
One interpretation suggests that Noah (and other Old Testament faithful) had been waiting in hell for Jesus to come and rescue him. Another suggests that Peter is crediting Jesus with Noah’s original rescue. Let’s examine some other texts to gain further clarification.
Several New Testament passages explicitly state that Jesus descended in some manner. Perhaps the most widely cited is Ephesians 4:9, which states that Jesus ‘descended first into the lower parts of the earth’ (KJV). Other translations render this clause slightly differently. The New Living Translation says ‘to our lowly world’, and the New International Version similarly says ‘to the lower, earthly regions.’
The trouble with using this passage to teach that Jesus descended to hell is that it describes a descent from heaven to earth. The Greek word katoteros is rendered here as ‘lower’ and simply means ‘lower’. If you’ve read our post on the doctrine of hell, then you may recall that the New Testament writers used two different Greek words to represent hell. And neither word appears in this passage.
Jesus in Hell
However, we do read in Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 that Peter twice speaks of Jesus’ soul has having been ‘not left in hell’ or ‘not abandoned to hell’ (vs 27, 31). Some English translations render this word ‘grave’ instead of ‘hell.’ And others transliterate the Greek Hades directly into our English versions.
It is important to note that Hades is the word chosen here by the New Testament writers. As discussed in our earlier post (referenced above), Hades is the Greek word that refers generally to the resting place of the dead, or the grave (similar to the Hebrew Sheol), and not necessarily a place of torment.
In the New Testament, the punitive hell is represented by the Greek Gehenna. And while Jesus taught quite graphically about the reality of Gehenna, this word is never used in any reference to Jesus’ descent or his time in the grave.
Grave, Not Hell
So is it possible that Jesus descended to the grave (Hades), but not to hell (Gehenna)? The New Testament supports this idea. Let’s look to a story told by Jesus for some additional insight.
In Luke 16, Jesus recounts the different fates of Lazarus and the rich man. The beggar, Lazarus, was carried to a place of rest called Abraham’s Bosom, while the rich man was in torment (vs 22-23). Here, Jesus sets this scene in Hades (v23), the place of the dead, where the rich man and Lazarus, though separated into different places, still were able to maintain a dialogue.
This provides us a broad understanding of Hades as the realm of the dead, while torment was only present in a portion of it. But more importantly, it shows that even prior to Jesus’ death and resurrection, the saved entered into a state of rest and not torment.
Hebrews 11 recounts the faith of numerous Old Testament figures, by which they were made righteous. And Jesus’ depiction of the afterlife shows that the faithful, even prior to his resurrection, did not enter into torment after death. And this is why Jesus could tell the criminal on the cross beside him that they would be together in paradise that day (Luke 23:43).
There was no need for Jesus to descend to the torment of hell to rescue his people because they were not in the torment of hell (Gehenna). And likewise, there was no torment for Jesus to endure in hell in order to complete His work. As he breathed his last, Jesus declared “It is Finished” (John 19:30), and the wrath of God was satisfied.