I do not know about you and your church, but there were many things I was told growing up that was never taught from Scripture. While many of these things were certainly Scriptural, I have come to realize some were not. It was not that all these beliefs were false, but they were never developed. As a result, I was asked to accept various teachings based on the word of the teacher, rather than on the word of Scripture.
One of these beliefs was that Jesus spent the time between his death and resurrection in hell. I accepted this belief and believed it unquestioningly for many years (both before and after becoming a believer). However, while I often heard this doctrine proclaimed, I never heard it taught from Scripture. In fact, it was not until I was in seminary that I realized this proposition was even controversial. It would be another decade before I would dive into the doctrine for myself.
Spoiler Alert! What I discovered was that while there may be some biblical justification for the belief that Jesus spent the time between his death and resurrection in hell, the overwhelming evidence (in my view) did not support this belief. I once again found myself swimming against the grain of my childhood beliefs. My goal in what follows is not to refute the belief in Jesus’ descent into hell, but rather to share my journey into this doctrine. My hope is that whatever position you hold, you will examine your belief in light of Scripture.
The Apostles Creed
While Scripture is our ultimate authoritative source for our doctrine, a study into this doctrine must begin with the Apostles Creed. We must start with the Apostles Creed because it is here the doctrine of Jesus’ decent into hell most likely began.
The Apostles Creed was originally written to codify the essential teachings of the apostles. Despite the title, the creed developed over time, roughly AD 200 to 750. While the main content of the creed stayed consistent throughout this 550 year period, there were changes made regarding language and theological nuance.
We believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. The third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from there he will come to judge the living and the dead. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
Quite interestingly, our current version of The Apostles Creed was not solidified until AD 750. The earliest versions of the creed did not include the phrase “He descended into hell.” In fact, the first time this phrase appears is the late 5th century. Even then, it was one of two versions published by a man named Rufinus. His other published copy of The Apostles Creed did not contain this phrase. After Rufinus, this phrase is not found again until AD 650. It was another 100 years before the phrase was given widespread acceptance within the church.
Two notes are important regarding the addition of the phrase. First, Rufinus and the earliest adopters of the phrase did not believe the phrase meant Jesus went to hell between his death and resurrection. The early Greek versions of the creed used a form of the word hades which also meant ‘grave.’ Rufinus’ use of this phase with the intention to communicate, “He descended into the grave.”
Second, after Rufinus, the earliest forms of the creed included the phrase, “He descended into hell,” but did not include the phrase, “was buried.” It is quite possible the phrase “descended into hades (grave/hell)” took the place of “was buried.” As the various versions of the creed began to be synthesized into one cohesive version, both phrases, “was buried” and “descended into hell,” were included in the final form of The Apostles Creed.
If this reconstruction of The Apostles Creed is correct, it is easy to see how the doctrine began to formulize. Once both phrases were included, “He descended into hell,” seemed repetitive: “He was buried, and then he descended into the grave.” This left people wandering if the second phrase, “he descended into hades,” was additional rather than descriptive. Hell became the common translation of hades and the birth of the doctrine of Jesus’ descent into hell was born.
I say the doctrine was born because there is no significant evidence of a belief in Jesus going to hell between his death and resurrection prior to AD 750 when the phrase “He descended into hell” was solidified in The Apostles Creed. This could be merely coincidental, but it is difficult for me to believe the inclusion of the phrase in The Apostles Creed did not, at the very least, spark the development of the doctrine.
However, the truth of this doctrine cannot be determined by The Apostles Creed, but rather by Scripture alone. Therefore, while it is important to understand how the doctrine began, the ultimate question is whether or not the doctrine is taught in Scripture. It is to this more important question we must now turn.
Proponents of the doctrine of Jesus’ descent into hell primarily cite five passages in support of their belief. An exhaustive explanation of each passage is beyond the scope of this blog, so I encourage you to study each passage for yourself. In what follows I simply share a few thoughts on each passage.
For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption.
Supports of the doctrine assert this verse teaches Jesus (God’s Holy One) was in hades, but God did not abandon him in hades. However, there is no indication that God not abandoning Jesus to hell means that He was present, though not abandoned, in hell. Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, the Greek word form hades can also mean grave. So even if the verse does indicate the Holy One was present in hades, it is not clear whether the author is referring to hell or the grave. The context of the passage suggests a meaning of grave. Peter is arguing for the physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus from the grave. There is no indication in the passage Peter is thinking of a spiritual resurrection from hell.
But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).
Advocates of a descent into hell claim this verse indicates Jesus once descended into the abyss, which they understand as hell. This claim suffers from several weaknesses. First, the context of the passage is not Jesus’ ascent to heaven or descent into hell. Rather, Paul is using poetic language to teach Jesus’ nearness to us: no matter where we might go, we cannot get away from Jesus. The context does not require a presence in a literal abyss, or for that matter a literal heaven. The point is we cannot escape Jesus. Second, the word Paul uses for deep (or abyss) refers to the depths of the ocean. Again, Paul is using the language of physical distance rather than spiritual location. No one can go high enough or low enough to get away from Jesus.
Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth?)
The context of this passage seems to be speaking of earth (i.e. grave) rather than hell. A descent into hell seems out of place. If hell is the intention, the passage teaches the reason Jesus can give gifts to people is his time spent in hell. Rather, it seems more plausible Paul is speaking of the grave. In Jesus’ death and subsequent resurrection, Jesus offers gifts to his people. If hell is the intended destination of the lower regions, we only have apostles, evangelists, pastors, and teachers because Christ descended to hell. That is a hard leap for me to make.
1 Peter 4:6
For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.
If one wishes to use this passage as support for Jesus’ descent into hell, there are a few significant obstacles he must overcome. First, if Peter intends to teach the gospel was preached to those in hell then it must be asked to what purpose. This verse indicates the preaching was so “they might live in the spirit.” However, that would mean those in hell can still hear the gospel and respond in belief so as to be given life. This interpretation would nullify essential aspects of the doctrines of hell and salvation. Second, this interpretation ignores the context. Peter is encouraging the Christians to live in obedience to Christ because the end is near. If this passage refers to Jesus preaching in hell, Peter’s exhortation is self-defeating: Live in obedience to Christ and not like the world because the world is coming to an end, but you will still have a chance to repent and believe even after the end. Third, while Peter writes of the preaching in the past tense, he writes of the dead in the present tense: The gospel was preached (past tense) to those who are dead (present tense). Therefore, Peter is speaking of the universal offer of salvation through the gospel. The gospel is preached even to those who do not believe (and die in that unbelief) as a condemnation to themselves (in the end they will be unable to say, “We didn’t know,” because the gospel was preached to them).
1 Peter 3:18-20
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water.
The main passage supporting the doctrine of Jesus’ descent into hell is 1 Peter 3. However, this passage is also one of the most cryptic passages in the New Testament. First, we need to understand the context of these verses is suffering for righteousness. Peter is teaching that Christians suffer for righteousness just as Christ suffered for righteousness.
Second, the passage has traditionally been interpreted in one of four ways: (1) Christ preaching through Noah, (2) Christ liberating Old Testament saints, (3) Christ preaching to sinners in hell, and (4) Christ proclaiming victory to the fallen angels. Each interpretation has strengths and weaknesses. Option 1 takes the reference to Noah seriously, but uses the word spirit in an unusual way (spirit predominately refers to spiritual beings not humans). Option 2 connects well with the theme of Christ’s victory in verse 18, but does not explain the reference to Noah nor uses spirit in its usual sense. Option 3 emphasizes the correct nature of preaching, but also posits a second chance for those in hell to receive the gospel. Option 4 uses the word spirit in its predominate usage through the Bible, but does not use the word preach in it most natural sense and the reference to Noah seems tangential. The passage leaves many unanswered questions, and any interpretation must be held cautiously. Therefore, it would be unwise to build a doctrine on these verses without additional clear and compelling biblical evidence.
On the other hand, if there is Biblical evidence that disputes the doctrine of Jesus descent into hell, then it would be easy to dismiss this doctrine. As I studied the crucifixion and resurrection accounts, it became clear the doctrine of Jesus’ descent into hell had a fatal flaw.
And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
On the cross, Jesus tells one of those crucified with him they will be joined together in paradise on that very day. If Jesus is in paradise on the day of his crucifixion, then Jesus cannot have descended into hell after His crucifixion. While the definitions of paradise and hades can be debated, there is no evidence hades and paradise were ever understood as the same place. While we must be careful not to build a doctrine on one verse, this verse does call the doctrine of Jesus descent into hell into question.
Moreover, one must also determine a purpose for Jesus’ descent into hell. Two answers have traditionally been offered. First, some answer Jesus’ descent into hell was to experience the full wrath of God. The problem with this answer is Jesus’ declaration on the cross, “When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit (John 19:30, ESV).” If Jesus had to go into hell to experience the full wrath of God, then what was finished on the cross? That would mean it is not just the blood of Christ which saves, but also Christ’s experience in hell.
Second, some answer Jesus descent into hell was to preach the gospel in accordance with 1 Peter. However, we must ask to what end did Jesus preach in hell. The parable of Luke 16:19-31 suggests there is no second chance for those who die without Christ. Was Jesus’ preaching simply a victory lap? This understanding gives the word ‘preach’ a different meaning in 1 Peter than the rest of Scripture. Again, we must be careful not to dismiss the doctrine based on unanswered questions, but we must also acknowledge there are serious flaws with a belief of Jesus’ decent into hell.
My journey through this particular doctrine ended with a rejection of what I was told growing up in church. Through my study of this doctrine, I came to believe Jesus did not descend into hell during the time between his death and resurrection. While I cannot say definitively Jesus did not descend into hell between his death and resurrection, the overwhelming historical, theological, and biblical evidence seems to refute this doctrine. But, let me encourage you not take my argument or my brief commentary on the Scriptures as fact; rather, let me encourage each of you to begin your own journey of searching the Scriptures.
All Scriptures: The Holy Bible : English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001).