Did Jesus Descend Into Hell?

The belief that Jesus descended into hell comes to us primarily from the Apostles’ Creed. The Creed is often said out loud in church services and has been an important part of Christian worship since before 400 AD. Even so, many have wondered whether we can affirm the end of the fourth line, which teaches that Jesus “He descended into hell.”

Did Jesus really descend into hell after dying on the cross? Can we support this idea based on Scripture?

Did Jesus really descend into hell after dying on the cross? Can we support this idea based on Scripture? If not, what should we do about reciting the Apostles’ Creed?

At the foundation of these questions is a larger question about Scripture and tradition. If Scriptural evidence for a creedal affirmation is lacking, should we continue reciting it for tradition’s sake?

In the rest of this article, I will attempt to demonstrate that the Scriptural support for retaining this phrase is weak. Because of this, believers should consider omitting this phrase when we recite it.

Disclaimer 1: I am not—by any means—anti-creeds or confessions. Quite the opposite in fact. Even so, our theological studies must always begin with, and be checked against, the authority of Scripture.

Disclaimer 2: I do not think that I am more theologically sound than those who formulated the Apostles’ Creed or those who defend the phrase “He descended into hell” (I will link to their defenses at the end).

We will consider several possible interpretations of this phrase and compare them to Scripture. Doing so helps us see if the various understandings of “He descended into hell” match up with the Bible.

As I’ll try to show, arguments in favor of retaining “He descended into hell” are not strong enough to overcome the lack of Scriptural evidence.

EVALUATING COMMON UNDERSTANDINGS OF THE PHRASE “HE DESCENDED INTO HELL”

Option 1: Jesus Suffered In Hell

The most natural understanding of this phrase would be that Jesus suffered in hell. This would be a great misunderstanding of the creedal affirmation.

The creed is not saying that Jesus suffered on our behalf in the lake of fire.

The creed is not saying that Jesus suffered on our behalf in the lake of fire, and I am not aware of any who teach this.

Such an interpretation would not stand, given the Biblical evidence against it.

Jesus’ words that “It is finished” (John 19:30) could hardly be read as “Okay, now comes the hard part.”

Secondly, this understanding would be anachronistic. The actual term used is not hell as we think of it today, but the Greek word Hades (ᾅδης), which is the place of the dead.

As Herman Bavinck notes:

The statement that Christ had descended into Hades could emerge only at a time when this word still denoted the “world after death” in general and had not yet acquired the meaning of “hell.” For the idea that Christ had descended to the place of torment, the actual hell, is nowhere to be found in Scripture, nor does it occur in the most ancient Christian writers.[3]

Conclusion 1: Christ did not descend into “hell” as we think of it today.

Still, the question remains whether this phrase teaches that Jesus descended into Hades, meaning the place of the dead. Below are several possible understandings of such a descent.

Option 2: The Phrase Simply Emphasizes Jesus’ Death

So if the word hell is better understood as Hades, does this phrase simply emphasize the fact that Jesus died?

Jesus Body Removed From the Cross. Dore, Gustave (1832-83)

Jesus Body Removed From the Cross. Dore, Gustave (1832-83)

The Westminster Catechism teaches that the phrase says Jesus continued “in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day.”[4]

But this conclusion has several problems.

First, adding “He descended into hell” does not make Jesus’ death more clear, but less so. Calvin argued, “How careless it would have been, when something not at all difficult in itself has been stated with clear and easy words, to indicate it again in words that obscure rather than clarify it!”[5]

Secondly, the repetition would be uncharacteristic of the Apostles’ Creed, which is remarkably concise.

It is unlikely that Christ’s death would be affirmed twice in a creed “in which the chief points of our faith are aptly noted in the fewest possible words.”[6]

Jesus’ death is already stated three different ways: He was “crucified, died, and was buried.”

Lastly, Jesus’ death is already stated three different ways: He was “crucified, died, and was buried.”

Conclusion 2: Further emphasis that Jesus died is unnecessary. It is doubtful that this view accounts for the inclusion of this phrase.

 

Option 3: Christ’s Soul Literally Descended into Hades

Hades not only indicates the state of being dead but the place of the dead.[7] There are two different reasons given for why He would have gone there:

1) To bring back the souls of Old Testament believers who had already died, or
2) To declare victory over Satan.

…To Liberate Old Testament Believers

Some believe Christ descended to Hades to free the souls of Old Testament saints who died before the cross.    

Christ's Descent into Limbo by Andrea Mantegna and studio, c. 1470.

Christ’s Descent into Limbo by Andrea Mantegna and studio, c. 1470.

This is the view of the Roman Catholic church. Catholics teach that “Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him.”[8]

Thomas Aquinas was of a similar mind. He wrote, “When Christ descended into Hell, He freed those who were detained there for the sin of our first parent but left behind those who were being punished for their own sins.”[9]

These views read 1 Peter 3:18-20 as saying that Christ preached to at least some of the souls who were in Hades:

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.

There are, however, several issues in using this passage as a proof text for this claim.

First, the audience mentioned is limited to those who “did not obey” during the time Noah was building the ark. It is difficult to see how Christ preaching to this very specific group of people could be expanded as liberating all Old Testament saints from the realm of the dead and bringing them to heaven.

Given the greater context of 1 Peter, the more natural interpretation of this verse is that Jesus preached in the Spirit through Noah, the “preacher of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5). Noah preached to souls which are now in “prison.” As Bavinck states, “…Before his incarnation Christ, speaking in the Spirit through Noah, preached the gospel to his contemporaries and admonished them to repent.”[10]

Also, many passages in Scripture indicate that those saved before Christ’s coming would already be in heaven (Psalm 23:6; Ecclesiastes 12:7; Romans 4:1-3; Hebrews 11:10, 12:23).

Conclusion: In light of Scripture, this view is severely weakened. Old Testament believers were not in a “prison” within Hades waiting to be liberated.

Still, there remains another possible purpose for Christ to descend into Hades.

…To Claim Victory Over Satan

The Lutheran Formula of Concord teaches that “Christ went to hell, destroyed hell for all believers, and has redeemed them from the power of death, of the devil, and of the eternal damnation of the hellish jaws.”[11] By this view, Jesus descended to Hell to declare victory over Satan.

Jesus did defeat Satan, but Scripture does not say that He descended into Hades to do so.

In addition to the passage in 1 Peter 3 some point to Ephesians 4:8-10 as evidence that Christ descended into hell for such a purpose.

However, as Bavinck states, “….the descent ‘into the lower parts of the earth’ of which Paul speaks in Ephesians 4:9 seems–by virtue of the contrast with his ascension–to point to Christ’s incarnation, in the course of which he descended from heaven to earth.”[12]

Paul’s figure of speech speaks of Christ coming to earth from heaven, not of Christ descending into hell from earth. This is reflected by the ESV, which renders the verse as “… he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth.”

Conclusion 3: The view that Jesus descended into hell—either to  declare His victory or to free believers imprisoned there—lacks Biblical warrant.

Option 4: It Describes The Agony of the Cross

Christ is Lifted Up. Dore, Gustave (1832-1883)

Christ is Lifted Up. Dore, Gustave (1832-1883)

The view of many Reformed theologians matches the Heidelberg Catechism, which suggests that the phrase “He descended into hell” is meant to convey “His unspeakable anguish, pain, terror, and agony, which He endured throughout all His sufferings but especially on the cross.”[13]

John Calvin likewise believed that this creedal affirmation indicated “the severity of God’s vengeance, to appease his wrath and satisfy his just judgment.”[14]

In short, this position argues that the phrase “He descended into hell” is descriptive of Jesus’ suffering during His crucifixion.

This seems to be a reasonable conclusion. After all, Scripture does sometimes speak of synonyms for hell to signify agony (Psalm 116:3; 1 Samuel 2:6). Christ did suffer extreme anguish on the cross, and this  could be described as experiencing hell.

While this is logically sound, it is difficult to see this as being the original intent of the phrase.

The wording of the creed is that Jesus descended into hell, suggesting a location. If the original intent of the phrase was to describe Christ’s experience on the cross, there are certainly clearer ways it could have done so.

A second issue urged against this view is that it changes the order of events. The Apostles’ Creed states: “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to hell.” This entire section of the creed is in chronological order, and to suggest that this phrase describes events before it is doubtful.

Conclusion 4: Given the lack of Scriptural support and questions about original intent, it is difficult to reach the conclusion that this phrase describes the agony of the cross.

WHERE WAS JESUS BETWEEN HIS DEATH AND RESURRECTION?

We are not left in the dark about Jesus’ whereabouts after His death and before His Resurrection.

First, we read in Luke 23:43 that Jesus stated to the thief on the cross that “today you will be with Me in Paradise.”

Some equate Paradise with “Abraham’s Bosom” of Luke 16:19-31, which they identify as being a compartment of comfort in Hades rather the section of torment (16:28).

However, this understanding of the afterlife is disputed.[15]

The word paradise (παράδεισος in Greek) occurs only two other times in the New Testament (2 Corinthians 12:4 and Revelation 2:7). In both instances, it refers to heaven or a “transcendent place of blessedness.”[16]

Secondly, Jesus declared, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46), which indicates that Jesus went to be with the Father.

Conclusion: After His death, Jesus’ spirit went to be with the Father in Paradise (heaven). After three days His Spirit was reunited with His body at His Resurrection.

BUT SHOULD WE OMIT THE PHRASE?

We have examined several arguments in support of the creed’s teaching that Christ descended into hell.

As we have seen, even the strongest interpretations of this phrase have significant problems and little Biblical support. We are left with a part of the Creed which is possibly incorrect and definitely creates a fair bit of confusion.

In light of these issues, I cannot confidently affirm that Jesus descended into hell.

In light of these issues, I cannot confidently affirm that Jesus descended into hell.

For those who agree, there are two options on how to proceed.

Option 1: Replace the word “hell” with “Hades,” which better reflects the historical meaning of the word. This would help prevent people from thinking that Jesus suffered in hell before His Resurrection, but using the more unfamiliar Greek word Hades would not eliminate confusion entirely.

Even if the word Hades was commonly understood, it is still very doubtful that Christ went there.

Option 2: Skip the phrase “He descended into hell” when reciting the Apostles’ Creed. This would eliminate confusion and keep us from affirming something Scripture does not clearly teach. Of these two options, I prefer the second one.

CONCLUSION

A descent into hell by Jesus cannot be conclusively established by Scripture. Though we should be cautious when setting aside even a portion of a historic creed of the church, we must be much more cautious about affirming a doctrine which Scripture itself does not explicitly contain.

We must be cautious about affirming a doctrine which Scripture itself does not explicitly contain.

As demonstrated above, the most natural understanding of the phrase—that Jesus suffered in hell between his death and Resurrection—is demonstrably false (and few teach it).

Viewing this phrase as either an emphasis of Christ’s death or as a liberation of souls from Hades lack conclusive biblical evidence. Seeing this phrase as figurative is less problematic, but seems to go against the original intent of the phrase.

I believe teaching that Jesus descended into hell in spite of a lack of evidence risks creating a biblical doctrine to fit a creed rather than forming a creed to reflect biblical doctrine.

Ultimately, our goal is not to read Scripture through the lens of a creed, but to ensure that our creeds accurately reflect the teachings of Scripture.

As a result of the above issues, I believe we should omit the phrase “He descended into hell” from our recitation of the Apostles’ Creed.

 


Thanks for reading this far. Of course, there are others (who are much smarter than me) who have weighed in on the phrase “He descended into hell.”

Here are a few articles from those who do not recommend omitting this phrase.

John Calvin on the Descent into Hell Institutes of the Christian Religion

Christ Descended into Hell: No Hope without It — Aaron Denlinger, Reformation21.org

Keeping “Christ’s Descent Into Hell” — Mark Jones, Reformation21.org

Death has been Swallowed up By Death — Matt Emerson, TheGospelCoalition.org

And for good measure, here are some folks who do advocate omitting the phrase:

Did Jesus Spend Saturday in Hell? — John Piper

He Did Not Descend Into Hell: A Plea For Following Scripture Instead of the Apostles’ Creed (PDF)  — Wayne Grudem

Vos on the Descent of Christ into Hell — Rick Phillips, Reformation21.org


Works Cited

[1] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 3, 413.
[2] Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 50.
[3] John Calvin, Institutes, Book II, Ch XVI, Section 8. Cited in John McNeill, ed., (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), Vol. 1, 513.
[4] Ibid., 514.
[5] A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Third Edition (BDAG), ᾅδης, 19.
[6] Catechism of the Catholic Church, Section Two, Chapter Two, Article Five, Paragraph 1, 633.
[7] Thomas Aquinas, Aquinas’s Shorter Summa, (Manchester, N.H.: Sophia Institute Press, 2002), 303.
[8] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Volume 3, (Grand Rapids, Mich. : Baker Academic, 2006), 411.
[9] Formula of Concord, Book I, Article IX.
[10] Bavinck, 411.
[11] Heidelberg Catechism, Question 44.
[12] Institutes, 515.
[13] The Westminster Confession of Faith acknowledges heaven and hell as the only eternal destinations (32.1).
[14] BDAG, παράδεισος, 761.

Clayton Kraby
Written by Clayton Kraby
I'm a Pastor in North Dakota and created ReasonableTheology.org to help make theology accessible for the everyday Christian. You can find me on Twitter @ClayKraby.