Did Jesus Descend into Hell?
The phrase “He descended into Hell” is not found in the Bible, though it is found in the Apostles’ Creed. Let me quickly note that though the phrase is not found in the Scripture this in no way renders the concept as invalid. For instance, the word “trinity” is not found in the Bible, but the conceptual idea is. The real question is does the Bible teach that Christ descended into hell? This has historically been the most debated issue in the Apostles’ Creed. In many editions of the creed an asterisk accompanies this statement. Notations are often made to try and give further explanation to this problematic phrase.
Disagreement as to its meaning has existed between classical Roman Catholic understanding and that of Protestantism. Traditionally, Roman Catholic and Lutheran theologians have viewed Christ’s descent into hell as a mission of victory and liberation. John Calvin, on the other hand, saw this as a reference to the pains of hell, which Jesus suffered while on the cross. Calvin believed that Christ not only died a bodily death but that “it was expedient at the same time for him to undergo the severity of God’s vengeance, to appease his wrath and satisfy his just judgment.” Others down through Church history have put forth the idea that it was in the Garden of Gethsemane, the night before His crucifixion, when Jesus spiritually descended to hell.
Support for the idea that Jesus descended into hell is primarily based upon five passages: Acts 2:27; Romans 10:6-7; Ephesians 4:8-9; I Peter 3:18-20, 4:6. (In addition some have appealed to Matthew 12:40, which states that Christ will be three days and nights “in the heart of the earth.”) If it is true that Jesus descended into hell (Greek word – hades), the question has to be raised as to its purpose. Was this part of Christ’s atoning work? Was it part of Christ’s suffering the full wrath of God to descend into hell to be tormented, in order to fully pay for the sins of mankind? Was Christ’s victory won at the cross or only after a three-day-and-night struggle with Satan in hell as some have proposed?
What happened “from the cross to the throne” I believe might be better understood by the words of Peter at Pentecost, when he states that Jesus “was neither abandoned to Hades, nor did His flesh suffer decay” (Acts 2:31). Viewing Peter’s words in light of Jesus’ declaration that “as Jonah was three days and nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40). Jesus did descend into hell but Peter’s words indicate that the Father did not abandon Him, as opposed to the Father forsaking Him while on the cross (Matt. 27:46). (The word translated as “abandon” is the Greek word egkataliepo, the same word translated as “forsaken” in Matthew 27:46.) While Jesus was the “sin-bearer” the Father forsook His own Son, but once that was complete the Father’s presence returned. Jesus descent was not for purpose of paying the ransom for sin (Matt. 20:28), but for another purpose entirely. In addition, allow me to call to your attention the fact that Peter uses the Greek word “hades,” which is often translated, as “hell.” This word was used for the realm of the dead, and is the Greek counterpart for the Hebrew word “sheol.”
The passage that I believe most directly deals with the issue of Christ’s descent into hell is found in I Peter 3:18-20. It is here that Peter tells us, ”For Christ also died for sins, once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water.”
There are a variety of interpretations as to what Peter meant by all this. But the phrase that is most pertinent for our study is “He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison.” Tertullian commented on this passage by saying, “Christ descended into hell to acquaint the patriarchs and prophets with His redeeming mission.” He saw the purpose of Christ’s descent to be proclamation, not punishment. Most have viewed this proclamation as a declaration of victory and liberation. (An alternative view was held by Cyril of Alexandria, who saw this proclamation as Christ preaching “to those who were in hell also, so He might save all those who would believe in Him. For both those who were alive on earth at the time of His incarnation and those who were hell had a chance to acknowledge Him.”)
In terms of Christ’s descent being a mission of victory and liberation, it has not historically been understood that He descended into Geheena – the place of torment and punishment. (Gehenna was part of Hades.) Rather His descent was into the limbus patrum, the afterlife abode of the Old Testament faithful (the “bosom of Abraham” of Luke 16:22). I believe that this is the place referred to by Jesus as “paradise” in Luke 23:43, when He promised the thief on the cross that, “Today you shall be with Me in paradise.” It was to this place that Jesus descended, and it was from here that He lead a triumphant processional of the faithful (Ephes. 4:8) to the gates of Heaven, which were opened for the King of Glory (Ps. 24:7-10).