This issue has sent more than one preacher into a theological tizzy and often gets inadequate treatment. This post is an attempt to clarify a biblical position on a very difficult issue indeed.
It is sometimes argued that Jesus Christ descended into hell after He died. Some believe that this was an additional step in the humiliation of the Son of God as He endured the shame that was set before Him so that salvation might be secured. Many maintain, as more than one Halifax County, VA preacher, that Jesus Christ actually descended into hell during the period between His death on Good Friday and resurrection from the dead on Easter morning. This belief, it will be discovered, is steeped in tradition rather than biblical proof.
Simply and convincingly, Scripture teaches against a descent of the Savior into hell. Many passages are turned to in order to justify a descent yet the Scriptural evidence weighs more heavily against it. As Christ hung on the cross, the penitent thief implored Him, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Christ’s response in Luke 23:43 is telling: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” This confirms several facts. Jesus died that day, as did the thief. Both their bodies were left on earth as their souls were translated to heaven. Moreover, there would be no delay as Christ went to hell, but the thief would be with Him that day in paradise. This is confirmed by Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:8, that “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.”
Another one of Christ’s agonizing cries from the cross confirm that Jesus underwent no further torment than what was expected of Him on earth. In John 19:30, Jesus pronounced, “It is finished.” This strongly suggests that the alienation of the Father from the Son at that moment was brought to an end and that He would not descend into hell but rather He would meet His Father in heaven. There was no further work to be done in securing salvation for sinners.
Moreover, the Gospel of Luke records a third telling cry of the Savior: “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit (23:46).” It is clear from this declaration that Jesus understood that the work of atonement was completed upon His death and hell would stand conquered by virtue of His resurrection and clearly not a descent of His spirit into it.
A further compendium of biblical evidence can be taken from Romans 6:23 and Hebrews 2. Romans 6:23 informs all that “the wages of sin is death.” Sin has as its just penalty death, not hell. Hell was a place created for the devil and his angels, according to Matthew 25:41. Hell was not created for the unrepentant sinner, though it is the final destiny of all those who refuse to believe on the Lord Jesus for salvation.
Hebrews 2 concludes with this same argument. The writer of Hebrews warns against neglecting the great salvation found in Christ and makes plain that disobedience will be punished (2:2). Hebrews 2:14-15 says, “…that through death [and not a descent into hell] He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.” It is by virtue of His death that Jesus redeems those who believe and victory is secured over hell; a descent into hell would actually accomplish nothing.
The texts indicate that Jesus in His death experienced the same things every other believer experiences in death; He died, meaning His body ceased functioning, and His body remained here on earth. However, His soul passed immediately into the presence of God and He was then raised from the dead, His spirit reunited with His body. Jesus died in the same way it will happen to all who believe in Him, notwithstanding those alive at the Second Coming. However, many preachers and teachers will search for texts to support a descent of the Savior into hell, though many of the texts are pressed to mean something they do not. Many Scriptures are marshaled to lend support to the descent, primarily Psalm 16:10, Ephesians 4:8-10, Romans 10:6-7, 1 Timothy 3:16, and 1 Peter 3:18-19.
Psalm 16:10 is the only Old Testament passage to consider: “For You will not leave my soul in Sheol, nor will You allow your Holy One to see corruption .” The difficulty arises with the use of the term Sheol. The word is a translation that is used numerous times in the Old Testament and is the actual Hebrew term brought directly over into English; a transliteration. It is translated as grave, pit, and hell in the verses the term is used. The commonality between the three translations is that each speaks of what happens after death, so the context of the verse the word occurs is crucial to determine the exact meaning.
Most often, Sheol means the grave, the place where one is buried after death. Though it can mean hell, the place of eternal torment for those who reject Jesus, context does not dictate this meaning in this Psalm. It seems simply to mean that death will have no eternal power over Jesus; His body will not decay as dead corpses do. This was also Peter’s usage of the verse when he preached the sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2:27, using Psalm 16:10 as a primary text. It is sound biblical interpretation to allow Scripture to interpret Scripture, and the Psalm cannot be pressed to mean more than what the Apostle Peter meant it to say in His kerygmatic usage. He compared the resurrected Jesus to King David whose tomb “is with us to this day (Acts 2:29).” Obviously therefore, Peter was arguing not for a descent into hell, but the objective reality of the resurrection of Jesus.
To complicate matters, the King James Version translates “Sheol” in Psalm 16:10 as hell. This seems to be an unfortunate rendering, possibly imposed on the term by biased translators rather than an accurate translation, for more recent translations, such as the New American Standard and the New King James translate it as Sheol. The New International Version renders it as “grave.” Quite possibly, the translators had the Apostle’s Creed in mind, which will be addressed at the conclusion of Part 2 of this post. (The KJV was first published in 1611, whereas the Apostle’s Creed was formulated between 200-750 A.D., so it isn't a stretch of the imagination to assume that the KJV translators knew and possibly were influenced by the Creed.)
In Ephesians 4:8-10, Paul writes, “Therefore He says, ‘When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men.’ (Now this, ‘He ascended’—what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.)” Does this verse refer to a descent into hell? Context places these verses in a description of the giving of spiritual gifts upon salvation. It is unclear what exactly the Apostle Paul means by the phrase, “the lower parts of the earth.” However, the New International Version of the Bible translates the phrase as “the lower, earthly regions.” Though the NIV does include a footnote on that verse, meaning the translators are unsure as to the exact meaning for the footnote reads “depths of the earth," that translation of the phrase does not force a foreign meaning upon the verse, nor does it do any violence to the context. Therefore, verse nine seems simply to be descriptive, underscoring the humiliation of the Incarnation, the fact that Jesus laid aside His glory in heaven to come down to earth.
Verse 10 seems to make it clear that the “descent” of Christ was not a descent into hell but rather a descent from heaven down to earth. In effect, the Savior is leading a victory procession. It was not uncommon for the victor of a battle to take home spoils and give gifts to those along the route of the procession. Jesus is leading a victory parade, having conquered sin, death, and hell, and is now handing out the spoils of the battle, through spiritual gifts to His church. These verses do not substantiate a descent into hell, but rather a descent into the earth from heaven and then an ascent back to heaven.
Romans 10:6-7 also seems to have a descent in view though not necessarily so. In these verses the Apostle Paul asks two open-ended questions in regards to the nearness of Jesus. “But the righteousness of faith speaks in this way, ‘Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?” (that is to bring Christ down from above) or, “Who will descend into the abyss?” (that is to bring Christ up from the dead).’” The affirmation of a descent into hell hinges on two elements. First, what is the abyss referring to? Like the Hebrew term Sheol, context is key.
The abyss, in other places in the New Testament, actually does refer to hell. Numerous times in Revelation the term is rendered “bottomless pit,” a plain reference to hell. The demons begged Christ in Luke 8:31 not to command them to go out into the abyss, also a clear reference to hell. The context however dictates that Paul is using the term “abyss” in a metaphorical sense to disprove the Romans’ belief that Jesus is unreachable; the second element. In effect, the apostle is asking, “Who may ascend to a place inaccessibly high to find Christ? Who may descend into a place inaccessibly low?” Can one indeed find Jesus in heaven or in hell? Is it necessary to “look” that extensively to find Him? Verse eight draws the conclusion that rather, He is very near, close enough to call upon (an earshot, perhaps?) for salvation (verses 9-10). Paul uses the term “abyss” as a clear contrast to heaven to give the sense of a place unreachable to humans, which neither is heaven, save through the atoning work of Christ. In actuality, hell is the more reachable place for humans. The Apostle then makes the point that Jesus is close by, not unreachable; “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (Romans 10:8). Therefore, there is no clear affirmation of a descent into hell in these verses.
A fourth Scripture to examine is 1 Timothy 3:16, possibly a fragment of an early Christian hymn. It reads, “And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the Gentiles, believed on in the world, and received up in glory.” Like Psalm 16:10, this verse is pressed to mean something it clearly cannot. The angels are believed by some to represent the fallen angels, or demons, and their witness of Christ as He entered hell. In other places in the New Testament, it is made clear if fallen angels are in view. As in Mark 1:26, an unclean spirit came out of a man. In Luke 8:30 many demons had entered a man. If God’s holy angels are in view, the term “angel” is simply used and there is no arguable reason to say that the angels of 1 Timothy 3:16 are not holy angels.
In the next post, I will look at the most tedious passage of Scripture, 1 Peter 3:18-19 and the prodigious error of including the phrase "He descended into hell" in the Apostle's Creed. Then I will draw some necessary conclusions and potential dangers of holding to a belief in the descent of the Savior into hell.
All Scripture taken from the NKJV and Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology was invaluable in the course of this study.