Ask Pastor Dave: Did Jesus Really Descend Into Hell?

q-aThe Apostle’s Creed is one of the oldest statements of Christian doctrine. In response to the rise of heresy within the church, a common confession was formulated that would help to distinguish between true and false believers. The documented was slowly formulated over many years, and was most definitely not formulated by the apostles themselves. It is intended, however, to communicate the common elements of the faith. Within this statement, however, is a very troubling phrase: He descended into hell. Though this ancient document asserts it I do not believe that Christians should accept it. There are historical, Biblical, and theological reasons for denying that Christ descended into hell.

Historical Issues

Of the many versions of the Creed that we have found over the years almost none contain the phrase “He descended into hell.” In fact the first appearance of the phrase doesn’t come until A.D. 390, and then doesn’t appear in a copy again until 650. Furthermore, the first usage of the phrase in 390 seems to have meant nothing more than that Christ was buried. It did not contain this weighty theological idea of descent into literal hell. Historically, then, there is not much of an argument for the authenticity of this idea. No version of the creed prior to 650 contained the phrase with that specific meaning.

Wayne Grudem believes that the phrase was inserted and modified over time. The original intent was misunderstood and therefore later interpreters added new theological weight to the Creed. Grudem writes:

This evidence of the historical development of the phrase also raises the possibility that when it first began to be more commonly used it may have been in other versions (now lost to us) that did not have the expression “and buried.” Then it would probably have meant to others just what it meant to Rufinus: “descended into the grave.” But later when the phrase was incorporated into different versions of the Creed that already had the phrase “and buried,” some other explanation had to be given it. (“He Did Not Descend Into Hell,” JETS 34.1. 105-106)

The development of the phrase and its gradual inclusion into the Creed leaves me with some real skepticism about its authenticity. But more pressing for me is whether or not the idea holds any Biblical truth.

Biblical Issues

Does the Bible teach that Jesus descended into hell? There are several passages that advocates of the phrase will point to. None of them, however, confirm this doctrine.

In Acts 2:27 Peter, quoting Psalm 16:10, speaks of Christ’s resurrection saying: For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption. Some point to this text as evidence that Christ descended into hell. The problem however is that the Greek Word Hades, and the Hebrew word referenced here Sheol can both simply mean “the grave” or “death.” Since, the quote continues on by discussing the decomposition of the body it seems the most likely interpretation is “death.” Peter even continues in verse 29 by indicating the difference between David and Jesus: David is dead, buried, and is still in the grave today. So, this verse will not support that doctrine.

In Ephesians 4:8-9 Paul asserts that Christ “descended into the lower parts of the earth.” The construction of the phrase in the Greek is likely a genitive of apposition, which is best translated “the lower regions that are the earth.” Paul’s point in this passage is not that Christ descended into hell, but that he left heaven and came to earth. The passage is emphasizing Christ’s incarnation. In fact these verses speak of His ascension to heaven, and Paul’s point is that He ascended to heaven because that’s where He came from. The point of emphasis is Christ is from heaven and has come to earth.

The most significant, and strange, passage related to this subject is found in 1 Peter 3:18-20. It’s best to look at the passage in total before we seek to understand it. Peter writes:

18 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, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison,20 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.

This is a difficult passage to interpret and understand. So, it’s important to consider at the outset whether it is appropriate to build an entire doctrine off of this one complex verse. But setting that issue aside, we need to attempt to wrestle with the details of the text.

What does Peter mean by the phrase “he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison?” In defense of the doctrine of Christ’s descent into hell, some have argued here Christ went and preached the gospel to those who had died before his atonement. The text, however, makes this very unlikely. Grudem points to several key reasons for denying this interpretation.

First, he says, the focus is very limited. The passage speaks about preaching to those who disobeyed during the time of Noah’s building the ark. Grudem writes:

Such a limited audience – those who disobeyed during the building of the ark – would be a stranger group for Christ to travel to hell and preach to. If Christ proclaimed his triumph, why only to these sinners and not to all? And if he offered a second chance for salvation, why only these sinners and not to all? (109)

The limited audience makes no sense for the interpretation.

Second, such an interpretation undermines the urgency of evangelism. The point of the context is to encourage these believers to witness with boldness (3:15). But if Christ is simply going to preach to those in hell and offer a second chance then that urgency is lost. The context does not support that interpretation.

Instead Grudem poses that the best interpretation of the passage sees the act of “preaching to the spirits in prison” as a spiritual act Christ did during the time of Noah. That is to say, “When Noah was building the ark, Christ ‘in spirit’ was preaching through Noah to the hostile unbelievers around him” (110). This makes the best sense of the passage since Peter is urging the believers to do the exact same thing Noah did, to boldly preach to those who are hostile to the faith, those persecuting them.

The truth is the Biblical support for this doctrine of Christ’s descent into hell is non-existent. The Bible does not teach that there is a second chance to believe after death (Heb. 9:27-28). Furthermore, the Scriptures teach that Christ, when He died, entered into the presence of the Father. Two key passages clearly support this conclusion:

Luke 23:46: Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last.

Luke 23:43: And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.

In both cases Christ does not indicate that he is going somewhere to wait reunion with the Father. No. He states very plainly he is going to be in the presence of God. Perhaps most compelling is Jesus declaration from the cross that “It is finished” (John 19:30). His payment for sin was completed there, and that leads us naturally to consider some theological issues with the doctrine of Christ’s descent into hell.

Theological Issues

It is not clear to me what the theological benefit of this doctrine is. On the cross Christ endured the wrath of God, was separated from the Father, and made atonement for sin. What does a descent into hell add to this? If His own cry from the cross is “It is finished,” then what more was left to accomplish.

Hell is the place of final judgment for those who reject and oppose God. There is no need for the Son to go there. He accomplished full redemption on the cross and those who believe in Him escape that final judgment.

The descent of Christ into hell is not a Biblical doctrine and it holds no real theological value. It should be rejected by believers. I appreciate the Apostle’s Creed immensely, but I think this one line should be removed.

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