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Did Jesus Descend into Hell?

Notes & Transcripts

Did Jesus Descend into Hell?

            The question that was last week that we are dealing with tonight is this: “Did Jesus descend into hell?” and even more specifically, “Did our sins make in necessary for Jesus to suffer in hell for three days before his resurrection?”

            It is no surprise there are a vast number of opinions about this matter and we should give careful study to answers that we provide.

            There are several passage that I feel are pertinent to this study: Acts 2:22-32, Romans 10:7; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Ephesians 4:7-10; 1 Peter 3:18-20, 4:6.  Other passages must be used in conjunction with these, but I feel that these six passages provide the necessary framework from which to make the points we will be discussing tonight.

            First of all, why is this topic discussed?  A statement regarding the descent of Christ into hell is made in the Apostles Creed.  This creed is held to be true by the vast majority of the Christian world, in fact we believe it but we do not attribute to the apostles (since it is not in the Bible and was known until the late 3rd century in the Western Church). (Please note that the “catholic church” does not mean what it means for us today, rather it means one church). 

            Since so many people believe in this creed there has been a push and desire to find biblical reinforcement for the tenets that it proclaims.  To that end many have interpreted various scriptures to prove this point, but unfortunately I believe they miss the mark.  So tonight we will try to briefly run through each of the passages and determine what it is that the passages is/ or is not talking about.

ACTS 2:22-32

            This passage contains a quotation by David from the book of Psalms (16:8-11).  In it David was speaking as prophet about the Messiah, not himself.  And it says in v.27 that “Because you will not abandon my soul to Hades, nor allow Your Holy One to undergo decay.”  This passage states that the Messiah would be resurrected and that He was not abandon to Hades.  This would imply that He went to Hades, but did not remain there.  Also note that the passage talks bout decay- decay does not happen in hell, therefore it is better understood as the grave.

ROMANS 10:6, 7

            This passage talks about a descent into the abyss.  In the context here Paul is talking about how Christ has brought righteousness to men.  At the beginning of his argument he says there is no need to bring Christ down from heaven (for he has already come) and there is no need to bring Him back from the dead (because he is already raised)!  Paul is not trying to teach about where Jesus went when He died.

EPHESIANS 4:7-10

            This passage talks about an ascension by Jesus.  The point is made by Paul that the ascension means that there first must have been a descent.  Many take this to mean that Christ descended into hell (“the lower parts of the earth”).  Other opinions are the earth itself (the incarnation) or the grave (at his death, being buried).  In the context of the passage Paul is talking about how grace has been given to us as a gift from Christ.  I believe the best way of understanding this passage is that the descent refers to his death- which is what allows the gift to be bestowed upon me (as well as those whom Paul was talking to).  Many of those who hold the position that Christ went to Hell after his death believe that He did so in order to save those who were there, such an understanding does not fit with this context.  Why would Paul write to the Ephesian church about a gift that was given to those who were already dead?  And why would he refer to this gift in the middle of passage that is talking about a gift for those who are living?  And if he were talking about a gift that was given to the dead would he not have made it abundantly clear!

1 PETER 3:18-20

            This passage talks about Jesus making proclamation to “spirits in prison.”  There are at least 3 major ways of understanding this passage:

  1. Jesus went to Hell in order to rescue those OT believers
  2. Jesus proclaimed victory over Hell
  3. Noah preached to these souls (as a representative of Christ)

People are very divided over the understanding of this passage.  The Catholic Church holds position number one.  Various personalities in denominations hold to one of the first 2 (primarily) although some do hold to position #3.

            One issue with the first position is that “spirits” rarely refers to human spirits, instead it is speaking of demons and the like.  With this understanding I would be inclined to lean towards #2.  However, I personally believe that position 3 is the best to take.  I say that because we know that Christ was at work from the beginning of the world (Eph. 1:4, John 1:1ff).  It also makes the reference to Noah make more sense. 

1 PETER 4:6

            This passage talks about the gospel being preached, but it does not say who did it or when.  It could easily mean that the gospel was preached to those who were current dead (at the time of the writing of the letter) but were alive during the time of Christ.  Why make the passage more complicated by saying that it refers to Christ going to Hell to preach to the dead?  One issue to take with such a position is the idea of a second chance to be saved after death.  This is an idea that is not taught anywhere in scripture. (Examine the story of the rich man and Lazarus- the rich man never talks about the ability for himself to be saved after his death, his concern is for those who are still alive!)

Here’s the point, I do not believe that the Bible teaches that Jesus went to Hell after his death.  In the New Testament there are two words used for the abode of the dead: Gheenna and Hades.  In the NT the only beings that currently occupy Gheenna are the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41).  The unrighteous will go there at the final judgment (Revelation 19:11-16;19:20-21; 20:10-15).

2 CORINTHIANS 5:21

            This passage talks about Jesus becoming sin for us.  Romans 6 states that the wages of sin is death.  Jesus had to die for us.  Yet He is not continuing to suffer because of our sins, He is at the right hand of God.

So where did the idea that Jesus descended into Hell come from?  The early church seems to have taught that Jesus descended into Hades (Lk. 23:43 & 46 talking about him and the thief going to Paradise- which was a part of Hades).  The phrase “He descended into hell” does not appear in church creeds until the 4th century or late 3rd.  One possible explanation is that it was used to combat a heresy that taught that Jesus was not fully human.  In order to demonstrate that Christ was human the church took the phrase from the Creed of Aquilieia (where it first appeared) and added it to the Apostles’ Creed.  See also the Old Roman form of the Apostles’ Creed.

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