Did Jesus descend into hell?

This is the first in a two-part series on the whereabouts of Jesus between His death and resurrection.

One of the more puzzling questions about the redemptive work of Christ is where His soul went between death and resurrection.

The Gospel writers confirm that Jesus’ body was placed in a tomb after His death, and remained there until His resurrection.

But what about the immaterial part of Jesus – namely His soul and / or spirit?

One view is stated in the Apostles’ Creed: “He [Jesus] descended into Hell; the third day He rose again from the dead.”

The meaning of this phrase is much debated. The traditional interpretation is that Christ went to the abode of the dead to preach the gospel to Old Testament saints in order to set them free for the full experience of heaven.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church embraces this view, as do many Protestants.

However, theologian Wayne Grudem points out that the troublesome phrase, “He descended into Hell,” is a “late intruder into the Apostles’ Creed that never belonged there in the first place and that, on historical and Scriptural grounds, deserves to be removed.”

Other views

Based on New Testament passages such as Eph. 4:8-9 and 1 Peter 3:18-20, some interpreters argue that Jesus descended into hell to experience the full magnitude of suffering for sin in order to make complete payment for it on our behalf.

They regard this as a necessary element of Christ’s passion.

Prosperity preachers like Kenneth Copeland add gory, unbiblical details. He posits that “Satan conquered Jesus on the cross,” meaning the Son of God went to hell as an “emaciated, poured out, little wormy spirit.”

Joyce Meyer makes this a necessary Christian doctrine by adding, “You cannot go to heaven unless you believe with all your heart that Jesus took your place in hell.”

Thomas Aquinas argued that Christ descended into two places – hell and purgatory – and that his purpose in each was different. In hell He put unbelievers to shame, while in purgatory He gave sinners the hope of future glory.

John Calvin described Jesus’ descent as symbolic, pointing to His suffering at Gethsemane and on the cross.

The case for heaven

Ultimately, Scripture must answer the question of Jesus’ whereabouts between His death and resurrection. Commentators point to five New Testament passages in an effort to uncover the truth. In the next column we briefly examine these passages.

But first, let’s lay out a case for believing that Jesus ascended into heaven after His death, and remained there until His resurrection.

First, the cry of Jesus, “It is finished!” in John 19:30 strongly suggests that Christ’s work of redemption was complete and that no further suffering was necessary.

Second, Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” imply that Christ returned to His Father and took the repentant thief with Him (Luke 23:43).

For those who say paradise is a different place than heaven, note that the other two uses of “paradise” in the New Testament clearly mean heaven (2 Cor. 12:4; Rev. 2:7).

Third, Jesus’ words, “Father, into your hands I entrust My spirit,” suggest that He expected the immediate end to His suffering and a reunion with the Father in heaven (Luke 23:46). Note Stephen’s similar cry in Acts 7:59.

Finally, we must properly define hell. Jesus tells us hell (Gehenna) was created for Satan and his demons (Matt. 25:41). Ultimately, unbelievers go there as well after their resurrection and final judgment (Rev. 20:11-15; note the terms “lake of fire” and “second death”).

Gehenna is distinct from Hades, the temporary abode of the dead, and Hades is thrown into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14).

While hell is an awful place of divine judgment, no one is there yet. Satan continues to roam the earth (1 Peter 5:8), and many of his demons are free as well, although some are confined to Tartarus (2 Peter 2:4).

A better understanding of Scripture is that while Jesus’ body was in the tomb, His soul / spirit ascended into heaven, where He remained until resurrection morning.

While not every evangelical agrees with this conclusion, clearly we may rule out hell or any further suffering for Jesus beyond the cross.

Next: Five difficult passages