Did Jesus descend into hell? (part 2)

Save us from the fire

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

In the previous column we addressed different views about where Jesus went between His death and resurrection.

Now, we briefly examine five New Testament passages that in some way touch on the subject. Keep in mind the most biblically faithful view: Jesus neither went to hell (Gehenna) nor to Hades (the temporary abode of the dead) but to heaven after His death.

Acts 2:27 – “Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption. “(KJV)

In this portion of Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost, he quotes from Ps. 16:10, a psalm of David and a Messianic psalm that Peter applies to Jesus.

The word translated “hell” in the King James rendering of Acts 2:27 is the Greek term Hades, which is similar to the Hebrew word Sheol. In both cases, it is a flexible term that most often refers to the temporary abode of the dead but can mean “grave.”

The New International Version (NIV) translates this, “Because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay.” This is preferable because the context emphasizes that Christ rose bodily from the dead as opposed to David, whose body is still there.

The Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) renders this passage, “because you will not leave my soul in Hades, or allow your Holy One to see decay.” This translation acknowledges that David’s soul went to Hades without assigning Jesus’ soul to the same place.

Rom. 10:6-7. Drawing from Deut. 30:13, Paul writes, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will go up to heaven?’ that is, to bring Christ down or ‘Who will go down into the abyss?’ that is, to bring Christ up from the dead.” (HCSB)

Paul uses the term “abyss,” which the Septuagint applies to the depths of the ocean, but it also may refer to the realm of the dead.

This passage, however, does not teach that Christ descended into hell, or even into Hades. As theologian Wayne Grudem writes, “The point of the passage is that Paul is telling people not to ask these questions, because Christ is not far away, he is near, and faith in him is as near as confessing with our mouth and believing in our heart.”

Eph. 4:8-9 – “For it says: When He ascended on high, He took prisoners into captivity; He gave gifts to people. But what does ‘He ascended’ mean except that He descended to the lower parts of the earth?” (HCSB)

Those who use this passage to assert that Jesus went to the underworld after His death insist that the phrase “lower parts of the earth” is a reference either to Gehenna or Hades.  However, neither term appears in the Greek text.

A better understanding of this passage is that Jesus descended from heaven to earth in the Incarnation, thus becoming “like His brothers in every way, so that He could become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17 HCSB).

1 Peter 3:18-20 – Peter tells us in verses 18b-19 that Jesus, “after being put to death in the fleshly realm,” was “made alive in the spiritual realm. In that state He also went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison who in the past were disobedient ….” (HCSB)

There are many interpretations of this passage, including: (1) Jesus descended into hell either to proclaim damnation to the lost or to offer them a second chance; (2) Jesus entered prison where some demons are held to announce their defeat.

A more likely meaning is not that Christ went to the underworld after His death; rather, while Noah was building the ark, the eternal “spirit of Christ” spoke through him to declare salvation and judgment (v. 20).

1 Peter 4:6 – “For this reason the gospel was also preached to those who are now dead, so that, although they might be judged by men in the fleshly realm, they might live by God in the spiritual realm.” (HCSB)

This verse seems best understood in the sense of the gospel being preached to people who once were alive but since have died. This would comfort Peter’s readers concerning their Christian friends who had passed away. The gospel did not spare them from physical death but saved them from final judgment.

In summary, from a biblical perspective, it seems reasonable to conclude that while Jesus’ body was in the tomb, His soul / spirit ascended into heaven, where He remained until resurrection morning.