Have you ever spoken the following words?
I believe… and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary, Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was crucified, dead, and buried: He descended into hell; The third day he rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. (The Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer).
You very well might have shared in this communal profession known as the Apostle’s Creed. This is only one excerpt from the creed, pertaining specifically to Jesus. Some traditions, of a low church distinction generally do not adhere to the recitation of this confession. However, many Christians around the world do share in this statement. Personally, I share in this prayer fairly regularly as I often follow the Episcopal (Anglican) Book of Common Prayer for morning devotions.
It seems like a perfectly pleasant creed with which none of us could disagree. Until we get to one line: “He descended into hell.” What? He descended where? I never thought twice about this statement until I began studying the Bible more intently in college. So we have been professing that Jesus descended into hell? I began to question whether this was an accurate biblical doctrine. Where does this idea come from? Does the Bible really indicate that Jesus entered hell over the weekend before he raised from the dead?
So here is the basic truth: it’s not biblical. I can give you a list of verses that people try to proof-text to endorse this concept, but they’re simply being misused. Jesus did not descend to hades (one Greek word used to describe hell). Read the four Gospel accounts related to the period of time between Jesus’ death and resurrection: Matthew 27–28, Mark 15–16, Luke 23–24, and John 19–20.
In fact, Scriptures seem to specifically indicate to us that Jesus actually did not enter hades. In a message that Peter gives in Acts 2 he indicated that Jesus’s soul was not abandoned to hades (vv. 29–32). So you might be saying, “That section doesn’t indicate that Jesus didn’t enter hades.” You are correct. In v. 24 it indicates that Jesus was freed from death. The word here in Greek is thanatos meaning simply death. But later, when Peter quotes a psalm of David the word hades is used to describe that place to which Jesus’ soul was not abandoned. So here is what we know: Jesus died and was freed from this death, meaning he was resurrected. However, it seems to appear as though his soul and even his body never entered hades or hell as we understand it.
Some people attempt to use I Peter 3:19–20; 4:6 to prove the point that Jesus descended into hell. However, neither of these sections use the word hades. They do use the words dead and prison, but some scholars view this passage to be a figurative understanding of dead. If we are to use a literal interpretation of these sections, we have some other theological issues we need to address, such as post-mortem evangelism – the belief that those who have already died can choose to follow Jesus in the afterlife.
Modern versions of the Apostle’s Creed use the phrase “he descended to the dead” in lieu of the “hell” which I much prefer. So why does this matter so much to me? Honestly it matters because it affects the way we understand Jesus, our Christology. If Jesus went to hell, we have to ask the question: Why did he enter hell? Did he go to hell because all people go to hell? Did he go to hell because he was deserving of hell? Did he go to hell because he was atoning for humanity’s sins? If we continue to use the word hell, I believe we spend a lot of time working out complex systematic theologies that we don’t need to work out. If we settle with the fact that Jesus died, was in the grave, was raised from the dead and through his resurrection he had victory over death, we don’t have to address all of those messy questions.
Because Christian orthodoxy seems to conclude that there are two places of eternity: heaven and hell we have to be careful to not make Jesus go to a place that the text never indicates. Perhaps we have misunderstood a complex taxonomy of eternal places and that adds to our confusion. That is a conversation for another day.
Jesus descended to the dead and on the third day he rose again. I am very content with that statement. Jesus declared victory over death and he didn’t need to go to hell to do.