Some versions of the Apostles’ Creed say Jesus descended into hell. Did he?
For centuries, Christians have proclaimed, “. . . he [Jesus] descended into hell . . .” Other versions of the creed say “the grave.”
Why do we say those words at all, and what are the implications of one versus the other?
This brief post is only an introduction to the matter. I’ll present the main relevant biblical texts, a brief overview of the primary interpretations, and a quick note about how I used Logos Bible Software to find this information.
Finally, I suggest resources for further study.
Bible verses about Jesus’ descent into hell
The main texts are Acts 2:31, Romans 10:6–7, and Ephesians 4:9:
[The patriarch David] foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption.
But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).
But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says,
“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
and he gave gifts to men.”
(In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth?)
Related texts are 1 Peter 3:19 and 1 Peter 4:6, which speak of Christ proclaiming the gospel to the spirits in prison (3:19) and the dead (4:6). There are several interpretations on these passages, some holding that the spirits in prison are not the same as the dead, but are actually “hostile angelic powers” to whom Christ proclaimed victory upon his ascension.1
Louis Berkhof, in his 1938 Systematic Theology, conveniently summarizes the dominant positions on the creedal expression “he descended into hell” (the last being his own):
(1) The Catholic Church takes it to mean that, after his death, Christ went into the Limbus Patrum, where the Old Testament saints were awaiting the revelation and application of his redemption, preached the gospel to them, and brought them out to heaven.
(2) The Lutherans regard the descent into Hades as the first stage of the exaltation of Christ. Christ went into the underworld to reveal and consummate his victory over Satan and the powers of darkness, and to pronounce their sentence of condemnation. Some Lutherans place this triumphal march between the death of Christ and his resurrection; others, after the resurrection.
(3) The Church of England holds that, while Christ’s body was in the grave, the soul went into Hades, more particularly into paradise, the abode of the souls of the righteous, and gave them a fuller exposition of the truth.
(4) Calvin interprets the phrase metaphorically, as referring to the penal sufferings of Christ on the cross, where he really suffered the pangs of hell. Similarly, the Heidelberg Catechism. According to the usual Reformed position, the words refer not only to the sufferings on the cross but also to the agonies of Gethsemane.
(5) Scripture certainly does not teach a literal descent of Christ into hell. Moreover, there are serious objections to this view. He cannot have descended into hell according to the body, for this was in the grave. If he really did descend into hell, it can only have been as to his soul, and this would mean that only half of his human nature shared in this stage of his humiliation (or exaltation). Moreover, as long as Christ had not yet risen from the dead, the time had not come for a triumphal march such as the Lutherans assume. And, finally, at the time of His death, Christ commended his spirit to his Father. This seems to indicate that he would be passive rather than active from the time of his death until he arose from the grave.
On the whole, it seems best to combine two thoughts: (a) that Christ suffered the pangs of hell before his death, in Gethsemane, and on the cross; and (b) that he entered the deepest humiliation of the state of death.2
R.J. Bauckham’s takes a similar view in his entry “Descent into Hell” in the New Dictionary of Theology: that the verses in question simply amount to saying that Christ “truly died,” and are not concerned with whether Christ descended into hell or not.3
Charles Hodge argues similarly in his systematic theology, saying that the word translated “hell” is one and the same as “grave”:
From the original and proper meaning of the Greek word ᾅδης, and the corresponding English word hell. Both mean the unseen world. The one signifies what is unseen, the other what is covered and thus hidden from view. Both are used as the rendering for the Hebrew word שְׁאוֹל (probably from שָׁאַל to ask, or demand), the state or place of the dead; the orcus rapax of the Latins. All the dead, the righteous and the wicked, alike go into the invisible world, or, in this sense, “descend into hell.” Hence to be buried, to go down to the grave, to descend into hell, are in Scriptural language equivalent forms of expression. (emphasis mine)4
So what’s the answer?
There are certainly traditions that hold that Christ somehow descended to hell in the sense of going spiritually to the underworld, but those are not without major objection (see Berkhof’s fifth point).
In fact, those theological challenges lead many interpreters (and from my brief study, it seems most) to hold that the verses and creedal confession affirm simply that Christ truly died and went to the grave.
It is also worth noting that this particular phrase wasn’t introduced into the creed until the fourth century, “and then not as a separate or distinct article, but as merely explanatory. ‘He was dead and buried,’ i.e., he descended into hell.”5
Think long enough about this doctrine, and you will see that it is shrouded in mystery, difficult to grasp “with reason and the five senses.”6
How did I find this?
I found this through a quick search using Logos’ Theology Guide tool (available in Logos 8 Silver and up). I typed in “hell,” saw the suggestion “Jesus’ Descent into Hell,” and clicked it, which loaded the following categories.
(I have to say, I love this tool.)
Where this topic rests within broader theological topics
If I wanted to, I could click on any of the categories above mine for more context. I also enjoy a simple introduction to the topic underneath the image.
I can hover over any of these references to read the whole passage, click them to load my Bible and see them in context, save all of them as a passage list, or open them all at once.
This is probably my favorite feature of the tool. There is probably a lot in my library on this topic, but Logos recommends the most relevant resources, including a monograph on a topic closely related to Jesus’ alleged descent into hell: Christ’s Proclamation to the Spirits: A Study of 1 Peter 3:18–4:16.
Systematic theology treatments
Logos also helpfully provides links to this topic in my systematic theologies.
For further study
Aside from consulting the resources footnoted, I suggest:
- Purchasing Logos Silver or above, which gives you the Theology Guide tool
- Grabbing the 1 Peter commentary from the renowned NICNT series. One endorser says of it, “Davids’ commentary . . . is particularly perceptive in its treatment of ‘the spirits in prison’ (3:19) [and] the preaching to those who have died (4:6).”
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- What Was Jesus’ Tomb Really Like? Explore a First-Century Tomb (Interactive)
- Mobile Ed: Jesus and the Resurrection Bundle (3 courses)
- Raised on the Third Day: Defending the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus
- Are You the One Who Is to Come? The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question
- The Final Days of Jesus: The Most Important Week of the Most Important Person Who Ever Lived
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- William Joseph Dalton, About Christ’s Proclamation to the Spirits: A Study of 1 Peter 3:18–4:6, pg. 64.
- L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 1938), 342–343.
- R.J. Bauckham, “Descent into Hell,” in the New Dictionary of Theology (InterVarsity, 1988).
- Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 2 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 616–617.
- The Book of Concord (1993)