Does the Bible teach that Jesus Christ descended into hell when He was buried and before He rose from the dead on the third day? If not, then where does this idea come from?
The Apostles Creed
“I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; He descended into hell; on the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty; from there He will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.”
The Apostles Creed was not written by the apostles. Biblical scholars agree that this creed was developed sometime between the second and ninth centuries. The earliest form of this creed was written around A.D. 340 by church leaders to summarize the teachings of the apostles. In his commentary on the Apostles Creed, Rufinus of Aquileia (A.D. 354-410) noted that the phrase “He descended into hell” was not used in the church of Rome or the Eastern churches, but was used in his church in Aquileia. This statement was not new to Christian doctrine at the time, but Rufinus was the first to mention it. This phrase was eventually added into The Apostles Creed in A.D. 650.
What does “He descended into hell” mean?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 632) teaches that Jesus “sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to His resurrection.” This catechism points out the Jesus “descended there as Savior” and preached the good news to the spirits imprisoned there (1st Peter 3:19). Some take this phrase to mean that Christ suffered the pains of hell while on the cross. But the creed makes it noticeably clear that Christ descended into hell after His death and before His resurrection.
One or more of the following five passages – Acts 2:27, Romans 10:6-7, Ephesians 4:8-10, 1st Peter 3:18-20, 1st Peter 4:6 – are used to support the idea that Jesus descended into hell while in the grave.
Acts 2:27 – “Because You will not abandon my soul to Hades, Nor allow Your Holy One to undergo decay.”
Peter is citing Psalms 16:10 – “For You will not abandon my soul to Sheol; Nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay.”
The word Hades in Acts 2:27 is the name of the underworld, the place people go after they die. Depending on the context it could mean a place of torment as in Luke 16:3 – “In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom.” It could also mean the grave as shown in Acts 2:31 – “he looked ahead and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that HE WAS NEITHER ABANDONED TO HADES, NOR DID His flesh SUFFER DECAY.”
The word “Sheol” in Psalms 16:10 is also the underworld, the place where the dead are. It is often used in the Old Testament in reference to the grave (Genesis 37:35, 42:38; Numbers 16:30, 33; Job 7:9, 17:16).
Unlike the patriarch David, who “died and was buried” (Acts 2:29) and whose body underwent decay – “his tomb is with us to this day” (Acts 2:29), the body of Jesus Christ did not undergo decay in the grave. He rose from the grave on the third day.
The context of Acts 2:27 and its surrounding context (Acts 2:14-36) does not teach that Jesus descended into hell.
Romans 10:6-7 – “But the righteousness based on faith speaks as follows: “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).”
Paul is citing two rhetorical questions using an Old Testament quotation found in Deuteronomy 30:12 – “It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’”
There is nothing in this passage that teaches Christ descended into hell. The point of this passage is that Paul is telling his audience not to ask these questions because Christ is near, not far away. Faith resulting in salvation is as near as confessing with your mouth Jesus as Lord and believing in your heart that God raised Him from the dead (Romans 10:9-10).
Ephesians 4:8-10 – “Therefore it says, “When He ascended on high, He led captive a host of captives, And He gave gifts to men.” (Now this expression, “He ascended,” what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, so that He might fill all things.)”
Paul cited two Old Testament passages:
Psalms 68:18 – “You have ascended on high; You have led captive Your captives; You have received gifts among men, Even among the rebellious also, that the Lord God may dwell there.”
Isaiah 44:23 – “Shout for joy, O heavens, for the Lord has done it! Shout joyfully, you lower parts of the earth; Break forth into a shout of joy, you mountains, O forest, and every tree in it; For the Lord has redeemed Jacob And in Israel He shows forth His glory.”
The word ‘earth’ is the Greek word gē. It is mentioned 250 times in 223 New Testament verses. It means earth, ground, land, soil. It’s Hebrew equivalent, as used in Isaiah 44:23, has the same meaning. The word ‘hell’ is the Greek word geenna (Gehenna). It refers to a place of fiery punishment for the wicked dead. The phrase “the lower parts of the earth” is not referring to hell.
The word ‘descended’ is the Greek word katabaino. This word is found in John 3:13: “No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man.” This word is also used in John 6:38 (‘come down’): “For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.”
This passage does not teach that Jesus descended into hell. Paul is saying that the Christ who ascended to heaven is the same one who earlier descended/came down from heaven.
1st Peter 3:18-20 – “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water.”
This is the most problematic passage for many people who are led to believe Christ descended into hell. Here are four interpretations of this passage:
Christ went into hell and proclaimed the gospel to the spirits that were there, thus offering them a second chance to repent.
The problem with this view is that scripture does not teach a second opportunity for repentance after death. The story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 clearly teaches that the rich man in Hades, being in torment, cried out to Father Abraham to have mercy on him. But there was a chasm between Abraham and the rich man that no one could cross. Hebrews 9:27 states that “it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgement.”
Christ went into hell and proclaimed that he had triumphed over them and that they were eternally condemned.
The overall context of 1st Peter 3:14-22 is proclaiming the gospel to hostile unbelievers. 1st Peter 3:15-17 states “but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame. For it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong.” There is nothing in the surrounding context that teaches Christ preached in hell!
Christ went into hell to proclaim condemnation to fallen angels/demonic spirits.
Peter was emphasizing hostile people, not demons, in 1st Peter 3:14-22. There is no mention of angels sinning “in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark” (Genesis 6:1-22). In Genesis 6:13 “God said to Noah, “The end of all flesh has come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence because of them; and behold, I am about to destroy them with the earth.” And in verse 17 God said “Behold, I, even I am bringing the flood of water upon the earth, to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life, from under heaven; everything that is on the earth shall perish.”
Fallen angels/demonic spirits do not have bodies made of flesh nor do they have the breath of life in them. Only human beings have these attributes.
Christ went into hell and proclaimed release to Old Testament believers who had been unable to enter heaven until the redemptive work of Christ on the cross was complete.
Scripture does not teach that Old Testament believers were not able to enter heaven until the redemptive work of Christ was completed. Here are several passages that suggest Old Testament believers, who had their sins forgiven and who trusted in the Messiah who was to come, entered into the presence of God when they died.
Genesis 5:23-24 – “So all the days of Enoch were three hundred and sixty-five years. Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him.”
Psalms 17:15 – “As for me, I shall behold Your face in righteousness; I will be satisfied with Your likeness when I awake.”
Psalms 23:6 – “Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
Ecclesiastes 12:7 – “then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it.”
Matthew 22:31-32 – “But regarding the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”
Luke 16:22 – “Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried.”
The context of this passage refers to what the preincarnate Christ (the Lord in the Old Testament) did “when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark.”
Noah was “five hundred years old” (Genesis 5:32) when he “found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (Genesis 6:8). Scripture also records that “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his time; Noah walked with God” (Genesis 6:9). Noah constructed the ark over the next one hundred years. While Noah was building the ark, the Lord was preaching (“made proclamation”) through Noah to those who “were disobedient.” Noah did “all that God had commanded him” (Genesis 6:22). He “was six hundred years old when the flood of water came upon the earth” (Genesis 7:6).
There is no evidence in this passage that supports the idea that Jesus descended into hell. Those who the Lord “made proclamation” to while the ark was being built by Noah perished in the flood. Their spirits are “now in prison.”
1st Peter 4:6 – “For the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead, that though they are judged in the flesh as men, they may live in the spirit according to the will of God.”
“Those who are dead” is referring to those who “have carried out the desire of the Gentiles, having pursued a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousing, drinking parties and abominable idolatries” (1st Peter 4:3). They are spiritually dead.
Ephesians 2:1-3 remind us that we were also spiritually dead in “trespasses and sins.” We “formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience.” Additionally, we “formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.”
Having believed the gospel of Christ, we were “sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise” (Ephesians 1:13) and indwelled by the “Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead” (Romans 8:11). Thus, we are able to “live in the spirit according to the will of God.”
It is clear from the context that this passage does not teach that Jesus descended into hell.
The Bible DOES NOT teach that Jesus descended into hell after he died and was buried. However, the Bible does teach that Jesus went to Paradise after He died.
Luke 23:39-43 – "One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” But the other answered, and rebuking him said, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? “And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!” And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”
The word ‘today’ in the Greek is sēmeron which literally means this day as distinct from yesterday or tomorrow. The word ‘Paradise’ in the Greek is paradeisos which refers to the place where the blessed or righteous go after death. Jesus entered into Paradise after His death on the cross. Jesus cried out before taking His last breath “Father, INTO YOUR HANDS I COMMIT MY SPIRIT” (Luke 23:46). Not only did Jesus enter into Paradise, He placed Himself into the hands of His Father who is in heaven.
"Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth"
2nd Timothy 2:15
All scripture cited in this post is taken from the New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update