Did Jesus Descend into Hell?

Did Jesus “descend into Hell”? We discussed this one Wednesday night in our Doctrinal Disciples class. Here is a summary of the issue.

A commonly held view is that Jesus descended into Hades between His death and resurrection. Its popularity stems from the statement “he descended into hell” in one version of the Apostles Creed affirmed in many churches. It also appears to be supported by some NT texts such as Ephesians 4:9 and 1 Peter 3:19. This view usually argues that Jesus emptied the compartment of Sheol/Hades that contained the OT saints, whom He then transferred to heaven (“he led captivity captive” Eph. 4:8).

First, a little history. The earliest form of the Apostles Creed (2nd century AD) did not contain this statement. It appeared first in a Latin text of the Creed in the 6th century AD (descendit ad inferos, “he descended into the lower regions”). From there it began to appear in Greek versions of the Creed and finally morphed into “he descended into hell” in the Middle Ages. This statement was not included in the more detailed Nicene Creed which dates from 325 AD. Thus it appeared in no creed before the 6th century AD. It may have been mentioned by some of the fathers, but it definitely was not a distinctive doctrine confessed by the early church. The view developed quite fully in the Middle Ages. The expression “the harrowing of hell” describes his supposed action in emptying hell of its righteous OT inhabitants. They were supposedly the ones on the other side of that “great gulf” between the righteous and the wicked. But if it was such an important aspect of our Lord’s saving activity, why did it develop so late in church history?

If someone asks me what happened to Jesus after his death, I simply quote what Jesus stated and leave it at that: “Father into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). Why is that so difficult to understand?

I suggest that this supposed two-compartment view of Hades owes its origin more to Greek mythology than to the Hebrew Scriptures, where nothing like this is ever mentioned. In the Greek view of the other world, there was a separate section called the “Elysian Fields” where the “good” pagans supposedly went after death.

There are a couple of NT texts that seem to imply such a descent. Closer examination, however, indicates that these texts can be understood differently. What does Ephesians 4:8-10 mean by saying that he descended to the “lowest parts of the earth”? The context is contrasting the incarnation and ascension of our Lord. In the above expression, “the earth” is better understood as a genitive of apposition. This simply means that “the earth” comprises the lowest parts of our Lord’s descent (from heaven). Does anyone really believe that this passage supports the idea that hell is a cavern inside the earth? The passage then states that he ascended and sent the Spirit and the gifts (Eph. 4:11-12). The captives he leads captive are believers that he leads away from satanic captivity to become his own captives! Nothing is said about emptying hell of OT saints.

The 1 Peter 3:19-20 passage is admittedly difficult, but since Noah is mentioned it is better to take the “preaching to the spirits” in prison as Jesus in spirit preaching through Noah to those disobedient people in his day who are now in the spiritual prison of hell because of their being judged. Again the context stresses Jesus’ atoning death (1 Pet. 3:18) and his resurrection/ascension (1 Pet. 3:22).

Furthermore, a better translation of the Hebrew of Psalm 16:10 and its Greek citation in Acts 2:27 is: “You will not abandon my soul to Sheol/Hades” (see the NASB translation). The promise was that Jesus would not go to Hell!

To prove the two compartment view of Hades from the story of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31) is making that passage teach far more than Jesus intended. Lazarus was in “Abraham’s bosom,” not in a second compartment of Hell! In other words, he was with Abraham, who was guided to glory following his demise. The OT does not offer an in-depth description of life after death, but the psalmist anticipated “glory.” See Psalm 73:24.

Jesus clearly told us that He would be in the Father’s hands in Paradise after His death (Luke 23:43-46), not in some shadowy compartment of Sheol/Hades! To elaborate that simple statement into more detail, as the “descent to hell” view does, seems to stretch the language of the NT beyond that which it allows.

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Brenda T's picture

This was an interesting presentation of the view that Jesus descended into hades at His death, but it didn't seem to match what I had recalled hearing about this view. The way I have heard it presented is that "hell" has been used in the N.T. for hades (Lk. 16, Acts 2), gehenna (Mt. 23), and tartarus (2 Pet. 2:4) and that each of those three places is different. Hades (which coincides with the O.T. "sheol" per Ps. 16:10 & Acts 2:27) is the place for spirits (or souls) of the human dead. The use of the word "abandon" or "leave" (depending on the translation) in Acts 2:27 & 31 comes from a Greek word meaning "to leave behind, forsake, or abandon" therefore whether a translation uses "leave" or "abandon" it still means the same thing: Jesus was not "left" or "abandoned" in hades. Those two words are synonymous according to the Greek word that they come from. The promise, therefore, was that Jesus would not remain in hades.

As far as the "compartment" aspect of the view, this is drawn partly from Luke 16 because there is a great gulf or chasm between "Abraham's bosom" and the "place of torment." The rich man went to hell/hades and in this place of torment he saw Abraham and Lazarus afar off (but also in hades). Some who hold this view say that "paradise" as referred to in Lk. 23:43 is the same place as "Abraham's bosom" which was in hades (according to Lk. 16).

As for the "descending into the earth" aspect of the argument, they would demonstrate that before Jesus' resurrection and ascension people's souls are described as going "down" to hades or sheol (Mt. 11:23; Lk. 10:15) but that is not referring to a shadowy cavern in the earth, rather, it is a "nether world" sort of place. After Jesus' ascension the righteous are described as going "up" because Jesus was now in heaven (not hades).

As for this quote:

Jesus clearly told us that He would be in the Father’s hands in Paradise after His death (Luke 23:43-46),

That passage says Jesus told the criminal he would be with Him in paradise and that Jesus was committing His soul to His Father's hands to do with as He saw fit, but it doesn't seem to indicate that Jesus was going to reside in His Father's hands or that those hands were in "paradise."

Just thought I'd throw out the opposing view as I have heard it presented.


Wayne Wilson's picture

Good thouthts, Brenda.

Sean Fericks's picture

I think this has somewhat to do with the etymology of the English word "hell".  http://sharperiron.org/forum/thread-use-of-word-hell-kjv  It has even more to do with the definition of "sheol".  Do we define the OT "sheol" by citing NT usages of "hades", or do we re-define the Greek mythical "hades" and "tartaro" by citing the OT use of "sheol" along with the Hebrew NT use of "gehenna"?  Or, should we attempt to look at each word separately?


In addition to this discussion, perhaps somebody go the the link below and give me a bit more help on my questions posted there: http://sharperiron.org/forum/thread-help-with-eternality-of-persons-hell

Huw's picture

''I AM the first and the final: he that liveth, and became dead;and, behold I am alive unto the eons, Amen; and have the keys of hades and death''.

The  Saviour I worship has conquered death and hades so that I don't have to face either. If your saviour has not conquered either then you have both death and hades to look forward to. 


Brenda T's picture

Sean, I'm not sure if this answers one of your questions, but the word "hell" in Psalm 16:10 is sheol in the Hebrew. In the LXX I believe it is translated as hades. Acts 2:27 is viewed as quoting from Psalm 16:10 and the word for "hell" in that Acts verse is hades in the Greek. That's how people arrive at the sheol = hades when referring to those two passages that both use the word "hell" in English.

Aaron Blumer's picture


If we're going to claim an assertion is Bible doctrine, the burden falls on us to show that the Bible teaches it. So a doctrine fails that standard if only a couple of passages exist to support it and these can be quite easily understood differently.

(Holding the keys is probably meant to emphasize that He controls who goes in and who stays in.)

FWIW, I'm not persuaded that Sheol consistently refers to an actual place at all, but rather a state of being. It's truly a fascinating study to look at the wide variety of ways the term is used in the OT.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Huw's picture

Sheol, Hades noun:  sheol Strong's 7585 hades Strong's 86, literally, the unseen; sheol is a transliteration of the Hebrew; hades is a transliteration of the Hellene, which is a transliteration of the Hebrew; both refer to a temporary abode of the body and soul.


''So a doctrine fails that standard if only a couple of passages exist to support it'' and where, pray, did you get that from Mr Blumer?

Marsilius's picture

This subject is actually quite a large one. Fortunately, no one loses their orthodoxy by having a differing view. For the OT view of Hell or Sheol, or what happens to saints and sinners after they die, there is actually a lot that is said. Likewise, various Christians have believed in the two-compartment theory of Sheol going at least all the way back to Irenaeus (AD 170).

1) The passages in 1 Peter really are difficult. I am not going to fuss a lot with someone who has a different view than mine. Martin Luther believed that Jesus descended into the place of the damned after his crucifixion (well, sorry I brought that one up. That's harder for me than 1 Peter 3!).

2) When the OT speaks about where the dead are, with few exceptions it is downward. The exceptions are Enoch, Elijah, and Psalm 73:23, speaking of a future time. That is about it.

3) Where did two compartments come from? Saying Bible believers borrowed it from the Greeks is pretty simplistic. The Egyptians, the Canaanites, the Assyrians, and really most NE peoples of the time of the OT believed that the dead went to the Netherworld. They also believed in a separation of the righteous and unrighteous in the afterlife. Among the Egyptians, the righteous went to Dat, in heaven (they could even tell you precisely at what physical point Dat was in heaven). People back then did not just have vague ideas about where dead people's spirit's went. So you are telling me that the Jews sort of waited around until they learned Greek and got their hands on a copy of the Odyssey before they started thinking people have an afterlife existence under the surface of the earth?

4) Psalm 16:10 says, "You will not leave my soul (napheshi) in sheol." This is, of course, as Peter points out, about Christ. He is talking about his soul (the nephesh does not refer to dead bodies), not his body in sheol. If his soul is already in heaven, why does he even care about getting out of it?

5) When the witch of Endor used necromancy at Saul's bidding, she was shocked because a real person (spirit) showed up, namely Samuel. He came out of the earth (1 Samuel 28:13-20). OK, this one gets strange for some people. So ......... it wasn't really Samuel, it was a) this demon, who played like Samuel, wardrobe and all, acting like he came out of the ground, or b) this was a mirage created by God, so that Saul could get really terrified, or c) not just Saul, but most everyone was getting a little crazy by this time, or d) Dunno; let's move on.

6) Ezekiel 32:18 says "Son of man, wail over the multitude of Egypt, And cast them down to the depths of the earth, Her and the daughters of the famous nations, With those who go down to the Pit." In verses 3-5 the dead bodies of the Egyptian army lie in the open fields and streams to become carrion for birds. It is their souls that descend "to the depths of the earth." In v.31 Pharaoh awakens in hell, and sees the dead of other countries also in the depths of the earth. Sorry, I don't think that the Jews started allegorizing this passage until the 2nd cent. BC (Right! You guessed it: they swapped Homer for the Philosophers!). What Jesus says in Luke 16 about the rich man is not much different than this. My guess is that Jews, being familiar with so many OT passages, including this one, found nothing strange in Jesus' story of the rich man and Lazarus. It what they would have expected. They were only surprised by who went where.  


Conclusion: It isn't as easy to clear up this subject as it seems at first comment, but put me down as one who is at this point convinced that the present place of the souls of the damned is in the earth, and evidently the souls of (most of) the saints were in the earth in the past.

Aaron Blumer's picture


''So a doctrine fails that standard if only a couple of passages exist to support it'' and where, pray, did you get that from Mr Blumer?

You pulled only part of the sentence. If a doctrine is built on only a couple verses "and these can be quite easily understood differently." (Emphasis added)

This is not really a principle of biblical interpretation; it's a principle of argument on any topic. For example:

Claim: My dog knows how to do math.

Evidence 1: I said "What's two plus two?" and it barked four times.

Evidence 2: I said "How many pieces of this hotdog do you want?" and it barked once.

Both evidence 1 and evidence 2 are ambiguous (have readily apparent and simple alternative explanations). The claim is not adequately supported.

(In one of the supporting phrases in this case... It's easy to see the ambiguity of "abandon in some place" language. If my son said "You abandoned me at Walmart!" he might mean we were there and I left him behind or he might mean I brought him there, dropped him off and left. So if he says "You will not abandon me at Walmart" he might mean he's there and I won't leave him there, or he might mean I won't take him there and then drop him off and leave him there. So the language of not abandoning doesn't necessitate that the subject ever actually arrives at the location.)


About sheol, nephesh and "down"

I'm mostly agnostic about these matters, but I want to point out that death language tends to be metaphor heavy. For example, study how often death is referred to simply as "sleep" or "slept" etc. Should we conclude that it is in fact some some kind of sleep or derive a doctrine of an intermediate unconscious state because of this language? Or should we think "sleep" is just a really common figure of speech (perhaps sometimes euphemism and sometimes meant to convey the non-permanence of death)?

I suspect that a pretty reasonable case can be made that "down" is metaphorical in reference to she'ol, as is "pit" and some of the other terms associated (usually negatively) with afterlife. The ascension of Endor's "Samuel" coming "up" "out of the earth"... well, a spirit would not need to ascend at all, since it's non physical. Why would it need to enter the physical world at any particular geospatial point at all, much less along a path that relates in some way to gravity? Well, the truth is, we don't know how the physical world as we know it relates to spiritual realities. If there is something sort of like "space" in the realm of spirit, perhaps it relates to physical space as "down" or "up." Who knows?

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Marsilius's picture

True, Aaron, death language heavily metaphorical. So is any subject that is particularly sensitive. Everyone understands "I love you with all my heart." But only a very few unstable souls would use this and similar expressions to conclude there is no physical heart pumping blood in the body. There is even a sense in which all words are metaphors, since a word typically has to refer to a wide range of subjects. But let's go back to the sensitive, and to death and after. The fact that we say euphemistically, "We laid him to rest," does not eliminate the fact that we placed the remains of someone we know in the ground.  If we want to say that "down in the earth" is metaphorical, not actual, then we need to substantiate the assertion, rather than just say, "it is metaphorical." That is simply an easy out and nothing more. The metaphor "sleep" is in this sense testable. Jesus said of Lazarus, "Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up." (John 15:11) But prior to this, Jesus portrayed existence after death as involving immediate consciousness (Luke 16). This and other passages of Scripture make it plain, that there is no soul sleep after death. So Jesus spoke euphemistically. If "down," "in the earth," and "pit" relate to nothing at all spatial, then one needs to argue this linguistically and Scripturally.


The logic that something immaterial (such as a spirit) does not need to ascend at all, since it is non physical, is, I think incomplete. To say that spirits do not relate to, or move to geophysical points is highly problematic. If non physical beings do not need to move upward, then they do not need to move downward, or even sideways. Shall we say that non physical beings are actually immobile? And if so, immobile with relation to what?

Do you have a spirit? Is it within your physical being, or some place indeterminate? The Bible regularly says, "the spirit departed," or "the soul departed" when it speaks of someone dying. I hope that our spirits are inside of us, otherwise, life gets rather irrational. When the Holy Spirit left Saul, a demon came to torment him. When David played his harp, the demon left. Shall we say, that the demon was actually nowhere close to Saul at any time, since non physical entities do not need to move or relate to geophysical points? Jesus sent demons "out of" people. At one point he allowed them to travel into a herd of swine. Is this all simply metaphor? They asked not to be sent to "the pit." There we are again! They would be moved to "the pit" (really? they would move? down?, up?, left?, right? through the looking glass? who knows?) Angels, which are spirit beings descended and ascended upon Jacob. Is this pure metaphor? Is God's throne not up? Is earth not under heaven? The angels who announced the birth of Jesus arrived at a geophysical point: just outside of Bethlehem. When the angels who announced the birth of Jesus returned to heaven, where did they go? The Bible portrays spirit beings as doing lots and lots of movement to geophysical points.

It is true that spirit beings are not physically restricted like living humans (though they are restricted in other ways), but saying that they do not move, or have contact with anything physical, or arrive at geophysical points goes beyond what you can prove, or really even logically deduct. It also demands heavy lifting in biblical hermeneutics, of a nature that I doubt anyone to date has ever done.


Your turn.

Jay's picture

Brenda T wrote:
As for this quote:

Jesus clearly told us that He would be in the Father’s hands in Paradise after His death (Luke 23:43-46),

That passage says Jesus told the criminal he would be with Him in paradise and that Jesus was committing His soul to His Father's hands to do with as He saw fit, but it doesn't seem to indicate that Jesus was going to reside in His Father's hands or that those hands were in "paradise."

Just thought I'd throw out the opposing view as I have heard it presented.

That's pretty slick argument that Brenda quotes, but I have to admit that I'm not impressed with their argument because they acknowledge the verse but miss one of the critical terms in it.  I'll leave it up to the SI readership to decide if it's omitted deliberately or by mistake.  Here's the passage that they refer to, with the key word bolded:

But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

"Today" would seem to rule out any kind of decent into hades/sheol/hell for three days.

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

Brenda T's picture

Using the word "slick" gives implications that are not helpful to the discussion. The argument I presented (see my first comment) expressed that "paradise" is the same as "Abraham's bosom" which was in hades per Lk. 16. The word "today" in Lk. 23 has no bearing on their argument, because Jesus, at His death, had not ascended yet. 

Jay's picture

I'm not sure what Jesus's ascension into heaven has to do with Luke 23.  The penitent thief confesses that Christ is Lord and asks that Jesus remember him.  Jesus says that he will be in Paradise with Jesus that day.  That seems to be pretty significant and obvious to me.  Unless, of course, Jesus ascended and descended like some kind of "cosmic yo-yo" over a couple days.

The entire concept of a 'descent into hell' - based on three or four isolated verses that have been pulled from Scripture to support a creed from the 6th century - is enough to warn me off from that teaching.  But if you disagree with me, then that's fine.  More power to you.

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

Huw's picture

The promise ''this day thou shalt be with me in paradise'', was spoken by the omnipresent Son. See John 3:13...''which is in heaven''.

Brenda T's picture

Yes, Jesus said the thief would be with Him that day in paradise. Where was this paradise that He was referring to?

Also, the 3 or 4 verses I referenced were not used to support a creed, but rather a biblical position (held by some) that happens to also be mentioned in a creed.

Brenda T's picture

Sheol, the Old Testament word, is the place where all dead go, whether righteous or unrighteous. . . . This is why the rich man could see Lazarus in the parable (Luke 16:23). This is the context of Ps 16:10, and reflects David’s conviction that God will not abandon him to the realm of the dead. . . .  Hades . . (refers to) the realm of the dead . . .  ᾅδης was chosen as the primary translation of the Hebrew Sheol. . . . The NLT is agreeing with the NIV when it translates, “For you will not leave my soul among the dead.” That is certainly the point of the Psalmist and of Peter. - See more at: http://www.koinoniablog.net/2012/01/hell-hades-gehenna-and-the-realm-of-...

Greg Long's picture

Grudem has a section on this topic in Systematic Theology, p. 586-594, including a discussion of each of the passages that supposedly teach he descended into hell.

Greg Long, Ed.D. (SBTS)

Pastor of Adult Ministries
Grace Church, Des Moines, IA

Adjunct Instructor
School of Divinity
Liberty University

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