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.