Did Jesus Descend Into Hell?

Michael A. Rydelnik
header for Did Jesus Descend Into Hell?

The idea that the Lord Jesus went to hell between the crucifixion and the resurrection has been around since ancient times. In fact, the Apostle’s Creed affirms this position when it says, “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; he descended into hell; on the third day he rose again from the dead” (emphasis added).

What Happened After Jesus Died?

The Scriptures actually teach that when the physical body of the Lord Jesus died, His spirit went to His Father immediately. One of several verses that supports this is Luke 23:43, where Jesus assures the thief on the cross: “Today you will be with me in paradise” (emphasis added). Paradise is the term used in first-century Judaism to describe what we call heaven. Here the Lord Jesus did not say He needed to descend to hell but that He would be in heaven and bring the thief with Him on that same day. Furthermore, the Lord Jesus was not merely saying He would be with the thief in paradise as a consequence of His own omnipresence as God the Son. Rather, He was telling the thief that they would be present together in heaven.

A second verse that teaches that the spirit of the Lord Jesus went to the Father immediately upon physical death is Luke 23:46. Luke records Jesus’ words at the point of death, saying, “Father, into Your hands I entrust My spirit” (HCSB). This indicates that upon death, although the Lord’s physical body would go to the grave, His spirit would go into the presence of His Father in heaven. Nowhere is there any mention of needing to descend to hell.

Some people believe that Jesus descended to hell only to proclaim victory over Satan, while some others believe that Jesus descended to hell to experience the suffering of humanity for sin. As for suffering in hell for us, John 19:30 demonstrates that He did not need to do this for us. That verse includes Jesus’ last words before His death: “It is finished!” In declaring this, the Messiah Jesus was not just saying that His life was over but that His suffering was complete. He did not need to go to hell to suffer; instead, His spirit would go to His Father immediately.

Resolving Questionable Passages

Ephesians 4:9

The belief that the Lord Jesus descended to hell between His death and resurrection is based on the misinterpretation of several passages. One passage is Ephesians 4:9, which states that the Lord Jesus “descended into the lower parts of the earth.” Some have interpreted Jesus’ descent to the “lower parts of the earth” as referring to His descent to hell. Yet there is nothing in the context to support this. Others see the descent as referring to the death of the Lord Jesus and His burial “in the lower parts of the earth.” However, this would not be an appropriate way to describe burial in a tomb.

The best interpretation is to view Ephesians 4:9 as a reference to the incarnation, when the Son of God became a man, not a descent to hell or to His burial. The phrase “lower parts of the earth” is called a genitive of apposition, a grammatical expression with two nouns, in which the second describes the first. An English example of this is “the city of Chicago” which means, “the city, namely Chicago.” So, the translation “he descended to the lower regions, namely, the earth” (NET Bible) better captures the meaning of Ephesians 4:9, showing it refers to the incarnation when the eternal Son of God became a man (cf. John 1:14).

Matthew 12:40

Second, Jesus’ words in Matthew 12:40 are mistakenly used to support His alleged descent to hell. There the Lord Jesus compares Jonah’s three days and nights in the great fish to His own burial, saying, “so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” But this verse says nothing of a descent to hell. Jonah is said to have descended to “the heart of the seas” (Jonah 2:3), so that “the great deep engulfed” him (Jonah 2:5). This is merely a reference to Jonah’s time in the water, likely before the great fish swallowed him, and not a reference to Jonah descending to the abyss or hell. Similarly, Jesus is merely describing the amount of time His body would be in the grave—He is predicting that He would be buried in the heart of the earth for three days. This comparison is not teaching a descent to hell.

John 20:17

A third passage that is frequently misunderstood is John 20:17 which records Jesus’ words to Mary Magdalene in the early morning of Resurrection Sunday. In the King James Version, the words of Jesus are, “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father.” This translation has led many to believe that the Lord Jesus was in hell from Good Friday until His resurrection and had not yet been in His Father’s presence. However, this is not at all what the words mean. The NASB captures the meaning best: “Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” This is not saying that Jesus’ spirit had not yet been to His Father, but rather that Mary should stop clinging to Him. Imagine Mary’s joy and excitement at seeing her risen Lord. She grabbed hold of Him and did not want to let go. The Lord Jesus tells her she could stop holding on to Him because His bodily ascension was yet future. In other words, Jesus is saying, “You can let go of me, Mary. I will be with you for the next 40 days because I have not yet made my final ascension to the Father” (cf. Acts 1:9–11).

Acts 2:27-31

Yet a fourth misinterpreted passage is Acts 2:27–31, a section of Peter’s sermon at Pentecost. There Peter quotes Psalm 16:10, a messianic Psalm predicting the resurrection of the Messiah. The psalm says the Messiah’s body would not be abandoned in Sheol (a Hebrew word that means the abode of the dead or the grave), nor would it undergo decay. Although the KJV incorrectly translated the word “Sheol” as “hell,” the better translation would be “the grave.” Similarly, the Greek word used in Acts 2:27 is “Hades,” leading some to think that Jesus descended to hell. However, Hades is just the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew term “Sheol,” and only means the realm of the dead. The point of Psalm 16:10 and its use in Acts 2:27–31 is to show that the Messiah Jesus did not decay in the grave but was resurrected from the dead. It says nothing of a descent to hell.

Romans 10:6-7

Fifth, some have mistakenly maintained that Romans 10:6–7 teach Jesus’ descent to hell. There Paul, quoting from Deuteronomy 30:12–13, forbids asking these questions: “‘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).” The word “abyss” means “the deep” and usually refers to the depths of the sea but it also is used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament to refer to the place of the dead (Ps. 70:20 LXX; 71:20 in the English Bible). Only in the book of Revelation is the word used to mean the abode of demons or the bottomless pit. In Romans 10:7 it refers to “the place of the dead” (NLT). The point in Romans 10:6–7 is that it is not necessary to try to bring Jesus near from heaven via the incarnation—that would be pointless because heaven is inaccessible to us and the incarnation has already taken place. Nor are we to go to the grave to bring Jesus close to us because the abode of the dead is inaccessible to us and He has already been resurrected. The Messiah Jesus is already near to us, as close as believing in Him and confessing faith with our mouths (Rom. 10:9). These verses are teaching about the nearness of Jesus to us by faith, not a descent to hell.

1 Peter 3:19-20

The last and most commonly cited passage about Jesus’ alleged descent to hell is 1 Peter 3:19–20. It says, “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.” Different interpreters have taken this to mean that Jesus descended to hell for three separate reasons: (1) Some say Jesus descended to hell to proclaim judgment to fallen angels; (2) Others believe Jesus descended to hell to proclaim judgment to lost people, specifically those from the days of Noah before the flood; or (3) Yet a third view is that Jesus descended to hell to liberate Old Testament believers from the abode of the dead.

None of these explanations fit the context of 1 Peter nor do they make much sense. First, it couldn’t have been to proclaim judgment to Satan and the other fallen angels because the passage is not discussing fallen angels. Rather it is referring to people who disobeyed in the days of Noah. Moreover, the passage speaks of God patiently waiting for the people in Noah’s day to repent, specifically saying that “the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah.” God never waited patiently for fallen angels to repent. Second, it can’t be about proclaiming judgment to lost people from the days of Noah. It doesn’t make sense that Jesus would descend to hell to proclaim judgment only to lost people from the days of Noah instead of to lost people from all time. Third, it couldn’t be to liberate Old Testament believers because the Scriptures nowhere teach that Old Testament believers needed liberation from hell (rather, like Lazarus, the Old Testament faithful went to heaven immediately upon physical death and were comforted there; Luke 16:19–31).

If this passage is not about proclamation in hell, to what does it refer? First, the word “spirits” refers to the immaterial parts of lost people from the days of Noah. The NASB rightly translates it “spirits now in prison.” They had been alive in the days of Noah but now were dead and their spirits were imprisoned awaiting final judgment. They had heard Noah’s preaching, calling them to repentance, back when Noah was building the ark. Noah was considered “a preacher of righteousness” in both the New Testament (2 Peter 2:5) and Jewish literature of the first century AD. Moreover, in context, it is saying that just as the Lord Jesus was raised in the sphere of the Spirit (1 Peter 3:18), similarly, through the Holy Spirit, the Lord Jesus preached through Noah. That is, Noah’s message to his contemporaries was through “the Spirit of Christ” (1 Peter 1:11), speaking through Noah as He did to ancient prophets. Simply put, this passage is actually saying that Jesus preached through Noah to people who were alive in the days of Noah but because they rejected Noah’s message, were now “spirits in prison” awaiting final judgment. This fits the context of the passage—Peter’s hearers were to proclaim the gospel boldly by Messiah’s power (1 Peter 3:14–17), just as Noah proclaimed salvation in ancient days.

Final Thoughts

There is no compelling biblical basis for believing in the descent of Messiah Jesus to hell between His physical death and resurrection. The phrase “He descended to hell” was not included in the earliest versions of the Apostle’s Creed. The Apostle’s Creed developed gradually from about AD 200 to 750. Rufinius is the first to use the expression in AD 390 but he most likely understood it to mean only that Jesus descended to the grave or was buried. Only in AD 650 was it included to mean that Jesus descended to hell.[1] Theologian Wayne Grudem says that the only argument supporting the doctrine that Jesus descended to hell is that it “seems to be the fact that it has been around so long. But an old mistake is still a mistake.”[2]

This is a reminder that the suffering and death of the Lord Jesus is all that is necessary for our atonement for sin. The Bible teaches that God’s attribute of righteousness required a payment for human sin. So God the Son became a man and died (and rose again) to pay that penalty. In this way, according to Paul, God can be both “righteous and declare righteous the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26 HCSB). The Messiah Jesus did not have to pay the debt further by going to hell in our place—His death alone was entirely sufficient for our forgiveness.

[1] Wayne Grudem, “He Did Not Descend Into Hell,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 34, no. 1 (March 1991), 104–05.

[2] Ibid., 112.

For Further Reading:

50 Most Important Bible Questions

by Michael A. Rydelnik

You’ve got Bible questions. We’ve got answers. The Bible is full of great truths for our lives . . . and also, if we’re being...

book cover for 50 Most Important Bible Questions