A while back I was sent an email asking, “Did Jesus descend into hell while He was in the grave?” The sender of the email had a friend who tried to convince her that this doctrine was true. It was something she had never heard before and she was confused.
Did Jesus go to hell?
Must have missed that one in Sunday school.
Imagine the felt boards for that lesson.
This belief comes from the Apostle’s Creed—an early church statement of belief that does not appear in the Bible, therefore it is not Scripture—which states, “He [Jesus] descended into hell.” While the creed does state this it should be noted that a literal interpretation of the original Greek of the AC could be “He descended to the dead.” The Apostle’s Creed is a staple of liturgy for many denominations and also the Catholic Church so this is a significant issue.
The Apostle’s Creed is nice but I do believe that according to Scripture, this one point it preaches does not hold water.
Where the Apostle’s Creed and many believers are getting such an interpretation (ultimately a misinterpretation in my opinion) is most likely from Ephesians 4:9 (“he descended into the lower regions”) and 1 Peter 3:18-19 (“in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison”).
Ephesians 4:9 is not talking about Jesus going to hell because the “lower regions” mentioned are just an expression to show Christ’s humility in stepping down from the throne of heaven to become a lowly man, be beaten, killed on a cross, and buried. This is contrasted with Christ’s exaltation back into heaven as the King of kings. The context shows the contrast.
1 Peter 3:18-19 in some translations uses the word “preached” instead of “proclaimed” which can make this a confusing passage. Just looking at it logically, it would not make sense for Christ to preach the Gospel to those in hell because they cannot be saved (Hebrews 9:27). If Christ was preaching the Gospel, the passage would have used the Greek word, “euangelion” which is where we get the term evangelize and Gospel. But instead the passage uses the term “kerusso” which means “to proclaim.” Specifically in this context it means “proclaim victory.” Jesus in his glorious passage to heaven declared His victory to the demons opposing him (context shows they were demons and not humans suffering in hell, v. 20).
The dialogue probably went something like this:
Jesus: YOU LOSE! Set yo clock for Sunday, son!
WHAT ABOUT THE CROSS
The idea that Jesus went to hell while his body was in the tomb contradicts three statements Jesus made on the cross. Jesus said in John 19:30, “it is finished.” The only reason Jesus would need to go to hell would be to continue to pay the penalty for sins. But that penalty was being poured out while He was on the cross, hell on earth, as Jesus cried out in Matthew 27:46, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
The price was paid in full; His work, finished.
In my opinion, to say Jesus’ work on the cross was not finished is to diminish the horror and significance of the cross, something none of the New Testament epistles ever do (see 1 Corinthians 1:23; 2:2).
Finally, Jesus told the thief on the cross, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). It would not make sense for Jesus to actually be saying that only after he descended to hell, three days later raised from the dead, then he would be in paradise. Jesus meant what he said that day. He didn’t ask the thief to save Him a spot next to Abraham while Jesus tended to unfinished business.
Through my study of the Scriptures and with the help of scholars far smarter than I, I confidently believe Jesus was in paradise, not hell.
Check it out for yourself.
For further reading, see this short article by John Piper.