During the summer months at HCC our sermon series is on the Apostle’s Creed. This past Sunday (6/22) our study included the Creed’s most controversial phrase, “Jesus descended to the dead,” or as some translations say, “Jesus descended into Hell.” What does that phrase mean? Does it indicate that Jesus endured further suffering after His death on the cross? Did Jesus literally take a trip to Hell in between His death and resurrection? Those are legitimate questions that need to be examined in the light of historical and biblical evidence.
The Evidence from History
Unfortunately, it is not an easy assignment to trace the history of the Apostle’s Creed. The reason for such difficulty is that the Apostle’s Creed, in contrast to other declarations of faith, was not approved by one Church council. Rather, it was progressively written between A.D. 200 to 750. This extended history makes it difficult to determine what should or should not pertain to the Creed. Nevertheless, there is some historical evidence as to the veracity of the phrase, “Jesus descended into Hell.”
Both church historian Philip Schaff and modern day theologian Wayne Grudem state that the phrase “descended into Hell” did not appear in any form of the Creed until around A.D 390. The first person to use it was Tyrannius Rufinus of Aquileia, who interpreted the phrase to mean that Christ was buried, not that He descended into hell. After that, the phrase did not appear in any other form of the Creed until A.D. 650. Those are important facts! Thus, to attribute the belief that Jesus literally took a trip to Hell from the Apostle’s Creed has a shaky foundation.
The important question, though, is not what the Creed says, but rather, what does the Bible say?
The Evidence from Scripture
The legitimacy of Christ’s descent into Hell is equally difficult to prove from the biblical evidence. There are five biblical passages used to support the idea that Jesus descended into Hell. They are Acts 2:27; Romans 10:6-7; Ephesians 4:8-10; I Peter 3:18-20 and I Peter 4:6. As we will see, these passages are not crystal clear. As a result, they have led to ambiguity and a diversity of opinion. There are three main forms of thought when it comes to interpreting this phrase…
- Jesus descending to Hell is a reference to the grave. It simply reiterates the fact that Jesus physically died.
- Jesus descending to Hell is a reference to a kind of spiritual death. When God turned His back on Jesus, He experienced spiritual separation from God the Father.
- Jesus descending to Hell refers to His descent into the Abyss to announce His triumph over the demons and to take the OT Saints from Abraham’s Bosom with Him to heaven.
Let’s take a closer look at several of the passages and attempt to arrive at a sound biblical conclusion.
Peter, in his Day of Pentecost sermon, references Psalm 16:10 and applies it to the resurrected Christ. Does it mean that Jesus entered Hell after He died? The context proves otherwise. Peter was speaking of Christ’s resurrection. The verse clearly states that God would not allow Jesus to remain in the grave. Death could not hold Him. His body would not decay. After three days He would overcome death.
In this passage Paul is dealing with the fact that only Jesus is qualified to give gifts to men. That qualification is based upon His having descended to the lower parts of the earth and then ascended to the heights of Heaven. Some interpret the lower parts as a reference to Hell, but the more logical reference is simply to His incarnation. Because He descended (His incarnation), He was able to ascend to the heights of Heaven (His exaltation).
I Peter 3:18-20; 4:6
Undoubtedly, this is the most challenging passage. Many hold that these verses teach the fact that Jesus went to Hell and preached to fallen angels. Along with this belief many hold that while there, Jesus released the Old Testament believers who had been unable to enter heaven until Christ’s work on the cross was done. Is that what this passage is teaching, though? Let’s take a close look at the context.
- Peter is making a parallel between the people of his day and those that lived during the days of Noah.
- Noah was used by God to preach the Gospel to the hostile unbelievers around him.
- The idea being that those who died in the flood, who were now in Hell, had the Gospel preached to them while they were still alive.
To arrive at the conclusion that Peter is speaking of Jesus’ descent into Hell necessitates that one ignore the context of the passage. It is much wiser to take the easier interpretation and conclude that Peter is referencing something that happened in Noah’s day rather than something that took place in between Christ’s death and resurrection.
As seen above, although there are a few New Testament passages that seem to support such a descent to Hell, there are many others that teach the contrary. For example, the words of Jesus on the cross teach otherwise…
- Jesus told the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43), indicating that when He died He immediately went into the presence of God.
- Jesus cried out, “It is finished” (John 19:30) suggesting that His work of atonement was now complete; a descent into Hell was not necessary.
- He cried, “Father into your hands I commend My Spirit” (Luke 23:46) implying that He expected to instantly be taken to Heaven.
Contemplating all of those factors, I suggest that the phrase “Jesus descended to the dead” or “Jesus descended into Hell” simply refers to the fact that Jesus died. His work on the cross was complete. He perfectly and completely finished the work His Father had given Him to do. That is the essence of the Gospel!
Grudem, Wayne. “Systematic Theology.” Zondervan, 2000. pp. 582-594
MacArthur, John. “The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Acts 1-12.” Moody Press, 1994. p. 66.
MacArthur, John. “The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Ephesians.” Moody Press, 1986. pp. 137-140.