An oil painting depicting Christ descending into Hell to take the keys of death from Hades.

Did Christ Really Descend into Hell? Really?

Posted On June 16, 2024 By Peter In

Over the years, especially every Good Friday, people ask me the question: “Where in the Bible does it say that Christ descended into hell?

If you grew up in a good Catholic or Lutheran church, chances are you were forced to memorize the Apostles Creed, which says: “[Christ] was crucified, died and was buried,” followed by the statement: “he descended into hell.”

Now, it’s important to point out that this phrase “he descended into hell” exists nowhere in Scripture. Even more importantly, this phrase didn’t even exist in the apostles Creed until around the mid-seventh century. All of the earlier versions of the apostles Creed stated that “Christ descended to the grave” – which is why I excluded the phrase when I preached through the Apostle’s Creed in our series, “This I Believe” in Fall 2017.

I’m not saying it didn’t happen! Indeed, the message of Christ’s victory was broadcast in one way or another. But, IF it happened, it certainly wasn’t to liberate righteous people from hell (which would create a boatload of complicated ethical complications).

Most people aren’t surprised to hear that medieval Catholicism started a lot of scriptural myths (things like Purgatory, Limbo, etc). Yet they simultaneously fail to see just how many of these myths still afflict people when they read their Bibles. For example, a lot of Evangelicals honestly believe that righteous people went to hell before Jesus died on the cross – (thus, creating the need for Christ to descend into hell). But, I’m about to argue that, this concept has very little basis in the Bible. And normally I’m quite tolerant of Christians having diverse interpretations about theology; however, there will be a giant amount of New Testament concepts that simply won’t make sense until we unravel some of these assumptions.

So, it begs the question, what does the Bible really teach? How did the Apostles Creed get this updated clause? And what are some of the common proof texts that Christians use to substantiate this?

Well, for starters, I want to remind you of the time when Jesus was on the cross. If you remember, there was a thief who realized that Jesus was the Christ. And in Luke 23:43, we read that Jesus said to him: “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).

Notice that Jesus did not say: “Hey, do you wanna descend into hell with me for a couple days?” He also didn’t say, “in three days, I’ll catch up to you in heaven.” Rather he said, “today.” And why? When Christians die, we go directly into the presence of the Lord (see the martyrs narrative in Revelation 6:9-11).

As the Apostle Paul puts it: “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” 2 Cor. 5:8. And specifically, Jesus used the term “Paradise” – the same term Paul used when he described being caught up to the third heaven in 2 Cor. 12:4 (where he “was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things.”) Thus, the expressions “today” and “paradise” are rather difficult to explain if we believe that Christ was just starting a descent into hell.

Then, where did this phrase come from in the Apostles Creed?

Theologian Wayne Grudem wrote:

“it is surprising to find that the phrase “he descended into hell” was not found in any of the early versions of the Creed (in the versions used in Rome, and the rest of Italy, and in Africa) until it appeared in one of two versions from Rufinus  in A.D. 390. Then it was not included again in any version of the Creed until A.D. 650. moreover, Rufinus, the only person who included it before A.D. 650, did not think that it meant that Christ descended into hell, but understood the phrase simply to mean that Christ was “buried.” [Thus] it was not in the Roman form of the creed that he preserved.” (Systematic Theology, P.586).

Some scholars argue that, this phrase was acquired through a translation error of the Greek word Hades (which can mean both “grave” as well as “hell” depending upon the context.) But this was merely one of many mythological beliefs that crept into the church during that era.

For example, Pope Gregory the first (in the 500’s) was notorious for taking many of St. Augustine’s theological hunches and turning them into doctrines — such as purgatory. After this doctrine became an economic backbone (to support Mediaeval power through indulgences), by the 1500’s, the papacy was desperate to find Biblical support – even to the degree where they added additional books to the Bible that simply didn’t belong (like 2nd Maccabees) – hence the addition of the Apocrypha to the Catholic Bible.

To put it bluntly, the Middle Ages were not the golden age of sound doctrine. Most medieval priests didn’t even know more than a few Latin prayers – let alone the Bible.[1]

Thankfully, throughout the Reformation, the Bible was finally translated into common languages – which enabled a larger swath of literate people to begin educating themselves. Yet, illiteracy still enabled many of these medieval Catholic myths to perpetuate. And I believe that one of those lingering ideas is Christ’s descent into hell.

Keep in mind, I’m not against the idea entirely (from a Biblical standpoint). But I think we need to be careful about this idea because it can subtly unravel your ability to understand entire books of the New Testament (like Galatians or Hebrews).

“But, what about the Bible texts that seem to teach this?”

Many people try to find biblical support for Christ’s descent into hell in the following five Bible texts: Acts 2:27; Romans 10:6-7; Ephesians 4:8-9; 1 Peter 3:18-20 and 1 Peter 4:6. However, a careful reading of these five Bible texts will reveal that, none of them are remotely conclusive of such a doctrine.

Allow me to take on two of the most commonly quoted passages: 1 Peter 3:18-20 and Ephesians 4:8-10.

DOES 1 Peter 3:18-20 TEACH THAT CHRIST DESCENDED INTO HELL?

“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. 19 After being made alive,[d] he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— 20 to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, 21 and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also…” (1 Peter 3:18)

Before we dive into this passage, let’s start by asking a greater question: Why in the world would Christ need to preach to people in Hell?

The Old Testament indicates that believers who died (before Christ’s death) still went on to be with the Lord (see Gen.5:24; Luke 16:22). As David put it: “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” (Psm 23:6) – not temporarily hang out in hell for a thousand years or so until Christ.

Indeed, the covenant of Grace (that had begun with Abraham) had already been active in the lives of everyone in the Old Testament who trusted God for his “righteousness through faith” (Romans 4:1-8). Christ wasn’t the beginning of the grace covenant; merely, he was the upgrade to the covenant (see Hebrews 9).

Secondarily, 1 Peter 3:18 does NOT say that the Spirit of Christ preached to everyone; rather, only, “those who disobeyed in the days of Noah.” So, why would Christ leave the cross and go all the way to hell to preach to such a specific group? Why not those who disobeyed in the days of Moses, or Ezra, or David? Why didn’t Christ go to those who “obeyed” as well (if Catholic theology is right)?

At some point, the careful reader will say: “There is no way Peter is talking about Christ descending into hell;” rather, Peter is merely saying: “The same Spirit of Christ, who’s been testifying throughout the ages, is desiring to redeem us as well.”

An alternate interpretation of this passage (based on the intertestamental book of 1 Enoch – which clearly inspired this section of scripture) suggests that, Christ descended into Hades to declare victory over certain principalities and powers – not to evangelize – which is a significantly more plausible interpretation to me for numerous reasons which I put into the footnote here.[2]

DOES EPHESIANS 4:8-10 TEACH THAT CHRIST DESCENDED INTO HELL?

Another text that some people try to make work (as evidence for Christ descending into hell) is Ephesians 4:8-10. And they particularly like how the New King James translation renders it:

When [Christ] ascended on high, He led captivity captive, And gave gifts to men.” (Now this, “He ascended”—what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? 

Ephesians 4:8-10 NKJV

But what does Paul mean by “the lower parts of the earth?” Does “lower parts” refer to hell? Or does this simply mean that “Christ descended to our lowly world” as the NLT translates it?

For starters, the Greek word, translated “earth” (Greek, Tes Ges) generally means, “the surface of the Earth” or the “place where human beings dwell”- the exact opposite word that one would use if they were attempting to refer to the underworld – in which case, they would likely use the Greek word hades. 

Some people believe that Paul was using this descending and ascending language to allude to the basic geography of Jerusalem. Allow me to quickly explain:

When kings went off to war, they had to descend down Mount Zion in order to fight. But then they would often do ornate victory parades as they ascended back to God’s holy city. Pilgrims also made this ascent (hence there are Psalms of Ascent). Thus, some believe that the apostle Paul was saying that, Christ, the king of Zion, descended to do battle with Satan and won. Yet, rather than ascending the hill of earthly Zion, he ascended into heavenly Zion.

So, with this in mind, allow me to approach Ephesians 4 in a more contextual way:

If we return to the beginning of the chapter, Paul is making an appeal for God’s people to get along with one another – to stay in unity with one another. And to accomplish this, God’s people need to acknowledge the various leadership gifts and roles within Christ’s church. These leaders are literally “gifts from God.”

Hence Paul starts out in Ephesians 4:7 “But to each one of us, grace has been given, as Christ apportioned it.” And then Paul quotes Psalm 68, yet he strikingly changes a word to make a point. But, before I explain this passage, let’s read it all the way through to verse 12.

Paul writes Ephesians 4:8-12 “This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.” 9 (What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? 10 He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) 11 It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12 to prepare God’s people for works of service…”

Paul begins this section by quoting Psalm 68 – a Psalm about God conquering Bashan. In the times of Christ, many Jews believed that Bashan was where elohim rebelled from God – leaving heaven to take human wives – thus joining Satan in his fallen state.

Some even believed Bashan was ground zero of an angelic rebellion (hence, some called it the “Gates of Hell.”) Thus, it’s the first place God had the Israelites march before the conquest of Canaan (see Og of Bashan Deut.3:1-11; Num 21:33-35). And Christ repeated this pattern in the New Testament (before his conquest of the cross) when he ascended the mountain of Transfiguration (near Bashan). Both of these acts were declarations of war against evil. And both ended with the conquest and ascension of Zion.

However, in Psalm 68, it says God “received gifts;” yet, when Paul quotes it, he adds a clever twist,

“He gave gifts.”

When Zion’s kings returned from war, they naturally came home with plunder to give away in Jerusalem. In a similar way, Christ’s conquest of the cross purchased people back for his purposes (2 Cor. 5:15). And after he ascended into heaven (Acts 1), he sent his Holy Spirit to descend (Act 2), giving gifts of apostles, prophets, pastors, evangelists, and teachers.

Unfortunately, a lot of Christians get lost in Paul’s metaphor and miss the entire point which was this: Christ is our victorious king, who purchased leaders – who now serve the church. And when we acknowledge these leaders, God’s people can finally become mature by avoiding bad teaching – (a point which is rather ironic in light of our conversation.)

So, in my opinion, there’s nothing in this passage that explicitly says, “Christ died, went to hell in order to preach to people, and/ or set them free before rising from the dead.”

However, if you approached this text already believing in this idea, one could, at the very least, see how people might interpret Paul’s Zion metaphor as an allusion to it. But, it definitely requires us to artificially insert it into this passage — not to mention, miss Paul’s greater argument.

Now, for the sake of time, I won’t go through each and every proof text listed above. However, in every case of the five texts mentioned above, none of them definitively uphold this mythological doctrine. All of them are an awkward fit that requires us to jam this concept into passages where it simply doesn’t exist.

Last, but not least, does it really matter?

Well, aside from making a mess out of the critical Old Testament Covenant of Abraham… I suppose not.[3] In the end, it’s probably more of a theological pet-peave of mine than it is a critical point of doctrine. I certainly wouldn’t burn anyone at the stake from your aunt Susie’s bible Study for wanting to believe it. And, if it was true, it would make that old song from Carmen more exciting! (Remember “the Champion” lol).

Some have theorized that, sometime after Christ’s death and resurrection, Christ descended into Hades to proclaim to the evil spirits that they have lost.[4] As strange as this sounds, I could see this type of descent as consistent with the teachings of scripture. But, the other type of descent – where God liberates righteous people and suddenly relocates a holding tank (called paradise or Abraham’s Bosem) into heaven, seems a bit far fetched from a scriptural standpoint.

At the end of the day, we don’t exactly know what Christ was doing between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. I’m imagining there was a full on coronation of sorts happening… perhaps similar to how Daniel described it in Dan 7:13-14?

But whether you agree with me or not I’m just glad you are seeking out the great and glorious Scriptures with me.

(For further reading, Wayne Grudem covers all of these Bible texts and more – Systematic Theology – Pgs 586-594).

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Historian, Rodney Stark proves that most priests didn’t know the 10 commands or even know the Lord’s Prayer (from Matthew 6). See, chapter 15, “The People’s Religion” – Defective Clergy (Pp. 260-261).

[2] If you’re interested in understanding the Apostle Peter’s obsession with “the days of Noah,” it’s critical you understand 1 Enoch and the Old Testament narrative regarding the Nephilim (beginning in Genesis 6 and culminating again with the story of Noah). Here’s a blog that does a great job summarizing the basic ideas: https://jaminbradley.com/2019/04/20/what-did-jesus-do-while-he-was-dead/

[3] A lot of Christians falsely think that righteous people in the Old Testament still went to Hades – which is why Jesus had to go there to liberate them. This is based on the old Catholic idea of limbo (the idea that God created holding tanks – like purgatory; paradise and limbus infantum – a place for babies). Thus, it’s critical people understand that, in the Old Testament, there was a covenant of Grace through faith – just like we have in the New Testament (called the Abrahamic Covenant). It was “Grace 1.0.” Thankfully, Christ upgraded the Abrahamic covenant through the cross. And if you’re curious, I have an entire message on how this worked called “How To Understand Covenants” from First Wednesday (March 2021) – https://youtu.be/29DnALqUh1w.  Or check out my more recent message: The Mountain View of Scripture” from June 16, 2024.

[4] Some people argue that 1 Peter 3:19ff is following the tradition of the books of Enoch – where Christ essentially explains the final defeat of the Nephilim – the rebellion started at Genesis 6. Many believe that demons are the spirits of departed Nephilim. And though a portion were allowed to roam the earth looking for hosts, many were locked up.

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