The Biblical Debate Surrounding Jesus’ Descent to Hell

Contributing Writer
The Biblical Debate Surrounding Jesus’ Descent to Hell

What did Jesus do after He died and was buried? Where did He go? According to the Apostles' Creed, "he descended into hell."  

Since Jesus did not descend to hell to preach the gospel, we can understand why many versions of the Bible prefer to translate 1 Peter 4:6 as "the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead" (NIV, emphasis added; also see the Amplified Bible, BSB, CSB, NET Bible, and NLT). If people face judgment directly after they die, then the dead in hell do not get another chance to hear and accept the gospel. They were responsible for responding to Christ in life, which applies to those alive during Old Testament times.          

We need to interpret Scripture by Scripture. The belief that Jesus descended into hell to preach to the dead does not match the teaching of other Bible verses. What does the rest of Scripture say about Jesus' death and what happened after He was placed in the tomb?  

On the cross, Jesus told the repentant and believing thief, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43, ESV). Jesus died that same day. Later, both thieves hanging on the crosses beside Jesus had their legs broken (John 19:32). They would have died shortly after, which aligned with what the Jews requested – not to have any bodies hanging on the crosses during the Sabbath (see John 19:31). Therefore, both Jesus and the believing thief died on the same day.   

If Jesus descended into hell after His death, then His statement to the thief is challenging to understand. Did Jesus mean that He would eventually see the believing thief in paradise, or only briefly before descending into hell? Christ insisted that the thief would be with Him "today" in paradise, which means that He went to heaven, not hell, during the interlude between His death and resurrection.  

Jesus bore our sins on the cross and endured the punishment we deserve to bring us salvation. As Hebrews 9:26 says, "he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself" (NIV). What He did on the cross is sufficient to pay for the sins of all who believe, including those alive in the past, present, and future.  

He did not have to go to hell to tell the people of the Old Testament about His redeeming work. The faithful of the past, such as Abraham, David, Esther, and Daniel, were saved by trusting in the Lord and looking forward to Jesus' saving work. When these individuals died, they went into God's presence in heaven because of their belief. The unbelievers during the Old Testament went to hell. They were condemned because of their unbelief, just as people are today (Hebrews 3:19; also see John 3:18).    

Jesus' death and resurrection have been and always will be the foundation for salvation.   

Although there are different views about what it means that Jesus descended into hell, we should allow Scripture to form our thoughts about this topic. Based on examining key verses in this article, Jesus did not sojourn into hell. However, He did go to Hades, the place of the dead, and went down to the earth when He was buried in the tomb.  

Let us rejoice that we have a Savior who fully identified Himself with us – even tasting death for our sake.  

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Sophia Bricker is a freelance writer who enjoys researching and writing articles on biblical and theological topics. In addition to contributing articles about biblical questions as a contract writer, she has also written for Unlocked devotional. She holds a BA in Ministry, a MA in Ministry, and is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing to develop her writing craft. As someone who is passionate about the Bible and faith in Jesus, her mission is to help others learn about Christ and glorify Him in her writing. When she isn’t busy studying or writing, Sophia enjoys spending time with family, reading, drawing, and gardening.