Throughout centuries, a hot button topic has arisen in the Christian church. This topic regards the question, did Jesus descend into hell? There are schools of thought that say He did and others that disagree. There is no clear answer to this question in scripture, but, as you study deeper there is a better understanding to be had.
Christianity is a religion that has always undergone scrutiny in some parts of the world. To combat this, kings, emperors, and rulers have convened councils to discuss the issues and resolve contingencies. The result of these councils has been a group of creeds that were statements of faith. Scripture and theologians of the day were referenced to develop these creeds.
The two most well-known creeds in the Christian church are the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed. Both creeds state similar beliefs, but the one major difference is the statement “he descended into hell” found in the Apostles’ Creed.
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Where Did The Idea of Jesus Descending to Hell Originate? And Did Jesus Descend to Hell?
The Apostles’ Creed is an expanded version of the Old Roman Creed that was being used as early as the second century. Scholars are not exact on the reasons for creating the Apostles’ Creed. Early church leaders believed the creed was written by the apostles themselves, but we don’t really know.
This statement that Jesus descended into hell is believed to have been added later, around AD 390. This would have been at the same time a bishop named Apollinarius was teaching. He was stating that Jesus was not fully human, therefore, could not be an effective sacrifice for the sins of mankind. At the Council of Constantinople in AD 381, this doctrine was condemned.
There are several thoughts as to why this statement is not in the Nicene Creed. The Nicene Creed was developed at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. Emperor Constantine gathered church leaders to create a statement of faith in response to the teachings of a man named Arius. Constantine wanted the Christian church to have a statement of faith that would unite each denomination. This would have been before the addition in the Apostle’s Creed.
Beyond the development of these creeds is the scriptural references that are viewed as evidence that Jesus descended into hell. Most scholars use 1 Peter 18-22 as scriptural evidence to stand upon. This reference along with Ephesians 4:9 develops the understanding that Jesus may have descended into hell after his death on the cross.
Understanding the Language and Meaning of the Apostles Creed
Understanding the text of a document is extremely important. A person must know what the language is and what the words of that language mean. If there is a misunderstanding, the entire meaning of a document or statement can change. Christians and scholars today must understand that documents from the early church are written in languages that can be hard to translate. When we begin to translate Hebrew or Greek into English, we must be careful.
Hell is referred to in the Old Testament with the Hebrew word Sheol. This word means hell, but it refers to the present Hell. The understanding that those who have died in their sin and are lost will immediately enter this place upon death is what the word Sheol describes.
The reference to hell in the Greek is found in the New Testament. Since the Apostle’s Creed was originally written in Greek, we will focus closely on this language. Translating Greek into English is difficult because two words describe the “abode of the dead.”
The word in Greek that speaks of the place of hell is “Gehenna.” This word describes a final retribution or physical place. The Apostles Creed does not use this word.
In the Apostle’s Creed, we find the statement “he descended into Hell” using the Greek word “Hades.” The word Hades, in Greek, refers to the state of death. It could be translated as “descended to those below.” It does not refer to the place we recognize today as hell – it refers to the physical state of death.
Theological scholar Kenneth West explains this in the following statement regarding 1 Peter 3:18-22.
“It is clear that our Lord as the man Christ Jesus went to a place of the departed dead called in the Old Testament ‘Sheol’ and in the New Testament, ‘hell,’ the word ‘hell’ being the translation of the Greek word ‘Hades.’”
Modern churches have changed the meaning of the words in the Apostles Creed. This is a change that happened as time marched forward. Words in the English language began to have different meanings than their earlier counterparts. Specifically, the word hell began to mean the place where Satan lives. In the languages of the Bible, this was not what hell was.
Today, we can find many churches that don’t recite the Apostle’s Creed. The ones that still do often leave out this phrase.
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Did Jesus Descend to Hell?
The events immediately following Jesus’ death are recorded in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Each account gives a vivid and clear explanation of these events.
In Matthew 27:50-53 we read that Jesus cried out and gave up His spirit. Then the curtain of the sanctuary fell down and the earth shook. Rocks were split and the tombs of the saints opened up.
Mark 15:38 says “Then the curtain of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom.”
Luke 23:44-45 states “It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three, because the sun’s light failed. The curtain of the sanctuary was split down the middle.”
Matthew’s account is the most vivid of the three. In his description, he shares with readers about the earthquake and darkness that was prophesied by Daniel, Elijah, and Zechariah. Even more importantly, Matthew shares that the veil was torn.
The tearing of the veil is mentioned in all three accounts and speaks to the importance of this event. The veil was the separation of the clean and the unclean. It hung in the Temple over the entrance to the Holy of Holies. This place was so holy that no one could enter except the high priest.
In Exodus 26 we learn that on the Day of Atonement, Aaron could enter and place the blood on the atonement seat. The Israelites could not come into the presence of the Lord just anytime. This speaks volumes about the tearing of this veil.
Did Jesus descend to hell?
Jesus’ death and resurrection meant that no longer did we have to go through rituals or prepare sacrifices to enter into God’s presence. The ultimate sacrifice had been made. Everything spoken of by the Old Testament prophets had happened.
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Why Do Some People Think Jesus Descended into Hell?
The belief that Jesus descended into hell is found in Christian churches today and many have questioned this. Some just cannot wrap their minds around this concept. Fr. Sev Kuupuo explains why Jesus did descend to hell and what the purpose of His descent was:
“Jesus went to Hell to liberate souls who have been held in prison. The task of Jesus in descending into Hell was for liberation of the Old Testament holy people. Some theologians explain that Jesus Christ went into Hell to experience the full rigor of suffering, which is the full impact for human sin, so as to give a comprehensive atonement for the sin of humanity.”
It is believed that the fulfillment of Jesus atoning for our sins could not happen without Jesus going into the place of Hell. He had to also rescue the holy people of the Old Testament that were awaiting Him in Abraham’s bosom.
R.C Sproul backs this thought up with his statement: “He goes to hell to liberate those spirits who, from antiquity, have been held in prison. His task in hell then is one of triumph, liberating Old Testament saints.”
In conclusion, those who do believe Jesus descended into hell, believe He went there to rescue souls and fulfill the sacrifice for our sins. It is not a belief that He went there and stayed awhile.
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Why Do Some People Believe Jesus Did Not Descend into Hell?
People who confess their belief that Jesus did not descend into hell have various arguments to prove their case. The most popular is that Jesus was God in flesh. He made the place we know as hell. He banned Satan from heaven to live in hell forever.
If God created hell and determined its purpose, then how could he go there? Wasn’t Jesus holy and in no way could enter this place?
Others have researched this and came to their conclusions based upon what they have learned. They have understood what this statement means. Jesus did descend to hell because this word in Greek means the place of the dead not the place of eternal damnation.
How Should Christians Respond to This?
This question can have many answers, and opinions will mold those answers. Christians today can struggle with what to do with this statement because they do not live in Greek society. They do not speak Greek. We just don’t know what certain words mean in Greek.
Our response should be to take the time to study the Word. Do some research into the Biblical languages. Ask questions of your pastor or fellow person in Christ. This will help you to understand and process something that is truly beyond our human comprehension.
John Jones of the First Presbyterian church states “no confessional statement should be affirmed without understanding what it means. Understood properly, the Apostles Creed affirms a very important doctrinal truth.”
The Apostles Creed has made a statement that is controversial for some Christians. The key to understanding this statement is to know what the words mean. We must take the time to study before we take a stand on something.
Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice. He was put to death on a cross. He did die and enter a place of the dead. The gloriousness of this is that he did not stay there. He rose again and will return.
Erickson, Millard J. "Introducing Christian Doctrine." 252. Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 1992.
Guertner, Daniel M. "The Veil Was Torn in Two." Desiring God. April 19, 2019. https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-veil-was-torn-in-two (accessed March 4, 2020).
Wuest, Kenneth S. Word Studies in the Greek New Testament. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1973.
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Ashley Hooker is a freelance writer who spends her time homeschooling her two children, ministering alongside her husband as he pastors a rural church in West Virginia, and writing about her faith. Currently, she is a contributing author for Journey Christian magazine. She has taken part in mission trips with the NC Baptist Men during the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey in Mississippi and Texas. In her local church, she has served on various committees focusing in the area of evangelism along with traveling to West Virginia and Vermont to share the Gospel. Her dream is to spend her time writing and sharing the love of Christ with all she meets.