Belief that between his crucifixion and resurrection Christ descended into the abode of the dead, as confessed in the Apostles' Creed. Since the New Testament declares that Christ really died, it is to be assumed that he went to Sheol (Gk. "Hades"), the abode of the dead. This is affirmed by the many declarations in the New Testament (over eighty times) that Christ was raised from (among) the dead, and by apostolic allusions to this event. But not all scholars accept this part of the Apostles' Creed, and some liturgical books either omit it or allow for its omission in the recitation of the creed.
The descent into Hades is a common motif in ancient religions. The heroes or the gods descend into Hades to perform a rescue, to triumph over death, or as part of the recurring seasons of the agricultural year. But in the Old Testament there is no instance of a human descent to, and return from, the underworld. There is only the one instance of consulting the dead, when Saul summoned the prophet Samuel through the witch of Endor ( 1 Sam 28:3-25 ). This practice was condemned by the Law and the prophets.
Yet a descent into Sheol and return to the land of the living was the way in which the Old Testament described a near death experience ( Psalm 107:18 ; Isa 38:10 ). Only God was able to rescue them from death ( Psalm 9:13 ; 30:3 ; 86:13 ; Isa 38:17 ), since he is the one who "kills and makes alive" ( Deut 32:39 ; 1 Sam 2:6 ; 2 Kings 5:7 ; cf. Rom 4:17 ; 2 Col 1:9 ).
In the New Testament only Christ is said to have made such a descent into Hades and return to the land of the living. This corresponds with the uniqueness of his vicarious death and of his resurrection as an eschatological triumph.
Jesus himself used jon 2:6 to describe his death as three days and three nights in the heart (en te kardia) of the earth. This corresponded with contemporary Jewish representations of Sheol as the belly of the fish, when speaking of death and the world of the dead.
So also the apostles understood the death and resurrection of Jesus "according to the scriptures, " even as he instructed them ( Luke 24:46 ; cf. Acts 17:2-3 ; 1 Col 15:4 ). Peter quoted Psalm 16:8-11 when he declared that God had released Jesus from the pangs of death by resurrecting him. God did not abandon him in Hades; that is, he raised him from the abode of the dead ( Acts 2:24-27 ). Paul used Deuteronomy 30:12-13 and Psalm 71:20 in Romans 10:6-7 to explain the death of Christ as a descent into the abyss (tis katabesetai eis abusson) and the resurrection as a going up from (among) the dead (ek nekron anagagein). And the author of Hebrews (2:14-16) declared that just as Jesus shared fully in the humanity of Abraham's seed, so also he shared the entire experience of death, by which he destroyed the power of Satan.
Yet the New Testament does not elaborate on this descent into Hades, unlike imaginative apocryphal writings. It assumes the reality of an intermediate abode of the dead to which Christ went after the parting of his soul from his body. Hades, then, is a reference to the general abode of the dead. Or it may reflect a developing understanding in contemporary Judaism that there was a distinction between the abode of the unrighteous dead (Hades) and the abode of the righteous dead (cf. the bosom of Abraham, Luke 16:22-23 ). The latter was also referred to as paradise ( Luke 23:43 ), and was understood by some to be located in the heavens.
The significance of this is that the New Testament does not identify Hades as the place where Christ was punished for our sins. Rather, it is the crucifixion which the disciples actually saw and experienced in all of its horror that is developed in sacrificial language as the divine punishment and saving event. The use of the word "hell" to denote the place of punishment (Gehenna) is therefore inappropriate. The descent into Hades is rather a part of Christ's full identification with us, as well as the means by which he conquered death ( Matt 16:18 ; Rev 1:18 ), and became the firstborn from among the dead ( Col 1:18 ; Rev 1:5 ).
Norman R. Ericson
Bibliography. R. J. Bauckham, ABD, 2:145-59; G. W. Bromiley, ISBE, 1:926-27; W. Grudem, JETS 34/1 (1991): 103-13; J. R. McRay, Dictionary of Bible and Religion, pp. 624-25; J. M. Robinson, IBD, 1:826-28; D. P. Scaer, JETS 35/1 (1992): 91-99.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Descent into Hell (Hades)'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".