By Bill Warren, Ph.D., NOBTS Professor of New Testament and Greek
Question: I’ve heard that Jesus descended into hell after he died and before he was resurrected but can’t find this in the Bible. Is this biblical? If not, where did the idea come from?
Bill Warren responds: This idea is often based on the Apostles’ Creed that states that Jesus “descended into hell.” (Other early church creeds do not mention this).
Later in church history, some pushed the image to mean “hell” in a negative sense and so developed elaborate art and literature depicting Jesus actually going to the place of the eternally damned, as seen in Dante’s Inferno.
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The actual wording in the Apostles’ Creed is that Jesus descended into “the underworld,” commonly called “Hades” or “the place of the dead,” not “hell” as in the place of the damned. “Hades” refers to the abode of the dead with both positive and negative options existing, with the positive emphasis applying to Jesus as indicated in his statement to the repentant thief: Today you will be with me in paradise – Luke 23:43), thereby showing that both would be in the positive setting that very day.
As for more specific biblical statements, the Bible actually does not say anything directly about this topic! So let’s look at three passages that may indirectly relate to the phrase in the Apostle’s Creed. Acts 2:31, part of Peter’s Pentecost sermon, applies Psalm 16:10 to the resurrection of Jesus, noting that neither was he left behind in Hades nor did his flesh see corruption.
The obvious meaning is that Jesus was raised from the dead rather than being left in the tomb to rot, with no mention of him being in the realm of “hell” in a negative sense being indicated. The same emphasis is found in Ephesians 4:8-10, where Jesus is highlighted as having ascended after having descended in death, with Psalm 68:18 being cited.
1 Peter 3:18-20 is the key passage used to defend the idea of the “harrowing of hell” (as this concept is sometimes called). But what does this admittedly difficult text actually say?
Verses 18-20 indicate that the resurrected Jesus (note the end of verse 18, “made alive in the spirit”) proclaimed a message either to disobedient people from a former time (Noah’s time) or to disobedient spirits related to that time (see Genesis 6 and 1 Enoch for more background on this passage), with the result being that the salvation of Noah and his family through water prefigures Christian baptism which now signifies identification with the resurrected Christ.
To be sure, some have seen the time in verses 19-20 as being between the cross and resurrection, due in large part to seeking to link this passage to a “descent into hell” by Jesus. But “hell” is not mentioned in the text, nor is such a time frame indicated. The main point of this text is that the message of Christ’s suffering and victory in the resurrection is proclaimed, and not that Jesus is suffering the horrors of hell.
In sum, the Bible does not support the idea of Jesus descending into the realm of eternal damnation (“hell”). But the Bible is very clear that Jesus died a real death and was resurrected.
Bill Warren is Professor of New Testament and Greek, and founding director of the H. Milton Haggard Center of New Testament Textual Studies, at NOBTS.