Over the years, various people have approached me with a question about Jesus going to hell. They had heard about the idea from the Apostle’s Creed and there seemed to be suggestions of it in a few passages from the Bible. They wanted to know, was it true? Did Jesus really descend to hell? The question has resurfaced since our congregation now, periodically, says the creed together during the Sunday morning worship service.
Because of the nature of its subject, the line from the Apostles Creed grabs your attention, drawing your mind back to the clause, ‘…and he descended to hell.’
What does it mean?
Before going any further, it would help with clarity if certain words were defined. In the days of Jesus, Hades (Greek New Testament) simply meant the place of the dead and hadn’t yet acquired the additional meaning of a place of torment. Hades is ‘the intermediate state between death and the future resurrection’ (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, page 548). Think of a public bus station: dim, dirty, and perpetually depressing. Once in awhile someone rambles by, screaming incoherent gibberish at you. You never feel comfortable, not only because it is a place that is physically disgusting. But it also is spiritual disturbing. Terminal is the perfect descriptor for such a place. The Hebrew Old Testament term, Sheol, shares the same meaning as Hades.
The equivalence of the two terms, Hades and Sheol, is shown by the fact that the Greek version of the Old Testament (known as the Septuagint) usually uses Hades (Greek) to translate Sheol (Hebrew). Hades does seem to include the sense, sometimes, of punishment. But, since it defines an intermediate state, the punishment of Hades is not eternal. The state of eternal punishment of the wicked is reserved for Gehenna.
The Greek New Testament word for the place of eternal torment is gehenna. It is ‘the abode of the wicked. Whereas hades is the intermediate state, gehenna is eternal hell’ (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, page 548). Going back to the analogy of the bus terminal: if hades is the depressing bus station, then gehenna is the final destination from which the wicked will never depart.
In the New Testament, hell is a catch-all word. It is the place of eternal punishment (Matthew 25.41), everlasting destruction (2 Thessalonians 1.9), everlasting contempt (Daniel 12.2), unquenchable fire (Matthew 3.12; 5.22; 18.9), damnation (Matthew 23.33), the fiery furnace (Matthew 13.42, 50), blackest darkness (Jude 13), a fiery lake of burning sulfur (Revelation 21.8), and a place prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25.41).
There’s little doubt that Jesus died, was buried, and remained in the state of death for three days. But did he go to the place of everlasting destruction and damnation?
Scripture certainly stresses the fact that Christ died and was buried (Isaiah 53.9; Matthew 12.40; 27.59-60; Luke 11.29; 23.53; John 19.40-42; Acts 13.29; 1 Corinthians 15.3-4). As Herman Bavinck said,
Jesus in reality ‘spent three days in the state of death, belonged to the realm of the dead, and thus bore the punishment of sin (Genesis 3.19). To that state of Hades he was not abandoned; his flesh saw no corruption, for he was raised the third day; yet from the time of his death to the moment of his resurrection, he belonged to the dead and therefore spent a period of time in Hades (Matthew 12.40; Acts 2.27, 31) …For the idea that Christ had descended to the place of torment, the actual hell, is nowhere to be found in Scripture, nor does it occur in the most ancient Christian writers (page 413)…For Christ in truth bore unspeakable distress, sorrows, horror, and hellish torment on the cross in order that he might redeem us from them (Reformed Dogmatics, Volume Three, pages 410, 413, 416).
More recently, Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, has argued that the phrase is unbiblical and should be eliminated (pages 586-94)
The earliest versions of the creed don’t have it. The clause didn’t appear in manuscripts till the mid-300s (Bavinck, page 413).