Did Jesus Descend into Hell?

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Did Jesus Descend into Hell? No.

The question usually arises from the King James translation of Acts 2:27, 31 (quoting Ps. 16:8-11), that the soul of Christ “was not left in hell.” More popularly, the idea derives from the clause in the Apostles’ Creed: Christ “descended into hell” (descendit ad inferna). ‘Hell’ in both cases refers not to the hell of eternal punishment (Gehenna), but to the realm of the dead, the underworld (OT Sheol, NT Hades). Hence modern translations of both the NT and the Creed read “Hades,” “dead,” or “death.”



Greek Hades, which occurs eleven times in the Greek Testament (Mt. 11:23; 16:18; Lk. 10:15; 16:23; Acts 2:27, 31; 1 Cor. 15:55; Rev. 1:18; 6:8; 20:13, 14) and is always translated hell in the King James Version, except in 1 Cor. 15:55. Confusion arises from the fact that Hades can signify, like the Hebrew Sheol, the unseen spirit-world, the abode of all the departed, both the righteous and wicked; while hell, at least in NT usage, is a much narrower conception, and signifies the state and place of eternal damnation, NT Gehenna, which occurs twelve times in the Greek Testament, and is so translated in English versions, viz., Mt. 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mk. 9:43, 45, 47; Lk. 12:5; Jas. 3:6.

That Christ in his human soul descended to the place of the dead, until his resurrection, is clearly stated in the NT (Acts 2:31; Rom. 10:7; Eph. 4:9) and underscores the reality of his death. Several NT passages have been related to the descent, being interpreted as Christ’s preaching to those who died and the acclamation of his victory over death, claiming those who awaited his coming (cf. 1 Pet. 3:19; 4:6; Mt. 27:52; Heb. 12:23). This was the normal understanding of the descent in the patristic period. Although the Alexandrian fathers included the pagan dead among those whom Christ delivered from Hades, the prevailing view, which became the orthodox medieval view, was that only believers of the pre-Christian period were recipients and beneficiaries of Christ’s preaching in Hades.

The earliest credal reference to the descent (in the Creed of Sirmium, 359) clearly alludes to this theme, and it would have been in the minds of those who recited the words, “He descended into hell,” when this clause appeared in some Western creeds from the 5th century and eventually in our Apostles’ Creed. Christ’s triumph over the devil and death in his descent was vividly narrated in the passion plays which became very popular in the medieval West, and it was graphically portrayed in medieval art and drama. In the 19th century, the descent into hell became part of the relatively novel idea of opportunities of salvation after death for all who had no opportunity in this life, and even of a hope for universal salvation based on extended probation after death.



The significance of the descent in the Apostles’ Creed has been explained in three different ways:

1) It is identical with “buried,” meaning continuance in the state of death and under the power of death till the resurrection (Westminster divines).

2) It signifies the intensity of Christ's sufferings on the cross, where he tasted the pain of hell for sinners (Calvin and the Heidelberg Catechism).

3) It is an actual “harrowing of hell,” wherein Christ after the crucifixion appeared to the departed spirits, liberating all believers from the powers of evil and death (Luther and the Formula of Concord).

Bruce Corley, president of the B.H. Carroll Theological Institute

 


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