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Did Jesus Go to Hell?

Posted: May 22, 2011 in Uncategorized

The following is in answer to a question that was posed in our Bible study group. We were looking at Luke’s account of the crucifixion, and after reading Jesus’ words to the thief next to him: “today you will be with me in Paradise.” Someone recalled the words of the Apostles’ Creed, which states that after death, Jesus “descended into Hell”. What? Without making it sound like a Warner Bros cartoon which way did he go? moment, it raised a legitimate question: is the Apostles’ Creed actually wrong on this one?

Did Jesus descend into Hell? Simple question, you’d imagine. The answer, as it turns out, is somewhat more complicated. To come to some good conclusion about this question requires a quick exploration of some things that – at least initially – don’t seem to have much to do with the matter. So we’re going to take a slightly scenic route. Bear with me… this might even end up making sense.

The teaching of Christ’s descent into Hell is technically known as “the Harrowing of Hell” and features more prominently in the Roman Catholic tradition. It is held that (as the Apostle’s Creed states) Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was crucified, dead and buried: He descended into hell; on the third day he rose again from the dead…[1] From there the traditional understanding has grown that Christ Jesus triumphed over Hell and released those held captive there – particularly prominent, righteous Old Testament figures.

Translation Issues – the Bible:

Scripturally, there is nothing direct that refers to Jesus’ descent into Hell. There are cryptic references that hint at the idea, but there is nothing direct. The popular King James Version translates Acts 2:21 as follows: Because thou wilt not leave my soul in Hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption. This was referencing Psalm 16:11. And this is where the complications begin.

            Our picture of Hell – particularly as Jesus taught – is a place of punishment, torture and torment. Often Jesus used words like Gehenna or the outer darkness when describing Hell. The Greek word used in Acts and Psalms (at least, in the Septuagint version of the Psalms) is αδης , Hades. The Hebrew in Psalm 16 is שאול, Sheol (a pit, a ditch, a grave or the place of the dead). Both Sheol and Hades were “the underworld” or “places of the dead”. They were not particularly regarded as a place of suffering, although certainly they were thought to be gloomy places, where the souls of the dead went after the body had given up its life. Neither Hebrew nor Greek culture had any great expectations of the hereafter – but it would also be true to say that there was no great thought given to eternal suffering of the wicked.

To be accurate both Hades and Sheol should really be translated as such, or translated by a phrase like those above. Hell, in our modern understanding, is a poor word to choose, and leads to misunderstanding. As it stands, the King James Version is pretty well the only translation available that uses Hell in both Psalms and Acts. But the influential Bishop’s Bible and Tyndale’s New Testament used “Hell” instead.

Exegetical Issues: The Bible

The most difficult text to come to grips with is 1 Peter 3:19-20, followed by 1 Peter 4:6. Here we read that Jesus was made alive through the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah… and that the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead…

There are many thousands of words written – and millions of hours spent in thought – in the attempt to solve the puzzle of how to properly understand what Peter has written. Least convincing is the idea that Jesus went on a missionary journey to the gates of Hell to preach a gospel message to the souls of the wicked (looking at Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-21 – there was no way for anyone to cross the gap to give the dead rich man so much as a drop of water). Is it too late to repent in Hell? Almost every denomination would agree that it is too late. Death is the cut-off date, and no late entry is permitted.

An alternative possible understanding is that Jesus walked up to the gates of Hell and proclaimed what He had just done – won victory over death and sin. This is more plausible. Following his ultimate victory, he goes to the place of the dead and lets everyone being held in Hell know what’s going on exactly.

            It’s worth noting that the verse in 1 Peter may possibly be better understood as something happening after Christ’s resurrection, not before (i.e. the Creed’s descent-Hell-ascent pattern).

Early Christian Theology:

We can see that some of the early Church fathers have had thoughts along these lines. Tertullian (160-220AD) wrote of how Jesus broke the bolts of hell and went around smashing the place up. Clement (150-215AD) took it further and claimed that after His death, the Lord Jesus descended into “hell” and released the souls of the righteous who had been previously kept captive by the Devil. Hippolytus (170-235AD) went on to teach that therefore Christ’s descent into hell was as important a part of His redemptive work as His death on the cross. The idea of “the harrowing of Hell” is, essentially, an extension of their ideas. As you can see by the dates attached to their names, the idea of Jesus in Hell is hardly new.

It must be noted, however, that the first theologians – wise as they were – had many difficulties in developing theology. I’ll leave out the many dramas in formulating a way of expressing what we now know as the Trinity, but it’s enough to say that it was messy, and took many years to get right. The fact that some Church Fathers thought that Jesus marched up to “the gates of Hell” doesn’t guarantee that this is, in fact, the case.

A similar problem of translation occurs when we get to the roots of the crucial Creeds – and it is more likely that the Creeds gave shape to this idea of Jesus going to Hell.

Creeds are printed statements which explain key doctrines. They generally do not make use of Scripture quotations, but attempt to summarize important foundational truths of the Christian faith. The Church has almost always encouraged the saying – and memorizing – of Creeds. Historically, the average believer’s access to the Bible is relatively recent (even in the 1900s, Bibles were not cheap to produce or buy), and, prior to this access, the bulk of a Christian’s knowledge of his own faith came from three sources; memorized and frequently-repeated Scriptures, the homilies/sermons of the local priest, and the memorized Creeds.

Many of the Creeds that are familiar to us today have a rich history: the famous Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed can easily trace their roots with certainty to the year 451 (Athanasius wrote them down, as did Basil of Caesarea, and they appear in the minutes of an important Bishops Council in that year), and most likely to the Council of Nicaea, held in the year 325. Although it sounds odd to us, we can see how this Creed is the skeleton of something more familiar:

“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the substance of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, Begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father, through Whom all things were made.

Who for us men and for our salvation came down and became incarnate, and was made man, suffered and rose on the third day, And ascended into heaven, and is coming with glory to judge living and dead, And in the Holy Spirit.

But those who say, There was when the Son of God was not, and before he was begotten he was not, and that he came into being from things that are not, or that he was of a different hypostasis or substance, or that he is mutable or alterable – the catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes.”

Apart from the strange-sounding third paragraph, the majority of differences seem to be in the construction of the wording itself. There are a few things to note in our quest for an answer. The first is that the familiar phrase, he descended into hell, is completely absent, as is any mention of his death – only a simple he suffered and rose. There seems to be a lot about who Jesus was and is, but very little about what we’d normally regard as one of the most important things that we believe.

There’s a very good reason for that: the document came as a summary of the Council of Nicaea. It met to thrash out one thing: how can Jesus be both God and Son of God AND Man, all at the same time? There were many different beliefs (I’m not going to go there), and the Council’s job was to figure out what was true and what was heresy. The Creed that came out reflects this: a massive definition of what it means to be the Son of God at the beginning, a condemnation of heresies at the end, and the briefest overview of Jesus’ work in the middle. Why nothing about the death of Jesus? Simple: there was no debate about it – everyone believed that Christ was indeed killed by execution upon a Roman cross. Although impossible to prove, the bit about he descended into hell does not surface because it really wasn’t on anyone’s radar. There simply is nothing in the “skeleton” of the Creed to indicate a line-of-thought concerning Jesus in hell.

A more thought-out, detailed creed is called the Athanasian Creed, thought to be composed by Athanasius (296-373AD). It is essentially concerned, again, with the nature of the Trinity, and first appears in Latin rather than Greek (despite Athanasius being from Alexandria, Egypt, and probably a Greek-speaker). The line that concerns us reads as follows: Who suffered for our salvation; descended into hell; rose again the third day from the dead. “Hell” is the given translation from the Latin inferos – again, not the best translation. Inferos is again akin to “place of the dead/underworld”, not the widely-accepted picture of the place of eternal, fiery punishment (which, in Latin is very similar – Infernus).

But the translation hell has remained with us, percolating up through the translations of the Apostle’s Creed (which, in Latin again, states descendit ad inferos, not infernus) into Catholic liturgy. Thomas Cranmer welded much of this liturgy into the Book of Commom Prayer, translating it into usable English… and Hell came along for the ride.

Theology – Implications & Conclusion

Upon the cross, Jesus said to the thief; “truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”[2] It is the only indication that Jesus gives us of what may possibly have happened between death and resurrection. We get nothing else. And creating an argument from Biblical silence is not a good practice.

The tradition (that Jesus rescued righteous people in the Old Testament from Hell) is held by Catholic lore, and it shows some inconsistency in the theology of Hell. Why were these righteous people in Hell to begin with? For what were they being punished? Why did Jesus have to blow the doors off Hell? Is Hell ruled by the Devil?

            Hell is a place in God’s creation, and like everything in creation it falls under His sovereignty and lordship. The “power of hell” that Jesus broke is the power of his atoning death – we, once condemned to eternal punishment for our rebellion, are made right in his shed blood and shed life. The “power of hell” is not that of a CEO-like Satan, at the gates with a big ledger like a mirror-image of old Saint Peter upstairs. Hell is under God’s full control and authority. For Jesus to break in and rescue people from it would not be an act against the power of Satan, but of God the Father. And that’s a dangerous theology to have. The British mystic poet Blake believed that the “good” Christ’s power was in overruling the tyranny set up by the Father – which explodes the notion of Trinity rather badly.

            Jesus descended to the place of the dead – that is to say, he most certainly died, and the extent of his being in “the place of the dead” (whether it is called Sheol, Hades or Infero) must be recognised and acknowledged. But I would find it very difficult to support an argument that he “descended into hell.”

[1] Book of Common Prayer, 1662. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. p12

[2] Luke 23:43