This past Sunday, I was honored to share a sermon on Ephesians 4:1-16, at Eagle LifeChurch. The emphasis of the message was on Christian unity and love. I urged our congregation to consider how they could join Jesus Christ in a walk worthy of the call, eagerly maintaining the unity of the Spirit, and participating in the work of the ministry.
However, in the middle of this passage on Christian unity, there is a parenthetical statement that I had to skip over. It is an important passage as it relates to the question of whether Jesus descended into hell between his death and resurrection. So, I decided I would share some thoughts on Ephesians 4:9-10 here. I’d love to have a conversation about it, so please comment below.
There is a tradition in historical Christianity that claims that Jesus descended into hell during the three days He was in the grave. The Apostles’ Creed says that Jesus, “was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell. The third day he rose again from the dead” (italics mine).
What evidence is there that Jesus went to hell?
There are several passages of scripture that seem to speak to this idea. I encourage you to study them and pray through them with the help of the Holy Spirit. If you disagree with my conclusions, let me know. I believe that true Christians can disagree on this issue and remain faithful siblings in the faith.
These four passages seem to support the idea that Jesus entered hell between Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday:
- Acts 2:29-33;
- Ephesians 4:8-10;
- 1 Peter 4:6; and
- 1 Peter 3:18-20.
These five passages seem to counter the idea that Jesus went to hell between death and resurrection:
- Luke 16:19-31;
- Psalm 49;
- Revelation 20:11-15;
- Hebrews 9:27; and
- Luke 23:42,43.
How can we interpret the evidence?
First, we must understand first century Jewish ideas about Hell, Hades, and afterlife.
Hades was considered the place of death between this life and final judgement. Hades was said to be under the earth, below, or in the grave. This is addressed in Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31.
Hell was considered the place of final Judgement (the lake of fire) prepared for the Devil, his angels, and those who reject Christ. Notice in Revelation 20:14 that “Death and Hades are thrown into the lake of fire.”
Therefore, it is important for us to realize that Hades is understood to be a place of death during the time of waiting between now and the final judgement, when Hades will be judged and cast into a place of eternal pain and torment which is called Hell, or Gehenna.
With this background that Hades (the grave) and Hell (Gehenna) are two different things, we will be better prepared to understand the scriptural evidence and interpretations below.
Second, let’s look at each of these supporting scriptures and try to reach a conclusion.
The verse in question is Acts 2:31. In context, it does not appear that Peter’s quote of Psalm 16:10 is to emphasize that Jesus entered Hades. Rather, it seems he is saying that Jesus would NOT be going to Hades. Those who assert the opposite say the word “abandon” means He went there, but wasn’t left there. This is possible, but entirely unclear from this one passage. Left to itself this is not enough evidence to conclude Jesus went to hell. At best it is evidence that He may have went to Hades, but He didn’t stay there. Nothing is said about why He would have went there, or what He would have done while He was there.
This is the passage that we skipped on Sunday, October 8, 2017, so let’s take a look at it now. In context, Paul is talking about how faith should be lived out here on earth – in Christian unity. The ambiguity of the passage can leave a couple of interpretations.
First, Jesus descended to the region below the earth – which could be Hades. This interpretation would give credit to the Apostles’ Creed. However, it would be wildly out of context from what Paul is talking about in the rest of this letter. Paul is talking about the ascension. His emphasis is on Christ being lifted-up as our example for maturity, faith, fullness, unity, and love. This idea of “descended” is a parenthetical thought that is better interpreted another way.
The second possible interpretation is that Jesus descended to the region below – which is the earth. In this interpretation, Ephesians 4:9 is speaking of the incarnation of Christ. That God humbled himself and descended to the earth to be an example for us in how to live in the Kingdom of God. This interpretation is without assumption, and fits perfectly within the context of Ephesians 4.
1 Peter 4:6
This verse is the first in this list to support the idea that Jesus not only descended to hell, but that He “preached the gospel to the dead” while He was there. If we come to this passage with the words of the Apostles’ Creed ringing in our ears it is easy to find support for this belief. However, if we take this verse in context it quickly crumbles.
Peter is arguing in this passage that people would be wise to consider how they are living. That wild living – “debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry lead” to judgement and destruction. If verse 6 were describing a second chance for those who were dead to receive the gospel, then why such a stiff warning?
Rather, in context – and without assumptions – it seems clear that Peter meant that there are those who are now dead who heard the gospel while they were alive, but because of their love for wild living they are now subject to judgement. Therefore, we should live, not according to the body, but according to the Spirit.
1 Peter 3:18-20
This is probably the most important passage as it relates to this question. Consider this:
18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. (1 Peter 3:18-20, ESV)
Many Bible scholars have said that this is the most difficult passage in all of the New Testament to interpret. Who am I to argue?
There seem to be three prevailing interpretations of this passage in Biblical Scholarship. All of them – every one of them – have problems. The third interpretation, however, seems to be the most credible and fits the context.
First, there are some who assert that Peter is being symbolic. Peter is talking figuratively only to say that salvation is available to all, even those who lived before Christ’s work on the cross. The problem with this view is that he seems to be direct and not very symbolic in his language. If this is only a metaphor, Peter missed an important opportunity to let his readers know that is what he is doing.
Second, others argue that “the prison” in this passage is hell. They argue that Jesus went to this prison during his entombment and proclaimed the gospel to the wicked dead – those who rejected salvation in the days of Noah. The problem with this view is that it entirely ignores the context of suffering in 1 Peter 3, and would give those who rejected God in the days of Noah a second chance at salvation. What about others who rejected God before and after Noah? A second chance for unbelievers after death is rejected throughout the Bible. Instead, the Bible seems clear that Old Testament saints were credited for their faith, even though Christ had not yet suffered.
The third interpretation of this passage contends, that the messengers of the gospel – who are now suffering for Christ – are suffering just like Noah, and just like Christ. In context, Peter seems to be saying that Christ, by the Spirit, through Noah proclaimed salvation to those who are now in prison, before they died. In the same way, we are proclaiming a message of salvation in our generation by Christ and through the Spirit. People are rejecting us just like Noah. God was patient in the days of Noah, while the ark was being built, and eight people were saved. God is patient today, while the church is being built, and those who believe and are baptized will be saved. The proponents of this view also maintain that Peter’s use of “prison” probably refers to those in Hades who are waiting final judgment.
What’s our Conclusion?
Finally, I encourage you to read the passages that seem to counter the teaching that Jesus descended into hell. Study, pray, and meditate on them. Ask some questions: What does Jesus mean, in Luke 23, when He tells the thief on the cross, “today you will be with me in paradise?” What is the link between death and judgement in Hebrews 9:27? How does Revelation 20 describe the Final Judgement? What significance does Psalm 49 have in all of this.
In conclusion, there is not enough evidence to conclude that Jesus descended into Hell during his time in the grave. It is possible to conclude that He entered Hades, but the evidence is sketchy at best, when all of these passages are taken in context.
Even if a person believes Jesus descended to Hades during his entombment to preach to the dead, this time has passed and there is no promise in scripture that He will do that again for those who are alive today. Additionally, we can be certain that Jesus suffered a literal death. That He died in the flesh, was buried, and was raised again to new life.
I invite you to turn to Jesus today. Spare yourself the uncertainty of death, hell, and the grave. Turn to Jesus to receive the gift of salvation and the inheritance of eternal life with God. Pray this prayer, “Jesus, I believe you lived the life I should have lived, and died the death I should have died. I believe that you rose again from the dead to give me life. I trust you to remove the guilt and shame of my sin and to replace it with the gift of your righteousness. I give my life to you. Amen.”
I’d love to hear what you think about this. Share your comments below. If you prayed that prayer or would like more information about what it means to follow Jesus, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org so we can pray with you and encourage you.