Descending into Hell

Question
A question occured to me regarding the apostle's creed... What is the scriptural backing for the statement "descended into hell"? Was this necessary for substitutionary atonement? If so, why wasn't his physical death suficient? Please list scripture.
Answer
Actually, yours is a question that many people ponder. Most modern Reformed theologians affirm the phrase "he descended into hell," but interpret it to mean that Jesus was buried in the earth and continued under the power of death for a time.

This approach is often defended with appeals to texts like Acts chapter 2 verses 27 through 29, where Peter basically said that David is still in hades because his tomb is still standing. Peter's logic was as follows: David said that God wouldn't leave him in hades, but David could not have been speaking of himself because he died and was buried, and his tomb is still standing. In other words, since David's tomb is still standing, David is still in hades. This reading is strengthened by the fact that Peter's final assertion is that Christ was bodily resurrected (Acts 2:31-32), not that Christ's spirit was released from hades.

Other theologians throughout the ages have argued that, in fact, Christ really did descend into hell. Some have said he did so victoriously, proclaiming his victory over sin and death to the departed saints imprisoned there. Generally, they base this idea on 1 Peter 3:19-20, though the meaning of those verses is highly debated. A reasonable argument can be made that Christ preached to the imprisoned spirits not at the time of the atonement, but in the days of Noah, before these spirits were imprisoned. This preaching may have taken place either by direct revelation, or through Noah himself, who had the spirit of Christ (1 Pet 1:11). In any event, some interpreters believe that this preaching took place during the three days that Christ's body lay in the tomb.

Others have suggested that Jesus went to hell on the basis of Ephesians 4:8-10, which says that he descended into the lower parts of the earth. Obviously, this argument relies on the idea that hell is located in the lower of parts of the earth. Now, the Greek tartarus is potentially presented as being underground (2 Pet. 2:4), but that is supposed to be where spirits await judgment, not where they undergo it. The Hebrew sheol, which the Septuagint often translates with hades, was also portrayed as being in the lower parts of the earth (cf. Ezek. 26:20; 31:16). It was portrayed as the afterworld, the dwelling of the dead, but it was also equated with the grave (cf. Ezek. 31:16) and with other regions of the earth that are beneath its surface (cf. Num. 16:33-34). In short, Ephesians 4:8-10 may simply mean that Jesus descended into the grave. Other commentators point out that, grammatically, "lower parts of the earth" may also be translated "lower parts that are the earth." If this is the meaning here, then the point is just that Jesus descended from heaven to earth before ascending from earth to heaven. Since this text is somewhat ambiguous, it doesn't help us all that much with the question of what Jesus was experiencing during the three days he remained under the power of death.

Some theologians have even argued that Jesus descended into hell as part of the atonement, suffering torment until his resurrection. They base this idea on passages such as Acts 2:24-31, where Jesus is said to have endured the "pains of death" until his resurrection, and to have been in "hell" (Greek hades) until that time (cf. Ps 16:10). But this seems highly improbable. For one thing, Jesus committed his spirit into the hands of the Father when he died (Luke 23:46). Although the Father punishes people in hell, this statement was one of hope, drawn from Psalm 31:5. It did not mean "hurt me some more," but "you are my savior." Thus, it should be taken as an indication that Jesus' suffering was ending, not just beginning. For another thing, after a sacrifice was slain, it was offered to God as something holy, good and pleasing to him, not as an object of his further wrath and punishment. God's wrath and punishment was portrayed in the taking of the life of the sacrificial animal, and not in subsequent abuse of its body parts or spirit. Since Jesus' was the archetypal sacrifice, we should be inclined to view God's wrath as having been poured out on him in his death and in the suffering that preceded it, not in what came after it.

But what did the Apostles' Creed originally intend to communicate when it said that Jesus descended into hell? Well, the Creed mentions both that Jesus was buried, and that he descended into hell. To all appearances, these phrases are separate and consecutive items in the historical record. For another thing, while it is true that the phrase "hell" can simply mean "under the ground," its use in Scripture and in the writings of the early church almost always refers to the underworld that contains the souls of the dead. We might think of this as its default meaning in the early church — the meaning ancient Christians usually had in mind when they used the word "hell." For these reasons, it's best to conclude that the Apostles' Creed intended to teach that Jesus' soul really descended into the underworld between the time of his death and resurrection.

But if Jesus' soul actually descended into hell, what did he experience there? In the ancient world, the universe was often described in the language of a vertical structure. The earth, where human beings lived, was in the middle. Heaven, the realm of God and his angels, was spoken of as being in the sky. And beneath the earth was a shadowy underworld where all the souls of the dead resided. In the Hebrew Old Testament, it was most commonly called sheol; in the Greek New Testament and in Greek translations of the Old Testament, it was normally called hades.

In the Old Testament, the souls of both the good and the wicked were said to reside there as they awaited the final judgment. In the New Testament, however, hades usually refers to the abode of the wicked souls, as in Luke chapter 10 verse 15. But sometimes the New Testament gives us a fuller picture that looks a lot more like the Old Testament. For instance, Jesus' parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, found in Luke chapter 16 verses 19 through 31, indicates that a great gulf divided the souls of the wicked from the souls of the righteous in hades. And while the wicked suffered in torment, the righteous were comforted. In this parable, Abraham resided in the place of comfort. For this reason, theologians have often called this part of hades "Abraham's Side" or more literally "Abraham's Bosom."

The church father Tertullian, who wrote in the early third century, expressed the common belief in this division of hades: "That souls are even now susceptible of torment and of blessing in Hades ... is proved by the case of Lazarus" (On the Resurrection of the Flesh, ch. 17).

The church father Ignatius, writing in A.D. 107, said something similar in his Epistle to the Trallians:
By those under the earth, [I mean] the multitude that arose along with the Lord. For says the Scripture, "Many bodies of the saints that slept arose," their graves being opened. He descended, indeed, into Hades alone, but He arose accompanied by a multitude; and rent asunder that means of separation which had existed from the beginning of the world.
So, when the creed says that Jesus descended into hell, the most likely meaning is that his human soul descended to the place of the departed spirits. Specifically, he descended to the region reserved for the souls of the righteous, and not to the region where the wicked are tormented. Jesus' stay in this part of hell was a necessary part of his work because it subjected his soul to the judicial punishment of true human death.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.