Scripture tells that after Jesus died, He went to hell. What exactly does that mean?
Did Jesus descend into hell after His death on the cross? Belief in a literal descent into hell are grounded in three primary sources.
First, some appeal to Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:8-10:
“When He ascended on high He led a host of captives, and He gave gifts to men.” (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that He had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.)
What does it mean that Jesus “descended into the lower regions, the earth?” I think it means exactly what it says at face value, that Jesus descended into the earth. In other words, Jesus existed in heaven prior to His incarnation as an embryo in the womb of the Virgin Mary (Philippians 2:5-11; John 1:1-18; Luke 1:26-38). So upon a closer examination, Ephesians 4 does not appear to teach that Jesus descended into hell, but onto the earth itself in His incarnation. (Note: Another possible interpretation of Christ’s descent is that Jesus descended into earth by being buried in the heart of the earth, as Jesus predicts in Matthew 12:40).
1 Peter 3:18-20
Second, some teach that Jesus went to hell based on Peter’s words in 1 Peter 3:18-20:
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, in which He went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 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.
While Paul’s words in Ephesians 4 seem to be fairly easy to understand, Peter’s words in 1 Peter 3 are incredibly confusing (Isn’t that ironic, given that Peter once complained about Paul’s confusing writings–2 Peter 3:16?). While some interpret these verses as referring to Jesus’ presence in hell, this interpretation has several problems. First, it ignores Jesus’ clear words to a repentant thief in Luke 23:43, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise.” Second, it ignores the connection Peter makes between Jesus and the work of Noah. Peter appears to be saying that the same Spirit that resurrected Jesus also was preaching through Noah to his hearers, who were imprisoned by their sin. Although this interpretation still has its difficulties, I believe it is the best interpretation of a difficult text in light of the biblical storyline.
The Apostles’ Creed
Finally, some argue that Jesus descended into hell based on a line from the Apostles’ Creed, which says:
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic* church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
Thinking through this phrase is more difficult than it might first appear (read a more detailed discussion on this phrase in the Apostles’ Creed here). However, Christians must remember that our ultimate authority is not ancient creeds and councils, but the Word of God. Nevertheless, we should not hastily dismiss our fathers and mothers in the faith. That said, it is helpful to understand that the phrase in the Apostles’ Creed was originally “descended to the dead” in Latin (descendit ad inferos) but was later changed to “descended into hell” (descendit ad inferna). Therefore, we can reasonably conclude that the Apostles’ Creed teaches Jesus’ descent into death, not His descent into hell.
Near the end of Jesus’ torment on the cross, the Messiah cried out “It is finished!” In what sense was His work finished? In the sense that everything necessary to atone for the sins of humanity was accomplished. Jesus did not need to go to hell to suffer further. He had already “gone to hell” on the cross.** Christian, Jesus tasted hell on the cross so that you’ll never have to. For those who are in Christ, this earth is the closest to hell you’ll ever experience.
* The word “catholic” in the Apostles’ Creed should not be confused with the Roman Catholic denomination. The word “catholic” literally means universal. That is, the true Christian church of all times and all places.
** To be fair, some Christians believe that Jesus descended into hell, not to suffer, but to preach victory over those in hell. Although this interpretation is more tenable than the idea that Christ suffered in hell, it still has several issues.