Did Jesus descend into Hell to defeat death? It’s a widely held belief, however, there might not be as much Biblical evidence to support it than we at first thought.
The Apostles creed reads,
“Do you believe in Jesus Christ, His only son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell. On the third day He rose again from the dead.” (bold mine)
The belief that during the three days Jesus was in the tomb He descended into Hell and defeated death is a widely held and, we must add, a traditional and orthodox one. And it is easy to see why for the verses cited to support it (Acts 2:31, Eph 4:2-8, 1 Peter 4:6, and 1 Peter 3:18-20) clearly say that Jesus went somewhere. But do these verses claim that Jesus descended into the place we call Hell today, a place of torment where Satan and his angels abide (otherwise known as Tartarus)? Of that, I am unsure, at least insomuch as the Biblical evidence presented in favour of it is concerned. Let’s take a brief look at the most commonly cited verses.
“Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men. (Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things.)” (Eph. 4:8-10)
The key phrase here is “lower parts of the earth” and it is this that is said to refer to Hell. Of the interpretations I’ve read, there are two probable theories regarding this verse. The first is that Paul is referring to death or the unknown, otherwise known as Sheol or Hades. The customary meaning for these is the state of death or the grave. It’s important to note that this does not refer to a place of torment, for it can also be a place of rest and peace (see Luke 16:23, 25. It’s also important to note that this is a parable not meant to be read as a literal, everlasting description of the afterlife) so even if this were the correct reading it would not mean that Jesus went into Hell as Christianity has taught it.
The second reading is that it refers to the incarnation and this is the one I find to be the most probable. Notice that the reference to “lower parts” is in the comparative rather than the superlative. The OT always referred to the underworld in the superlative, that is it is described in the highest degree (Psalm 63:9 and 139:15, for example) and never compared with exaltation. This verse seems to refer to a personal status rather than an actual place as Paul is referring to the “lowest parts” in comparison to Christ’s ascension. In this case, the “lowest parts” are intended to be read as the earth itself and refer to Jesus descending to earth as a servant before being exalted as king (Psalm 139:15 and Philippians 2:7). The KJV doesn’t have the most accurate reading because the word “of” is not present in the original Greek. The NIV reads it as the “lower, earthly regions” and thus makes the context a whole lot clearer.
“He seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption.” (Acts 2:31)
Here Luke is quoting from Psalm 16:8-11 which was a common song of worship the Jews sung as an expression of their hope for God’s protection and deliverance. Obviously, since David’s soul had never been in Hell when he wrote that, there’s no reason to read this as evidence that Jesus had literally been in the Christian Hell. Luke was referring to God’s protection over Jesus and how He will keep us the same way. Additionally, the word translated “hell” here is Hades, which, as we have already established, typically means the realm of the unseen or, in other words, simple death and non-existence. At the time of Christ Jews believed that both the righteous and unrighteous awaited their judgement there.
“For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.” (1 Peter 3:18-20)
This one is admittedly a little harder to make sense of but we needn’t rely on guesses to determine what Peter meant with this. A few questions to ask is when did Jesus go there and who were these spirits? Firstly, it is assumed that this preaching (in Hell, presumably) was done between Jesus’s death and resurrection. However, verse 18 says that Jesus was put to death in the flesh and quickened, or made alive, by the spirit. And whenever we hear this phrase we hear it in the context of Christ’s resurrection (Rom. 1:3-4, 8:11, 1 Cor. 15:45, and 1 Tim. 3:16). A descent to Hell at the time between Jesus’s death and resurrection isn’t supported by this verse nor does it agree with the context of the NT itself. Whatever happened it happened after the resurrection and was a direct outcome of it and the grammar supports this cause and effect relationship as well. But this still doesn’t tell us what exactly Peter is talking about.
Let’s look for some clues elsewhere in the passage. Note that Peter specifically hones in on the days of Noah. Why this time? Was it because of man’s wickedness? Why not throw Sodom and Gomorra in there with them? Did Jesus not preach to those between the time of Noah and His descent to earth? If this is supposed to be a message for everyone before the time of Christ it makes little sense that Peter would signal out Noah’s time alone and not simply mention the entire world instead.
Moreover, the spirits mentioned by Peter are clearly not those of men, for the verse doesn’t say the spirits of those who were disobedient. When the Bible mentions spirits it is always used in the conversation of angelic or demonic beings unless explicitly stated otherwise.
Who are these spirits? The Jewish literature of the day gives us a clue. The fictional account of 1 Enoch tells of spirits called “Watchers” who corrupted the earth at the time of Noah.
“Enoch, scribe of righteousness. Go and inform the Watchers of Heaven, who have left the High Heaven and the Holy Eternal Place, and have corrupted themselves with women, and have done as the sons of men do and have taken wives for themselves, and have become completely corrupt on the earth.” (1 Enoch 12:4)
“And now, the giants who were born from body and flesh will be called Evil Spirits on the Earth, and on the Earth will be their dwelling.” (1 Enoch 15:8)
Other passages in the book note that these spirits were bound and thrown in prison.
“When all their sons kill each other, and when they see the destruction of their loved ones, bind them for seventy generations, under the hills of the earth, until the day of their judgment and of their consummation, until the judgment, which is for all eternity, is accomplished. And in those days, they will lead them to the Abyss of Fire; in torment, and in prison they will be shut up for all eternity.” (1 Enoch 10:12-14)
And this isn’t material original to the book of Enoch either. The Bible mentions these spirits in a number of places (i.e. Genesis 6:1-3, 2 Peter 2:4, and Jude 1:6).
The spirits Peter is referring to are most likely those described in the book of Enoch. Therefore, the passage in Peter can be read as Jesus accomplishing, in reality, what Enoch was said to do fictionally. Or else it is possible that Peter is recounting the story to place an emphasis on the triumph Jesus proclaimed over the fallen angels: that His Kingdom reigns and they must now submit to His authority (Peter never says Jesus preached salvation to these spirits, after all, that has always been merely assumed). Verse 22 also suggests that this is so as it mentions Jesus’s triumph and exaltation at the right hand of the Father. In summary, the most likely reading is that Jesus, in the spirit who raised Him, proclaimed His triumph to the fallen angels after He was resurrected from the grave and not before.
The last verse we’ll look at is 1 Peter 4:6, which says,
“For this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.”
At first glance, it’s difficult to tell how this refers to Jesus’s descent into Hell. Most likely this refers to those who believed in the Gospel before death. Although they were judged by earthly courts and executed they would be made alive in spirit and living together with Christ. The ones who judged them are found in the preceding verses which speak of those who live in sin and condemn believers for not living the same way. But it is the believers who were condemned for not living in “paradise” who are now living in paradise.
Lastly, it may be asked, if Jesus did descend into Hell, how could the authors of the Bible ever know this? Unlike the Resurrection, it wasn’t something they would have been eyewitnesses to. If Jesus foreclosed this information later why not write it down? Based on what we have I think it’s more likely than not that the disciples wrote down what they saw with the Resurrection and simply shared its theological significance. I believe the Biblical data we have best supports this conclusion.
At this point, I see little Scriptural support for the idea that Jesus descended into the idea of Hell that Christian have. Despite being orthodox the idea simply seems to have been assumed more than it has been tested. The reality is that Jesus, after His crucifixion, had died. His spirit didn’t exist to do other things during those three days, for then it cannot be said that He had died, merely that his body had ceased to operate. However, death will be defeated precisely because Jesus Himself died in the tomb and for those three days experienced death like any man.