August 5, 2014

Did Christ go to hell after he died?

by Lyndon Unger

On my personal blog, and through e-mail, I sometimes get reader requests for posts.  People often have interesting questions about a wide variety of issues, and I do what I can to try to tackle reader questions when I can.  One of my relatives sent me a question a little over a year ago, and seeing that I had the same question boiling around in my mind many years ago (before I figured it out), I’m thought I’d tackle it and clear up what is a somewhat common question.


The question has to do with whether or not Jesus went to Hell after the cross and why the Apostle’s Creed reads that Christ “descended into hell” (descendit ad inferna).  The problem is confounded in that not only does the phrase appear in the Apostles Creed, but it also is arguably insinuated in Acts 2:25-31, Romans 10:6-7, Ephesians 4:7-10, 1 Peter 3:18-20 and 1 Peter 4:6 (though due to time I won’t tackle the biblical texts but rather leave that to people who have already done a far superior job to my possible offerings).[1]  So how do we unpack this idea and figure out what is going on in the Apostles’ Creed?

Well, let’s start with the Apostles Creed itself.   The Apostles Creed is unlike the Nicene Creed or the Chalcedonian Definition in that it wasn’t a creed written by a church council but rather a summary statement of belief that evolved from a Roman Baptismal formula in the 2nd century and was expanded and edited for roughly 5 centuries.  The phrase “descended into hell” didn’t become a standard element of the Apostle’s Creed until at least the mid 7th century.[2]  The first recorded occurrence of the phrase “descended into hell” appears in the version of the creed used in the church in Aquileia that is commented upon by Rufinus in his Commentary on the Apostle’s Creed (written around 404 AD).  A digital and searchable copy of Rufinus’ work is here and he writes on the phrase “descended into hell”, saying:

Those who have handed down the Creed to us have most carefully specified the time at which these things were done, namely, ” under Pontius Pilate,” so that the tradition of these things should never in any respect vary, as though being vague or uncertain. Yet it should be known that the Creed of the Roman Church does not include the words ” He descended into Hell,” nor is this clause found in the Churches of the East. The meaning of the phrase, however seems to be the same as that of the words “He was buried.” (page 26)


So, even in Rufinus’ day there were multiple versions of the creed, some of which did not include the phrase, and even when it was included the phrase “descended into hell” was understood to refer to the grave.  One reason for this would be that in the Old Testament, the place of the dead was called by the Hebrew term “She’ol”, which had a wide semantic range that included the place of post-mortem suffering, the place of post-mortem blessing, and the grave itself.  In the day of Rufinus, She’ol was translated into Latin as inferna.[3]  The person reading the Latin Old Testament (known as the Vulgate) would regularly see inferna used as the term referring the both the place in which the bodies of the dead were placed, as well as the place to which dead people went, and it would have been a relatively common term in the Latin Old Testament (She’ol occurs 65 times in the Hebrew Old Testament).

So, I’ll cut the Apostle’s Creed discussion short here since, well, that essentially answers the question.  Now admittedly there’s lots of scholarly ink spilled here on which Early Church Fathers thought that Christ descended into Hell itself, whether or not they thought of inferna as “the grave” or something else, and what Christ did while in the inferna.  This whole debate is interesting, but I’d suggest that the weight of the evidence clearly lies in favor of the understanding of Rufinus; that Christ’s descending into hell simply is another way of restating that he actually, physically died (and consequently was actually, physically resurrected).


In lieu of my rather long posts in my responses to Dr. Michael Brown’s book Authentic Fire, I thought I’d shift gears and toss something short and sweet up for you all!

You’re welcome!

[1] These passages are all thoroughly dealt with by Wayne Grudem and he convincingly argues the conclusion that the idea of Christ’s descent into Hell is nowhere to be found in the scripture.  Wayne Grudem, “He Did Not Descend Into Hell: A Plea for Following Scripture instead of the Apostles Creed”, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 34 no. 1 (March 1991), 103-113.  Also, for a comprehensive take on 1 Peter 3:18-20 (the main text that people appeal to for biblical support on this question), one should pick up William Kelly’s book Preaching to the Spirits in Prison, which goes through all 22 competing interpretations of 1 Peter 3:18-20 and gives the passage an exhaustive treatment.

[2] Michael D. Williams, “He Descended Into Hell?  An Issue of Confessional Integrity” Presbyterion 25 no 2 (Fall 1999), 82.

[3] James F. Kay, “He Descended Into Hell,” Word & World 31 no 1 (Winter 2011), 19.

Lyndon Unger

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Lyndon is a pastor/teacher who’s currently between ministry work and in the Canadian Mennonite Brethren Witness Protection program. If you think you saw him didn’t.
  • Matt

    My roommate and I were wondering about that ourselves this weekend – thanks for the (albeit regrettably brief; I do enjoy your long posts) answer! Hope you’re still improving, take care.

    • Lyndon Unger

      Thanks for the vote of confidence for my long rambling posts! I’m waiting on medication, so I’m stuck in a holding pattern…but it should be 1-2 months and I’ll be on my next round of medication. Still coveting your prayers.

  • Warner Aldridge

    Glad someone addressed this.

    Grace and Peace

    • Lyndon Unger

      Glad I could be of service! It’s one of those annoying “theological mosquitoes” that often is left unaddressed.

  • Shaun Little

    I was literally thinking about this the other day. I always had a hard time saying that part during liturgies that had us corporately say it out loud. I found Sheol to be a more acceptable word which I believe just means ‘the grave’ or the place of death.

    The whole ‘descended into hell’ always bothered me. I think mostly because some of the TBN loonies believe Christ decended into hell, was tormented for 3 days because they believed he had to suffer in a more ‘spiritual’ fashion to grant us entrance into an eternal kingdom. Just like pretty much anything they preach on TBN they really had no biblical backbone aside from a few bad proof-texts and then claimed special revelation to strengthen their argument (Haggin or Copeland was known for it).

    I wanted to throw this out there because I am not exactly certain, but I loosely hold the understanding that the hell that we know as being eternal punishment where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth or referred to as Gehenna has not been formed yet (I know the parable of Abraham’s bosom but it is a parable), but will be manifest in judgment. Seriously I’m firing this off without doing an REAL study on it.

    To me I guess it’s one of those things that are left unclear or a mystery until all is revealed, but am curious if anyone has any insight on it.

    • Lyndon Unger

      Could you clarify? So where are the dead and unrepentant sinners now?

      • Shaun Little

        I really can’t, hence why I made the statement about “left unclear” or a “mystery”. My position is pretty lose as I don’t see enough to build a solid confession on it either way, nor do I find it necessary for salvation. I don’t believe in purgatory or anything like that. I just think it’s something that is in the realm of God’s ‘divine majesty’ that transcends human comprehension. Time and space perhaps does not exist in the way we understand it due to the limitations of our earthen vessel. I don’t want to throw out any conjectures and sound silly or give anyone bad ideas that are just the result of my own private speculations.

        • Shaun Little

          I think I made my statement in my first comment based on the final judgment spoken of in Daniel 12:1, Revelation 20:11-15.

          Before the final judgment are those who are hell bound kept in a nasty holding cell until final judgment? and likewise are the redeemed kept in a more cozy waiting room? Are they asleep? are they kept all together is Sheol? Does time (chronological order of things) even matter in this case? Paul does state that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, but he also speaks of those who are asleep as though there was a time in which they shall be awakened. I do not believe there are any contradictions in scripture, and if there appears to be then there is just something we do not understand and so I feel more comfortable planting my feet in God’s transcendence on this matter and trusting that it will all be revealed.

          I’m sorry I just realized I should keep my comment rooted in grounded in what I can and do understand and avoid idle speculation because it is not edifying. So I suppose I retract my statement above about Hell not being formed yet.

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  • But wait, didn’t Joyce Meyer’s teach that Jesus had to descend into hell to battle to get the keys from satan, to bring them to Joel Osteen or something like that?

    • Lyndon Unger

      Yeah, but weren’t the keys lost again when Egon and Ray crossed their streams and annihilated Gozer the Gozerian? Maybe I’m confusing word faith theology with something else…?!?

  • John T. Jeffery

    Thanks for posting this, and for our careful treatment of the issue. I especially appreciate the sources you referred us to. Here are some others that I have found useful in trying to get a handle on this issue:

    John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill,
    trans. Ford Lewis Battles, Library of Christian Classics, gen. eds. John
    Baillie, John T. McNeill, and Henry P. Van Dusen (Philadelphia: The Westminster
    Press, 1960), Vol. I, pp. 512-520 [2:16:8-12]; see esp. I:515n23 [2:16:10n23].

    The Creeds of Christendom With a History and Critical Notes, ed. Philip Schaff, rev. David S. Schaff, 6th ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, n.d.; 1990 reprint from 1931 Harper & Row ed.), I:21, 21n6; II:45-50, 46n2, 50n4.

    Documents of the Christian Church, ed. Henry Bettensen, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1963), pg. 24.

    Heinrich Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics, rev. and ed. Ernst Bizer, trans. G. T. Thompson (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, n.d.; 1978 reprint of 1950 original, from Reformed Dogmatik), pp. 490-494.

    Norman Apel Koop, The Truth of the Matter: Studies in the Apostles’ Creed (Deerfield Street, NJ: Word of Truth Publications, Inc., 1977), pp. 63-68.

    Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1985), pp. 89-90, s.v. descensus ad inferos.

    Reformed Dogmatics, ed. and trans. John W. Beardslee, III (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1965), pp. 101-102, s.v. Johannes Wollebius, Christianae Compendium Theologiae (1626), Book I, Ch. XVIII: “The Humiliation of Christ the Mediator”, Proposition XVII.

    Reformed Standards of Unity (Grand Rapids: Society For Reformed Publications, 1952; and Grand Rapids: Rose Publishing Co., n.d.), pp. 11, and 33.

    R. C. Sproul, The Symbol: An Exposition of the Apostles’ Creed (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1973).

    H. B. Swete, The Apostles’ Creed and Primitive Christianity (1894).

    • Lyndon Unger

      Thanks for the further sources!

  • Fibber MaGee

    Interesting and excellent post. It sort of vindicates my
    feelings about creeds in general. My brother-in-law asked the question. He asked how Jesus could say to the thief
    that he would be with him in paradise that very day and at the same time spend three days
    in hell. I had never thought about it before but, it seemed rather simple. The
    text is clear about Jesus in paradise that very day, so the question is, where
    does it say he went to hell (Grudem is right!)? Our answer was nowhere except 1
    Peter 3:19 and since it doesn’t say how long, we concluded that it was not very
    long (before the day was over duh).

    • Lyndon Unger

      And that all depends on your understanding of 1 Peter 3:19 as well…

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  • Daryl Little

    And interesting article. It’s helpful to know the history behind the idea.

    For my part, it always seemed to me that the thief on the cross (Fibber MaGee’s point) and Jesus’ statement “It is finished” made it pretty clear that where ever He went during those three days, He wasn’t there to suffer for me.

    I find John MacArthur’s teaching compelling. He says that the three hours of darkness during the crucifixion were 3 hours of God’s unmitigated wrath. He couples that with the thinking that when Jesus said “Why have you forsaken me” He meant it. Not that the Trinity was broken in that moment, but that the Father had always been present with the Son in eternal love, but for those three hours He was present in total wrath. So He forsook the Son in love, but not in such a way as to destroy God.
    That would be similar, I would think, to the reality that the torments of Hell occur “in the presence of the Lamb” (Rev. 14:10)

    But Jesus in Hell? As you say, it’s just not there.

    • Lyndon Unger

      Agreed. Jesus may have endured massive suffering during or as a result of the crucifixion, but he didn’t suffer in Hell. The Bible simply cannot support that idea.

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