Thursday, March 25, 2010

Jesus' Descent into Hell

My article from today's Algona Upper Des Moines about Jesus' descending into hell:

Q: In church, I heard it said in the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus “descended into hell.” Is this true, and if so, why did Jesus go to hell?

In describing Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Apostles’ Creed says that Jesus, “was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. The third day He rose again from the dead.”

The statement that Jesus “descended into hell” is based on the Apostle 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.” (1 Peter 3:18-20 ESV)

Ancient documents like the Creeds have been handed down to us from other languages, such as Latin, Hebrew, and Greek. The English word “hell” in this sentence of the Creed can be a bit confusing, because it can be used in reference to several different words from these ancient languages. Typically, when English speakers hear this word, we think of the fiery pit described in the book of Revelation where Satan and the demons are destined to be punished for eternity. In this case, “hell” is used as a translation of the Latin word inferna, which literally means “the lower world,” and in the verses mentioned earlier, Peter uses the phrase “in prison” to describe the location of the spirits to whom Jesus proclaimed His message. The place to which Peter and the Creed refer is not the fiery pit spoken of in Revelation, but the place where condemned souls go to await the eternal punishment they will receive on judgment day.

Because the Bible’s coverage of Jesus descending into hell is not extremely broad, there remains a certain layer of mystery surrounding this topic. However, based on other teachings from the Bible, we can draw several conclusions about Jesus descending into hell.

First, Jesus did not spend the entire time between His death and resurrection in hell. As He was being crucified, Jesus told the thief who was being crucified next to Him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." (Luke 23:43 ESV) According to Jesus words, His spirit, along with that of the thief, were in paradise, not hell following their deaths.

Second, Jesus did not descend into hell to be punished. As Jesus was dying, He declared “It is finished,” indicating that at the moment of His death, the penalty for sin had been fully paid, and required no more suffering on His part. When Jesus was abandoned by God the Father on the cross and died, He had already completely suffered the punishment for the world’s sin. Additionally, in speaking about evil forces, Paul says that Jesus “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them. (Col. 2:15 ESV)

Third, in the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16), Jesus teaches that after death, souls are irreversibly divided into two places, one for the saved, and one for the condemned. The place to which Jesus descended was a place where condemned souls resided and not the saved. We know this because peter refers to them as being “in prison,” and later says that they are there because “they did not obey.”

Lastly, Jesus did not go and preach to the spirits “in prison” in order to give them a second chance at salvation. At death, a person’s eternal status is permanently decided based on whether they trusted Jesus to save them. This is clearly explained in Jesus teaching in the story of the rich man and Lazarus, as well as the statement in the book of Hebrews that, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” (Hebrews 9:27 ESV)

Based on these things, we can conclude that Jesus died Friday afternoon, and His spirit was in paradise with God the Father. His body was buried, and on Sunday morning, He was raised to life, at which time He preached to the spirits in prison and then was seen alive by His disciples.

The purpose for which Jesus descended into hell was not to be punished or to give condemned souls a second chance, but instead to proclaim His victory. Like an ancient king would travel through conquered territory to proclaim His victory to His new subjects or a driver takes a victory lap after a race, Jesus descends into hell to proclaim His victory by the cross over Satan, sin, and death.

Readers may submit questions to or to P.O. Box 195; Burt, IA 50522.


  1. You outlined the chronology and reasoning for the preaching of Christ's victory and triumph quite well. It certainly echoes well with what I have come to understand in the teachings I have received in the Lutheran Church. However, I was just wondering how a term I have learned just recently, 'revivication' fits into this chronology you've given. For I was led to understand that Lazarus was revivified not resurrected. Only Christ thus far has been resurrected, that is brought into the very glory of God and we will, on that last and great glorious day be raised too. So was Jesus already resurrected when he preached to the prisoners or in the beginning of his exaltation, being only revivified when he spoke to them?

  2. Through both a Bachelors and Masters education in theology, I had never encountered the term "revivification." I was familiar with the term "vivification" (without the "re"), but not the term as stated in your post. Since doing a little research to see how the term "revivification" has been used, I realize my unfamiliarity with the term seems to be because the distinction between resurrection and revivification is one that is foreign to the majority of Lutheran theologians.

    In keeping with the distinction between the two words as you describe it, Jesus would have been already resurrected at the time of the descent into Hell. I can find no justificatino in Scripture to separate the events of Jesus' resurrection into two events where Jesus' body is first "revivified" then later given immortality and eternal glory (i.e. "resurrection" as distinct from "revivification. The timeline of the events of Jesus' death and resurrection goes as follows:

    1. Jesus dies (Friday afternoon)
    2. Jesus is buried (Friday evening)
    3. Jesus becomes alive again (the meaning of "vivification" [without the "re"]) (early Sunday morning)
    4. Jeuss descends into Hell
    5. Jesus appears to the disciples and the women (Sunday morning and evening)
    6. Jesus appears to others over the course of 40 days.
    7. Jesus ascends into heaven.

  3. As I re-read this article today, I see something that might be worth clarifying. Jesus victory over Satan was not accomplished by His descent into Hell. The victory was already won by His crucified death, as signified by the tearing of the temple curtain. The descent was for the purpose of announcing the victory that had already been won.

  4. If he rose from the dead prior to going to hell, why does the apostle's creed have this happening after he descended into hell? I have been researching the creed, which prompted my discovery of your thorough explanation.

    1. That is an interesting point, and I would point out that we're doing reconstruction here based on a very limited number of Scriptural texts.

      I think the reason the Creed uses the order it does is because that is the order in which the events were observed. When the disciples observed the resurrected Christ, He had already returned from the descent into hell; therefore the resurrection is listed after the descent.

      However, as it seems more reasonable that Jesus descended alive and bodily, rather than as a disembodied spirit, this is reconciled by the timeline above where He first rises, then descends, then is observed alive by the disciples.

  5. Do you have an answer about the difference between the descent into hell the descent to the dead? I have been surprised in two LC-MS congregations by the change to the descent to the dead instead of descent into hell and now the new arrival Pastor has introduced this change.I think there is a connection with those who advocate the soul sleep until the return of Christ but since it is not what I was always taught nor what the Lutheran Confessions teach it makes me cringe. Is this the future for LC-MS?

    1. I have not witnessed this change myself. I do not believe this is a preview of future things for our synod. Both the Latin and German of the Apostles' Creed clearly refer to hell and not merely the dead, and our newest hymnal has retained the translation of "Descended into hell" also. I have never seen an official worship resource published with "descended to the dead" as a substitution. I can only assume that this is the result of a pastor who either 1. feels uncomfortable with the idea of Jesus in Hell or 2. fears offending members or visitors by mentioning the descent in the liturgy. Either way, he is out of step with our tradition, our confession, and the use of the creed across language and history. I would assume these are merely isolated incidents or part of a very small minority that traces back to a common source (such as a shared seminary professor or attendance at the same conference where the topic was discussed).