Jesus Descended into Hell, Kind of
By Justin W. Bass
St. Augustine asked in the fifth century, “Who, therefore, but an infidel will deny that Christ was in hell?” (Ep. 164) And in just the last few decades Wayne Grudem wrote an article (reflecting the views of many of the Reformed persuasion today) entitled “He Did not Descend into Hell” (JETS 34 (March 1991)). Who is right, St. Augustine or Wayne Grudem? When in doubt always obey the maxim: Follow St. Augustine!
Let me explain why.
First of all, Christ did not, between His death and resurrection, descend into what you think of when you hear the English word “Hell.” Neither the New Testament nor the Early Church Fathers ever taught that Jesus went into the place of eternal torment (Gehenna or the Lake of Fire). The word “Hell” in the Apostles’ Creed is simply a bad translation that originates not in the English, but the Latin translation of the Creed. The phrase in Latin was originally ad inferos which is itself a correct translation of the Greek phrase eis ta katathonίa (“into the underworld/lower regions”). The first creedal appearance of this phrase in Greek (“He descended into the underworld”) is found in the Fourth Formula of Sirmium in AD 359, but Swete believes the phrase dates to the second century (Apostles’ Creed, 61-62). Rufinus (AD 400) reflects the earliest change from inferos (underworld) to inferna (Hell) which led to such confusion about Christ’s descending to the damned (Gehenna) instead of to the underworld (Sheol/Hades) in general. Hence the incorrect English translation: “He descended into Hell.”
Second, that Christ did descend into the more general Sheol (Hebrew) or Hades (Greek) between His death and resurrection is very clear from the Apostolic witness of the NT.
I’ll just give two examples here, one from Peter and one from Paul.
Descendit ad Inferna “He descended into hell” from the Apostles’ Creed finds its clearest justification in the NT when Peter says twice of Christ “You will not abandon my soul to Hades” (οὐκ ἐγκαταλείψεις τὴν ψυχήν μου εἰς ᾅδην) (Acts 2:27, 31). Moule rightly notes that this can mean nothing else except that Christ’s soul was in Hades between His death and resurrection. “Acts 2:27, 31 clearly means nothing else than in Hades, whatever the original (Ps. 16) may mean” (An Idiom book of New Testament Greek, 68). There is no speculation on what Christ did while His soul was in Hades, but that He went there cannot be denied from this text.
In Romans 10:6-7, Paul’s primary purpose is not to teach Christ’s descent, but that he reflects the fact of the descensus ad inferos is agreed upon by the vast majority of scholars, even Grudem seems to admit this one (see his article p. 108). Paul is speaking here about what is impossible such as snatching Christ from heaven (which cannot be done because he is already there) or bringing Christ up from the abyss (which cannot be done because he has already been resurrected). In contrast to what is impossible to reach, Paul is saying that the “word of faith” i.e. the Gospel is near us and within everyone’s grasp (Rom 10:8). Everyone agrees that Paul is using Christ’s ascension (which Paul undoubtedly believed in) to make a theological point, so why would anyone doubt that Paul didn’t believe the other side of the analogy, that Christ descended into the abyss?
Now it is important to note that neither of these passages tell us what we all want to know, namely, what did Christ do while He was in these realms of the underworld?!
If you want the answer(s) to that question then you must go deep into other passages in the NT, read the profound discussions of this topic among the Fathers beginning with St. Ignatius in AD 117, and most importantly you must purchase my book.
Lastly, to satisfy your curiosity a bit, I argue extensively in my book that Christ accomplished three great feats during this 36 hours or so while Christ was a “soul among souls”:
He Preached (1 Pet 3:18-20)
He Liberated (Eph 4:8-10)
He Conquered (Revelation 1:17-18)
Christ’s descent was not the concluding stage of His passion, but the opening stage of His Triumph! Again as to why Christ descended, well Tertullian said it best in the third century, “Christ went to the Underworld for this very purpose,—that we might not go there” (An. 55)
The Battle for the Keys: Revelation 1:18 and Christ’s Descent to the Underworld