20 – He Descended into Hell

He descended into Hell

I Peter 3:18-23, 4:6,  John 5:25-29, Psalm 88, Ps 139:7-10

“He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried.
He descended into hell.“

There is no line of the creed that has raised the curiosity of the church more than the simple line, “He descended into hell.” As soon as that line of the Apostle’s Creed is read all sorts of discussion happens.  Some will say, but that line is not in the creed that I recite.  In some versions of the Apostle’s creed these words are missing or altered.  In most churches, however, the strange words are retained.  It is not found in the Nicene Creed, which though it is fuller in detail, nonetheless leaves out any reference to such an event in the life of Jesus.  The facts are that these words were added no earlier than the year A.D. 359 in some of the creeds of the church, and not into the Apostles Creed until 570.  Perhaps these words should not be in the creed at all.  But the church added them to safeguard a set of truths they considered crucial to a healthy faith.

But what do these words mean?”  The church knows that it is naming a mystery when it speaks these words. Throughout the centuries the Christian church has held various perspectives on this matter.  Allow me to scan the options with you, and perhaps some nourishment may come from one or more of the options.

So let me give you some warning: this is going to be a multiple-choice essay.  Feel free to adopt or reject any or all of them.

1.         He Descended into Death

Some have said that all this phrase intends to say is that he was placed in the tomb, that is, placed into the grave.  The line, they say, is merely an expansion of the word, “buried.”  The creed simply intended to put the final nail in His coffin by asserting that he was absolutely dead! He was dead enough to be buried.

This may be all that was intended and if that is so, one thing is inferred for sure: there was no immediate resuscitation or resurrection a few moments after he died.  Here was no “near death experience” where heart and brain activity stop for 10 minutes.  He was both dead & buried and was placed in the grave, for his life was over.  He did not merely swoon to be revived a short time later.  So the phrase simply underscores that he shared the death of all humankind

2.         He Descended into Hades.

But some have said the words mean more than simple burial in a local tomb.  The language of the creed in its original Latin is  “He descended into Hades.” Hades was considered to be the corporate grave of all humanity.  (Read Psalm 88)

The Greek idea of Hades and the Hebrew idea of Sheol was that it was a vast shadowy underworld where all the dead existed, the good, the bad, and the ugly, in a kind of ghost-like state. It was the place from whence no one ever returned.

In the Old Testament there had been no clear teaching about life after death and so there was the feeling that our ancestors were dead, but had somehow continued to exist somewhere in a kind of suspended animation.

So when the creed says, “he descended into Hades” it may simply signify that He was dead and numbered with all those who had died previously from the very beginning of time. He now shared the fate of all mortals.  He was treated no differently, and went to the place of the departed dead.  There are passages of scripture that seem to suggest this: In Acts 2:27,  Peter quotes Psalm 16:10 on the day of Pentecost when he speaks of the resurrection of Jesus:  “You will not abandon my soul in Hades, nor let your holy One suffer corruption.”  Peter presumed that Jesus had spent some time in Hades prior to his resurrection.

Romans 10:6-7, Paul writes to those who are looking for Christ, “Do not say in your heart, who will ascend into heaven? (That is to bring Christ down) or who will descend into the Abyss? (That is to bring Christ up from the dead).” It seems like Paul thought that the abyss or Hades had been the residence of Christ prior to his resurrection.

In Eph 4:8-10 Paul also writes “Jesus also descended into the lower parts of the earth. He who descended is also the one who ascended far above all heavens,” One suspicion is that “The lower parts of the earth” may be a reference to Hades

The conclusion of many is, therefore, that Jesus shared in the death of all who had gone on before and went to Hades the corporate grave of the entire human race.

3.         He Descended into hell.

But there have been those who go a step further.  They say, he did not merely descend into a private grave, and not only to Hades, the corporate grave of humanity, but he went to hell, the place called Gehennah, the place of eternal condemnation.

There was no doubt that on that Good Friday his enemies presumed he had gone down to hell.  They had consigned him to the world’s darkest dungeon from which none had ever returned!  They believed that “everyone who is hung upon a tree was cursed.” So he died a cursed death, followed by a quick burial and absolute damnation.

But others are quick to note that the words read, “He descended”.  He wasn’t sent.  He wasn’t consigned against his will.   He chose to go.  He was cooperative, participatory.  It was voluntary.  The active voice is used here, not the passive.  He was not sent.  He descended into hell.

But if he chose to descend into such a hell, the question must be raised, if he went to that hell, what was he doing there?   Several responses are put forward.

A.        He descended into hell to pay the full penalty of our sins.   

Some have responded to that question and said that He experienced death and hell for us, in our stead.  He suffered the just for the unjust, the entire extent of the penalty of death, humiliation, rejection and damnation.

That is why in Gethsemane he prays three times, with such agony, “If it be possible, let this cup pass from me.”   It is not a prayer of cowardice. It is not that he is reluctant to simply face death, as all of us must do.   It is the awareness that he faced judgment for every person.  That might explain the cry of dereliction that comes from his lips on the cross, “My God, My God, Why have You forsaken me?”  It was his baptism of fire.  He is draining the cup of judgment, so that we would not need to.

In His death, He paid the full price for all my sins by suffering the consequences that I should have faced.  He took my place in death, and he took my place in hell, suffering all that I should have suffered.  He tasted death with its full consequences.

If this explanation is at all true, then the love of God is amazing!  There is no greater love anywhere in the universe.  God is worthy of all praise for His amazing graciousness!

B.         He descended into hell to declare his universal dominion. 

But others have suggested a very different response.  They assert quickly, that Jesus did not descend into hell as victim, but as victor!  This is the response of Martin Luther and many in the earlier centuries of Christian story.

His descent into hell was first of all the demonstration of his Lordship. He is Lord over “hell and earth and sky.”   There is no place where his dominion does not extend. As the psalmist says: “Even if I make my bed in hell, He is there.”   There is no place where he does not exert his sovereign rule.  Not even hell is outside his power to open or seal its gates.

Listen to the declaration of Paul in Philippians 2:9-11.   “At the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”

These same theologians add an additional reason for his descent into hell.  He went there to declare his defeat of the devil and all things demonic.  On the cross the great victory was won, and then Jesus descends to the Devil’s domain, to the enemy’s turf, to declare it openly.  “Na, na, / na. na. na. na/ na. na. na. / good by!”

Some of the early Fathers of the church suggested that he went down there to kick the gates of hell off their hinges.  He descended to pull down Satan’s strongholds.   It is called in medieval theology, “the Harrowing of Hell.”   As in life he plundered Satan’s kingdom, undoing his vicious work, so in his death he extends the demolition to the very heart of Satan’s realm.   Like Samson of old, he did more damage in his death to the Philistine kingdom of evil, than he had ever done in his life.

St. Paul. In Colossians 2:15 infers something of this when speaking about the death of Jesus:  “He disarmed the rulers and authorities.  He made a public example of them, by conquering them in his cross.”

So Luther may be right when he sings  A Mighty Fortress is our God.

The prince of darkness grim,
we tremble not for him, 
his rage we can endure
For Lo his doom is sure
One little word shall fell him!

St. Matthew tells us that in the moments following the death of Jesus a remarkable thing happened in Jerusalem.   An earthquake shook the place, tombs cracked open and the bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection went into the city and appeared to many.” (Matt 27:51-53)  It is as though his death broke open the seals of Hades or Hell for those who had died before his coming, and granted them release.

Paul can therefore shout with the voice of triumph, “Death where is your sting! Grave where is your victory!”  Death and the grave, Hades and Hell have been dealt their deathblow.  Jesus is the victor over death and hell and the devil.

C.        He descended into hell to evangelize the lost.

But others have suggested an answer even more bold.  Jesus, they say, went down to hell to evangelize.  This may be the meaning of that strange passage in I Peter 3:18-20, 4:6.  “He preached to the souls in prison.”  Some have suggested that Jesus went there to speak to all who died before his coming, to give them an opportunity to respond to the gospel.  To give a second chance to those who had not been told of his life and death and coming resurrection.

Israel had been given a commission to be a light to the Gentiles.  She had failed to take that responsibility seriously and had left the other nations in the darkness.  Clement of Alexandria, one of the early church fathers held the view that Jesus preached to all the Gentile dead who had lived according to the best light they had, so that they could, even after death, be given an opportunity to embrace the Gospel.

The early Christian Church understood that the power of the death of Christ worked backwards in time as well as forwards in time, offering Salvation to all who had ever lived and all who were yet to be born.  The offer of salvation is more generous than we can conceive!  A second chance, post death!!  There is a subject for profound debate!


But we must come to a conclusion.  There has been much division of thought about these unusual lines.

  • Did he descend to the grave? No doubt about it.
  • Did he descend into Hades? Well there is no doubt he tasted death and its full consequences as we all do.
  • Did he descend into hell? We cannot be sure.

But some things are sure.  The intent of the ancient church in adding this phrase, was to underscore the extent of the redemption that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ wrought in heaven and in hell and on the earth.

  1. Because of his death and his resurrection, death need have no tyranny over us ever again.  The grave has had its ends kicked out, so that it now becomes a highway to heaven and not a dead-end street.
  2. Hell is guaranteed no prey.   No one need go there every again.  To avoid such a fate all we need to do is ally ourselves with Christ.  The cartoon is priceless here.  It is the BC comic strip.  The woman is reading a book. She lifts her head and says to her husband, “Oh my goodness! It says here, Jesus descended into hell!”  The man replies, “You’re kidding!”  She responds, “Oh no… Not to Stay.  He just dropped in to cancel our reservations!”  Hell is no necessary destination for anyone.
  3. Satan has been put in his place so that we can now say, “boo” to him and he will flee.  He has been defeated for all those who lean on Christ.  In His death & resurrection Jesus broke the back of evil. All evil has been defeated. All that was against humankind has been nailed to his cross.  Sin and Satan, death & hell need no longer have dominion over us. We have been freed from the very things that have always made us fearful.

Listen to St. Paul as he interprets the death, descent, resurrection and ascension of Jesus the Christ.    “When Jesus ascended up on high, He led captive all that had captured us!”

Holy Communion has been seen by many as a penitential time when we beat up on ourselves and beg for mercy.   But the Eastern church saw this sacrament as a victory banquet celebrating the resurrected presence of Christ among us, and celebrate His having won a great victory over every evil, including our sins.  I like that version!


2 Responses to 20 – He Descended into Hell

  1. Colin Bruins says:

    A very helpful and balanced explanation. I am going through the Apostles Creed with my children right now and this is the part of the creed that is giving them the most trouble (and me as a father the most trouble in explaining it properly). Your explanation has given me better tools to discuss this theological premise with a younger generation.

    • prodigalprof says:


      Thanks for your kind words. There are some issues towards which I move with significant conviction, and others like “The Decent” I am prepared to suspend judgment.
      Grace & Peace to you and yours!


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