Did Jesus Really Descend to Hell?
In the Apostles' Creed, there is a statement about Jesus descending into hell. Did he literally go there?—DEBRA BLACK, Alton, IllinoisEach Sunday, millions of Christians around the world recite the Apostles' Creed, including that statement:
"I believe that Jesus … descended into hell."
Yet a few years back at one Christian college, a series of chapel messages on the Apostles' Creed had to omit this item, because none of the 12 professors of Bible and theology believed it. Actually the statement is not found in the earliest form of the Apostles' Creed. It echoes Acts 2:31, and seems to be there simply to make the point that Jesus' death was real and complete. Jesus went to hades, which in the Greek signifies the world of the departed—paradise for some, pain for others. When the Apostles' Creed took its English form in the sixteenth century, "hell" meant hades as such, rather than the final state of the lost (which Jesus called gehenna), as it always is today. So, should those who accept the Bible as their supreme authority for belief hold to the Creed's doctrine on this point?
Scripture tells us very little about Jesus' state between his death and resurrection. The most commonly cited biblical passages are Acts 2:31 ; Ephesians 4:8-10 ; 1 Peter 4:6; and, most importantly, 1 Peter 3:18-20. Ephesians 4 is likely a reference to the Incarnation, and 1 Peter 4:6 could apply to any preaching of the gospel. But numerous interpretations of 1 Peter 3:18-20 exist. Some say the 1 Peter 3 passage should not be taken literally—that it is symbolic, conveying in graphic form the idea that redemption is universal in its extent. This, however, involves a more spiritualized hermeneutic than usually practiced by evangelicals.
Others contend that this refers to a descent by Jesus into the realm of the dead between his death and resurrection, and an actual preaching to its occupants, either offering salvation to them or declaring his own triumph over death and judgment upon those who in their earthly life did not respond to God. This interpretation, however, seems in conflict with the rest of Jesus' life and ministry—and with the context of the passage, which emphasizes a faithful, gentle witness, giving a reason for one's faith, even in the face of opposition . At the same time, the non-literal interpretation has difficulty accounting adequately for the reference to Noah , unless the preaching was restricted only to people from Noah's time, which seems strange. It also appears to conflict with the theological context, or how our interpretation fits with other, more clearly established doctrines. Here we encounter biblical references teaching the finality of death over and against any opportunity for salvation, at least since the time of Christ.
Many consider the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) pertinent to the question, as are much of Psalm 49 and Revelation 20:11-15. Hebrews 9:27 indicates a close linkage between death and judgment, with nothing mentioned as intervening. And Jesus' statement to the thief on the cross—"today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:42,43)—also is relevant.
One other interpretation, held by Augustine and defended strongly by several evangelicals, seems more promising. In this view, Christ preached "in spirit" through Noah as Noah built the ark. This was a message of repentance and righteousness, given to unbelieving people who were then on earth but now are "spirits in prison" (i.e., in hell).