The Apostles' Creed Part 5: Jesus in Hell?
"Jesus descended into hell; the third day he arose again from the dead." —from the Apostles' Creed
Jesus went to hell.
OK, how's that for a crazy idea? How could Jesus—God come to us as a human being—possibly end up in hell? Even for a little while. What were they thinking when they put that in the Apostles' Creed? In fact, it's an idea that has upset, confused and ticked off a lot of people for centuries. Jesus in that hot, nasty burning place of torture? Toasting for a while alongside Satan and his demons?
Well, not exactly.
While Christian scholars disagree on what specifically the Creed writers had in mind, there are many who think "hell" simply refers to the grave—or the "place" of death. In fact, the Hebrew word for grave is Sheol (see Psalm 18:5). And it may be what the Creed writers were talking about when they wrote "hell."
So was Jesus just lifeless or kind of resting down there in Sheol? Or was his spirit wandering around in some spiritual dimension visiting dead prisoners? That's what it seems to imply in 1 Peter 3:18: "Christ died once for our sins … was put to death and his spirit was made alive. Christ then preached to the spirits that were being kept in prison" (CEV).
Again, pretty confusing, controversial and strange-sounding stuff. Yet as weird as it sounds, we can't lose sight of a very important truth: Jesus had to die and he had to be totally separated from God the Father for a while. In that sense, he had to go to some sort of hell—a place of extreme separation from God. He might not have experienced the torment of a place of unquenchable fire, but he did experience the torment of total abandonment from his heavenly Father. He had to do this so that we wouldn't have to be spiritually separated from God for all of eternity. The perfect, sinless Son of God took our place in death so that we could live with him forever in heaven. The Bible puts it like this:
"Christ redeemed us from that self-defeating, cursed life by absorbing it completely into himself. … That is what happened when Jesus was nailed to the cross: He became a curse, and at the same time dissolved the curse …" (Galatians 3:13-14, The Message).
Jesus pulled the sins of humanity into his body. God the Father, who can't stand to look at sin, turned away and separated himself from his beloved Son.
Of course, we know this separation thing isn't the whole story. As the Apostles' Creed says, "the third day he arose again from the dead."
While this phrase might not be as wild sounding as "he descended into hell," it's still a pretty crazy idea. Think about it. This is not the same as saying your gym clothes mysteriously washed themselves, and your locker automatically stopped smelling like dead fish—although that might seem pretty miraculous.
The Son of God—dead and buried—stood up, without any help, and walked out of the grave. Not only that, he spent time walking around, he ate with friends, and he encouraged them to touch his body to prove he was more than a ghost. And he not only appeared to a small group of his closest friends, but he showed up before more than 500 people at once (1 Corinthians 15:6).