Did Jesus Really Descend Into Hell?

by Josh Stone, Pastor of LifeGroups

For those with more questions about Sunday’s Sermon on whether Christ really did descend into hell. Here are my full (and unedited) sermon notes as I prepared for week 6 of the Because We Believe series on Sunday, October 28, 2018. I hope you’ll find them helpful.


Did Jesus really Descend into Hell? Cultural View

  • I’d like you to participate in a quick self-test:
  • Grab your worship Guide and a pen
    • In a moment I’m going to say a word, and I want you to draw when comes to mind. Ready? “Hell”
      • Whatever pops up, draw that in the box in your worship guide. I’ll give you a second.
    • What comes to my mind is a man in a red suit with a pitchfork, horns, and sharp tail
      • Utter darkness, a lake with fire, demons that have people locked up in cages, grotesque depictions of creatures half-human, half animal
      • This week we will be inundated with images of hell and the demonic because of Halloween
    • Almost all of the things that we think of when we think of “hell” have come not from the Bible but from these two men: Dante Aligiehri and Gustave Dore
      • Dante wrote The Inferno in the 14th century as an allegorical tale of Dante being guided by Virgil, the famous Roman orator, through the nine circles of hell
        • The book is powerful, dramatic, grotesque, and was incredibly popular
      • Later, in the 19th century, Gustave Dore created a series of illustrations of The Inferno bound in a book that were a sensation and best seller
        • The Inferno was the Star Wars if its day
      • We are continuing our series on the Apostle’s Creed, and today the section we are looking at is “He Descended into Hell; and on the third day he rose again from the dead”
      • The resurrection is something that is familiar to us, that we preach on regularly. But what about this descended into Hell part? What’s that all about?
      • Today we are going to deep dive into the phrase “He descended into hell.”
        • Before we get started I want to ask this question, “Why do I always get the hard topics!”
          • “Descended into hell! Are you serious?”
        • There are two obstacles you and I face on this topic
          • 1st: There are many misconceptions about the afterlife that this message cannot possibly address
          • 2nd: There are a lot of different views on this section of the Creed
            • We will talk about them but can’t possibly address all our questions about this topic in 35 minutes
            • But, if you have questions about the message today, please email us at rickducan@cvconline.org
          • If you follow along with me today, you will:
            • 1) have a clear understanding of what this phrase means
            • 2) have greater reason trust in Jesus Christ

 

Did Jesus descend into hell? Yes… sort of.

  • Did Jesus descend into a world of pitchforks and red men and scurrying demons? No.
  • Understood properly, “Did Jesus really descend into hell?” My answer is Yes … sort of.

 

Pray

 

Text of John

  • John 19:28–30
    • After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
  • John 19:40–42
    • So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.

 

Did Jesus really Descend into Hell? Four Theological Views

  • In the next few minutes, I want to give you a fly-over of the various views of “He descended into hell”, then I’d like to share with you why one specific view seems to be the most faithful, and has been the view of most Christians for most of history
  • I’m going to list them from the view held by the least Christians throughout time to the one held by the most
  • Don’t try to write all this stuff down. I’ll put my full notes and research online this week. And, Rick Duncan will include a blog post highlighting some differences he and I have on this topic
  • The key passages that the Descent hinges on is Acts 2:27; Rom 10:6-7; Eph 4:8-9; 1 Peter 3:18-20; Hebrews 11, and 12, among others
  • The “Discard” View
    • There are some modern scholars that think this phrase got inadvertently slipped into the Creed later than other articles, or that the decent simply isn’t biblical. So, we should take it out.
    • This is the view held by the fewest Christians but by some scholars that I really appreciate and recommend at our church, like Wayne Grudem takes this position.
  • The “Buried” View
    • This view says that the descent was simply an illustrative way of describing the burial of Jesus in the earth
  • The “Second Chance” View
    • There are some, including some Eastern Orthodox theologians, that believe Jesus went down to the place of the dead to preach the Gospel to those who did not believe before Christ came. For example, those who made fun of Noah when he was building the ark.
    • Jesus really descended into hell in order to give people who had died a second chance to believe in the promise that God would send a Savior.
  • The “Pain on the Cross” View
    • This view says that Jesus experienced “descended into hell” in that he experienced the physical, psychological, and spiritual anguish of hell on the cross
    • The famous reformer John Calvin held this view, Matt Chandler takes this view, and the Heidelberg Catechism, a tool developed in 16th century to teach the faith, says that the descent was “which He suffered in His soul on the cross and before.”
    • Hell = pain on the cross

 

Theological Views Assessed

  • Before I present to you the most common view, and the view that I believe, let’s assess the above views briefly
  • The “Discard” View
    • Scholars contend that this view doesn’t take in consideration a number of biblical passages and thousands of years of theological analysis
    • Suggesting that, after 2000 years, a specific theologian has come to a position different from the early church but biblically correct seems presumptuous to many, including myself
  • The “Buried” View
    • Though it is true that Jesus was buried, the Creed mentions Jesus’ burial in the previous phrase. It would seem odd to just restate what was already mentioned directly before.
  • The “Second Chance” View
    • This view seems to go against the clear teaching of a number of biblical passages, especially Heb 9:27 which says, “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that face judgement.”
    • Also, it inadvertently teaches that everyone goes to heaven when they die, which is clearly not taught in Scripture
  • The “Pain on the Cross” View
    • This view is certainly legitimate, but this doesn’t seem to make most sense for at least two reasons.
      • First, it disrupts the chronological order of the Creed.
        • If the descent is the agony on the cross, wouldn’t the Descent be positioned after crucifixion rather than after burial?
        • Meaning, wouldn’t it read “Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, He descended to hell, dead, and buried.; the third day He rose again from the dead;
      • Second, it doesn’t address the verses that seem to point to something other than merely the agony of the cross
        • No one disregards Christ’s agony on the cross, but it seems that the descent is more than merely agony on the cross
      • It includes, but is not limited to, the agony on the cross
    • I am not saying that all these views are stupid or have no credibility, but I believe they are not the view most in line with Scripture

 

The “Place of the Dead” View

  • The majority view throughout the history of the faith is the “Place of the Dead” view
    • This view was held by the early church fathers and the majority of Christians today
  • This is the view that, upon Jesus’ death, Jesus actually died and went to the place of the dead, the same place that Moses and David went, which we confusingly call hell
  • The problem is, we don’t have a biblical view of what the word “hell” is talking about
    • Our minds go to Dante rather than Scripture
  • In order to understand the Descent, we need to understand a little bit about the languages that the Bible and the Creed was written in
  • The Apostles’ Creed was written first in Latin.
    • The word we translate “hell” is the word Inferna
    • The New Testament was written in Greek, and Inferna is the Latin translation of the Greek word Hades.
      • In the New Testament, there are two Greek words that have traditionally been translated at hell: Hades and Gehenna
        • Gehenna is the name of a trash dump outside the city of Jerusalem. This name is used as a place of punishment and torment.
        • Hades is different because is refers back to an Old Testament concept
      • The word Hades is from the Hebrew word Sheol.
      • שְׁאוֹל -> ᾅδης -> Inferna -> Hell
    • What is Sheol?
      • In the Old Testament, Sheol is a general term for the place where dead people go
        • It is described often in allegorical terms as a shadowy existence not of punishment necessarily but of waiting
          • The Old Testament describes that all people, both good and bad, go to Sheol, the place of the dead.
        • Psalm 88:3
          • “For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol.”
        • Jacob, after he heard of the death of Joseph, said
          • Genesis 37:35 “I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” Thus his father wept for him.”
        • David, in Psalm 19 says he will go to Sheol
        • Sheol is simply the place of the dead
      • So, did Jesus descend into hell? Or, better question, “Did Jesus descend into the place of the dead?”
      • When Jesus died on the cross, Jesus went to the place of the dead. He legitimately died.
      • That means he experienced death, and he took on death in our place in order to remove the eternal consequences of death
        • Jesus fully experienced death, just like David and Moses, and at the call of “It is finished!” Jesus went to the place of the dead
        • Jesus gave up his spirit, his body was limp, and he descended into the place of the dead.

 

Devil and Disciples

  • The belief that the dead just go to the place of the dead explains the responses and the thought processes of both the Disciples and the Devil
    • The disciples watched Jesus’ agony on the cross, hoping and praying that God would do something to get Jesus off that cross because, if Jesus died, he was gone
      • Thus when Jesus cried, “It is finished”, the disciples thought, “It’s all over, all hope is lost. Jesus is gone. This Messiah thing is finished.”
    • The Devil worked in every way possible to get Jesus to the cross.
      • If he could kill Jesus, then Jesus would be gone.
      • Tempting Judas, Pontius Pilate, hardening the hearts of the guards.
      • When Jesus said, “It is finished” the Devil thought, “I won. I got rid of him. I killed the Son of God. I am the Almighty.”
    • They were both wrong

 

Resurrection

  • John 20:19–21
    • On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”
  • Jesus’ death paid for sins, but if that is the end of the story, then death wins.
    • If Jesus died and went to the place of the dead and stayed dead, then death, sin, and the Devil win.
      • The cross would have been the crowning achievement of Satan.
    • But Jesus didn’t stay dead
  • He rose again, emptying Death and Hades of its possessions and power
    • That is why Jesus says:
      • Revelation 1:17–18
        • “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.”
      • Matthew 16:18
        • “I will build my church, and the gates of hell (Hades) shall not prevail against it.”
      • I don’t know how long Jesus was in Hades or about the thief on the cross where Jesus said “today” he would be with him in paradise
        • I don’t know how long Jesus was in Hades, but it was long enough to get the keys and rip off the gates
      • In Jesus’ death, he pays for the penalty of sin, and, in his resurrection, he destroys the power of sin

 

So, What? Jesus Knows What Death is Like

  • “Josh, this is an interesting theological concept, but why is it important for my life?”
  • This concept is vitally important to every single person, whether you are a Christian or not, for two reasons:
  • Every person’s greatest fear and greatest enemy is death. And we will all face it.
    • It doesn’t matter how much kale you eat, how many health shakes you drink, how many miles you run, how many essential oils you put on in the morning
    • You are in a slow process of dying
  • If you are here with your spouse, grab your spouse’s hand. Give him or her a little squeeze.
    • If you are here with a friend, give them person a fist bump or a head nod
  • Married couples, say you have the best marriage in the world, stuff that fairytales are made of, the best you can possibly hope for in this life is to one day weep over you spouse’s coffin, or for them to weep over yours
    • Children, you will bury your parents, or you will break their hearts by dying before them
    • You will die. Death is your enemy. You are in the process of dying right now.
  • Jesus has defeated death by death.
  • So, you can go to him with your fears, your questions, your anxieties about death, because he has been there and he knows what it’s like
  • You can go to him, because Jesus knows what it is like
  • You can go to Jesus for everything
    • Have you been abandoned? Jesus knows what it’s like
    • Are you physically suffering? Jesus knows what it’s like
    • Are you grieving the loss of a loved one? Jesus knows what it’s like
    • Are you realizing that you will soon die? Jesus knows what it’s like
    • Before the end of the year, one of our pastors will officiate one of your funerals. Jesus has already been there, He has been through death, and he knows what it’s like. And he will be there with you every step of the way.
  • No one knows what it’s like to die but Jesus! You can trust him.

 

Illustration: Birth

  • In my position I spend a lot of time with young families and couples expecting their first child
    • My wife Deborah has had two children naturally. I was present for both of the births.
    • One tip I give expecting fathers about the labor is this: “Do not give your wife any labor advice. You don’t know what you are talking about.”
      • Fellas, I don’t care how many books you’ve read or buddies you’ve talked to, you do not know what labor is like
    • That is why it is comforting to a woman to have women in the labor room who have had children herself.
      • She knows what it is like
    • Jesus Christ knows what it’s like to go the grave. You can trust him with everything, even your death.

 

Heaven is Opened Up

  • This part of the Creed is so important because:
  • 1) Jesus knows what it’s like
  • 2) Heaven is open for sinners like you and me
    • In Jesus’ triumphant descent to the dead, then his resurrection, he, as Ephesians 4:8 says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives and he gave gifts to men”. Jesus brought the dead saints of old to heaven to be with Christ
  • Because Christ died and went to the place of the dead, you don’t have to.
    • If you put your faith in Jesus Christ, the moment you die Jesus ushers you into his presence
      • That is why the Apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5 that “being absent with the body is present with the Lord.”
    • We don’t have to fear death anymore, because Jesus has defeated death for our sake
    • He took the punishment of death so that we could have the prize of life

 

Gospel Call

  • If Jesus was willing to go to death to bring you to him, there’s nowhere he’s not willing to go to get you
    • Do you feel far from Jesus today?
      • “Because this Lion, that is, Christ, of the tribe of Judah, descended victoriously to hell, snatching us from the mouth of the hostile lion. Thus He hunts us to save us, he captures us to release us, he leads us captive to restore us liberated to our native land.” – Ceasarius of Arles[1]
    • Trust Jesus today

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Below is a list of my notes from my research. They are not exhaustive because many of them I read in my commentaries and books. But, here is a good starting off point for being a Self-Feeder

 

 

 

 

 

Thomas Aquinas

  • Accordingly in order to take upon Himself most perfectly the punishment due to sinners, Christ not only suffered death, but also His soul descended … He, however, descended for a different cause than did the fathers; for they did so out of necessity and were of necessity taken there and detained, but Christ descended there of His own power and free will… The others were there as captives, but Christ was freely there.”

Structure:

  • Intro
  • Jesus’ death paid for our sins
  • He descended into hell
    • John passages
      • For that which He has not assumed He has not healed
    • Jesus’ resurrection promises us new life
    • And on the third day he rose again from the dead
      • 1 Cor 15
    • Holy Spirit is down payment
    • Labor illustration

 

Descent good news:

1) Jesus knows what it’s like

2) Jesus has purchased heaven for us

 

 

Questions for Creative:

  • Adam illustration
  • Intro Video
  • Les Miserables
  • Heather Capone
  • Creative: Jesus can be trusted with every experience
    • Extended time of worship

 

Significance:

  • Only Jesus knows what it’s like to die
  • Only Jesus was willing to go there freely
  • Death removes sin. Resurrection promises new life

 

Why did he descend into hell? In order that he might take on all of humanity and remove death’s final power over us.

  • Taking on death

Why did he rise again? In order that he might defeat death and show his power and victory over sin.

  • Promises us new life

 

HS is a guarantee:

2 Corinthians 1:21–22

 

And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee. (ESV)

 

Research

 

My view of “he descended into hell”

  • Jesus descended into hell in order that 1) he may take on all of humanity’s consequences due to sin
  • Jesus died as all people died. When he died, he did not go to be with the Father. Rather, he experienced death and in rising from the death, he made a final death blow to death. Death could not hold him. Thus, he experienced the spiritual death and the physical death that is both representative of hell. Thus, he experienced hell (physical and spiritual separation from God) in order to purchase our eternal life

 

My Eschatology

  • Before Christ’s death, those that died went to Sheol, the shadowy place of the dead. This is both saved and unsaved alike. After Jesus death, those that were saved were ushered into heaven to be with God. Now, those that depart and are saved go to heaven, an incomplete but good resting place with God (i.e. not apart from God as in Sheol and not in judgement as in hell/Gehenna)

 

 

Gregory of Nazianzen; 4th century

To Cledonius the Priest Against Apollinarius

 

If anyone has put his trust in Him as a Man without a human mind, he is really bereft of mind, and quite unworthy of salvation.  For that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved.

 

 

From JND Kelly’s Commentary on the Apostle’s Creed:  https://www.amazon.com/Early-Christian-Creeds-J-N-D-Kelly/dp/0826492169/ref=sr_1_fkmr1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1540842434&sr=8-1-fkmr1&keywords=jnd+kelly+creed

 

Important Information:

  • Apostle’s Creed simply extrapolation of the Old Roman Creed, which dates from early third century as a way to affirm conversion in baptism, provide devotional material, and teach the core of the Christian faith as more and more pagans are entering into the faith
  • “descended to hell” is a later addition to the ORC
  • “The belief that Christ spent the interval between his expiry on the cross and his resurrection in the underworld was a commonplace of Christian teaching from the earliest times.” Re Ignatius, Polycarp, Ireneaus, Tertullian, and others
    • Also, Rom 10:7, Acts 2:27-31, 1 Peter 3:19 and 4:6, Col 1:18
  • “It was no more than the natural corollary of Judaeo-Christian ideas about the condition of the soul after death. To say that Jesus Christ had died, or that He had been buried, was equivalent to saying that he had passed to Sheol.”
  • The Descent was coming to be viewed as the occasion of the redemption, not just of the patrarchs of old, but of mankind in general.

 

From JI Packer:

The English is misleading, for “hell” has changed its sense since the English form of the Creed was fixed. Originally, “hell” meant the place of the departed as such, corresponding to the Greek Hades and the Hebrew Sheol. That is what it means here, where the Creed echoes Peter’s statement that Psalm 16:10, “thou wilt not abandon my soul to Hades” (so RSV: AV has “hell”), was a prophecy fulfilled when Jesus rose (see Acts 2:27–31). But since the seventeenth century, “hell” has been used to signify only the state of final retribution for the godless, for which the New Testament name is Gehenna.

 

Grudem has an extensive post that is pretty helpful:

https://zondervanacademic.com/blog/did-jesus-really-descend-into-hell/

 

Aquinas’ commentary on Apostle’s Creed: https://dhspriory.org/thomas/english/Creed.htm#5

  • Therefore, before the coming of Christ all men, even the holy fathers after their death, descended into the underworld. Accordingly in order to take upon Himself most perfectly the punishment due to sinners, Christ not only suffered death, but also His soul descended to the underworld. He, however, descended for a different cause than did the fathers; for they did so out of necessity and were of necessity taken there and detained, but Christ descended there of His own power and free will: “I am counted among them that go down to the pit; I am become as a man without help, free among the dead” [Ps 87:5–Vulgate]. The others were there as captives, but Christ was freely there.

 

 

  • Because this Lion, that is, Christ, of the tribe of Judah, descended victoriously to hell, snatching us from the mouth of the hostile lion. Thus He hunts us to save us, he captures us to release us, he leads us captive to restore us liberated to our native land. – St Ceasarius

 

He descended into hell:

  • A few options:
    • First: he literally went to what we think of as hell and either preached or set captives free or whatever
    • Second: He descended into Hades/Sheol, which is the place of death. “He went down to the place of the dead.”
      • Or, he, simply, could mean “buried, i.e. he descended into hell”
    • Third: He experienced hell in the condemnation of the cross
    • Fourth: This article in the creed should be removed

 

My take: probably a mix of all three

  • Jesus died as all people died. When he died, he did not go to be with the Father. Rather, he experienced death and in rising from the death, he made a final death blow to death. Death could not hold him. Thus, he experienced the spiritual death and the physical death that is both representative of hell. Thus, he experienced hell (physical and spiritual separation from God) in order to purchase our eternal life

 

 

 

  • In the early church, there was a phrase used to talk about the importance of Jesus being fully God and fully man
    • The phrase was, “For that which He has not assumed He has not healed”
  • That means that whatever Jesus assumed, or took on, he healed.
  • If Jesus didn’t die, and if Jesus didn’t experience all of what it means to be human – including human death – then he doesn’t really know what it’s like
  • Thomas Aquinas (13th century)
    • Accordingly in order to take upon Himself most perfectly the punishment due to sinners, Christ not only suffered death, but also His soul descended … He, however, descended for a different cause than did the fathers; for they did so out of necessity and were of necessity taken there and detained, but Christ descended there of His own power and free will… The others were there as captives, but Christ was freely there.”
  • But he went to that place, hell, so that we do not have to

 

Explanation of Sheol From Evangelical Dictionary of Evangelical Theology :

https://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionaries/bakers-evangelical-dictionary/sheol.html

 

Also, Good article on Sheol from The Oxford Compantion of the Bible: https://global.oup.com/academic/product/the-oxford-companion-to-the-bible-9780195046458?cc=us&lang=en&

 

Good blog posts on a traditionalist position:

https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/he-descended-into-hell

 

https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/death-has-been-swallowed-up-by-death/

 

John Piper does not believe in the Descent:

https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/did-christ-ever-descend-to-hell

 

Here is a Scholarl Article by John Yates on why he believes in the Descent:

https://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/churchman/102-03_240.pdf

 

 

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth,

And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit;

born of the virgin Mary; Suffered under Pontius Pilate;

was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended to hell; the third day

He rose again from the dead;

He ascended to heaven and sits on the

right hand of the Father Almighty, From whence He shall come to

judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, The holy catholic church,

the communion of saints, The forgiveness of sins, The resurrection of the body,

and the life everlasting. Amen.

 

 

[1] Sermon 119