The Descent Into Hell

by Rick Duncan, Founding Pastor

Josh Stone preached an excellent message this past weekend. I fully agree with his landing application. Josh said, “You will die. Death is your enemy. You are in the process of dying right now. Jesus has defeated the power of death by dying. 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… Is death an impending reality for you? Are you staring death in the face? Are you scared because death is coming? Jesus has already been there, and He knows what it’s like. And He will be there with you every step of the way. No one but Jesus can say this… Jesus Christ knows what it’s like to go the grave. You can trust Him with everything, even your death… Because Christ died and went to the place of the dead, you don’t have to… If Jesus was willing to go to death, the Sheol, to bring you to Him, there’s nowhere He’s not willing to go to get you.”

To this application, I give a hearty “Amen!” But while I wholeheartedly affirm Josh’s application, I do have some respectful reservations about some of Josh’s interpretations. Let me quick to point out that what Josh taught was clearly in line with orthodox beliefs. Many great Christians down through the centuries have taught what Josh taught. So, I share an alternative view while remembering, “In essential things, unity. In non-essential things, liberty. In all things, charity.” What we believe the phrase “He descended into hell” means is clearly a non-essential.

Josh has asked me to share via this blog post some of my alternative views regarding the question “Did Jesus descend to hell?”

If you were to ask me “Did Jesus descend to hell?” I’d ask you what do you mean by that? If by hell you mean “Did He experience separation from God?” then I would say, “Yes! After all, He prayed “My God, My God why have You forsaken Me?” But if by hell you mean, “Did Jesus spend 3 days in some shadowy place of the dead in a compartment of Sheol with the righteous dead?” then I would say “I don’t think so!”

  1. Barton Payne, who wrote The Theology of the Older Testament, challenges the view that when the Bible says the Old Testament saints went to Sheol, it means to a shadowy place of the dead. Payne was an active member of the Evangelical Theological Society. He was a professor at Covenant Theological Seminary, The Wheaton Graduate School of Theology, and Trinity Evangelical School. He says that the word Sheol can refer merely to the grave, the tomb, the place where the body, not the soul, goes. “When Sheol  is used in a local sense with reference to the righteous, it’s meaning is consistent with that of the grave” (p. 447). The body of the Old Testament saint goes to Sheol – the place of the dead, the grave. But, in Payne’s view, the soul of the Old Testament saint went to be with God in paradise.

Payne refers to Mark 12:27 where Jesus says that since the scriptures teach that God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that He is not the God of the dead but of the living. Therefore, the Old Testaments saints Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were not dead, but living. That’s significant. Where were they living? In the place of the dead? That doesn’t seem likely, at least to me. So, where were they living? With God.

Consider a few Old Testament texts:

Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, and old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people. Genesis 25:8

As for me, I shall behold Your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with Your likeness. Psalm 17:15

O LORD, You have brought up my life from Sheol; You restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit. Psalm 30:3

But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for He will receive me. Psalm 49:15

You guide me with Your counsel. and afterward, you will receive me to glory. Psalm 73:24

In the path of righteousness is life, and in its path there is no death. Proverbs 12:28

The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life, that one may turn away from the snares of death. Proverbs 14:27

… man is going to his eternal home… Ecclesiastes 12:5

… the spirit returns to God who made it. Ecclesiastes 12:7

Any of these texts by themselves would not carry enough weight to conclude that for Old Testament saints to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. But the cumulative effect of these texts at least help us think that the biblical evidence makes it possible to believe that the Old Testament saint went immediately to be with God after death.

The Old Testament saint was saved the same way we are in the New Testament days: by grace through faith. Abraham believed and was made righteous (Romans 4). Once the righteous die, their souls go to be with God. They were saved by the grace of God through the promised merits of Christ. Forgiveness and imputed righteousness were granted to the Old Testament saint just like they are granted to us. They didn’t have to go to some kind of a waiting place for Jesus to come and preach to them. The merits of Christ’s coming death and coming resurrection were applied to the Old Testament saints before the events of the cross and empty tomb had actually happened.

This is why Jesus could say on the cross to the penitent thief, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise.” “Today” means today, not tomorrow… or in 3 days. And remember, on the cross Jesus said, after He had been forsaken by His Father, “It is finished!” There was no more hell to pay. He was ready to be received into the Father’s presence. And I believe He was. Immediately.

So, in my view, when Jesus prayed to his Father, “Into Your hands I commit My spirit,” He went directly to be with His Father. He didn’t have to wait three days. To be sure, His body was in Sheol, the grave. And on resurrection Sunday, God raised Jesus’s body from the dead, giving Him a resurrected, glorified body to house His soul.

The hell that Jesus experienced was when He said, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me. The spiritual, psychological, and emotional agony of being separated from His Father was an agony that could rightly be called hell. For some period of time while on the cross, Jesus was unable to see His Father‘s face, hear His Father’s voice, or enjoy His Father’s fellowship. After experiencing an eternity past of perfect fellowship within the Trinity, that certainly would have been hell for Jesus.

Should the phrase “He descended into hell” have been included into the Apostle’s Creed? Maybe not. But I can recite it with spiritual integrity, when I remember that being forsaken by the Father was a kind of hell for Jesus. For more on this topic, read theologian Wayne Grudem articles “Did Jesus Descend Into Hell?” and  “He Did Not Descend Into Hell”.

Why does this matter? Josh’s point is well made: “Because Christ died and went to the place of the dead, you don’t have to… 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.” And here’s my additional point: “If the soul of Jesus went to be with the Father immediately after His death and if the souls of all the Old Testament saints went to be with the Father immediately after their deaths because of their faith in the future work of Christ, then I can have confidence that when I die my soul will go immediately to be with the Father, too. Because Jesus lived – immediately after His death – I can face my own death with greater faith, hope, and love.”

So, Josh and I agree to disagree on an interpretation. But I know Josh and I agree with me about this: For all who believe, death is defeated and life is attained by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. It always has been. It always will be.