Have you ever heard the Apostles’ Creed, that seems to say that Jesus went to Hell? Or have you heard someone say that perhaps Jesus paid for our sin in Hell or went to Hell and preach to people? Well, that’s what we’re going to talk about today. Did Jesus actually go to Hell?
Now, the first time you heard this, you probably thought, “No, he didn’t. He didn’t go there.” Surely that’s wrong. But, there do seem to be some passages in scripture that could be confusing and may make it seem like he did, and then there’s this whole thing of the creeds. Now, depending on your faith tradition in your denomination, creeds may have more or less of an authority for you, but hopefully what we’re going to see is that regardless of how you view the authority of creeds, and we’ve actually talked about those in the past. That the Apostles’ Creed does not require you to say that Jesus actually went to Hell. By Hell, I mean what we think of when we think of today, flames and gnashing of teeth and eternal punishment.
Let’s look at the Apostles’ Creed. It says, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of Heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into Hell. On the third day he rose again.” It goes on. However, here’s what happened, the creed was originally written in Greek and then there was a Latin version created and then there was a slightly different Latin version created. Then at some point we ended up with this English translation that I read to you.
Well, as often happens when you go from one language to another, and as time progresses, things change in original nuances and understanding is often lost. For instance, the word awful in Shakespeare’s day, would have meant something was really good. If your mother-in-law had you over for dinner and you said it was awful she wasn’t going to kick you out after throwing a frying pan. No, you meant you were full of awe about the meal. It was a wonderful meal. Well if today, you say your mother-in-law’s meal is awful, it’s probably not going to end too well for you. The word has changed over time. The denotation, what the actual word is written down to mean in a dictionary has changed because it’s connotation. What we understand it to mean has changed over time.
It’s the same way in some ways with the creed here because originally when the creed was written, what it says is, “He was crucified, died and was buried. He descended to those below.” In other words, he went to the grave. It doesn’t say he went to Hell. It says, “He descended to the lower parts, to the lower ones.” It’s finishing out this idea that he was buried. He went to where dead people go, their bodies, where their bodies go because Jesus had a real body. Then the Latin version picks this up and then it gets changed a little, and then we come up with Jesus actually being in a place where there is punishment and that sort of thing. But, that’s not originally what was in the creed.
Now, some people will say that this phrase that he descended to the dead or descended to the lower ones wasn’t in the original. Now, we don’t have the original version of the creed, but the earliest one we have does not contain this line, but it shows up just a few years later, in some copies we have. I don’t think it’s problematic once again, because it’s finishing out this idea that he descended to where dead people go. He went to the grave. That’s basically what’s being said here. That he was truly man, in that way his body was in the ground. I don’t think it’s problematic to simply say that when we say that, “Jesus descended into Hell.” If we understand that to mean the grave, that’s not a problem there.
Now, the word Hell today does not mean what it used to mean, and it certainly doesn’t just capture this destination of where everyone goes when they’re buried, and that’s what the creed is saying, “Jesus went to where everyone else went when they were buried.” But, we can’t just look at the creed in isolation or individual passages in the Bible in isolation. Because remember, Jesus tells the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” He wasn’t in Hell because Hell is not paradise obviously, at least as we understand Hell today. But, the grave is where everyone went. From there you would be in a kind of the good pocket of the grave or the bad pocket of the grave. You would be with God in Abraham’s bosom or in paradise or you would be in torments where the people went who were going to be under the punishment of God. This is just a generic saying, once again that Jesus went into the grave where all dead people go, the place of the dead.
Now some people will say, well, actually, 1 Peter 3:18 and following seems to teach the idea that Jesus actually went and preached to people in Hell, where there are spirits imprisoned. Obviously, that’s not a neutral thing if you’re in prison. Let’s look at that passage and talk through it. It is a difficult passage to understand admittedly, here’s what it says, “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring you to God. After being put to death in the fleshly realm, but being made alive in the spiritual realm. In that state, he also went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison who in the past were disobedient, when God patiently waited in the days of Noah, while the Ark was being prepared.” That’s a complicated sentence.
I would encourage you to read that on your own, 1st Peter 3:18 and following, this is specifically verses 19 and 20. It’s going to be a little difficult to talk about on the podcast, but I’m going to try. It says, “In that state, in the state of being made alive in the spiritual realm, he also went and made a proclamation to the spirits who are currently in prison, who in past were disobedient. When God patiently waited in the days of Noah, while an Ark was being prepared.” Some people would say, “See, he went and made a proclamation to the spirits who are in prison now.” They’re saying that that proclamation happened now, that the proclamation, or at least when Christ went there, after his crucifixion that he went and preached to those spirits at that time. There’s another way to understand this, he could have preached to spirits who are currently in prison, even if the preaching happened in the days of Noah.
If we leave out this middle clause, which you can often do when you have clauses that are all stacked up. You could read this to say, “In that state, he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison when, (there is a when there), when God patiently waited in the days of Noah.” In other words, I think what’s being said here is that Jesus preached to the spirits during the time of Noah, and those spirits are currently in prison. The spirits who are currently in prison are the ones that Jesus preached to through Noah in that day.
Once again, this is a difficult verse to understand, it’s just a convoluted sentence. No matter which interpretation you come up with. Okay? But, I do think this makes the most sense of everything else The Bible has to say, the thief on the Cross and several other passages too, because if Jesus did go and preach to spirits who were in prison after Jesus’s crucifixion, and he did the preaching after his crucifixion, why would he be preaching to them? Are they getting a second chance? Well, the Bible flatly contradicts that. Is He gloating? I mean, I don’t actually think that would be that bad if you’re God to glory in the fact that you are conquering death, but it doesn’t say he gloated it says, “He made proclamation.” There’s a sharing of news here and that doesn’t seem to fit with what would happen for people who are already dead. It does make sense for people who are alive, not yet dead during the days of Noah, that Noah preached to them. In fact, Jesus preached to them through Noah. I think that’s the best interpretation.
What happened is, some people through a misinterpretation of the creed and this passage and how words changed over time, came over with this idea that Jesus actually went to Hell and that he preached to people in Hell after he was crucified and buried. But once again, that’s not what the creed originally meant, and that isn’t what this passage requires us to believe either. Now, in the Roman Catholic view, this is sometimes referred to as the Harrowing of Hell. They actually do believe that Jesus descends to only the first level of Hell to where people are in limbo and he preached the Gospel to the inhabitants there. That’s not an evangelical view.
I would also say that’s not a biblical view for many reasons and not just because of this 1st Peter passage, but remember there’s not a second chance; it’s appointed unto man once to die and then to face judgment. Not a kind of, “Well, go and maybe have a different message from Jesus this time and get a second chance.” Furthermore, this idea in Roman Catholicism that we’ve talked about before, that you need to pay off some of your punishment in Hell. The temporal effects of your punishment before you can be good enough to go to heaven, doesn’t actually fit with this same passage, which says that, “Christ also suffered for sins once for all. He completed it. It is done.” That’s what the author of Hebrews is saying, that he offered a perfect sacrifice that actually perfects those it was offered for. So, this idea that you need to pay off some of your punishment doesn’t fit either.
There are multiple reasons to reject that Roman Catholic view of the Harrowing of Hell and Jesus going there and preaching to people, and just the general idea that some people can get a second chance after death and or that you could actually pay for some of your temporal punishment in Hell. That doesn’t work. There are some today and the word-faith movement, a kind of part of the charismatic movement that actually think that Jesus paid for our sin in Hell. That’s heresy, that’s incorrect. It’s not just like, “Oh, a difference of opinion.” Jesus did not pay for our sin in Hell. He paid for our sins in his body on the cross. There are numerous passages that talk to that, but for some, because of this passage and for some others and just because of wrong and bad ideas, they actually teach that, that Jesus paid for sin in Hell, I think Paula White has said this.
There’s actually a popular song in evangelical churches that goes, “A battle in the grave, a war on death was waged, the power of sin forever broken.” In this line, you may think I’ve sung that before. In that line, the author of the song, the artist is actually saying that she thinks that there was a battle over death in the grave and that’s not biblical. Further to build that out, that we had our sin paid for by Jesus in Hell, in the grave. Once again, not biblical either.
We should think through the songs we sing and be circumspect about the lyrics that come out of our mouth certainly. Also, we should realize that it’s not a big deal that the creed, even if we say it and it’s most popular version that says that Jesus descended into Hell, but that’s not wrong if we define Hell, and we should define that word if we include it. There are other terms in the creeds we should define, for instance, the creed says, “I believe in the one holy apostolic and Catholic church.”
Well, people today are going to hear that and think Roman Catholic church, and that’s not what was intended at that time. Because, the Roman Catholic church as it’s thought of today and as it exists today, did not exist in the 4th century at all when these creeds were written. We can explain that the holy Catholic Church that’s referred to there as just simply all believers everywhere. Everyone who has placed their faith in Christ and been regenerated and been saved from their sins are part of the Holy Catholic, Universal is what that means, church. We would want to explain that, it’s not a stumbling block and confusing to people. We would also want to explain what is meant by Hell if we include that.
Now, people will disagree with me on this, but I don’t actually think it’s wrong to remove that line from the creed, the creed is not scripture, and we’re still saying something true. Even if we remove the part that says, “He descended into Hell.” Or maybe we rewrite it and say, “He descended into the grave.” Either of those would be fine, but it’s not wrong to tweak that to help us have something that’s not confusing and still allows everyone with good conscience to participate in proclaiming the wonderful truths that these creeds often contain.
Now, that doesn’t mean every creed is right at every point. Scripture should always be our guide, and a creed is only correct and as much as it accords with scripture, and we should always compare creeds and songs and preaching and everything else to scripture. But, nonetheless it might be wise to remove that stumbling block or teach through the creed, teach through how there is one God and he is the Creator, Almighty, and there’s one Son. What that means and what he did and how he was crucified and how he was buried and why each of these things actually matter for our life, and how it affects our are living in the doctrine we know and how all of this comes together for our salvation. We can teach through each of those things. Maybe you do it on a Sunday, maybe you do it in Sunday school, maybe you do it in a class or a Bible study, but don’t just simply jettison things that are hard to understand because they might strike the ear wrong. All of that to say no, Jesus didn’t go to Hell.
I do believe he preached to people who were currently in Hell, but preached to them before they were in Hell during the time of Noah and through Noah. Because language changed over time and our understandings of words changed, the creed actually doesn’t say that Jesus went to this place of eternal torment and preach to people. No, he went to where all dead people go because Jesus was truly man, unlike some heresy that would come later in the 5th, 6th and 7th centuries. Jesus was truly man, truly God. He was fully man, fully God. He had the essential attributes of both of those, and so he went where all men go when they die, into the grave.