Did Jesus really descend into hell?
“I have the keys to both death and Hades” (Revelation 1:18)
If you’ve joined us at the 10.00am over the past few weeks, you’ll know we’ve been preaching through the book of 1 Peter. Recently, to tie in with 1 Peter 3:19-22, we recited the Apostle’s Creed together during the service. In its description of Jesus Christ, it includes the line “he … was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead” or in some older translations “he descended into hell”.[i]
Since the Reformation, this last clause has been pretty controversial. Did Jesus really go to hell? What did he do there? Is this taught in the Bible? It’s all a bit confusing, and some people think we shouldn’t say it at all.
I’d like to suggest that the reality of Jesus’ descent to the place of the dead is something that we find in Scripture, and something that, along with Christians through the centuries, we should rejoice in reciting together.
1 Peter 3 isn’t the only passage that talks about what happened after Jesus died, which is a relief, because the reformer Martin Luther described it as the most obscure passage in the whole New Testament!
Before we dive into a few other relevant passages, it’s helpful to understand that the Bible speaks of the universe in terms of three ‘compartments’. As well as the earth, there is heaven ‘above’ and Sheol ‘below’ (e.g. Job 11:8; Philippians 2:10). In the thought-world of the Old Testament, Sheol is a metaphorical ‘underworld’, the place of the dead, and it is the destiny of all people (Psalm 89:48).
When we get to the New Testament, it’s clear that this place of the dead also has compartments. In Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus, there’s a place for the righteous and a place for sinners (Luke 16:19-31). Elsewhere we learn about a third place for fallen spiritual beings called Tartarus or ‘the prison’ (2 Peter 2:4; Revelation 20:3,7). This is what I think is described in 1 Peter 3:18.
With this in mind, let’s turn to some passages that describe Jesus’ descent to the dead.
In Matthew 12:40 Jesus says that “just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth”. It’s a little cryptic, but given the way Jonah uses the language of Sheol in Jonah 2, it seems that Jesus is talking about the metaphorical underworld – the place of the dead.
In Acts 2:25-28, Peter quotes from Psalm 16 to speak of Christ: “you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption.” Given that Hades is the Greek translation of Sheol, it is clear that the Psalm is talking about Jesus’ experience of death, the idea being that just as the Messiah’s body didn’t decay in the ground, neither will God allow his soul to remain in the place of the dead.[ii]
What was Jesus doing in the place of the dead? Well, according to Hebrews 9:27, he can’t have been offering dead people a second chance. It’s certainly true that he was experiencing death in both body and soul as a human in our place, but as we saw in 1 Peter, the purpose of the descent is to announce Jesus' victory over death. “I have the keys to both death and Hades!” (Revelation 1:18).
Jesus’ descent to the dead is good news! It means that, as a human, Jesus really does know what it is like to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, it means there is hope in the face of death, and it means that even in the darkest places imaginable, Christ is victorious.
[i] The Latin of the creed is ad inferos (to those below) or sometimes ad inferna (to the places below). The confusion comes because we get the English word ‘infernal’ from the second of these Latin words, but at the time they would have been understood synonymously.
[ii] Other passages that imply a descent to the place of the dead include Ephesians 4:9 and Romans 10:7.