Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Did Jesus Go to Hell?

John Piper answers the question, "Did Christ descend into hell, as the Apostles' Creed states?"
There are two passages in the New Testament that, taken a certain way, would seem to indicate that he did. One is in Ephesians 4:9 where it says that Christ descended into the lower parts of the earth. This probably means that he descended to the earth, which is the lower parts. The "of" there doesn't mean that he is going under the earth. So I don't think that text warrants the interpretation that he descended into hell.

The other text is 1 Peter 3:18-20 where it says that Christ went to speak to the spirits who are now in bondage. That is, they have died—having lived in the days of Noah—and they are now in bondage; and Christ went to speak to them. Some take that to mean that between Good Friday and Easter Christ went to hell and he preached the gospel there. But I don't think that is the meaning of this text either. I think it means that when these people were alive in the days of Noah, in the Spirit Christ spoke to them through the preaching of Noah; and now they are in prison.

So my conclusion is that there is no textual basis for believing that Christ descended into hell. In fact, he said to the thief on the cross, "Today you will be with me in paradise." That's the only clue we have as to what Jesus was doing between death and resurrection. He said, "Today—this Friday afternoon, after we're both dead—you and I will be in paradise together." I don't think the thief went to hell and that hell is called paradise. I think he went to heaven and that Jesus was there with him.

So I don't say that phrase "he descended into hell" when I recite the Apostle's Creed. But study it yourself and see whether you think there are other foundations for it. As for me, though, I would say that the foundation for that particular sentence in the Apostle's Creed is pretty weak biblically.
We have been reciting the Apostles' Creed corporately at my church each Sunday for the last year. At that point in the creed, rather than not reciting the traditional line, we have changed it (making a translator's interpretation) to read "He received the wrath of God." This captures the spirit of the credal line, echoes Calvin's view of this portion of the creed, and, in our estimation, is biblically accurate.


Mission Lawrence said...

I am absolutely shocked that a man of Piper's stature does not seem to consider that the Creed has a greek text where the word is Hades.

What a shallow commentary!

"He received the wrath of God" is true but redundant and not the point of his victory over death itself. You are, at least, in good company. This statement parallels the interpretation given by the Heidelberg Catechism which spiritualizes the phrase.

The point of Christ descending to Hades is that Christ Himself becomes the first fruits of His own prediction in Matthew 16:18 that the gates of Hades would not triumph over His Church because death hadn't triumped over Him!

Christ's death provides a real redemption from death!

This is, in effect, the approach of the Westminster Divines who understand the term to mean Christ, for three days, remained under the power of death.

Sorry for venting. Piper got me going!

Jared said...

I became aware of that view, ML, when researching perspectives on that line in the creed, but I'm curious: Why do you think English translators prefer to translate "hades" as "hell" if they really mean "the grave" or the "power of hell" or "death" or what-have-you? This view you promote also spiritualizes "hell." Or, at least, it posits hell in a way different than most modern people think when they hear the word: the spiritual place of eternal punishment owed condemned persons.

Mission Lawrence said...

Good question. I really don't know an answer. I would guess that it has to do with the King James Version which used the word Hell to translate Sheol and Hades. When your standard translation (until the 50's) used "hell" for "Hades" and "Sheol", why change the creed you use? That's the only reason I can figure out.

Modern translations are more careful and when the creed doesn't change with the translation, it seems "outdated" I guess.

Jared said...


One reason I "rejected" altering the line to read "grave" or "death" -- although I absolutely agree with the reality of that view -- is that it sounds redundant to "was crucified, dead, and buried."

"Buried" says to me he descended into the grave, although of course that covers the historical, physical act, not the spiritual, theological act of confronting the forces of death and what-have-you.

I also like "received the wrath of God" because it adds more gospel spice to the creed.
And of course in our tradition, the creed is not inspired Scripture and therefore is open to interpretative translation. :-)

Andrew Faris said...


Have you read Clint Arnold's new Zondervan Exegetical commentary on the Eph. 4 text? He was not a guy figured would argue for a descent into hell, but he does, and I was pretty convinced by it (I used to take the passage the way Piper does there).

At the very least, it does seem that to take the genitive "of the earth" as epexegetical is possible, yes, but a stretch. So maybe "lower parts of the earth" doesn't indicate hell, but given that it is certainly simplest to take "of the earth" as partitive, and given that the ancient cosmology where heaven is literally higher and hell is literally lower, I do think it's really tough to take it the way Piper does here.

Is there any reasonable explanation of "lower parts of the earth" where "of the earth" is taken as a partitive genitive, but where the phrase doesn't refer to hell?

Anyway, check out Arnold if you haven't already.

Andrew Faris
Someone Tell Me the Story

Chuck Thomas said...

Really not trying to self-promote, but I did my unprofessional best (I'm not a pastor or theologian) at researching this a while back and came up with entirely different verses than Piper used and naturally came up with a different conclusion. I think I used some commentaries in the process, but 3-1/2 years later, I don't remember whose.


Travis Rogers said...

I have an entire write-up on this subject that I put together for a chapter of a book I am writing on Bible difficulties. You can read a summary of it on my website:


Needless to say, I believe the only logical conclusion in Scripture is that Jesus went to Hades during the 3 days. This is not to say he suffered as even the Greeks believed Hades to be merely the abode of the dead. I appreciate Piper's work but I have found the opponents of this stance have a fairly weak argument compared to the solidity of what Scripture says in favor of it. I hope you enjoy my write-up!

Denzyl said...

If Rob Bell wrote something like this against the Apostle's Creed, there would be a firestorm. Piper says it, writes an unconvincing exegesis and goes against hundreds of years of Christian tradition and orthodoxy and people pay attention and follow him. This view is heresy and incompatible with Christian orthodoxy.

Jared said...

You people are all amazing. Jesus says "Today you will be with me in Paradise," and it's heresy to say he went to heaven when he died?


Jared said...

Btw, it is bad blog etiquette to essentially leave links to your own blog in place of actual comments. Any further "I wrote about this *here*" type comments will not be approved. Leave a comment or don't. This space is for conversation, not advertisement.

Jared said...

Also, per Stephen Gertz:
"The Creed, then, was not set from its beginning, but fluid. The oldest extant version comes from Bishop Marcellus of Ancyra (ca. A.D. 337), and it does not contain the clause about descending into hell. Scholars call this version "The Old Roman Form"—the earliest creed of the Roman church.

Apparently the clause first appeared in the East with Sirmium's fourth formula in 359—also called the "Dated Creed"— though the Eastern church rejected it as tinged with Arianism. The first mention of the descent in the West occurs in the writings of Rufinus of Aquileia, who included it in his baptismal creed around 400. Over time, the Latin church appropriated it as well, officially integrating it into the Creed in 750"

(From here:http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/asktheexpert/nov15.html )

Some facts:

The creed is not Scripture but a summation of Scripture.

Jesus himself told us where he was going when he breathed his last on the cross.

This debatable line was not in the earliest form of the creed.

Orthodox men throughout history have either dismissed the line or understood it differently that to refer to the *place of condemnation*

rdsmith3 said...

FWIW, R. C. Sproul's interpretation is similar to Piper's and Jared Wilson's, based on Jesus' comment to the thief on the cross.

Chuck Thomas said...

Jared, please forgive my indiscretion in offering a link in my earlier comment. My intention was to avoid cutting and pasting a long-ish comment forcing everyone here to scroll through it, whereas anyone interested could click over. Also I did qualifying it with the disclaimer that I really was not trying to self promote. I trust that you will believe that was sincere.

Nevertheless, would love to get your explanation of Luke 16: 19-31. The digging around I have done suggests that the Jews viewed Sheol as the "realm of the dead," containing two sections, one for the righteous and the other for the wicked. (Hence Jesus' descriptions of the differing locations of Lazarus and the rich man.) The section for the righteous was not considerd to be heaven, but was referred to by the Jews as "paradise". This understanding would give room for the mortality of Christ to experience death and a "descent into the righteous realm of the dead" (Hell in the creed) AND the thief to be present with him as well, as Christ's righteousness was imputed to him by belief, even on the cross.

Jared said...

Chuck, no worries. Just don't want the place to become a bulletin board, is all. ;-)

I have heard the view you mention, and it is valid, of course. I do not find it entirely persuasive, b/c I think we ought to leave room for the new covenant shining revealing light on a shadowy cosmology. What I mean is, many things the Jews believed in first century Palestine were not quite right or only dim views of reality, and I think rather than thrust that dimness onto Jesus' words, we might ought to thrust his words onto their dimness.

I still favor the interpretation of the passages in question that Calvin (and Piper, et.al.) favor, but I'm certainly more in sympathy with the perspective you share than the idea that Jesus went to hell in the sense we moderns think of.

Anonymous said...

Jesus, in his divine nature, is omnipresent. He can be in more than one place at one time.

Jared said...

Walt, of course.

I suppose we are splitting the hair between Christ "in" hell as its sovereign Lord or Christ in hell as its condemned prisoner.

David said...

Christ was never a condemned prisoner! He came to die because God gave him a commandment and that was Eternal Life. God rules over all and everywhere need I say even Hell. He need not go there for anything God Never Changes He is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. He made His covenant more clear when Christ completed His commandment perfectly. Grace Baby thats what it takes just the same as with Job, Abraham and David and all the other saints that have gone before. It is just now visible in the world today through the physical life, death and resurection of Christ. He is in Paridise today and I can't wait to see Him face to face. God Bless Now all you who struggle with the basic truths of the scriptures for it shows life Amen and amen.

Fr. Stephen Lourie said...


I left the evangelical world a long time ago and reappear occasionally to see what is up. Cause i still care and agree with many things in that world.
I like a lot of what I read in your blog.
But this is a bit much.
One of the problems I have is with playing with an historic creed and just changing it cause you don't like it or understand it.
So now you are saying "received the wrath of God" to "add Gospel spice" to the creed?
The phrase, "crucified, dead and buried" is NOT redundant. It was put that way to fight the heresy that said that Christ did not really die, just fainted, the cold stone of the grave roused him back to life.
We must have more respect for history and have better reasons for adapting things to our whims.
When we die do we not leave time behind? Could it not be that "today" is not a literal 24 hr. period?
Could Christ not really die, go to the place of the dead (Hades)preach the resurrection to them, knock down the doors and release them, then be resurrected?
If we say that Christ literally went to heaven the instant He died on the Cross, how was He resurrected from the dead? Bi-location?
Christians for over 2000 years have been believing these things and you toss it out to add Gospel Spice?
How are you so sure He received the wrath of God on the cross? Where is that written?

Fr. Stephen Lourie, former evangelical

Jared said...

The phrase, "crucified, dead and buried" is NOT redundant

Fr. Lourie, you misunderstand me. I did not say that the phrase you quote is redundant. I'm saying that if "He descended into hell" means "He descended into the grave," then it is redundant with the previous statement about Christ being buried. Meaning, it would read this way:

He was crucified, dead, and buried.
He descended into the grave.

Furthermore, I am not troubled by your offense at tweaking the creed. The creed is not Scripture, and by historical accounts, that line was not in the original form anyway.

I would think "dead and buried" would be enough to fight the heresy that Jesus didn't really die. Removing or retranslating the hell line doesn't add in heresy.

If we say that Christ literally went to heaven the instant He died on the Cross, how was He resurrected from the dead?

The same way we will be resurrected after we die. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. In heaven, not hell.

How are you so sure He received the wrath of God on the cross? Where is that written?

Isaiah 53
Romans 5:9-10
among others

Thank you for your comment.

Fr. Stephen Lourie said...

Just because something isn't Scripture doesn't mean its ok to just change it. There is a reason things are that way.
The "descended in Hades" (Hell is an improper translation, Hell is referred to in Revelation as for the Devil and his angels)refers to the defeat of Death, the last enemy. He defeated Death by dying, then Hades was destroyed by His resurrection.
This is very significant for our salvation.
As to your point "The same way we will be resurrected after we die. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. In heaven, not hell." That doesn't work.
My point is that there are different perspectives to consider when outside this life. He was resurrected bodily, on Sunday morning. Where was He on Saturday?

Does Isaiah 53 refer to God's wrath? Or man's? Romans does not refer to God having wrath either.
Is God angry at His son? Was His sacrifice necessary to cool God down? Not in my world. I don't agree with Anselm/Augustine on this. The Eastern Christian Church never bought into that line of thinking.

Jared said...

Just because something isn't Scripture doesn't mean its ok to just change it. There is a reason things are that way.

Then that line should never have been added to the creed at a later time. Whoever introduced the "hell" line changed it first.

My point is that there are different perspectives to consider when outside this life. He was resurrected bodily, on Sunday morning. Where was He on Saturday?

In heaven.
As you said, there are different perspectives on this. That is mine, based on Jesus' words to the repentant thief on the cross.

Does Isaiah 53 refer to God's wrath? Or man's?


Isaiah 53:4 - "smitten by God"
Isaiah 53:6 - "the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all"
Isaiah 53:10 - "it was the will of the LORD to crush him"

Romans does not refer to God having wrath either.

I'm not sure if you mean the entire letter of Romans or the passage I mentioned, but you're wrong on both counts. The phrase "wrath of God" appears as early as Romans 1.

This is the passage I cited: "Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God" (Rom. 5:9).

We are saved by Jesus from the wrath of God. The context of the passage reveals how: Jesus took this wrath -- the just punishment for sin -- by giving his own life in place of ours (5:8).

Is God angry at His son?

No, but that is category confusion. He loves his Son and always has. But he hates sin and willingly crushed his Son in order to make propitiation for us.

Not in my world. I don't agree with Anselm/Augustine on this. The Eastern Christian Church never bought into that line of thinking.

That's fine, but you will need Scripture, not just cultural arguments. And, really, this subject is off-topic from the blog post itself. I have noted that you disagree with changing the traditional version of the creed in any way. Obviously we disagree on that. I can live with that.

Thomas said...

I'm a few days behind, but chiming in anyway to hopefully help clarify the idea of God's wrath set against Jesus.

Doesn't it make a difference that God set forth his wrath on his son AND that Jesus took it willingly and joyfully?

From John:
For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father. (John 10:17-18 ESV)

and again from Hebrews:
looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:2)

If Jesus were unwilling and not joyful about the cross, he would have simply been an unwitting victim of cosmic child abuse.

Instead, the wrath of God being set against his son in our place isn't that God hated Jesus. Rather, the cosmic rescue mission was fulfilled in this moment of Christ hanging on the cross. The Father, Son, and Spirit, all equally hating sin, were all equally satisfied in the crucifixion. It was Jesus' own hatred of sin that put him on the cross, not just the Father's. We often think of only the Father hating sin and having wrath when it's really the Trinity that hates sin and is full of wrath against it.

As for the Creed's use of "descended into hell," I'm more in line with the idea that the Creed is secondary to Scripture (not diminishing it's importance) and the lack of it in the early forms of the Creed. We can still treat the Creed with great respect and modify it to fulfill the intent of it's creation.