Did Jesus Actually Descend Into Hell?


Today’s Reading: “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 MarySuffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead.”

If you’ve been a church-goer for many years, you might remember reciting The Apostles’ Creed using a different phrase here…

He (Jesus) descended into hell.

This one phrase, quite honestly, is a disturbing one, and one that church leaders have debated over for centuries. While I don’t have the time or space here to go into great detail, I will attempt to offer you a brief overview of what the original authors had in mind when they included this phrase in the earliest versions of The Creed.

As we mentioned in our introductory blog, the earliest forms of The Creed, as we know it today, date back to A.D. 390. One early church father, Rufinus, included the phrase, “He descended into hell” in only one of his two written versions. Other writers, especially those associated with the church in Italy and in Africa, ignored this phrase completely. It was not until A.D. 650, when the phrase began resurfacing in some versions of The Creed, leaving many to believe that in its very earliest formats, the use of this sentence was optional, at best.

Secondly, Rufinus himself, in using this phrase in one of his writings did not mean to suggest what you and I assume it means today. You see, when most of us use the word hell, we are referring to that hideous place of torment reserved for Satan, his demons, and everything evil. The Book of Revelation calls this horrendous place, the “Lake of Fire” or place of “second death” (Revelation 20: 14). But both the New Testament authors and Jesus, Himself, differentiate hell (the Greek word, gehenna, meaning “place of final punishment or torment”) from hades (the Greek word for “the grave” or “place of death.”) Rufinus, when using his phrase, “He descended into hell,” was most likely referencing the many New Testament texts where the Greek word hades is used to describe the place where death separates our physical bodies from our soul. The Creed then, is most descriptive when it uses the phrase “He (Jesus) descended to the dead,” and is referencing New Testament writings, such as Paul’s words in Ephesians 4: 9-10 where he addresses the Master’s descent into “the depths of the earth” as compared to His ascension to the heavens.

So, please. Put away all your wild imaginations of the crucified Jesus descending into the pits of hell and damnation where He is 1) placed in torment for all our fleshly sins, or 2) dukes it out with Satan, ripping a hole in the Lake of Fire, or 3) preaching to unrepentant sinners, giving them a second opportunity for life. You see, none of this kind of stuff is necessary in the economy of God.

What truly is occurring here as “Jesus descended to the dead” is God’s only Son, fully human and fully divine, is experiencing, first-hand, the same human experience we all have awaiting us. It’s called death. It’s that place in life where we all eventually arrive when our fleshly bodies expire and our souls are freed from the earthly limitations of our bodies. It’s in this place, the New Testament Greek calls hades, and the Old Testament Hebrew calls sheol, where we await, I believe, in Christ’s presence, the final curtain call of God – the second coming of Jesus and the final judgments of the Almighty.

Now before you get too agitated by what I just said here, know that I’m not a believer in purgatory, a place after death where we all go to work out our sins or wait for one of our living relatives to redeem us through their good works. What I am proposing here is a New Testament truth that hades, which was once a place of death where humans needed to fear because it was trafficked by the devil, has now been visited and inhabited by God’s Son. And as Paul states so boldly in his letter to the Corinthian church…

Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1stCorinthians 15: 55-57 NIV)

My prayer: Jesus, the fact that You descended into hades, breaking the power of death is a true game-changer. Hallelujah! Not only do I have a Savior who has fully experienced the fears and apprehension of death, but You have also gone before me, making a way through the valley of death, bringing me safely into God’s loving presence. I thank You, Jesus, for all this. For Your name’s sake. Amen.

My questions to consider: How do I need to re-adjust my theologies of heaven and hell so that they better align with the actual word of God? If hades is my first stop along the way back to eternity, and if Jesus is there awaiting me at hades door, how might that change my view of death and its role in God’s redemptive plan?

So, what are you experiencing today as we are Contemplating The Creed?

Over a seven-week period, you and I will take a deeper look at The Apostles Creed. In order to keep all the blog sessions organized, we suggest you bookmark our Contemplating the Creed home page for ease of use.

If you like what you’re reading, might we suggest you share this page with others!

Click here to go on to the next session in this blog series…

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