Did Jesus Descend into Hell After He Died on the Cross?
Update March 2012
[ For an update to this post on a more scholarly level please see Did Jesus Descend into Hell According to the Apostles’ Creed? ]
This question is usually asked once a year after people remember what actually happened on Good Friday. I ask the question myself each year and go back and re-read the pertinent scripture information to refresh my understanding because the question is asked by believers, but it's also asked by those with a secular worldview, atheists, and skeptics alike. When the secularist asks this question they are actually calling scripture into question itself by saying scripture says Jesus descended into Hell and Jesus said to the criminal on the cross "today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43), and both can't be true. That worldview understanding comes from a populist misunderstanding of scripture and what we think of as pointing to this, the facts about Hell, or Apostle's Creed, not actually what scripture teaches us about the subject.
Of course I am certainly no scholar on the subject what-so-ever, but the short answer to the question "Did Jesus Descend into Hell After He Died on the Cross on Good Friday?" is no, He did not, at least not according to scripture. His suffering ended on the cross when Jesus said "It is finished".
As you might guess, scholars aren't in complete agreement on this theological issue but if you dig deep into scripture specifically trying to prove one or the other you will probably succeed. If you follow scripture, in context, attempting to understand beyond just our postmodern view of life, the text points to the suffering of Christ taking place on the cross, and ending on the cross. This is what Jesus was in such agony about in the garden of Gethsemane.
Much of the confusion today comes from the Apostle's Creed where our modern-day translation says "and he descended into hell". We forget the Apostle's Creed came from the early church fathers and really needs its own translation into our modern-day language. The translation of the word "Hell" from the Apostle's Creed is more likely to be translated Sheol or Hades, which is not the same thing as Hell even though our modern understand places the terms Sheol, Hades, and Hell all as being the same locale. Often we see in scripture Sheol being depicted where the Saints went prior to the resurrection, one side being a heaven-like side of paradise prior to the ascension into Heaven, the other being a place of torment. This is depicted in scripture in the story of Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 but scripture tells us "Sheol/Hades is a realm with two divisions (Matthew 11:23, 16:18; Luke 10:15, 16:23; Acts 2:27-31), the abodes of the saved and the lost", and Christ's suffering, completed on the cross then descended to Hades or Sheol, scripture never says Jesus was sent to a place of torment for 3 days, and in fact we have scripture, from Jesus' own words saying he was in "Paradise".
The best summation of the question comes from GotQuestions.org where the writer says:
When Jesus cried upon the cross, “Oh, Father, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46), it was then that He was separated from the Father because of the sin poured out upon Him. As He gave up His spirit, He said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). His suffering in our place was completed. His soul/spirit went to the paradise side of hades. Jesus did not go to hell. Jesus’ suffering ended the moment He died. The payment for sin was paid. He then awaited the resurrection of His body and His return to glory in His ascension. Did Jesus go to hell? No. Did Jesus go to Sheol/hades? Yes.
There are some who might say we aren't to question our faith in this manner, many who say the question I pose is irrelevant, and others in the Christian faith who just don't care. I have always grown in my understanding of the Christian faith by asking questions and then searching for the answers.
Update March 2012
For an update to this post on a more scholarly level please see Did Jesus Descend into Hell According to the Apostles’ Creed?
Other Scriptural Resources to Understand Jesus' Death on the Cross
This is not an exhaustive look at scripture on the subject by any means. There are some great resources online that deal with the question about Jesus and Hell so if you are so inclined, below I have listed some further reading on the subject. At the bottom I have included two scholarly papers, which debate the issue from both sides. They are both very interesting arguments for and against the wording in the Apostle's Creed.
Whether Christ spent time in actual Hell or not after His crucifixion, one thing is certain, Christ was raised from the dead and after appearing to more than 500 people here on our own physical earth, he ascended into Heaven and the new covenant was established.
- What Happened to Jesus Between Good Friday and Easter
- Did Jesus Go To Hell?
- Did Jesus Go To Hell After He Died?
- Hell and Heresy an Exchange #38
- Hell and Heresy an Exchange #39
- GotQuestions.org? Did Jesus Go To Hell?
- Christianity Today: Did Jesus Go To Hell?
- Bible.org Christ Descended into Hell or Not?
- Bible.org, What Does the Bible Mean When it Says Christ Descended to Hell?