Last semester, I was given the opportunity to choose to write on the topic of my choosing regarding the Creeds and Confessions of the Christian church. As a result I chose to write on Christ’s descent into hell, obviously an easy one to think about. And while this is a little different than the blog posts I’ve done for Kerux to this point, I think it is poignant and valuable for this post-easter-eschaton we find ourselves in.
I pray this paper blessed you as it blessed me in writing it
~ Gavin Schaefer
The Significance of Christ’s Descent into Hell
Hell has never been appealing to think about. Even more so, the discussion surrounding the topic has many nuances and perspectives, with some believing it is a pagan concept foreign to Christianity (Wolsey, R., 2017, para 1). Everyone has a unique perspective on what hell is most comparable to. Hollywood has produced myriads of illustrations of hell, what it is like, who enters, what happens, and what the mood is like. However, none of the pop cultural interpretations of the realm is remotely biblical or historical in scope. The Church has adopted some views of hell without understanding its purposes to the detriment of sound biblical theology. For some, hell is the final place of judgment where people will suffer forever, point blank. Logically, this would produce a dispute regarding the line “He [Jesus] descended to hell.” If Christ were to serve time in hell, did he pay for our sins? Would this not bankrupt the value of the blood he shed on the cross? To understand the biblical nature of this line, we must consider a few things which I believe to be a potent truth for Christians today.
First Order of Business: Why the Hell?
Where did Hell come from?
Hell never originated in the New Testament. Throughout the New Testament, as we will see, Jesus talks about Death and Hades; the thought of the afterlife was consistent throughout the Ancient Near East (ANE). The introduction of the concept of hell had a different origin in Jewish thought; this thought was “Sheol.”
The truth about Sheol
In the Old Testament (OT), “Sheol” is found 65 times. Although many progressive Christians would consider the concept of Sheol an affirmation of God’s neutrality towards sin (running aggressively against the teaching of the Apostles Creed), the neutrality of Sheol in the OT can be defined in a few different ways. Sheol has been used as a general realm of the dead (Kilcrease, J., 2018). In other instances, Sheol can be understood simply as “the grave” (Kilcrease, J., 2018). Sheol is not the only word used to describe the realm of the dead; although it is most common, sometimes māwet (translated as Death) is used as a personification of death as a character (Lewis, T. J., 1992, p.101). For an OT writer, the afterlife was never a unique or rigid word used; it was a different brush stroke for the artists of Scripture. However, this only solves part of the puzzle for this destination in the afterlife. With this knowledge, how did we end up with “Hell” instead of “Sheol”?
A few steps led to the word’s usage due to the nature of Bible translation, manuscript traditions, and extra-biblical literature. The word hell comes from the term “hadēs” in the Greek Septuagint (LXX); Hades is also personified as a character in a story or as a dwelling place in the afterlife (Lewis, T. J., 1992, p. 104). Along with this, Hades was a place in which one would go down as far from the heavens as physically possible. With Hades comes similar imagery, such as having gates and similar to many Greek and ANE mythology surrounding the topic (Lewis, T. J., 1992, p. 104). Although this subject matter carries little discomfort for modern theology, the citizens of Hell, Hades, and Sheol are where tensions arise.
It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood: who gets the passport?
Historically speaking, there have been disputes surrounding the inhabitants of Sheol. In the Hebrew scriptures, Sheol is the first stop for the deceased (Barry, J. D., 2016). Others hold to a more modern understanding of Sheol, where the wicked exclusively go there at death while others are brought into the presence of God (Barry, J. D., 2016). Other texts (Before the NT era), like 1 Enoch and 2 Baruch 52, indicate that the residents of Sheol would ascend to the Lord on the day of judgment and then be sent to either eternal life or eternal death and suffering (Jarick, 25, ed. Barry J. D., 2016). This information would indicate that Hades/Sheol may have been a temporary holding place. This concept is very contrary to the doctrine of purgatory for a few reasons we do not have time to engage. The main point against the doctrine of purgatory is that the righteous and the wicked do not have their status changed because of penance or offerings for the dead.
Hell: Now understood
Hell, as we have briefly discussed, is significantly more complicated than a place where a goat has a pitchfork, a long pointy tail, and a sleek goatee. Hell comes from a worldview that supports a neutral pit-stop before the final judgment for the citizens of it. Now, the question arises: did Jesus truly descend into hell?
Second Order of Business: Jesus’s Highway to Hell?
Did Jesus truly go to Hell?
Since we have established the concept of hell as more than a place hotter than a volcano where bad people go, is it possible that Jesus went to the biblical understanding of hell? There is significant biblical precedent for this doctrine in the Scriptures. In the New Testament, Peter provides a biblical worldview regarding Christ’s descent into Hades, based on typology from their popular literature; 1 Enoch and Jubilees.
In 1 Peter 3:19, we are introduced to Christ’s descent into Sheol/Hades: “… in which [Jesus] went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison because they formerly did not obey” in 2 Peter 2:4 Peter uses the Greek word tartaroō (Transliterated as Tartarus) to discuss another variation of Christ’s descent to the realm of the dead, or as some would call “the grave” (Grudem, W., p. 102, ed. Barry J., D., Ritzema, E., 2016).
There are a couple of interpretations of 2 Peter 2:4; two are worth mentioning for this discussion. One perspective holds that the word tartaroō is simply a poetic expression of being buried in the ground (Grudem, W., p. 102, ed. Barry J., D., Ritzema, E., 2016). However, the second interpretation of this passage is that Jesus did descend into the realm of the dead (Sheol, Tartarus, Hades) to preach to the spirits in prison literally. (Heiser, M., 2015, p. 337).
How do we reconcile the controversy surrounding Christ paying for the sins of many on the cross (Hebrews 9:28) yet descending to hell? Simple: it was not additional atonement for our sins, but instead to take the keys of Death and Hades in a final assertion of his victory over death and separation from God (Rev 1:17-0). Because the realm of Hades/Sheol/Tartarus is not a place of eternal punishment (Bernstein, p. 139, Shields, M. A., 2016), this final judgment will occur at the time of Christ’s second advent (Rev 20:11-15) and was not accomplished during the three days in the grave.
Third Order of Business: The Hell Behind Us
Although our modern era contains different positions on Christ’s descent into hell, it is clear that church history contains some different interpretations of the scriptures we discussed, particularly 1 Peter 3:18. It would be beneficial to read through some of these quotations to help paint a picture of our progression to our current tension with the realm of the dead.
Interestingly, the line “descended into hell” did not appear in the first draft of the Apostles Creed. After Nicea, there was a statement of faith made by Athanasius, wherein he does not contain the singular line yet includes everything else. (See “The Ecclesiastical History, by Socrates Scholasticus,” p. 44). Grudem mentions the first occurrence of the phrase’s inclusion in the Apostles Creed as “mentioned by Rufinus in the late fourth century” (Ritzema, E., Barry, J. D., 2016). Although most of the church fathers do not explain the significance of the line in question, there are some perspectives on the key biblical texts we have discussed.
Clement of Alexandria wrote, regarding Christ’s preaching in 2 Peter 2:4, “They did not see his form, but they heard the sound of his voice (Bray, G., 2000, p. 107). Tertullian taught that this descent into hell was in order to “acquaint the patriarchs and prophets with his redeeming mission” (Bray, G., 2000, p. 107). However, Origen, one of the oldest church fathers, held a more allegorical interpretation. Origen writes:
“I think that the incarnation, when the Son of God takes on flesh and bones, is one of the shoes, and the descent into hell is the other. It is said in Psalm 16: “You will not leave my soul in hell.” Peter, in his general epistle, mentions Jesus’ descent into hell. Therefore, the one who can show the meaning of both sojourns in a worthy manner is able to unloose Jesus’ shoes.” (Bray, G., 2000, p. 107)
Conclusion: Application For Today
Words change, but meanings seldom do. As with the topic of hell, we used different words to describe the same place. Along with the words changing (from Sheol to Hades, for example), unnecessary baggage has been brought along with it. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, shifted the understanding of hell from the physical center of the earth, which contained unbaptized children, limbus patrum (a dwelling place for OT saints), purgatory, and hell itself (Kilcrease, J., Ward, M., 2018). Later, the modern Roman Catholic Church revised its teaching of hell to a state of being rather than a realm to inhabit (Kilcrease, J., Ward, M., 2018).
With historical understandings developing through time, our inclination to recoil at the line “descended into hell” because of the meaning picked up. However, with the information we have considered, how does this impact a modern Christian’s life without sacrificing the meat of the doctrine itself?
Consider this; from the beginning, there has been a cosmic battle between Yahweh and the gods of the nations. The people of Israel turned on one another repeatedly, leading to a divided kingdom, removal from God’s presence through two exiles, and a people under Roman oppression. As a disclaimer, for the sake of saving time, I believe that the Genesis rebellion (Gen. 6:1-8) was a rebellion of the divine Sons of God. And God’s polemic against the nations in the book of Exodus to Joshua center around the spiritual territory over what has become apostate nations (Deut. 32:8-9; Ps. 82:6-8). Such a topic is best suited for another paper, but it is worth mentioning my bias. With these spirits in prison on Christ’s descent into hell (2 Pet. 3:18), Jesus not only declares his victory over the (real) gods of the nations as the one true God; Jesus also takes the claims of death and separation and splits the veil between God and man.
As Christians today, we can know that Christ’s descent into hell and his condemnation of the spirits in prison is a sure and hopeful part of the Gospel, where one day, instead of receiving a key to our holding cell, we receive the key to our room in the household of God for eternity. Christus victor.
Wosley, R. (2017). Progressive Christianity on the concept of hell. ProgressiveChristianity.org. Retrieved December 14, 2022, from https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/progressive-christianity-on-the-concept-of-hell/
Jack Kilcrease, “Hell,” in Lexham Survey of Theology, ed. Mark Ward et al. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018).
Theodore J. Lewis, “Dead, Abode of the,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 101.
Theodore J. Lewis, “Dead, Abode of the,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 104
Bernstein, The Formation of Hell, 139). (Martin A. Shields, “Death,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016)
Daniel Sarlo, “Cult of the Dead,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016)
(Grudem, “He Did Not Descend,” 102) (Elliot Ritzema and John D. Barry, “Apostles’ Creed,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016)
Michael S. Heiser, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible, First Edition. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015), 337-338
Bernstein, The Formation of Hell, 139). (Martin A. Shields, “Death,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
Gerald Bray, ed., James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 107.
Jack Kilcrease, “Hell,” in Lexham Survey of Theology, ed. Mark Ward et al. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018