I Believe in Jesus… Descended into Hell


“He descended into hell.” This phrase from the Apostles’ Creed is the subject of much debate. Some say it should never have been included, and others say it’s an important part of the Creed. Since there are highly respected scholars on both sides, I am reluctant to take a firm stand. Thus I shall attempt to “believe all that the Bible teaches—and resist the temptation to go further.”[1] Was Jesus in Hell?

Was Jesus in Hell?

Verses upon which this statement is based include Matthew 12:38-41 (“the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth three dtays and three nights”); Romans 10:6-8 (“Who will go down into the abyss?: that is, to bring Christ up from the dead”), and Ephesians 4:7-10 (“But what does ‘he ascended’ mean except that he also descended to the lower parts of the earth?”).

Contemporary scholars who reject this phrase say that it was not added to the Creed until the seventh century, and has no early support. While it is true that the phrase is not found in early versions of the creed, Michael Bird asserts: “…the descent was absolutely unanimous in the church fathers of the second and third centuries” (see, e.g., Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.31.1-2).[2]

J.I. Packer[3]  and Alistair McGrath[4] suggest that the importance of this phrase is that it is yet another affirmation that Jesus really did die on the cross. B.F. Westcott agrees and adds, 

As it stands [the doctrine that He descended into hades], completes our conception of the Lord’s death. To our minds death is the separation of body and soul. According to this conception, Christ in dying shared to the full our lot. His body was laid in the tomb. His soul passed into that state in which we conceive that ours shall enter. He has won for God and hallowed every condition of human experience. We cannot be where He has not been. He bore our nature as living; He bore our nature as dead.[5]

Whether Jesus’ soul was in Hell, or Hades, or Gehenna, or Abraham’s Bosom during those three days is a matter of conjecture that goes far beyond what the Bible tells us. While we may recoil at the thought of Jesus in hell (as we understand it today[6]), we must remember that in His death He took our sins upon Him and became sin for us. Who are we to tell God how to deal with sin? Maybe this is one of those questions we can ask when we sit at His feet in Heaven. Until then, Donald Cole reminds us,

Was Jesus in Hell?

It does not matter where Jesus was during the interval between His death and resurrection. If it did, the Scriptures would have been much clearer than they appear to be. The emphasis in the Bible is not on the place where He spent three days and three nights. The emphasis is on the truth that he did not stay there; he came back to his disciples. He was raised from the dead, even as he said he would be.[7]

Go Deeper

[1] R. Albert Mohler, The Apostles’ Creed (Thomas Nelson, Kindle Edition), p. 89.

[2] Michael F. Bird, What Christians Ought to Believe (Zondervan Academic, Kindle Edition), p. 147.

[3] J.I. Packer, Affirming the Apostles’ Creed (Crossway, Kindle Edition), p. 87: “What the Creed means,… is that Jesus… really died, and that it was from a genuine death, not a simulated one, that he rose.”

[4] Alister McGrath, I Believe (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997), p. 62: “It is a statement of the belief that Jesus really did die.”

[5] B.F. Westcott, The Historic Faith (London: Macmillan, 1885), pp. 76-77

[6] A word of clarification. That Jesus’ soul went to “hell” as we understand may not be the best explanation for this phrase in the Apostles’ Creed. My point is that we should be careful about rejecting that idea simply because we don’t like it. 

[7] C. Donald Cole, All You Need to Believe (Foundations of the Faith) (Moody Publishers, Kindle Edition), p. 81.

1 Comment

  1. Todd on April 10, 2021 at 7:49 pm

    The scriptures are plain and clear to him who studies and meditates on His word day and night.

    Back in 1981, a new born again Christian coming out of Catholicism, I went to my 1st year of college and was trying to share about Jesus with my friends. I had only been saved for 3 or 4 months. One of the guys was very indignant and said that other people had suffered far worse tortures than what Jesus went through on the cross, and he scoffed at what Christians said about that ordeal. At the time, it was a remark hard to argue with because in the flesh, it was true that others had been subjected to worse tortures, lasting many years, etc.

    Over the years my conviction was that the Lord did in fact suffer in hell, since he seemed congruent with the objective of taking upon Himself the full wrath of God, paying the penalty for all of humanity, past, present and future. But I needed something more concrete to support this conviction. And then the Lord brought it to my mind, about 3 years ago.

    The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, we have this:

    Exo 12:5 Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old; you shall take it from the sheep or from the goats;
    Exo 12:6 and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs in the evening.
    Exo 12:7 Then they shall take some of the blood, and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat them.
    Exo 12:8 They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it.
    Exo 12:9 Do not eat any of it raw or boiled with water, but roasted, its head with its legs and its inner parts.
    Exo 12:10 And you shall let none of it remain until the morning, anything that remains until the morning you shall burn.

    This is clearly prophetic about Jesus and God told the Jews that this perfect lamb was not to be boiled, but roasted in fire, including its entrails.

    Another thing that I would say to that class mate if I could go back in time, and what I do share with everybody now, is that Jesus made it quite clear that it would be more tolerable on Judgment Day for Sodom and Gomorrah, than for those who rejected the message of the Gospel. And in other places, He references that there would be more and less punishment for various people based on their knowledge and behavior. And that leads to this — that since Jesus paid the price for each and every human being, then He toll upon Himself the full wrath of God for all humans at all times. This becomes incomprehensible to the amount of suffering He did in hell. This is why he sweated blood, contemplating what He was going to undergo.

    See, if Jesus paid the price for all my sin in hell, and that amount is X, and then He also pays for all the sin of my sister, Y, and my mother and dad, A + B, and you keep adding all this sin for billion upon billions of people, it truly becomes beyond understanding what Jesus did for us humans. And this is the One with Whom we have to do! There is no appellate court beyond Christ on Judgment Day.

    And like the Marvel comics of those characters who go into a fire and survive and come out with super powers having survived the fire, well in truth, our Lord endured the most horrendous fire and came out of it with His feet burnished bronze, his eyes aflame of fire, etc. He literally went through that and his perfect soul is glorified with a perfection unlike anything we can comprehend. And the Word of God also states that Jesus grew in wisdom and was tried and perfected.

    Heb 5:8 Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered;
    Heb 5:9 and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him,

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