Jesus descended into hell?

Christians have long been troubled over what these words in the apostle’s creed actually mean.


Christ in Limbo, Fra Angelico

1 Peter 3:19 says that Jesus preached to those “spirits in prison” who had been disobedient in Noah’s day. If “prison” equals “hell,” then why should these people be singled out for such an honor, and who, if anyone, did Christ save with his preaching in hell? Also, Jesus could not have come only to take the “righteous men” from hell, for they were already separated from the condemned, as demonstrated in the story of the beggar Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16.

Many Roman Catholics resolve this problem by saying Christ descended to two places—hell and purgatory—and that his purpose in each was different. In hell, he put unbelievers to shame, while in purgatory, he gave sinners hope for glory and the righteous deliverance.

Other Christians believe Christ descended to hell, but offer no clear cut explanation for the event. We may never be certain on this side of eternity what Christ did between the cross and the resurrection, but we do know from His own lips that He was in Paradise between His death and resurrection (Luke 23:43).

About Corey Sharpe

Where do we get our beliefs? Three theological perspectives have significantly shaped my Christian identity: Evangelicalism, the early Methodist tradition and liberation theology. From my coming to faith in a Baptist church and throughout my education in a Baptist school and college, I was nurtured by convictions that emphasized a spiritual rebirth, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and the centrality of the Bible. Even when I disagree with certain aspects of evangelicalism, it has deeply influenced my sense of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. My seminary studies spawned my interest in early Methodism, particularly its approach to spiritual formation. Its leaders were convinced that only a foundation of doctrine and discipline would lead to a meaningful transformation of the heart and mind. In other words, having the mind of Christ enables me to be more like Christ. Life in a suburban culture obscures the increasing gap between the poor and rich, as well as the Bible’s close identification with the poor. My doctoral work in socio-cultural context exposed me to liberation theology, which helps me see redemptive history as a history of oppressed groups, written from the perspective of the powerless, about a God who is actively involved with the poor in their struggles. I am now the pastor at Huntingtown United Methodist Church in Calvert County, Maryland. Together my wife and I are raising 4 young theologians.
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5 Responses to Jesus descended into hell?

  1. Janice says:

    My interpretation is that when Jesus died on the cross he took all of the sins of the people which must have been a very emotional heavy load for Jesus who had never sinned himself. So, when he descended into hell he was leaving these sins there. When they mentioned Noah and the water, it means Jesus is cleansed of these sins before his assention to heaven.

  2. Birdie Cutair says:

    I believe that when God, the Father deserted Jesus on the cross He was in hell – separated from God. “Why hast thou forsaken me?” He went to hell for us because that is where we deserved to be with our fallen sinful nature. Now Jesus has paid the price for our sins and set us free so we are not destined for hell.

  3. Carol Childers says:

    God would not abandon our Lord, ever. Because if He could do that, then what hope have you or I?
    I know that in the Apostles’ Creed we may say either “He descended into hell” or “He descended to the dead” but we do not know exactly when this happened. He might have descended at an earlier time. When I think about it, He descended to us–the dead–when He became flesh at His earthly birth.
    I wonder also about the risen Jesus’s words to Mary not to touch Him as He has not yet risen to the Father. What’s that tell us? There are many things we cannot know now for God has chosen not to reveal them to us. We just have to accept that.

  4. Pastor Corey says:

    By the third century church leaders were perplexed and differed from one another, so I expect we will see the same in our time. The 1st century Jews believed in Hades (Sheol), which was not the place of eternal punishment (Gehenna or Hell), but the temporary place of the dead. There they await the resurrection of the dead either in comfort (in the bosom of Abraham) or in torment. This may be what Jesus was referring to in his story of the Rich Man and Lazaras (Luke 16:19-31). Perhaps Jesus descended to Abraham’s Bosom on Holy Saturday?

  5. Ann Denbow Simmons says:

    You are referring to what has been called by theologian scholars as :” The Harrowing of Hell” the apocryphal tradition that between the time Jesus died on the cross on Good Friday and the time he returned in the flesh on Easter Sunday, he made a visit to hell. My question is; Was Jesus (God) revealing that evil is very much a function of the duality found within this world which we live – Good vs Evil?
    Was this act in fact Jesus going to the very root of the duality and embarrassing it for us?

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