Did Jesus Go to Hell After He Died?

Christ’s Descent into Hell by Follower of Hieronymus Bosch

Some versions of the Apostles’ Creed say Jesus descended into hell. Did he?

For centuries, Christians have proclaimed, “. . . he [Jesus] descended into hell . . .” Other versions of the creed say “the grave.”

Why do we say those words at all, and what are the implications of one versus the other?

This brief post is only an introduction to the matter. I’ll present the main relevant biblical texts, a brief overview of the primary interpretations, and a quick note about how I used Logos Bible Software to find this information.

Finally, I suggest resources for further study.

Bible verses about Jesus’ descent into hell

The main texts are Acts 2:31, Romans 10:6–7, and Ephesians 4:9:

Acts 2:31

[The patriarch David] foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption.

Romans 10:6–7

But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).

Ephesians 4:7–9

But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says,

     “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,

     and he gave gifts to men.”

(In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth?)

Related texts are 1 Peter 3:19 and 1 Peter 4:6, which speak of Christ proclaiming the gospel to the spirits in prison (3:19) and the dead (4:6). There are several interpretations on these passages, some holding that the spirits in prison are not the same as the dead, but are actually “hostile angelic powers” to whom Christ proclaimed victory upon his ascension.1

Various interpretations

Louis Berkhof, in his 1938 Systematic Theology, conveniently summarizes the dominant positions on the creedal expression “he descended into hell” (the last being his own):

(1) The Catholic Church takes it to mean that, after his death, Christ went into the Limbus Patrum, where the Old Testament saints were awaiting the revelation and application of his redemption, preached the gospel to them, and brought them out to heaven.

(2) The Lutherans regard the descent into Hades as the first stage of the exaltation of Christ. Christ went into the underworld to reveal and consummate his victory over Satan and the powers of darkness, and to pronounce their sentence of condemnation. Some Lutherans place this triumphal march between the death of Christ and his resurrection; others, after the resurrection.

(3) The Church of England holds that, while Christ’s body was in the grave, the soul went into Hades, more particularly into paradise, the abode of the souls of the righteous, and gave them a fuller exposition of the truth.

(4) Calvin interprets the phrase metaphorically, as referring to the penal sufferings of Christ on the cross, where he really suffered the pangs of hell. Similarly, the Heidelberg Catechism. According to the usual Reformed position, the words refer not only to the sufferings on the cross but also to the agonies of Gethsemane.

(5) Scripture certainly does not teach a literal descent of Christ into hell. Moreover, there are serious objections to this view. He cannot have descended into hell according to the body, for this was in the grave. If he really did descend into hell, it can only have been as to his soul, and this would mean that only half of his human nature shared in this stage of his humiliation (or exaltation). Moreover, as long as Christ had not yet risen from the dead, the time had not come for a triumphal march such as the Lutherans assume. And, finally, at the time of His death, Christ commended his spirit to his Father. This seems to indicate that he would be passive rather than active from the time of his death until he arose from the grave.

On the whole, it seems best to combine two thoughts: (a) that Christ suffered the pangs of hell before his death, in Gethsemane, and on the cross; and (b) that he entered the deepest humiliation of the state of death.2

R.J. Bauckham’s takes a similar view in his entry “Descent into Hell” in the New Dictionary of Theology: that the verses in question simply amount to saying that Christ “truly died,” and are not concerned with whether Christ descended into hell or not.3

Charles Hodge argues similarly in his systematic theology, saying that the word translated “hell” is one and the same as “grave”:

From the original and proper meaning of the Greek word ᾅδης, and the corresponding English word hell. Both mean the unseen world. The one signifies what is unseen, the other what is covered and thus hidden from view. Both are used as the rendering for the Hebrew word שְׁאוֹל (probably from שָׁאַל to ask, or demand), the state or place of the dead; the orcus rapax of the Latins. All the dead, the righteous and the wicked, alike go into the invisible world, or, in this sense, “descend into hell.” Hence to be buried, to go down to the grave, to descend into hell, are in Scriptural language equivalent forms of expression. (emphasis mine)4

So what’s the answer?

There are certainly traditions that hold that Christ somehow descended to hell in the sense of going spiritually to the underworld, but those are not without major objection (see Berkhof’s fifth point).

In fact, those theological challenges lead many interpreters (and from my brief study, it seems most) to hold that the verses and creedal confession affirm simply that Christ truly died and went to the grave.

It is also worth noting that this particular phrase wasn’t introduced into the creed until the fourth century, “and then not as a separate or distinct article, but as merely explanatory. ‘He was dead and buried,’ i.e., he descended into hell.”5

Think long enough about this doctrine, and you will see that it is shrouded in mystery, difficult to grasp “with reason and the five senses.”6

How did I find this?

I found this through a quick search using Logos’ Theology Guide tool (available in Logos 8 Silver and up). I typed in “hell,” saw the suggestion “Jesus’ Descent into Hell,” and clicked it, which loaded the following categories.

(I have to say, I love this tool.)

Where this topic rests within broader theological topics

If I wanted to, I could click on any of the categories above mine for more context. I also enjoy a simple introduction to the topic underneath the image.

Relevant passages

I can hover over any of these references to read the whole passage, click them to load my Bible and see them in context, save all of them as a passage list, or open them all at once.

Recommended reading

This is probably my favorite feature of the tool. There is probably a lot in my library on this topic, but Logos recommends the most relevant resources, including a monograph on a topic closely related to Jesus’ alleged descent into hell: Christ’s Proclamation to the Spirits: A Study of 1 Peter 3:18–4:16.

Systematic theology treatments

Logos also helpfully provides links to this topic in my systematic theologies.

For further study

Aside from consulting the resources footnoted, I suggest:

  1. Purchasing Logos 8 Silver or above, which gives you the Theology Guide tool
  2. Grabbing the 1 Peter commentary from the renowned NICNT series. One endorser says of it, “Davids’ commentary . . . is particularly perceptive in its treatment of ‘the spirits in prison’ (3:19) [and] the preaching to those who have died (4:6).”

Get the 1 Peter commentary now.


  1. William Joseph Dalton, About Christ’s Proclamation to the Spirits: A Study of 1 Peter 3:18–4:6, pg. 64.
  2. L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 1938), 342–343.
  3. R.J. Bauckham, “Descent into Hell,” in the New Dictionary of Theology (InterVarsity, 1988).
  4. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 2 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 616–617.
  5. Ibid.
  6. The Book of Concord (1993)

Comments

  1. Rather than rely simply on 3rd party reviews of the Lutheran position, it would be better to consult orthodox, confessional Lutheran scholars and theologians. I would recommend the Concordia commentary series. Overall this series is a great investment that does not get enough attention from reformed/evangelical Christians. The confessional Lutheran theologians are some of the best exegetes in the world. Their theology is also deeply rooted in church history, and the Lutheran confessions originated from landmark debates with the Roman Catholics after Luther’s earth-shaking sola scriptura teachings launched the Protestant separation. Luther himself is a giant amongst theologians and should not be ignored by those who understand that the study of Christian theology should never be confined simply to a few hundred years of background text starting from the Enlightenment or the Modern age. We are all children of the Zeitgeist, the age within which we live. Our 21st century reasoning cannot always be depended upon to give consent to the truths of Scripture. The important question is not only “what could it mean?” BUT “what does it actually say?”…. whether my 21st century informed reasoning agrees or not…. “what do the scriptures actually say?”. They say exactly the same thing to us they said to the Reformers, and to those in the Middle Ages, and the Patristic era, etc. Our job as scholar/interpreters is to answer that question … whether the answer we find agrees with our modern sensibilities or not.

    • @Phil It is perplexing why would simultaneously praise the Lutheran scholars for “sola scriptura” and recommend uncritically taking their words as gospel. Paul said to “evaluate everything and embrace what is sound” (or something like that) indicating that it is inappropriate to be uncritical of utterances:

      [1Jo 4:1 ESV] (1) Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.

      • Bill Ross… utterances? Who said anything about “utterances”? I have no idea what you are referring to. And not sure what you mean by “uncritically take their words as gospel”. I know we live in an age of media blurbs, memes, and acronyms, but if you could flesh out your points a little more it would be helpful. I did not claim that I or anyone should take the words of any scholar uncritically, whether they be Lutheran or not. I personally, when studying Scripture, always compare views from several different theological camps. When addressing Matthew Boffey’s post “Did Jesus Go to Hell After He Died?” > my point was that it is better to use material direct from Lutheran scholars and theologians if you are going to represent a Lutheran position. In Boffey’s post, three reformed scholar’s views are mentioned by name, and one Anglican. Of course, sometimes Lutheran scholars like all scholars can be wrong, and Lutherans will be the first to admit that. Why Lutherans don’t even agree with everything Luther taught or said for that matter! My point was that evangelicals would do well to include the long history of Lutheran theology in their bible studies….. most do not. I know that to be true because I was an evangelical for many years and it took me 3 years of solid study comparing the Lutheran doctrines and confessions to scripture before I decided to become Lutheran. I was encouraging others not to neglect confessional Lutheran doctrine in theology studies. It is typical that Luther will only get a nod every now and then for having launched the Reformation …… but afterwards, concerning Protestant theology, the confessional Lutherans will hardly receive a glance. This is not good, for much help with the scriptures can be gleaned from the Lutheran perspective. Thanks Bill for your reply!

  2. Marcel Kohlmeyer says:

    Amen!!!!!

  3. As I understand from the Scriptures, Jesus Sacrifice was substitutionary (2 Cor 5:19,21). If SIN of the world was laid upon Him, “He paid the debt He didn’t owe, I owed the debt I couldn’t pay” and some say (imply) He didn’t really pay it then the debt still remains. If He didn’t go to hell from where He emerged a VICTOR then we will, if He didn’t die spiritually then we are yet dead in our trespasses. Sin is not physical, Death is not physical so couldn’t have conquered it from a physical grave. God is Spirit, mankind is spirit (Created in God’s image and likeness) so first and foremost we need to deal with spiritual implications of Jesus’ conception, coming, living, dying, rising again and living forevermore. We (church) have a problem when semetary professors and commentators from decades and centuries ago, who have not been “born from above” making comments and publishing their limited sense-knowledge instead of revelation-knowledge.

  4. Hi D.vout ! Actually, historical, orthodox interpretation of Scripture teaches that Jesus saves the entire man, body, soul, spirit. Remember, Jesus died physically and rose physically… He ate fish when appearing to the disciples after His resurrection. He offered Thomas His pierced side to touch and see that it was His same body that died on the cross. To assert that Jesus only “died spiritually” is actually a Greek inspired Gnostic position (spirit good – flesh evil). Remember that when the Lord finished creating the world and Adam, He said “It is very good”. As Christians we do not deny the gift of our humanity because it is the gift of our Creator. Consider Scripture teaches that all will be resurrected on the last day, and that we will live in our resurrected bodies on the Earth with the Lord. I wish I had time to list the passages… but quickly, search Romans, Isaiah, and Revelations to name a few. Jesus saves the entire man … including the body. Therefore Jesus died under the wrath of God as a real man … and rose again in His real body, as a man. Otherwise, we as real men and women could never rise with Him!

    “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the
    sons of God.
    For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but
    because of him who subjected it, in hope
    that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to
    corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of
    God.
    For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together
    in the pains of childbirth until now.
    And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the
    firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for
    adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
    For in this hope we were saved.” (Ro 8:19–24)
    Good seminaries (not liberal-man centered, but those that hold to Sola Scriptura and focus on forming skills for correct Bible interpretation and orthodox theology – and there are not many of those, but they still exist)
    Good seminaries are helpful. And reading with discernment good scholars and theologians from the past and present greatly strengthens one’s theology. When people refuse to have their supposed “revelations” tested by comparison to historical Christian orthodoxy, well … that is often how people get into the heretical weeds.

  5. James W Bennett says:

    It somewhat disturbs me that an issue as important and as complex as this should be treated with a cursory examination of the evidence.

    Lets start with your references to Scripture. First, the passages mentioned are not the only relevent passages. Job 38:17 was crucial to the decision to reference the Descensus ad Inferos in the dated creed of 359. Additionally, you should not look at just Acts 2:31 but the entire passage of Acts 2:24-34 (refering the Septuagint form of Ps 18:4 and Ps 16:8-11 which Peter is quoting). It provides a much better feel of what Peter was discussing. Also, while 1 Peter 3:19 and 1 Peter 4:6 are not attested in the discussion of the Descensus ad Inferos before the third century they are critical in the third century and later. Finally, in reference to Scripture, you have to ask who’s scripture. The Jeremiah Logion is not accepted as scripture by any religious group today. We don’t have a copy. We don’t know if it was part of the book of Jeremiah that has since gone missing or if it was perhaps a separate work or letter. But it was referenced by both Justin the Martyr and Irenaeus in the second century and both considered it to be scripture. Justin states it was removed from the book of Jeremiah in order to purge Christ from the scriptures and both believed that it told that Christ descended to the dead and preached to them.

    Now, lets move onto your secondary sources. You state that Berkhof summarizes the dominant positions yet the Orthodox position, the second largest Christian denomination, is not represented. Berkhof states that “Scripture certainly does not teach a literal descent of Christ into hell” yet while Scripture does not say “Jesus descended into hell to preach to the dead” it is not “certain” that it does not teach this. Or we would not be having this discussion. Also, Berkhof stated that “If he really did descend into hell, it can only have been as to his soul, and this would mean that only half of his human nature shared in this stage of his humiliation (or exaltation).” But this is not necessarily true. We don’t know what happened to the body between the time of the sealing of the timb and the time he left the tomb. It also presumes that Human nature is nothing but the human body yet the Christian position is that Christ had both a Divine Nature and a Human Nature which consisted of body and soul. Moving on to Hodge. When Hodge writes “In Scriptural language, therefore, to descend into Hades or Hell, means nothing more than to descend to the grave, to pass from the visible into the invisible world, as happens to all men when they die and are buried”, he is wrong. Sheol in the mind of the Hebrews is a place and not just a euphamism for the grave. I respect R.J. Bauckham as a scholar and I would hope that you do more than reference his entry in the New Dictionary of Theology as he writes much more extensively on the topic (see The Fate of the Dead: Studies on the Jewish and Christian Apocalypses. Supplements to Novum Testamentum. 93. Leiden & Boston: Brill and his article “Descent to the Underworld” pp 145-159 in vol 2 of the Anchor Bible Dictionary). You also miss the most prominent scholars and theologians to trear this topic: Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent into Hades from an Orthodox Perspective by Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev, The Descent of Christ: Ephesians 4:7-11 and Traditional Hebrew Imagery by Hall Harris, and The Disobedient Spirits and Christian Baptism: A Study of 1 Peter 3:19 and Its Context by Bo Reicke and you only briefly mention Christ’s Proclamation to the Spirits: A Study of 1 Peter 3:18–4:6 by William Dalton. Plus the dozens or hundreds of journal articles and commentaries on Scripture. Finally, you ignore the Patristic sources on this topic: Justin tht Martyr, Ireneaus, Melito of Sardis, and the Odes of Solomon (2nd century); Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus of Rome, Origen, the Acts of Thomas, the Teachings of Silvanus, the Didascalia Apostolorum, and the Sibylline Oracles (3rd century); Julius Firmicus Maternus, Aphrahat the Persian Sage, Ephraim, the Book of the Ressurection of Jesus Christ, and the Questions of Bartholomew (4th century); and this is just to list a few of the more prominent material available in the first four centuries.

    Finally, the summation of your study… You state: It is also worth noting that this particular phrase wasn’t introduced into the creed until the fourth century, “and then not as a separate or distinct article, but as merely explanatory. ‘He was dead and buried,’ i.e., he descended into hell.” But this is not true. In the Apostle’s Creed the phrasing is “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to hell. The third day he rose again from the dead.” And the Apostles Creed dating by scholars varies from the second to the fourth century. However the “Dated Creed” or “The Fourth Creed of Sirmium” internally dated to 359 is blatent in its meaning “…was crucified, and died and descended into the parts beneath the earth, and regulated the things there, Whom the gate-keepers of hell saw and shuddered; and He rose from the dead the third day…”

    From my analysis, I would be careful of discarding a tradition that reaches to at least the second century and possibly the first (dating of the Odes of Solomon and the core of the Acts of Thomas is first century by some recent scholarship). Especially one that was universally held by the Church (including schismatic branches) until the Protestant Reformation.

  6. Ian Thomas says:

    I’ll not address the actual subject here for it would appear to be too complex in the time I have to look at it properly.
    And I suppose this is my point. The ‘theology guide tool’ would appear to be very limited – hence the complaints in the comments or the narrow range of books – I have not found this tool helpful except for an extremely cursory glance at a particular subject. For example, it does not include all the works in my library which talk of this particular (descent into hell) subject (though 400 do). In the systematic theologies section it did not include all my English language systematic theologies (only 9 were included!), of which I probably have 95%+ of all that Logos have to offer.
    It may be a good ‘starter’ tool but for the uninitiated they may think it is comprehensive to what they have in their own library.
    The advert for this tool has failed miserably – it is not fit for purpose as I had already discovered before when looking for theological subjects such as the ‘Doctrine of Scripture and Revelation’ – for this examply it only refers to 6 of my systematic theologies – and the recommended reading of just 3 books and only 4 key verses. What?! This was so poor that I gave up using this ridiculous tool.