The widespread version of the “Apostle’s Creed” says that Christ “was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell. The third day He rose again from the dead.” Should biblical Christians affirm or deny the phrase, “He descended into hell”?
Since this issue has deep implications for salvation, pastoral care, and discipleship, it is important to decide whether we affirm or reject the teaching that Christ “descended into hell.” Here we will examine many Scriptures and arguments that help us confidently proclaim that Christ did not “descend into hell” as the Apostle’s Creed claims.
Be Gracious and Proclaim Truth
Let’s note at the outset that we must be gracious on this topic, because devout Christian men and women have disagreed about it throughout church history. Notably among faithful reformed theologians, Calvin, Zacharias Ursinus, and Thomas Goodwin promoted some idea of a literal descent into hell. The Heidelberg Catechism (Q. 44) retained the phrase metaphorically by saying that Christ experienced the powers of hell on the cross. For comparison’s sake, see also Westminster Confession, 8.4, and Larger Catechism Q. 50.
Nevertheless, this is not an “adiaphora,” an “indifferent matter,” or a matter that cannot be properly determined, defined, and answered by Scripture. There is a right and a wrong answer, and Scripture is sufficiently clear to provide it for us. We want to get to the place where we can both back up our claims with Scripture and proclaim truth lovingly, so that souls can be comforted and edified by it.
14 Truths to Steer by
In this article, we will try to present the truth first, trusting that the simple facts of the Bible are the best vehicle for dispelling error. Here, then, are 14 reasons we can confidently say that Christ did not descend into hell…
1) Christ’s BODY did not descend into hell
A supposed descent into hell could not have involved Christ’s body because it lay in the grave the day He died and until 3 days after (see Matt 27:58–61, 28:6–9).
2) Christ’s BODY did not descend into hell, Reason #2
A supposed descent into hell could not have involved Christ’s body because bodies only go into hell during the “second death” (see Rev 20:11–15, Acts 24:25, Matt 25:31-34, v.46), which is the final judgment of the condemned.
3) Christ’s SPIRIT did not descend into hell
Upon dying, Christ cried, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit” (Luke 23:46). He did not commit His spirit to the Father for the Father to send it into hell, or to allow Him to go into hell. This commendation of Christ’s human spirit to the Father strongly indicates that Christ expected for His spirit to be welcome into the Father’s blessed presence in heaven, and also for Christ’s earthly sufferings to be complete upon His death (compare Grudem 593).
4) Christ’s soul, spirit, and divinity “went to” paradise
On the day Christ died, He told the thief beside Him that He would be “with him in paradise” (Luke 23:43). This refers not to Christ’s human body, because, as we found in on points #1 and 2 above, Christ’s human body was in the grave. It refers rather principally to Christ’s soul/spirit being “in paradise,” which excludes the possibility of His soul/spirit descending into hell. The two other NT uses of the word “paradise” refer to heaven (see 2 Cor 12:4 and Rev 2:7).
A natural reading of Luke 23:43 also suggests that Christ in His deity would be with the thief on the cross in paradise. The saved thief had the same hope Paul had – when his life was over, he would be in the presence of the Lord Jesus, our God (see 2 Corinthians 5:8: “We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.”)
On the topic of the presence of Christ’s divinity, our understanding of the hypostatic union of Christ is at stake, so we should try to think through some things very clearly:
i) As the council of Chalcedon rightly states, in the union of Christ’s two natures (humanity and deity) in one person, “the property of each nature is preserved.” This means that Christ’s divine omnipresence is preserved throughout His earthly ministry, during His death, and during His resurrection/ascension/session. In a word, on the day of Christ’s death, His divinity was omnipresent – in heaven, in hell, on earth, and everywhere. So, in this sense, we can say that Christ in His divinity would be personally and definitely manifested to the thief on the cross that day in heaven (Luke 23:43).
ii) At the same time, Christ’s omnipresence is an eternal fact. So Christ in His divinity is and has always been present in heaven, in hell, and on earth. We can look at Psalm 139:8 (“If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.”) and Revelation 14:10 (“…he himself shall also drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out full strength into the cup of His indignation. He shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.”) for proof that Christ in His divinity is and has always been present in hell for judgment and expressions of wrath.
So: if we think of Christ on the day He died “being in hell” it is only in the sense that He is always present in hell to judge sin, not in the sense that He descended into hell for some redemptive purpose.
5) On that basis, Christ’s hypostatic union (the Person of the God-man) did not descend into hell for any redemptive purpose
Points 1, 2, 3, and 4 are sufficient evidence to negate the possibility of Christ’s entire personhood or hypostatic union (His full divinity and full humanity) descending into hell for a redemptive purpose.
Descending deeper into this argument, there also is no scriptural reason for Christ to descend into hell. Here are some reasons that are often put forth, and their refutations…
6) Christ did not descend into hell to deliver souls from hell
If one argues that Christ had to descend into hell to deliver souls out of hell, this can be refuted by the fact that souls in hell cannot come out. Luke 16:26 says: “And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.” As Leonard Ravenhill says, “Hell hath no exits.” We could add: OT saints did not go to hell to be delivered when Christ visited; OT saints went to heaven, their bodies went to the grave, and their bodies will rise again at the final resurrection.
7) Christ had no further atoning work to do in hell
If one argues that Christ had to descend into hell to make further satisfaction of the wrath of God, this must be refuted by considering two things:
i) Christ’s satisfaction of the wrath of God was completed in His death. That is why in John 19:30, Christ says, “It is finished,” right as He “bows His head” and “gives up the ghost.” For further confirmation of this, see: Isa 53:10, Gal 3:13, 2 Cor 5:21, Rom 3:25, Heb 2:17, 9:1–10:18; 1 John 2:2, 4:10, 5:6–11. See Isa 52:14-15, Lam 1:12, and the gospel accounts of the passion narrative for an understanding of the completeness of Christ’s sufferings.
ii) Hell is the outpouring of the wrath of God against sinners in eternal punishment. Jesus Christ experienced that outpouring on the cross in the place of His elect, when their sin was imputed to Him, and He was crushed (Isa 53:10) under the eternal wrath of God to the point of death (Isa 53:12). He did not need any additional punishment or experience of the wrath of God in hell. He experienced and propitiated that wrath completely on the cross.
To go into this a bit deeper… Hell is not a place where humans pay for their sins, nor is it a place where Christ needed to do further atoning/debt-paying work. In life, humans either have their sins paid for by Christ or they don’t. When people go to hell, they don’t get their sins atoned for; they suffer eternal punishment. Sinners suffer eternal punishment because they have sinned against an eternal God. Christ suffered the eternal punishment of His elect, whose sins were imputed to Him, when He atoned for their sins on the cross. Christ made eternal satisfaction for the eternal punishment due to the sins of His elect NOT by going to hell or being punished eternally, but rather by pouring out His precious blood, and being crushed under the weight of the eternal wrath of God that was due to His elect. Christ’s blood is perfect (through perfect human obedience), precious, infinite, and eternal (through His divinity), and hence it infinitely satisfies the wrath due to sins committed against an infinite God. All condemnation, wrath, and curse is taken care of in Christ’s atoning blood being shed. There is no need for more wrath to be expressed against Christ in hell.
Because of all this, we could say, “Christ drank our cup, Christ took our hell, Christ drank our hell, or Christ endured our hell” while on the cross. But we shouldn’t say that he experienced our hell in hell. He fully propitiated the crushing wrath due to our sins on the cross.
8) Christ did not need to descend into hell to shame evil spirits
If one argues that Christ had to descend into hell to “vanquish hell, overcome the devil, harrow hell, or mock evil forces in hell” (Michael Heiser claims the latter), this must be refuted by considering that:
i) Christ overcame the devil in His death (that is, His death on the cross, and the proof of the reality of that death in the grave). Heb 2:14 reads “…through death He might destroy Him that had the power of death, that is, the devil.” 1 John 3:8 reads: “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil.”
ii) Christ “mocks” or “makes an open shame of” evil powers on the cross, not by descending into hell. Colossians 2:15 reads: “And having spoiled principalities and powers, He made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it.” Here, “it” is the cross mentioned in verse 14. There is no need for Him to do this in hell; He has done it amazingly and definitively on the cross.
iii) 1 Pet 3:19 does not speak of a harrowing of hell. It either speaks of Christ’s ministry through Noah’s preaching, or of Christ preaching to those who are dead in trespasses and sins. Compare 1 Pet 4:6, Eph 4:9, Eph 2:1. Likewise, Ephesians 4:9 does not speak of Christ “descending into hell,” but rather of Him either descending to earth (“the lower parts of the earth,” human frailty, the deadness and sickness of a sin-filled earth) in His incarnation, or Him descending to the grave in His death (ultimate humiliation), so that He could again ascend in His exaltation.
9) Psalm 16 and Acts 2 refer to the Father rescuing the Son from corruption in the grave
Psalm 16:10 and Acts 2:25–28 do not refer to Christ descending into hell, but rather to him “not being left in the grave, or the realm of the dead.” Two things need to be noted here:
i) The word in Acts 2:27 and 2:31 is Hades, not Gehenna. Hades in NT Greek typically refers to death, the realm of the dead, or the grave; whereas Gehenna refers to the place of eternal condemnation and torment that we rightly refer to as “hell.”
ii) The idea emphasized is that the Father “does not leave” the Son in this state of death. Centering on the question of whether Christ descended into hell misses the point being expressed, which is that the Father would not let the human body of His Son see corruption in the grave. The idea has nothing to do with Christ spending only a brief period of time in hell, but rather with the Father not allowing the Son to see corruption in a human grave. “Corruption” in the Jewish mind began to happen after the 3rd day, hence Lazarus’s sister saying, “he stinketh,” after he had been buried 4 days (John 11:39). One of the Father’s expressions of profound affection for His Son is that He “would not allow Him to see corruption,” so He would not leave His body in the grave for more than 3 days. This is a precious expression of paternal love.
There are two “limit points” beyond which the Father absolutely would not let the Son go. He would not allow His bones to be broken (Psalm 34:20), and He would not leave His soul in the grave where it would suffer corruption (Psalm 16:10). This – not the harrowing of hell – is the precious doctrine that we must trumpet forth.
10) Luke is silent on it
A point from Christopher Love (PST 838): Luke was a rigorous historian (Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1), and he did not record anything about Christ’s descent into hell. This may not be a decisive point, but it is worth pondering.
11) The epistles don’t make it a part of the atonement
None of the NT epistles ever make a descent into hell a part of Christ’s atoning work. Their emphasis is always upon Christ’s death, resurrection, ascension, session at the right hand of the Father, and present intercession.
12) History of the clause in the Apostle’s Creed
The “He descended into hell” clause in the Apostle’s Creed has a murky historical record. It is not in the earliest documents and it appears sporadically in later documents. For a full treatment of this history, see Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology 583-86, and Joel Beeke’s RST, Vol. 2, “Excursus” (first 2 pages of that chapter).
13) It is right to reject human error in creeds and confessions
While we should recognize that our approach to theology is dependent on the great creeds and confessions of the Christian church down through history, we should rigorously examine these creeds and only accept what is biblically proven within them. This clause in the Apostle’s Creed should be rejected because it is not sufficiently biblical and it causes confusion. Its rejection does not need to entail a rejection of all else that is good in the Creed.
14) Pastoral, parental, and discipling considerations
Finally, there is no pastoral reason to believe or teach that Christ descended into hell. On the contrary, there is every pastoral reason to believe and teach that Christ did not descend into hell (see above arguments, and Grudem 593 for a very helpful treatment of this).
Since Christ is the “firstfruits” of our resurrection (1 Cor 15:23) and the “forerunner” of our salvation (Heb 6:20), it is vital to teach fellow disciples of Christ that our Christian lives are patterned on Christ’s life.
During the experience of regeneration in life, we die with Christ to the sins of the world, and we are buried in baptism and rise again in resurrection power (Romans 6).
When we die physically, our bodies will lie in the grave, and our souls and spirits will be instantly with God in heaven. In the final resurrection, our bodies will be reunited with our souls/spirits and we will be fully glorified with God in heaven.
The way we will undergo physical death is exactly analogous to the way Christ underwent physical death – His body died, His soul/spirit were instantly with the Father in paradise, and then His body rose from the grave. He is the firstfruits of the resurrection. Our resurrection will follow His pattern, with no intervening trip to hell needed – praise God!