DID JESUS DESCEND INTO HELL?
Pastor Dan Gayman
Did Jesus Christ descend into hell at the time of His Crucifixion? When His body was killed in the brutal Roman Crucifixion, what happened to His soul? Let us visit this doctrine of the Christian faith about which too many Christians know so little. Jesus’ descent into the belly of hell is a basic doctrinal teaching of Apostolic Christianity; if you know little about this basic doctrine of the faith, stay tuned and dive into Scripture.
Let us begin what could be a deeply involved Bible study with a question: in His life, death, and resurrection from the dead, did Jesus Christ escape any life experience common to all? Was He tempted in every point as we are? Or was Jesus immune to the temptations and trials common to all who have lived from Adam’s race? Since we are not concerned with human opinion but with what God recorded, let us consult the mind of God via Scripture.
We find these words in Hebrews 2:18: “For in that he himself (Jesus Christ) hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted.” Also in Hebrews 4:15 we learn that Jesus Christ, our Savior, Lord, and High Priest, “…was in all points tempted like as we are, yet was without sin.” Before Christ’s Resurrection from the dead, the soul of everyone who died went into Sheol (the place of departed spirits), either in the “Bosom of Abraham” (sometimes called “Paradise”) or to a designated place in Sheol where all the souls of the wicked unsaved went at death. Remember that only the physical body dies at death. Being incorporeal (not made of matter), the soul does not die. Not unlike the souls of all who preceded Him in death, the soul of Jesus Christ descended into hell at His death.
By the power of death (Hebrews 2:14), Satan held the keys to the prison of Sheol (Hebrew/Old Testament) or Hades (Greek/New Testament). The souls of both the righteous and the wicked were held in this prison. Isaiah 61:1 contains the prophetic announcement that Jesus Christ, among other works, would at His first advent “Proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.”
At His death, then, Jesus Christ descended into the bowels of Sheol/Hades where He stormed the gates of hell, ripped away the bars, and removed the keys of that prison from Satan. In His triumphant victory over death, hell, and the grave, Jesus Christ indeed led captivity captive. He took all the souls of the righteous with Him. He even took Paradise and/or Abraham’s Bosom into the third heaven, where they now reside in the presence of Christ, awaiting the glorious resurrection of the dead. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, holds the keys to hell and death!
Jesus Christ suffered and was tempted as we are. When He was crucified for our sins, He experienced what it was for the soul to go down into Sheol—into the bowels of the earth into Hades (hell). When He arrived at hell’s door, a marvelous and mighty miracle occurred. Jesus stormed the gates of hell, tore away the bars, and led captivity captive. He rescued the saved (redeemed) souls from the prison house of Sheol, where Satan, the old serpent jailor, held the keys to hell through the power of death. Jesus could thus declare, “I am he that liveth and was dead; and behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death” (Rev. 1:18). All the redeemed souls from Adam to the thief who was crucified with Him were taken into the third heaven into Paradise. This is a foundational Apostolic doctrine of Christianity.
As we continue our journey, consider again this question: when Jesus Christ died on the cross, His body was buried and sealed in the tomb. But what happened to His soul? The answer is found in Psalm 16:9-10: “Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth: my flesh also shall rest in hope. For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.” This Psalm simultaneously predicts two marvelous events: first is the assurance that the soul will not be left in hell (Hades), and second is the promise of a future resurrection of the dead.
The complete interpretation of Psalm 16 is found in Acts 2:25-31 and identifies Jesus Christ as the One Whose soul was not left in Sheol, the One Whom death could not claim as He rose in resurrection power. Finally, the ultimate destiny for Jesus Christ is found in Scripture: His soul was not left in hell, so death could not claim his body or His ultimate place upon the Throne of David in the coming Kingdom of God. “Therefore being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him, that of the fruit of his loins, according to the flesh, he would raise up Christ to sit on his throne. He seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption” (Acts 2:30-31).
Article three (39 Articles of Religion) in The Book of Common Prayer (1549) reads as follows: “As Christ died for us, and was buried, so also is it to be believed, that he went down into Hell.” The Apostles Creed, an ancient and cherished statement of the Christian faith, proclaims Christ’s descent into hell. In simple but powerful wording, the Apostles Creed declares, “He descended into hell (hades).”
We must note that all the souls of Adam kind who died before Jesus Christ was rose from the dead went into Sheol/Hell—both the saved and the unsaved. Those who were saved went into a place in hell reserved for them and referred to as “Abraham’s Bosom,” also called Paradise.
The Old Testament word Sheol describes both the grave and the intermediate place where the soul, at the death of the body, awaited the future judgment of Gehenna. The souls who died before Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection waited for Jesus Christ to storm the gates of hell and rescue these captives from the prison where they were held. The gates of hell could not prevail against Jesus. He tore the bars away and now holds the key that Satan once held. Jesus said this: “…Upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell (hades) shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). Psalm. 24:7-10 describes the King of Glory, mighty in battle, breaking down the gates of hell.
Sin (transgression of God’s Law) placed every member of Adam’s race under the sentence of death and judgment. Satan, who through the power of death held all souls captive (Heb. 2:14), possessed the keys to hell. Isaiah 42:7 contains the promise of the One Who would “…Open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house.” Isaiah 61:1 prophesied the “…opening of the prison to them that are bound…” This is the very prison that Lucifer refused to open and held the souls of Adam kind captive. I Peter 3:18-19 confirms that Jesus preached to these souls in the bowels of Hades: “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison.”
Psalm 68:18 is a prophetic announcement that the One Who ascended on high would come to rescue these captives from the prison of Sheol/Hades. Ephesians 4:8-10 provides complete confirmation that Jesus stormed the gates of hell, took the keys from Satan, and led captivity captive: “Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men. (Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things).”
Jesus took those held as captives in Hades and carried them into Paradise, located in the third heaven (II Cor. 12:1-4). All of the souls rescued from the prison of Hades and carried into Paradise reside there awaiting the great day of the second resurrection, when their spiritual bodies will be reunited with their physical bodies, which will rise from the dead at the sound of the trump and Jesus Christ’s return to earth.
That leaves every member of Adam’s race to face this compelling question: where will you spend eternity? Remember, there are only two options! Either you will spend eternity with Jesus Christ in His Kingdom, or you will descend into hell (Hades) awaiting the judgment of Gehenna, the lake of fire, and eternal punishment and alienation from God and the redeemed of the ages.
Jesus Christ made your escape from hell possible because He paid your sin debt at Calvary. Now your sin debt is paid and your sins blotted out, to be “remembered no more forever” (Heb. 10:17). Jesus Christ, on our behalf, validated God’s Law by enduring its penalty, which is death. Our redemption in Jesus Christ may be defined as the judicial act of God, whereby He justly declares righteous one who believes on Jesus Christ and seals this profession of faith with baptism by immersion.
When sinners fail to repent of their sins and reject Jesus Christ as the only Mediator between sinful man and God, at one’s death, then, the body is immediately sentenced to Hades, where it awaits the judgment of Gehenna. Unsaved sinners will not end up in Hades because of their sin. Rather, they will be there because they rejected Jesus Christ, Who alone can redeem and save us from our sins.
What Should This Doctrine Mean to You?
Christ’s descent into hell means that through grace by faith in Jesus Christ, you can escape the reality of hell! At this moment, every person descended from Adam and Eve is either lost or saved! There is no middle ground! Either you have salvation in Jesus Christ and are bound for Paradise to await the glorious resurrection of the dead in Christ and the establishment of His Kingdom on earth, or you will descend into the pit of Hades, there to await the judgment and the hell fire of Gehenna. Jesus Christ did not die to give you happiness, although all those who know Jesus Christ have inner joy indeed. Jesus did not die to give you financial prosperity, although who follow His financial laws will have more than enough in this present world. Why did Jesus die? To save sinful, wicked men from the wrath to come! He died that you might have everlasting life and escape the prison of Hades.
Dear Friend, what is the state of your soul today? Salvation through faith in Jesus Christ is not something you receive at a future date. If you are saved, that salvation is a present possession. The rewards you will receive for good works are a future attainment that you will receive when you have earned the crown of life. Salvation is a gift that cannot be earned. Through His “good works” at Calvary, God made the gift of salvation possible.
May God our Father in His infinite mercy and grace call to a state of salvation all those who were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world. The ultimate reason Christ suffered, bled, and died was to enable sinful man to escape the wrath of God’s judgment in Gehenna. The soul of Jesus Christ descended into hell. At your death, your soul does not have to descend into hell to await the judgment of Gehenna. Jesus Christ died to save His children from the wrath to come! Our prayer should be that all the lost and unsaved from Adam’s race find refuge in Jesus Christ and be saved from the wrath to come!
(Note: For those who wish a more advanced study of this doctrine, examine our book No Second Chance: Can the Wicked Dead be Saved? This 312-page book is available at the Missionary & Literature Room at Watchman Outreach Ministries).