Concise Lexicon of Christianity

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Did Jesus Descend Into Hell?

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
     creator of heaven and earth;
And in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord;
     He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit,
          and born of the Virgin Mary,
     He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
          was crucified, died, and was buried.
     He descended to the dead. [in older translations, He descended into hell ]
     On the third day He rose again.
     He ascended into heaven,
          and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
     He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
     the holy catholic Church,
     the communion of saints,
     the forgiveness of sins,
     the resurrection of the body,
     and the life everlasting. AMEN.
—The Apostles Creed

If you are a Methodist, you’ll notice that the Apostles Creed above has one extra line compared to the Apostles Creed you find in your hymnal at church. Apparently the phrase descended into hell offended someone’s sensitivities early on in American Methodism and that clause got left out. The phrase into hell in older translations and the phrase to the dead both translate the phrase into hades in the original Greek of the creed.

The ancient teaching of the Church is that all who died before the time of the crucifixion, whether they were righteous or unrighteous, went to the same undifferentiated realm of the dead, where they wait for the resurrection and the judgment. This realm of the dead is called Sheol in Hebrew and hades in Greek. Neither the word Sheol nor the word hades connotes punishment. It’s just a waiting room for the resurrection and the judgment.

When Jesus died on the cross, He really did die. That really is the same as saying that He went to hades, because hades is the realm of the dead. However, while Jesus was dying, He promised to take the thief on the cross into Paradise. So the historic teaching of the Church is that when Jesus went to hades, He established a special waiting room for His own, called Paradise. He preached to the spirits who were already dead and took the Old Testament saints into Paradise also, along with the thief on the cross.

For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities, and powers in submission to him.
—1 Peter 3:18-22, NIV

Anyone who dies after the crucifixion, such as you and me, therefore face a particular judgment at death to determine whether we wait for the resurrection and the last judgment in hades or in paradise. I have witnessed this particular judgment in a dying man.

Old translations of the Apostles Creed use hell to translate the Greek word hades, but nowadays we have a completely unbiblical belief that when we die, we just zip right off into reward or punishment, without waiting for the resurrection or the judgment. Many of us give lip service to the doctrine of the resurrection on the last day, without really believing it, because we don’t think things through as thoroughly as the ancients, and we don’t realize that finite creatures need a body of some sort in order to maintain a point of reference for their identity and their consciousness. So for us, the word hell has come to mean a realm of eternal punishment and the old translations of the Apostles Creed no longer make sense—after all, why would Jesus go to hell in the modern sense of the word?

Modern translations of the Apostles Creed say that Jesus descended to the dead. That is a more accurate translation of the word hades. It says that Jesus really did die, He didn’t fake it.

You can get more information about the Apostles Creed.