Around the globe, countless Christians recite the Apostles’ Creed. This creed includes a line that has discouraged other Christians to read it out loud—“He descended into hell.” Did Jesus descend into hell? There are two major interpretations of this phrase “He descended into hell:” (1) literal and (2) non-literal.
Proponents of the literal view teach that after his death and before his resurrection, Jesus literally descended into the place called hell. That is, his human spirit went to hell, the place of eternal punishment for the wicked. Note that according to this view only his soul went to hell, for his body was buried in the tomb.
A well-known prosperity gospel preacher by the name of Frederick K.C. Price (b. 1932) holds this position:
Do you think that the punishment for our sin was to die on a cross? If that were the case, the two thieves [criminals] could have paid your price. No, the punishment was to go into hell itself and to serve time in hell separated from God… Satan and all the demons of hell thought that they had Him bound and they threw a net over Jesus and they dragged Him down to the very pit of hell itself to serve our sentence.
Three observations from this quote:
- Christ’s death on the cross was not enough to pay the punishment of our sin.
- Jesus had to go into hell in order to pay fully the penalty of our sin.
- The penalty of our sin was to descend into hell.
Let me refute Prince’s literal view of the phrase “He descended into hell.”
1. The atoning death of Jesus was sufficient to pay the penalty of our sin.
For this reason the Bible tells us repeatedly—“Christ died for our sins” and not, “He descended into hell for our sins.” Take 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 for instance:
1Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. 3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.
Notice the 3 important elements of the gospel in this passage: death, burial, and resurrection. Descent into hell is not an element of the gospel.
2. Jesus did not have to go to hell in order to pay the penalty of our sin.
John 19:30 says, “When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, ‘It is finished,’ and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” What is finished? Answer: Everything that is required for our redemption. Christ’s descending into hell literally is not a part of the requirement for our salvation.
In Greek that sentence “It is finished” is only one word Tetelestai, and this Greek word is perfect tense and is to be translated as “It [the work of redemption] has been finished.” At Calvary, Jesus fulfilled perfectly all the requirements for our salvation. There was no need for him to go to hell. He already completed the work of redemption.
3. Remember the very last words of Jesus recorded for us in Luke 24:46, “Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’ And having said this he breathed his last.”
His human spirit went to his Father and his Father received his spirit. Further, in Luke 23:43 Jesus promises the believing criminal, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise [heaven].” That is, the moment the criminal dies he will go with Jesus to paradise (or heaven), not to hell.
4. Remember also that Jesus did not just pay the penalty of our sin, he also satisfied God’s perfect demand.
Jesus both kept the law on behalf of sinners and died in their place, so that those who believe in him will be justified on the basis of his perfect righteousness. Frederick K.C. Price argues, “Do you think that the punishment for our sin was to die on a cross? If that were the case, the two thieves could have paid your price.” What Prince is saying is this: the penalty for our sin was not only death on a cross but descent into hell as well. But, again descent into hell was not a part of the requirement for our salvation that Jesus has to fulfill. Also, the two thieves on the cross could not have paid the price of our sin, because they were not perfect and therefore could not have satisfied God’s perfect demand.
I therefore conclude that Jesus did not literally descend into hell. Rather, the moment Jesus died his spirit went immediately to be with his Father in heaven, while his body was buried in the tomb.
In my next post, I will explain how Christ experienced hell on the cross.