Scriptures

Did Jesus Descend To Hell?

Introduction

Having already answered the question, where did Jesus’s spirit go when He was in the tomb, I believe it’s important to note where His spirit didn’t go when He was in the tomb. I’ve read countless articles on this subject and a few of them still insist that Jesus descended to hell when He was in the tomb and they use a few passages of Scripture as ‘proof’ text.

In this study we will look at a few passages of Scripture to try and understand what those texts are actually teaching.

Hell

Before we look at those texts, we need to think about the meaning of the word ‘Hell’ itself, because a little thought will help us to clear up some of those misconceptions and erroneous theories which, for centuries, have been sources of needless confusion and unnecessary anxiety, unnecessary that is, if one is a Christian!

The Words

There are, in fact three Biblical words, the meanings of which are often confused because people tend to use them very loosely. Two of the words are New Testament Greek words and the third is an Old Testament Hebrew word.

For instance, in the New Testament we have these words.
1. ‘Gehenna’, which occurs 12 times, and, in the A.V., is always translated ‘hell’, and

2. ‘Hades’, which occurs 10 times, and which is also always translated ‘hell’.

3. The third word is the word ‘sheol’, found in the Old Testament, and which sometimes is erroneously said to be the word that corresponds to ‘Gehenna’.

You clearly see the confusion that has been created about the meaning of this word when you understand that, in the A.V., out of the 65 instances it occurs, 31 times it has been translated ‘hell’ and 31 times it has been translated ‘the grave’!

Now, although the word ‘Sheol’ literally means ‘the Place of the Dead’, you don’t need much intelligence to recognise that Hell and the Grave are not the same place! When a body is placed in the grave, it has not been consigned to Hell!

But, there is a history behind this inconsistent rendering of the word ‘Sheol’. Whilst the translators of the A.V. believed Hell to be the place of punishment for the wicked, they recoiled from the idea of saying that good people also go to Sheol, and so in passages that related to the death of good people, they decided to translate ‘Sheol’ as ‘the grave’!

Old Testament Ideas

However, in Hebrew theology and, in Old Testament teaching, Sheol is described as the place to which all the dead go, both good and bad. It’s defined as ‘the place of departed souls’. In the account of King Saul’s visit to the medium at Endor, the spirit of the dead prophet Samuel is recorded as saying to Saul, ‘tomorrow, you and your sons shall be with me,’ 1 Samuel 28:19

Even the Oxford Dictionary is close to the truth as far as the meaning of the word is concerned. It says that Sheol is, ‘the abode of the dead’. Furthermore, in the Old Testament, Sheol is described as a gloomy place, in which an individual is farther away from God than he was during his lifetime.

We are told that, ‘For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing’. Ecclesiastes 9:5 and, according to Psalm 115:17, ‘It is not the dead who praise the LORD, those who go down to the place of silence’.

We must remember that is was Old Testament theology.

New Testament Teaching

Of course, this is all very different from what the New Testament teaches, but we must bear in mind the fact that in Old Testament times, the Hebrews had no clear doctrine concerning the future after death, either of good people or bad people. In early Hebrew times, they never even considered life after death as a possibility.

That’s why we hear the inconsolable Jacob say, in Genesis 37:35, when he believes that his beloved son Joseph has been killed by wild animals, ‘I will continue to mourn until I join my son in the grave’.

And ‘At least there is hope for a tree: If it is cut down, it will sprout again, and its new shoots will not fail. Its roots may grow old in the ground and its stump die in the soil, yet at the scent of water it will bud and put forth shoots like a plant. But a man dies and is laid low; he breathes his last and is no more. As the water of a lake dries up or a riverbed becomes parched and dry, so he lies down and does not rise; till the heavens are no more, people will not awake or be roused from their sleep. ‘If only you would hide me in the grave and conceal me till your anger has passed! If only you would set me a time and then remember me! If someone dies, will they live again? All the days of my hard service I will wait for my renewal to come.’ Job 14:7-14.

So far as the early Hebrew knew, it all ended in the grave, at death. It was later that the truths of continued existence after death, and a judgement of the righteous and the wicked were gradually revealed through the later prophets.

But, even then, the full truth wasn’t brought to light until the Lord Jesus Himself, ‘brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.’ 2 Timothy 1:10.

Back to the word ‘Hell’

The word ‘Gehenna’, from which it originates, has a historical origin in the Old Testament we read about a valley on the western side of the city of Jerusalem, which was known as ‘The Valley of Hinnom’, that is, ‘Ge Henna’.

We know nothing about Hinnom, except that he owned that valley and must have lived very early in Old Testament times, probably even before the time of Joshua, because ‘The valley of the SON of HINNON’ is mentioned in Joshua 15:8.

What we can say with certainty is that the ‘Valley of Hinnom’ was the valley in which, by New Testament times, there was a place known as ‘Tophet’, that was used as the refuse dump for the city of Jerusalem. And, not for refuse alone, but also for the bodies of criminals who had been executed and those of beggars who had died.

Jerusalem had its fair share of beggars who lived, and died, on its streets, and, in the early morning before the city came to life, it was the custom to send a cart around the city to pick up the corpses of any who had died overnight and take them and dump them in the Valley of Hinnom, at Tophet, where they were burned. It was here, in the Valley, that fires burned constantly, in order to consume corpses and anything else that was thrown there.

Why was the valley used in this way?

It was used in this way because, in Old Testament times, during a period when the Israelites were unfaithful to their God, they worshipped the idol, ‘Molech’, and such idolatrous worship involved the offering of human sacrifices particularly of children, Jeremiah 7:31.

The particular idol involved was a huge, hollow figure of brass or bronze, in which a fire was lit so that the idol became red hot. It had outstretched arms on which the human sacrifice was laid, and the screams of the victim were drowned by the beating of drums. In the Old Testament, ‘Tophet’, is a word which means ‘tablet’ or ‘drum’.

It was the good king Josiah who put an end to this evil practice, by scattering the bones of dead men in the valley, thus defiling it and making it permanently unfit for the purpose of worship. 2 Kings 23.

From that time, ‘Gehenna’ had been used as a rubbish dump and a place of constant burning. This explains the words of Jesus, when He says, hell is where ‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched’. Mark 9:48

Remember, also, that it is Jesus alone, who speaks of Gehenna in all of the 12 passages where the word occurs, and He uses it symbolically to speak of the punishment and suffering that awaits the wicked. Remember, also, that Jesus isn’t saying that, after death, there is a place that literally burns with fire and brimstone, waiting for the wicked.

A few centuries ago, priests, preachers and parsons often put ‘the fear of death’ into their congregations, by telling them about the fires of the ‘Hell’, that awaited them, if they continued to be wicked.

They even vividly described the rattling of the chains and the smell it brimstone! And, of course, old Satan was always said to be there, with his Pitchfork, to make sure they all received a good roasting!

Summary

To summarise the above and to help us move forward in this study with a proper understanding of the words used for hell, let’s simply say this, the Old Testament word ‘Sheol’ and the corresponding New Testament word ‘Hades’ both speak of the final destination place of our mortal human ‘bodies’, that is, the grave, the place where everyone’s ‘body’ ends up.

The New Testament word ‘Gehenna’ is the final destination of the wicked ‘soul’, the place of punishment, hell. In other words, everyone’s ‘body’ will go to the grave, but the ‘soul’, which is the part of man which will go on for eternity, either with God in heaven or in Hell with the devil and his angels.

Alleged Proof Texts!

Some suggest Jesus went to preach to the souls in hell! This idea comes from a complete misunderstanding of Peter’s words.

‘After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.’ 1 Peter 3:19-20

A proper understanding of what Peter means will help clarify what Peter means and that’s simply that Christ in His spirit didn’t go anywhere to save those who were righteous before the flood because there were none, just Noah and His family, Genesis 6:5-13.

Does Peter mean that the Gospel was preached to those who were already dead? No, what he means is that they were dead whilst Peter wrote this letter, but they were very much alive whilst the Gospel was being preached to them.

What he’s saying in is that the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit spoke through Noah to the people when they were alive. He’s not talking about what happened when Jesus was in the grave and we shouldn’t make a text mean something it doesn’t say.

Why would Jesus want to preach the Gospel to those who are lost? What would be the purpose? To give them a second chance! There is no second chance Gospel, Hebrews 9:27.

Another so-called ‘proof text’ which some use to teach that Christ went to hell is also found in 1 Peter.

‘For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.’ 1 Peter 4:6

If we to read this verse and come to the conclusion that Jesus went to hell to preach the Gospel to those who have already died, we would soon run into trouble with other Scriptures, especially Hebrews 9:27.

I mentioned it earlier and I’ll mention here again, there is no second chance Gospel. Everyone is destined to die once and then face judgment, no send chance to repent and become faithful.

So, what does Peter mean?

He simply means that because of the final judgement, that the Gospel was preached to the dead. Please read 1 Peter 4:5 for the context. In other words, the Gospel was preached to them, the dead, when they were very much still alive but by the time Peter writes this letter they are now well and truly dead.

Another text which is sometimes used to ‘prove’ that Christ went to hell is found in Paul’s words.

‘But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: ‘When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.’ What does ‘he ascended’ mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.)’ Ephesians 4:7-10

When we read Paul’s word we have to imagine a Roman triumph, a great procession entering Rome led by a victorious king, returning from a great war, riding on a white horse. At the back of him, there is train of people, those who have been taken captive during the war and all the spoils the victorious king has gained and now bring with them. As the procession goes along he gives gifts to men, some captives were set free, whilst others were executed.

It’s a picture of the victorious Christ who gave gifts to His people, God has blessed all Christians with at least one gift, if we read further on in the passage we see that some gifts are mentioned, apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.

And notice that Paul quotes from the Psalms. ‘When you ascended on high, you took many captives; you received gifts from people, even from the rebellious— that you, LORD God, might dwell there.’ Psalm 68:18

Here we have a picture of David looking forward into the future, it’s prophetic, David says, ‘received gifts’ but Paul says, ‘gave gifts’. This is David looking forward and Paul looking at the fulfilment of this passage.

But who are the captives?

From the Psalm it’s clear that they were the enemies of Israel who were defeated when Jerusalem was captured. In Ephesians the captives are the enemies of Christ, namely, Satan, sin, and death, in other words, Christ had victory over Satan, sin and death and gives gifts of the Spirit to those who have been identified with him. Colossians 2:13-15.

And please notice that Paul doesn’t even mention the word, ‘hell’, he speaks about Christ ‘descending to the lower, earthly regions’.

What does this mean?

‘Descended to the lower, earthly regions’ isn’t a reference to hell, but to His birth. We find the Psalmist using similar words in Psalm 139:15, ‘My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.’

In other words, Paul is referring to Christ’s coming to earth as a baby, he’s speaking about Christ coming into Mary’s womb. Paul is saying that Jesus, who went up to heaven, that is in His ascension, is the same Jesus, who earlier came down from heaven. Paul isn’t speaking about Christ going to ‘hell’, he’s speaking about Christ’s birth as human.

Another so-called ‘proof text’ that some use to teach that Christ went to hell is found in the Book of Acts.

‘Therefore, my heart is glad, and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest in hope, because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, you will not let your holy one see decay.’ Acts 2:26-27

‘Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay.’ Acts 2:31

Here we see part of the first Gospel sermon ever preached on the Day of Pentecost, notice that Peter quotes from the Psalms. ‘Therefore, my heart is glad, and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful one see decay.’ Psalm 16:9-10

The phrase, ‘realm of the dead’ refers to ‘Hades’ which if you remember is the grave, the place where the ‘body’ ends up. Notice it was Jesus’ ‘body’ which went to the grave not His soul. It’s obvious that Peter is using David’s psalm to show that Christ’s ‘body’ did not decay. In other words, Jesus wasn’t like David, ‘who died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day.’ Acts 2:29

In other words, Jesus ‘body’ wasn’t in the grave long enough for it to begin to decay.

The last so-called proof text we will look at is found in Paul’s words in the Book of Romans.

‘But the righteousness that is by 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 deep?’ ‘(that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).’ Romans 10:6-7

Notice that Paul quotes from the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 30:12. Again, there is no mention of the word, ‘hell’ in these verses. In the context Paul is simply asking these Christians not to ask these questions, why?

Because Christ isn’t far away, in fact He is very near and faith in him is as near as confessing with our mouth and believing in our heart. Romans 10:9.

Conclusion

There is no Scriptural evidence which says Jesus went to or descended down to hell in any shape or form and there would be no purpose in doing so. When it comes to these passages we’ve looked at or any other passages which some will use, we need to read them in their proper context and understand the meaning of the words used.

We need to understand the writers use of the words used for hell, the Old Testament word ‘Sheol’ and the corresponding New Testament word ‘Hades’ both speak of the final destination place of our mortal human ‘bodies’, that is, the grave, the place where everyone’s ‘body’ ends up.

The New Testament word ‘Gehenna’ is the final destination of the wicked ‘soul’, the place of punishment, hell. In other words, everyone’s ‘body’ will go to the grave, but the ‘soul’, which is the part of man which will go on for eternity, either with God in heaven or in Hell with the devil and his angels.

Jesus’ body went to ‘Hades’, that is the grave, the place where our bodies will eventually go, but His ‘soul’ went ‘Paradise’, which is heaven, as He said and promised the thief on the cross. Luke 23:43.

 

DAILY BIBLE VERSE

"And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."

Philippians 4:7

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