The question of whether Jesus went to hell between His death and resurrection is an intriguing one that has been debated by theologians for centuries. The Bible does not provide an explicit, definitive answer, but there are several key passages that shed light on this mysterious period between Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.
The Descent into Hell
One of the most frequently cited verses is 1 Peter 3:18-20: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water.”
This passage describes Jesus preaching to imprisoned spirits between His death and resurrection. Many interpret this to mean that Christ descended into hell or Hades, the place of the dead, and proclaimed His victory over sin and death to those imprisoned there.
However, there is debate over who these spirits were and why Jesus preached to them. Some believe these were fallen angels or demons, while others argue they were the souls of those who perished in Noah’s flood. Jesus may have been offering a chance at salvation to those in Hades who had not heard the gospel.
The Apostles’ Creed, one of the earliest Christian creeds, affirms belief that Jesus “descended into hell.” This creedal statement indicates that some in the early church believed Jesus literally went to the abode of the dead after His crucifixion.
Paradise and Hades
Another relevant passage is Luke 23:39-43, where Jesus converses with the criminals crucified beside Him: “One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’ And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And he said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.’”
This passage suggests that after His death Jesus immediately went to paradise rather than hell. The repentant criminal was promised he would join Christ there that very day. In the apostle Paul’s writings, paradise seems to be distinct from Hades, the abode of the dead (2 Corinthians 12:3-4). This implies that Jesus may have gone to paradise rather than Hades between His death and resurrection.
Christ’s Proclamation of Victory
Ephesians 4:8-10 also gives insight into where Jesus went after death: “Therefore it says, ‘When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.’ (In saying, ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)”
Here Paul explains that when Jesus ascended into heaven after His resurrection, He had previously “descended into the lower regions, the earth.” This may indicate Jesus went to Hades after His death to proclaim victory over death before ascending into heaven. The “captives” He led likely refer to righteous souls held in Hades who He delivered from captivity through His redemptive work.
However, some argue this passage simply means Jesus came down to earth as a human and then returned to heaven after His resurrection. The meaning is debated among scholars.
Jesus’ Words to the Thief
Luke 23:43, where Jesus tells the thief “today you will be with me in paradise,” strongly suggests they both went to paradise that very day. This happened between Jesus’ death and resurrection. Paradise seems distinct from Hades in Scripture, implying Jesus did not descend to the abode of the dead. Rather, He ascended directly to paradise.
If the thief was promised entrance into paradise with Christ immediately after death, this strongly indicates Jesus Himself went to paradise rather than hell between His crucifixion and resurrection.
The Silence of Scripture
Ultimately Scripture does not provide definitive detail about where Jesus went between death and resurrection. There is evidence supporting different interpretations. We know His body was buried in a tomb while His spirit departed (Luke 23:46). But the precise location of His spirit during this time is not conclusively revealed.
Some of the confusion stems from inconsistencies in how terms like Sheol, Hades, hell, and paradise are translated and understood. We cannot state with absolute certainty whether these refer to distinct places or the same abode of the dead.
Perhaps the biblical silence on Jesus’ exact whereabouts indicates it is not essential to know the details. What matters most is that He conquered sin and death and rose victorious over the grave. As Paul declares in Romans 10:9, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
Jesus Preached to Imprisoned Spirits
1 Peter 3:18-20 offers significant insight, stating Jesus “went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison” between His death and resurrection. While debate remains over the identity of these spirits, this strongly suggests Jesus descended to the abode of the dead to proclaim His victory.
Many influential early church fathers and theologians, including Augustine, believed this meant Jesus literally preached to souls held captive in hell after His crucifixion.
This passage indicates Jesus did not remain only in paradise during this time but descended into Hades to declare freedom to imprisoned spirits. Whether this mean He suffered in hell is widely disputed.
Jesus Entered Heaven After Resurrection
While Scripture may leave details ambiguous about where Jesus went between death and resurrection, it clearly teaches He entered heaven after rising from the grave. Several passages affirm this.
Mark 16:19 states: “So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God.”
Luke 24:51 declares: “While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven.”
Acts 1:9 proclaims: “And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”
These verses unanimously confirm Jesus ascended into heaven after His resurrection. There is no biblical evidence Jesus spent additional time in hell or Hades. His destination after rising was definitively heaven where He sits at God’s right hand.
Jesus Suffered God’s Wrath on the Cross
An important theological issue is whether Jesus suffered the torment of hell between His death and resurrection. Historic creeds like the Apostles’ Creed do affirm Christ “descended into hell.” But no scriptural passages depict Jesus actively suffering after His death.
In fact, Jesus’ words on the cross “It is finished” (John 19:30) strongly suggest His atoning work was accomplished completely through His crucifixion. The wages of sin were fully paid. He bore God’s wrath on the cross (Romans 5:9).
Therefore, most modern scholars believe any descent of Jesus to the abode of the dead after His death did not involve additional suffering. His atoning work was finished on the cross.
Harrowing of Hell Tradition
The “harrowing of hell” is a traditional view in some church circles that Jesus descended into hell between His death and resurrection in order to liberate the righteous souls held there. This is often seen as Christ victoriously conquering hell.
This concept became especially popular during the medieval period. Dramatic works and art depicting Jesus heroically storming hell and rescuing souls became prevalent. However, the dramatic harrowing of hell imagery is not explicitly described in Scripture.
While the general concept of deliverance from Hades has biblical precedent, the specific dramatic details visualized in medieval art and literature go beyond Scripture. Some churches fully reject this tradition as unbiblical speculation.
A Contested Theological Issue
Where Jesus spent the interval between His death and resurrection remains a point of debate among theologians. Views differ between Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox branches of Christianity. Even within these traditions, conflicting perspectives exist.
Some modern theologians entirely reject the idea that Jesus descended into Hades or hell. They argue it is based on a misreading of ambiguous verses. Meanwhile, other scholars cite numerous scriptural and traditional sources supporting this view.
Overall, there is evidence on both sides but no definitive clarity. Ultimately one’s position relies heavily on interpretation of disputed scriptural passages and their theological tradition.
Jesus Preached to Dead from Noah’s Day
1 Peter 3:18-20 describes Jesus preaching to dead spirits who were disobedient during the time of Noah. This plainly states some activity of Jesus between His death and resurrection involved proclaiming to the dead.
But debate remains about whether this occurred in hell/Hades or in some sort of purgatory. The identity of these spirits is also unclear. Were they fallen angels, human souls of Noah’s day, or something else?
Nevertheless, this passage clearly affirms Jesus was preaching to dead spirits, lending credibility to the belief He descended into the abode of the dead in some capacity between His crucifixion and resurrection.
Descent Affirmed in Apostles’ Creed
The Apostles’ Creed, one of the earliest and most foundational Christian creeds, directly addresses the descent of Christ into hell: “I believe in God the Father Almighty; Maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead.”
The specific inclusion of Christ’s descent into hell in this respected, ancient creed reflects that some in the early church did teach and affirm Jesus spent the time between death and resurrection in the abode of the dead.
This lends credibility to the view that Jesus descended into hell, at least in some capacity, after His crucifixion. The creed does not provide further detail but affirms the core concept.
void of Details in Scripture
One of the most challenging factors in determining whether Jesus went to hell between His death and resurrection is the lack of definitive details in Scripture. No passage provides an explicit, crystal clear answer.
At best, we have verses that imply or could be interpreted to support Jesus spending this time preaching to departed souls in Hades/hell and/or paradise. But the specifics are ambiguous and hotly debated.
Unlike many central doctrines, this particular aspect of Christ’s ministry between death and resurrection is not addressed clearly and extensively in the biblical canon. The relative void of details leaves the door open for debate.
Difference Between Hell and Hades
Part of the difficulty in interpreting what Scripture says about where Jesus went after death centers on inconsistencies in terminology. Words like Hades, Sheol, hell, and paradise are used inconsistently.
In some cases, the original Greek and Hebrew terms are themselves ambiguous. In other cases, translation into English results in unclear or contradictory renderings of the text.
Widely differing views exists between branches of Christianity over whether terms like Sheol, Hades, and hell refer to the same destination or distinct places.
This contributes to the ongoing debate over whether Jesus descended specifically into hell or just the abode of the dead in general. The imprecise terminology leaves room for scholars to reach differing conclusions.
Focus on the Resurrection
While intriguing details about Jesus’ activities between death and resurrection pique interest, the location of His spirit during this time is not an essential doctrinal issue for Christian faith.
The fact of His conquering death and rising from the grave is what matters most, as indicated in Romans 10:9 “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
The creedal and biblical focus is on Jesus’ literal, bodily resurrection and present reign in heaven. These core truths should remain central regardless of uncertainty over what He did in the interim period between cross and resurrection.
An Unresolved Mystery
In conclusion, whether Jesus literally went to hell between His death and resurrection remains a point of theological debate and mystery. Scripture provides some intriguing clues but no definitive answer.
While Christian tradition often affirms a descent to hell, differences persist over its exact nature and purpose. The time between Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection remains an area where scriptural silence, translation uncertainties, and varied interpretive opinions prevent dogmatic conclusions.
Yet this uncertainty over Jesus’ whereabouts in death need not undermine core doctrines of Christ’s atoning sacrifice and glorifying resurrection, by which He conquered sin and death forever for those who believe.