Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Did Christ descend into hell?

Russian icon with 5 themes. Fragment: Adam, Ev...
Adam, Eve and others follow Jesus from Hell to Heaven. Russian icon (Wikipedia)
(Part of a series on death and the hereafter)

Did Christ descend into hell? Yes, if you mean Hades. The reference at Ephesians 4:8-9 mentions that Jesus led captives in his train, i.e., he captured and led in a Roman-style triumphal procession the evil principalities and powers (demonic forces; Col 2:15; 1 Peter 3:22). He also gave gifts (of the Holy Spirit) to men. He also “descended to the lower, earthly regions.” Some interpret this phrase to mean either Christ’s life on earth or the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, but it is best to understand it as a reference to Hades, the underworld. 

Christ went there following his death on the cross to
endure the humiliation of death, to deliver those who in previous ages believed (2 Cor. 2:14), and to proclaim his victory to the imprisoned powers of darkness (1 Peter 3:18-20; 4:6; Matt 27:52-53; Phil 2:10; Acts 2:27, 31; Rom 10:7; Ezek. 32:24). Between Christ’s death and resurrection He descended to Hades, the New Testament word for Sheol, and took those in the upper story (the limbus patrum of medieval theology) to heaven with him. 

John Hammett sees two problems with this view. First, there is no Old Testament evidence for two parts of Sheol. However, the hope of OT saints of redemption from Sheol (Psalm 16:10; 49:15; Isa. 26:19; Dan. 12:2) and a continuation of fellowship with God outside Sheol (Psalm 23:6; 73:24; Eccles. 12:7) is evidence of two parts. Taken with Malachi 3:17-18 and Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), there is evidence of distinct portions of Sheol. 

Second, Hammet believes the verses cited for Christ’s descent to hades (Eph. 4:8-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22) do not bear a conclusion. Read literally, despite some remaining opacity, the general meaning is clear that Jesus descended into a lower part and then ascended to highest heaven. 

Third, when they left this world, Enoch and Elijah did not go to Sheol but rather went directly into the presence of the Lord. However, their unusual experience was prophetic of the coming resurrection of Christ. With the addition of Jesus’ own parable (Luke 16:19-31) and David’s prophetic statement of the Messiah (“I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” Psalm 23:6), two sections of Sheol prior to Christ’s resurrection are plausible, but there are problems. Further, there are also joyous OT expressions of expectation and joy in the face of death (Num 23:5, 10; Psalm 16:9, 11; 17:15; 49:15; 73:24-26; Prov 14:32; Isaiah 25:8; cf. 1 Cor 15:54). 

Some evangelicals believe that Sheol never was the abode of the OT saints (Prov 5:5; 15:11; 27:20). Others believe that Jesus at his resurrection took them with him from the “bosom of Abraham, (Luke 16:19-31), the good side of Sheol into Paradise, i.e., the presence of the Lord (Eph 4:8-10; 2 Cor 5:6-9; 12:2; John 3:14-15; Phil 2:9; 1 Peter 3:19-20). That leads us, then to a further question. Is Sheol still used today for nonbelievers in Jesus?


Since the Resurrection of Jesus, all those who die in Jesus go immediately into the presence of Jesus in the intermediate heaven, which is called Paradise (2 Cor 5:1-10). Those who die in their sin go immediately to the old wicked portion of Sheol, what the New Testament calls Hades (Luke 16:23). This is what happened to the rich man in Jesus’ parable in Luke 16:19-31. The parable describes the intermediate state of the wicked, not the lake of fire. The theme of the parable is the reality of judgment in the world to come and need to prepare now by believing God’s Word. Hades is only intermediate. Hell is the eternal state (Matt. 25:41, 46). At the final judgment, Hades will give up its occupants to Hell, the lake of fire, and Hades itself will be cast into the lake of fire, the second death  (Rev 20:11-15).