Is there a passage of Scripture that implies Jesus descended into hell following His death on the cross?
There is an early Catholic tradition, preserved in the Apostles’ Creed, that Christ descended into hell following His crucifixion. Some take this to mean that Christ literally descended into Hades,1 although most of the Scripture references that purportedly supported this view are ambiguous and weak when used for that purpose (Acts 2:31; Ephesians 4:9-10; Psalm 49:15). The only passage that seems worth consideration is 1 Peter 3:18-20.
“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” (NIV).
Some maintain, on the basis of this passage, that Jesus Christ (in His preincarnate state) preached through Noah to the wicked generation of Noah’s day. Others say that between His death and resurrection Christ went to the prison where the fallen angels are who left their proper state and married human women (Genesis 6:1-4; 2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6 ). Others say that between His death and resurrection, Christ went to the place of the dead and preached to the spirits of Noah’s wicked contemporaries.
All of these views of this passage have serious exegetical problems, including the declaration of Hebrews 9:27-28:
“And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment, so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation” (NKJV).
Nearly all orthodox Christian Bible teachers today deny that Christ descended into hell in a literal sense following His death on the cross. In addition, it goes clearly contrary to biblical teaching to imply that the spirits of the dead can be reached with the gospel.
Yet Scripture does corroborate a sense in which Jesus “descended into hell.” Jesus dreaded “the cup” (Matthew 26:39). This “cup” cannot have been merely death by crucifixion. Other martyrs have faced equally horrible deaths, and done so with composure. Nor can it symbolize a premature death in Gethsemane at the hands of the devil. Our Lord said that this cup came from God—“Shall I not drink the cup which My Father has given Me?” (John 18:11). Moreover, Jesus had expressly declared that He wouldn’t die until He voluntarily laid down His life. He said, “I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again” (John 10:17-18).
This “cup” symbolizes the agony of hell that Jesus had to endure on the cross. It is a symbol of God’s wrath as seen in Psalm 75:8: “For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup, and the wine is red; it is fully mixed, and He pours it out; surely its dregs shall all the wicked of the earth drain and drink down.” On the cross, God made His Son, “who knew no sin, to be sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21). He poured on Jesus Christ His wrath against all sin, causing Him to endure the desolation of hell. This sense of abandonment began to sweep over Jesus in Gethsemane. On the cross, it finally caused Him to cry out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46 ). The cup that Jesus dreaded, therefore, was the agony of hell—the abandonment by God that makes hell what it is.
- “Hell” in the (English) New Testament renders the Greek word transliterated as “Gehenna” (New Bible Dictionary, Tyndale). This word refers to the place of eternal punishment for the damned. The Old Testament had a less clear view of the state of the dead, and pictured them as being held in “Sheol” (translated “Hades”). Back To Article