He Descended into Hades

Many of us recite the Apostles’ Creed during our Sunday worship services to profess our faith and to affirm our membership in the universal Body of Christ. But we are puzzled by that short statement in the middle of the Creed, “He descended into Hades.” Where did it come from? What does it mean?

Some Protestants object to this statement. They remove it from the creed or remain silent during that part.

“He descended into Hades” is a teaching of the early Church that is traditionally called “the harrowing of hell.” It is the belief that Jesus, at some point between his death and resurrection, went to the abode of the dead, the place that the Old Testament writers call Sheol (Hebrew) and the New Testament writers call Hades (Greek). Hades has been rendered in many English translations as “hell.”

That word “hell” conjures up images of fiery eternal torment which are consistent with Gehenna, the other Greek word appearing in the gospels which is also translated as “hell.” Because of these associations, many are led to think that “He descended into hell” means that Jesus descended into a place of punishment where he continued to suffer even after his death. That would seem to contradict what Jesus said to the thief on the cross, ““I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk 23:43). So to many Protestants, the harrowing of hell is a teaching that seems, at best, puzzling and unnecessary, and at worst, unbiblical.

Not so for the Eastern Orthodox. For Orthodox believers, the harrowing of hell plays a key role in their understanding of what Christ accomplished through his death and resurrection.

In the Orthodox view, Jesus did not descend into hell to suffer the consequences of human sin. He entered hell as a triumphant conqueror to break the chains of those who, since the time of Adam, had been faithfully waiting and hoping for God’s promised salvation. The highlight of Orthodox Holy Week services is the Great Pascha or Vigil which begins very late Saturday night and extends into the wee hours of Sunday morning, witnessing the resurrection of Christ. The service culminates with the singing of a beautiful and very ancient hymn known as the Pascal Troparion:

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs
Bestowing life!

There is a fascinating book that can tell you everything that you ever wanted to know about the harrowing of hell. The book is Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent into Hades from an Orthodox Perspective by Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev. I have skimmed through this book but not yet read through it carefully, so I will not attempt to give a review. Nevertheless, I have learned a few things that may be of interest to those who are wondering how to deal with that puzzling statement in the Apostles’ Creed.

First, Christ’s descent into hell can be found in Scripture. When I say it can be found in Scripture, I am not saying that the Bible definitively proves that Christ descended into hell. Rather, I am merely stating the fact that Christians from various times and traditions have found evidence for it in Scripture. Perhaps the best known reference is that cryptic passage in 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.

Another reference is found in the Apostle Peter’s evangelistic message on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:25-28), in which he quotes from Psalm 16:8-11 and applies it to Jesus:

I saw the Lord always before me.
Because he is at my right hand,
I will not be shaken.
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.
You have made known to me the paths of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence.

(Note that the old NIV says, “you will not abandon me to the grave.” The quotation above from the NIV 2011 says “you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead” seems to be a more accurate rendering, because the Hebrew word Sheol used by the psalmist does not merely refer to the grave, but to the underworld abode of the souls of the dead.)

Those two passages may be the most direct Scriptural evidence for a descent into hell, but there are many more passages which have been seen by some Christians to be related to it. Matthew 27:51-53 mentions some startling events that took place in the moments after Jesus’ death:

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.

Some have understood this resurrection to be the result of Christ arriving in Hades and loosening the chains of the dead. Others have seen evidence in Isaiah 9:2:

The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.

Second, a belief in the harrowing of hell apears to have been widespread in the early church. Church fathers held a variety of opinions about what Jesus accomplished by his descent into Hades, and they differed over many of its theological implications. But Archbishop Alfeyev quotes extensively from the fathers, Christian apocrypha, ancient poetry and hymnody to support the view that, as a whole, the early Christians did believe that Christ entered the underworld.

Did Jesus descend into Hades? Many in the early church believed that he did.

What did Jesus do down there? I really don’t know.

When I see Jesus face to face, this is one of the many questions I intend to ask him. Until then, I’m happy to let it remain a mystery as I recite those words from the Apostles’ Creed.


  1. GerardoR

    My wife and I were debating this question all day on Saturday. I am uncertain about Jesus going down to hell. It seems clearer (or maybe it just makes me more conferrable) that Jesus went to this Sheol, the place which many see as a holding place for the righteous or for the Jewish righteous. The St. Ignatious Catholic bible study has an excellent essay on this topic. It mentions how the interpretations of the passages you cited have generally been used to support the following positions:

    St. Augustine: Christ preached to the ancient world through the person of Noah, urging the wicked to repent before the floodwaters of judgment

    St. Robert Bellamine: Christ descended to the dead to announce his salvation to those sinners who had privately repented just before the onset of the flood.  

    A Modern Interpretation: During Christ Ascension into glory, he presented himself as victor and conquered to a company of demons imprisoned in the lower heavens.  

    There are also more specific interpretations to who the people are that Jesus preaches to:

    Some say it is the souls of the wicked during the time of the flood. But this is a strange interpretation since it is unclear why Jesus should single out these particular people. Why not the people of Sodom and Gomorrah? We also have no biblical source to suggest that these people repented.  In fact, they are used as an example of a  generation  that is condemned by God.  

    One method for gaining clarity involves looking towards non biblical  sources  which were  commonly  references during the apostles times (e.g., Jubilees, 1 and 2 Enoch). For instance, in Genesis we are told about the “sons of God: which several jewish text identify as rebellious angels who corrupted the world of men before the flood. Being spirits, they could not be destroyed by the waters of the flood so the Lord thrust them into prisons in the underworld.  

    Under this account, these people who Jesus preaches to are fallen angels which messhes much better with the use of the word spirits as angels in the new testament (e.g., Matthew 12:45, Luke 10:20, Hebrew 1:14). However, I personally have trouble with this interpretation since Angels are fully aware of Gods glory which presents a problem for me to see how they could be saved after rejecting God.  

    So in summary, several possibilities seem likely:
    #1 He saved the righteous from the times before Christ (sheol)
    #2 He saved the righteous and those who repented during the flood  and other disasters
    #3 He saved some of the fallen angels
    #4 He saved the righteous people and the fallen angels before the time of Christ.  

    I am personally inclined towards possibility #2. And I am more inclined towards believing he freed these souls from this above of the dead and not from hell. Of course, this is all theological speculation but I think possibility #2 is best supported by scripture. Almost all the scriptural references to him descending into hell are translations from the word hades which is better translated as the underworld and not hell.  

    This whole topic is tricky since there are many orthodox theologians who support one of the four mentioned possibilities. The Catechism has an interesting paragraph on this topic:

    635 Christ went down into the depths of death so that “the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” Jesus, “the Author of life”, by dying destroyed “him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and [delivered] all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.” Henceforth the risen Christ holds “the keys of Death and Hades”, so that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.”. . . He has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve, captive with him – He who is both their God and the son of Eve. . . “I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. . . I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.”
    I would curious to hear how people reconcile the many passages that allude to Jesus going to hades with the passage of the thief on the cross. As I have stated before, the passage could easily be translated to mean: “Truly I tell you today, you will be with me in paradise.” In the Purgatory thread, the only person who responded to my statement was David who said:

    “Jesus says the phrase “I tell you the truth” with some promise after that  phrase  78 times in the New Testament. he never says “I tell you the truth today” with the word “today” appearing as a part of that common phrase that  he uses.”
    Although I find this to be a wise observation, it does not really support his argument very strongly. Just because Jesus never previously used the word “today” with the phrase “I tell you the truth” doesn’t mean he could not have meant “I tell you the truth today, you will…” After all, by David’s own admission, Jesus never uses those two phrases together. Hence, it seems perfectly reasonable to assume that he could have used it to say, “I tell you the truth today,…” and the topic of this thread, further supports this. After all, we are told Jesus descended into the abode of the dead. And when Mary first saw him on the third day, he told her not to touch him since he had not yet ascended to the father. So I think this presents three key pieces of evidence to strongly support the assertion that Jesus said, “I tell you the truth today, …” and not, “I tell you the truth, today…”  I would love to hear a charitable  rebuttal  to this from David or anyone else.

    I really like the conclusion of the article. I think mystery is the healthiest approach to take towards this topic. We really don’t know. I wish people would not respond to mystery by ignoring that line on the apostles creed. But I can understand that attitude. After all, mystery can sometimes cause a lot of discomfort that we do not understand the full workings of the gospel. But we should be okay with that because we are called to have faith and not to posses all knowledge.

  2. Abraham Nial
    Abraham Nial

    Thanks Joe for bringing up this issue. You are right in pointing out that careful word study in their original Hebrew/Greek context is necessary to understand and differentiate between “gehenna”, “hades”, “abyss”, and “tartarus”, as all of them are commonly mentioned as “hell” in the English translation. I believe that ignorance keep us in bondage as much as wrong information does. At some point of time we need to wrestle with difficult ideas in the Bible if indeed the truth should set us free. It is not my intention to explain all of the terms, but in this comment I will restrict myself to the idea of Hades.
    I too was uncomfortable with the statement “He descended into Hades” until I learned its meaning from a Bible teacher I trust. He says that sometime between his death and the resurrection Jesus went into the Hades, like you said, not to receive the torment but as the victorious Lord  who completed redemption work on the cross. Hades is the temporary holding place of human spirits after their death. And Hades had two compartments: one for the good peoples (OT saints) and another for the bad peoples of all time. Between his death and the resurrection, Jesus visited/descended the good side of the Hades and preached redemption to the spirits there and set these captives free. In the light of this conjecture, Jesus’ narration of the Rich man and the Lazarus makes sense. In order for the rich man who ended up in hell (Luke 16:23), (the Greek word for “hell” here is “hades”), to be able to see the beggar Lazarus by  Father Abraham’s bossom, the two compartments should have been close enough, although a great chasm separated the two sides. When Jesus descended to the Hades or with this idea to  Abraham’s side of the Hades, he  proclaimed redemption and set free the sprits there and sent them to heaven. So, the good side of the Hades ceased to exist after Jesus’ resurrection. Ever since Jesus’ resurrection, for last more than two thousand years, whenever believers died, their spirit immediately went to the presence of the Lord (in heaven).

    The story of the Rich man and Lazarus makes sense because when Jesus narrated this, the two sides still coexisted. However, at the martyrdom of Stephen (post-resurrection), Stephen saw Jesus in heaven standing at the right hand of God, and he directly prayed to Jesus to receive his spirit. That he prayed Jesus to receive his spirit in heaven I think needs no explanation. So, for me to recite “He descended into Hades” makes better sense and helps me love Jesus more.

  3. Darren Gruett

    It is interesting that this came up. One of my newest favorite songs is by Matt Maher called, “Christ Is Risen,” and he uses the first two lines of the Pascal Troparion in the chorus.


  4. I’ve wondered about this, and am inclined to not think that Jesus went to hell between Good Fri and Resurrection Sun, though Jesus surely experienced the excruciating, torturous and unbearable agony of the hell of being separated from his Father, with whom he has never been separated through out eternity, but did so on the cross, in love and mercy on account of my sins which he took up upon himself in his body and suffered the wrath of God which I rightfully deserve (1 Cor 5:21).
    This is John Piper’s 3 min audio response, which is somewhat similar to what the ESV Study Bible says, where he explains Eph 4:9 and 1 Pet 3:18-20: http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/ask-pastor-john/did-christ-ever-descend-to-hell?utm_source=Desiring+God&utm_campaign=e38eb91fdd-RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN&utm_medium=email

    • GerardoR

      Hi Ben,
      I listened to John Pipers response. I did not feel very convinced. He essentially said, I think he meant this in Ephesians and I think he meant this in 1 Peter. In fact, his interpretation for 1 Peter is weird because the passage is clearly talking about what Christ did after he was crucified.  

      In both the passage in ephesians and 1 Peter, the passage says the complete opposite of John Piper’s interpretation and there are at least 3 other passages in the new testament that speak against his interpretation. For instance, Jesus likens himself to Jonah who “spent three days and three nights in the belly of the whale” Interesting, Jonah himself writes, “I went down into the countries underneath the earth, to the peoples of the past…but you lifted my life from the pit, O Lord, my God.”  

      Also, he did not  address  the Jesus told Mary on the third day that he had not ascended to the Father. Instead, he used the thief on the cross passage to justify his particular interpretation.

      So I feel unconvinced by his interpretation because
      #1 The Apostles creed has that passage  
      #2 There are 5 other biblical passages that say Jesus went to hades (corroboration)
      #3 Jesus told Mary he had not yet ascended on the third day
      #4 The thief on the cross passage could easily mean “I tell you today, …”
      #5 John Piper is a calvinist

      I am only kidding about #5. =)
      But I still maintain #1, #2, #3, and #4. I think they present a VERY strong case against John Pipers interpretation and hence, reasonably show that Jesus probably did go into hades. What exactly he was doing there, where hades is and who did he rescue is a different question which I think we can only speculate on.    

      I am a bit surprise that  John Piper would rather avoid  reciting  that part of the apostles creed than to embrace the mystery that Joe pointed out.  

      I personally feel more  unconformable saying that Jesus was  separated  from the Father. That creates several theological “uncomfertableness” for me considering the nature of the trinity.

    • I  usually like what John Piper says and learn a great deal from his preaching. But as I listened to that segment, I felt he was too  flippant in dismissing the possibility of those passages referring to a descent into Hades. And the fact that Jesus said to the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise” doesn’t prove that he didn’t descend to Hades. If I say, “I’m going to shop at Walmart today,” it doesn’t mean that I can’t first stop to get a cup of coffee at Starbucks.

    • Piper, perhaps the premier Calvinist in the U.S., doesn’t think that that Jesus went to hell (though he seems soft/flexible on this), but the man himself John Calvin thinks that Jesus did go to hell

      I would say that whether or not Jesus did is an open hand issue, which is thus not crucial for one’s salvation. But whether Jesus did or not, his excruciating agony (which was immeasurably worse than the physical torture of the crucifixion) of being separated from the Father even for a moment, was the very worst possible hell Jesus could have personally experienced, so that I and all of us undeserving sinners may be reunited with the Father

    • Just to clarify: The saying “He descended into Hades” doesn’t necessarily imply that Jesus went to hell to suffer. The predominant view is that he went there in triumph to liberate souls after his suffering was finished.

    • GerardoR

      Great point Joe! Maybe Jesus descended to hades to show the thief on the cross where he could have ended up if he had not placed his faith in him. =)  
      The strange thing about this whole “descended in hades” passage is that it starts to sound almost like Dante’s divine comedy. I wonder if the passage inspired Dante to write his book.