I Believe in Hell
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At Christ Covenant, I'm preaching through a series called the Creed. We are going through the Apostles' Creed to ensure our church family knows what they believe and why they believe it. The topic for this week is "I believe Jesus descended into Hell."
I need to address two questions:
- What is Hell?
- Did Jesus go there when He died?
What is Hell?
When you read through the Bible, you sometimes come across things that are uncomfortable. Hell is one of those uncomfortable topics that is all over Scripture.
Unfortunately many Pastors and Christian teachers don't talk about Hell because they either don't think their listeners want to hear about it, or they only want to emphasize God's attribute of love and not His holiness and wrath.
Well, the reality is that Hell is a very serious topic that needs to be discussed. Jesus thought so too. He talked more about Hell than anyone else in the Bible. Jesus knew the gravity of eternity, and He didn't avoid the tough conversations.
Hell is an eternal separation from God that is filled with fire, darkness, and sorrow. This is how Jesus described Hell. For more on what Hell is, read my blog post "5 Truths about Hell".
Did Jesus Go to Hell When He Died?
There are many interpretations about this. A good book on the different views and the historical perspective is In Defense of the Descent by Daniel R. Hyde. I highly recommend it.
It is my opinion that when Jesus told the prisoner on the cross, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with Me in paradise (Luke 23:43)," I believe Jesus was talking about Heaven, not Hell. Paul uses the same word "paradise" referring to Heaven in 2 Corinthians 12:2. John uses the same word "paradise" referring to Heaven in Revelation 2:7. Paradise is not Hell, it is Heaven.
Many Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Evangelicals believe Jesus descended to the lower, earthly regions, Hades. They would claim that Hades was a place where the righeous would go to wait until Jesus came back, and they would then go to Heaven (Read pp. 22-23 of Third Millennium's Apostles' Creed study here). They cite passages like 1 Peter 3:18-20 and Ephesians 4:8-10.
1 Peter 3:18-20 says, "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, though whom also He went and preached to the spirits of Noah while the ark was being built."
When it comes to 1 Peter 3:18-20, I believe the Spirit of Christ spoke to them through the preaching of Noah, and now they are in prison. I don't believe Jesus descended to Hades and preached to those spirits in between His time. Another view is that Jesus preached to evil spirits at His ascension (watch this video for more on this interpretation).
In Ephesians 4:9 it says, "What does 'he ascended' mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions?" I agree with John Calvin that the lower, earthly regions refers to Jesus leaving Heaven and coming to earth, not leaving earth and going to Hades.
So, if Jesus didn't descend into Hell, why should we say He did in the Apostles' Creed? Why not take it out?
RC Sproul says,
"As they contemplated the statement (Jesus descended into Hell), John Calvin and some of the other Reformers considered that this phrase does indeed make a great and true confession -- though perhaps not the one the original writers had in view. Calvin and others define that descent as the spiritual reality of Jesus' soul while He hung rejected and condemned by His Father on the cross. To be forsaken, to be cut off by God, brings with it the full torment of Hell (What We Believe)."
What Sproul is saying here is that Jesus experienced Hell by being cut off from the Father and taking on His wrath.
Did Jesus literally descend into Hell. No.
Did Jesus experience Hell? Yes.
And why did Jesus experience Hell? He experienced the torment of Hell for us. He took on our penalty and punishment, and took on death itself, and conquered death so we would live forever in Paradise with Him.
I believe Jesus paid for our sins, experienced Hell for us, died, and was buried so that we could experience the riches of His grace. This is amazing grace!