Did Jesus Really Go to Hell?
By Casey Hobbs
April 6, 2012
A few years ago, some friends of mine and I were mulling over the death of Jesus. We talked for what seemed like hours about the agony He had experienced in His flesh: the beatings He took, the slaps and spits to the face He received and His thorny crown. We all remembered movies we had seen depicting the humble Teacher’s abuse and public murder, but we wanted to talk about more than a good man suffering—we wanted to talk about the mental and spiritual agony of the God-Man from the garden of Gethsemane to His garden-tomb resurrection. We were talking in circles, trying to get to the point.
At the time of the conversation, I wish I would have remembered the Apostles’ Creed, that ancient uniting statement that has brought together the people of God since the first three or four hundred years after Jesus’ earthly stay. There is one particular phrase, which seems to have been added a couple hundred years after the first edition of the creed, that gets straight to the point of Jesus’ mental and, much more importantly, spiritual anguish: He descended into hell.
At least that would have started an argument.
It seems that little phrase has caused more ruckus than any other over the years. In recent years, we have all but forgotten these four words. After all, who can make sense of it? What can be more mysterious than our story about God not only taking on flesh, but also sin, death and hell for us? We have no category for this type of majestic humility, so we toss the phrase out like yesterday’s garbage.
It is time to reclaim what is rightfully ours—Jesus took on hell for us.
The message had a good run of about two thousand years uncontested, until the last century. Even though it was not included in our oldest copies of the Apostle’s Creed, the belief was up and running as far back as 70 years after the death of Jesus. All of our theological giants embraced the descent of Jesus into hell, from St. Hillary to St. Augustine to St. Theresa to Thomas Aquinas to John Calvin. The descent of Jesus into hell is a piece of our inheritance, passed down through the ages.
But where in the New Testament do we learn about Jesus taking on hell for us? This is the part that gets tricky. We have precious little told to us about Jesus’ descent into hell from Matthew to Revelation—and when we read about His journey, the details are obscure, at best. The most we can learn is from Peter, who mentions it twice in the span of a couple paragraphs in his letter to the exiles, and in that space, he compares Jesus’ journey to Noah’s ark and a sermon series in the abyss. Is that enough? How many times do we need to read something in the Bible before it becomes true? And how clear should this truth be before we can receive comfort from it? Crystal?Of course not! We are only told once to confess our sins one to another, yet we hold confession as a fundamental of the faith. And how many times do we read the word “Trinity” in the inspired word of God? Yet the three-in-one-ness of God is where our faith begins. We were born into a faith we cannot comprehend, but then again, our call is not to comprehend but to take Jesus at His word and follow Him.
Some have used the fact that Jesus told the thief on the cross, "Today you will be with me in paradise," as a silver bullet against His descent. The obvious implication is that Jesus cannot be in hell and in paradise at the same time, which seems true enough. The glitch in that argument, however, is that Jesus is the inventor of time and rarely works on the same clock as we do—and besides that, how much time in hell must elapse before Jesus’ mysterious work there can be accomplished? That is to say, what would prevent Jesus from accomplishing His work in hell before the repentant thief drew his last breath?
For the sake of argument, then, let us agree for a few minutes that our fathers in the faith were not crazy to include Jesus’ descent into hell in the Apostles’ Creed, shall we?
The first question that comes about is: What do we mean by hell? We all know how hot the debate has been in the past year regarding the nature of hell. Nobody wants to believe that undying worms and smoldering fires are a part of God’s plan, but there is Jesus telling us just that. But like any good illustration, the truth that Jesus refers to is greater than the picture He provides. Jesus gives us insights into the horror of hell—we need never know the realities that await God’s enemies who refuse to repent. Karl Barth said it like this: "That man is separated from God means being in the place of torment. 'Wailing and gnashing of teeth’—our imagination is not adequate to this reality, this existence without God." Hell is complete and utter separation from God—a reality we could never fathom. When Jesus speaks of the physical torment of judgment, we can only imagine that He is warning us from more destruction that we can conceptualize—He is not overstating His case.
If Barth is on the right track, fire and brimstone are the least of the worries of those living removed from the presence of God. John Calvin put it this way: "No abyss can be imagined more dreadful than to feel that you are abandoned and forsaken of God, and not heard when you invoke Him, just as if He had conspired in your destruction." Have you noticed that when Jesus talks about hell, He uses the terms “in and out” regularly? The worst punishment we could possibly receive is the godlessness we war for on a daily basis—it gets no worse than Friedrich Nietzsche’s boast that God is dead.
Which brings us to our second question: Could Jesus take on godlessness for us? Well, it depends on what you think Jesus meant by quoting the twenty-second psalm: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" If this is an empty statement, like we might quote a movie line in a state of duress, we could disregard it. If, however, we believe that Jesus meant, at least for a moment, that there was a fracture in the fellowship of Father, Son and Spirit, the implications are staggering. God experienced godlessness—hell—for us.
Before we talk in circles again this Lenten season, let's ask what we can gain from dusting off this artifact of the faith. We cannot know exactly what Jesus did in hell, or for how long he did it, but we can reclaim the comfort that He has taken on hell for us and come out on the other side. It has no more power over us. His people are forever in His presence—that is to say that hell has no power over us. In the words of Martin Luther, "For us, through Christ, hell has been torn to pieces and the devil's kingdom and power utterly destroyed, for which purpose He died, was buried and descended, so that it should no longer harm or overwhelm us."
Casey Hobbs is loved by Jesus and taught by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, like others simply trying to hear God's word for today and speak it. He blogs about the application of the Gospel to everyday living at www.caseyhobbs.com. Casey lives in the Seattle area.