Friday, June 13, 2008

Harrowing of Hell?

Question: I recently heard Tony Campolo mention the Apostles' Creed and how basically it was an almost perfect summation of the right "stuff" to believe as an Evangelical. Upon seeking it out and reading the different versions for myself there was one part included in some versions that didn't sit well with me... "he descended into hell." Is this true? Did Christ really descend into hell between his crucifixion and resurrection? - K.L.

Many Christians throughout history have believed that Jesus went to hell during the three days after his death, either experiencing full punishment for our sins, or preaching to the damned, or releasing OT faithful from imprisonment (the so-called "harrowing of hell"). However, the four gospels say nothing about where Jesus was during those three days.

Why do some people believe in Jesus' descent to Hell? First, some later versions of the Apostles' Creed include the phrase "He descended into Hell," but the earliest versions don't include that phrase. (The phrase first shows up in the seventh version of the creed, in the works of Rufinus of Rome in AD 390.)

Second, some interpret 1 Pet 3:18-20 to mean that Jesus was in Hell; but most NT scholars don't think that's what Peter meant. It's a very difficult passage to understand, but it has several possible interpretations. When Peter says "He preached to the spirits in prison," it may be referring to spirits who are now in prison, but were not when he preached to them. We also don't know if he is referring to human spirits or demonic spirits. Other passages describe the cross as a proclamation of victory against the evil powers (Eph 3:10, Col 2:15). Peter may even be referring to the Spirit of Christ being preached through Noah, as he earlier said in 1 Peter 1:10-11.

Third, some people think that Ephesians 4:8-10 refers to Jesus' descent to Hell. But the passage, read carefully, probably refers to Christ's descent to earth, not Hell (note how the NIV and NLT correctly translate this passage).

So what's the bottom line? The idea that Jesus descended into Hell does not have firm scriptural support, although some believe in it based on 1 Peter 3:18-20. We should normally avoid building significant doctrines based on a single difficult passage. Whichever way you believe on this issue, this is a relatively minor issue, not one that Christians should fight over. Christ's victory on the cross and at the empty tomb is far more important than what happened during the three days between them.

The picture: Descent of Christ to Limbo, Andrea da Firenze, 1365.


  1. Thought this quote, though lengthly, to be helpful in regard to "He descended into Hell and on the third day He rose again".

    "The frequent New Testament affirmations that Jesus was 'raised from the dead' presuppose that the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his resurrection. (Acts 3:15, Rom. 8:11, 1Cor. 15:20;cf.Heb. 13:20). This was the first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ's descent into hell: that Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there. (I Pet. 3:18,19).

    Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, "hell" - Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek - because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God. (Phil. 2:10, Acts 2:24; Rev. 1:18; Eph.4:0; Pss 6:6; 88:11-13). Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the redeeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into 'Abraham's bosom' (Cf. Ps 89:49, I Sam 28:19; Ezek. 32:17-32; Lk. 16:22-26). 'It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior in Abraham's bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell." (Roman Catechism I,6,3). Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, not to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him."
    The Catechism of the Catholic Church 632,633.

    Not an Evangelical opinion, but perhaps worth consideration.
    Submitted by
    a Catholic admirer of Gary

  2. Thanks for the input. The view in the Catechism is quite similar to the view held by those Evangelicals who believe in Christ's descent to Hades (or harrowing of Hell) - a useful illustration of the truth that Evangelicals and Catholics agree on many doctrinal points.

    The Catechism's strongest point is in the first line - rising from the dead suggests that he was for a period of time in the realm of the dead, Sheol. Acts 2:24 is a good support for this idea. Definitely possible! But an implication from Scripture is not a strong enough basis for a doctrinal statement. One could also say that Jesus was with the Father for three days - after all, that is the "place of the dead" for believers today (2 Cor 5:1-8).

    From a Catholic tradition perspective, it's also useful to note that the Church preserved seven earlier editions of the Apostles' Creed (including the Nicene Creed), none of which contained the reference to Jesus descending to Hell. It's true that Irenaeus and Origen believed that the gospel was preached to all the dead in Hades - but they believed it was to give even the damned a chance to repent. Clement of Alexandria believed that the dead referred to pre-Christians who were spiritually dead. Others, such as Tertullian, apparently believed the view you see in the Catechism. So I'm not sure that it is correct to say that the view presented in the Catechism is "the first meaning given in the apostolic preaching."

    I'm glad to see that the Catechism chooses the option that Christ preached the good news to OT faithful. The other options, held by some medieval theologians and some modern Protestant teachers, don't make much sense.

    As I mentioned in the original post, the New Testament is much clearer about what happens before and after the three days - and Jesus' death and resurrection is definitely more important than what may have happened in between. That's a truth that people on both sides of this issue can agree on!

  3. Thinking more about this topic - I like the approach of the Catholic Catechism that emphasizes that Jesus was in the grave (= Hades, not Hell). This matches the Scriptural claims. I don't think we can say too much about what he was doing there, since Scripture is kinda fuzzy on that topic. Jesus' presence in "paradise" on the day of his death (Luke 23:43) means that we can exclude the idea of Jesus in Hell.

  4. Response to: “Harrowing of Hell”


    I have heard this question come up in the past.

    Bible evidence seems to indicate that Jesus did go to ‘hell’ (latin) or ‘hades’ as it literally appears in Greek.

    In Acts 2:27 the King James Version says, “David speaketh concerning him [Jesus Christ], . . . Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.”

    The fact that God did not “leave” Jesus in hell implies that Jesus was in hell, or Hades, at least for a time, does it not?

    This might sound very strange to some.

    When one does a word search of the various ways ‘hell or hades’ is used it simply conveys the common grave of man. Hell or Hades is not the ‘lake of fire’ but eventually gets thrown into this lake and destroyed forever like death. (See Revelation 20:13, 14)

    Many confuse the Bible ‘hell’ with the lake of fire. Whether that fire is literal or symbolic is still ‘hotly’ debated.

    After Jesus’ resurrection from “hades” or the grave he had been in for 3 days as prophesied, the question was asked, “Who were the spirits in prison” to whom Jesus preached as stated at 1 Peter 3:19?

    I wonder if anyone has considered another scriptural way of looking at this?

    At 1 Peter 3:20 the “spirits in prison” are described as having “once been disobedient when the patience of God was waiting in Noah’s days.”

    In his second inspired letter to Christians, Peter refers to them as “angels that sinned.” (2 Peter 2:4, 5)

    And the disciple Jude adds: “The angels that did not keep their original position but forsook their own proper dwelling place he has reserved with eternal bonds under dense darkness for the judgment of the great day.” (Jude 6)

    That angels did indeed forsake their proper dwelling place prior to the flood of Noah’s day is revealed at Genesis 6:2, where we read: “The sons of the true God began to notice the daughters of men, that they were good-looking; and they went taking wives for themselves, namely, all whom they chose.”

    (Note that angels are spoken elsewhere in Scripture as “sons of the true God.” For example, please read Job 1:6 and 38:4-7)

    We know these spirit “sons of God” or angels certainly had the power to materialize in human form, as is evident from the fact that faithful angels did so at divine direction to communicate messages to men on earth. (please see Genesis 18:1,2,8,20-22; 1:1-11; Joshua 5:13-15)

    However, when numerous angels decided of their own will to leave their proper place and assigned service in the heavens to have fleshly relations, they were doing something contrary to God’s law.

    They became guilty of perversion, as indicated by Jude’s comparing the sin of these angels to the sexual perversion of which the inhabitants of Sodom, Gomorrah and surrounding cities were guilty. (Jude 7)

    As to the time of Jesus’ preaching to the “spirits in prison,” Peter, after pointing out that Christ had been “made alive in the spirit,” continues: “In this state, (that is, Jesus’ state as a spirit person) also he went his way and preached to the spirits in prison.” (1 Peter 3:18, 19)

    This would place Jesus’ preaching to them after his resurrection to spirit life. And Peter’s use of the past tense (“preached”) suggests that such preaching was done prior to the writing of his first letter (about 62-64 C.E.).

    It should be remembered that the Greek word for preaching can refer to a proclamation that could be something good or something bad, as when Jonah proclaimed Nineveh’s coming destruction.

    As Jude pointed out, the disobedient angels have been reserved for “the judgment of the great day.” Therefore, the preaching by the resurrected Jesus to such unrighteous angels would only have been a preaching of a condemnatory judgment.

    Hope this scriptural observation sheds some more light on this fascinating Bible topic.

    Best wishes,

    Nick Batchelor


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