Did Jesus Go to Hell Before His Resurrection?

by Rob Lundberg


Our beliefs are passed down from so many avenues, from reciting creeds to memorizing catechisms. So let’s say we are sitting in a Bible study with believers from diverse backgrounds. We are all coming under the Scripture’s authority, when a leader in the group references, Jesus’ going to hell before His resurrection. Many of us, because of our backgrounds, might think nothing of it. We have recited it, and heard it taught elsewhere.  But is it true?

In this posting I want to address this question, referring to a phrase found in the Apostle’s Creed. Let me say that creeds are only declarational statements of belief, and in some denominations a test for affiliation or membership. But while this phrase is found in the Creed, let me posit in the front end of this that it is not what is really taught from Scripture.  The statement I am referring to is about Jesus which states that He,

“Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried; He descended into hell:”

Now I agree with everything up to and including the phrase, “dead and buried.” The question at hand is, did Jesus really descend into hell before His resurrection?  Let’s look at the real issue behind this and see what we find.

Setting up the issue

The Scripture passages that are often appealed to are 1 Peter 3:19-20 and Ephesians 4:8. Let me put those passages before us.

1 Peter 3:19-20 (NASB), 19 in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits {now} in prison, 20 who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through {the} water. 

Ephesians 4:8-10 (NASB), 8 Therefore it says, “When He ascended on high, He led captive a host of captives, and He gave gifts to men.”  9 (Now this {expression,} “He ascended,” what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10 He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.)

If we look at these passages, we do not see the word, “hell” found anywhere in them. So what is the problem? The problem is that the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 4:9 states that Jesus “descended into the lower parts of the earth.”  However, the Apostle Creed states that after Jesus died, He “descended into hell.”

At the same time, it is interesting to note that in Scripture, where Jesus was dying, He committed His spirit into the hands of His Father (Luke 23:46).  Let us not also forget that He told one of the thieves being crucified with Him that he would be with Him in Paradise (Luke 23:43), which is in the “third heaven” (2 Corinthians 12:2, 4). So the question still stands, where did Jesus go after He died?  Did He go to Heaven or to Hell?

There are two views that are prevalent among scholarship that will help us answer this question. Let’s look at them.

The Solution. 

There are essentially two views as to where Jesus went the three days His body was in the grave before His resurrection.  One view is that He went to Hades (hell), and the other is that He went to Heaven. Let’s look at the first view, the Hades view.

The Hades View.

This position claims that Jesus’ spirit went into the spirit world, while His body was in the grave. It is here that it is believed that He spoke to the “spirits in prison (1 Peter 3:19, 20) who were in a temporary holding place until He would come and “lead captivity captive,” that is take them to heaven.

According to this view, there are two “compartments” in Hell.  One is Hades (or Sheol), one for the saved and the other for the lost.  They are separated by a “great gulf” mentioned in Luke 16:26, which no person could pass.”  The second is spoken of in the Old Testament as well as the Lukan passage; and it was for the Old Testament and pre-Calvary cross saints, called “Abraham’s bosom” (Luke 16:23).  When Christ, as the first fruits of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20), ascended to Heaven, He led these Old Testament saints into Heaven with Him for the first time.

Now this sounds pretty simple doesn’t it. The question is what is “Hades” and what are the two compartments? I do not believe this is the case. It is true that the account (not a parable) in Luke about Lazarus going to Abraham’s bosom, but it Abraham’s bosom is not referred to as Hades.

The rich man mentioned, in the same account, looked and “saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom (Luke 16:23). Bearing this thought in mind, let me now give ten reasons why I believe this next view, The Heaven View, is the most plausible and most biblical.

The Heaven View.

This view holds that the souls of the Old Testament believers went directly to Heaven the moment that they died. Here are ten arguments that will sustain this teaching.

First, Jesus affirmed that His spirit was going directly to heaven, declaring “Father into Your hands I commit My spirit” (Luke 23:46).

Second, when Jesus was on the cross, before He died, He promised the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).  The Apostle Paul called Paradise “the third heaven” (2 Corinthians 12:2, 4).

Third, when the Old Testament saints departed this life, they went directly to heaven. God took Enoch to be with Himself (Genesis 5:24; Hebrews 11:5), and Elijah was caught up into “heaven” when he departed (2 Kings 2:1).

Fourth,  “Abraham’s bosom” (Luke 16:23) is a description of heaven. At no time is it ever described as hell (Hades). It is the place that Abraham went to, which is the “kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 8:11).

Fifth, when the Old Testament saints appear in the gospels, it is before the crucifixion. In these appearances, Moses and Elijah appear from heaven on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:3).

Sixth, the Old Testament saints had to await Christ’s resurrection before their bodies could be resurrected (1 Corinthians 15:20; Matthew 27:53), but their souls went directly to heaven. Jesus Christ was the Lamb slain “from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8), and they were there on the merits of what Christ would accomplish at Calvary.

Seventh, when Ephesians 4 speaks of Jesus, “descending into the lower parts,” it is not a reference to hell, but the grave. Even a woman’s womb is described as the “depths of the earth” (Psalm 139:15). The phrase simply means caves, graves, or enclosures on the earth, as opposed to higher parts, like mountains. Besides this, hell is not in the lower parts of the earth – it is under the earth according to Philippians 2:10.

Eighth, the phrase “he descended into hell.” was not in the earliest version of the Apostle’s Creed. It was not added in until the fourth century. [1] Another added thought to this is that a creed is not inspired. Only the Bible is inspired by God. A creed is only a human confession of faith.

Ninth, with reference to “the spirits in prison” in 1 Peter 3:19, these were not saved, but unsaved beings. Indeed, they may refer to angels, but not to human beings. Bearing this thought in mind, the Bible is clear that there are no second chance salvation opportunities.

Lastly, when Christ “led the captivity captive,” He was not leading friends into heaven, but bringing foes into bondage. It is a reference to His conquering the forces of evil.  Christians are not “captives” in Heaven. We are not forced to go there against our own free choice (Matthew 23:37; 2 Peter 3:9).


Growing up I was raised in the Congregational denomination setting before I was confirmed. My mid teen years, before my conversion, led me to questions about what and why we believe what we believe. It is hard when one has been taught that x is true, only to find out that it does not pass the test of biblical scrutiny.

Please understand that creeds do not save a person. They are a verbal assent to what one confesses to believe. Let me also say that though many things are sayable, they may not be totally true. This statement about Jesus going to Hell after He died, is really the only problem with the creed. Everything else is biblically orthodox and sound.

I pray that if you have been raised in a setting reciting the Apostles Creed, that you will examine it in light of Scripture and these ten reasons. Jesus did not need to go to hell, unlike the heretical teachings of the Word Faith theology would like unsuspecting believers to take and accept.

Jesus preached to the lost spirits in prison declaring that the victory for our salvation is paid in full, and completely accomplished by His finished work at the cross and His resurrection. Soli Deo Gloria!


[1] The Creed, then, was not set from its beginning, but was fluid. Scholars call this version “The Old Roman Form”—the earliest creed of the Roman church.  Apparently the clause first appeared in the East with Sirmium’s fourth formula in 359—also called the “Dated Creed”— though the Eastern church rejected it as tinged with Arianism. The first mention of the descent in the West occurs in the writings of Rufinus of Aquileia, who included it in his baptismal creed around 400. Over time, the Latin church appropriated it as well, officially integrating it into the Creed in 750. For a good treatment on this issue see  http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/asktheexpert/nov15.html


robgoodgravatarRob is a blogger, writer and public speaker on a mission to equip the believer to think and articulate what they believe and to communicate the message of the gospel to a confused culture in a confused, chaotic, “brave new world.”

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  1. what do you do with Jesus saying “I am not yet ascended?” – i really like this article, it made me think.

    1. David, thank you for your question. That encounter was not at time when Jesus was dead. It was a post resurrection appearance and would not fit in the context of the article’s discussion. Thank you for your question and checking out The Real Issue blog. Blessings, Rob.

  2. Hey Rob,

    Interesting subject for sure. Got a question regarding your first comment on the heaven perspective, where “Jesus affirmed that His spirit was going directly to heaven, declaring “Father into Your hands I commit My spirit” (Luke 23:46).

    Matthew’s account quotes “Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying ‘Eli, Eli, Lama Sabachthani?’ that is. ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” (Matt 27:46, NASB). Matthew’s account is, the best I can tell, chronologically in line at the same hour (ninth) that you note in Luke’s account. Matthew’s quote here is also is echoed by Mark (15:33-34). John’s gospel highlights similar details as Luke, “‘It is finished!’ And he bowed His head and gave up His spirit” (John 19:30).

    Keeping in the back of my head of course that the Gospels were written with different audiences in mind, and under different circumstances of authorship, when I let “Scripture interpret Scripture,” the four accounts seem to point to complete submission of Jesus to His Heavenly Father who, up until this point, was in perfect communion with the Son. Jesus saying “why have you forsaken me” doesn’t seem to square with the Son being reunited into communion with with the Father. Jesus may certainly be expressing merely an existential agony here in his last moments, but it seems more that his expression is one of spiritual agony – being close to separation from the Father, even as he is committed to the will of the Father to the end. I’m not necessarily suggesting that Jesus descended to Sheol or Hell at death, but it certainly begs the question as to what happened over the next 48+ hours prior to His resurrection.

    Thoughts? Is there something I’m missing here that would better reconcile the accounts noted by the four Gospel writers?


    1. Your points are well taken Luke. I am also in agreement with you that Scripture should interpret Scripture and that each of the writers of the gospels recorded Jesus on the cross from their perspectives. One thing I think we forget as ministers, God did not die on the cross, the God man died. So when Jesus said, “Eli Eli lama sabachthani,” you have Jesus, fully God, and fully Man crying out, feeling the separation and the abandonment from “My God.” It is we humans that need God, and I believe that Jesus was crying out in His humanity, yet not sacrificing His deity (because God is loving, and love took and kept Him on the cross). I digress. It is Jesus that we see in His humanity identifying with us, as creatures without God, trying to eak out a living on our own thinking that we can live an altruism.

      What Jesus died, the great exchange happened. His life for ours, that He might give us His righteousness in exchange for all our “badness.”

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