Jesus Christ is the God-Man — truly God and also truly man. He transcends time and yet stepped into time when he was born as a baby. He is the Creator of the universe who willingly entered His own creation.
The very nature of Jesus Christ is mysterious and glorious at the same time.
On the one hand, God the Son is eternal, immortal and immutable in His deity. On the other hand, the Son of Man wrapped Himself in mortality and subjected Himself to the limitations of the physical world in His humanity — even to the point of death on a cross.
These mysteries — though worthy of discovery and study — are far beyond the scope of this post, but they are important to answering a controversial theological question about the death, burial and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. That questions being …
Where did Jesus go when He died?
When Jesus — who is both truly God and truly man — died on the cross, where did He go? We know His body was laid in the tomb, but where did Jesus go in His spirit once departed from His human body?
The answer is important because some believe that between the cross and the resurrection, Jesus went to heaven, and still others believe He descended into hell, or Hades.
So which is it? And why does it matter?
The Apostles’ Creed
One of the oldest church traditions as expressed in the Apostles’ Creed says that upon His death, Jesus descended into hell before rising again. It should be noted that The Apostles’ Creed is a revision of the “Old Roman Creed,” which did not include the phrase “He descended into hell.” This is important because various theological doctrines have emerged from this teaching, such as the erroneous ransom theory of atonement, which proposes that Jesus went to hell to pay a ransom to Satan in order to set sinners free.
You can read more about the history and progressive development of the creed here. For those who need a refresher, the Apostles’ Creed in modern form is as follows.
I believe in God, the Father Almighty,The Apostles Creed
the Creator of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:
Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into hell.
The third day He arose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven
and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,
whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church,
the communion of the saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and life everlasting.
The Biblical Testimony
As always, we must ask the most essential question about any particular teaching or topic.
What does the Bible say?
As far as I can tell, there are only three, possibly four, relevant passages in the New Testament that provide the clear answer to this question. I will deal with them in order.
As far as the teaching that Jesus descended into hell before being raised to life on the third day, there are only two potential passages that come into view.
The first is Ephesians 4, where Paul is speaking about Jesus having “ascended” into heaven to give spiritual gifts to His church. Paul’s teaching actually is an interesting interpretation of Psalm 68, which clearly has the Second Coming in view. Nonetheless, let’s consider what Paul says to the church in Ephesus.
But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says,
“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
and he gave gifts to men.”
(In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)Ephesians 4:7-10 – ESV
In all consideration, I do not find real substance in this passage that is specific to the idea that Jesus somehow “descended” into hell/Hades before being raised on the third day. Many interpret this passage to simply represent the incarnation of the Lord Jesus, as he descended from heaven to the earth when taking on human form before ascending to heaven after his resurrection.
Then there is 1 Peter 3. This passage perhaps is most referenced when it comes to the idea of Jesus descending into hell. Let’s take a look.
“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water.”1 Peter 3:18-20
Once again, if we read this passage carefully, with interpretive integrity, I believe the entire issue is resolved.
Verse 18 says that Jesus was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, so the resurrection is already in view. When you read verse 19, it is connected to the resurrection of Jesus, not to the period of time his body was in the ground.
That is significant because what Peter is saying is that it was not until after His resurrection — after being made alive in the Spirit — that Jesus went and proclaimed victory over the rebellious spirits being held in prison for their sins in the days of Noah.
This passage says nothing about Jesus descending into Hades before His resurrection, which is why I reject that portion of the Apostles’ Creed.
The Simple Answer
Beyond that, I believe the Gospels provide the simple truth about where Jesus went after He died. He went immediately into the presence of God the Father. Let me prove it to you.
“And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.”Matthew 27:50
When Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, “It is finished.” And bowing His head, He yielded up His spirit.John 19:30
And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”Luke 23:42-43
Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last.Luke 23:46
Jesus yield up the ghost to God the Father and committed His spirit into the Father’s hands. To be absent from the body is to be present with the LORD.
Just another example of how man’s traditions can become church doctrines without Biblical foundations.