This week we take up where we left off. Debbie L. wrote, “I was brought up Lutheran. The Apostle’s Creed states that Jesus descended into hell before rising to heaven…. Where did Jesus [really go] those three days and where did the Apostle’s Creed come from?”
Last week we looked at the Apostle’s Creed; this week let’s have a look at Jesus’ visit to hell.
In the most revised version of the Apostle’s Creed, the received form, we read Jesus “was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell. On the third he rose from the grave.” Where did the early church get the idea that Jesus went to hell?
From the Bible.
Indeed, it’s clear that when Peter wrote his first letter, he had little doubts about Jesus’ whereabouts for those three days. We read, “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, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison (1 Peter 3.18-19 emphasis added). Scholars and theologians have long dissected, discussed, and dissented over the meaning of “preaching to the spirits in prison”; however, the early church believed that Jesus took the gospel to the world of the departed and fallen spirits.
Peter isn’t the only biblical writer who alludes to this belief. We also see glimmers of in other passages in scripture. John 5.25 quotes Jesus as saying, “I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live” (emphasis added). Other passages that allude to Jesus’ visit to the netherworld include Matthew 12.40 and 1st Corinthians 10.7.
The early church interpreted these passages as an understanding that Jesus visited hell to preach to the spirits there. This is reflected in the early works of the apocryphal books of Enoch and the Gospel of Peter. Additionally, in the second century, the early church fathers Justin, Irenaeus, and Clement of Alexandria each wrote about Jesus’ visit to preach to the dead. Thus, by the end of the second century, the church at large had embraced the doctrine of Jesus’ mission to hell.
However, one of the prevailing questions about Jesus’ work between his death and resurrection is in the identification of “the spirits in prison.” By today’s vernacular, these spirits would generally be identified as those persons who had died and were imprisoned in hell. However, most scholars are reticent to suggest such an interpretation.
In the biblical writings, when the “spirit world” is referenced, it generally refers to the angelic and demonic realm. Thus, when Peter wrote this passage, it seems likely he was referring to those angels who had fallen. Indeed, in 1st Peter 3.20 we read that these spirits were the ones who had “disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.” A quick read through the events just prior to Noah’s ark reveals that there was a bevy of spiritual activity going on that caused God no little alarm. “When men began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose” (Genesis 6.1-2). These “sons of God” were interpreted as angels who had fallen—figuratively and literally—and indulged in illicit sexual acts (the progeny of whom apparently were the Nephilim, or the giants of old). In any event, it seems Peter taught that Jesus took his ministry to these fallen angels, and perhaps visited all of the fallen angels.
This interpretation matches closely the earliest church writings. However, by the mid to late second century, church doctrine expanded its understanding of the “spirit world” to include both angels and the departed souls of all who have died.
So, did Jesus actually descend to hell after his death? The biblical writers and the early church certainly seemed to believe so. On the other hand, who he went to visit is another question that we may never know this side of the grave.
And yet, it seems fitting to believe that Jesus descended into hell if for no other reason than to demonstrate that there is no place that we can go where God has not been, and nothing that one may endure that Jesus hasn’t endured as well.