Is Christ’s Descent Into Hell Biblical?

Grace in Dallas, the blog for Grace Community Church in Dallas, Oregon, had a post entitled “Creed or Bible?” in which a GCC elder seems to suggest that the Apostle’s Creed is contrary to Scripture.  Specifically, he is confused by (and seemingly opposed to) the idea of Christ’s descent into Hell:

Whoa hold on there, Christ descended to Hell? Where did that come from? Pull out the bible, where does it say Christ spent three days in hell? I found plenty of places that God is given power over hell. Christ himself declares his power in Revelation 1:17-18 “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.”

Actually, Christ’s descent into Hell is mentioned in Scripture, although admittedly, only in passing. It’s described by St. Peter in 1 Peter 3:18-22:

Andrea Mantegna, Christ’s Descent into Limbo (1475)

For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water. The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ: Who is gone into heaven, and is on the right hand of God; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him.

In other words, it’s precisely because Christ has the keys to death and Hades (Rev. 1:17-18) that He descended into Hell.  He went there to liberate the righteous who had died before Him.  By faith, they were saved; yet without Christ shedding His Blood on the Cross, they had not yet been cleansed of sin.  So they waited in that part of Hell described as the limbus patrum (“Limbo of the Fathers”) or “the bosom of Abraham” (a reference to Lk. 16:22).

This is called the “harrowing of Hell,” suggesting that Christ came as a Victor and a Liberator. Peter seems to treat this harrowing of Hell as something more or less understood by the early Christians – the Apostle’s Creed confirms and explains what that early consensus was.  So in fact, the Bible and the Apostle’s Creed agree.

Nor is it just St. Peter who references this.  As the Catechism notes, in CCC 632:

Harrowing of Hell (Hosios Loukas) (11th c.)

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. 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. 

In other words, Christ’s Resurrection wouldn’t be a raising from the dead if He’d descended from Heaven. This point seems to allude the GCC elder, who writes:

So did Christ spend three days in Hell? The best description I can find is in the Old Testament description of the grave, or Sheol. Sheol was the common destination of both the righteous and the unrighteous flesh. So Jesus would have passed into what the Jews understood to be death. He was not tormented in Hell, which is the name given to the place some will spend eternity after the great judgment.

However Jesus promised the criminal crucified beside him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43) That is the love of our God, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

Harrowing of Hell fresco, Church of St. George,
Kurbinovo, Macedonia (1191)

Luke 23:43 gets misused a lot: I’ve heard it used in sermons arguing against Purgatory, on the theory that Jesus and the repentant criminal immediately entered Heaven.  That’s directly contrary to Scripture.  In John 20:17, Jesus explicitly said He had not yet ascended, and that was on Easter morning.  So if the GCC elder is suggesting here that Jesus spent the time between Good Friday and Easter morning in Heaven, he’s plainly mistaken.

Having said that, he’s right to understand the doctrine of Christ’s descent into Hell as a descent into Sheol, the abode of the dead, rather than a descent into damnation and eternal suffering.  When the Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar suggested otherwise, the Church clarified, with this paragraph in the Catechism (CCC 633):

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. Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the Redeemer: 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”: “It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell.” Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him.

This is what the Apostle’s Creed means when it says that Jesus “descended into Hell.”  And as you can see, it’s quite consistent with Scripture.

And this is just one more reason to trust the Creeds over whatever you or I might dig up in our private reading of Scripture.  It’s easy to come to the wrong conclusion on Christological doctrines, based on a misreading of a couple of passages (like Luke 23:43), particularly since as individuals, we don’t have: (a) a complete and encyclopedic knowledge of Scripture [in order to know to compare Luke 23:43 with John 20:17 and 1 Peter 3:18-22, for example], (b) two thousand years of exegesis, (c) the testimony of the earliest Christians, or (d) the direct and permanent guidance of the Holy Spirit.  The Catholic Church has all four of these things, which is why I always trust Her understanding of Scripture over whatever I could cobble together on my own.


  1. “but to free the just who had gone before him” How true. The just were predisposed to virtue, but had not as yet encountered Jesus. His descent to their abode was their opportunity to meet him, accept him, and believe in him. This answers the question I ask protestants, “If one has to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior in order to go to heaven, how did Moses get there?”

  2. “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise”

    The grammar here is an interpretation on the Greek. It could equally be:

    “Truly I say to you today, you will be with me in Paradise”

    The placement of that comment radically changes the meaning of those words.

  3. WRA,

    I know of a few possible explanations for this passage. I’ve listed them from what I consider most likely to least likely:

    1) Paradise is distinct from Heaven: this is the explanation that some of the earliest Christians took (Irenaeus and Origen, for example). In this understanding, Eden was Paradise (or perhaps a form of Paradise), but it’s still something distinct from Heaven. Look at the Strong’s definition of paradeisos, the Greek word for “paradise,” for example, or the Douay-Reihms translation of Genesis 2 for more examples of this. If that’s right, then it makes sense to describe “the bosom of Abraham” as Paradise.

    St. Paul’s cryptic reference in 2 Cor. 12:1-4 appears to equate Paradise with “the third Heaven.” The two lower Heavens, if I’m not mistaken, are (1) the sky/atmosphere and (2) the cosmos/firmament, but this passage would seem to suggest that there’s something beyond Paradise, and Paul’s description is of what the man heard, rather than saw.

    2) Christ turns Limbo into Paradise: Christ, victorious upon the Cross, comes to Sheol in triumph. Thus, even if it was not Paradise before God entered it, it became such afterward.

    3) “Today” is God’s time, not ours: In other words, even if we take “Paradise” to mean what we normally describe as “Heaven,” it’s possible that Christ means “Today” in the sense God uses it (Hebrews 3:7-13; Psalm 90:4; 2 Peter 3:8) rather than as a 24-hour period. In this sense, Christ wouldn’t be bound by a 24-hour deadline to enter Heaven. This can get much more complex when we start talking about Christ’s Eternal Presence in Heaven (see, e.g., John 8:58). But whatever the answer, I think we’d have to assume that the thief doesn’t beat Christ to Heaven.

    4) Grammar: All of the above explanations assume that the passage is properly translated: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with Me in paradise.” But some have argued that it could just as easily be translated: “I tell you the truth today, you will be with Me in paradise.” See how important that comma placement is? It’s the difference between saying that the thief will be with Him in Paradise today, or that the thief is about to be told something today. Of these four, I think that’s the least plausible, but it’s still an intriguing point.

    Having laid these all out, I think that the strongest of these explanations is the first one, and it’s the one that appears to have the strongest Patristic and Scriptural support.



  4. I’m curious of the Catholic position referenced in CCC 633:

    “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. Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the Redeemer:

    Do RC like the Orthodox believe Hades to still be the resting place for the dead. If so, how does purgatory lineup with this notion?

  5. ABehm,

    No, I think that that sentence is just written in the present tense. The Church is clear about what happens to the soul immediately after the particular judgment, and we reject both the idea of a Limbo-type waiting area, as well as the recurrent error of “soul sleep.”



  6. Joe,

    What do you make of the specific reference to the time of Noah? It seems like a complete non sequitur, regardless of how one interprets the passage (and I’ve heard lots of interpretations).

    The only attempt I’ve seen to make sense of the reference to Noah ends up saying that the “spirits” aren’t deceased humans. Rather, Jesus is taking a “victory lap” in front of evil spirits as in Colossians 2:15.

  7. Interpretations of grammar and translations aside, do the references to building the ark not bother anyone? Referencing scripture alluding to myths (the great flood that wiped out most of mankind) to substantiate a position is pretty weak.

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