Theology Thursday: Where Did Jesus Go When He Died?

By Dr. Valerie J. De La Torre

Crown of thorns on top of red satin

The second article of the Apostles' Creed is the larger grouping of statements that focus on Jesus Christ, the second person in the Trinity. This portion declares Christ’s birth, suffering, death, burial, resurrection and ascension, including his anticipated return to judge all humanity.

This is important as we look more broadly into the short phrase that declares that Jesus “descended into hell.” These few words have been the subject of discussion for theologians and laypersons over the centuries. It is a most curious element if taken literally, or figuratively, as we find early references of Christ experiencing human death (Acts. 2:27-31; Romans 10:7; Colossians 1:18; I Peter 3:19, 4:6; Ephesians 4:9).

So, what did happen to Jesus when he died?

Did Jesus Go to Hell?

The place named "hell" in this creedal statement was earlier known in the Greek as Gehenna, or the realm of the dead in the Bible. It is understood as a place of eternal punishment for those rejected at the final judgment. The Old Testament description of location uses the Hebrew word Sheol, which refers to the grave — a place far away from the presence of God where the righteous or wicked reside. So, the question must be asked, is this where Jesus went when he died?

An early view of Jesus’ descent into this ‘underworld’ location in one interpretive camp was that he liberated the faithful that had previously experienced death. A later view shares that this place of descent portrays Christ’s victory over the Kingdom of Satan, completed in death. The Creed goes on to state Christ’s victory in rising to new life, ascending to heaven and resting in eternal triumph at the right hand of God, the Father. This second view supports the promise of the coming judgement upon Christ’s return, where final victory over death and evil will be unveiled.

Augustine, one of the early Christian writers, rejected the view that Jesus preached the gospel to those who had died before his coming, making salvation available to them. Yet, a later medieval view stated once again that only believers of the pre-Christian period were indeed recipients and beneficiaries of Christ’s preaching in Hades, implied in Matthew 27:52 and again in Hebrews 12:23.

Still, yet another view comes later from John Calvin, who saw this phrase as a description of Christ’s internal torment, as one who suffered complete and absolute separation from God. In other words, the torment on the cross alone was a vicarious endurance of what hell could be like as one removed from God.

Resolution in the Context

We must consider how this creed, when recited as part of one’s baptismal vows in ancient days, was focused on the Trinitarian aspect during the ritual of water baptism. This was seen as a highly symbolic and representative dying and rising experience. The old life was now dead and the new life was now physically enacted, patterned after Jesus’ death and dying, and on his rising out of this literal grave experience. Life overcoming death was real all over again. The salvation process visibly sealed with this baptism portrays the same rescued life that Jesus experienced, closing the gap of eternal separation from God, or what we know in the vernacular as ‘hell.’

As we continue to ponder this important part of the Apostles’ Creed, let us also consider a more recent translation that reads, “he descended to the dead.” The creedal statement that follows focuses on Christ’s rising on the third day, pointing to the bigger picture of this creedal declaration overall, without a doubt of its intention.

In other words, Jesus’ experience of the grave was real, just like it will be real for us, but more so, will be our rising for all eternity. We might say that Jesus came from the farthest heights of heaven, only to go to the deepest places of hell on our behalf, making sure that this would never be our permanent residence.

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