Did Jesus Go to Hell?

I recently discovered a new song celebrating the resurrection. It looked like a great fit for the last message of a post-Easter sermon series, Because He Lives.  Beautifully sung by Kari Jobe, the song is called Forever (We Sing Hallelujah).

My exposure to Forever was on the Worship Together website, an interview preceding a “live” performance. I quickly glanced over the lyrics, then clicked play for the interview.

Kari said this, “My favorite part of the whole thing is … we talk about the death on the cross and we talk about the resurrection,but that time in between was when Jesus was in hell [bold italics are my emphasis] rendering hell and ransacking hell and defeating the enemy taking those keys to death and hell and the grave to be victorious over that when he rose from the dead.”

She believes Jesus went to hell? Is that in the song?
I studied the lyrics more carefully, and there it was, the foundation of the second verse.

One final breath He gave 
As heaven looked away
The Son of God was laid in darkness
A battle in the grave
The war on death was waged
The power of hell forever broken

What’s wrong with that?  I’m willing to give give the benefit of the doubt to many a lyricist.  Poetic license allows you to get away with overstatement or understatement.  We could nitpick the old hymns and find plenty of quirky lines, if not crossing the line to heresy.  Why pick on this song when others get a pass?

Here is the problem. Forever embraces an error that is at the heart of the most important events of our faith, the death and resurrection of Jesus. In summary, it teaches that the battle was not won on the cross, but the real battle took place in hell during the time between the death and resurrection of Jesus.  That is what seriously distorts the truth and why this song must not be used.

Where was Jesus on Saturday? Was he in hell?
Did he have unfinished work to do between his death and resurrection?

Jesus Himself provides answers to these questions through His statements uttered in agony from the cross.

Today, you will be with me in Paradise

Father, Into your hands, I commit my spirit.

In the promise to the repentant thief, Jesus clearly states that before that day was out, both He and the thief would be with the Father in paradise, not in hell.  Was Jesus in hell?  No!  His body was laid in a tomb.  His spirit was with the Father in Paradise.

It is Finished

Did Jesus need to go to hell to complete the work necessary for our salvation?  Did he have to go to battle with Satan to rescue the Old Testament saints and win the victory? Absolutely Not!  His sacrifice on the cross was more than adequate.

My God, My God why have you forsaken me? 

Father, Into your hands, I commit my spirit.

The song says, “one final breath he took as heaven looked away.” This line seriously distorts the sequence of what happened on the cross.  The cry of dereliction (abandonment) after the three hours of darkness from noon until 3:00 pm, describes the time when Jesus bore the full weight of our guilt and sin, bearing the wrath of God upon himself for our sin. It was God whose wrath had to be satisfied, not Satan’s. Figuratively speaking, “heaven looked away” before that leading to the agonizing cry.  But after that cry, Jesus said, It is finished  and Father, into your hands, I commit my spirit.  That is not the cry of one anticipating entrance to hell.

Where did the idea of Jesus going to hell originate?

It is most popularly preserved in a version of The Apostles’ Creed, a creed that evolved over time from A.D. 200 to 750, The earliest inclusion of the phrase was in A.D. 390, but the meaning was “descended into the grave” or “buried,” not going to hell. It wasn’t until A.D. 650 that the meaning “descended into hell” was ever intended. But what is the biblical support for such a view?

Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology,  pages 583-594, provides an excellent analysis of the passages that have been used to support Jesus’ descent into hell.  Here is a brief summary:

Acts 2:27 – Peter is quoting David from Psalm 16, “because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell”  This is the King James Version rendering, which wrongly translates the Greek Hades, which comes from the Hebrew Sheol as hell. The range of meaning is death, the place of the dead or the grave. The quotation from Psalm 16 is accurately translated in the NIV, you will not abandon me to the grave.

Romans 10:6, 7 – Who will descend into the deep? (that is to bring Christ up from the dead). Older translations say “abyss” which can have the connotation of hell, but is not the essential meaning.  Rather, it is a clear reference to Christ’s resurrection from the dead, not a return or rescue from hell.

Ephesians 4:8,9 – This classic passage on spiritual gifts notes of Christ that He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens. The reference is most likely to Christ’s incarnation, not a return from hell.

1 Peter 3:18-20 combined with 1 Peter 4:6 – through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison  and the gospel was preached to those who are now dead.  These passages are unquestionably challenging, but have much better explanations than to posit some kind of descent of Christ into hell to preach, thus creating some kind of second chance for salvation. What do these texts mean?  We must not be overly dogmatic as there are several possible interpretations. Grudem, page 591, 592 is convincing in his argument that this refers to the preaching of Noah and the prophets in their time to those who are now dead.or “in prison,” thus awaiting final judgment.

Fanciful interpretations of difficult passages must not override the declarations from the cross definitively showing that Jesus did NOT spend Saturday in hell, was NOT fighting Satan to finish the work of salvation, was NOT preaching a second chance salvation or simply condemning to those in hell. Jesus was with the repentant thief in Paradise in the presence of the Father.

The roots of this confusion are found in Roman Catholic teaching.  Even greater confusion comes from false teachers such as Joyce Meyer who have popularized this dangerous heresy  among evangelicals, one of many errors of the false gospel of health and prosperity. For a brief review, Check out The False Promise of the Prosperity Gospel: Why I Called Out Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer  This is more about Meyer than Osteen.

It’s sad that such false teaching dominates and ruins a beautiful song.  The pre-chorus and chorus are biblical and a powerful celebration of Christ’s victory over sin and death.

The ground began to shake
The stone was rolled away
His perfect love could not be overcome
Now death where is your sting?
Our resurrected King has rendered you defeated

Forever He is glorified
Forever He is lifted high
For ever He is risen
He is alive, He is alive

So, Kari Jobe, Brian Johnson et. al.  Replace the second verse with Biblical truth and you’ll have one of the great new songs that will be greatly loved and used to declare God’s great grace and glory.

Note:  For a more comprehensive treatment of the question, “Did Jesus go to hell?” look at Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology,  pages 586-594.

7 comments… add one
  • Kathi Small June 11, 2014, 8:48 pm

    I was raised in a church who repeats the Apostle’s Creed from time to time and I never understood the phrase “he descended into hell”. In later years I was not in agreement with this phrase, so when in a church repeating the Creed I simply did not and do not repeat this portion of the Creed. Thank you, Tom, for clarifying this phrase in your blog.

    Reply
  • Glenn Griffis June 14, 2014, 10:02 am

    … Many Christian music radio stations call on musicians when they seek to highlight some issue in Christian life. …though well-intentioned; they reveal their … ignorance of theology, as this musician did.

    I recently heard an interview with Matt Redman. The interviewer asked him about a song he had written that related to how Christians understand the problem of evil and suffering. He related to a serious fatal motor cycle accident his brother had been involved in. He said “I believe God is like a master chess player. He does not control or anticipate the things people do, but his knowledge is broad enough that his purposes win in the end.” These kind of statements that creep into much Christian music explains why good theology is so important.

    To me a God who is merely reacting to what people do offers little hope as one who controls the future, just as a God who would descend into hell elevates Satan to more power than the scripture says he has. Thanks for a concise explanation on an important topic.

    Reply
  • Ben Yurek August 17, 2014, 1:35 pm

    Great thoughts, Tom. I was just talking to a friend and looking into this question myself! It’s interesting that this premise was chosen to be included in the Apostles Creed

    Reply
  • Troy P October 30, 2015, 2:17 pm

    I personally struggled with that 2nd verse (2nd half) when I heard the song…but loved the rest of it (musically and lyrically). I searched to see if anyone had taken a shot at alternate lyrics, but didn’t find any. Here’s my attempt:

    questionable theology:
    ————————
    A battle in the grave
    The war on death was waged
    The power of hell forever broken

    better theology:
    ———————-
    The debt of sin was paid
    The love of God displayed
    The Father’s justice satisfied (or, The Father’s wrath was satisfied)

    Reply
    • Tom Macy June 15, 2016, 3:54 pm

      Troy, thanks or your comment. Yes, I think your proposed lyric change fixes the problem. We’ve often struggled with that in both songs like this and in some of the older hymns. What is allowed in changing the lyrics of copyrighted material?

      Reply
  • Tom Macy June 15, 2016, 3:50 pm

    Chuck, I was surprised to find a reference to my blog post, “Did Jesus go to Hell?” more than two years after I posted it. Thanks for your article. However, I’m unable to reconcile your conclusions about the phrase, “descended into hell,” with your blessing to Kari Jobe’s lyrics and her explanation of “a battle in the grave.” You concluded, “The added phrase of ‘descended to hell’ to the Apostles’ Creed is then simply making clear that Jesus truly died. Like all people, the humanity of the Son of God died. Not only was he crucified and buried, as it was said within the Roman Creed; Jesus was crucified [dead] and buried [He descended into Hell]. So on the third day, He would arise from the dead; the grave; Sheol. In other words, he would live again. This is the promise of faith in Christ. He reversed the irreversible, according to the ancient thinking about death.”

    If that is what is meant by the phrase, I would not be so concerned. But it is clearly not the meaning of the Roman Catholic Church, nor is that the teaching of the Word of faith/health and wealth teachers, nor the view of Kari Jobe expressed in her interview about the song. We can disagree about the historical roots and meaning of “descended into hell.”But the implication of a “battle in the grave” as Jesus’ suffered in hell for three days as the payment for our sin, seriously undermines his completed work on the cross, where he took the punishment for our sin. “It is finished” was the cry of victory right before he death. He did not continue to pay for our sin after that.

    Reply

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