Jesus in Hell? Thoughts on why we say Jesus went there in the Apostles’ Creed.

Jesus in Hell?

A couple of weeks ago, I had a bit of a reunion with some college friends, Jim, Bill and Mike.

We have stayed in touch over the years and get together for long walks and talks from time to time.

Mike told us this entertaining story.

When he was in high school, his dad let him use the family car to go out with his friends.

One winter evening Mike took the car went with a bunch of kids to a snow and ice covered grocery store parking lot.

They were there to “bumper surf”.

The idea is that you wear slippery shoes and then hang onto the bumper of a car as it drives over the parking lot snow and ice.

One person holds onto the bumper and then the rest form a sort of conga line as the car does donuts on the parking lot.

The “surfers” slide around like water skiers at the end of a rope.

This is, of course, unsafe.

When a passerby saw what was going on, the police were called

They came and put an end to the fun.

Meanwhile, Mike’s dad was listening to his police scanner at home and heard the report of the call to the parking lot.

The license number of the offending car was announced on the radio.

It was his.

When Mike got home that evening, his dad had two questions.

“Mike, where were you this evening and what were you doing?”

Mike knew immediately that his dad knew exactly where Mike had been and what Mike had been doing.


How many of us have similar stories?

Parents want to know where their children have been and what they have been doing.

And unlike Mike’s dad, those questions are asked because parents just don’t know.

This story comes to mind with Jesus, believe it or not.

If you were a disciple, knew that Jesus was crucified, died and buried on Friday, then was alive again on Sunday, wouldn’t you be tempted to ask, “Where were you and what were you doing on Saturday, Jesus?”

It turns out that Peter might have done something like that.

Which brings us to our scripture reading.

1 Peter 3: 18-22

18For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water. 21And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

Before I get down to Jesus “descent into hell” I need to say that our scripture passage today is packed with difficult theology that is far from clearly understood.

This passage, and much of 1 Peter needs a lot more time than I have this morning and so will be the subject of our first Bible study this fall.

Today we focus on one particular point that is associated with the Apostles’ Creed.

Do we believe that Jesus descended into hell?

One of the requirements to graduate from seminary is that you have to do what is called “field education”.

For most people this is a yearlong internship at a local church.

I spent mine at Bethany Presbyterian Church over in Bridgeville.

On my first Sunday there, we recited the Apostles’ Creed.

When we got to the Jesus stanza, we said this:

“And in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried, on the third day he rose again from the dead …”

 Wait … what?

Something was missing from the Creed.

We did not say Jesus “descended into hell”.

After church I went up to the pastor and asked about that.

His response was, “Yeah, Jesus doesn’t go to hell at Bethany.”

Wait a minute!

Isn’t that a central tenet of the faith?

It’s part of the Apostles’ Creed!

How can a church just drop that?

Well, it turns out we can, because it isn’t really a tenet of the faith.

There’s virtually no scriptural support for it, and it is a poor translation of the original Greek version of the Creed.

Now would be a good time to review a bit of Apostles’’ Creed history.

Tradition has it that the creed was developed by the Apostles after Pentecost and before they went out on the Great Commission.

Each Apostle added one phrase.

There is no evidence that the Creed was written by the Apostles, though it is based on apostolic traditions handed down through the early church.

Its origins are obscure.

The Creed we recite today seems to have been developed over many years as a Q&A catechism for folks who were seeking baptism.

“Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?”

“I do.”

And so on.

Kind of like the questions we ask parents when we baptize their children.

The earliest evidence of this is in Rome around 200AD.

One question was not asked in those days.

“Do you believe that Jesus descended into hell?”

That was not part of the creed until the 4th Century when a popular tract called the Gospel of Nicodemus was going around.

One part of that tract describes what came to be know as the “harrowing of hell”.

For some reason the author tried to explain where Jesus was and what he was doing on the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Briefly, Jesus is said to have descended to hell to deliver the Old Testament patriarchs from imprisonment there.

Is there scriptural support for this?

Not in anything Peter wrote.

Anyway, the Creed reached its final form in the late 6th or early 7th century and was accepted as a sort of official statement of faith in the western churches by the 12th century, though the Methodists and other individual churches reject the phrase “he descended into hell”.

The Apostles’ Creed is not accepted in any of the eastern orthodox churches.

Focusing in on the word “hell” is worth a moment.

The Creed was originally written in Greek.

In Biblical Greek it said Jesus descended to Hades.

This was a place the Jews called Sheol.

It is the place of the dead.

Hades is not the eternal inferno.

It’s a place where the souls of the dead just sort exist in a sort of meaninglessness.

Unfortunately, the Latin word used for Hades was hell, which became confused with the endless inferno.

Jesus’ descent into Hades is something we can believe because we know Jesus died.

So, where was Jesus on Saturday?

Where the dead were, because he was dead.

This is all important, because we would never understand this from 1 Peter.

1 Peter is hard!

Jesus is dead … bodily.

He is alive … spiritually.

What does that mean?

Who are the “spirits in prison”?

That is where things get really confusing.

They were, according to Peter, the ones “who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark …”

So, taken literally, they were the Sons of God who conceived children with the human women in disobedience to God.

Because of that they were wiped out in the flood and their spirits were imprisoned.

Does all this help?


Where is the “prison”?

Peter does not say.

What did Jesus proclaim?

Peter is silent.

What Peter does talk about is the meaning of the crucifixion.

Christ … suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.

This is not limiting to the living.

Particularly when we read what Peter says later in the letter.

1 Peter 4: 6

6For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.

Was Jesus preaching the Gospel to the “spirits in prison”?

Is that what Jesus told Peter?

Who can say?

And what do we make of this?

Here are two interpretations of all this passage from Peter.

The prisoners are the troublemakers from Noah’s time.

They are imprisoned someplace away form God.

Jesus went to them to show them that their disobedience to God and the attempt to the death of all humanity was in fact unsuccessful.

Jesus’ resurrection proved these folks lost that battle.

The other is that Jesus went to the place of the dead to proclaim the Gospel to those who died before Jesus lived and gave them the opportunity to accept Jesus and rise with him to God’s kingdom.

That is what these pictures describe.

Jesus is ascending and taking the patriarchs and all the people out of eternal Sheol.

So, what about the folks who lived and died after Noah and before Jesus?

Did Jesus come for them, too?

And what about the folks who never heard of Jesus?

Peter seems to suggest the answer is that Jesus did come and comes for them, too, though not in our text today.

That is a happy sort of interpretation.

It’s all just supposition.

A mystery.

Alister McGrath says this:

[Jesus’] sufferings on the cross were not pointless or accidental, but the mysterious and wonderful means by which God was working out the salvation of the world.

Maybe that is why we just say Jesus went to hell and leave out all that other stuff because we just don’t know.

So, what do we say we are believing if we say Jesus died, went to the dead, arose on the third day and then ascended into heaven?

I like this:

Here is where we begin to see theology.

Why does God become incarnate?

Because God is love and wants to rescue God’s loved ones.

God descends.

It starts with Jesus’ birth.

Jesus is God.

He is born of Mary.

He is moving further and further from his home.

To those further and further from their creator.

He suffers.

He dies.

He is buried.

Now that he is dead, he must go to where the dead go.

He is moving to where death reigns.

It is as far from God as can be.

Jesus went there.

Why did Jesus go there?

To get those who had died before he came.

Jesus informs the citizens of Hades that this thing called death is no more.

Death is where they are.

Life is where Jesus is.

Then I have an image of Jesus surveying all those there and saying:

“Who wants to come with me?”

Jesus then starts his ascent back to his home and takes them with him.

This makes sense to me if we believe God is love.

If God is love, why would god allow God’s loved ones to be excluded from God eternally.

I believe God would go get them.

That’s what Jesus was doing there.

A rescue.

And in some ways, that Jesus suffered, died, was buried and descended to the dead is why we look on Jesus as a worthy savior.

He knew what it was like to be one of us.

He knew pain.

He knew suffering.

He knew death.

Why is that important?

I would be hard pressed to trust in a savior who could not be sympathetic to me because he had never experienced what I have experienced.

How could such a person understand my circumstances?

And that is important.

Jesus does understand my circumstances.

The one who stands beside us when we are in pain has been in pain.

The one who is present at our death, has himself died.

Jesus has been there and done that.

He did not get a t-shirt, but he did get the scars.

He is the wounded healer.

Psychiatrist Carl Jung first used the term wounded healer in his book: Fundamental Questions of Psychotherapy which was published in 1951.

He believed that disease of the soul could be the best possible form of training for a healer.

Jung held that only a wounded physician could heal effectively.

Jesus is truly that.

He is with us.

He knows us.

Jesus was the divine man who experienced the ultimate distance from God.

An brings us back to God regardless of how far away we might go.

I believe Jesus descended – and rose again.

So can you.

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