Descent into Hades (Hell)

See also Apostles' Creed

DESCENT INTO HADES (HELL) hā’ dez (Heb. שְׁאֹֽולָה, LXX καταβαίνειν εἰς ἅδου; κατελθόντα εἰς τὰ κατώτατα; cf. descendit ad inferna [inferos]). The descent into Hades or Hell is an article in the doctrinal tradition of the entire Christian Church. It is strange, however, that few doctrinal statements have had more research and less clarity of understanding than this single statement. Not only are the sources of tradition blurred, but Scripture passages alleged to throw light on the doctrine are denied by some authorities as source material, and those which are used as support create problems in exegesis even to every single word. Because of these obscurities, some denominations do not now include “He descended into Hades” in their liturgical use of the Apostles’ Creed.

The tradition.

This particular expression does not appear in the early Rom. Symbol but makes its first appearance in the Symbol of Aquileia by Rufinus (cf. Art., Apostles’ Creed). It appeared in the Fourth Sirmian Formula in a.d. 359, in the same year in the Formula of Nice and again in Constantinople in a.d. 360. Its appearance in these creedal statements, however, reflected an earlier tradition, as it had already been mentioned by Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus. Thus there is a clear tracing to the apostolic period. The question still remains what was understood during the patristic period and in the early creedal statements. Was the descent for the deliverance of the OT saints? Was it an offer of the Gospel to those who had not heard it? Was it a victorious battle with Satan who tried to restrain Christ? None of these questions is clearly answered, and in some such form they still remain.

The Early Church had hard questions about what happened between Christ’s death and resurrection, questions akin to those reflected in the Thessalonian epistles regarding what would happen to those who died before Christ’s Second Advent. Two problems were particularly clear: (1) Where was Christ’s spirit between death and resurrection? (2) What was the fate of those who had died before the Gospel was preached? According to the climate of opinion of the day, Christ went to Hades (the abode of the dead) precisely because He was dead and buried. What, then, was He like there, and what did He do there? As far as can be known now, the beginnings of this doctrine of the Church rest more in tradition, for which there are now no clear answers, than in Biblical interpretation which seems to have been a later development used to justify the tradition.


The basic text used in support of the Descensus is 1 Peter 3:19, with the wider context of 1 Peter 3:17-22. Interestingly enough, the basic text does not expressly state (as does the Apostles’ Creed) that Christ even descended into the realm of death, i.e., Hades. Interest is restricted to two particular facts: (1) that Christ preached and (2) that His preaching was for “spirits in prison.” Of significance in interpretation is the verb for preaching. In the NT this is always the careful expression for the announcing of the “kerygma,” i.e., the proclamation of the Christian Gospel that Jesus is the Christ, that the Suffering Servant is the Lord. One can assume, therefore, that this is the content of the preaching to the “spirits in prison.” Whether it was a message of judgment or release on this occasion is not even mentioned, and the reader is shut up to the single idea of the proclamation of the Gospel. That He went in the spirit and not in the flesh seems perfectly clear from the context, although this raises serious questions for the Lutheran tradition with their insistence on the ubiquity of Christ’s body.

Apart from the message preached, there are impossible questions about the nature of “the spirits in prison.” Although there is some light shed on this by a reference to Noah (1 Pet 3:20) and a reference to baptism (3:21), the character of these “spirits” is so confusing that attempts have been made to evade the thrust of the passage entirely. Rendall Harris, for example, insists that the Scripture contains a textual error in which the name of Enoch has been dropped out, and that there is, therefore, another reference to the apocryphal Enoch (relating to Gen 6:1-4) with scriptural authority equal to that of Jude 14. Peter was trying to give support to Christians under the pressure of evil men, and reading Jude from the sixth v. through the sixteenth, one obtains the impression that there are no distinctions between angels and men, and that exceptionally evil persons often assumed superhuman proportions. The relevant passage is in 1 Enoch 67:4-69:1 and esp. 67:12, “This judgment wherewith the angels are judged is a testimony for the kings and the mighty who possess the earth.” Although brilliant work has been done by Harris and supported by both Moffat and Goodspeed, there is no real evidence at all for their conjectures. Selwyn makes out of this passage that Christ’s death was a proclamation to the powers of evil. “What St. Peter and St. Paul assert of these powers of evil, as the divine Master asserted before them, is that ‘In Christ’s death their end is sealed’.” This may well be true, but there is no evidence for such an interpretation of this passage.

The simplest meaning, although still an unsatisfactory one, is that the Lord, between His death and resurrection, descended into Hades, although Peter does not say so (Hades or Sheol could be in this case a place of punishment or bliss or some such intermediate state) and preached to certain spirits in prison there. Possibly, judging from the context in 1 Peter, they could have been the fallen angels spoken of in Genesis 6:1-4 or, more likely, the spirits of that rebellious generation who perished in the flood (Gen 6:12ff.).

Church doctrine

The Roman Catholic position.

Christ descended into hell in the interval between His death and resurrection in the soul, and not in the body. The scene of the Descent is the forecourt of hell, the limbus patrum. The purpose of the Descent was to show His power and glory even in the underworld and to comfort and deliver the souls of the just held captive there, i.e., take them to heaven.

Although this is the official position, the theologians of the church are still left with many unsolved problems: (1) If Jesus promised Paradise to the thief on the cross, what is the relationship of Paradise to His time in hell, or is one to assume that Paradise is wherever Christ is? (2) Where was Jesus’ abode during the forty resurrection days between His preaching in hell and His ascension? In other words, where was He when He was not manifested to His followers? (3) After the incarnation can one think of Jesus Christ apart from His humanity? If so, what was His nature when only His spirit descended into hell while His body lay in the grave? (4) Does the passage in 1 Peter refer to the Descent at all?

The Lutheran position.

The Lutherans are faced with the difficulties of other doctrines as related to the Descent, such as the ubiquity of Christ’s body and the problem of soul sleep. The Lutheran problem is intensified by the apparent discrepancies between the theological position and the popular discourses. Luther seems to give a definition in his Easter sermon of 13 April 1533 (Earl. ed [Ger] XIX, 40-54). “The Lord Christ—His entire person, God and man, with body and soul undivided—had journeyed to hell, and had, in person, demolished Hell and bound the Devil.” Apparently in such a statement Luther has accepted ubiquity and dismissed its problems. In his exordium on this Easter discourse he commented, “And it pleases me well that, for the simple, it (Descensus) should be painted, played, sung or spoken...and I shall be quite content if people do not vex themselves greatly with high and subtle thoughts as to how it was carried out” (Earl. ed. [Ger] XIX, 40). Regarding the problem of the whole person, it is typical of Luther to say “Please God, the banner, doors, gate, and chains were of wood, or of iron, or did not exist at all.” In short, Luther rather characteristically gives some affirmations and dismisses the explanations.

The Reformed position.

Here there is a complete abandonment of Roman Catholic dogma. What matters is that Christ really died: vere mortuus est. He died and was buried and therefore went to Hades, the abode of the dead. He really died. Calvin thought that the Roman Catholic idea that the souls of the dead are confined in a prison is a fabula. He regarded the whole approach as “childish” (Inst. 1559, II, 16, 9.). With Augustine and Aquinas, Calvin looked upon the Petrine passage as referring to the agonies of the soul in death, what Jesus was experiencing during the hours of His death. He did not attribute the Petrine passage to the Descensus at all. The possibility that there is preaching to the dead and an offer of salvation after death has no basis in Scripture nor in any sound tradition of the Church in Reformed doctrine.

The modern emphasis.

The descent into Hades is merely another way of emphasizing the depth of Christ’s humiliation and His total identification with the sufferings of man in death. Furthermore, it is one more way of saying what the Creed already said; men are to reach a climax in the building up of phrases: crucified, dead, buried, descended into hell. The creedal phrase “descended into Hell” does not come out of the NT at all but develops out of the proclamation of His death and His “resurrection from the dead.” James D. Smart puts it well: “Perhaps, then, ‘He descended into Hell’ is meant to say to us that Jesus not only shared with us our death and burial, that strange and troubling end of our familiar life, but so bound Himself into one with men that He knew the agony of man’s utmost deprivation of life....Hell is the existence of the man who is alone with himself with no way of access either to God or to his fellow man. The descent into hell, then, is Christ with man in hell, what no man could expect, what no man could deserve; the love of God reaching across the abyss that sin has made, bearing the pain and darkness of hell with man in order to deliver him to the brightness and joy of life with God....This at last it means: that in His death He conquered death and hell, finishing the battle that He had waged throughout His life” (The Creed in Christian Teaching, p. 130ff.). See Sheol.


J. Calvin, The Institutes, ed. (1559), II, 16, 9; A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology (1907), 707, 708 (esp. good for exegesis); HERE (1922), vol. 4, 654-663; E. G. Selwyn, The First Epistle of Peter (1946); IB (1957), vol. 12, 132, 133; J. D. Smart, The Creed in Christian Teaching (1962), 130-144; B. Reicke, Anchor Bible (1964), vol. 37, 106-115.