Freshman year was coming to an end. I had survived the grueling test of being thrown into the college world. As the year came to a close, I sat in my first Bible Doctrines class, eager to finish and get into the summer. On one of the last days of the class, we had a fairly brief lecture that I will never forget. The lecture was entitled: The Day God Died. Kind of an odd title, and a little unexpected coming from a Christian college. The thrust of the lecture was a discussion on where Jesus went after he died on the cross. At the time, I thought very little about the question: everyone here agreed with the professor right? Was I in for an eye-opener. That same night, I came out into the lobby of my dorm to find a whole group of people in heated debate. Tempers really began to flair as they argued over the very subject at hand: Where did Jesus go when He died? The fact that this is a question over which people, myself included, are prone to becoming so passionate leads me to desire to be very careful here. I don’t claim to have all of the answers when it comes to theology. People who are much more intelligent than I am, people from all across the theological spectrum, have disagreed with me. Nor do I expect that this one brief article on one small blog will convince everyone. What I do want to do is this: I want to be faithful to the Scriptures. I am thoroughly convinced that the Scripture is the final authority in all matters of faith and practice. So when answering the (theological) question of where Jesus went when He died, I want to attempt to do so from a sola scriptura standpoint. With that in mind, I will examine two texts that come up in most discussions of where Jesus went during his interment in the tomb.
The first text, and one that I am confronted with the most often is Acts 2:27. The setting in this text is Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost. At this high point in the discussion, Peter is at a place where he is defending the resurrection of Jesus. The text reads: “Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.” If that is all we had, it would seem to settle the question: Jesus went to hell. However, there is more to this text than first meets the eye. Peter is actually quoting from the Old Testament. Specifically, he is quoting David in Psalm 16:10. This particular text is, like much of prophecy, a double-reference text. This simply means that it refers both to David and to the person it is prophetic of: in this case Jesus. So whatever this text means, it is true of both David and Jesus. If this text is saying that Jesus went to hell, it is also saying that David went to hell. There is one further reason I think we can reject the idea that Jesus went to hell in this text. The Greek word Peter uses here is hades (Gk. ηδες). This is an interesting word in that it does not mean hell. The idea of the the word is similar to the Hebrew word shᵉol (the word David used in Ps. 16:10). This means that hades is the place where both the good, and the evil go when they die. It contained both paradise and hell. An illustration of this is found in Lk. 16. So the claim that Jesus went to hell based on this text is unsubstantiated, due to the fact that the text is not perfectly clear. However, it is safe to assume that it doesn’t mean that Jesus went to hell, because that would also mean David is in hell: a claim most would not be willing to make.
The second, and final, text that I would like to address is 1 Peter 3:18-19, which reads, “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;”. In part, what makes this text so interesting is the fact that it is so weird. It just isn’t super clear what the author is getting at. By way of brief treatment, there is one interpretation that bases itself on the idea that hades contained, at one time, the resting place of the good and the evil. This is the commonly accepted interpretation. It holds that, during his time in the tomb, Jesus’s spirit (referenced in vs. 19) went down to hades (this is according to Eph. 4:8-10). During his time there, in Abrahams bosom (Lk. 16), he declared (the meaning of the Greek word for preach) across the gulf to the spirits held in hell that he had won his victory on the cross. The work of salvation was complete and he was there to declare it, and to lead those in Abraham’s bosom out and bring them to heaven. There is a lot of basis in the text for this, particularly the cross references to the Ephesians text, coupled with the description of hades given by Jesus himself in Luke 16. This is the most plausible interpretation.
In conclusion, there is no compelling scriptural evidence that should lead one to conclude that Jesus went to hell. In fact, the opposite is true. There is plenty of evidence in the New Testament that would indicate that Jesus went to hades rather than hell, and there spent his three days leading captivity captive. I suppose though that the strongest support we have for the fact that Jesus didn’t suffer in hell comes from his own words to the thief on the cross in Luke 23:43, “…Today, thou shalt be with me in paradise.” Hell has been called many things, but paradise is not one of them.