Did Christ Descend Into Hades?
by E. Schuyler English
Did our Lord Jesus Christ, between His death on the Cross and His bodily resurrection, descend into Hades?
In the so-called Apostle’s Creed, there are the words: “He (Christ, Who had been crucified and buried) descended into Hades. The third day He arose again from the dead.” This belief is held by many, not only because it is written in the Creed, but because of certain familiar Scriptures, namely (1) Peter’s words after Pentecost: “He (David) seeing this before, spake of the resurrection of Christ, that His soul was not left in Hades, neither did His flesh see corruption” (Acts 2:31; cf. Acts 2: 27; Psa. 16: 8-11); (2) The command of our Lord to Mary after His resurrection: “Touch Me not, for I am not yet ascended to My Father” (John 20: 17); (3) Paul’s message to the church at Ephesus: “Now He that ascended, what it is that He descended first into the lower parts of the earth” (Eph. 4: 8-10); and (4) The statement of Peter in his first Epistle that “He (Christ) went and preached unto the spirits in prison” (I Pet. 3: 19). A further inference in concluding that Christ descended into Hades has been the footnote in the Scofield Reference Bible on Luke 16:23, in connection with the experience of the rich man and Lazarus.
An incorrect view of the relation to Hades of those who died in faith, prior to Christ’s first advent, and of the activity of our Lord’s own spirit when His crucified body lay in the grave, has led to some unsupported and dangerous doctrines, the chief of which are the doctrines of “Purgatory” and “Second Chance.” However, it is not within the compass of this article to enter these two unscriptural theories, which are wholly without biblical foundation.
In his sermon at Pentecost, wherein he quoted David’s prophecy concerning our Lord, namely: “Thou wilt not leave My soul in hell (Heb. Sheol; Greek, Hades), neither wilt Thou suffer Thine Holy One to see corruption” (Acts 2: 27). Peter declared that David “seeing this before, spake of the resurrection of Christ, that His soul was not left in Hades, neither His flesh did see corruption” (Acts 2: 31). Since the Holy Spirit, speaking through David and Peter, made such a promise and confirmed its fulfillment, it is argued that we know without doubt that our Lord went down into Hades. But the Scripture does not say that our Lord went down into Hades; it says that God the Father would not leave our Lord’s soul in Sheol or Hades, which is quite a different thing.
Hades is thought by not a few, as a place where, up to the crucifixion of our Lord and His resurrection, the spirits of the departed went—the disobedient to the place of the wicked dead, there to remain until the judgment of the Great White Throne, when they shall be cast into the Lake of Fire (Rev. 20: 11-15); those who died in faith to another place in Hades, sometimes called “Abraham’s Bosom,” where they remained until the crucified Lord Jesus released them and took them into Heaven and His own presence at His resurrection and ascension. This is the interpretation arrived at from the account of the rich man and Lazarus, referred to in an earlier paragraph.
Luke 16: 19-31 is not a parable, we submit, but an account of a particular case known to Christ. In telling the record, our Lord said that the rich man, who was in Hades, “lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off and Lazarus in his bosom.” It is assumed by many that, because it is stated that the rich man saw Abraham and Lazarus, he must have looked across a certain space and seen with human eyes, Abraham and Lazarus having human bodies. It is not in any way depreciatory to the verbal accuracy of the Scriptures, however, to suggest that this is not what is meant. The Greek verb translated seeth (horao) signifies seeing in the mind or discerning. It is used comparatively few times in the New Testament, and then usually has the connotation of seeing a vision, or of seeing something intangible or distant. Or of seeing to something, as, “See thou say nothing to any man” (Mark 1: 44), and “See that none render evil for evil unto any man” (I Thess. 5: 15). The rich man who was in Hades in torment, saw with a discerning mind, or visualized, Abraham, and Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom. The great gulf was surely more than a separation of a few hundred feet in the bowels of the earth; it was “up,” that is, in Paradise, we believe, in the third Heaven as we shall seek to show.
The word translated hell in Acts 2: 31, is in a New Testament quotation from the Old Testament, and in the Hebrew is sheol. The Hebrew word sheol or shuole is from the root word sha’al, and means literally, to ask. It seems to express the never-satisfied inquiry or “asking” into the mysteries and secrets of death and the hereafter. In the New Testament, a corresponding word, hades, is used, which means the unseen, referring, of course, to the same mystery of the unknown realm. We have examined every passage in the Bible where these words are used. Generally, the context indicates the signification of a place of sorrow, or pain, or separation; a place to which the wicked go. Never—not once—is the sense of joy or peace connected with residence in Sheol or Hades, such as we are led to believe that those who died in faith through the centuries, as Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David, and so forth, enjoyed by God’s grace. Enoch did not go down to Sheol. “Enoch walked with God, and . . . God took him” (Gen. 5: 24). Elijah did not go down into Sheol. “Elijah went up by a whirlwind into Heaven” (2 Kings 2: 11).
Are we to suppose that the spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Holy One of God, commended by Him on the Cross into the hands of the Father (Luke 23: 46), went down into Sheol? And if not, where did His spirit go between the crucifixion and resurrection? We are not left in doubt. Our Lord said to the repentant thief, as they hung upon their crosses, “Verily I say unto thee, Today, thou shalt be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23: 43).
Paradise is not Sheol. Paradise is in the third Heaven, the region in which Paul was caught up (2 Cor. 12: 2, 4). Paradise is the place where the Tree of Life is (Rev. 2: 7), and that is not Sheol nor Hades. What does the Scripture mean then, “Thou wilt no leave My soul Sheol (Hades)”? The word leave is translated from the word azav, which means to loosen, relinquish, permit [to forsake, leave behind. Aaron Pick]. In the New Testament, the Greek word enkataleipo is used; meaning to desert or forsake. There is no sense the thought that our Lord’s soul was to go into Sheol, and not to be left there; rather, it is this: “Thou wilt not permit or desert My soul in Sheol.”
When the risen Christ said to Mary: “Touch Me not; for I am not yet ascended to My Father” (John 20: 17). He was not speaking of His spirit’s activity, but of that of His resurrection body. Further, the word touch has the sense of grasp, or hold, and behind our Lord’s command was the thought that neither Mary nor anyone else was to try to keep Him here on earth, for He had another mission—to be our Advocate at the Father’s right hand (I John 2: 1), there living to make intercession for us (Heb. 7: 25). Until He ascended to the Father, the promise of the Father (Luke 24: 49), that is, the Holy Spirit, would not come. Therefore, it was expedient for us that the Lord Jesus should go unto the Father.
Considering the statement of the Apostle Paul: “Now that He ascended, what is it but that He also descended first into the lower parts of the earth”? (Eph. 4: 9), did Paul mean that our Lord’s spirit went down into Hades? He had just referred to the sixty-eighth Psalm, saying: “When He ascended up on High, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men.” Are we to take from this that the Lord Jesus went down into Hades and released the Old Testament saints from Hades and took them up into Heaven? There are many choice and esteemed brethren who teach thus. And it is true that in the margin of certain editions of the Bible, it is said that captivity captive may be rendered a multitude of captives. We do not pretend to know anything about the Hebrew, but we quote the words of another, inasmuch as Paul was simply quoting from the Psalms written originally in Hebrew.
(Dr. H. A. Ironside in, In the Heavenlies)
“This (the translation, a multitude of captives) is an attempt to explain a rather peculiar phrase (which), I think any Hebrew scholar would acknowledge, is not correct.
In Judges 5, you have the same expression. Deborah is praising the Lord for the great victory over Canaan. In verse 12 we read: ‘Awake, awake, Deborah; awake, utter a song; arise Barak, and lead thy captivity captive, thou son of Abinoam.’ What does the expression mean there? It could mean only one thing—'Lead captive him who held you captive.’
In Isaiah 14, we have a similar expression which would be an adequate interpretation of the term. We read: ‘And the people shall take them and bring them to their place; and the house of Israel shall possess them in the land of the Lord for servants and handmaids, and they shall take them captives, whose captives they were, and they shall rule over their oppressors’ (vs. 2). This surely makes the meaning clear.”
What Paul is saying here is that our Lord Jesus Christ, when He triumphed over death by Himself, dying and coming forth from the grave, led captive him who, up to that time, had the power of death, in order that He might deliver those “who through fear of death were all their life-time subject to bondage” (Heb. 2: 15). In other words, our mighty enemy, Satan, is now a conquered foe. He has been led captive at the chariot-wheels of Christ, and our Lord has now ascended as Man and taken His place upon the throne of the Majesty in the heavens.
Someone will say: In this very passage in Ephesians, we find it stated that ‘He also descended first into the lower parts of the earth.’ Certainly, the expression, the lower parts of the earth, implies that our Lord went down into Hades. But it does not necessarily imply that. The exact meaning is dependent upon the context and confirmation of other Scriptures. Sometimes this terminology is used when it apparently refers to Sheol (Psa. 63: 9), but at other times it is employed with a different shade of meaning, denoting earth itself (Isa. 44: 23). And since other Scriptures indicate that our Lord never descended into Sheol, and since the expression, the lower parts of the earth, can mean simply, the earth itself, we infer to His descent thus spoken of symbolizes His going down into death, into the grave, on our behalf.
Finally, we are told by some that when Christ, by His Spirit, “went and preached unto the spirits in prison” (I Pet. 3: 19), He descended into Hades. He who interprets Peter’s statement to mean that, is taking the verse entirely out of its context. The preaching to which the fisherman-apostle was referring, took place long before Christ’s time on earth. It was in the days of Noah, as verse 20 tells us. By His Spirit, the Lord preached through Noah to those who were on earth in Noah’s generation, who, being disobedient, were now (that is, at the time of Peter’s writing) in prison, namely, Hades. It was the Holy Spirit Who did the preaching, for Peter had been referring to the Holy Spirit, “by which also He (Christ) went and preached unto the spirits in prison.”
This is not the first time that the Apostle Peter made use of the term, for previously he stated that the prophets of old had searched out what manner of time “the Spirit of Christ which was in them” did signify in testifying beforehand of the sufferings of Christ (I Peter 1: 11). So here Peter stated that by virtue of His Spirit, Christ preached to these spirits in prison. When? “When once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing.” Those in prison were not any who died in faith, but those which sometime were disobedient.
If you go on, you will see that what Peter was teaching, is that in a previous generation, in the time of Noah, only eight were saved, all the rest of mankind being destroyed by the flood. The destroyed were those now in prison. Comparing the time in which he, Peter, was living, to that prior occasion when the Spirit of Christ was working through Noah, “a preacher of righteousness,” he showed that in Noah’s day, although the longsuffering of God even waited an hundred and twenty years (cf. Gen. 6:3), even then only eight believed and repented, while the rest rejected the pleading of the Spirit and were destroyed. Thus, also in Peter’s day the Spirit of Christ pled with men—but they would not believe and rejected God’s Son and His way of salvation. We need not go further here into the teaching concerning this passage.
With all respect to gifted and beloved men who have taught and who hold to the belief that between His death and resurrection, our Lord descended into Hades and led forth those who had previously died in faith, from a compartment of Hades below the earth up to Heaven itself, we cannot agree that the Scriptures so teach. We believe that those who died in faith in past generations went above, and not below. But we need not be concerned about it, for we can all agree that today everyone who dies in faith, whose trust is in the Lord Jesus Christ, absent from the body, is immediately present with the Lord. And thank God for so even more real and joyous hope, that of seeing the Lord Jesus one day when He comes for His Church, and of being like Him when we see Him. Who knows?—it may be today. Until then, having this hope in Him, let us purify ourselves even as He is pure. —E. S. E.
“Our Hope” 1945