“He descended to hell.”Ω
By Stephen W. Hiemstra
What is hell?
Scripture has many colorful terms that translate into the English word for hell. Among them are: Sheol (OT only; 65 verses), the Abyss (or bottomless pit; 13), Gehenna (NT only; 11), Hades (9), Abaddon (7), and place of darkness (1). Jesus’ favorite term was Gehenna which refers to a dump in the Valley of Hinnom near Jerusalem where garbage was burned (BDAG 1606).
The list of words for hell here is, however, incomplete because most of the colorful expressions referring to hell are metaphorical. For example, an angel in Revelation 18:2 cries out in John’s vision:
“Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has become a dwelling place for demons, a haunt for every unclean spirit, a haunt for every unclean bird, a haunt for every unclean and detestable beast . . .”
In other words, hell is a kind of prison reserved for the demons, the sinful, and the ritually unclean—all sorts of creatures that oppose heaven and God himself (Isa 7:11). Hell is sealed for everyone, except for God (Job 26:6).
Non-biblical visions of hell also exist. For example, C.S. Lewis (1973, 10–11) pictures hell as a place where people voluntarily move further and further apart.
So why does Jesus go to hell for three days?
The culturally expected answer in the first century would have been that Jesus was dead and that was where dead people went. We read, for example: “For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?” (Ps 6:5) But Jesus was not just another dead guy!
A better answer is that with the crucifixion, God’s sovereignty over heaven and earth—including hell—was confirmed (Ps 139:8). This might explain, for example, why Jesus’ death was accompanied by an earthquake and by resurrection of dead saints from tombs in Jerusalem (Matt 27:51-54). Of course, later with the resurrection death and Hades itself were overthrown.
The best answer to the question is that the reason why Jesus descended into hell remains a mystery. But, hell’s existence is no longer a mystery—Jesus went there.
Bauer, Walter (BDAG). 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. Ed. Frederick W. Danker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. <BibleWorks. v.9.>.
Faith Alive Christian Resources (FACR). 2013. The Heidelberg Catechism. Cited: 30 August, 2013. Online: https://www.rca.org/sslpage.aspx?pid=372.
Lewis, C. S. 1973. The Great Divorce: A Dream (Orig Pub 1946). New York: HarperOne.
Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PC USA). 1999. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—Part I: Book of Confession. Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly.
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