The reason I raise this subject is that just before the Holiday Weekend and just after, I get repeated emails about this question. Someone raises a particular verse and I answer it, so another listener sends a second passage with a question, and I answer that one, only to lead to yet another question about some passage regarding this issue. So, since there are numerous people calling or writing about this, I thought I’d just start today with a more complete response, and then I’ll wait to next Spring, if the Lord does not return first, to answer the many questions about this that will continue to come in. So, did Jesus go to Hell?
The idea that the Lord Jesus went to hell between the crucifixion and the resurrection, frequently called “the harrowing of hell” has been believed since ancient times. In fact, the Apostle’s Creed seems to teach it when it says, “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; he descended into hell; on the third day he rose again from the dead.”
Yet, the Scriptures teach that when the physical body of the Lord Jesus died, His spirit went to His Father immediately. A verse that supports this is Luke 23:43, where Jesus assures the criminal on the cross: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Another one is Luke 23:46, which records the Lord Jesus’ words at the point of death, saying, “ Father, into your hands I entrust my Spirit” not “Father, I’m now going to Hell.”
The belief in the harrowing of hell is based on the misinterpretation of several passages. For example, Ephesians 4:9 says that the Lord Jesus “descended to the lower parts of the earth.” The phrase “of the earth” is what Greek grammarians call a “genitive of apposition.” As such, the phrase should be understood as saying that theLord Jesus “descended to the lower parts, even the earth.” So it’s referring to the incarnation, when the Son of God became a man, not a descent to Hell.
A second misunderstood passage is 1 Peter 3:19-20 which says that “He went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison who in the past were disobedient, when God patiently waited in the days of Noah.” These verses are not talking about the Lord Jesus preaching in hell. Rather, the passage actually refers to the Son of God preaching through Noah, in the past to people who were alive in the days of Noah. When they rejected Noah’s message, they became “spirits who are now in prison.” They were disobedient in Noah’s day, the eternal Son of God, through Noah, gave them a message to repent, they rejected it, and they are now “spirits in prison” awaiting final judgment.
A third passage, John 20:17, records Jesus words to Mary Magdalene, “Do not cling to me (some versions say ‘do not touch me’) for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” This isn’t saying that Jesus’ spirit had not yet been to His Father, but rather, that Mary should stop clinging to the Lord Jesus because His bodily ascension was yet future. Once she had recognized that it was her resurrected Lord, she became so excited, that she grabbed a hold of Him and was not letting go. In other words, Jesus is saying, you can let go of me, Mary. I will be with you for the next 40 days because I have not yet made my final ascension to the Father (cf. Acts 1:9-11).
There is no biblical basis for believing in the harrowing of hell. Even the earliest versions of the Apostle’s Creed did not include the phrase, “He descended to Hell.” And a church I recently visited, that recites the Apostle’s Creed weekly, had an asterisk next to the phrase saying, “this means ‘Jesus descended to death not that He went to Hell.’” Theologian Wayne Grudem, says that the only argument supporting the harrowing of hell “seems to be that it has been around so long. But an old mistake is still a mistake.”