Saturday, March 25, 2017

Did Jesus suffer in hell?

Did Jesus need to go to hell to finish the work of saving us from sin? Would God allow Jesus to suffer in hell? Some well-known Christian ministers teach that, after Jesus Christ died on the cross, he went to hell to finish paying the penalty for our sins prior to the resurrection. Is that true? If He was not in hell, where was Jesus during those three days?  

Where did that teaching originate?
Possibly the earliest reference to Jesus’ descent into hell is found in the Apostles’ Creed, which states Christ:
“was crucified, dead, and buried: He descended into hell: The third day He rose again”.[i]
The Apostles’ Creed was almost certainly not penned by the Apostles, but was probably written only a few centuries after their time and is still used in many denominational churches today. The creed is doctrinally very sound, with the reference to hell as the only questionable point. However, the meaning of “hell” in the creed is important, as we will see below.

Two New Testament verses seem to indicate that Jesus went to hell following His death on the cross. They read in the King James Version:
“Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.” (Acts 2:27) This is a quotation of Psalm 16:10.
“He seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption.” (Acts 2:31)

Translating “hell”
The Greek word translated as “hell” in the second chapter of Acts is hades, defined as the region of the departed spirits of the lost; the abode into which the spirits of men are ushered immediately after death. Hades and its corresponding Hebrew word sheol, used in the Old Testament, do not denote the permanent, eternal region of the lost. In the New Testament, two Greek words are translated into English as “hell”: hades and gehenna (or geenna). Hades (Strong’s 86), used ten times in the NASB version, is used to refer to “the grave, the place of the dead, ‘the underworld’”.[ii] Hades is properly understood as “the region of the departed spirits of the lost … it expresses the general concept of the invisible world or abode into which the spirits of men are ushered immediately after death … [Hades is] the intermediate state between death and the ultimate hell, Gehenna”.[iii]

What is Gehenna?
This is what we normally think of as hell, with fire and torment. The word geenna (Strong’s 1067), is rendered as “Gehenna, hell, ‘Valley of Hinnom’”.[iv] This valley was used at one time to offer child sacrifices to Molech.[v] The Valley of Hinnom was located just outside of the southern part of Jerusalem and was used as a burning pit for trash from the city. The word Gehenna is used in the Bible twelve times, eleven by Jesus and once in James 3:6. The allusion by Jesus of Gehenna as a continuously burning trash dump for condemned souls would have been very poignant for the Jews living near Jerusalem. He used described Gehenna as “fiery” (Matthew 5:22 and 18:9). The Bible indicates hades (holding place for departed souls) will cease to exist following the white throne judgment:
Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:14)
This makes sense if all persons will be, from that time forward, either in heaven or hell (Gehenna). Hell is the place where the unsaved will be cast in the future, after the judgment (Revelation 20:15). Jesus would not have gone to this place during his three days in the grave.

With the differences in the original Greek better understood now, a more accurate translation of the Greek words render these verses in Acts as such:
·         “because you will not abandon my soul to hades nor allow your holy one to undergo decay” (Acts 2:27) The verse in Psalm 16:10 likewise more accurately reads in the Hebrew:  “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol” , not hell.
·         “he looked ahead and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was neither abandoned to hades, nor did his flesh suffer decay.” (Acts 2:31)

Statements of Jesus
Other verses concerning Jesus Christ clearly indicate that he would not be in hell (Gehenna) following his crucifixion and death.  In Luke 23:46, it is written, and Jesus, crying out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ Having said this, He breathed His last.”  If Jesus was going to suffer in hell, would He have made this statement?  Additionally, if Jesus would suffer in the fire of hell for three days, would he have said to the one thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise”?  (Luke 23:43) The Greek word translated here as “paradise” is paradeisos (Strong’s 3857), meaning either the part of hades reserved for the righteous held prior to the resurrection or some region of heaven. Paradise may be equated with heaven by Paul, who uses the same word as Luke (paradeisos) in 2 Corinthians 12:4. Two verses previous, he uses the phrase “third heaven” (ouranos – Strong’s 3772). The point is that Jesus did not say he would be in gehenna to endure more suffering later that day; rather He would be in paradeisos.

It is finished
If it was necessary for Jesus to suffer torment in hell, he would not have been able to make the statement on the cross, “It is finished.” in John 19:30.  The Greek word tetelestai means something is accomplished or fulfilled.  The word tetelestai was also written on business documents or receipts in New Testament times indicating that a bill had been paid in full. Notice Jesus did not say on the cross, “It is almost finished”, nor did He wait until three days had passed to say, “It is finished”. He was the perfect, sinless lamb of God (John 1:29) and when He died, it was completed. Peter stated Jesus bore our sins on the cross (1 Peter 2:24), not in hell.   

To more properly understand this issue, we should differentiate the purpose of the cross from the purpose of hell (gehenna). Hell is a future (2 Peter 3:7), eternal place of punishment, banishment from God’s presence (2 Thessalonians 1:9) and a quarantine for the unregenerate apart from those who are saved. The cross, on the other hand, was the final and ultimate sacrifice, of which the Old Testament animal sacrifices were a foreshadowing. Think about it – the sheep did not go to hell to suffer. That was not the point of the sacrifice. The cross and hell have very different purposes.

Where was He for three days?
If Jesus was not in hell, what was He doing between death on the cross and the resurrection? Geisler and Rhodes point out the two views concerning this issue.
1.    The Hades View. According to this position, Jesus’ spirit went to the holding place of those who had died and “He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison” (1 Peter 3:19). The Apostle Paul references this as well:  “’When He ascended on high, He led captive a host of captives, and He gave gifts to men’. Now this expression, ‘He ascended’, what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth?” (Ephesians 4:8-9)
Peter states that, following His death, Jesus “went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison” (1 Peter 3:19).  The original Greek word rendered prison is phylake, which means the act of keeping watch or guarding or a place where someone is watched or guarded. The spirits mentioned here are described as those who were disobedient during the time Noah was preaching righteousness (1 Peter 3:20). This also likely includes other unsaved persons who died prior to the time of Christ. 

2.    The Heaven View. Proponents of this position teach that the souls of Old Testament saints ascended directly to heaven. Enoch was taken by God (Genesis 5:24 and Hebrews 11:5). The Bible states Elijah “went up by a whirlwind to heaven” (2 Kings 2:11). Prior to the resurrection of Jesus, the souls of the righteous went to heaven, while their bodies awaited the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20 and Matthew 27:53).[vi]

So, what?
Why is this important? This issue probably does not involve an essential Christian doctrine. However, it relates to two significant issues:
1.    We should be very cautious when extrapolating beliefs concerning Jesus Christ or God. This is particularly evident in statements of some people who go on to say that Jesus not only suffered in hell, but also was born again. As Geisler and Rhodes state, “the Bible is clear that he was not ‘born again’ while there, nor did he gain victory over the devil at that time. Jesus was not a sinner and, therefore, did not need to be born again”.[vii]
2.    The King James version of the Bible, though a very good translation and beautifully written, contains some rendering of words which have the potential to cause misunderstandings for a 21st century reader. Jesus went to hades, which is not the same as hell.

To have the most accurate interpretation of the Bible, we should use the English version that is translated from the oldest reliable manuscripts and seek to understand the writer’s meaning in the original language. By doing this, we see that Jesus Christ did not suffer torment in hell. Nowhere does the Bible indicate Jesus went to hell or needed to be born again. Jesus Christ finished the work of atonement for our sins when He died on the cross.  

[i]Christian Classics Ethereal Library website, “Apostles’ Creed”, accessed 13 Apr 2009,
[ii] Strong’s, 1588.
[iii] Zodhiates, Spiros, Executive Editor, The Hebrew-Greek Key Study Bible, (Chattanooga, TN: 1996), p. 1575.
[iv] Strong’s, 1599.
[v] “They built the high places of Baal that are in the valley of Ben-hinnom to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire to Molech, which I had not commanded them nor had it entered My mind that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin” (Jeremiah 32:35).
[vi]Norman Geisler and Ron Rhodes, Correcting the Cults (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Books, 1997), p. 253.
[vii]Ibid., pp. 253-254.

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