Did Jesus Go to Hell To Pay for Our Sins?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Wednesday, May 26, 2010 at 3:37pm
QUESTION: Recently I heard a man say, “Jesus went to hell so you wouldn’t have to.” Where does this idea come from? Didn’t Jesus imply that he was going to Paradise when he died (Luke 23:43)? Does it not border on blasphemy to say that Jesus went to hell to pay for our sins? His atoning blood is what paid for our sins, not His suffering three days in hell “so we wouldn’t have to.” Have you heard of this before?
ANSWER: There is much confusion on this point. The venerable Apostles’ Creed affirms that “He descended into hell” (Latin, descendit ad inferna). Many take that at face value without questioning it—but not the 1989 United Methodist Hymnal, which simply omits this line. Another modern version changes the line to “He descended to the dead” (which is a possible implication of the Latin infernus, “the nether world, the lower regions”). The Bible itself seems to lend support to the idea that Jesus entered hell, especially in the King James translation of Psalm 16:10, “For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell.” Peter refers to this verse in Acts 2:31, saying of Christ “that his soul was not left in hell.” 1 Peter 3:19 adds that Jesus “went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison,” which is often taken to mean that Jesus entered hell and preached to its inhabitants. And Eph. 4:9 adds that “He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth” before his ascension into heaven.
The phrase “He descended into hell” was a late addition to the series of creeds that ultimately became the Apostles’ Creed, appearing a couple of times in the fourth century A.D. and added to the final form in the eighth century (Schaff, “Creeds of Christendom,” 2:53-54). There is no real authority in the Creed, of course. But what about the Bible passages? Do they give support to this idea? No! The statements in Psalm 16:10 and Acts 2:31 have nothing to do with hell, the place of eternal punishment for the lost. The OT word is “sheol,” and the NT word is “hades.” These words CAN mean the place where the souls of the wicked reside between death and judgment, but this is only a prelude to hell itself. These words also CAN mean the grave, as the receptacle of the dead bodies of both the saved and the lost. It is clear that this is the meaning in Psalms and Acts, where the words refer to the grave where Jesus was buried. God did not abandon Jesus after he died and was buried in the grave; he did not allow Jesus’ body to “suffer decay” in Joseph’s tomb. (The word “soul” in Psalm 16:10 does not refer to Jesus’ human spirit, but to Jesus as such, Jesus the individual or the whole person. “My soul” = “me.”)
In Eph. 4:9 “the lower parts of the earth” may also refer simply to the grave as representing Jesus’ death, which in his earthly sojourn was the low point or nadir that preceded his marvelous exaltation via his resurrection/ascension (see Phil. 2:8-9). Eph. 4:8 does not refer to Jesus’ entering the realm of the dead in order to finally escort the patient OT saints into Paradise with him. The “host of captives” in that verse are Satan and his demons, which Jesus conquered via his death and resurrection and which are represented here as a column of defeated and shackled enemies being led in a victory march home by the conquering hero (see Psalm 24:7-10). In any case there is nothing in Eph. 4:9 about hell.
First Peter 3:19 is a difficult verse, and it is the only one that can plausibly be taken to mean that Jesus after his death had some kind of contact with the spirits of the wicked dead. If it means this, there is still no reference here to Jesus’ entering hell to pay for our sins. First, this is not the hell of eternal punishment; at most it is hades, a kind of prison where the souls of the wicked dead await the Judgment. Second, the verse does not say WHEN Jesus visited this place; it could have been during the time his body was in the grave, or it could have been during the 40 days between his resurrection and ascension. Third, the purpose of this visit was not redemptive in any sense. He did not go there to suffer punishment of any kind; he went to make an announcement. The verb translated “made proclamation” is kerusso, “to announce, to proclaim.” It is not euangelizo, “to announce good news, to preach the gospel.” Jesus is there to announce his victory over all his enemies and to seal them in their lost state forever. (There is no hint here that Jesus is offering these lost souls one last opportunity to repent and be saved.)
So, is there no truth at all to the idea that “Jesus went to hell so we wouldn’t have to”? Actually, this is just a poor way of expressing what is the most glorious truth in the universe, that “Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:3). Paul refers to this work of Jesus as an act of REDEMPTION and of PROPITIATION (Rom. 3:24-25; see 1 Pet. 1:18-19; 1 John 2:2; 4:10). These words embody the full implication of the substitutionary atonement, the idea that Jesus took our place on Calvary, suffering and dying as our substitute, enduring the fullness of the wrath of God that we actually deserve (2 Cor. 5:21). I often express it like this: Jesus suffered the equivalent of eternity in hell for the whole human race. Jesus came to earth not just to suffer the wounds of physical death on the cross in our place; he came to absorb and endure and suffer the unimaginable agony of divine wrath, not just in his body but also in his human soul, and especially in his divine nature itself. I believe this infinite spiritual suffering began in Gethsemane, when Jesus “began to be sore amazed” (Mark 14:33, accurately translated by the KJV). He was “amazed, astonished” at the weight of eternal hell that began to descend upon him there. And it continued in its full intensity until Jesus finally breathed his last and uttered those blessed words, “It is finished!” (John 19:30). It was not what happened AFTER Jesus died that removed God’s wrath from us, but what happened BEFORE.
No, Jesus did not “go to hell” in any literal sense. Rather, HELL CAME TO HIM! By consensus among the persons of the Trinity from the beginning of our time (Acts 2:23; 1 Pet. 1:20), the eternal Logos in the person of Jesus of Nazareth was made “to be sin on our behalf” (2 Cor. 5:21), and became the target of the full force of the hellish wrath of God—so we wouldn’t have to!! Because his divine nature participated in this suffering, it was indeed “eternal” or infinite in intensity, and thus was equivalent to a finite individual’s spending the eternal future in the literal hell. Indeed, it was equivalent to such a fate for the entire human race.
This means for all who accept him as Lord and Savior, “there is now no condemnation” (Rom. 8:1); there is no eternal suffering, there is no hell! As justified sinners God does not treat us “just as if we had never sinned”; rather, he treats us “just as if we had already paid the penalty of hell,” thus satisfying the requirements of his holy justice forever. This is what it means to say “Christ died for our sins,” and that he is our “propitiation through faith in His blood” (Rom. 3:25, Holman CSB). GLORY!