Between His death and resurrection, did Jesus spend time in hell?
There is a lot of uncertainty about this issue. The phrase “He descended into hell” in the Apostles’ Creed is the primary source for the idea that Jesus went there after His death on the cross, though there are a few verses that, depending on the translation, refer to Jesus going there as well. To properly study this topic, it is necessary to first understand what the Bible teaches about the afterlife.
Sheol is the Hebrew term for the afterlife. The Greek word for “place of the dead” in the New Testament is hades, which means the same thing. Other New Testament verses suggest that sheol/hades is a transitory location where souls are held until the final resurrection and judgment. The difference between hades and the lake of fire is made very apparent in Revelation 20:11-15. The lost will be judged eternally in the lake of fire. Therefore, Hades is only a passing phase. It’s confusing since “hell” might mean either “hades” or “the lake of fire.” After His death, Jesus did not travel to a hellish realm called “hades.”
There are two distinct parts of the realm of Sheol/Hades: the land of blessing and the place of judgment (Matthew 11:23; 16:18; Luke 10:15; 16:23; Acts 2:27–31). According to the Bible, the term “hades” can refer to either the dwelling of the saved or the home of the lost. In addition to “paradise” (Luke 16:22) and “Abraham’s bosom” (KJV) (Abraham’s side) (NIV), the destination of the rescued is referred to as “Abraham’s side” (Luke 23:43). There is a “huge gulf” separating the dwellings of the redeemed from those of the lost (Luke 16:26). When Jesus died, He entered the paradise on the other side of sheol. All the unbelievers go to the cursed side of hades to await the last judgment (however some people, based on a special interpretation of Ephesians 4:8-10, think that Jesus brought believers with Him from sheol to another region of happiness that we now call heaven). All the faithful departed wait on the “blessing side” of Hades for the day of resurrection. Can we assume that Jesus descended into hell? Jesus admitted that He had entered the paradise of death.
Psalm 16:10-11, as translated in the King James Version, has contributed to the muddle: “For thou shalt not leave my soul in hell; nor wilt thou let thine Holy One to see corruption. . . . When I ask thee to lead me, thou will not lead me to hell, but rather the way of life. Jesus told the thief on His right, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43); He did not say, “I shall see you in hell.” Jesus’ body was in the tomb; His soul/spirit went to be with the blessed in sheol/hades. The Hebrew and Greek terminology for “sheol,” “hades,” and “hell” are often translated inconsistently and incorrectly in various Bible editions.
Some people believe that Jesus was punished even harder for our crimes by being sent to “hell” or the suffering side of sheol/hades. This is an absolutely non-biblical viewpoint. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross paid the price for our salvation in full. We are become holy because of His sacrifice (1 John 1:7–9). He bore the guilt of all people while He hung helplessly on the cross. To make us righteous before God, Christ took on sin’s nature: “God caused him who knew no sin to be sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Christ’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane over the guilt that would be heaped upon Him at Calvary becomes clearer in light of this imputation of sin.
Jesus declared, “It is completed” as His execution approached (John 19:30). The pain he endured in our stead is over. His spirit/soul left for the hereafter (the place of the dead). In contrast to popular belief, Jesus did not visit the “hell” or “suffering side of hades,” but rather the “Abraham’s side,” or the good side of hades. With His death, Jesus was released from all pain. It’s too late to make amends; we’ve already paid the price. Then he prepared himself for the ascension, where he would once again join God in His glorified body. Has Jesus been to hell? No. Can we assume that Jesus descended into hell? Yes.