Certain denominations teach that Jesus went into hell (or the underworld) to preach to confined human souls. True?
This post is speculative, but let’s go for it.
Here is the table that outlines Christ’s states or main events in his life:
For a quick explanation of that image, please click on this link:
Hades is put in parentheses and has a question mark because some theologians claim he did not descend into hades to preach the gospel.
If readers would like to see many translations and the verses in context, they may go to biblegateway.com.
What do the Scriptures say about Christ’s possible descent into Hades?
Here are the two main passages:
And after being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built …. (1 Pet. 3:18-19)
Clearly, then Christ communicated with those who died before he came. As for the flood of Noah limiting the underground audience, many interpreters (as do I) believe that the flood was local, so the people outside of the flood zone who died before Christ came are numerous, yet they heard the gospel from Christ when he preached in hades-sheol.
Here is the second verse:
For this reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit [or Spirit]. (1 Pet. 4:6)
This verse enlarges the audience that heard the gospel beyond Noah’s flood, while they resided in the underworld, probably hades-sheol. They were reached with the gospel, preached by Christ, if we combine those two passages in 1 Peter.
The bottom line: if one reads those verses just naturally and in context, they are indicators that Christ communicated the gospel with departed spirits of long ago. The verses cannot be easily explained away, as some theologians of a more restrictive outlook attempt to do.
Are there other verses?
Acts 2:27, using the word hades, quotes Ps. 16:10, which also uses hades in Greek (LXX) and sheol in Hebrew, but some prefer to translate it as “grave,” not an underworld realm.
Rom. 10:7, which quotes Deut. 30:13, uses the Greek word abyss. In the Deuteronomy context, it probably just means the ocean depths.
And in Eph. 4:9, the “lower parts” of the earth could mean just his incarnation or his burial in the tomb. Or it could mean hades-sheol, the holding place of the dead (NIDNTT, p. 298).
All in all, despite some problems, and depending on one’s interpretation of them, Acts 2:27 and Eph. 4:9 could very well support 1 Pet. 3:18-19 and 4:6.
When did he do this?
He descended either between his death and resurrection, using his spirit, or after the resurrection and before his ascension, using his glorified, transformed, resurrected human body.
But doesn’t a second chance for the dead violate clearer Scripture?
Let’s look at two passages.
Heb. 9:27 says that people “are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.” As for the people to whom Christ preached, they died before Christ came and never got even their first chance to hear the gospel, not to mention their second chance. They were judged and still saved through Christ.
The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) teaches that the rich man, dying and ending up in hades-sheol, could not go to paradise. Even though we should not make too much of a story, if we assume that it accurately reflects the afterlife, the rich man was judged and had to remain down in hades. He was, after all, part of the old covenant and came under Moses and the prophets (vv. 29 and 31) and therefore enjoyed a fuller revelation than pagans did. He must have lived a very bad life since he was being punished (v. 24).
For those who lived under the old covenant or outside of it far away, if Christ descended into hades-sheol and preached to them, then not everyone was judged worthy to ascend with him—not a 100%. But those who ascended were still saved through Christ. It was their one and only chance.
So, no, this doctrine of his descent does not overthrow his plan of salvation after his birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and session (see the states of Christ illustration, above). He ushered in his plan, and it stands firm.
To repeat, anyone who is saved is saved through Christ and only him.
Does this show God’s mercy to those who never heard the gospel?
Yes, absolutely. Acts 17:30 says that in times past, before Jesus came, God overlooked people’s ignorance about himself.
Countless people all around the globe lived before the gospel of Christ first arrived, but also advocated and taught and even publicly preached moral law and peace during war and social harmony.
Think of certain ancient Chinese and Japanese and Indian philosophers, as well as those in Greece and Rome. They made the world a better place—a much better place. Let’s call them “righteous gentiles.” (I taught world religions for a number of years, and their outward behavior was impressive and often better than that of many Christians!) It is a comforting (and probably scriptural) belief that they heard the gospel from Christ himself in hades-sheol and responded positively to him.
Let’s go back to Acts 17:30. God through Christ ordained a shift in the plan of salvation. Now God through Christ calls everyone to repent. This could have been part of the gospel that Jesus preached to those departed ones who lived before the new plan of salvation was implemented in the states of Christ (illustration above).
What about those who lived after Christ, but the gospel never reached them?
Let’s use the example of those who lived, say, in China or South America or Australia, in 200 AD. Christ’s plan of cosmic salvation had already been effectuated or put in place, but the gospel never reached them because transportation and communications were slow.
It is scriptural to believe that all of these people who never heard the gospel will be judged according to their good or bad works (Ps. 62:12; Jer. 17:10; Rom. 2:6; 1 Pet. 1:17, Rev. 20:13, etc.). But whatever happened to them, and however those verses are interpreted, those people will be in the hands of a loving and just Father; he will deal with them as he wills. “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25). Yes, he will.
See my post:
Does the idea that Christ possibly descended into Hades teach universalism?
Universalism says that everyone will eventually be saved, even extra-evil people like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao (and others). No, the notion of his descent does not allow for universalism. It was a one-time offer. Those men will be sent or are currently in hell-gehenna, which is everlasting (Matt. 18:8, 25:46; 2 Thess. 1:9, Jude 6-7). It is not a “timeout,” where they learn their lesson, and then they will eventually end up in heaven. They will stay in hell.
Is this doctrine a test of orthodoxy?
This post is speculative. The doctrine of his descent is controversial. Many theologians of the restrictive variety claim he did not do this (e.g. Hodge, vol. 2, 616-21; Grudem pp. 586-94; Berkhof pp. 340-43; Erickson, pp. 706-09), though I believe they are too dismissive of the idea. In my view, Grudem’s attempt to explain why it never happened falls short. And his work on uncovering when the clause “he descended into hell” (or worded differently) appears in various creeds throughout history is irrelevant, if it has a firm basis in the NT, and it seems to have a firm basis.
In any case, let’s not quarrel over it. This post is speculative. Believing in it or not is not the test (or a test) of orthodoxy. Generosity is needed, regardless of what one believes about it.
So how do I get to know Jesus better?
The idea of Christ’s possible descent into hades-sheol, if it happened, teaches the mercy and righteousness of God.
Mercy: he reached those who lived before he came to earth and announced the gospel. The departed righteous spirits heard him preach it.
Righteousness: Christ upheld moral law, and by it he judged them.
Everyone who is outside of Christ will face the great white throne judgment (Rev. 20:11-15). Jesus will judge them according to their works. He is perfectly loving and perfectly just, so he will judge them with perfect justice and perfect love.
We can trust him in that.
Written by James Malcolm
ARTICLES IN “DO I REALLY KNOW JESUS?” SERIES
10. Do I Really Know Jesus? Did He Descend into Hades to Preach?