The Apostles Creed
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic* church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
What in the world is all this about Jesus going to hell? That is a question about which I have often wondered and until recently have chosen the Scarlet O’Hara approach: “I’ll worry about that tomorrow.”
Since we say in the Apostles Creed – “He descended into hell. The third day He arose again from the dead.” – it must have some significance, right? Did Jesus actually go to hell? And, what was He doing from His death on Friday afternoon until His resurrection Sunday morning?
On Friday just before His death Jesus tells the thief on the cross dying beside him, “…today you will be with me in paradise.” Why then did He tell Mary Magdalene on Sunday morning, “Do not hold on to Me, for I have not yet returned to the Father?” It seems clear that He did not spend the weekend in heaven with God the Father.
I decided to dig into this and see if there is a logical, and believable, answer. Surprisingly there is. So here goes … with this caveat: Even Martin Luther said of this topic: “I do not know for sure.”
Sheol and Hades – Not Hell
The Apostles Creed is reflecting Peter’s words at 1 Peter 3:18 – 4:6. But it all starts with the Hebrew word Sheol, found throughout the Old Testament (OT). This is the same word translated Hades in the Greek New Testament (NT). Sheol and Hades are much maligned and often mistranslated words, and certainly generally ignored by the translation guys. Sheol holds the key to the logical explanation.
1 Peter 3:18He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, 19through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison.(Sheol)
The word for prison is mistranslated and is actually Sheol.
In the Jews OT worldview, Sheol is where the dead go between physical death and the ultimate damnation, or resurrection. It is a neutral place of the departed souls/spirits – neutral, meaning that both the saved and the lost went there upon death. The lost went to the suffering side of Sheol and the saved went to the paradise side. It was believed to be in the lower regions of the earth. Without exception the OT speaks of the soul going to Sheol at death.
In the OT, Sheol is often mistranslated hell, grave and pit. By the way, and this is extremely important, the word hell is never used in the OT. When you see hell, it is always Sheol. In the NT the same word in the Greek is Hades. Hades does not nor did it ever mean hell. Nor is it to be mistaken for the concept of Purgatory, which is a Catholic invention. Again, it is the resting place of the dead. Hades and Sheol are the same word and the same place. And neither means hell.
In the OT worldview, at death the body goes to the grave, and the soul goes to Sheol. The soul, both of the saved and the lost, goes to Sheol, where it is awake, with memory, and the ability to converse. These details are demonstrated clearly in Jesus’ story – not parable, but story – about Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16, which we will explore later.
A Quick Overview
Prior to Jesus’ death and resurrection, no one went to heaven. How could they? Until sin was atoned for, no one could enter the presence of our perfect, and perfectly holy God. Jesus stated this plainly: “ No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven–the Son of Man.” (John 3:13)
No one has ever gone into heaven?? Where did the saved go before Jesus?
At His death, Jesus descended into Hades/Sheol, proclaimed the good news of the redemption of the saved, and on the day of His resurrection led them out of Hades and “up to” heaven. We will see this in 1 Peter 3:18-4:6 below.
The lost remained in Hades, as do the lost who die today, awaiting the great white throne of judgment mentioned in Revelation 20:11 –14, after which: “Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death.” (Bold added)
“The second death?”
So why did Jesus go to Hades?
Let’s examine 1 Peter 3:18-4:6 for the How? When? Where? Why? To whom?
How: v18 In the Spirit, once freed – made alive – from His body.
When: v18 On Friday the day of His death.
Jesus told the thief on the cross today you will be with me in paradise. In the Biblical language it was understood He was referring to the saved side of Sheol/Hades.
Where: v19 “to the spirits in (Sheol) prison” (Prison is mistranslated. It’s Sheol)
(See also Ephesians 4:9 He descended to the lower, earthly regions (Sheol))
Why and to whom: v19 and v4:6 To preach
In v19 the word for preach is “keryssein.” This is a neutral word in the
Greek which typically means, “To make a public pronouncement – to proclaim.”
But in v4:6 the word for preach is “evaggelizo.” In the NT it almost always means “The saving good news of the Gospel.”
The Lost: v19 …the spirits in prison (Sheol) who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah …
The Jews used this phrase, in the days of Noah, to reference the hopelessly lost.
The Saved: 4:6 to those who are now dead …in the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.
So, Jesus had two messages. He made a “public proclamation” v19 (keryssein) to the lost, and then announced “The saving good news of the gospel” v4:6 (evaggelizo) to the saved. Remember Sheol/Hades had a “lost” side and a “saved” side. We’ll see this again in Jesus’ story about Lazarus and the Rich Man.
This is a straightforward explanation of Peter’s inspired words. While researching this topic I was amazed at the multitude of commentaries that avoided a literal view, instead opting for a focus on symbolism, all due to their miscue on the word hell – Hades/Sheol.
Jesus even predicted this would happen: Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice 29 and come out–those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned. (John 5:28-29)
See also Matthew’s words at Matt 27:52-53 – The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of their tombs and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the city and appeared to many people.”
… and after Jesus’ resurrection: After Jesus’ visit to Sheol He then brought the saved out, and apparently these are the holy people who appeared to many.
At Luke 9:30-31 we see Jesus discussing with Moses and Elijah his “departure.”
“Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem.”
The Greek word for ‘departure’ is actually ‘exodus.’ So Jesus was discussing with Moses and Elijah his coming visit to Sheol to gather them and the saved for the exodus from Sheol to heaven – much like the exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land.
See Paul’s words at Romans 10:7 – Who will descend into the deep (Sheol) and bring Christ up from the dead (Sheol)?; and Ephesians 4:9 …He also descended to the lower, earthly regions (Sheol). He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens ….
What happened on the Sunday of Jesus’ resurrection?
Jesus ascended from Sheol/Hades “up to” heaven.
Notice that early that Sunday morning Jesus would not allow Mary to touch Him, saying, Do not hold onto to Me, for I have not yet returned to My Father. John 20:17
And yet later that same day He appeared to the disciples and said, Touch Me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see I have. Luke 24:39
Mary could not touch Jesus … yet … because He was on the way to Heaven, but had not yet completed His ascension. Later that day the disciples could touch Him, because He had ascended, taking with Him the saved from Sheol.
What happens to the dead now?
The saved go straight to Heaven:
To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. 2 Corinthians 5:8
… on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. (i.e., Hades no longer holds the saved upon their death.) Matthew 16:18
The lost still go to Sheol/Hades and await the great white thrown of judgment and the second death:
I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys to death and Hades (Sheol). Rev 1:18
Then death and Hades (Sheol) were thrown into the lake of fire … the second death. Rev 20
The Rich Man and Lazarus
Let’s look at a classic example of the misuse of the word Hades, which is mistranslated hell in Luke 16:23. This story is not to be taken as a parable, but instead a real life example given by Jesus about two men. In Jesus’ parables He never uses a personal name. Here, He does: Lazarus. (This is not the Lazarus he raised from the dead) It is a real story, not a parable.
Both men are going to Hades at death. But they are going to the two different areas of Hades – Lazarus to the saved side, and the rich man to the lost side.
At death the rich man ends up in a place of fiery agony, and Lazarus in a place of comfort at Abraham’s side. (To the Jews “Abraham’s side” meant Sheol, as did Jesus’ word “paradise” at Luke 23:43.) Notice there is a great chasm between the two sides that cannot be traversed.
Jesus is teaching here about the eternal consequences of living this present life selfishly and without regard for others, or Him, and He uses as an example a story only He could know about: what happened to two specific men in the afterlife. And the setting for His story is set in Sheol/Hades. Jesus clearly feels no need to explain about Sheol in this story, as He can be sure His listeners would have understood the setting.
Sheol is ever present in the OT as Hades is in the NT. God spoke about them through His writers and prophets in the OT and Jesus spoke about and taught on it in the NT. If we understand and accept this reality, then it opens the door for a clear explanation as to that which Peter, and subsequently the Apostles Creed, was referring.
More Details if You are Interested
Examples of correct and incorrect translations of Sheol-Hades-Hell
Psalm 16:8-11 …because you will not abandon me to the grave.
Both Peter (Acts 2:27,31) and Paul (Acts 13:35) quote this passage when referring to Jesus’ death. Grave should be translated Sheol.
Correct translation of grave: Genesis 35:19-20 Jacob speaks of burying his beloved wife Rachel in the tomb. The Hebrew word for tomb and grave is kheber.
Incorrect translations of grave: Genesis 37:35 Thinking his beloved son Joseph is dead, Jacob refuses to be comforted and says, in mourning will I go down to the grave (Sheol) to my son. Jacob obviously doesn’t think he will ultimately go to be with Joseph in Joseph’s grave, but in Sheol, where Joseph was awaiting the resurrection.
Psalm 49:15 But God will redeem my life (actually soul) from the grave (Sheol).
Psalm 88:3 For my soul is full of trouble and my life draws near to the grave (Sheol).
Need further convincing?
See 2 Samuel 12:23 David and Bathsheba’s infant son dies and David says he will go to him. Your study Bible will link this passage to Jacob’s statement about going to see Joseph in Sheol.
For more on Sheol see Numbers 16:28-30, Jonah 2:2, 1 Samuel 28:8-15 esp 13-15 and Hosea 13:14.
Hades is the NT Greek word for the OT Hebrew word Sheol. It never means hell. Hades is used four times in the Gospels and always by Jesus: Matthew 11:23; 16:18; Luke 10:15; 16:23 – (The Rich Man and Lazarus)
Jesus told the thief on the cross today you will be with me in paradise. In the Biblical language and Jewish idiom it was understood He was referring to Sheol/Hades.
We’ve already seen Hades used in reference to where Jesus’ soul went at Acts 2:27-31.
Jesus states that He has the keys to Hades at Revelation 1:18. We see it again at Rev. 6:8, 20:13,14.
When Jesus is quoted saying hell at Matthew 5:22, 29-30; 10:28; 18:19; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43,45,47; Luke 12:5; (and brother James at James 3:6) He is actually using the word “Gehenna,” which was a valley just outside Jerusalem that was used as a fiery waste dump. At one time children were even sacrificed into this fire. In the NT times Gehenna referred to the place of punishment and damnation for the lost.
NOTE: I would like to make it clear that I borrowed liberally from the writings of Dr. M.R. De Haan and his booklet titled “After Death … what then.”