Ephesians 4:9—Did Jesus descend into hell?

Problem: Paul claims here that Jesus “descended into the lower parts of the earth.” And the Apostles’ Creed declares that after Jesus died, He “descended into hell.” However, when Jesus was dying, He committed His spirit into His Father’s hand (Luke 23:46) and told the thief that He would be with Him in “paradise” (Luke 23:43) which is in the “third heaven” (2 Cor. 12:2, 4). Where did Jesus go—to heaven or to hell?

Solution: There are two views as to where Jesus went the three days His body was in the grave before His resurrection.

The Hades View. One position claims that Christ’s spirit went to the spirit world, while His body was in the grave. Here, they believe, He spoke to the “spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3:19) who were in a temporary holding place until He would come and “lead captivity captive,” that is, take them to heaven. According to this view, there were two compartments in Hades (or sheol), one for the saved and another for the unsaved. They were separated by a “great gulf” (Luke 16:26) which no person could pass. The section for the saved was called “Abraham’s bosom” (Luke 16:23). When Christ, as the “firstfruits” of the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:20), ascended, He led these OT saints into heaven with Him for the first time.

The Heaven View. This teaching holds that the souls of OT believers went directly to heaven the moment they died. It offers the following arguments in support of its teaching. First, Jesus affirmed that His spirit was going directly to heaven, declaring, “Father, into Your Hands I commend My spirit” (Luke 23:46).

Second, Jesus promised the thief on the cross, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). But “Paradise” is defined as “the third heaven” in 2 Corinthians 12:2, 4.

Third, when OT saints departed this life, they went directly to heaven. God took Enoch to be with Himself (Gen. 5:24; cf. Heb. 11:5), and Elijah was caught up into “heaven” when he departed (2 Kings 2:1).

Fourth, “Abraham’s bosom” (Luke 16:23) is a description of heaven. At no time is it ever described as hell. It is the place that Abraham went, which is the “kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 8:11).

Fifth, when OT saints appear before the cross, they appear from heaven, as Moses and Elijah did on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt. 17:3).

Sixth, OT saints had to await Christ’s resurrection before their bodies could be resurrected (1 Cor. 15:20; cf. Matt. 27:53), but their souls went directly to heaven. Christ was the Lamb slain “from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8), and they were there on the merits of what God knew Christ would accomplish.

Seventh, “descending into the lower parts of the earth” is not a reference to hell, but to the grave. Even a woman’s womb is described as “lowest parts of the earth” (Ps. 139:15). The phrase simply means caves, graves, or enclosures on the earth, as opposed to higher parts, like mountains. Besides this, hell is not in the lower parts of the earth—it is “under the earth” (Phil. 2:10).

Eighth, the phrase, “descended into hell,” was not in the earliest Apostles’ Creed. It was not added until the 4th century. Further, as a creed, it is not inspired—it is only a human confession of faith.

Ninth, the “spirits in prison” were not saved, but unsaved beings. Indeed, they may refer to angels, not to human beings (see comments on 1 Peter 3:19).

Finally, when Christ “led captivity captive,” He was not leading friends into heaven, but bringing foes into bondage. It is a reference to His conquering the forces of evil. Christians are not “captives” in heaven. We are not forced to go there against our own free choice (see Matt. 23:37; 2 Peter 3:9).

See All Problems

This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.