A friend, and member of my church recently asked this question, as he and his wife were both in some degree of uncertainty on the subject. Both of them are faithful godly people who have been in church, read the Bible, and heard the Scriptures most of their life. So this was no novice question. They’re not alone. I’ve heard many people ask this question, and theologians are even somewhat confused on the subject.
Here is my best, short-ish explanation to this curiosity question.
The only biblical basis for this question at all is found in Acts 2:27, where an Old Testament prophecy is quoted in some translations as, “Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.” (KJV). However, “hell” here – at least, as we generally understand it – is misinterpreted. This misinterpretation is regrettably repeated in other translations, and then again in the Apostle’s Creed, which directly says that Christ, “descendit ad infernos“. Yes, infernos, in Latin always understood as the eternal burning hell. Thanks, for the confusion, fourth century church leaders…
But this verse in Acts is a direct quote from Psalm 16:10, “For You will not abandon my soul to Sheol [emphasis, mine]; nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay.” (NASB). This Psalm prophesied the death and resurrection of Jesus nearly a millennium in advance. And the original word in the original quote being understood as “hell” in Acts 2:27 was actually the Hebrew word, Sheol – “the place of the dead.” It was a general reference to the grave, the spiritual dimension, the afterlife in general, or, yes, hell – as in THE Hell… infernos, as the fourth century writer’s of the Apostle’s Creed put it.
We must utilize biblical context to understand which meaning is accurate for the original writing. This quote was written in Psalm, a Hebrew song and poetry book that consistently rhymed thoughts rather than sounds like we do in music and poetry today. So it frequently repeats a thought by rewording it. This gives the reader or listener deeper understanding by hearing the same exact thought expressed a different way. So in our verse from Acts 2/Psalm 16, we read:
“Because You will not abandon my soul to Hades [In Hebrew, Sheol],
Nor allow Your Holy One to undergo decay.”
The second part of that thought-rhyme is clearly telling us that God would not allow Christ’ body to remain in the grave long enough to receive significant corpse decay. Since this was written in the format of Hebrew poetry, returning to the first part of this quote about Christ’ soul not being abandoned to “Sheol”, it’s safe to understand that as His soul being left “in the place of the dead” or “separated from His body.” Thus, being reunited with his glorified body, before decay, and not leaving His spirit in “the place of the dead.”
But what if we got it wrong… what if it meant this, but also meant THE Hell? Three thoughts…
- 1 Peter 3:19 makes reference to Jesus “proclaiming to the spirits who are imprisoned”. Some think this meant in Hell. But if you read in it’s context, you’ll see that this is likely referring to demonic spirits – not human ones – whom it appears that Jesus was judging after He rose again. Still, there is a vague possibility that this occurred IN Hell, but many think that’s a bit of a stretch.
- In Revelation 1:18, Jesus Himself says that He possess the “keys to Hell and death.” So what? Didn’t say where or how He got them. Maybe He’s always had them. I mean, who else would have them?
- If… and I do emphasize IF, Jesus went to THE Hell at all, He did not go as a prisoner. He went as the warden. On the cross, Jesus cried out “It is finished” meaning that the debt of our sin had been paid. So IF Jesus went to Hell, it was not to suffer or pay for our sins – it was to exert His rightful authority and position to stand in judgment because of who He is, and what He had just done.
There. I hope that cleared some things up or at least gave you some decent content to process as you form your own opinion. Regardless, we know He’s at the right hand of God the Father now (Hebrew 12:1-3).