A common teaching is that Jesus was in hell between the time He died on the cross and when He was resurrected. The issue has been complicated by a clause in the Apostles' Creed (which is not part of the Bible). The creed states, "He descended into hell." Did Jesus really go to the place of suffering and torment called "hell"?
Did Jesus go to hell between His death and resurrection?
First, let's look at the verses used to claim Jesus did enter hell after His death on the cross. Ephesians 4:8-10 reads, "Therefore it says, 'When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.' (In saying, 'He ascended,' what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)"
These verses actually quote Psalm 68:18. The controversy centers on the destination of Jesus' descent. Did He descend to hell or to the earth? The ESV provides a literal translation, "the lower regions, the earth," to make this distinction clearer. The passage says Jesus descended to the earth (at His Incarnation). The passage does not teach that Jesus descended to hell.
Another passage is Psalm 16:10-11: "For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption. You make known to me the path of life." Some take this passage to refer to Jesus entering hell (Sheol) before His resurrection. This interpretation is due, in large part, to the King James Version, which translates Sheol as "hell" in this passage. However, the Hebrew word sheol is a general reference to the grave, not a particular place in the afterlife.
In Matthew 12:40 Jesus says He will go to the "heart of the earth" just like Jonah went to the belly of the whale. However, here Jesus was speaking of death or the grave, not a particular location in the afterlife. To claim this speaks of Jesus going to hell pushes the analogy too far.
A final passage often used in this discussion is 1 Peter 3:18-20: "For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water." Some think this refers to Jesus speaking to human beings in hell after His death on the cross. Others think it refers to Christ's spirit speaking in the days of Noah to warn of impending judgment and offer salvation to Noah and his family. But it is more likely that it refers to Christ pronouncing His victory over the demonic spirits who are bound in the abyss (see Luke 8:31; Jude 1:6; Revelation 9:11).
The view of Jesus descending to hell is negated by the words of Jesus Himself. On the cross, Jesus cried out, "It is finished!" (John 19:30). His suffering was over; there was no more payment needed for salvation. Also just before His death, Jesus said, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit" (Luke 23:46). Upon death, His spirit went to the Father, not to hell. Also, Jesus promised the thief on the cross that they would be together today in paradise (Luke 23:43). This could not have happened if Jesus had spent three days in hell.
The clause "He descended into hell" in the Apostles' Creed may have been well intended, but is so controversial that some denominations consider it optional or even exclude that portion of the creed. Jesus' body was in the grave for three days, but He did not go to hell.
Where was Jesus for the three days between His death and resurrection?
Was Jesus sinless?
Why should I believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ?
Why is the reality of the bodily resurrection of Jesus so central to the Christian faith?
Why is the ascension of Jesus Christ important?
Truth about Jesus Christ