Christ’s Descent into Hell

About the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (v. 46).

- Matthew 27:45–46

Throughout the course of church history, many people have taught that Jesus’ spirit descended into hell after His death on the cross. Basing this idea on Ephesians 4:8–10 and 1 Peter 3:18–20, most of those who have taught that Jesus’ spirit went to hell after His death have said that He went there to proclaim judgment to sinners and/or rescue the saints of the Old Testament. Today, many in the heretical Word of Faith movement teach that the crucifixion was insufficient to atone for our sins and that Jesus also had to suffer three days of torment in hell.

Faithfulness to all of Scripture, however, requires us to deny that Jesus’ spirit went to hell after He died. First, Jesus told the repentant thief on the cross that he would be with Christ in Paradise on the same day of their crucifixion (Luke 23:39– 43). Second, nothing in Ephesians 4:8–10 says Jesus descended into hell; Paul means only that Christ descended into the grave. Third, 1 Peter 3:18–20 likely refers to the Son of God preaching by the Holy Spirit through Noah to the people of Noah’s day. Finally, Jesus finished His atoning work on the cross. The New Testament speaks of propitiation, the turning away of the Lord’s wrath, only in relation to Jesus shedding His blood on the cross (Rom. 3:25; Heb. 2:17; 9:1–10:18; 1 John 2:2; 4:10; 5:6–11). Moreover, our Savior’s last words on the cross were “It is finished” (John 19:30). He saw His work as completed when He died.

Jesus’ spirit never went to hell, but on the cross He suffered the full wrath of God that is poured out in hell. True, the scourgings of the guards, the nails in Christ’s hands, and the other physical pains Jesus suffered manifested God’s wrath. Nevertheless, the most intense suffering Christ experienced was spiritual in nature, the hopelessness of losing the gaze of His Father’s blessing and the torment of experiencing God’s wrath for the sins of His people (Mark 15:34). John Calvin comments, “After explaining what Christ endured in the sight of man, the Creed appropriately adds the invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he endured before God, to teach us that not only was the body of Christ given up as the price of redemption, but that there was a greater and more excellent price — that he bore in his soul the tortures of a condemned and ruined man” (Institutes 2.16.10).

Coram Deo

Sin against an infinite being demands an infinite punishment in hell. In a few hours, Jesus suffered and exhausted the infinite punishment that impenitent people cannot exhaust even after an eternity in hell. He could do this because, in His deity as the Son of God, He is an infinite being. This is a great mystery, but as the Heidelberg Catechism states, it does assure us that we are fully delivered from the anguish and torment of hell in Christ (Q&A 44).

Passages for Further Study

Psalm 9:17–18
Proverbs 27:20
Mark 9:42–48
1 Thessalonians 1:9–10

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