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In the cartoon “The Wizard of Id” the king is walking out of the church and says to the friar, “You said your Lord descended into Hell?” To which the friar replies, “Well, actually, He just dropped in to pick up the keys!” On the marquee in front of the church are the Scripture references “Matthew 12:40; Ephesians 4:9; and Revelation 1:18.”
So… did Jesus descend into Hell? If so, why? Well (to paraphrase a popular quote) it all depends on what your definition of “Hell” is!
There are 5 words in the Bible (2 in the OT and 3 in the NT) that are translated as “hell” or the place of the dead, in various translations (KJV, NASB, NIV, NLT, etc.) These words are also translated as, “death, Hades, the grave, the pit, destruction, etc, depending on the translation.
In the Old Testament “Sheol” is the most commonly used word. (The other word is “Abaddon” which is most often translated as “destruction” as for what happens to the dead in the place, rather than referring to the place, itself.)
Sheol (it seems) is a sort of a “holding place” for the spirits of the dead. Both the good (Jacob speaks of going there in Genesis 37:35 and 42:38; and David speaks of going there in 1 Samuel 2:6) and the bad go there (Numbers 16:30 and Psalm 55:15 for just 2 examples of many.)
In the New Testament there 3 commonly used words which are all (depending on the translation) rendered as “hell”:
~ Tartaroo is one of the NT equivalents of Sheol. It is only found in the NT in 2 Peter 2:4. It is the part of Hell (or Hades) that is reserved for the fallen angels who are to be held until the final judgment that we read about in Revelation 20.
~ Hades is another NT equivalent of Sheol. It is also translated as Hell in the New Testament (mostly in the KJV.) This is the word that is used in Luke 16:19-31 in the story of the rich man and Lazarus, as well as in describing what will happen to some cities in Galilee which reject Jesus’ teachings (Matthew 11:23 and Luke 10:15.) This (seems to be) the place of “disembodied wicked spirits” or “unbelievers.”
~ The third NT word for hell is Gehenna (Gheh-en-nah). This is the place of the lost or condemned. It is a place of torment for both the body and the soul where the “worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:44; 46; 48, which is a quote from Isaiah 66:24.) This is what is commonly referred to in Revelation as “the second death.” This is where death and Hades will be thrown after the Great White Throne judgment. This will be the place of eternal punishment of the resurrected body and soul of the unbeliever. (See Matthew 10:28 and Luke 12:5)
Then, there are a couple of additional (more “encouraging”) words for places of the “departed”:
~ The first is “paradise” which is found in Luke 23:43 where Jesus tells the thief on the cross that “today you will be with Me in paradise.” Paul also speaks of “being caught up into Paradise” in 2 Corinthians 12:4, and in Revelation 2:7 “the Paradise of God” is promised to the “overcomer.” The word “Paradise” is from the Greek word “paradeisos” which means “the king’s private garden.” It is the NT equivalent of the Hebrew word “pardace” which is the word used for the Garden of Eden.
~ The second is found (again) in the story of the rich man and Lazarus. In Luke 16:22, Lazarus is said to be carried to “Abraham’s Bosom” after he dies. (According to Vincent’s Word Studies, this is “A Rabbinical phrase, equivalent to being with Abraham in Paradise.”)
So, what does all this mean? Did Jesus descend into Hell or not? Be patient!
The above information is gathered from respected Biblical studies and books, such as Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, Thayer’s Greek Definitions, The King James Concordance, and The Complete Word Study Dictionary (Spiros Zodhiates, Th.D editor).
The following is what I have gleaned (through prayer and meditation) from this study. But still, it is what “I” believe and is subject to my own growth in the future. And now, having said that, this is what I believe.
I believe there is Biblical support for “levels” of reward for the believer. I have often used the phrase, “saved by faith, and judged by works.” I believe that this is supported by such scriptures as 2 Corinthians 5:10; 1 Corinthians 4:5; 1 Corinthians 3:8-15 as well as Matthew 5:21-23 to name a few.
So, it stands to reason (at least to me) that if there will be different rewards, there could very well be different “levels” of judgment. It appears that Sheol is the “place” of the dead, and within Sheol, there is (was):
~ Paradise (or Abraham’s Bosom) where the spirit of the OT believer resided before Christ came.
~ Hades – the (current) place where the spirit of the wicked reside (nonbelievers.)
~ Tartaroo which is reserved for the fallen angels (from Lucifer’s fall) and possibly from Genesis 6 (depending on interpretation.) (See 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 1:6)
~ And then finally, Gehenna which is the “lake of fire and brimstone”. This is the place where, after the Great White Throne Judgment, death and Hades will be cast along with the fallen angels (Revelation 14:10; 19:20; 20:10-15; and Matthew 25 41; 46.)
So… to which of these places did Jesus go “between the cross and the empty tomb?”
First of all, most scholars agree that on the cross, Jesus suffered and died. His body was put to death, and His spirit died when He was “made sin”. But, His spirit was resurrected, (Acts 2:31) and He yielded it to the Father. Then, according to 1 Peter 3:19 “between the cross and the empty tomb” Jesus “preached to the spirits in prison.”
This begs the questions, who were these “spirits” that He visited, and what did He “preach” to them?
There are two major thoughts on this subject. Some (very well respected) scholars and commentators believe that Jesus went into Sheol and led all of Paradise (those OT believers who were once held captive) to heaven with Him. This is supported by Ephesians 4:9 and especially by 2 Corinthians 12:4 where Paul talks about being “caught up into Paradise.” (Emphasis added.)
Another train of thought (held by equally respected scholars and commentators) is that Jesus went into Hades, and maybe even Tartaroo, and “preached” to the dead (unbelieving) spirits and/or the fallen angels. If this is true, does it mean that there is a “second chance” for unbelievers? The key here lies in the word “preached.”
When we think of “preaching” we think of “the Gospel” – the “Good News;” however the word itself simply means “to proclaim.” What is “proclaimed” may or may not be good news. In this case, what is “good news” for believers was not “good news” for the spirits in prison! What Jesus “preached” or “proclaimed” was His victory over Satan, over death and over the grave! (See also Colossians 2:15.)
In this regard, Ephesians 4:8-9 means that He symbolically “paraded the captives through the streets” as was a common occurrence in OT times, and that His “subjects” (believers) received the gifts or “spoils” of the battle. (See also Psalm 68:18 and 1 Samuel 30:26.)
So… did Jesus descend into Hell? Yes… and no…
Again, it all depends on what your definition of “Hell” is!
I believe that “between the cross and the empty tomb” that Jesus descended into Hades (and maybe Tartaroo, but not “Hell” or Gehenna, which is the place of final judgment) and proclaimed victory over Satan, death, and the grave. And then I believe He took possession of the keys of Hades, liberated Paradise, and took the OT saints to heaven where Paradise resides today.
I believe that for the child of God, “to be absent from the body, is to be present with the Lord.” I believe that the moment a believer dies, he/she is in the presence of God in “Paradise” in “the King’s private garden” awaiting the time when the final judgment will take place, after which the “New Heaven and the New Earth” will appear, and the believer will receive their brand new resurrected body.
And all because of the fulfillment of "First Fruits!" To God be the Glory!