It was just about this time last year that I wrote a post with a similar question, and answered it in a slightly generic non-scholarly sort of research answer (see Did Jesus Descend into Hell After He Died on the Cross?). I had no idea that in the time of about a year I would actually write a research paper on the “descent doctrine” to complete requirements for my seminary degree (MDiv). When I wrote the post last year, it was an apologetic questioning of how could Jesus have descended into Hell at the same time he told the thief on the cross that “today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43)? This time, it was a more scholastic look at the doctrine through exegetical/systematic theology research.
Why Does the Descent into Hell Doctrine Matter?
When studying theology, especially systematic theology that attempts to “formulate an orderly, rational, and coherent account of the Christian faith,” I always try to understand why it matters, why is it important to study this particular doctrine. To me, in this particular case, it is for Joseph in the photo above that I took last October when I was in Uganda. His picture hasn’t necessarily haunted me, but I think of him often. When we visited this facility, which was two hours into the middle of Uganda, he had been there for two years, and had no idea how much longer he would be there. He was isolated, alone, and really had no outward hope.
Christ died for this man. When Christ exclaimed “Τετέλεσται” on the cross (John 19:30), he told history’s past, present, and future, that his work was complete and fulfilled; payment for the sins of the world was paid in full at that very moment. There wasn’t anything else He had to do to make His work complete, at the very moment Christ “gave up His Spirit,” it was over. What this means for Joseph is hope in a coming Paradise, and there is nothing else he has to do, other than to believe in Christ. He doesn’t have to spend a certain amount of time in torment before he can arrive in the presence of God. There are many other “reasons” for studying this doctrine of course, but that is just what was on my mind as I went through this research.
Overview of the Descent into Hell Doctrine
I am not going to post my entire research, or even a large portion, since it will no doubt be long and boring to some. If you are interested in the details and how I came to the conclusions I did, please read An Overview of the Work of Christ: Did Jesus Descend into Hell After the Crucifixion, I would love to hear your comments or feedback if you are so inclined to read the paper.
Within the traditional wording of the Apostles Creed there is one statement, which has been recited by millions of believers for centuries, that says, “Jesus descended into Hell.” This one statement, which was not in the original version, and a few select expositions of Scripture, has become the basis for the relatively undeveloped doctrine “Jesus Descended into Hell.” This doctrine, which resides within the greater systematic theology of “The Work of Christ,” has been controversial for centuries, but yet is generally accepted by the lay faithful without much investigation into its credibility. The understanding of this doctrine comes from a handful of various Scripture references between the Old and New Testaments, five specific verses anchored on 1 Peter 3:18-20, and the long history of the Apostles’ Creed. While the Apostles’ Creed has a history going back to the early church, “we must seek for a surer exposition of Christ’s descent to hell.” This paper will argue that the doctrine “Jesus Descended into Hell,” when viewed through a proper exegesis of Scripture, is not sufficient to confirm the belief that Jesus did spend three days in the torments of Hell.
The problem with using the Apostles’ Creed as the basis for developing this doctrine is that the line “descended into Hell” wasn’t added to the Apostles’ Creed until about the 8th Century A.D. Outside of the Apostles’ Creed, no where in Scripture does it explicitly state that Christ descended into Hell after the crucifixion, but there are five specific Scriptures used to defend the descent doctrine, mainly Acts 2:27, Romans 10:6-7, Ephesians 4:8-10, 1 Peter 3:18-20, and 1 Peter 4:4-6. As shown in the research, all of these Scriptures, when taken through a proper exegetical view, taken in context, refute the descent into Hell doctrine. To read the paper in full, just click the link above or go to my writing section.
 Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics, The Apostles’ Creed, http://www.reformed.org/documents/apostles_creed.html.
 Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 791.