The belief that Jesus descended into Hell has been around for millennia, surfacing first in Syria, Asia Minor, and Rome. While the belief is common amongst Christians, belief regarding the purpose for which Jesus descended varies. Some believe it to be Jesus’ liberation of Adam and Eve, the patriarchs, the prophets, and the righteous of the Old Testament. Others believe He simply invaded Hell to proclaim His victory to overthrow Satan in his own domain. So, which is it?
My purpose here is to examine, in brief, the common confession among the Church Fathers and other early church writers. What is clear from this brief historical survey is that the early church at large believed it is neither one nor the other but both. Did Jesus liberate Adam and Eve, the patriarchs, the prophets, and the righteous from Sheol or did He proclaim His victory during His descent? From the Church Fathers and others, we see that it is both.
What is Sheol?
For the early church writers, Hell and Sheol are used interchangeably. From the Old Testament, Sheol is a place to which one “descends” or “goes down” from the Hebrew word ירד (yarad; Numbers 16:30; Job 7:9). It is the lowest place to which a person can go (Deuteronomy 32:22; Isaiah 7:11). Sheol is also impartial; both righteous and unrighteous people go to Sheol (Psalm 16:10; Job 12:17-25).
We still find references to Sheol in the New Testament, often referred to as “the abyss” or “bottomless pit” (άβυσσον [abusson]; Luke 8:31; Revelation 9:1; 17:8; 20:1). When Jesus prophesied that He would spend three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (Matthew 12:40), Christians since the early church have interpreted this to mean Sheol or Hell.
From these interpretative understandings within the early church, Sheol is the place people go when they die. Today, we simply call it “the grave,” meaning more than the physical earth in which a corpse lays. While today we usually differentiate between Sheol and Hell, for the early church they were the same place.
Why Did Christ Descend into Sheol/Hell?
The Church Fathers and other early church writers explain this belief in a variety of ways. What is clear from the recovered manuscripts we have is that Jesus’ descensus (descent) was a unified belief among Christians by the second century. Jesus’ descent is mentioned by Ignatius of Antioch (twice), Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus (four times), and Tertullian (once, but extensively) (McDonnell, 158). Today, we typically link Jesus’ descent to 1 Peter 3:18-19, “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.” Yet for the most part, the Church Fathers and others did not associate Jesus’ descensus with this Scripture. The connection came much later.
The main belief between the Eastern Church and the Western Church was that “Christ descended in order to overthrow the kingdom of darkness and to preach to the Jews and pagans who died since the beginning of time.” This belief is stated by Cyril of Jerusalem, for instance, presenting “the descent as a deliverance of ‘those imprisoned from Adam onwards,’ specifically naming David, Samuel, all the prophets, and John the Baptist” (McDonnell, 158-159).
There’s a Jewish work from the second century B.C. called The Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah in which Christians add to it from the latter part of the first century to the fourth century AD that tells of God sending Jesus into Sheol. Cyril continues this later on to link Jesus’ descent to His Baptism. McDonnell explains Cyril, “At the Jordan a divine exchange takes place, a mutuality in koinonia [fellowship, communion], a reciprocity in sharing. As Jesus shares in our flesh and blood, so we participate in his divine life lived in the flesh [when we are baptised]. The reason for his baptism is that we might have koinonia, communion in his dignity and salvation. For this to come about, Jesus goes down into the water, thereby crushing ‘the heads of the dragon’” (p. 160).
In addition to Cyril’s continuance is Christian iconography beginning after the second century that depicts Jesus’ descent “as a bold, triumphal entry, the crucified and risen Lord breaking down the portals, forcing the evil one into submission, leading Adam and Eve by the hand out of the abyss. Incorporated in the iconography is the blood and the water that come forth from the side of Christ on the cross. The blood comes first in order to give life to Adam. Then the water comes, in which Adam is baptized” (McDonnell, 161). I have such an icon as the featured image for this article
In the Apostles’ Creed, we confess that Jesus descended into Hell after He was buried. What is most interesting from this Christian iconography, the Church Fathers, and others, however, is that they also connect Jesus’ passion to His Baptism, within which His descent into Hell (or Sheol) occurs simultaneously. In other words, they viewed Jesus’ Baptism and passion not as isolated events having nothing to do with one another “but a mystery belonging to the great drama of salvation” (McDonnell, 169).
For example, Ephrem, in his Sermon on Our Lord, writes on Jesus’ salvific journey to Sheol, “‘The Only-Begotten journeyed from the Godhead [that is, the Father] and resided in a virgin, so that through physical birth, the Only-Begotten would become a brother to many. [Having descended into Sheol] he journeyed from Sheol and resided in the [heavenly] kingdom, to make a path from Sheol, which cheats everyone, to the kingdom, which rewards everyone [according to their due].’” McDonnell explains, “The purpose, then, of the journey to Sheol, and from Sheol to the heavenly kingdom and his Father, is to open up the path for the journey of those who had died” (p. 162; bracket additions are the author’s).
Five odes from The Odes of Solomon also link Jesus’ Baptism to His descent. Ode 24, for example, “begins with a reference to the descent of the Spirit: ‘The dove fluttered over the head of our Lord Messiah.’ Then there is an allusion to the fright of those in Sheol: ‘Then the inhabitants were afraid… and the chains were opened and closed.’ The inhabitants of the deep from the time of Adam were looking forward to the time of deliverance as those looking expectantly for birth: ‘They were seeking the Lord as those who are about to give birth’” (McDonnell, 164-165).
Jacob of Serugh is another who connects Jesus’ Baptism to His descent, who wrote:
Christ was baptized in the pit, and feeling around Sheol, he drew out Adam;
he groped in the mud of the dead, and brought out the pearl [Adam]…
He went down to the sea of the dead to be baptized like those who bathe;McDonnell, 166
he brought up from thence the pearl [Adam], depicted in his own image.
He spent three days in the pit, and found there
the image that the serpent had stolen and hidden away in the bottom of Sheol.
McDonnell explains Jacob, “Sheol and Jordan are merged. Jesus descends for three days into Sheol/Jordan to search out the lost Adam who bears his image, groping for him in the mud of the dead, where the Serpent had hidden him, and finding him, as one finds a precious pearl, leads him out” (p. 166).
Even more, Ignatius of Antioch and Justin Martyr complete the drama of salvation by adding a second linkage: Jesus’ passion. For the early church, all three events—Jesus’ Baptism, passion, and descent—are not isolated events but are intimately connected. Not only did they believe that Jesus’ descent occurred in His Baptism and after His passion, but they also believed that Jesus’ Baptism was prophetic of His passion. “In his baptism in the Jordan, the whole plan of salvation that he has to realize is openly laid before him. What took place at the Jordan is completely unfolded only at Calvary” (McDonnell, 167).
This comes particularly from Luke 12:50 when Jesus says, “I have a baptism to be baptised with, and how great is My distress until it is accomplished!” Jesus says this after John the Baptiser had already baptised Him, so He cannot be referring to His Baptism in the Jordan. Rather, He is calling His coming passion a type of baptism for Himself. Thus, “The events of Calvary are only to be understood as the full realization of what was begun at his baptism in the Jordan” (McDonnell, 167).
Ignatius of Antioch also makes the connection, saying Jesus “‘was born and baptized that by his suffering he might purify the water.’” Justin Martyr does as well, “saying that just as Jesus did not need baptism but nonetheless submitted to baptism ‘solely for the sake of man,’ so also he had ‘no need to be begotten or crucified’” (McDonnell, 168). That is, Jesus did not need to be baptised or crucified for Himself—that is, within the immanent Trinity (the relationship between the three Persons of the Trinity not revealed to us). Rather, He needed to be baptised and crucified for the economy of salvation—that is, for all mankind. In short, Jesus Himself did not need Baptism or crucifixion, but we do; thus, Jesus chose to undergo Baptism and suffering in order to save us not because He needed to but because it’s what we needed. How great is the love of our Lord!
Ephrem also refers to Jesus’ passion as His second baptism in terms of the fulfilment of His first. He writes, “‘There are two baptisms of our Lord: the one is the baptism of water; the other is the baptism of the cross. The passion explains for us the nature of the baptism of water’” (McDonnell, 169).
What’s the Point?
From this brief historical overview, it is clear that the early church believed Jesus descended into Sheol/Hell both to retrieve Adam and Eve, the patriarchs, the prophets, and the righteous as well as to proclaim His victory over Satan’s domain. I like how a friend of mine put it: it’s as if the Devil received a body bag, opened it, saw it contained the Son of God, and went, “Oh crap.” Because of this dual confession of the early church, I believe there is room in our own confession to confess both as well.
Still, however, McDonnell’s crux of the matter is well put: “The geographical dimension is not the issue. Christ’s triumphant victory and the extent of salvation is… Life enters into the very domain of death and conquers the gods of death” (p. 169). In other words, what exactly Jesus did in Sheol/Hell is not the point; the point is that Jesus is victorious over death, which is proven in His resurrection. While Jesus certainly descended into Hell for a purpose that is not made exactly clear to us, the anchor of our hope is not in His descensus but in His resurrection. McDonnell’s concluding paragraph to the chapter is worth quoting in full:
Not a religious abstraction, the Jordan/descensus ruptures the space-time bonds, proclaiming that the power of Christ transforms those living in the present, grasps those still in the far reaches of the future, but, triumph of triumph, overthrows sequence and succession to enter the past, there to bring the good news not as a hope but as a realized salvation. The Lord of the Cosmos, the Sovereign of the Universe, claims his universal dominion.p. 170
McDonnell, Kilian. The Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan: The Trinitarian and Cosmic Order of Salvation. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1996.