Did Jesus go to hell?

John Piper stirred up quite a controversy on his Desiring God facebook page this morning with this statement:

You deserved hell, and He went to hell for you!

I was amused to see the range of comments on this statement, especially the ones suggesting that Piper doesn't know the Bible- that's like saying Tiger Woods knows nothing about golf.

Most Christians would agree with the statement that our sinfulness, or our rebellion towards God, deserves the eternal desolation of Hell, and that Jesus endured our punishment in order to set us free.

So did Jesus really go to hell?

We know that Jesus dies at about 3 pm on Good Friday and that by first light on Easter Sunday He was alive again, having conquered all the power of death and sin.

What transpired on the Saturday is not really talked about in any specific detail in the Bible.

However there is this statement in 1 Peter 3: 19,20:

So he went and preached to the spirits in prison— those who disobeyed God long ago when God waited patiently while Noah was building his boat (NLT)

This indicates that Jesus went to the place where the “spirits” were in prison to proclaim to them the Good News (good for us, bad for them) that on the cross he had defeated satan for ever.

These spirits would seem to be fallen angles or demons who are referred to in Genesis 6. Some people think that they could be the spirits of people who died before Jesus came into the world, but that doesn't seem to match the words used everywhere else in the Bible to refer to people.

The Apostles' Creed was developed in the 5th century as a summary of the essential doctrines that Christians needed to know. All baptismal candidates were required to learn it and understand it. The Creed says of Jesus “He descended into Hell,” although some recent translations from the Latin render this as “He went down to the dead.”

Some people say that it was impossible for the divine Son of God to go to Hell because by definition it is a place of eternal suffering and separation from God. Yet on the cross Jesus expressed this separation:

At about three o’clock, Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which means “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”-- Matthew 27:46 

Clearly, part of the ordeal that Christ went through was separation from God. In that sense, if no other, He truly descended into Hell.

These are matters of mystery. The Bible does not dwell on them, but only hints at the answers. Until we see God face to face, they will remain mysteries and we do well not to be too dogmatic about our interpretations.

The Good News is that through His death Jesus set mankind free from the power of sin and death. Everyone who follows Him may know the assurance of eternal life with God.