Did Jesus go to hell? What's with all the ups-and-downs?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

Question: I am a bit confused on the chronology of the Resurrection. Here's what I understand: Jesus descends to speak to those in Hades and then leads captivity captive (I'm assuming taking the OT saints to heaven with Him). Then descends to meet Mary?? When He met Mary and she believes Him to the be the gardener, He tells her not to touch Him because has not yet ascended to the Father. Later He invites His disciples to touch Him so I'm assuming He's ascended to the Father since seeing Mary. I mean no disrespect, but I have this almost comical image in my head of the LORD rising from the dead, descending to lead captivity captive, ascending to lead them to the Father, descending to meet Mary in the garden, ascending to the Father, descending to spend 40 days with the disciples and others, then re-ascending in the sight of His followers . . . like some kind of holy elevator. Could you please clear up for me what happened when? Thank you.

Answer: Thank you for making me laugh today. You see, I jumped on that elevator with you — and I, too, became dizzy with all those ups and downs! But I have pressed the “lobby” button… and all will be well when the door opens for us shortly.

You are not alone in this confusion, by the way. Many elements — some in the Bible, some in the culture and some in the knowledge of language — conspire against clarity. It is my hope that we unscramble them for you today. We will do this by looking at whether or not Jesus descended into hell, discussing some issues about non-corporeal beings, considering the nature of Jesus’ ascension into heaven, analyzing why Jesus rebuked Mary for touching him while encouraging the disciples to do that very same thing and laying out the biblical narrative in chronological order. So, let’s begin all that.

Many people assume that after Jesus died, he descended into hell, but I am not among them — especially considering what most people understand by the term hell. So, where do people get this idea? The phrase, “and he descended into hell” comes from The Apostles Creed, one of Christendom’s oldest documents. But please note three things, the first most importantly: such documents are extra-biblical; they are not equivalent to inerrant Scripture and should always be subordinated to the Bible. Second, that particular phrase does not show up in every version of The Apostles Creed. Third, at Jesus’ death, hell was understood as the equivalent of Hades — the abode of the dead; it was not equivalent to the hell of eternal damnation found in Revelation chapter 20. That describes a time future to Jesus’ crucifixion.

Why is all this is so important? False teachers pitch (some variations on) Jesus going to hell to defeat Satan, to defeat sin… or some such notions. These are heresies. They shame Jesus by inferring that his atoning sacrifice on the cross was ineffective (Hebrews 6:6). So, if Jesus did not go to the kind of hell that people commonly think of when hearing the term, where did he go? He went to Paradise — just as he promised the penitent thief.

“Jesus answered him, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.’” (Luke 23:43, NIV).

So, where is Paradise? Broadly speaking, Paradise is heaven (2 Corinthians 12:4) … but I wish the Bible had more to say on this. Nonetheless, many people aver that Jesus went to Hades (hell) to bring Paradise back to heaven. Such an action would only be necessary if the righteous dead of the Old Testament were handled differently than the righteous dead of the Church Age. This is a common assumption among Evangelicals, and the rationale is roughly as follows:

If we take ideas from Luke 23:43, Luke 16:19-31, Ephesians 4:8-9 and 1 Peter 3:18-20, we can create a trip to hell (Hades) for Jesus by weaving together some interpretations of these Scriptures into a plausible fabric. For instance, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) we see an abode of the dead with two chambers: the “good” side (which some say is the thief’s “Paradise” (also called Abraham’s Bosom) was a place of joy while the “bad” side (hell) was a place of torment.

Prior to Jesus’ death, the entire place was known as the abode of the dead… but Jesus changed all that with his once-and-for-all sacrifice. He fulfilled his promise by visiting the penitent thief, and by taking him (and everyone else in Paradise) out of holding and placing them into the heaven that we know today.

Now, I am not saying that this idea has no merit; I am just saying that the Scripture is scant and the connections are questionable. For example, let us look at Ephesians 4:8-9 which many assume is talking about Jesus making a trip to somewhere below the surface of the earth — to the abode of the dead.

“This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.” (What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.)”
(Ephesians 4:8–10, NIV)

The phrase, “he also descended to the lower, earthly regions” merely means that he came down to earth. It is a stretch to have him boring down to some abode of the dead based on this verse, on 1 Peter 3:18-20 — and on a parable that was not designed to teach that particular postulation. If these are all the proofs, then there is scant evidence that Jesus descended anywhere except to this earth. In my opinion, the earth was the ultimate descent for the Lord of glory, anyway. There is no farther “down” for such a one to go!

As you can see, the notion of Jesus going to hell is either the result of heresy, reliance on an extra-biblical document or extended reasoning based on some thin exegesis. When we combine these reasons with the nature of non-corporeal beings (discussed below), in my opinion (which is not necessarily the majority opinion among Evangelicals) is that Jesus never went to hell.

We must also look at the nature of non-corporeal beings. We know that God is a spirit-being (John 4:24) as are the angels, the dead (before the bodily resurrection) and Jesus… when he is not incarnate. Beings that are in spirit form live outside of physical dimensions (although they may manifest within these dimensions for our benefit). Intrinsically, however, there is no directional “assent” or “descent” for such beings.

Logically speaking, such usage would be a category error. But God wrote his word to people who are bound to concepts like left, right, up and down — and our language is full of anthropomorphisms. These allow us to talk about nonmaterial entities as if they were in the room. So, when we reference a nonphysical God who is “higher” than us as being “up,” this is a logical fallacy — the spiritual dimension has no “up!” But, since this is how we communicate naturally (non-technically), such phrasing is not usually a problem… not until we travel outside of its limits.

The pre-resurrected Jesus had no corporeal body; this is a limit. He met the Father and the penitent thief in a spiritual — not a spatial — dimension. Not only is there no ascension or descension in such a dimension, but there is also no biblical narrative describing such action between Jesus’ death and his resurrection. Yet people insinuate ascension and/or descension upon the pre-resurrected Jesus. There was only one ascension — that of the post-resurrected, flesh-and-blood Christ, 40 days after his resurrection.

“After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”” (Acts 1:9–11, NIV)

The ascension was a unique and transitional event. While with his disciples, Jesus ascended bodily, into the clouds and out of sight. He did this to show us the manner of his next return; the angel said that Jesus would return the same way. So what way? In clouds? Possibly… but that’s not the point. He will return in judgment… with or without the clouds. The cloud motif speaks of judgment in the Bible — and Jesus’ next return to the earth will focus on that part of God’s program. But wasn’t there something “special” or sort of “spooky” about Jesus’ resurrected body? After all, he told Mary, “Touch me not.”

No, Jesus had a regular body at that moment (… although if people have him ascending and descending extra times and to places he did not go, I could see the impetus to believe that there was some supernatural reason that Mary could not touch the resurrected Jesus — maybe even thinking that her hand might melt or pass right through him in the light of such a rebuke). So, what was going on? Let us move away from the King James’s “touch me not” to the English Standard Version’s, “Do not cling to me” to find out.

First of all, merely changing Bible versions makes a huge difference for a contemporary reader, because this passage is not about touching — it’s about clinging. But to understand the issue in any version, look at the qualification that follows the rebuke: “for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” What then was Mary clinging to?

Being Jews, the disciples thought that Jesus came to establish the kingdom (— and he did... just not in the form that they expected), and they clung to that notion as long as he was with them (Luke 7:19). So, what was on their mind when he showed up again after the resurrection? The kingdom! But the pre-ascended Jesus did not rise from the dead to establish the kingdom. He rose to show that he conquered death, and he stayed on earth for 40 days to give a full testimony to his resurrection.

Jesus was fully human during this time — he would have to be. Only a living human could prove that he had defeated death. So, (and as you have noted) he overtly proved his humanity by engaging in normal activities like eating (Luke 24:42), touching (Luke 24:39; John 20:27) and the like. The pre-ascended Jesus was no different in form from the pre-crucified Jesus. He was fully human every moment he was with us. He had to be to qualify as a Redeemer.

Now that we see that there is no descension, only one ascension and nothing spooky about the pre-ascended Christ — there are no ups-and-downs to worry us! That clears the way for us to write down in order the events from Jesus’ death to his ascension. The order of events may vary a little between chronologies, but I’ll use the one from Got Questions Ministries.

Events from Jesus’ death to his ascension chronologically using the Bible only.

  • Jesus is buried, as several women watch (Matthew 27:57-61; Mark 15:42-47; Luke 23:50-56; John 19:38-42).
  • The tomb is sealed and a guard is set (Matthew 27:62-66).
  • At least 3 women, including Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, prepare spices to go to the tomb (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:1).
  • An angel descends from heaven, rolls the stone away, and sits on it. There is an earthquake, and the guards faint (Matthew 28:2-4).
  • The women arrive at the tomb and find it empty. Mary Magdalene leaves the other women there and runs to tell the disciples (John 20:1-2).
  • The women still at the tomb see two angels who tell them that Jesus has risen and who instructs them to tell the disciples to go to Galilee (Matthew 28:5-7; Mark 16:2-8; Luke 24:1-8).
  • The women leave to bring the news to the disciples (Matthew 28:8).
  • The guards, having roused themselves, report the empty tomb to the authorities, who bribe the guards to say the body was stolen (Matthew 28:11-15).
  • Mary the mother of James and the other women, on their way to find the disciples, see Jesus
    (Matthew 28:9-10).
  • The women relate what they have seen and heard to the disciples (Luke 24:9-11).
    Peter and John run to the tomb, see that it is empty, and find the grave clothes (Luke 24:12; John 20:2-10).
  • Mary Magdalene returns to the tomb. She sees the angels, and then she sees Jesus (John 20:11-18).
  • Later the same day, Jesus appears to Peter (Luke 24:34; 1 Corinthians 15:5).
    Still on the same day, Jesus appears to Cleopas and another disciple on their way to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-32).
  • That evening, the two disciples report the event to the Eleven in Jerusalem (Luke 24:32-35).
  • Jesus appears to ten disciples—Thomas is missing (Luke 24:36-43; John 20:19-25).
  • Jesus appears to all eleven disciples—Thomas included (John 20:26-31).
  • Jesus appears to seven disciples by the Sea of Galilee (John 21:1-25).
  • Jesus appears to about 500 disciples in Galilee (1 Corinthians 15:6).
  • Jesus appears to His half-brother James (1 Corinthians 15:7).
  • Jesus commissions His disciples (Matthew 28:16-20).
  • Jesus teaches His disciples the Scriptures and promises to send the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:44-49; Acts 1:4-5).
  • Jesus ascends into heaven (Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:6-12).

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