Jesus: Victor Over Death and Hell Itself

  wpe1.jpg (26322 bytes)

When we enter into an in-depth discussion of the death of Jesus, there may be many questions raised by both the sincere and skeptical inquirer (1). Some of the questions may be expressed as follows:

  1. If Jesus was God and died on the cross, does that mean that God died?

  2. According to the Bible, Jesus was God manifest in human flesh. (John1:14; 1Tim 3:16; Philippians 2:5-8). When Jesus died, he died a man’s death and because he was the one and only righteous man and the one and only righteous God, "it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him" (Acts 2:22-24). Though it was impossible for God to die (Psalm 102:25-27), it was not impossible for God to take on humanity in order to die a man’s death as our substitute (1Tim 2:5,6).

  3. How could the death of Jesus for three days in the grave pay for the eternal death required in hell for all mankind?

  4. First we need to understand that Jesus fully paid the penalty for our sins through his death on the cross. When Jesus died he said, "It is finished" (John 19:31). "It," in this case, was the work of redemption, which was fully completed by Christ’s death on the cross. He did not have to suffer in hell for eternity—or even for three days—in order to add to what he had already accomplished on the cross. The basis of his payment for our sins is found in the value of his sinless and sacrificial life. As the Lamb of God, Jesus alone is "worthy" to pay for our personal sins and for the sins of the whole world (Revelation 5:1-9, 1 John 2:1,2).

    Next we need to understand that the Bible does not teach that death in hell for eternity is like a prison sentence for a crime. What could one ever do to pay for or make restitution for a sin? Further, no one will find themselves in hell for reasons they do not understand. The reason will be well known and grievous to them on the day of judgement. They will all know that they had rejected whatever light God gave in order to restore a right relationship with Him (Psalm 19:1-4; Acts 14:16,17; Acts 17:23-31; John 3:16-20). Such true guiding light comes only from "God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:3,4 NIV).

    Therefore, Jesus’ payment must not be seen as equal to our own penalty, or even that of all mankind. The penalty due for our sin was not placed on a balance scale with the death of Christ on the other side. What we must realize is that the sinless life of Jesus Christ was of infinite worth, while the eternal suffering of the unbeliever is nothing but the natural consequence of refusal to receive the free gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ. In the end, only the Christian can begin to understand the value of this gift and will exclaim, "Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!" (2 Corinthians 9:15 NIV).

  5. Did Jesus really go to hell and, if so, what did he do there?

  6. Just before Jesus died he said to the thief on the cross, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43 NIV). Now, the English translation of the Apostles Creed says, "he descended into hell" (2). And according to the scriptures, "he also descended to the lower, earthly regions" (Ephesians 4:9 NIV). So, where did Jesus go after his death?

    Some of us realize that much of the interpretative challenge is solved when we know that the OT word translated "hell" (KJV) is actually the Hebrew word "Sheol," and the corresponding NT word translated "hell" (KJV) is the Greek word "Hades." Jesus clearly described this resting-place for the dead when he recounts what happened to a poor man named Lazarus and a certain rich man after death (Luke 16:19-31). From his description we see that Hades (or Sheol) was divided into two compartments—a place of comfort (Abraham’s Bosom, v.22) and a place of torment (v.28). Some commentators believe that this account is a parable and therefore it should not be taken as a literal description of the afterlife. However, it must be acknowledged that a literal interpretation of Jesus provides a perfect framework to organize the other relevant scriptures dealing with the work of Christ while in the grave. Let us now consider the following literal interpretation of these scriptures.

    According to the Bible, when Jesus died, he descended into the "lower, earthly regions" (Ephesians 4:9) to what is called "Abraham’s Bosom" or "Paradise" where the OT saints were comforted until he came and then "ascended on high" (to heaven) and thus he "led captives in his train" (Ephesians 4:8 NIV). He also went to the "place of torment" (Luke 16:28 KJV) to make "proclamation to the spirits now in prison" (1 Peter 3:18-20 NASB)(3). Here Jesus made a declaration of victory over death, "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" (1 Corinthians 15:55 NIV). As we would expect, his proclamation had an opposite effect on the OT saints as compared to the unbelievers in Hades. Jesus was not "abandoned to the grave" (Acts 2:31 NIV) because he was not a captive but a deliverer. Jesus explained it in this way, "I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades" (Revelation 1:18 NIV).

  7. Since we often hear that death is separation from God, was Jesus separated from God for the three days he was in the grave?

  8. Since God "made him (Jesus) to be sin for us, who knew no sin" (2 Corinthians 5:21 KJV), and because God’s "eyes are too pure to look on evil" (Habakkuk 1:13 NIV), Jesus suffered separation from his Father while on the cross. Many believe that is the symbolic meaning behind the 3-hour darkness while Jesus suffered on the cross. (Mark 15:34). Whatever meaning we may draw out of these events, Jesus did cry, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34 NIV). But once again, with Jesus’ last breath he said, "It is finished." Jesus did not pay for our sins in hell. He paid for our sins with his sinless life on the cross and therefore no other payment was required. Jesus did not go to hell to pay for our sins; he went to Hades "to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners" (Isaiah 61:1 NIV; see Ephesians 4:8) and make "proclamation to the spirits now in prison" (1 Peter 3:18-20 NASB). Today, believers give thanks for the wonderful truth that the death of Jesus has freed us from our bondage to sin and spiritual darkness. But Jesus also proclaimed freedom for the believers that had been protected in Abraham’s Bosom and his victory over death to the unbelievers and fallen angels that are still imprisoned in Hades. The believers he took to heaven (Ephesians 4:8)(4), the unbelievers and demons will, one day, be cast with Hades into the eternal prison called the "lake of fire" (Revelation 20:13,14). Though God has "prepared a place" in heaven for believers (John 14:2,3), he also prepared an "eternal fire" for the Devil and his demons (Matthew 25:41), and if we refuse the gift of eternal life with God, we have chosen eternal death with Satan. This is what the Bible describes as eternal separation from the saving presence of God in hell.

  9. According to the Bible, is death in hell a state of being or a place of being?

According to the Bible, death in hell is both a "state of being" separate from God (Isaiah 59:2) and a "place of being" separate from God (Matthew 10:28). Both of these effects are a matter of choice for those who refuse to "believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him." (Hebrews 11:6 KJV). God will not force anyone to spend eternity with him, since a coerced love is no love at all. Therefore, he who rejects the loving presence of the eternal God will find himself eternally separated from his saving presence.

  1. Is it "fair" for God to judge sin by condemning people to an eternal hell?

This may well be the key complaint for those who object to the idea of judgment for sin. They may feel that there is something "un-proportional" about eternal consequences for temporal sins. But first we need some clarity on this idea of "fairness" and for this a helpful picture may be found in the realm of sports. For example when athletes compete against each other they expect that there will be some give-and-take so that the outcome is "balanced and even." This arrangement represents a peer-to-peer relationship where the presence of the referee merely ensures fair play. In such cases we are not surprised to hear a competitor complain, "That’s not fair!"

Justice, on the other hand, is an entirely different matter. Justice does not involve a peer-to-peer relationship, but instead an objective, and therefore independent, authority that metes out punishment for wrongdoing which is defined as "law breaking." Further, ignorance of the law is not allowed as an excuse for breaking the law. Now, a law is either just or it is not. Once a law is determined to be just, we do not even consider a complaint from the law-breaker that the judgement is "not fair."

The need for justice in the universe is undisputable. One need only consider the monstrous acts of evil committed by such agents of evil as Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Charles Manson. Almost all people will agree that such wickedness demands a divine response, yet some argue that "lesser sins" do not merit eternal justice. But once again we need to ask, "What could one ever do to make up for a past sin?"(5). Whether we think of sins of commission, like murder, or sins of omission, like sloth, it is impossible to make up for the harm done, be it a lost life or a lost opportunity. Reason and wisdom both demand that we give up on this irrational desire to "cry over spilt milk" and simply accept the fact that we cannot make up for the sins of the past. And in the end, what peace can we find in a "I-did-my-best" rationalization of sin? Before we cross the threshold of eternity there is one more question we must all answer. "How can I be sure that I have not crossed the line of no return?"

In contrast to this attempt at self-justification, the Bible says that God is holy, and therefore he cannot even look upon sin; much less allow it to live in his presence (Isaiah 6:1-5; Habakkuk 1:13). Only the sinless life of the Son of God could be counted as worthy enough an offering to pay for our sins (Revelation 5:1-11). And if we will not accept the gracious gift of life through the Son, we have rejected the gift of life with the Father. So, what is this law that would condemn someone to hell, and is it just? The law of free will is simply this: Those who will not live with God, shall not live with God. Though man was created to live with God for eternity, if we refuse the gift of eternal life in his Son, then we have chosen eternal death in hell, which was "prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matthew 25:41). Hell is a free will choice of eternal consequence.

Now, for some final clarity on this question of "fairness." Let us consider a unique case where the requirement for independent objectivity cannot be met by a judge. In this hypothetical case, if a son were to stand before the bench of his father, we could not expect impartial justice. In point of fact, we would not allow this circumstance to arise at all, since a father could not be expected to give out justice, but only mercy. So it is with those who have been adopted into the family of God by faith in the death and resurrection of the Son of God. When God is your father you can expect the mercy of a loving, heavenly father. Such a judgment may not be "fair," but it is loving. And different from an earthly judge, the unconditional love of God, authentically received, ensures that his judgment is one day "justified" by our transformed lives (Romans 3:25,26). In the end, we choose to relate to God as either a judge or a father and this decision is completely dependent on our relationship to his Son.

  1. Does the Bible really teach that those who do not believe in Jesus will go to hell?

No, the Bible does not teach that those who do not believe in Jesus will go to hell. The Bible teaches that sinners are going to hell. The bad news is that all of us have sinned (Romans 3:23) and there is no one who is righteous (Romans 3:10). The Good News is that Jesus died for our sins so that we may be reconciled to God through faith in him. The coming of Jesus into the world did not condemn people to hell; the coming of Jesus means there is a way of escape from going to hell (6). As the scripture says:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. (John 3:16,17, KJV)



As King David realized, these Biblical truths are actually good news for both this life and the next, since no matter if we feel that we are in heaven or hell, Jesus promised that he would never leave us nor forsake us. David expressed it in this way:

Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me (Psalm 139:7-10 KJV).

Finally, Jesus used Peter’s confession of faith in him to give all believers a word of encouragement concerning hell:

And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it! (Matthew 16:18 KJV)

Tim Nordgren 4/20/02


  1. For a good introduction to these and many other questions related to hell, see the Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Norman L. Geisler, Baker Books, 2000. In this discussion we need to acknowledge that there is good deal of latitude for interpretation regarding the scriptures considered above; however, there is no Biblical warrant for those who would set aside the reality of hell’s existence. For a discussion of recent compromises concerning the Bible’s teaching on hell, see "Evangelicals And The Annihilation Of Hell, Part One", Christian Research Journal, Spring 1991, by Alan W. Gomes <>.
  2. It is outside the scope of this discussion to consider the origin of the Apostles Creed, but it does represent the traditional second-century interpretation of the scriptures. However, there is a loss of precision when translating from the earlier Greek form, which uses the word "Hades," or the later Latin form, which uses the word "infernos," to the English word "hell." The form usually recited today in Protestant and Catholic churches is as follows:
  3. I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth: And in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.

  4. For an alternative interpretation of 1 Peter 3:19-20 we might paraphrase it as follows: "Christ, through the Holy Spirit in Noah, preached righteousness to the disobedient people of his day." To support this view we must call upon 2 Peter 2:5, where it describes Noah as a "preacher of righteousness." Then we must use 1 Peter 1:11, where it characterizes the OT prophets as speaking through the "Spirit of Christ in them." And finally, we might employ Hebrews 12:23, to equate the "spirits of men" with the "spirits in prison" (1 Peter 3:19). By stringing all these scriptures together, we could construct this alternative interpretation, however; it only applies for this particular passage. And what about the other relevant scriptures (Isaiah 61:1-3; Ephesians 4:7-10; 2 Peter 2:4, Jude 1:6). The following scripture casts doubt on such an alternative interpretation, "God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell, and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment," (2 Peter 2:4 KJV). It seems that the literal interpretation given above for Luke 16:19-31 relates all these scriptures together best. Finally, it is instructive to know that the literal interpretation was the one traditionally held by the early church fathers.
  5. The scriptures make it clear that those who die with faith in Jesus Christ go immediately to be with their Lord in heaven. As the apostle Paul said, "We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord." (2 Corinthians 5:8, KJV). For the believer, being separated from the body means being present with the Lord.
  6. Some may insist that the scriptures teach that we can pay for our own sins on the basis of the parable of the "wicked servant" (Matthew 18:23-34). But, as always, the scriptural context is critical for interpretation. In this case, Jesus was teaching about forgiveness and that it should be unlimited and unconditional. In this parable, a servant owed an enormous debt to the king that he could not possibly have repaid (Today, 10,000 talents of gold ˜ $2,500,000,000), but even so, the king had mercy and forgave his debt. Unfortunately, this servant was ungrateful and when someone else owed him a trifling amount (100 denarii = 100days wages) he had him "thrown into prison until he could pay the debt" (v.30). When the king heard about this wicked servant, he had him thrown in prison and then declared that he, "should pay back all he owed" (v.34). Jesus wants us to recognize that we have a debt of sin to God that we could not possibly repay, that he has forgiven us anyway, and therefore we must forgive the trifling sins of others. This parable, and the whole of scripture, makes it clear that we cannot "make up" for our sins, but must rely on the merciful forgiveness of God.
  7. Many people wonder what the Biblical teaching, sometimes-called "original sin," means for children who die before they can have faith in Jesus. While most of us realize that we have inherited an inclination to do wrong, which the Bible says, came from Adam, we may not want to think about what will be the result of a life that starts with such a sin nature. Another related question relates to those who have never heard about Jesus in order to put their faith in him—for instance, those in Africa.

    As an interesting side-note, today, there are actually more Christians in Africa than on any continent of the world. More importantly, we need to recognize that God has the power to reveal himself in many different ways, which include nature (Psalm 19:1-4, Acts 14:16,17), history (Psalm 46:8-10), and the conscience (the "law in the heart" Romans 2:14-16). These scriptural insights have led some to see the "law written in the heart" as an alternative way of salvation. However, we should first understand several things concerning the written law:

"No one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin." (Romans 3:20, NIV)

The "law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith." (Galatians 3:24, KJV)

If this is true for the perfect written law, how much more for the imperfect "law written in their hearts." We cannot come to God on the basis of any law—written or unwritten—but through faith in Christ alone. The apostle Peter said, "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12 NIV). And Jesus said, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6 NIV).


And concerning faith, Jesus used the example of innocent children by saying:

"Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 18:3, KJV)

"Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these." (Luke 18:16, NIV)

Child-like faith in Jesus is the only way to enter heaven.

By the way, those who would accuse the Old Testament Law of harshness may want to invest the time to understand what the Law actually says about accountability of the innocent (see Numbers 1:17-20; 14:28,29; 26:2). When we understand the scriptures as a whole, we realize that there is an age of accountability and that such accountability is based on the light revealed to us throughout our lives. Again, God’s will on this matter can be summarized as follows, "God our Savior… wants all men (people) to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth" (1Timothy 2:3,4, NIV).