Did Jesus go to hell? After Jesus died on the cross, where did he go until he rose three days later? Acts 2:27 quotes Psalm 16:10 and referring to Christ’s resurrection saying that his soul “would not be left in hell” but on the cross Jesus told the thief “Today, thou shalt be with me in paradise.” So which is it? Did Jesus go to hell for three days or did he go to paradise?
In order to understand what the Bible teaches about Hell, we have to understand the Hebrew and Greek words that are translated as “hell” in the English Bible. In the Old Testament, the word translated “hell” is the Hebrew word “Sheol”. “Sheol” literally means “the grave” or “the afterlife”. It doesn’t necessarily mean a place of torment. For instance in Genesis 37:35, Jacob thinks that his son Joseph is dead and he mourns saying “I will go down into Sheol unto my son mourning.” “Sheol” here clearly does not refer to a place of torment and just punishment for sin. Surely Jacob did not believe that he and Joseph would end up in hell. On the other hand, Psalm 9:17 tells us that “Sheol” is a place specifically where the wicked will go. So we can say that the word “Sheol” refers to a place where both righteous believers and wicked unbelievers go when they die. When we examine the New Testament teaching about Hell, we begin to get a clearer picture.
There are three words in the New Testament that are translated as “hell” in English. “Gehenna”, which refers to a place of fiery judgment for sin as in Matthew 18:9. “Tartaroo” meaning “to cast into the underworld” and the most common Greek word for hell “Hades”, which is the word used in Acts 2:27 speaking of Christ not being left in Hell. This word “Hades” literally means “the abode of departed spirits” so it can refer to all those who go to the grave just like the word “Sheol” in the Old Testament. The English translators of the Bible were smart enough to know that when “Hades” was used to refer to a place of torment it should properly be translated as “hell”. However in Luke 16 Jesus tells a story of a rich man and a poor man who both died. The rich man was an unbeliever and found himself in Hell or Hades but the poor man was a believer and found himself in a place where he was embraced by the patriarch Abraham. The story goes on to describe a conversation between the rich man in torment and the poor man in comfort. Apparently they were in the same place, only separated by what the Bible describes as a great gulf that was fixed between them. They were both in the place of departed spirits or Hades but one was in fiery torment and the other was with Abraham in comfort and at peace. Some people assume that the rich man was in hell and the poor man was in heaven but technically the Bible just says that they were both in Hades.
It’s true that today when a believer dies, he goes to heaven where God is. Paul said that to be absent from his body meant that he would be instead present with the Lord Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:8). But it seems that this was not the case before Jesus died on the cross. From what we can tell, in the Old Testament when someone who trusted in the coming Messiah would die, like King David, he was taken by angels to a part of Sheol separated from torment. Theologians like to refer to this place as Abraham’s bosom (John 13:23). Remember that Jesus said no man cometh unto the father but by me (John 14:6) so even though these were men and women of faith in God and in the coming Messiah, until they knew Jesus as the Messiah, they could not go to be with God in heaven. Unbelievers in the Old Testament also went to Sheol when they died, only they went to another part of Sheol where there was fire and torment separated by a great gulf from the place where believers existed at ease and comfort.
What was Jesus doing for three days after he died but before he rose again? He told the thief on the cross that he would meet him in paradise. It seems that he was referring to this place of comfort where Abraham was. Apparently Jesus went to this part of Hades and spent those days with the believers of the Old Testament. 1 Peter 3:19 tells us that Jesus preached to the spirits in prison and 1 Peter 4:6 tells us that the gospel was preached to them that are dead. It seems that Jesus spent this time after dying on the cross in this paradise with Old Testament saints, preaching to them that he is the Messiah so that they could trust him and receive the gift of eternal life in heaven. Ephesians 4:8 quotes Psalm 68:18 and refers to Jesus carrying captives after he descended to the lower parts of the earth. So from what we can tell, Jesus did go to Hades after he died but not to the place where men are in torment, that we think of when we think of Hell. Instead he went to the paradise near the place of torment and preached to them the good news that he was the Messiah and that he died to purchase their redemption. Then he took those believers out of their captivity there in that paradise and brought them with him to present them to God the Father in heaven. If we use the word “hell” in the same sense that the Greek word “Hades” and the Hebrew word “Sheol” are used technically, we could say that Jesus spent time in hell because he was in that afterlife place where people go when they die, but what we read in Scripture seems to make it clear that he did not go to the part of Hades where there is fire and torment, he went to what he himself called “paradise”, the part of Hades within earshot of the tormented where the believers were waiting for him to come and preach to them that they might believe and have everlasting life.
Some people think that Jesus had to go to the fires of hell to suffer what we deserve for our sins in our place. But we deserve eternity in hell, not just three days and the ultimate penalty for our sin is really the wrath of God and being forsaken by him. Jesus suffered all of this for us on the cross and when God’s perfect justice was satisfied, Jesus said “it is finished”.