Did Jesus Really Go to Hell?

Buried in the middle of the Apostles’ Creed is a profound mystery of the Christian faith, the affirmation that Christ ‘descended into hell.’

This clause explains where Christ in the three days between the crucifixion and the resurrection.

But this explanation raises a storm of questions: Did Jesus really go to hell? How can it be possible for God Incarnate to experience hell, the state of final separation from God? What did Jesus do there? Did He actually experience the everlasting fire that Scripture says is the lot of all those in hell?

Where Jesus went

Some Latin clarifies matters. In Latin, the word translated as hell in English is inferna. In the ancient world, this word had the generic meaning of underworld, not hell specifically. In the Vulgate it is used to translate a number of different Hebrew and Greek words from Scripture. Two Greek words are especially important here: hades and gehenna. Hades, which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew sheol, is the biblical term for where righteous Israelites went who died before Christ. Gehenna, on the other hand, is the destination of the damned.

It is to hades—better known to Catholics as the Limbo of the Fathers—that Christ descended, Church tradition says. But, significantly, the power of His presence was nonetheless was felt in the farthest reaches of hell, according to Aquinas.

Why Jesus descended

1. Consequences of a True Human Death: Affirming that Christ descended to hell reinforces the Church’s belief that he died a true death, according to theologian Alyssa Pitstick (who has written an exhaustively in-depth analysis of the doctrine of the descent in light of the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar, Light in Darkness.) She points to a letter Pope Hormisdas issued to the Emperor Justin in 521 AD, in which the pope stresses the reality of Christ’s death as a central truth of the Incarnation: “Just as that one was buried, who will to be born man, just so He was who like the Father rose: suffering wounds and the savior of the wounded, one of the dead and the giver of life to the dead, descending into hell and not leaving the bosom of the Father.” This is why some creeds, other than the Apostle’s Creed, simply state that Christ was buried and rose again. Common to all creeds is the belief that Christ died a truly human death, Pitstick says.

2. Punishment for Sin: It was necessary for Christ, who bore the punishment for our sins, to do so completely, St. Thomas Aquinas writes in his commentary on the Apostles’ Creed. That means being in hell, Aquinas writes: “The punishment for the sin of man was not alone death of the body, but there was also a punishment of the soul, since the soul had its share in sin; and it was punished by being deprived of the beatific vision; and as yet no atonement had been offered whereby this punishment would be taken away.”

3. Release of the Captives: Because of the Fall, the gates of heaven had remained closed, even to those who had lived righteous lives without mortal sin—men like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David. These holy men and women were imprisoned in Limbo of the Fathers. Christ’s descent, then, has always been understood as necessary to release the righteous dead and bring them into heaven. One of the famous fresco in the Chora Church in modern-day Istanbul dramatically depicts Christ clothed in a bodily halo of light, clutching at the hands of Adam and Eve. Of course, one might still wonder why Christ had to descend to hell to release the captives. Couldn’t He have simply opened heaven to them? In the Summa Theologica, Aquinas explains that the merits of the Cross are extended to Christians through “something special.” For the living, that means the sacraments. For the dead, it is the descent.

4. Fight the Devil: Armed with the Cross, Christ went into the devil’s home territory to conquer him once and for all. “Now, a person is perfectly vanquished when he is not only overcome in conflict, but also when the assault is carried into his very home, and the seat of his kingdom is taken away from him,” Aquinas writes in his commentary on the creed. As St. John Chrysostom put it in his famous Paschal Homily: “He that was taken by death has annihilated it! He descended into Hades and took Hades captive!” Of course, the hell of the damned still exists, but only for those who deliberately choose to go there: on its own, it has no power over man any more.

5. Announce the Gospel: This is the reason given in 1 Peter 3, which tells us that Christ “preached to those spirits that were in prison.” But this wasn’t to convert the damned. Instead it was to “put them to shame for their unbelief,” according to the Summa Theologica.

6. Hope for Souls in Purgatory: Christ had a message for every region of hell it seems. For those in purgatory, it was good news, but Jesus did not actually take them out of purgatory. Instead, he gave those souls “detained” in purgatory “hope of attaining to glory,” Aquinas writes.

Harrowing of Hell 2Lessons for the living

As incredible and important as the descent into the underworld was, what can we, who are living today, learn from it? Quite a lot, it turns out.

Hope: In all the various trials and tribulations we may bear, even when we find ourselves in the depths of sin and despair, the truth of the descent into hell insists that we nonetheless hold to a firm hope in Christ. Aquinas put it best: “No matter how much one is afflicted, one ought always hope in the assistance of God and have trust in Him. There is nothing so serious as to be in the underworld. If, therefore, Christ delivered those who were in the underworld, what great confidence ought every friend of God have that he will be delivered from all his troubles!”

Spiritual Consolation: Few, if any, Christians journey through this life without ever experience a sense of abandonment by God. The silence is deafening, the darkness is blinding. But the descent event should assure us that even then, Christ is there with us. As then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in his Introduction to Christianity: “This article thus asserts that Christ strode through the gate of our final loneliness, that in his Passion he went down into the abyss of our abandonment. Where no voice can reach us any longer, there is he.”

Holy Fear: As much as it is a source of hope and comfort, the descent event should also instill in us a healthy measure of fear. “We have already seen that Christ suffered for sinners and descended into the underworld for them. However, He did not deliver all sinners, but only those who were free from mortal sin. He left there those who departed this life in mortal sin. Hence, anyone who descends into hell in mortal sin has no hope of deliverance,” Aquinas writes in his commentary. He recommends that the living should follow the example of Christ by descending into “hell by thinking of it” so that we “will not easily fall into hell at death.”

Inspiration to Love: “Christ descended into the underworld in order to deliver His own; and so we should go down there to rescue our own. They cannot help themselves,” Aquinas writes. Specifically, he is referring to the earthly assistance we can render to our friends and family in purgatory. Church Fathers like St. Augustine and St. Gregory have identified four specific means of doing this: Masses, prayers, almsgiving, and fasting.

Awe and Wonder: Ultimately, the descent into hell should renew our awe and wonder at what Christ achieved on the Cross. It also should deepen our awareness and appreciation of His love: even after the unimaginable suffering He endured on the Cross—which culminated in a cry of abandonment from God the Father—Christ did not immediately rush back to heaven, He did not shrink back from entering the place of ultimate spiritual desolation and isolation to personally rescue those who had died before His crucifixion.


Stephen Beale


Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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  • In the original scripture it states…” Jesus descended into hell to save Adam from the serpent and the sword.

  • Laurens de Lange

    You can only get to the heavens if you spiral through hades, and you only reach the heavens if you didn’t find it there (in hades).

  • Do you have a reference for this passage of Scripture?


    Want to know if Jesus really descended into hell? Please read the book titled “The Mystical City of God”. A book written by St. Mary Agreda, who wrote it under the instruction of the Blessed Mother. Who else knows our Lord than his mother?

  • Paul

    Stephen, this was a very good article. However, you state because of the Fall the gates of Heaven were closed to those who led righteous lives and did not commit mortal sin, Certainly, no one would dispute that David committed mortal sin. Also, I would suggest that everyone of those Patriarchs you list committed mortal sin. However, I believe they all repented of their sins before they died and waited in Limbo for the day that Jesus would come to deliver them. If anyone wants to read an awesome account of what happened from Jesus’ Agony in the Garden through His descent into Hell, I would highly recommend reading Book 3 of the LIfe of Jesus Christ according to the visions of Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich. This 3rd book is also called the Dolorous Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ and it was the basis for Mel Gibson’s, The Passion of the Christ. It is private revelation and no-one has an obligation to believe any of it but, nonetheless, it’s a very powerful and heart rending account of our redemption. I hope you and all of your readers have a truly Joyful and Blessed Easter.

  • Anne

    Paul, Emmerich’s visions and life are indeed spiritually powerful. I learned many spiritual lessons from reading the 2 volume work years ago.

  • El_Tigre_Loco

    I always thought this to be an oxymoron. Jesus is God. Hell is defined as the place where God is not, (or the least, because He still has to maintain its existence). So if Jesus went to hell, then it would not be hell any longer. Another mystery?

  • bluesuede

    Jesus decended into Hell just like the prayer states. When Jesus conquered sin and death, He triumphed his power over his enemy. His enemies, egged on by Satan, killed Jesus, not beleiving He was the Messiah. He went to Hell just to show that He was the Messiah. Just as any victortorus leader would parade through his conquered city after defeating his enemies.

  • Yep he went to hell..to tell Satan..CHECKMATE!!…BUD!”

  • Peter Nyikos

    One thing that was omitted is that Hans Urs von Balthasar really did believe that Jesus suffered the agonies of those condemned to hell. There was a long article about this in the magazine “First Things” a few years ago, which was rather critical of this doctrine. If I recall correctly, Alyssa Patrick’s analysis played a prominent role in it.

    This doctrine of von Balthasar was popular at Belmont Abbey about eight years ago. Perhaps the new analyses have changed that.

  • James Stagg

    There is a marvelous homily of the meeting between Jesus and Adam in hades. It is not attributed to any specific author, but is listed as an “Ancient Homily” and referenced to the Easter non-Biblical readings in the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of the Hours.

    May y’all have a blessed Easter!

  • Tobias2012

    Great job to the author.

  • JMC

    It gets really interesting when one considers how other languages translate the phrase “descended into hell.” In German, for example, the phrase reads, “descended into the realm of the dead,” which, if you ask me, seems closer to the meaning of “hades.” I don’t know how it translates in any other languages, but I’m sure it would be instructive to find out. (Goes off to do some Websearching…)

  • NYCFiredog

    Catherine Emmerich described the descent into Hell of Jesus as He showed her. He DEFEATED Hell. He is the Conqueror. He preached to them in Hell.

  • NYCFiredog

    An excellent read. As was “The City Of God” which also describes the Victory of Christ over Hell.

  • NYCFiredog

    He didn’t STAY there. He claimed His victory, and what a humiliation for the demons to bow down to Jesus Christ as Lord, whom they didn’t know as they crucified Him. His Crucifiction was the Ultimate Victory OVER Hell.

  • petitefleur921

    Thank you for this wonderful article about a point in our Creed that has always been a source of confusion for me. Thanks too for all your painstaking theological research!

  • Melroy

    JESUS not only went to HELL(Hades) a spiritual death to pay the Price of SIN and HE also went to Sheol the abode for the Soul who were prisoners to Preach of the Kingdom of God and on Easter day after Jesus was Risen from Death whom Jesus wanted to free those souls from Prison, the abode of death (Sheol) were resurrected and those soul were on earth till Jesus Ascension into Heaven and those souls like a train with Jesus Ascended into Heaven.

  • yo

    Thanks for this beautiful article!

  • Melinda Fulwood

    The book, ‘Mary Crushes The Serpent’ gives an understanding of Jesus descending into Hell to set the captives free.

    Suffering on behalf of someone who has been taken captive by Satan is what Our Lord did and what we are called to. If we have suffered the unloving parent or cruel spouse for years as we wait upon the Lord for their complete freedom then we are better able to understand the descending into hell to set the captives free.
    If we have withstood years of praying for the drug or alcohol dependent loved one then we better understand the descent of Our Lord into hell.

  • mbrumley

    Let’s ask Pope Francis: “”This same love for which the Son of God
    became man and followed the way of humility and self-giving to the very
    end, down to hell – to the abyss of separation from God – this same
    merciful love has flooded with light the dead body of Jesus, has
    transfigured it, has made it pass into eternal life.” Urbi et Orbi message, Easter, AD 2013.

  • El_Tigre_Loco


  • El_Tigre_Loco

    Source? Sheol was the place of the dead in the old testament. When Jesus went to Sheol, he released the prisoners to their respective fates, heaven or hell. I guess Sheol had two levels for the blessed and the damned. Hades is not hell. Hades is the Greek translation of Sheol according to Wikipedia. My first impression stands. If Jesus is God and he went to hell, then it no longer was hell by definition.

  • That exchange in First Things took place in the October through December 2006 issues of First Things. It was an exchange between Balthasar critic Pitstick and Balthasar supporter Fr. Edward T. Oakes. Some of the responses are here:


    Whenever these questions arise, the responses trend toward being about the question of universal salvation.

    For what it’s worth, which admittedly is just about zero, I am myself more interested in how we are to understand what our Lord did and experienced on Holy Saturday. I hope that when He said “It is finished” on the Cross, it was really finished—not “Well, not exactly finished, in fact the worst of it is yet to begin.” Nor do I see what good His going to Hell merely to suffer abandonment along with the damned does; indeed, He could not suffer the abandonment of the damned, because He escaped and they do not. What would do them good is His entering the place of the dead bearing the power and authority of His Father, bringing them an opportunity for release, depending on whether they were willing to lose all their sins to be with God rather than the other way around.

  • Johnathan

    http://www.st-marymagdalene.org/hospice-africa-ethiopia/sin-infraction-or-infection/ As a Catholic I have always doubted this out of strange feeling when I read it. I believe the Orthodox Church has the view of the early Church fathers just read for your self and decide.

  • 2b-in1hca4evr

    Hasn’t this line been changed recently to “He descended to the dead”? Isn’t this really supposed to be an affirmation that Jesus was indeed truly dead as we know dead to be?

  • Johann Becker

    Thats a well thought out response- what would be the point of Christ going down into Hell? Someone commented- just to shame those damned? that makes little sense- and is there a clear distinction between Hades , Limbo and what modern folks think of as Hell? -I find it hard to believe he went down into the fires of Hell- if he went down to Hades or Sheol just to free the Patriarchs- you would think that would only take a few minutes. I guess I will fall back to whatever St Thomas Aquinas says- if he said it , thats most likely what happened. I will leave the rest of what Jesus did during the three days as just another Divine Mystery- there are so many

  • He descended into Hell to free the saints of the Old Testament.

  • Melroy

    What ever I shared is what I am able to understand, my personal study of the bible. I have never heard or read from any one. I may be wrong but this is my understanding. First of all lets understand Jesus Preach in prison and freed those souls who he wanted to saved in the abode of souls – temporary place. and Jesus ALSO went to Hell to take the Keys of Hell, so Jesus is DENYING ACCESS for those souls who Jesus wants to saved from going to Hell. Jesus was the first one to be the first born from the dead – spiritual death , separation from God, Hell.. There could no souls being in Hell not even satan because that is left for Judgement day, when the Lost soul – those souls who had not follow Jesus or Jesus did not want to saved from Hell were thrown in Hell along with Satan. Jesus the KING a perfect KINGDOM .Jesus had a spiritual death when God the father forsaken Jesus on the Cross until the time Jesus rose from the death when Jesus tell Mary do not Hold me since I have not gone to my father yet. Its is possible Jesus being to 2 places. And regarding Sheol & Hades if I read the bible carefully I will Know the difference between Sheol & Hades. I am not taking away what Jesus did on the CROSS. But what Jesus did by going to Hell. I would even say that if Jesus did not go to Hell NO MAN KIND would be saved from Hell because ALL have falling SHORT of the GLORY of GOD.and THE WAGES of SIN is DEATH, am I only Looking of Physical Death but what about my spiritual death separation from God, that is Hell I know what I am saying I have never Heard from anyone. I repeat I may be Wrong. But just give a thought to what I am saying, I do not have any great Theological studies nor a pious, but I am quite a big sinner, and I do not Know the reason why these things are reveled to me. Thanks

  • El_Tigre_Loco

    You read ‘original scripture’? Where do you obtain this?

  • Stephen Beale

    Thank you Paul. You are correct. I should have been clearer on that.

  • jerrythetrucker

    Jesus told the 2 who were crucified with Him ; Today you will be with me in Paradise. Did you leave that out, or what ?

  • Sunny step

    I looked up st. Mary Agreda since I read a lot of the Mystical City of God a few years ago and her book is on a “do not read” list by one of the Popes. Apparently there are dogmatic errors throughout the book and no proof that it was legitimate. Just look her up and there is quite a bit of info.

  • Johnny

    Why wouldn’t he? Jesus doesn’t ignore sin- He confronts it.

  • Ramel

    When Jesus promised “Today you shall be with me in Paradise” He was not promising heaven today, only Paradise. Hell is a place with no God. When Jesus descended to Limbo there was God there. Now it was considered “Paradise”.

  • I don’t think Jesus descended to fight the devil. That doesn’t make sense to me. First, it wouldn’t be much of a fight. But the big reason is that Jesus created the devil and holds him in existence moment by moment. If he wanted him vanquished, he would just pull the plog on him.

  • NYCFiredog

    You took the words out of my mouth. “The Mystical City Of God” by Sr Mary Agreda also has this account of the ultimate defeat of Hell.