He tells the thief on the cross that he will be with Him in paradise that day, so He went to Heaven, right? But the Apostles' Creed and 1 Peter 3:18-22 seem to say that He was in Hell.
Here are all the options I've heard about:
- Calvin said Jesus experienced Hell on the cross, forsaken by His Father. The weakness of this is that it messes up the chronology of the Creed: died, buried, descended to Hell. Did Jesus descend to Hell, die, then burial? If so, it avoids all the messy questions below!
- Jesus went to Hell briefly to announce His victory, then went to paradise (Heaven) with the thief on the cross.
- Jesus went to Hell to announce His victory, and was there until His resurrection.
- Jesus went to Hell to announce His victory, and brought all believing saints from Sheol up to Heaven.
- Jesus went to Hell for a final fight with demons and Satan.
Most people assume this means Heaven. However, in the Greek worldview, paradise is the good section of the underworld where the good dead go. This also seems to fit with the Old Testament view of Sheol. When OT believers died, we assume they went straight to heaven, but the OT doesn't talk that way (Job 17:16; Psalm 16:10; 86:13; Prov. 1:12; Sheol and Hades appear to be the same, when you compare Isaiah 14:14-15 with Matthew 11:23). The OT doesn't mention purgatory, or a waiting time or soul sleep, of course, and what I'm advocating here doesn't either. Once they died, they were conscious and blessed, but not fully united with Christ, nor in the immediate presence of God. That waited for the arrival of Christ in 1 Peter 3:19-20. This theory is a real possibility, but I'm not going to die fighting on this hill, either. Ecclesiastes 12:7 looks like the strongest argument against it (our spirit returns to God when we die). Over at the Gospel Coalition, Gavin Ortlund repeats the standard Protestant belief - "the idea that Old Testament saints were consigned to some form of hell prior to Christ’s death and resurrection... is not acceptable." I'd like to see some reasons why, beyond rejecting purgatory, a state of limbo, etc.
IF Jesus went to Hell, He either (1) only announced His victory to demons, or (2) also took believers with Him to His Father (assuming from above that they were there!). George Grant takes the latter view, and he is a Protestant like Gavin Ortlund, who deliberately rejects purgatory, soul sleep and all the standard Roman or liberal errors. Grant quotes Ephesians 4:8-10, which also mentions Christ's descent into Hell. The captivity Christ leads out and up are the OT saints. I take Grant's view, remembering that this is not a "second chance" for those who died outside of Christ. His preaching in Hell is not to gain converts, but to announce His victory, the release of the OT saints to greater glory with Him, and the condemnation of the rest of Sheol's inhabitants. Jesus meant this when He said, "how can one enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? And then he will plunder his house" (Matthew 12:29).
I've recently heard of view #5 above and it must be rejected. It arises out of charismatic contexts that love extra-biblical, sensational experiences of spiritual warfare. The idea is that Jesus engaged in a further fight or temptation with Satan after He descended to Hell. This denies the finality of the cross. Jesus descended to Hell as a conqueror at this point, not one with more fights to wage.
So my preference is for view 4 above, while not denying Calvin's view that Christ suffered the ultimate torment and punishment of Hell on the cross: forsaken by His Father. We should keep this line in the Apostles' Creed. Although we don't know the details about it, it reminds us that Christ won a victory over Satan and evil that we cannot fully comprehend.
"And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it."