What Does It Mean That Jesus Descended Into Hell?
Q: I am aware that when we say in the Creed, Jesus descended into Hell, we do not mean the Hell of the damned, but merely the place of the dead. But do we have any idea what that place was like? Also, were the justified and the condemned in that place together?
A: You are correct in your distinction between the Hell of the damned, and the “Hell” that refers to the place where all the dead were until the Messiah came. It is an unfortunate fact, that in English, “Hell” is used to refer to both places. But the Jewish people clearly distinguished between “Sheol,” were all who had died were detained, and the Hell of the damned which Jesus often called “Gehenna.”
As for what Sheol was like, we are, unfortunately, left to a great deal of conjecture. Generally Scripture describes it as a place of darkness, as the pit (Job 17:13–16). The state of the deceased there is described as a place of utter inactivity. The souls there would seem to be in a sleep-‐like, semi-‐comatose state. No one there is able to thank the Lord, or praise him (Isaiah 38:18), there is no work, no thought, no knowledge, no wisdom expressed there (Ezekiel 9:10). It is a place from which no one emerges and is sometimes conceived as a kind of fortress with gates and bars (Isaiah 38:10).
It would seem that both the just and the wicked went there, prior to the coming of Christ, though some are said to go down there “in peace” (1 Kings 2:6 etc.), and some go down there “in sorrow” (Genesis 37:35 etc.).
Further, in this sort of suspended state, there does not seem to be any mention of punishment of the wicked, or reward for the just. Rather, it would seem that all waited until the Lord, who alone can deliver from Sheol, would come (1 Samuel 2:6; Psalm 16:10 etc.). Mysteriously, God is present to those there (Psalm 139:8) but how the dead might experience that presence, is not described.
It is to this place, that the Lord descended. As Scripture implies, he awoke the dead (Ephesians 5:14) and preached to these “souls in prison” (1 Peter 3:19–20). And while we have no complete biblical description of what took place, we can reasonably speculate that some among them, in particular the just, rejoiced in him and accepted him, while others, the wicked and the self–absorbed, rejected him even in death, and from there descended to the Hell of the damned.