We who are evangelical Protestants take some pride that our doctrine is completely Bible-based. In our minds, we are the children of the Reformation, and Sola Scriptura is both our heritage and one of the basic doctrines of our Faith. We like to think that we do not have extra-Biblical traditions, in distinction from the liturgical, traditional churches such as the Roman Catholic Church. To a great degree, all of these things are true. However, though it may be uncomfortable for us to admit, traditions do exist within our communions, some extra-Biblical, and some with a dubious Biblical basis. Sometimes these traditions hold as much or more authority than doctrines which are central to the Faith. In this writer’s own experience, pulpit committees in some circles are often more highly concerned with a pastoral candidate’s position on traditional denominational shibboleths than on the vital issues of the Faith, and more churches split over traditions than over “real” doctrine.
In examining the historical background for some denominational traditions with little or no basis in scripture, this writer has come to the conclusion that these extra-Biblical teachings usually achieve initial popularity, and then the status of accepted tradition, for several reasons, but one reason stands out. Perhaps the primary appeal of extra-Biblical traditions is that these traditions are usually emotionally satisfying--they have a particularly dramatic appeal; in the pastoral slang of my denomination, they “preach well.” Traditions with this emotional appeal become memorialized in songs and hymns, they become the regular fare of revivalist preachers, they become part of dramatic productions and devotional books, and so forth. While evangelical teachers and preachers decry extra-Biblical religious traditions (especially those of “the other guy”), we often acquiesce to and quietly ignore our “harmless” traditions to keep congregational peace so we can concentrate on central issues of the faith. As a pastoral practice, this idea is not necessarily a bad one. However, these traditions can get out of hand, and when traditional beliefs develop and grow to the point where they negatively impact vital Christian doctrine, they are no longer harmless, and must be dealt with. Currently, in some evangelical circles, there are two traditional doctrines which have thus mutated into a dangerous form: the “slain in the Spirit” doctrine, and the doctrine which we will call “the Weekend in Hell,” (the teaching that Jesus, during the three days that His body was in the tomb, made a trip to Hell, or, in the modern version, spent the whole weekend in Hell). This paper will deal with The Weekend in Hell.
The “Weekend in Hell” is a tradition of long standing in Christendom, and though eminent commentators have long denied its Biblical basis, “weekend in Hell” has survived as a popular belief. This is probably because in its older form, “weekend in Hell” was not considered sufficiently dangerous to warrant much effort to contradict it. Additionally, there are scriptures which can be read in such a way as to lend Biblical credence to “weekend in Hell”, so it was perhaps not considered a totally extra-Biblical teaching, just a mistaken interpretation and application of difficult passages.
It is not certain when or where the “weekend in Hell” teaching first originated, but it crept into the Apostle’s Creed around the year 750 A.D., after first appearing in an Arian creed in 360, and in some other creeds and doctrinal statements.1 The older version of “weekend in Hell” held that Jesus visited the abode of the dead to preach to the “spirits in prison.” There were variations of this; some held that He visited the abode of the righteous dead only, to announce their liberation. Others believed Christ visited the abode of the wicked dead, and preached, as Peter said, to the spirits who were disobedient in the days of Noah. In the older version, the “weekend in Hell” teaching had an air of triumph, as Christ visited the nether regions to announce His victory, and there were no elements in the old version of “weekend in Hell” which undermined vital doctrine.
However, in the twentieth century, the “weekend in Hell” doctrine has mutated into a form which is of concern because it has serious implications for the most vital doctrine of the Christian faith, the Person and Work of Christ (Christology). This mutated form of “weekend in Hell” originated with the real father of the “Faith Movement,” the faith healer E. W. Kenyon, and has been continued and embellished by the modern leaders of the Faith Movement, especially Kenneth Copeland.2 Through the Faith Movement’s influence in charismatic circles, the “weekend in Hell” doctrine has begun to slip into popular Christian songs, and has become a featured part of some Christian dramatic productions. In the modern version of the “weekend in Hell”, the problematic but triumphal doctrine of the visit of Christ to the abode of the dead is turned into a full-scale attack on the efficacy of the Cross. In the Faith Movement version, Christ dies spiritually on the Cross as well as physically, and is transported to the abode of the wicked dead to be tormented by demonic forces for three days as a final payment on the atonement.3 In the Faith Message version of the “weekend in Hell”, Jesus is abused by demons for three days, and wanders around hell in disgrace as a kind of “wormy, washed-up shell of a spirit,” until God allows Him to speak the “faith word” and overcome His enemies.4 This is not only preached over the airwaves and published in tracts and books, there are several popular Easter plays which have been produced showing this theme. In one I saw on Christian TV, black-clad demons torment a weak pitiful Jesus in Hell, then, with loud crashing music, Jesus is “born again” in Hell, and dispatches the demons with a flashing sword. This is great Hollywood--but it is also quite incorrect; in fact, one might call it blasphemous.
In order to understand the doctrine of the “weekend in Hell,” and to demonstrate that it is a dangerous doctrine that both grows from and leads to heresy, we need to examine the elements of the myth, and then see what the scriptures really say about where the Spirit of Jesus was while His body was in the tomb.
There are several component parts to this doctrine, and in order to understand it, we need to look at each part.
(1) Preliminary to the entire idea of the “weekend in Hell” is the idea that Old Testament believers were held captive in Hell, and could not be let loose until Jesus came and got them. Consider this:
a. The first thing we have to imagine is that the abode of the dead Old Testament saints is somewhere other than heaven, or the very presence of God. I am aware that this is commonly taught, but there is simply no scripture at all which even remotely informs us that there is such a place. The spirits of the Old Testament saints went to be with God when they departed this earth.
Eccl 12:6-7 6 Remember your Creator before the silver cord is loosed, Or the golden bowl is broken, Or the pitcher shattered at the fountain, Or the wheel broken at the well. 7 Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, And the spirit will return to God who gave it. [emphasis mine]
b. Enoch and Elijah were bodily assumed up to heaven, and from his appearance with Elijah on the mount, Moses’ spirit was also in heaven.
Gen 5:24 And Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him.
2 Ki 2:11 And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.
Luke 9:29-32 29 As He prayed, the appearance of His face was altered, and His robe became white and glistening. 30 And behold, two men talked with Him, who were Moses and Elijah, 31 who appeared in glory and spoke of His decease which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 But Peter and those with him were heavy with sleep; and when they were fully awake, they saw His glory and the two men who stood with Him.
c. Not only that, but consider the following passage:
Mat 27:50-53 50 And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. 51 Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, 52 and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; 53 and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many.
If Jesus was to suffer in Hell for three days to finish the atonement, what is happening here? Why are these saints rising? They are rising as a witness of the completeness of the Cross; these saints are foreshadowing what Christ Himself will do in three days. Just as we will experience in the translation of believers and resurrection of those who sleep, the spirits of these Old Testament saints came from the presence of God to collect their bodies.
(2) The second part of the “weekend in Hell” doctrine is that Satan owned "the keys" to death, hell, and the grave, and that Jesus had to go win them from him.
a. There are ABSOLUTELY NO scriptures which even remotely suggest that Satan ever had any keys to anything.
b. Furthermore, God opens and shuts, and no one stops Him in going either direction.
Isa 22:22 The key of the house of David I will lay on his shoulder; So he shall open, and no one shall shut; And he shall shut, and no one shall open.
Isa 45:1 "Thus says the LORD to His anointed, To Cyrus, whose right hand I have held; To subdue nations before him And loose the armor of kings, To open before him the double doors, So that the gates will not be shut:
Rev 3:7 "And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write, 'These things says He who is holy, He who is true, "He who has the key of David, He who opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens":
c. There are only two verses in the Bible where these keys are mentioned. The devil is never seen with them.
Mat 16:19 "And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."
Rev 1:18 "I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and of Death.
Now think, did the Devil EVER have the power of life and death? Did Satan EVER have authority to sentence anyone to Hell? The answer is “no!” God alone has, and has always had, that power and authority.
18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, 19 by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, 20 who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine long-suffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. [emphasis mine]
Let’s answer some questions about this passage which will help us understand it.
(1) Who are the “spirits in prison?” The answer is obvious from the context--those who were disobedient in the time of Noah. Are any others included in this verse? No. Are any righteous dead included in this passage? No. The only people mentioned are those who were disobedient in Noah’s time. If Christ did make a “trip to Hell,” the only people He spoke with were these.
(2) How did Christ preach to these “spirits in prison?” Does it tell us that He personally traveled to talk to them? Again, the answer is obvious from the context: it was “through the Spirit,” i.e., through the Holy Spirit, (1 Pet 3:18).
(3) If we buy the “trip to Hell” theory, what is Christ supposed to have said to these people? Did He offer them a second chance at salvation? Did He just go to gloat? No.
(4) How, when, and in what form was the message delivered to the “spirits in prison?” “Who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine long-suffering waited in the days of Noah.” To What were they disobedient? Well, study this verse:
2 Pet 2:5 and did not spare the ancient world, but saved Noah, one of eight people, a preacher of righteousness, bringing in the flood on the world of the ungodly; [emphasis mine]
I submit to you that the antediluvian “spirits in prison” were disobedient to the message sent to them through the preaching of Noah, and that Christ had, in the time of Noah, preached to them through the ministry of the Spirit (2 Pet 1:19-21). Christ had spoken to these people through the preaching of Noah, which the antediluvian world ignored. This passage is not talking about some “weekend in Hell,” but is comparing the time of Noah with Peter’s time, as the following verses illustrate:
1 Pet 3:20-21 20 who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. 21 There is also an antitype which now saves us; baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,
As to the old world, Christ sent his Spirit; gave warning by Noah. But though the patience of God waits long, it will cease at last. And the spirits of disobedient sinners, as soon as they are out of their bodies, are committed to the prison of hell, where those that despised Noah’s warning now are, and from whence there is no redemption. Noah’s salvation in the ark upon the water, which carried him above the floods, set forth the salvation of all true believers. That temporal salvation by the ark was a type of the eternal salvation of believers by baptism of the Holy Spirit. (Matthew Henry).
7 But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ's gift. 8 Therefore He says: "When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, And gave gifts to men." 9 (Now this, "He ascended"; what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10 He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.)
The common interpretation of this verse by those who support the “weekend in Hell” theory is this:
(1) “He led captivity captive”--that is, He loosed all of those poor Old Testament believers from Hell. Of course, this requires the development of an entire false cosmology about eternity.
(2) “Now this, ‘He ascended’; what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth?” The common interpretation by the purveyors of this doctrine is that this means Christ went to Hell (the lower parts of the earth).
Dealing with the second part first, when Christ ascended, from where did He ascend? Did Christ ascend from Hell? No, from outside Jerusalem (Acts 1:9-11). What happened when He ascended? “When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, And gave gifts to men.” Ten days after His ascension from outside Jerusalem, He gave the church the gift of the Spirit, and through that the gifts of the Spirit. This is talking about the only ascension of Christ mentioned in the Bible, that which is recorded in Acts 1:9-11. Now some may say, “But, to what does this “lower parts of the earth” refer? Some automatically assume that “lower parts” refers to Hell. But the use of the phrase in the Bible does not bear this out. There are only four other instances of this type of terminology which I could discover in the scriptures:
Psa 139:15 My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.
Psa 63:9 But those that seek my soul, to destroy it, shall go into the lower parts of the earth.
Is 44:23 Sing, O ye heavens; for the LORD hath done it: shout, ye lower parts of the earth: break forth into singing, ye mountains, O forest, and every tree therein: for the LORD hath redeemed Jacob, and glorified himself in Israel.
Ezek 32:24 "There is Elam and all her multitude, All around her grave, All of them slain, fallen by the sword, Who have gone down uncircumcised to the lower parts of the earth, Who caused their terror in the land of the living; Now they bear their shame with those who go down to the Pit.
The Hebrew phrase tahton ’erets to which the apostle’s… (the lower parts of the earth), answers, is used for the earth in opposition to heaven, Isaiah 44:23; probably for the grave in Psalms 63:10; as a poetical designation for the womb in Psalms 139:15; and for Hades or the invisible world, Ezekiel 32:24. Perhaps the majority of commentators take this last to be the meaning of the passage before us. They suppose the reference is to the descensus ad inferos, or to Christ’s “descending into hell.” But in the first place this idea is entirely foreign to the meaning of the passage in the Psalm on which the apostle is commenting. In the second place, there as here, the only descent of which the context speaks is opposed to the ascending to heaven. ‘He that ascended to heaven is he who first descended to earth.’ In the third place, this is the opposition so often expressed in other places and in other forms of expression, as in John 3:13, “No man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of Man who is in heaven.” John 6:38, “I came down from heaven.” John 8:14, “I know whence I came and whither I go.” John 16:28, “I came forth from the Father, and am come into the world; again, I leave the world, and go to the Father.” The expression of the apostle therefore means, “the lower parts, viz. the earth.” The genitive is the common genitive of apposition. Compare Acts 2:19, where the heaven above is opposed to the earth beneath; and John 8:23. (Charles Hodge. Commentary on Ephesians).
While Ps 63:9 may be inferred to mean Hell, it is by no means certain. The other two references refer (a) to the womb as a metaphor, and (b) to lower elevations as opposed to mountains. There is little to go on, therefore, but certainly nothing to suggest that we may interpret “lower parts” to mean Christ went to Hell. I believe that the descent into the “lower parts of the earth” refers to the entire Humiliation of Christ, followed by His triumph. Indeed, if one compares Eph 4:8-10 with Phil 2:5-11, the relationship between the two passages becomes obvious. Christ descended to earth in humility, but He ascended to heaven in victory. For a masterful exegesis of this passage, I refer the reader to Christian Unity: an Exposition of Ephesians 4:1-16, by Dr. D. M. Lloyd-Jones, pages 156-161. Dr. Lloyd-Jones concludes his explanation of this passage by saying:
“This exposition and explanation avoids all confusion and unnecessary speculation about what our Lord may of may not have done after His death and before His resurrection. These speculations have crept into our creeds, but they have no real scriptural warrant.”
(3) “He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.” So, what does it mean that He "descended?" He “came down” when He came to Earth, to be born in the womb of the Virgin Mary--See also John 17:5.
Could the Ephesians 4 passage mean that Jesus took a weekend excursion to Hell? Only if you bring that meaning with you, it is not found in the exposition of the passage.
The heart of this entire myth, of the “weekend in Hell” is a misunderstanding of Who Jesus Is. The central answer to the whole set of heretical teachings which surround this popular myth about Christ is to return to the Central Doctrine of Christianity--the Person of Christ.
(1) First, what was the nature of Jesus without the veil of His flesh? What did the disciples see on the mount?
Mat 17:1-9 1 And after six days Jesus taketh Peter, James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into an high mountain apart, 2 And was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light. 3 And, behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with him. 4 Then answered Peter, and said unto Jesus, Lord, it is good for us to be here: if thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias.5 While he yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him. 6 And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their face, and were sore afraid. 7 And Jesus came and touched them, and said, Arise, and be not afraid. 8 And when they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no man, save Jesus only. 9 And as they came down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, saying, Tell the vision to no man, until the Son of man be risen again from the dead.
Without the veil of His flesh, Christ’s essence as God the Son, the second Person of the Trinity, shone forth. Who is Jesus? Jesus is God. He is the God-Man. While His body lay in the tomb, wherever the rest of Him was, you can be sure of one thing--His Deity was not veiled in flesh for those three days. If Jesus had gone to Hell and walked around, the demons would have been hiding from Him the whole time, and Satan would have been thinking about adding a basement--so he could hide!
(2) Second, Jesus demonstrated His DIVINE power during His life on Earth--he demonstrated His authority over every realm while in the flesh, and it was not through “WORD FAITH,” it was through His divine power and Godhood. (See my article on Kenosis).
Christ Possessed the Power and Attributes of God while in His earthly ministry. The Son of God, during His earthly ministry, had power over:
On earth, His humanity did not displace His deity, but instead, His Godhood was veiled by His humanity.
Heb 10:19-20 Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh,
When His flesh was torn, the veil of the temple was torn.
Mat 27:51 Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split,
Mark 15:38 Then the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.
On two occasions, he raised the veil of His humanity --
(1) On the Mount of Transfiguration, He allowed the disciples with Him to see His Glorious being as it really was (Mark 9:1-9)
(2) When the soldiers came to get Him in the Garden, He knocked them to the ground by saying ..."I AM." (the word he, which follows "I AM" in most translations is not in the original) (Jn 18:4-6). As an old puritan might have said: “He lift up the hem of His veil but a bit, and knocked them all down.”
Well, let's let Jesus Himself tell us . . .
Luke 23:43 And Jesus said to him, "Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise."
Now there are some people who will try to say that "paradise" is something other than the Heaven where God is. However, only other two instances of "paradise" are in the Bible, and they obviously apply to Heaven:
2 Cor 12:4 How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.
Rev 2:7 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.
Luke 23:46 And when Jesus had cried out with a loud voice, He said, "Father, 'into Your hands I commit My spirit.' "Having said this, He breathed His last.
Was the Father in hell? I don't think so!
Furthermore, when the Cross was finished, the sacrifice was finished, and there was no more suffering to be done
Jn 19:30..It is finished!"
Bottom Line -- Believe the Bible, not myths (Isa. 8:19-20)
1 Tim 1:4 nor give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which cause disputes rather than godly edification which is in faith.
1 Tim 4:7 But reject profane and old wives' fables, and exercise yourself toward godliness.
2 Tim 4:4 and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables.
Titus 1:14 not giving heed to Jewish fables and commandments of men who turn from the truth.
2 Pet 1:16 For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty.
The only thing the Devil had in the three days the Body of Christ was in the tomb was a headache--because he knew Christ’s Soul and Spirit were in the presence of the Father, and they were not in HELL!
And the Devil, unlike the TV preachers, had heard Jesus say, "It is finished!"