Hey David! I have a theological question for you that has sprung from a few discussions I’ve had with a friend if you have some time. The question is whether or not Jesus went to hell when he suffered and died on the cross. My understanding is that He experienced hell in the spiritual sense- meaning complete separation from God – (“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”). If this is correct, does heaven and hell, in the physical sense, exist right now or not until the final judgment?
Sure thing! Love to answer it … though I’m no expert and pretty much just regurgitating stuff I’ve read 🙂
Some background is helpful to understand where the concept of Christ descending into hell upon death comes from: the Apostles Creed in particular, as I’m sure you know, written in the first century AD. In particular it says, speaking of Christ, “Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hell. The third day He arose again from the dead.”
Calvin has a great explanation of this in the Institutes, section 10 and 11 in [this particular section]: http://www.reformed.org/master/index.html?mainframe=/documents/Christ_in_hell/index.html
Long story short: both heaven and hell do exist right now, and yet this present hell is temporary for unbelievers until final judgment (Hades). When both believers and unbelievers die, their spirits are separated from their bodies. Believers go to be immediately in the presence of Christ, and unbelievers to a place of torment (Hades). Once the final judgment occurs, all will be resurrected, believer and unbeliever alike, believers will go into their final state in the new heaven and new earth and unbelievers will be thrown into the eternal lake of fire (eternal hell).
All that is background for how we understand Christ and His work on the cross and how exactly that worked in relation to hell.
There’s a lot we don’t know, but from Scripture there is a lot that we do. One, on the cross Jesus suffered the wrath of the Father, an infinite payment of debt, hell itself. So he did experience hell on the cross, but I’m pretty sure you could not say it’s the place unbelievers go temporarily upon death (Hades). It is all torment though regardless. Anyway, because He’s the Son of God, eternal in nature, infinite in glory, the time on the cross from our perspective seems short compared to the eternal weight of what He experienced. This is where we get into things we don’t understand. All we know is He took the infinite, eternal wrath of the Father in Himself on the cross, in our place. And in this He took the punishments and torments of an eternal hell in the space of three/six hours. Unfathomable.
Now there is something mentioned here about Christ preaching to the spirits upon his death … that’s another discussion, but very interesting regardless: http://bible.org/question/what-does-bible-mean-when-it-says-christ-descended-hell
As an aside, there’s one qualification I would make about being separated from the Father as eternal hell, something mentioned in the last article as well. Over the years it seems we evangelicals have wanted to soften the blow a bit (make it a little less harsh than Scripture makes it) about how terrible the reality of hell is and so we’ve described hell as eternal separation from God, which as several theologians have pointed out isn’t entirely accurate, though it’s also not entirely inaccurate either. The fact of the matter is God’s wrath is a very real and terrible presence of Himself in hell forever. You see this imagery in particular at the end of Revelation where Christ Himself is the one treading the winepress of the wrath of God. It’s the full manifestation of the attribute of His justice forever, and Christ Himself is the one executing that judgment. So in one sense it’s true that unbelievers are separated from God for eternity, in the sense that you’re separated from His “face shining upon you.” Yet the other side of the coin is that He is right there, the one punishing them forever, the very worst thing imaginable.
Even as believers, that’s a hard truth to swallow and yet one that is undeniable from Scripture. But this also sets the back drop for how wonderful, deep, and extensive God’s mercy is, that Christ would take that upon Himself to rescue His people from the punishment of their sins, undeservedly of course.
Here’s Monergism’s section on Hell, there may be some more info there too: http://www.monergism.com/directory/link_category/Hell/
Anyway, I hope that helps some! Take care…